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The 1857 rebellion in Colonial India

Originally published: Rebel News on November 12, 2020 (more by Rebel News)  |

The 1857 Rebellion, sparked by mutinous Indian soldiers of the British East India Company army and fuelled by peasant and elite uprisings in the countryside, was one of the most widespread, sustained, and dramatic uprisings in the history of the British Empire. Until its final sparks were extinguished in early 1859 by the brutal counter-insurgency armies of European and Indian loyalists, the ghadar (“uprising”) showed that the mighty British were not invincible.

100 years after the British East India Company’s victory at the Battle of Palashi (“Plassey”), rebels drove out British authorities and European civilians from cities and towns across present-day northern and central India for months on end, espousing Muslim-Hindu unity and imagining the end of British rule.

The Rebellion made a deep mark in official and popular memory, haunting colonisers and inspiring the colonised. We hear it echo in British colonial repression and the racist fear that drove murderous events like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. We see its presence in the willingness of anticolonial activists to not only participate in mass direct actions, strikes, and marches, but to take up arms against the British repeatedly until independence/partition in 1947.

On a global scale, “1857”—as it is known—joins the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica, the Taiping Rebellion in China, ongoing Indigenous resistance in the United States, and the Fenian uprising in Ireland, as part of a global response of the colonised in the mid- and late-19th century, resisting a new and intensified phase of exploitation. As such, 1857 ought to be studied along with other upheavals of the period, including the 1848 revolutions in Europe and other popular responses to the scourge of industrial capitalism.

Nevertheless, the 1857 Rebellion is relatively unknown outside of South Asia. Many have only heard the name the imperialists gave it: “the Sepoy Mutiny” (from the Hindustani word sipahi or “soldier”). Even among revolutionaries and anti-imperialists, the basic contours of this massive uprising, let alone the details, are vague. We have been taught to see this event through the eyes of the coloniser, not the colonised.

The colonisers are regularly celebrated. One of the butchers of 1857, Sir Henry Havelock, sits peacefully in Trafalgar Square, with only a few pigeons showing him the disrespect he deserves!

It is high time we changed that. This short essay gives Rebel readers an introduction to the 1857 Rebellion, its impact, and some questions it raises for how we understand anticolonial struggle, nationalism, and the rise of capitalism.

Contexts and Perspectives

The East India Company entered India in the early 1600s—around the same time as the English, unable to compete with Spain and Portugal in South America, began the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies in North America, and the Londonderry Plantation in Ireland. In both places, what later became ‘colonialism’ began as small trading enterprises and settlements–with militias for protection and treaties with local peoples that soon turned trading posts into mini-states.

In South Asia, the British were in competition with other European powers that had headed east earlier, especially the Portuguese and the Dutch. By the 18th century, just as in North America, the British in South Asia were battling the French even as they took on existing powers: the Mughal Empire and the regional powers opposing them, including the Maratha confederacy, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, and the Sikh kingdoms.

Emerging victorious by the early 19th century against the various powers, three dynamics were set in motion that led to the 1857 Rebellion: (a) the direct annexation of lands, even of those who had been friendly to the British, (b) the impoverishment of artisans and collapse of local industries like Indian textiles, and (c) a growing willingness, unlike earlier years, to challenge traditional society through intervention against Indian patriarchal customs.

The onset of the industrial revolution, as well as utilitarian thought, was transforming colonial capitalism. While it is impossible to know what ordinary rebels thought, proclamations by elites–like the Azamgarh Proclamation of 1857–detail their complaints against the British. The rebel leaders called for unity, across the Muslim-Hindu and class divides, expressed outrage about economic impoverishment and illegal colonisation, and criticised how the Christian foreigner disrespected traditional norms of caste, gender, and class.

In my current research, I’m finding that elite Indian social reformers who had pushed the reluctant British to pass laws against traditional practices, and anti-caste agitators who used their missionary education to challenge orthodoxy and patriarchy, did not tend to view 1857 positively in subsequent decades. Nationalists of the late-19th century, who saw Indian progress as aligned with British modernity, also kept 1857 at a distance–even when their theories of the rapacious colonial economy echoed rebel proclamations.

