British and Native Officers, Hodson's Horse Regiment, 1858

The Indian Mutiny, or Sepoy Rebellion, was the strongest challenge to any European power in the nineteenth century. This British Empire subject now has an extensive literature. The phenomenon has been called a War of Indian Independence; interpretation is not unanimous. The violence of the rebellion, on both sides of the conflict, was acute. The diverse materials relate to a variety of ethnic and religious communities.


1.     An  Early  Photograph

2.     Sikhs  and   the  Khalsa

3.     The  Pathan  (Pashtun/Pakhtun)  Factor

4.      Hodson's  Horse  Regiment

5.      Causes  of  the  Rebellion

6.      Religious  Attitudes  and  Meerut

7.      Siege  of  Delhi

8.      Brigadier  General  John  Nicholson

9.      Uprisings  at  Kanpur  and  Lucknow

10.    Rebel  Leaders  and  Maulvi  Ahmadullah  Shah

11.    The  Rani  of  Jhansi

12.    Aftermath



1.  An  Early  Photograph

The image above is an Indian Mutiny photograph that has attracted much discussion. The photographer was Felice (Felix) Beato (1832-1909). Beato is believed to have taken the photo shortly after the final capture of Lucknow in March 1858. Two British officers are visible here. There is some agreement that the figure in the centre is Lieutenant Clifford Henry Mecham. The seated British officer has been identified as Major Henry Dermot Daly (though also as the surgeon Thomas Anderson, and rather less convincingly, Major William Hodson).

The inclusion of Native officers makes this image very atmospheric. Unfortunately, they are anonymous in several instances. The Sikh officer at the far left (with the long beard) has been identified as Man Singh (d.1892), the most famous of the Native officers in Hodson's Horse Regiment. Another Sikh officer (Jai Singh) sits on the ground. According to Stephen Luscombe, there is a third Sikh officer behind the seated British officer (identified as Major Daly). The same commentator affirms that "the other Indian officers are probably Pathans." The bugler to the far right is apparently not an officer.

If this verdict is correct, we have the situation of two British officers alongside three Sikh officers and three probable Pathan officers. Although some descriptions of this famous image tend to give the impression that all the Native officers are Sikhs, that attribution does not appear to be accurate.

The Pathans (Pashtuns) and the Sikhs were very different contingents. They represent different religions, namely Sunni Islam and Sikhism. Both the Pathans and the Sikhs were esteemed as fighters. The members of this regiment had found a common leader in Brevet Major William Hodson (1821-1858), certain of whose actions became controversial (sections 4 and 7 below).

2.  Sikhs  and  the  Khalsa

Sikh Native Officers, Hodson's Horse Regiment. The figure below is Chet Singh.

Certain other images also connect with the more famous Beato photograph. Another group image depicts the same personnel, while a further Beato picture features three Sikh officers, including Chet Singh, who was decorated with an Indian Order of Merit in 1858.

The early Sikh community of the Punjab had survived a severe persecution from the Mughal dynasty. They had developed a military code with a strong moral ingredient. This is denoted by the word khalsa, a form of Sikh identity inaugurated in 1699 by the tenth Sikh Guru, namely Gobind Singh. Khalsa inclusion conferred the title of Singh or "lion," while the female became kaur (princess). The Khalsa code involved the prohibition of adultery and intoxicants (including drugs like cannabis). The innovation of the Khalsa had an egalitarian aspect, being inclusive of the low castes in Sikh society.

A century later, a Sikh realm or empire was established in the Punjab, extending into Kashmir and Ladakh. Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (rgd 1801-1839), the formerly oppressed and disunited Sikhs became a powerful military force (Lafont 2002a; Singh 2008). Ranjit Singh developed the first modern army in Asia; he was assisted by foreign military advisors, including French and Italian officers who had served under Napoleon. The Fauj-i-Khas was an innovative and elite Sikh formation of cavalry and infantry created by Jean Francois Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura (Lafont 2002b). These two arrived at Lahore in 1822.

The new Sikh infantry (Fauj-i-Ain) may have numbered 40,000 by Ranjit's death. One of the advisors from 1827 onwards was Claude August Court, who trained the Sikh gunners. Court was a French refugee from Napoleon's army; he was requested by Ranjit to create an artillery force capable of resisting the East India Company. During the 1830s, the British became alarmed at Sikh military developments, while resenting the European recruits travelling to the Punjab.

Alexander Gardner with Sikh soldiers

Assessment of the number of Westerners in Ranjit Singh's army has varied. The close of the Napoleonic wars, in 1815, produced a surfeit of European soldiers willing to become mercenaries in distant lands. French and Italian officers of repute gained huge salaries in the service of Ranjit. British and Anglo-Indian officers were also assimilated. There were perhaps fifty foreign officers by the end of Ranjit's reign (Heath 2005:10), although some modern sources mention 100 and even 200.

One of the most colourful men of this contingent was Alexander H. Gardner (1785-1877), an American adventurer promoted to the rank of Colonel by Ranjit. Born in Wisconsin to a Scottish father, his mother was of Spanish descent. A traveller in Central Asia, his memoirs appear fantastic to some degree. In the early 1830s, Gardner moved to the Sikh city of Lahore, where he was made a Colonel of artillery (mainly because he could read English, according to his own version). He claimed to have saved Lahore in 1841 for Maharaja Gulab Singh, by personally loading and firing his ten cannons in a battle. He remained in the service of the Khalsa until 1849, but never fought the British. Gardner frequently favoured an irregular uniform of a Scottish Highlander, complete with a tartan turban.

The Lahore foundries of Ranjit Singh produced high quality cannons. When the Sikhs invaded the Peshawar region, their artillery caused heavy casualties amongst the Pathans. Yet the chief engineer of Ranjit was a Muslim, namely Mian Qadir Bakhsh, who made copies of British guns. By the time of Ranjit's death, the Sikh ordnance possessed from 200 to 400 guns of varying types (Heath 2005:20). The gunners could actually fire faster than the British equivalents.

By the late 1830s, the Sikhs had an extensive army, including Hindu, Muslim, and Gurkha units. Indeed, half of the artillery functionaries were Muslims (David 2006, chapter 4, "Sindis and Sikhs"). This inter-religious aspect reflected the liberal outlook of Ranjit, whose policy was to accommodate religious diversity; the Punjab was a melting-pot of different peoples. The nominally Sikh army was "a multi-ethnic force embracing a wide variety of peoples and religions" (Heath 2005:37).

Ranjit Singh secured a peace treaty with the British, but this was broken after his death. Years of anarchy followed. The first Anglo-Sikh war occurred in the wake of rivalries between different Sikh factions who inherited the empire of Ranjit (Sidhu 2010). The East India Company ambitiously sought to overcome the Sikhs at this juncture, meeting with strong opposition.

The culmination of the second Anglo-Sikh war is revealing. In 1848, the battle of Ramnagar was a victory for the Sikhs. Their artillery was strong, to the extent that Sir Hugh Gough now had to wait for reinforcements. The ensuing battle of Chillianwala (January 1849) was another Khalsa victory, in which the British cavalry line was broken. A British brigade fled before the Sikh artillery, leaving behind nearly half a regiment facing total destruction. Another infantry brigade was surrounded by Sikhs, being repulsed in hand to hand fighting that involved heavy British losses. Lord Gough ordered his army to retreat, having suffered 2,500 casualties.

The next month, the battle of Gujrat was won by the British. Lord Gough now had an overwhelming superiority of troops and heavy artillery. The British army here comprised 56,000 infantry, over 11,000 cavalry, 96 field guns, and 67 siege guns. The Sikh losses were apparently between 3,000 and 5,000 men, while the British casualties were 96 dead and 700 wounded. The Khalsa surrendered their swords. Lord Dalhousie proclaimed the annexation of the Punjab.

As a consequence of this struggle, the Sikhs were reconciled to the British, remaining loyal to the colonialists during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8. On their part, the British attempted a synthesis between different ethnic and religious factions. However, the East India Company policy proved a setback.

3.  The  Pathan  (Pashtun/Pakhtun)  Factor

The British employed two battalions of Gurkhas against the Sikhs, also raising levies from the ranks of Pathan mercenaries. After the Second Anglo-Sikh war, when the British annexed the Punjab, the East India Company enlisted five regiments of irregular infantry and five irregular cavalry regiments to protect the North-West Frontier from marauding Afghan tribesmen. These troops comprised Sikhs, Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, and Hindus. The Mutiny prominently featured Hindu sepoys of the Bengal Army. The British subsequently favoured the other contingents mentioned (plus the Gurkhas).

One of the new irregular regiments was the 4th Punjab Infantry, raised at Lahore in 1849. This initially included hundreds of Sikhs, and also sixty Pathans (formerly supporters of Dewan Mulraj) who had surrendered to the British after the capture of Multan. In 1860, Lt. Colonel Alfred Thomas Wilde wrote: "It was in this force that the Pathan, Sikh and Dogra were first taught to serve in the ranks of the British Army; and it was in these regiments that the Afreedees [Afridis] and other Afghan tribes were gradually reduced to obedience, and are now as well behaved as any of our Native soldiery."

The Pathans (Pashtuns) are "the most significant racial group of eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province" (Allen 2000:xii). Some scholars insist that the word Pathan is outdated and should be dropped in favour of Pashtun or Pakhtun. Unfortunately, many Westerners are not familiar with the ethnic and linguistic subtleties involved, often recognising only the word Pathan. Most of the British and Indian historical sources of the pre-Pakistan era use the word Pathan, so I have followed suit in my own writings.

The word Pathan is considered a British corruption of Pakhtanah, the plural of Pakhtun. The disputed word has associations with Hindustani. General readers are frequently confused by the alternative words Pashtun and Pakhtun, which relate to linguistic denominators. The Pashtu language of Pathans is divided into two main dialects, the southern Pashtu and the northern Pakhtu (Pukhto). This has led to different spellings for basic words such as Pashtunwali (Pakhtunwali), which signifies an ancient code of life including such factors as hospitality, justice, and courage. Pashtu language is closely related to Persian.

Three different countries are here involved, and about sixty tribes. Pashtuns or Pathans live in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Some Pakistanis say that Pathan is a term relating to Afghans. In 1970, the geographical territory of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was established in Pakistan; this zone was formerly the North West Frontier Province. The capital is Peshawar.

An argument can be made that usage of the word Pathan avoids the sense of Pakistani geographical location associated with the words Pashtun and Pakhtun. The word Pathan can be used in an all-India context, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ethnic word Pathan also avoids the linguistic and political intricacies associated with the other two words. The Pakhtun and Pashtun are essentially one people speaking different dialects. The political centre of the Pakhtun of KP is Peshawar, the equivalent focus of the Pashtun of Balochistan being Quetta, some 800 miles southwest of Peshawar.

