The Indian Mutiny was the most traumatic single event to mark the British experience in India, from the first appearance of the British East India Company in the early 17th century to the end of Britain’s Indian empire in 1947.
Most shocking of all, it took place among the troops, whose loyalty had been the mainstay of British power since its sepoys (infantry) and sowars (cavalry) had won England dominance in India in the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
The Muslim and Hindu sepoys were offended by the rumored use of pig and cow fat as lubricants for cartridges, which they viewed as sacrilegious. There was a deeper force driving the insurrections, however: reaction to rapid social change brought by the British to India.
The mutiny began in the cantonment (garrison) of an Indian cavalry regiment on May 10, 1857, at Meerut. The mutinous soldiers then headed for nearby Delhi, where the last impotent monarch of the Mughal dynasty, Bahadur Shah II, resided with the vain hope that he could revive the empire of his great predecessors.
However, from the very beginning, the Indian Mutiny was not the apocalyptic uprising of native troops; most of the rebellion was confined to the high-caste Hindu soldiers of the Bengal army, who had shown signs of dissatisfaction for years at their caste slowly losing prominence.
The rebellion spread throughout north-central India, and cantonments in Cawnpore and Lucknow were besieged by the mutineers. It did not spread to the new regions of the empire, like the Punjab, with its Sikhs, or the Northwest Frontier, with its Pashtun population, because the Hindus and Muslims of those regions had been anti-Mughal.
The bloodiest single incident of the mutiny took place at Cawnpore, where the British cantonment was besieged by rebels under the command of Nana Sahib, who had nursed a grievance against the East India Company.
Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler was in command at Cawnpore and was unprepared for what was to come. Although the news of the mutiny had spread, Wheeler took no precautions to protect his men, women, and children.
On the night of June 4, 1857, the sepoys at Cawnpore mutinied. However, just as at Meerut, in spite of the hostility of their fellow soldiers, some Indian sepoys cast their lot with the British.
By June 25 Wheeler surrendered to Nana Sahib, accepting his promises of safe conduct. But when on June 27 the British marched out to the boats that would supposedly take them to safety, they were attacked by Nana’s men, and none escaped.
Those who survived were imprisoned in what would become known as the Bibigarh, the “House of the Women,” since most of the men were already dead; the women were murdered later. When the British recaptured Cawnpore, the atrocities so horrified the troops that they exacted grim retribution.
While the tragedy at Cawnpore was being played out, Sir Henry Lawrence managed to hold out in the British Residency at Lucknow with a garrison of some 1,800 British men, women, and children, and some 1,200 Indian sepoys.
Once again, Indian soldiers had chosen to remain loyal to their officers. Although Lawrence was killed on July 4, the defenders held out against some 20,000 mutineers in one of the great epics of British history.
Finally, on November 9, 1857, General Colin Campbell, who had earned fame at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War, led a relieving column that smashed the rebels still besieging Lucknow.
Meanwhile, the final phase was being played out in Delhi, where the mutineers from Meerut had headed. Delhi fell on September 20. Mopping-up action continued to 1858. Its end also spelled the end of the Mughal dynasty and the British East India Company.