Although 1857 was a mass uprising against colonialism, there is no straight line either to the nationalist visions of independence or more radical dreams of social emancipation. It reminds us that critical support of anticolonial struggles is the order of the day—understanding that as a cross-class movement, such struggles are essential for liberation from colonial exploitation, but contain conservative strains used to justify patriarchy and social hierarchy.

Shaking the British Empire

The fuse was lit on the 10th of May.

Soldiers in the Meerut cantonment rose up as one, angry at their British officers for subjecting 85 of their comrades to severe punishment and public shaming for refusing to use military-issued equipment. Killing their white officers, sipahis burned down their bungalows, opened up the armoury, freed prisoners in the town, and joined local groups to drive all Europeans out of the city.

Famously, the soldiers’ disobedience was caused by the rumour that the paper cartridges to be used with new Enfield rifle, which had to be bit to be opened, were greased with pig and beef fat in order to insult the faith of both Muslims and Hindus. Despite all attempts of British officials to dispel the rumour for months, it found fertile ground. “Eastern” peoples, it turns out, are moved by material and political issues like quality of life, exploitation, and inequality. There was fundamental distrust of British intentions and it flowed through existing cultural beliefs.

Refusing to use a greased cartridge and holding onto tradition can be the sign of utter orthodoxy. But in the right conditions, it became a weapon of anticolonial resistance. In any event, I haven’t read a single report of Indian rebels in 1857 refusing to use that same military equipment taken from the barracks in order to fight their rulers.

Capturing the capital

Marching the 40 miles to Delhi by May 11, and joined by ordinary folk along the way, the Meerut soldiers entered the historical capital city with no resistance. Indian guards at the gates had heard the news and welcomed them in. The insurgents made their way to the Lal Qila (Red Fort) where they attacked and killed the British Resident, the real force behind the nominal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Placing this reluctant, octogenarian descendent of the great Mughals on the throne, the rebels pledged allegiance to Bahadur Shah, and made him the formal leader of the Rebellion.

Delhi would be reconquered by the British after a long and harrowing siege in September, aided by Indian allies, loyalist troops and spies. But unlike rigid, mechanical approaches to history in which 1857 and the reinstatement of the Mughal emperor are read as the “last gasp of feudalism,” I am attracted to historians’ documentation of four months of experimentation in governance (with the King, soldiers, and civilians in a leadership council) and rebel efforts to defuse sectarian violence within the ranks.

The significance of the recapture of Delhi lay in its immense symbolic power as the centre of many different empires in India, a city that was destroyed but rebuilt again and again. Liberated very early in the Rebellion, Delhi expanded the scope of the insurgency far beyond Meerut and signalled to others that the British could be defeated. Restoring Bahadur Shah gave the uprising a clear political character.

Spreading like wildfire

After a pause of a few days, as if waiting to see what the British would do, a string of mutinies and uprisings exploded across the region. Among the cities and towns taken over in 1857 and 1858 were Ferozepur, Muzaffarnagar, Aligarh, Etawah, Roorkee, Eta, Mathura, Lucknow, Bareilly, and Shahjahanpur, and then, after another pause, Moradabad, Badaun, Azamgarh, Neemuch, Banaras, Kanpur, Jhansi, Fatehpur, and Gwalior. There were rumours that Hyderabad would join the rebels (it did not), and a constant fear amongst the British that even the troops who did not rebel would be disloyal. The very tool that the Company had created for the conquest of territory and suppression of dissent–a massive, modern army–had turned against the British, becoming the tip of the spear of a mass insurrection.

The patten was familiar: mutinies flared up, nullified the power of British repression, and opened the door for a popular retaking of colonised spaces—though sometimes civilian unrest inspired fearful soldiers to rise. Clearly, there was communication between barracks, and even initial acts of mutiny were inspired from stories of hardship and suffering soldiers heard whilst on leave or visiting nearby towns. Scholars like Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Tapti Roy, writing on the regions of Awadh and Bundelkhand, respectively, have showed the dynamic relationship between elite and peasant organising and military mutinies.