The Pashtuns (Pathans) of Baluchistan were originally part of Afghan territory prior to the British revisions of nineteenth century maps. The Baluch and the Pashtun are culturally different peoples, both renowned for their valour and tribal hospitality. Not all the inhabitants of Baluchistan were or are Baluchis, although some confusions have occurred.

Some Western scholars use the word Pashtun as an equivalent of Pakhtun, without stressing differences. Afghan (or Pathan) tribes were moving from Afghanistan to India as early as the thirteenth century, a drift continuing over time. Most of the tribesmen involved were farmers, although some became soldiers. Well known tribes include the Durrani, Ghalzai, Sherani, Afridi, Waziri, Orakzai, Mahmand, and Yusufzai. Such Afghan cities as Kandahar and Jalalabad remain significant centres of Pashtun (Pathan) culture.

The Rohilla Pathans settled in the Rohilkhand region of North India during the Mughal era. About 20,000 soldiers from various Pathan tribes were hired by Mughal emperors; most of these settled in Rohilkhand (now located in Uttar Pradesh). The term Rohilla became interchangeable with the description of Pathan. By the time that many Rohillas moved to Pakistan, they had lost linguistic identity as Pashtu-speakers, instead adopting Urdu, a more common Muslim language in South Asia.

I have hopefully provided here some indication of why I prefer to use the term Pathan as an inclusive ethnic denominator for the lengthy pre-Pakistan phase of the Pashtun/Pakhtun peoples.

The Pathans sometimes puzzle Western readers. There are references to them in a wide variety of situations and geographical locations. Originally Afghans and North-West Frontier tribes, they infiltrated east to Bihar and south to Rajputana (Rajasthan) and Gujarat; Rohilla Pathans existed in the Deccan. There are also references to admixed breeds such as the "Pathan Baluch" in North India (associated with places like Rohtak).

After defeat of the Sikh army in 1849, Sikhs and Muslims from the Punjab began to join the Bengal Army of the East India Company. A typical infantry regiment raised in the Punjab after 1849 might have two companies of Punjabi Muslims, one of Sikhs, and one of Hindu Dogras (Allen 2000:xi). At the time of the Mutiny, the British formed new units of irregular cavalry, and more than a dozen new battalions of infantry. The recruits were Sikhs, Gurkhas, Punjabi Muslims, Pathans, and Baluchis. These men had no ethnic or religious connection with the predominantly Hindu sepoys of the rebellious Bengal Army (Fremont-Barnes 2007:24). This basic division is relevant to understand. The native Bengal Army now became the enemy; the Sikhs and others in the north-west territories were British allies.

An instance of Pathan affinity was John Nicholson, who by 1857, had served 18 years with the East India Company. More precisely, seven of those years were spent as a soldier, and eleven years as an administrator for the Company. Living in the Punjab, he gained a repute as the best swordsman in India. During the second Anglo-Sikh war of 1848-9, he commanded a group of Pathan levies. Pathans remained closely associated with him.

Nicholson was an Ulster Protestant. Despite some anti-Indian feeling on his part, his temperament and military prowess won the admiration of Pathans and Sikhs. This Irish soldier was a law enforcer, gaining a reputation for strict but fair justice. Some Muslim tribesmen of the North-West Frontier believed that his conduct resembled deeds of the early Muslims; he was reputed to be a true hakim (magistrate).

The personal attendant of Nicholson was reportedly a Pathan, a sturdy man who never left his side, sleeping across the doorway of Nicholson's tent, thus providing protection. When Nicholson dined at Mess, this Pathan would stand behind his chair with a cocked revolver in one hand, ready for action if needed. The attendant would allow nobody but himself to hand Nicholson a plate of food. Years before, this attendant had been taken prisoner. Nicholson had given chase single-handed, cutting his way through the enemy to the captured man, whom he placed over his saddle bow in a ride to safety (Spilsbury 2007).

Pathan Native Officer, Hodson's Horse Regiment, 1858

The third Beato image reproduced in this article depicts a figure found in the two group photographs of Hodson's Horse. Some parties affirm that the officer here was a Pathan. I followed this description in my book on Hazrat Babajan (Shepherd 2014). Another Beato image of the same subject is described as "a Pathan officer of the Punjab Irregular Cavalry" (David 2007, plate 45).

The Native officer shown above wears "Napoleon" jackboots and an embroidered sash. Hodson's Horse Regiment wore red turbans and red sashes. There are differences visible in the turbans of those Native officers in the group photographs. The three known Sikhs have a white underband over the forehead. The man above stands next to Lt. Mecham in the famous group image. His left hand clasps the handle of his sabre. He wears a British army sabretache (document pouch) hanging from his belt. That belt is stuffed with two pistols and a dagger of the type associated with Pathans.

Native officers were of low status ranking by comparison with British officers, even the younger ones. The native officers were consulted for their knowledge of military matters; some were two or three times the age of junior British officers. Yet they did not generally figure in the status lists, and could easily be forgotten. In this way, Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs, and others could become amorphous in the colonialist heritage.

4.  Hodson's  Horse  Regiment

In 1857, Captain William Stephen Raikes Hodson (1821-58) gained native recruits for his new cavalry regiment, the objective being two thousand men. Pathan and Sikh soldiers listened to "Hodson sahib," weighing up their chances in this military project. The location was originally Karnal, near Delhi. Sikh regiments had been disbanded, and many native ex-soldiers were seeking employment. Some of these men were loyal to the British. However, others had sympathy with the rebellion, and were accordingly under suspicion.

The son of a clergyman (the Archdeacon of Stafford), Hodson was a graduate of Cambridge University. This academic background was not common among British soldiers in India. Joining the 2nd Bengal Grenadiers, he served in the First Sikh War of 1845-6. Hodson was employed by the East India Company, then the major colonial factor, very much an economic interest. Sir Henry Lawrence encouraged him to learn Hindustani (and later Persian). In 1847 he became an adjutant in the unusual regiment (part cavalry, part infantry) known as Corps of Guides, originating in the Peshawar region the previous year. In that capacity Hodson fought in the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-9. He was a member of Lord Gough's staff at the concluding battle of Gujrat.

In 1854, Hodson was "relieved of his command and charged with improper use of regimental funds" (David 2003:150). He was subsequently exonerated of the charges. Meanwhile, some of the officers in the Guides, both British and Indian, turned against him. "His abrasive approach made him immensely unpopular with both his European and Indian officers" (ibid). He was accused by one young British officer of waging a vendetta against the Pathans in the Corps. Hodson is reported to have arbitrarily imprisoned a Pathan chief, Kader Khan (also his son), on suspicion of involvement in the murder of a British Colonel.

The Pathan was acquitted; Hodson was accused of deficient judgment, being removed from the Guides and transferred to the less cosmopolitan 1st Bengal Fusiliers. An overbearing attitude towards natives was common amongst colonialists and military officers. The peculiarities of British colonial thinking have received analysis (Metcalfe 1994). A deep-rooted notion of racial superiority did produce effects in behaviour.

When the Indian Mutiny (or Sepoy Mutiny) commenced in 1857, Delhi was taken by the rebels. General Anson favoured Hodson, sending him on a mission to Meerut; the mutiny had begun in that city, but no further news had been forthcoming. Hodson started off with an escort of Sikh cavalry and a spare horse. He is sometimes described as a despatch rider in this role. He covered more than 250 miles in two days, there and back to Meerut (from Karnal), stopping for only two hours sleep and a bath. This was May, the hottest time of the year. Meerut transpired to be peaceful. However, on the return journey, Hodson was chased by rebels for thirty miles.

l to r: Brevet Major William Hodson, Lieutenant Clifford Mecham

General Anson was impressed by the intrepid ride, now requesting Hodson to raise a regiment of irregular cavalry, mainly Sikhs from the Punjab. This was how Hodson's Horse commenced. Meanwhile, the Corps of Guides made a strenuous forced march to Delhi. Hodson (eventually a Brevet Major) was appointed to lead the Corps, who welcomed him. However, the British commander at Delhi became perturbed at the influx of fierce-looking Punjabi freebooters who were signing up for Hodson's Horse. Hodson was accordingly asked to relinquish command of the Guides and concentrate on his new cavalry. He was simultaneously an intelligence officer, reputedly playing a substantial part in the recovery of Delhi.

Hodson's Horse went into action at Rohtak (near Delhi) in August 1857. The skirmish was successful, the new regiment only suffering six wounded men, including Lt. Hugh Gough, Hukm Singh, and Jemadar Ahmad Beg. The British gained control of Delhi in September, in circumstances of considerable bloodshed and destruction. Hodson then learned that the "King of Delhi" (the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II) was in hiding at the tomb of Humayun, over three miles away.

Hodson, now a Captain, volunteered to capture the octogenarian emperor. When permission was granted, he rode off with fifty of his cavalry on September 20th. Thousands of mutiny supporters thronged around the tomb. Hodson demanded that the emperor should surrender, promising that his life would be spared. Bahadur Shah agreed, then being carried to the city in a palanquin. A large and hostile crowd followed. Hodson warned that any interference would result in the emperor being shot.

Three Mughal princes (shahzadas) were more reluctant to become prisoners. Hodson returned with a hundred of his cavalry, demanding the surrender of these aristocrats, who now cooperated. An anti-British crowd of thousands followed in their wake. Hodson ordered them to disarm. He was surprised when they complied, delegating ninety of his men to collect the weapons. Meanwhile, the princes were transported on a bullock cart to Delhi. Near the city gate, another large crowd gathered to watch the small escort. When Hodson arrived on the scene, to prevent any escape, he resorted to the drastic measure of shooting the princes dead with a carbine he fired himself (section 7 below). There were mixed reactions to these murders, or executions. Hodson's tendency to extremist action matches his earlier domineering behaviour.

Hodson told the crowd that the captive princes were "butchers who had murdered and brutally used helpless women and children" (Trotter 1901:203). He had "gleaned from fairly trustworthy sources evidence which convinced him of their actual guilt" (ibid:204). Hodson at first intended to hang the royals, he said, before the crowd became menacing. He reported: "I am not cruel, but I confess I did rejoice at the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches" (ibid:203). An admiring biographer wrote that the execution episode "was hailed with unquestioning approval by every Englishman in Upper India" (ibid:205). A few months later, Hodson was being strongly criticised by detractors for a bloodthirsty tactic.

His second-in-command was Lieutenant Macdowell, whose contradictory report informed that "there was no overt threat from the crowd when Hodson caught up with the princes and declared 'I think we had better shoot them here; we shall never get them in [to the city]' " (David 2003:305). Hodson stripped the princes of their jewellery and fine swords. "Forced to relinquish the jewellery, he was determined to hang on to at least one sword" (ibid).

Hodson's cavalry regiment may have been predominantly composed of Sikhs in 1857. One description refers to "300 Punjabi and Pathan troopers" (Story of the Storm). At first these men gained a reputation for being undisciplined, being relegated to the rearguard of the Company army by a disdainful British officer from the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers. They afterwards demonstrated such courage that Hodson's Horse was posted to the advance guard. By February 1858, the regiment numbered 374 men, better drilled and equipped than formerly.

In March 1858, Hodson participated in the renewed campaign at Lucknow, led by Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863). On March 11th, the 93rd Highlanders assaulted the strongly garrisoned Begum Kothi, a block of palace buildings. There was ferocious hand to hand fighting with rebel sepoys, hundreds of whom were killed. Hodson participated in this dramatic episode. When he broke into a house, this transpired to contain a rebel.

As he entered the dark room he was shot by a musket-ball that passed through his liver and out of his back. He staggered backwards for a few paces, and then fell, at which point some Highlanders rushed into the room and bayoneted the lone sepoy. (David 2003:339)

The wounded officer died the following day. The British Empire annals made Major Hodson into a military hero. Critics in India and elsewhere more soberly evaluated his extremist actions. Nevertheless, Hodson was highly regarded as an officer by the men of his regiment. Despite his academic degree, he left no due documents relating to his cavalry; relevant details and accounts took nine months to sort out.

At Lucknow, Hodson's Horse had increased to about 750 men. There were another 400 waiting in Meerut, mostly without horses. Man Singh arrived with more recruits from the Punjab. The new leader was Major Henry Daly, who reported that a thousand men had no saddles. There were now too many men for one regiment, so Daly urged that three regiments would be apppropriate. He wanted to recruit a squadron of Pathans for each regiment, but a superior opposed this suggestion. Eventually, a hundred Pathans were drafted into the third regiment.

Hodson's Horse was included in the Company force opposing 15,000 rebels at Nawabganj, near Lucknow, in June 1858. The rebels were defeated, leaving many dead. Lieutenant Mecham (1831-65) was severely wounded in that conflict. Several years later, he died of hepatitis, aged only 33. Though a soldier, he was also an artistic and musical man, being a flute-player. Mecham may well have been one of the more sensitive British soldiers. He was nevertheless drawn into the extremely violent campaign to quell a rebellion in which so many resisting Indians participated.

5.  Causes  of   the  Rebellion

The basic cause of sepoy rebellion was the colonial policy of the East India Company. A royal grant, dating to 1600, invested this Company with a monopoly of all British trade to Asia. By the eighteenth century, the Company was a huge commercial concern including about 3,000 shareholders and a stock worth over three million pounds. The major Company settlements in India were Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta; these trading posts developed into extensive commercial towns attracting Indian merchants and artisans.

Defeating the French at the Battle of Plassey in 1763, the Company took over control of Bengal. Whle continuing to annexe states for commercial purposes, the Company provided administration on behalf of the British government. Company officials participated in local economic and political networks via the private trade in which they engaged. A number of EIC shareholders were British Members of Parliament (Dalrymple 2019).

A critical view is that British rule in India was ultimately parasitic. Government policy forcibly opened India to British textiles, in this manner killing domestic production. "In the countryside, revenue demands were cranked so high that many peasants were either forced off the land or so deeply impoverished that they were unable to free themselves from crushing debt burdens" (Peers 2006:6). The claims of imperial rule transpired to be a myth. Recurring famines and cholera epidemics did not amount to reforming salvation. Deep pockets of private trade were insatiable.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Company had gained military dominance over South India. They rapidly extended northward in this manner. The conquests had not been sanctioned in England. Company directors at first veered away from such involvement, which was expensive. However, the Governor General Richard Wellesley (1760-1842) opted "to use war as an instrument for imposing British hegemony on all the major states in the subcontinent" (quote from British Presence in India). This military drive was accompanied by the idea that native education needed to be improved. A basic intention emerges: "The ignorance and superstition thought to be inculcated by Asian religions should be challenged by missionaries propagating the rationality embodied in Christianity" (article last linked). This version of a European Enlightenment was keen to frustrate the Chinese ban on opium imports.

The East India Company provided opium in Bengal for passage to China, despite the opium trade being illegal in China. Profits came before all other considerations. In 1838, the Chinese government imposed a death penalty for opium smuggling. The British disagreement created the First Opium War (1839-1842). Subsequently, the British and French Empires combined against China in the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The realistic status of Western Empire greed is that of opium trading at the expense of human wellbeing. The British wanted to legalise the opium trade, and to open all of China to British merchants. The Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-98) duly castigated the Opium Wars and the British violence against the Chinese.

The expanding East India Company influenced British soldier attitudes to Indians. The extensive literature on the Mutiny includes many British accounts dating to that era. Recent evaluations are more varied in the conclusions proposed (relevant Indian and Pakistani accounts include Misra 2007; Nayar 2007b; Amin 1998).

The Indian Mutiny is also known as the Sepoy Rebellion. In addition, this event has been called the First Indian War of Independence. That interpretation arose in India during the early twentieth century, when Vinayak D. Savarkar wrote The Indian War of Independence (Bombay 1909). This work was banned by the British authorities, being considered an extremist nationalist treatment of the subject. The Sepoy Rebellion did not resemble the pacifist campaign of Mahatma Gandhi (d.1948). An impartial assessment of the Rebellion was not possible until after 1947, when British rule ended in India.

Ten years later, an Indian scholarly work concluded that the Mutiny was not pre-planned, beginning as a fight for religion and ending in a war of independence (Sen 1957). This contention was accompanied by two other influential expositions. One of these opposed the theme of "independence war" (Majumdar 1957), while a rival asserted this theme via an emphasis upon a communal revolt against the British, plus the commercial and industrial classes (Chaudhuri 1957 and 1965). Ramesh Chandra Majumdar viewed the Indian intellectual class as the creators of nationalism, while Sashi Bhusan Chaudhuri promoted the less articulate travail of the masses.

A lengthy but controversial presentation of Independence struggle was more recently contributed by historian Amaresh Misra, whose two volume work War of Civilisations (2007) argues that the British Raj achieved an "untold holocaust" that lasted for a decade commencing in 1857. According to Misra, the number of Indian deaths involved was far higher than the standard assessment in terms of 100,000. The figure here goes into millions, and has been disputed. Misra also emphasises the pan-Indian dimensions of the rebellion, involving numerous regions of India that contribute more detail than common associations relating to places like Delhi, Kanpur, and Lucknow.

In contrast, the romantic version of British military heroism, colouring Victorian accounts (and some more recent ones), tended to strongly absolve the colonialist cause. British army officers, serving the Company, adopted a viewpoint incriminating the rebels, thus justifying the "civilising" presence of colonialism on Indian soil. Other angles are pressing in the social and historical perspective. An Indian assessment of one contemporary British book is that of "a colonial history from the 21st century."

A revealing detail is that only a minority of sepoys in the Bengal Army remained loyal to the British during the Mutiny. In 1857, the Bengal Army comprised 151,300 men, of whom 128,600 were Indians (Spilsbury 2007, chapter 1). The Bengal infantry included many Rajputs, while a minority of 40,000 brahmans has been suggested. Another version supplies an overall ratio of one to five for the British/Indian components, i.e., 43,000 British soldiers in India, as against 228,000 Indians. The Bengal army is here assessed at 157,000 men, meaning about sixty per cent of the entire military personnel in India (including the Bombay and Madras Armies). In this format, the Bengal Army had 23,000 Europeans and 134,000 sepoys and sowars. Of those numerous native troops, 30,000 remained loyal to the Company (Jerosch 2007:93). Some sources give a lower figure for the number of Europeans involved. Furthermore, the rebel sepoys and sowars were often joined by large numbers of civilians. A distinction between the sepoy and civilian aspects of rebellion appeared in the title of a well known book entitled The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857 (Majumdar 1957).

Along with others, the historian Ganda Singh (d.1987) argued that the rebellion did not amount to a war of independence. He concluded that the events in question were not inspired by lofty sentiments of patriotism. Instead, leaders of the revolt were mutually jealous in their intrigues, failing to mount any concerted action. The rebel violence toward European civilians was extreme.

The disorganised nature of the revolt was an advantage to the British counter-offensive. The mood of rebellion was nevertheless contagious and pervasive, strongly surfacing in the Punjab as far north as Peshawar. Nearer Delhi, the revolt quickly spread to Kanpur (Cawnpore) and Lucknow (section 9 below). There were also consequences in Central India (section 11 below), Gujarat, and Madras. That list is not exhaustive for the pan-Indian vista (Misra 2007, Vol. 2).

The array of materials available has prompted conclusions that the rebellion was more complex than is suggested by terms like "Mutiny" or "First War of Independence" (Llewellyn-Jones 2007; Pati, 2007). An Indian analysis has furthered this perspective by pointing out the limitations in both colonial narratives and the "nationalist" view (Pati 2010, introduction). For instance, colonial historiography depicted the rebellion as being confined to parts of North India. "This was intended to make the colonialists draw solace from the [apparent] fact that it was not a widespread rebellion" (ibid:2). In contrast, nationalist historiography assimilated marxist theory, encompassing a view that the rebellion was a major peasant revolt, even though led by a decaying feudalism desiring to retrieve elite privileges. Professor Biswamoy Pati prefers to examine a more inclusive timescale, from the 1830s until the 1870s, to gain a due perspective (ibid:4).

Economic and religious factors are strongly implied in the causation process. There is also an argument stressing the impact of military circumstances, e.g., the factor of pay, restricted opportunities for advancement, and recruitment policy (David 2013, chapter 1). In 1856, the new Governor General Lord Canning created a strong reaction via the General Service Enlistment Act. This innovation proclaimed that all enlistment to the Indian army would thereafter be for general service, which meant that service outside the Bengal Presidency was compulsory, a factor extending to overseas service. Travelling overseas was anathema to caste rules; upper caste Hindu sepoys believed that this Act would undermine their ascendancy by allowing lower caste men to figure more extensively in military roles. There was a decrease in the high caste majority between the years 1851 and 1857. However, many low caste Hindus, plus Muslims (and even some Sikhs), participated in the rebellion.

During the 1850s, the East India Company were taking a stronger profile in India by legislative and other means. The agenda alienated Indian rulers, soldiers, and civilians. Many Hindus believed that the British were breaking down the caste system, intent on making India a Christian country. The Hindu aristocracy were very resentful of political change, knowing that they were losing ground to British officials. Many Hindu brahmins (brahmans) lost revenue in the changes introduced by the East India Company. The British regarded Hindus as being retarded believers in customs like sati, the afflicting practice of burning widows on funeral pyres. That practice was abolished in 1829, with subsequent amplifications, providing fuel for Protestant evangelists. Such practices did not exhaust the inventory of Hinduism, requiring several generations for Western scholars to decipher (an ongoing project).