The rebellion in the kingdom of Awadh (“Oudh”), led by the exiled queen Begum Hazrat Mahal, took on what many what many have called the characteristics of a “national” struggle. Lucknow, the capital city of Awadh, was as central to the battle as Delhi. Forces poured in from across the region to replenish the siege of British civilians in the Residency. The complete reconquest of Lucknow by the British in March 1858 was instrumental to the defeat of the Rebellion.

Aftermath and Significance

The British crushed the 1857 Uprising brutally. European troops, despite severe casualties due to the heat and sickness, were too well-equipped and centralised to lose. Aided by loyal Indian troops, princely allies, and the telegraph, the British took back city after city. The counterinsurgency took no prisoners: British officers were given the freedom to be judge, jury, and executioner against anyone who seemed like a rebel—which in that climate meant anyone with a Brown face. Lynchings occurred indiscriminately; one officer reported that he stopped his morning walks because bodies hung from trees like fruit. Some were tied up to cannons and blown to bits–with British civilians dressed up to watch as if out for an afternoon. Villages were burned in their entirety as collective punishments.

Even the British historian John W. Kaye, in his three-volume history of the insurrection, cited that soldiers and officers joyfully shot Indians–for turning their heads the wrong way or wearing rebel colours–and lynched them by the roadside in the dozens. Kaye writes:

voluntary hanging parties went out into the districts and amateur executioners were not wanting for the occasion.

The rage in the British response to the uprising was inflamed by reports of atrocities committed by the rebels. In Kanpur, Bibigarh, and Jhansi, European civilians and children were brutally murdered: thrown into wells, starved, or shot point blank. These stories travelled the seas and enflamed European public sentiment, creating lurid, often false, narratives of white women who needed to be rescued from barbaric Brown men. Popular British publications whipped up anger, and in turn this helped fund and populate the counterinsurgency armies being sent to India.

Writers like Charles Dickens did his part:

I wish I were Commander-in-Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and…raze it off the face of the Earth.

The people of Delhi and other cities and towns that bore the brunt of British rage paid a high price. An eyewitness report of the counterinsurgency at Jhansi says that the streets were ankle-deep in blood.

Reporting on India for The New York Daily Tribune as its London correspondent, Karl Marx made his fair share of mistakes–but when intensely racist calls for revenge were sounded all around him, Marx defended the rebels and condemned colonial violence.

In an 1857 article he wrote:

However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflection, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India…There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not only by the offended, but by the offender himself.

The 1857 Rebellion, in my view, started opening Marx’s eyes to the idea of the colonised as a historical agent, not simply a junior partner to the actions of the English proletariat. It was a few years later, in his solidarity work for Fenian prisoners and the question of Ireland’s freedom, that he really began to grasp this view.

The 1857 Rebellion caused such a fundamental crisis that upon its defeat, the corrupt East India Company was effectively abolished, as Queen Victoria and the Parliament formally took over the rule of India. Britain now ruled, directly or indirectly, the entire territory from Afghanistan in the west to Burma in the east. The political and bureaucratic reorganisation after 1857 allowed for the infrastructural and economic changes that propelled the full integration of India into the emerging world economy.

Reorganised into a “classic colony”, India produced and exported cash crops and raw materials to Britain, while importing goods manufactured in British factories, building the basis for British industrial might. Human labour, pushed out of the countryside by famine and pulled by British companies looking for cheap labour after the abolition of plantation slavery, circulated the global as indentured servants.

Military reorganisation meant Indian soldiers were used to conquer and suppress peoples from North Africa to East Asia. And Indian taxpayers, ravaged by imperialist famines, paid for it all, as loot from India balanced British debts and allowed it to keep up with the U.S. and continental Europe.

Today, nationalist texts–from histories to comic books to Bollywood blockbusters–have turned 1857 into “the first war of Indian independence.” Whilst this correction to the British mythologies of 1857 is refreshing, the conflation of rebels like Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi with 20th century nationalist leaders implies that national freedom is the only direction of anticolonial struggle. This is fundamentally a conservative nationalism. The complex history of 1857 teaches us something different: that anticolonial struggle and ideas have a variety of political angles, that nationalism often simplifies the immense complexity of the struggle, and that socialists, if they do not question the nationalist framework, end up lending credibility to nationalist elites at the expense of the majority.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.