By 1848, the Company worked against adoption rights of native princes, and started to annexe the territories of Rajas. Every year, the Company "exported tons of gold, silk, cotton, and a host of other precious materials back to England" (Sepoy Mutiny). The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, annexed over 250,000 square miles in eight years (1848-56). These new assets included the Punjab to the north and Nagpur and Jhansi to the south. Lord Dalhousie devised the "Doctrine of Lapse," which meant that a princely state could be annexed if the ruler was incompetent or died without a direct heir. The Company decided who was incompetent. This lucrative doctrine gained the Company additional annual revenue. Substantial taxes were exacted from the Indian people. Land tax was often demanded by the Company before the crop was raised. Indian sepoys (soldiers) were increasingly critical employees of the Company.

Hindu Rajput warriors, 1857

The Bengal Army (of North India) favoured the recruitment of high caste Hindus, for long restricting the enlistment of lower castes. Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, adopted a policy of recruiting from high caste warrior Rajputs and bhumihar (military) brahmans of Bihar and Oudh (Awadh), a habit that persisted until the mid-nineteenth century. Whereas the Madras and Bombay Armies were not subject to the caste dominancy. The priest caste of Hinduism had turned to soldiery because there was not enough employment for priests.

The majority of soldiers in India, serving the East India Company, were native sepoys or infantry privates, divided between the Bengal, Bombay, and Madras armies. The word sepoy derives from the Persian sipahi (soldier). Most of the sepoys in the Bengal army became rebels in 1857. That meant about a hundred thousand mutineers. By this time, perhaps a third of the Hindus involved were low caste recruits. The Hindus were in the majority over Muslims, and included many small rural landholders.

The Muslim soldiers were both low class and high class. They often comprised the "irregulars." Membership of the eighteen regiments of Bengal irregular cavalry was overwhelmingly Muslim, and more specifically, recruited from the Delhi region and Rohilkhand (many Pathans were included). Their lack of kinship with the regular Bengal sepoys (i.e., Hindus) is probably the reason why only ten of these regiments mutinied (or partially mutinied) in 1857, and also why three of those regiments fought on the British side. Eight of these regiments were later considered to be sufficiently pro-British to become part of the post-Mutiny Bengal Army of North India (David 2003).

The non-military participants in the rebellion included low class Muslims, such as the butchers (julahas), who were prepared to fight to the death. The concept of a jihad (holy war), an ingredient of the Mutiny for Muslims, was in evidence during the siege of Delhi (Dalrymple, 2006). The rebellion has been described in terms of the first Indian event in which people of different religions, castes, and economic backgrounds converged "to redeem their own past" (Mukherjee 2008).

The civilian aspect of the rebellion included peasant farmers, a factor emphasised in a radical interpretation viewing the Mutiny in terms of a popular peasant revolt (Stokes 1986). There are some complexities in addition. Nevertheless, the realistic picture is one in which colonialism was a predator.

Many sepoys were apparently discontented with their low wage. Sepoys of the Bengal Army were paid less than their distant countrymen in the Bombay and Madras Armies. However, perhaps a more basic issue is that British army regiments received a much higher wage than Indian soldiers (Llewellyn-Jones 2007:4). Certainly, the native rank of subedar ("lieutenant") was the highest an Indian could reach, an authority confined solely to Indian troops. British officers (and Company officials) were often supercilious, regarding Indians as inferiors. During the mid-nineteenth century, British officers were increasingly aloof from sepoys via a trend of deliberate segregation. This insular tendency was in sharp contrast to the habits of their Georgian era forbears (Fremont-Barnes 2007:18). Little attempt was made by British officers of the Mutiny era to learn Indian languages. Many of those officers seem to have hated India, with young officers being reported to revile the "black nigger sepoys" (Spilsbury 2007, chapter 1).

In 1856, the East India Company annexed the large kingdom of Oudh (Awadh), where a predominantly Hindu population was ruled by the last independent Muslim dynasty in India (Llewellyn-Jones 1986). The Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87), had his court at Lucknow. He was deposed by the British, being accused of corruption. The British Resident of Lucknow, Colonel Sleeman, was influential in this process, attributing a lawlessness to the milieu. Revealingly enough, this Resident was the political agent of the East India Company and a major rival of the Nawab. The Nawab was popular with his Hindu subjects, who reacted to his disappearance. The annexation is viewed as a major factor in disaffecting the Bengal Army. A very substantial number of rebel troops came from Oudh, estimates varying from 40,000 upwards.

An accompanying factor was the resentment of taxes imposed by the East India Company. The major focus for this development was Oudh, where landowners (talukdars) and peasants were seriously afflicted. The feudal landlordism in this region had been created by clan after clan of Rajputs fleeing east over generations from Islamic aggression. The estate lords and rajas controlled the law through their own militia. Oudh was formally annexed to the British Empire in February 1856; the situation then changed dramatically. Soon after, there was an increase in the price of general commodities, causing much hardship. The elimination of the royal court at Lucknow greatly affected the demand for native goods. The cotton weavers, working in and around Oudh, were particularly hit by this event.

The British colonial strategy caused an emotional upheaval in the populace by ousting the Nawab of Oudh. When his court at Lucknow vanished, the consequence was unemployment for retainers and the army, also loss of work to artisans and suppliers of luxury items. This problem was aggravated by new revenue measures imposed by the Company. Many talukdars then refused to pay revenue (Mukherjee 1984:12ff, 38ff). The landlords and peasants reacted with violence in the mood subsequently known as "Mutiny."

These events were masked by Company rhetoric. Referring to the annexation of Oudh, Lord Dalhousie soon after emphasised: "Our gracious Queen has 5,000,000 more subjects and £1,300,000 more revenue than she had yesterday" (Mukherjee 1984:35). What this really means is that the new subjects had much less, while the colonialists obtained much more via the process of legislative extortion.

Another element of the reaction to colonial rule was evidently the stern penal procedure. After 1790, the East India Company used imprisonment "both extensively and systematically" as a punishment (Anderson 2007, chapter 2). During the Mutiny, rebels attacked forty-one prisons in North India, releasing over 23,000 inmates. Jails were viewed by sepoys as an oppressive means of enforcing Company rule (Anderson 2007:1-2).

In the "subaltern" trend of exegesis, a leading spokesman (Ranajit Guha) has resisted the Hegelian concept of World-history, meaning the assumption that states, empires, armies, and attendant configurations are the gauge for historical progress (Guha 2002). The so-called European "Enlightenment" was not exemplary during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

6.  Religious  Attitudes  and  Meerut

A basic feature of the Mutiny was the Indian fear of religious discrimination. The country was governed by the East India Company (Keay 1993), a body at first only interested in commercial activity. During the nineteenth century, Protestant Christianity was allowed more scope by the Company, which condoned missionary work. "More and more East India Company officers were making unsubtle attempts to expose their soldiers to Christian teachings" (Edwardes online). Military officers, who were generally lacking in linguistic skills, favoured a segregated Officer's Mess. The gulf between British officers and Indian troops became substantial.

Via the Charter Act of 1813, Protestant missionary activity spread in India, with a mood for outdoor preaching. Various Company officials and army officers demonstrated proselytising interests. These developments created amongst Indians a widely held conviction that mission work was directly supported by the government (Palmer 1966:5). By 1851, there were 19 evangelical societies in India, quite apart from the unattached missionaries operating from 222 mission stations (Nayar 2007a:4).

The heavyweight factor of religious bias cannot be ignored. For instance, General Hugh Wheeler, serving at Kanpur (Cawnpore), was a fervent evangelist. Military officers like Wheeler preached openly to sepoy regiments. In April 1957, Wheeler wrote: "I have told them [the sepoys] plainly that they are all lost and ruined sinners both by nature and by practice" (Anderson 2007:3-4). Reactions can only be imagined.

A symptom of the widespread evangelist malady is pinpointed in the minor mutiny at Bolarum in 1855, not long before the major Mutiny. The Bolarum cantonment was situated on the outskirts of Hyderabad (in a state ruled by the Nizam). Brigadier Colin Mackenzie here expressed a deterrent to the Islamic festival of Muharram. Muslim sepoys disobeyed him by participating in a march that incorporated traditional accoutrements of Muharram religious observance. The infuriated Brigadier then insulted them, breaking their drums (associated with Muharram). His gesture was interpreted as an attack on Islam. About three hundred Muslim sepoys arrived at the officer's bungalow and beat him until he was unconscious. They did not kill him. Mackenzie had a repute for religious zeal; both he and his wife were Christian evangelists. The missionary campaign occurred despite an official Company ban on preaching to sepoys; this amounted to a theoretical provision that could all too easily be disregarded (Green 2009:63ff, 71ff).

The Mutiny of 1857 featured Islamic maulvis and faqirs who opposed the Christian evangelists. The British generally disliked faqirs, who came to be associated with events of rebellion. A Western theory emphasises a faqir resort to drugs (Green 2009), a practice also associated with Hindu holy men. The generalising dimensions of this argument, applied to a Pathan entity not participating in the Mutiny, are contested (Shepherd 2014:120ff, 135-6, 140-1).

Sepoys at Rifle Practice, 1857, lithograph by William Simpson et al, after George F. Atkinson, published by Day and Son, 1857-58. Courtesy National Army Museum

The Mutiny violence started in May 1857 at Meerut, to the north of Delhi. However, numerous symptoms of discontent emerged earlier that year. A prominent issue was the introduction of new Enfield rifle cartridges, rumoured to be greased with animal fat. These cartridges were first tested for climate reaction in 1853. General William Gomm then warned: "Unless it be known that the grease employed in these cartridges is not of a nature to offend or interfere with the prejudices of caste, it will be expedient not to issue them for test to Native corps" (David 2003, chapter 6; cf. Heathcote 2007, chapter 3). The fat of cows was a sensitive matter for Hindus, while Muslims were averse to pig fat. The original cartridges were made in Britain, covered in tallow grease for protection against the elements. The tallow was based on beef and pork fat. The East India Company subsequently grasped that a serious mistake had occurred in the extension of manufacture to India. General Gomm's warning "was ignored by the Bengal Ordnance Department, which used animal tallow as one of the constitutents of the grease" (David 2007:292).

In 1856, the new cartridges were made at the Fort William (Calcutta), Meerut, and Dum Dum arsenals. Tallow grease was one component. Apologist literature for the British Empire has tended to diminish the significance of events, in an attempt to avert blame from Company policy. Sepoys were justified in their grievances by the animal fat featuring in their intended ammunition. Cartridges greased with animal fat were manufactured in India for almost a year before the Mutiny. In January 1857, a rumour circulated among sepoys at Dum Dum arsenal (in Bengal) that the grease was offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. The alarmist message spread that cartridges were part of a plot by the East India Company to convert all Indians to Christianity. The origin of this rumour was reputedly a conversation between a brahman sepoy and an informed low caste worker in the Dum Dum magazine; the menial said that the Europeans would make sepoys bite cartridges soaked in cow and pork fat (David 2007:292). "The approved method of loading was to bite off the top of the cartridge and pour the powder down the barrel" (ibid:291).

The dismal East India Company failure to check on the tallow component was eventually assimilated by presiding officials. "While it has never been proved beyond doubt that the cartridge grease contained cow or pig fat, the circumstantial evidence is compelling. [Lord] Canning himself admitted, in a letter of 7 February, that the grease grievance had 'turned out to be well founded' " (David 2007:293).

At the end of January 1857, "Colonel Richard Birch, the Military Secretary, ordered that all cartridges at the depots of instruction were to be issued free from grease" (David 2003:54). The sepoys were now permitted to apply their own preferred protective mixture to cartridges, with their own hands. Sepoy fears now fastened upon the new cartridge paper, wrongly believed to contain objectionable fat.

This objection to the paper was groundless: it contained no grease and certainly no tallow. Suspicions had arisen partly because the English manufactured paper was slightly thicker than that used to make musket cartridges. But the lack of a genuine grievance prompts the speculation that some guiding hand - within or without the regiments - was trying to keep the cartridge controversy alive by switching attention from the grease (which was no longer an issue) to the paper. (David 2003:55)

High caste Hindus were predominantly involved in the aversion to new cartridges. A large number of sepoys in the Bengal Army were rural brahmans from Oudh (Awadh) and Bihar. In February 1856, the East India Company had annexed the state of Oudh on grounds of misrule. This overbearing action caused much resentment. The "seizing of Oudh filled the minds of the sepoys with mistrust," wrote a Bengal soldier who remained loyal to the British, a reaction causing them "to plot against the government" (David 2007:296).

High caste sepoys were likewise apprehensive about a British policy of extending the recruitment base of the Bengal Army with Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. Low caste Hindus also became recruits. The high caste sepoys were now in a bare majority, apparently just over fifty percent (David 2003:23-4). Further, the democratising General Service Enlistment scheme commenced in 1856. Brahman sepoys feared they would lose caste if made to travel overseas. The mood of alienation went much deeper than Enfield cartridges.

Major-General John Hearsey warned the Governor General that agitators were causing trouble among the sepoys. In various places, sepoys declined to use the new cartridges. They feared pollution and social ostracism if they complied. In February 1857, the perturbed Hearsey ordered a sepoy parade at Barrackpore, the cantonment near Calcutta. He was one of the few senior officers respected by the sepoys. Hearsey now spoke to the sepoys in their own Hindustani language; they apparently believed him when he said that the British had no plan to undermine their religion.

Ninety miles north was the cantonment of Berhampore, where the 19th Native Infantry were posted. In late February, they refused to accept the new cartridges, believing these to be contaminated with animal fat. Unlike Hearsey, Lt.-Colonel William Mitchell made no attempt to reassure his soldiers. Instead he threatened to take the regiment to Burma or China. This merely confirmed the Indian belief that oppression was in process. To high caste Hindus, overseas travel entailed losing caste. Mitchell threatened to court-martial sepoys who refused the cartridges. They were resistant to his threats. The disgruntled officer afterwards sent a report to Calcutta, where the Company administration passed a verdict that the 19th Native Infantry should be disbanded under the supervision of a British regiment. This occurred at the end of March.

Native Officers of Ambala, 1850s

The same month (March 1857), Indian officers at Ambala told General Anson that they knew the cartridge rumour to be false, the problem being that this rumour was widely credited in their regiments and villages. The Hindu officers feared a loss of caste. In contrast, Muslim sepoys appear to have taken the cartridge issue lightly (David 2003, chapter 6). Too many British officers failed to gain the confidence of sepoys. At this era, young officers could be very deficient in their conduct, even calling sepoys niggers and pigs. In general, linguistic communication was poor. Sepoys found difficulty in expressing their views to aloof British superiors.

The Company position in North India was precarious. The recent Crimean War had diverted many British troops, and those serving in India were concentrated in the Punjab. Estimates of the ratio in India have varied. One version says that only about 4,000 European troops existed in India during 1857, contrasting with approximately 300,000 Indian soldiers. Another commentary says that the Indian Army had 214,000 men in 1856 (Nayar 2007a:7).

On March 29th 1857, a brahman sepoy of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry caused a disturbance. This was Mangal Pandey (1827-57). Armed with a sword and loaded musket, he exhorted his fellow sepoys to rebel (David 2003, chapter 7; Misra 2006). This incident occurred at the Barrackpore parade ground, where the rebel violently resisted two British officers, causing injuries with his sword (tulwar). The victims "were saved from certain death by the intervention of a Muslim sepoy" (David 2003:70). When General Hearsey was informed of the problem, he rode to the scene, himself engaging Pandey. The rebel sepoy then shot himself with his own musket, but was not fatally wounded.

Pandey had been trying to incite his regiment to mutiny. "From biting these cartridges, we shall become infidels." He also invoked the purported murderous intentions of Europeans. "Mangal himself admitted that he had recently been taking bhang and opium, and was not aware of what he was doing at the time of the attack" (ibid:72).

The violent sepoy was soon afterwards brought to trial and sentenced to death by hanging, along with a native officer sympathetic to him. Pandey's regiment was reputedly disaffected by the zealous Christian preaching of a British officer, namely Colonel Wheler. In early May, that regiment (the 34th) were disbanded, in retribution for failing to restrain a mutinous soldier. Pandey had high caste Hindu supporters in his regiment. He is often implicated as an influence upon subsequent events in Meerut. British soldiers thereafter caricatured his name as a generalising label for mutineers. Today, he is highly regarded in India as a freedom fighter. His instance is also analysed in terms of: brave martyr or accidental hero? (Mukherjee 2008).   

There was a mood of unrest (involving arson) at Agra, Allahabad, and the large cantonment at Ambala. British officers ignored the rumours of sepoy agitation, instead persisting with their customary leave during the hot weather, meaning a retreat to the cool foothills of the Himalayas. General George Anson, the Commander-in-Chief, retired to the colonial hill station of Simla. He had not been involved in any fighting since the Napoleonic wars, forty years earlier. Anson lived in a milieu of ease and comfort, far removed from the native population.

The cantonment of Meerut was about forty miles north of Delhi. Here many sepoys refused to use the new cartridges (Palmer 1966; Heathcote 2007, chapter 4). They feared social ostracism. A total of 85 cavalry troopers or skirmishers (of the celebrated 3rd Light Cavalry) were here involved, more specifically, 48 Muslims and 37 Hindus. The dissidents were court-martialled by the unsympathetic Colonel George Monro Carmichael-Smyth, who was the cause of administering (via a court of inquiry) a severe sentence of ten years imprisonment (with hard labour) for disobedience. This overbearing officer had pushed a parade confrontation that alarmed other British officers who favoured a conciliatory policy. However, the reviewing officer, namely Major-General William Hewitt, confirmed the majority of the severe sentences, only relenting in eleven cases, where he halved the sentences of those prisoners who had served in the army less than five years.

On May 9th, the condemned men were stripped of their uniforms and placed in chains before the garrison troops at Meerut. A British officer read out the sentences. When the shackles were imposed, the prisoners were marched past the whole parade in humiliation. They began to wail, and also to curse Carmichael-Smyth. Numerous of these prisoners had served the Company army for many years with unswerving loyalty. These skirmishers "were more or less picked men, and quite the elite of the regiment" (David 2003:81). Now they were jailed according to the mandate of Carmichael-Smyth, whose intolerance of objections proved to be a severe affliction for his own people.

A junior officer, Cornet John MacNabb, wrote a revealing memo:

Our Colonel Smyth most injudiciously ordered a parade of the skirmishers of the regiment to show them the new way of tearing the cartridges. I say injudiciously because there was no necessity to have the parade at all or to make any fuss of the sort just now, no other Colonel of Cavalry thought of doing such a thing, as they knew at this unsettled time their men would refuse to be the first to fire the cartridges.... The real case is that they [the skirmishers] hate Smyth, and, if almost any other officer had gone down they would have fired them [the rifles] off. (David 2003:82)

Some officers visited the prisoners that same day to give them their wages. The young Lieutenant Hugh Gough visited the jail that evening, feeling upset by the grief of sepoy prisoners. The jailed skirmishers begged him to save them. MacNabb informs: "They say it was heart-rending to see them, yet they accused no one, but thanked them [the officers] for coming to see them" (ibid:84).

Afterwards, a native officer of Gough's own regiment told him that, on the next day, the garrison sepoys would mutiny, followed by the cavalry. They would free the prisoners and kill the white soldiers and their families. The alarmed Lieutenant duly informed Colonel Carmichael-Smyth, who treated the warning with contempt. Brigadier Archdale Wilson also ignored the ominous news. These officers lived in a prestige world far removed from the Indian people. The elite likewise scorned a report that a message was circulating in Meerut exhorting all Muslims "to rise and slaughter the English" (David 2003:84).

The death of Colonel Finnis at Meerut, Illustrated London News, 1857

On May 10th 1857, sepoys (both Hindus and Muslims) released their jailed comrades and killed British officers. The 20th Native Infantry were prominent in the action, which was severely aggravated by a mob of civilians or badmashes ("bandits") from the bazaar. The mob proved keen to loot and burn the European bungalows, with some wielding fatal swords. Colonel John Finnis was shot through the heart by sepoys while mounting his horse on the parade ground. This episode became famous. Much less well known was the murder of Cornet MacNabb, who rode on his horse to join his regiment.

He was waylaid by the mob and hacked to pieces. His face was so badly mutilated that Lieutenant Gough, who discovered his body in a ditch, could identify him only by his height and the non-regulation braid on his coat. (David 2003:92)

The eighteen year old John MacNabb was one victim of consequences unleashed by authoritarian Carmichael-Smyth. Lieutenant Gough discovered that a thousand excited sepoys were firing their rifles in all directions. Despite the large number of British troops in Meerut, the senior officers failed to organise a resistance. Most of these officers were old, not having fought for many years. British civilians in the cantonment were also murdered. One officer's wife was burned to death by the mob, who feared the smallpox she had contracted. In contrast, some sepoys and native servants assisted British officers and their families to escape, at great risk to themselves (Nayar 2007a:9-10).

The slaughter of Christians on that day extended to men, women, and children. "The official body count was forty-one Europeans: eight officers, one invalid surgeon, twelve soldiers, four male civilians, eight women and eight children" (David 2003:93). The rebel attack was not restricted to Europeans. Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians were also killed, likewise native government officials. Another target were the banias or moneylenders, perceived by the rebels as profiting from British rule (Spilsbury 2007, chapter 2).

The rebel soldiers soon departed from Meerut under cover of darkness, moving along the road to Delhi. The British officers were subsequently criticised for their failure to pursue mutineers. Major-General Hewitt had been keen to impose punishment on the eighty-five skirmishers of the 3rd Light Cavalry. His subsequent withdrawal tactic from military engagement caused him to be relieved of his command. Sir John Lawrence expressed a verdict that Hewitt had achieved "more harm than 5000 Pandees [rebel sepoys]" (David 2003:94).

Colonialism now had the most severe problem ever encountered in India. At cantonments from Lucknow to Peshawar, sepoy rebels of the Bengal Army exhibited a mood of retaliation against the supercilious British dominance. This phenomenon extended into Central India, inspiring the civilian population to rebellion (Llewellyn-Jones 2007:5). Until the actual time of occurrence, the colonials did not have "the faintest suspicion that our rule in India was imperilled." These words of Lieutenant Griffiths, who was serving at Ferozepore in 1857, were accompanied by a complaint that the East India Company, "with almost culpable neglect, still confided to the care of the native army the large arsenals of Delhi, Ferozepore, and Phillour" (Griffiths 2006:1). All three of those ammunition centres were subject to mutinous activity.

7.  Siege  of  Delhi

The rebellious sepoys (and cavalry sowars) quickly moved to Delhi, leaving Meerut in peace, as Hodson found on his famous ride the same month. Delhi, the resplendent capital of the Mughal empire until the eighteenth century, had since declined into minor political significance. However, officials of the East India Company did live there, controlling the local courts and economic processes. They had relegated the elderly Mughal emperor, informing Bahadur Shah II that his title would die with him. He was allowed to survive as a relic of the past, with no actual political power.

Painting of Bahadur Shah II with his sons, by Ghulam Ali Khan, dated 1838. Mirza Mughal is bottom right.

The fading Mughal court still survived in Delhi at the Red Fort. The concubines and hunting expeditions were accompanied by penmanship of the monarch, who partially inspired a literary renaissance. The pen-name of Bahadur Shah (1775-1862) was Zafar (Victory).

He was one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi. (Dalrymple 2006:2)

On May 11th, 1857, the rebels from Meerut easily gained entry into Delhi. Three hundred mutinous sepoys and cavalry commenced to massacre every Christian man, woman, and child they could find in the city (Dalrymple 2006:3). Thousands of rebels now flocked to Delhi. They were joined by mobs who began to loot bazaars and to attack East India Company officials.

The sepoys wanted the emperor to lead them. Bahadur Shah was alarmed by the looting and killing; he did not welcome the rebels. However, he did afterwards give his support to the rebellion; opinions differ as to the extent of his enthusiasm, which appears to have been substantial. Some of the European civilians in Delhi made an escape. Bahadur Shah protested ineffectively at the killing of British prisoners. On May 16th, the rebel sepoys killed 52 Europeans under a tree in front of the palace, ignoring the royal complaint. The avowed objective of the rebels was to implicate the emperor (Dalrymple 2006:223), and thus disable any attempt of Bahadur Shah to compromise with the detested East India Company.

Many Indian citizens of Delhi suffered at the hands of rebel sepoys, who were viewed as outsiders, not as liberating heroes. In the relevant Indian language sources, these rebels are called tilangas, and also purbia (meaning a foreigner from Oudh and Bihar). The sepoys, now unpaid, turned to looting the city. Out of control, they destroyed a library. The civilians of Delhi faced violence and starvation. Several leading Mughal aristocrats were harassed, their homes being ransacked. One of these men was Hamid Ali Khan, the leader of Delhi's Shia Islam community; accused by sepoys of sheltering Europeans, he was taken to the court for his intended execution. The emperor had to intervene to save the victim. The Red Fort now contained so many rebel sepoys that the palace was like a cantonment.

Sepoy violence affected such people as jewellers, cloth merchants, and confectioners. Citizens attacked the sepoys by hurling bricks, driving them away from the precinct. In some areas, riots occurred between sepoys and resentful civilians. Bahadur Shah was unable to stop the strife, even though a daily royal audience (durbar) was resumed for the first time since 1739 (when the Persian army of Nadir Shah had invaded the city). Rebel sepoys lived in luxury, while citizens began to starve. Some of the rebels drank bhang, a narcotic drink featuring cannabis (Dalrymple 2006:207-8, 214-15).

The majority of rebel sepoys were Hindus. On May 19th, an orthodox Muslim mulla raised a flag of jihad (holy war) in the principal mosque known as Jama Masjid. The emperor objected that the flag would annoy the Hindu sepoys. The mulla, namely Maulvi Muhammad Sayed, went to the palace, where he argued eccentrically that a jihad against Hindus was legitimate because "the Hindus were all supporters of the English" (ibid:229). Muslim rebels often described themselves as jihadis and equivalent labels. From this perspective, the rebellion was a religious war, but not against Hindus. Christianity, preached by many of the British, was very unwelcome. Subsequently, larger numbers of jihadis were living in Delhi, although still outnumbered by Hindu rebels.

Civilian opportunists in Delhi would disguise themselves as sepoys for the purpose of looting. When five low caste men were arrested on this score, the sepoys administered a heavy lashing and put them in jail. Two of these unfortunates were untouchables (chamars). The caste system was still at work; many militant sepoys were high caste brahmans (ibid:220-1). Fights became common between infantry sepoys and rebel cavalry sowars. Moreover, Meerut sepoys were in conflict with Delhi sepoys; frequent quarrels occurred over the division of plunder. In this situation of anarchy, sepoys fought the city police who tried to stop the looting (ibid:226ff). On May 21st, the new city administration issued a proclamation that looters would be shot. Even death by cannon was now invoked.

Nevertheless, despite these negative manifestations of the siege, bureaucracy did cope with the problems of food, arms and ammunition, also sepoy complaints. City bankers raised money to pay the sepoys; a mint was opened on May 25th. The emperor's son Mirza Mughal, who became an enthusiastic supporter of the rebels, led the new administration. He is thought to have instigated a circular letter despatched to all the princes of India, urging them to join the rebellion and unite against the British. Another document, mistakenly called the emperor's manifesto, came from the Mughal prince Firoz Shah (probably a grandson of Bahadur Shah), who never set foot in Delhi during the rebellion, instead being associated with Lucknow. This document, also anti-British, invited "pundits and faqirs" to join Mughal armies. The British were here accused of overtaxing landowners, monopolising high social positions, and sending Indian artisans out of business by flooding the market with cheap imports.

Thousands of documents in Shikastah Urdu (and Persian), belonging to the National Archives of India, transmit a detailed picture of many developments at Delhi in 1857 (Farooqui 2010). There were about 150,000 residents in the city, with Hindus being in a slight majority. Thousands of labourers were mobilised to create fortifications. On June 10th, the first British artillery shells from the neighbouring Ridge hit the city, causing new fears. The Urdu documents testify to the old Mughal society that was annihilated by the East India Company. Despite the glorifying British reports of a military triumph, the invaders had no right to be in the vicinity, let alone to destroy everything in their path.

Bakht Khan (c.1797-1859) became the rebel Commander in Chief at Delhi. A Pathan of Rohilla background (he was born in Rohilkhand) he gained the rank of subedar in the Bengal Army, fighting in the Afghan wars. Elected a general by Muslim troops of Bareilly, Bakht Khan arrived in Delhi with about 3,000 Rohillas. The date was July 1st, 1857. On his mother's side, Bakht Khan was related to the ruling house of Oudh, deposed by the East India Company in 1856. The emperor deferred to him; however, Bakht Khan was hindered by the lack of organisation amongst the rebels. The sepoys did not agree about an overall commander; sepoy regiments followed their own officers. Bakht Khan nevertheless made a strong impression, and efficiently organised the city's supplies. He failed to penetrate the crucial British defences on the Delhi Ridge. He eventually fled Delhi to join rebel forces at Lucknow, assisting the rebel leader Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah.

In mid-May, General Anson started to organise the "recovery" of Delhi. The city was supposedly a rightful asset of the British. The badly equipped Anson died of cholera before he could arrive at his destination. There were soon rebellions at other cities like Lucknow and Kanpur. Meanwhile, John Nicholson was made a Brigadier General, leading a mobile column of over 4,000 men from the Punjab to Delhi (including the famous 4th Punjab Infantry). Before leaving the Punjab, he vigorously disarmed and contested various rebel regiments. In a mutiny at Sialkot, rebel sepoys bayoneted men, women, and children. Nicholson detested the murder of women and children, and accordingly believed that the mutiny should be firmly crushed. Many rebels were shot, hanged, and sabred. The merciless East India Company also favoured barbaric execution of rebels by cannon.

Arriving at Delhi in mid-August, Nicholson was welcomed by Sir Henry Barnard and other British officers who faced a difficult assignment. Their troops had occupied old cantonments outside the city, on what was known as the Ridge. They made the mistake of burning the barracks, a setback leaving them without shelter from the sun in the hottest season of the Indian year. The rebels in the city now reputedly numbered over 30,000 men. On the Ridge, heatstroke and cholera afflicted the Company troops, who were outnumbered by rebels.

Sikh soldiers at the Siege of Delhi, 1857

The Punjab column brought 3,000 men, although the total number was 4,200, of whom nearly 1,300 were Europeans (Trotter 1897:301). Description of the native contingents is not always found. These reinforcements nearly doubled General Wilson's army on the Ridge. The ratio of British to Indian soldiers was pronouncedly in the minority for "Europeans." One version says over 3,000 British and 7,900 Indian. The Indian majority comprised Sikhs, Gurkhas, Punjabi Muslims, and Pathans. By early September, there were more than 11,000 soldiers on the British side, apart from 3,000 men in hospital. Only 3,317 of the active soldiers were Europeans, about two thirds of these being infantry (David 2003:291).

The impatient Nicholson was eager to begin the assault. He and other officers mounted a number of minor engagements. Delhi was protected by seven miles of walls. In the Punjab, Sir John Lawrence prepared to send a massive siege-train, including heavy artillery drawn by elephants, and over 500 wagons filled with ammunition. Meanwhile, conditions on the Ridge were appalling. "The flies crawled in swarms over the heads of the sick and wounded, into their ears and nostrils" (Harris 1973:131). Food was covered by flies, and cups of tea were similar casualties.

On July 21st, 130 native horsemen in the British camp defected to the rebel side, an event followed by further desertions. However, many rebel sepoys were deserting the city cause by mid-August, fleeing into the countryside. Gambling and opium were banned by the Delhi administration associated with Mirza Mughal. These pastimes were not the only problems. By the end of that month, starving rebel sepoys were in evidence, and many desertions followed. There was even a desperate plan to depose the emperor (Farooqui 2010).

The Company siege-train did not arrive until September 4th, 1857, including hundreds of native soldiers. Three days later, the first breaching battery was extended against the city walls. On September 14th, Nicholson personally led the assault on Delhi, being mortally wounded in the process, dying in frustration several days later. The British broke into the city after suffering many casualties. Muslim ghazis (warriors or jihadis) made a furious defence of the Jama Masjid, repelling the invader. The next day, Bakht Khan retreated from the Red Fort with many surviving ghazis.

The British soldiers entertained a diversion, breaking into the cellars of wine merchants who sold European liquors. Beer, wine, and brandy were in demand. Many of the British are said to have spent two days in "an orgy of violence, drunkenness and confusion." Captain William Hodson testified to this episode. "For the first time in my life, I have had to see English soldiers refuse repeatedly to follow their officers."

British soldiers went berserk in the narrow streets of Delhi, engaged in hand-fighting thousands of sepoys. Some desperate rebels now resorted to using screaming Indian women and children as shields. The British soldiers were accompanied by many Sikh and Pathan irregulars, who are not always mentioned. Alcohol was not the favoured resort of native soldiers. The combined British-Sikh-Pathan force now engaged in "sacking and looting the Mughal capital, and massacring great swathes of the population" (Dalrymple 2006:4).

Edward Vibart was a 19 year old British officer. He reported that "the orders went out to shoot every soul." The British officers were in no mood for peace talks. The women were all spared, but the opposing men were killed. Even old men were shot dead. "It was literally murder," complained Vibart. A recent commentator states: "In one muhalla (neighbourhood) alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 citizens of Delhi were cut down" (Dalrymple 2006:4). On September 20th, an unknown number of rebels fled into the countryside, their grain supply exhausted. Delhi was under British rule once more, even though many armed civilians were defending their property against the military vandals.

A large number of surviving rebel sepoys were shot or hanged. The city of Delhi was a smoking ruin. Much of the emperor's palace, the old Red Fort, was destroyed. The British looting was extensive. The British force smashed furniture, while carrying away jewels, carpets, and Kashmir shawls. The rebels had looted the city months before; now the victors achieved a systematic devastation. In this havoc, there were reportedly "blows and even bloodshed" between the British soldiers and the native irregulars of the Company (Harris 1973:146-7).

The sack of Delhi continued until November, with dozens of hangings occurring daily. Thousands of civilian inhabitants were discovered to be "hiding in cellars, half-starved and terrified of both British and rebels" (Harris 1973:147). They were turned out of the city. A reason supplied, in some accounts, is the lack of any means of feeding these unfortunates; also, a fear of plague had started. Compare the following:

British officers boasted about killing terrified civilians who were found hiding in their own homes. The remaining inhabitants were evicted and forced to spend the winter in the open, outside the city walls. (Llewellyn-Jones 2007:xiii)

Bahadur Shah II. Image at right dates to 1858, when the emperor was awaiting trial for support of the Mutiny.

In these circumstances of British victory and urban ruin, Captain William Hodson learned that the emperor Bahadur Shah was in hiding with his family at the Mughal tomb of Humayun, three miles outside Delhi. Hodson gained permission to capture the monarch and bring him back safely to General Archdale Wilson. This mission was accomplished successfully on September 21st, as a consequence of which Hodson gained the status of a hero. The next day, he returned with a hundred of his men to take three resisting Mughal princes captive. Hoping for clemency, but with no guarantee of safety, the princes surrendered, being escorted in a bullock cart to the city.

These three princes were implicated as being in collusion with the rebels. The emperor's son Mirza Mughal (born c.1825) had become the principal rebel supporter in the royal family; he was a key figure in the Delhi administration. An illegitimate son of the emperor was Mirza Khizr Sultan (born 1831), who also sided with the rebels but fled in fear from a battle; during the siege he gained a repute for corruption, being rebuked by Mirza Mughal for making unauthorised collections of money. The last of the three princes was Mirza Abu Bakr, grandson of the emperor, whose example was far less exemplary than that of Mirza Mughal; he gained a repute for whipping servants and beating up watchmen. Accompanying rebel cavalry, Mirza Abu Bakr looted various suburbs of Delhi before leading a disastrous expedition to Meerut (Dalrymple 2006; Farooqui 2010).

An agitating crowd of several thousand Muslims followed the cavalry escort conducting the princes to Delhi. Captain Hodson decided to eliminate the princes rather than risk a rescue attempt from the belligerent crowd. His recourse was drastic. He forced the royal trio to strip off their clothing, an act of humiliation in their milieu. Seizing a gun (described variously as a revolver or carbine), he shot the Mughal princes dead at point blank range. Hodson afterwards admitted that he had enjoyed killing the victims. The general British mood at that time was one of vengeance towards all rebels. Hodson did not anticipate the protests that followed against his conduct that day.

"Hodson's fame had grown out of all proportion to his rank" (Harris 1973:143). He became a hero in capturing the emperor, though afterwards regarded as a villain for carrying out the murders. Hodson was also accused of storing loot; there were certainly many British looters in Delhi at that juncture. Hodson is reported to have stripped the dead princes of their expensive rings, turquoise armbands, and swords encrusted with jewels. There are some who think that Mirza Mughal was the better man.

British officers and soldiers wrote to their families in England with some very uncivilised refrains. "Lots of blackguards are hanged every morning. The more the merrier. I am delighted to see that good folks at home hate the Pandies [sepoys] almost as much as we do. You say Delhi ought to be thoroughly destroyed. We [the army] all say the same. Some 300 or 400 [rebels] were shot yesterday. There are several mosques in the city most beautiful to look at. But I should like to see them all destroyed" (quote from V. S. Saxena, Revolt and Revenge, 2003, at chilit.org).

Such sentiments underline what the allegedly civilising presence actually amounted to: a destructive and semi-religious campaign of near-genocidal proportions. The Delhi campaign is notorious for the disposition to looting. A British soldier testified that wealthy Indian victims could be shut in a dark cellar and abused for the purpose of extracting money. The victims were contemptuously described as niggers by the greedy racist invaders (last source linked). The vaunted empirical science of the European "Enlightenment" had produced a more annihilative form of warfare than ever before; the cannons got bigger and more deadly. There was no viable understanding of life or civilisation on the part of empiricists, evangelists, politicians, or the military. From vivisection laboratories to war crimes, the European achievement can be contradicted for the global application of industrialism and ecological setback.

The city of Delhi was completely emptied of inhabitants by the invaders. Hindus were not allowed back until December 1857, while Muslims were evicted until January 1859. The East India Company had ruined Delhi. The lengthy Mughal dynasty now came to an end, the emperor Bahadur Shah being exiled to Burma in 1858. There he died four years later in Rangoon, aged 87.

During the Delhi siege, Indian women feared both the rebel sepoys inside the city and the British soldiers without. A British woman in Delhi reported that she saw a well into which Indian girls had fatally flung themselves, in an effort to escape from the approaching British troops (Nayar 2007:17). The aftermath of battles and sieges was a recurring horror for women in violent situations over the centuries, in too many milieux.

Legend has associated the female faqir Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) with Bahadur Shah, alias Zafar. She has been credited in one version as a daughter of the Mughal monarch, along with the ambiguity that she came from Afghanistan (Shepherd 2014:127 note 7). The reality is rather an Afghan Pathan origin, converging with diverse aspects of her biography. The attribution to a Mughal lineage is nevertheless of interest. Babajan would certainly have been in sympathy with the Delhi court women who appeared to have no future. Her own career involved a negation of wealth and status. Cambridge University Press have furthered the colonialist cause of elitism by erroneously depicting her as a deranged drug addict.

8.  Brigadier  General  John  Nicholson

A figure who gained celebrity in the Mutiny was the Irish soldier John Nicholson (1822-57). He was subsequently glorified in colonialist accounts; more recently, he has gained critics. He became well known for his sense of Protestant morality and his courage as a soldier. The Nicholson legend described him as a "saviour of India." Some critics have accused him of extreme brutality. A 1970s reaction, to the Victorian profile of Nicholson as a military hero, involved counter-descriptions in terms of bully, racist, and religious bigot. A well known biography was composed by Captain Lionel Trotter over a century ago. This is now considered romantic and uncritical; though of interest, that biography requires to be used with caution. A complication is that the subject's "own letters and despatches are the only source for many of his actions" (Dalrymple 2006:200).

John Nicholson

The son of a Dublin physician, Nicholson started service with the East India Company at the age of sixteen (Kaye and Malleson Vol. 2, pp. 338ff.). Born at Lisburn, near Belfast, his parents were Bible-reading Protestants; his father was a Quaker, and his mother a Presbyterian. In 1839, he landed at Calcutta as a cadet in the Bengal Native Infantry of the East India Company (Allen 2000:20ff).

Posted to the Punjab from Benares, Nicholson served in the 27th Bengal Infantry. This regiment was Indian, comprising high caste Hindus, meaning soldier brahmins (brahmans) and Rajputs from Bihar and Oudh. They eventually marched to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. The young Nicholson found himself at the Kabul cantonment in a very dangerous situation; he afterwards participated in the defence of Ghazni. There he was captured by the Afghans, when the British surrendered in March 1842. Two months earlier, four thousand British troops (and three times as many camp followers) died in the mountain passes of hostile Afghanistan, victims of the deadly musket fire from Pathan tribesmen. The British had underestimated the opposition in this formidable mountain country (see Heathcote 1980; Dalrymple 2013).

Confined with other British prisoners in a small room, Nicholson had to endure privations until the political situation changed. Not long after, his soldier brother was killed by Afghans, the body being mutilated. Nicholson was afterwards averse to Afghans, nevertheless achieving cordial terms with some Pathans on the Indian side of the frontier. His general outlook has been depicted as gloomy. "Nicholson loathed India with a passion and regarded only the Afghans as worse" (Dalrymple 2006:199). He had apparently already formed this attitude of aversion before he was captured by the Afghans in 1842 (ibid).

By 1847, Nicholson's colleague Herbert Edwardes was governing the frontier region of Bannu, where fierce Pathan tribesmen were accustomed to fight and plunder. Such frontier territories, and the Punjab itself, were different to much of India. Nicholson himself became an administrator, being active in the Rawalpindi region.

The country he had been sent to govern was mostly wild, rugged, and thinly peopled by men of diverse races, customs, and callings, from the warlike Ghakkars, Pathans, and Rajputs, to the cattle-lifting Gujars and the peaceful Jats, who tilled the terraced slopes of the Rawal Pindi highlands. (Trotter 1897:94)

Nicholson gained a repute for justice amongst the Sikhs of the Punjab. Indeed, his orders "were accepted as decrees of Fate" according to the glowing biography by Captain Trotter. He confronted the opportunist leaders of clans who kept in their pay many Sikhs, Afghans, and "Hindustanis." Blackmail was a favoured recourse of the freebooters. Captain Nicholson found that peaceful villages were continually plundered by raids of clan leaders and camp followers attached to armies. He discovered that flogging was of no avail to stop the habit of plunder.

A well known episode concerns a freebooting raider. This man was found in a village, where Nicholson ordered him to surrender. The bandit chief was not cooperative, instead attacking the commissioner with a sword. In this samurai encounter, Nicholson responded with a sword, killing the aggressor. Riding back to his courthouse, he ordered his assistants to bring in the corpse. The head of the dead raider was severed, and placed on the magistrate's table used by Nicholson. The reason for this grisly procedure was because the raider had been regarded as a hero by other maliks (village headmen) of a similar trespassing inclination. Nicholson intended the trophy as a warning to other lawbreakers (Cholmeley 1908, chapter 6; Dalrymple 2006:199, allocating this episode to Rawalpindi). The episode is used as evidence of the subject's extreme violence by his detractors.

At the Punjabi city of Multan in 1848, the Dewan Mulraj led a Sikh rebellion against the British colonialists. According to Captain Trotter, his emissaries stirred discontent amongst Sikh troops in the Peshawar valley. Two British officers were deputed to take control of Multan with a small escort of Gurkhas, but on arrival they were killed by a mob. A corps of Muslim Pathans was created by the British to counter the hostile Sikh element. Edwardes led an army against Multan, his key troops being Pathan irregulars. Multan was subsequently besieged by the Company's Bengal Army; in January 1849 a successful assault occurred. Many defenders and civilians were killed indiscriminately. When Mulraj surrendered, the British acquired a substantial loot from his vast treasury. Mulraj was placed on trial for the initial murders of the two British officers; he was exiled to the Buxor jail near Calcutta, where he died. His descendants became Sikhs.

Meanwhile, Nicholson evolved his own confronting strategy. In the Peshawar-Attock zone, he led sixty Pathan horsemen and two infantry companies. He pushed a fast pace which only thirty horsemen could match, entered the Sikh garrison, and went stalking amongst the Sikhs, daring them to oppose him. He made them arrest their own mutinous leaders, who marched out of the fort in a sullen manner (Trotter 1897:104-5). This episode is recounted in terms of a heroic and significant British triumph.

A Gosain (Hindu devotee) began to preach the worship of his new god Nikalsain (Nikal Seyn), meaning Nicholson. Five or six other Hindus became converts, innovating hymns of praise (Trotter 1897:154). The soldier of justice was now apparently regarded as an avatar. The Protestant responded to this adulation with threats and blows. Nicholson did not understand Hindu devotionalism; he even administered flogging to his new admirers if they prostrated or began chanting in his presence. He had a strong temper. His favoured penalty was three dozen lashes with the feared cat-o'-nine tails (Dalrymple 2006:199). Surprisingly, his colonial severity made no difference to the new cult.

Nicholson was assigned to the British force during the second Anglo-Sikh war. Capable of relenting gestures, he released several hundred Sikh and other prisoners taken by the British at the battle of Gujrat in 1849. Nicholson gained a daunting reputation for swordsmanship and possessed a disconcertingly big physique (he was six feet two inches tall, with a broad chest). Pathans were his irregular troops, in close cooperation with village headmen in the Punjab.

In 1852, for some five years, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner for Bannu (Allen 2000:240ff). This was a tough assignment by normal standards. That frontier region was inhabited by Afghans of different backgrounds. Peaceful villages were subject to murderous raids by plundering Umarzai Waziris, a tribe of Pathans. To remedy this alarming situation, Nicholson formed a contingent of 1,500 mounted native police, leading this force into Waziri territory. Nobody had formerly dared to venture into the dangerous hill fastnesses inhabited by raiders. Not long after, the Waziri leaders were requesting a pardon for their misdeeds.

A pointed criticism has been made of Nicholson. "Only his wish to spread the Christian Empire of the British in this heathen wilderness kept him in the East" (Dalrymple 2006:199). However, Nicholson does not appear to have been a preacher; he was known for a taciturn role.

During Nicholson's last year of office at Bannu, raids, robberies, and murders were almost entirely eradicated (Trotter 1897:194). He resorted to flogging in many instances, because the miscreants had little money to pay fines. He did not refrain from hanging criminals at his own decision. In the cooler months, this vigorous commissioner would take to a lifestyle of horse and tent. In the hot months, he would sit for hours in his darkened courthouse screened from the sun. There he listened to complaints and administered what has been described as a rough but even-handed justice (ibid:189). Edwardes wrote a character sketch of Nicholson, including the detail that Muslims of Bannu believed that good Muslims of earlier centuries must have been like Nikalsain (ibid:211-12). Indeed, these Muslims approved him as a hakim or magistrate (the word hakim can also mean a sage).

Pathans at Peshawar, 1860s

Subsequently, Nicholson was appointed as Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar, a city with strong Pathan associations. Sepoy rebellions against the British were in occurrence. To offset the defections, Nicholson wished to raise a strong levy of "Multani horse from the Derajat." His influential colleague Edwardes gained permission in May 1857 to raise 1,000 Multani horsemen from Khans of the Derajat. Nicholson was made a Colonel at this time.

The Multani Horse appear to have comprised a majority of Sikhs; they are reported to have followed Nicholson from "sheer personal devotion," even scorning pay. Various figures are given in different reports. A few hundred of these irregulars seem to have remained with him to the end. This cavalry disbanded at his death. Nicholson also had in his support a few hundred trusted Pathan auxiliaries. The Sikh and Pathan levies were intended as replacements for the Hindu sepoy rebels of the Mutiny. The Sikhs were keen recruits, a factor which has been interpreted in terms of their dislike of the British being outweighed by a longstanding aversion to the Mughal regime of Delhi (Dalrymple 2006:206-7). The Mughal rulers had martyred two famous Sikh gurus, namely Guru Arjun in 1606 and Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675.

Suspect sepoy regiments were disarmed in the Peshawar region by Nicholson. In addition to the Multani Horse, a contingent of Afridi Pathan volunteers from Kohat joined him as escort. Afridis, Momands, and Yusufzais, meaning Afghan Pathans, were now crossing the border to enlist with the victorious British masters of Peshawar. The native fighters were now crucial to British success in the Indian Mutiny, which had spread to the Punjab.

In May 1857, Nicholson disarmed sepoy rebels at Nowshera. A further outbreak of mutiny occurred at Mardan, likewise near Peshawar. The rebels here were chased by Nicholson and his horsemen to the hills of Swat. This ride counted 120 sepoys killed, many of them by Nicholson's own manhunting sword. The captives numbered 150. Forty of these rebels were "blown from guns" (meaning cannons) at the Peshawar garrison. This drastic punishment, imitating a Mughal precedent, does not meet with contemporary agreement (section 9 below). The other prisoners were jailed, sentenced to hard labour by East India Company zeal. The ruthless nature of this campaign is evident.

The Mutiny was welcomed by parties like the Afghan mullas (religious leaders), who now preached a jihad (holy war) against the infidel rulers of Peshawar. The mood of jihad was a strong factor in the rebellion, recurring at Delhi and elsewhere.

Edwardes and Nicholson have been called "two of the most militantly Evangelical officials of India" (Dalrymple 2006:197). Their solution for the Mutiny was to create a strong movable column of mainly irregular soldiers "to overawe and terrorise the Punjab into submission" (ibid). The East India Company official Sir John Lawrence (1811-79) was in agreement, and the column was formed in only four days. Nicholson was enraged by reports of the massacres in Delhi. In a communication to Edwardes, he proposed "a Bill for the flaying alive, impalement, or burning of the murderers of the [British] women and children of Delhi." Edwardes transpired to be aloof on this matter. Nicholson afterwards wrote: "If I had them [the rebels] in my power today, I would inflict the most excruciating tortures I could think of on them with a perfectly easy conscience" (ibid:198). Such comments do reveal the strong temper of this Company emissary.

In June 1857, Nicholson took command of the new Punjab movable column, starting off for Rawalpindi with an escort of Pathans. The column itself became a mix of British and Indian troops, the latter being in the majority, and including many Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, and Baluchis. At Phillaur (Phillour), Nicholson disarmed two rebel sepoy infantry regiments without a fight. His column then moved back to Amritsar, where further sepoy rebels were disarmed (Trotter 1897:250ff).

News came of a mutiny at Sialkot, in the Punjab. The bayoneting of British men, women, and children by rebel sepoys was grim news. There was also looting at Sialkot, assisted by a violent mob from the jail and the bazaars. The indignant Nicholson was determined to outflank the advance of some 3,000 rebels to Gurdaspur; they were on the march southwards to Delhi, where sepoys and armed villagers were converging. He rode to Gurdaspur before the rebels arrived, setting a trap for them (Harris 1973:125ff). His force attacked the rebels when they crossed the River Ravi. The sepoys retreated to an island on the river, leaving their dead; many of them were swept away by the flooding waters. Nicholson led an attack upon their sole cannon. His sword "crashed down with cut No. 1 upon the shoulder of the man who worked the gun, and clove him literally in two" (Trotter 1897: 288).

When Nicholson disarmed and confronted sepoys in these various encounters, he was keen to hang the leaders. He did abandon the repellant practice of killing rebels by cannon; this was not a consequence of any ethical consideration, but because he concluded "that the powder so expended might be more usefully employed" (Dalrymple 2006:200). He reputedly smashed several regiments of rebels with only a small body of Pathan irregulars. He used gallows to hang rebels. Nicholson was the sole judge and jury in these numerous instances. When Sir John Lawrence wrote to him requesting a list of courtmartials and punishments administered to rebels, Nicholson tersely responded by writing on the back of the returned despatch: "The punishment for mutiny is death" (ibid:201).

The Punjab column triumphantly moved forward to Delhi, arriving on August 14th, 1857 (Allen 2000:295ff). Now a Brigadier General, Nicholson was welcomed enthusiastically. He is described as having a "massive chest and powerful limbs." Nicholson never smiled. His sombre temperament acted as "a damper on the gaiety" of some who sat with him in the Mess (Trotter 1897:290). The Officer's Mess was generally segregated from native soldiers. A discernible problem was that "gaiety" of the in-group was foreign to the natives, who esteemed the taciturn bearing of Nicholson rather than the East India Company chatter in elitist English.

A critic of Nicholson describes him as an "imperial psychopath" (Dalrymple 2006:4). However, the supporters of Bahadur Shah II were also imperialists. Captain Dodson was one of those who admired Nicholson; many on the Delhi Ridge are said to have hero-worshipped the Brigadier. Nicholson learned that many Sikhs were amongst the Delhi rebels, formed into a separate battalion at their own request. On August 27th, he wrote that the irregular cavalry amongst the enemy (here meaning the Sikhs) could be forgiven if they relented, as they had not murdered or played a prominent part in the Mutiny (Trotter 1897:314-15).

The assault of Delhi commenced on September 14th. The going was very difficult. The 1st Bengal Fusiliers charged down the "lane of death" near the Kashmir bastion, being exposed to a lethal fire that took many lives. Nicholson would not concede defeat; he goaded his men onwards, despite their exhaustion. By this time, he was well inside the city. While facing his troops, he was shot in the back by a rebel, receiving a mortal wound in the lung (ibid:335). He lived for several days in a hospital on the Ridge, dying on the 23rd. He was only 35 years old.

The sirdars of the Multani Horse and some other natives were allowed to take a last look at the dead leader, for whose life they would have given their own.... Much as all the natives feared to displease him, there could be no question that he commanded their respect to an extent almost equal to love. (Trotter 1897:349-50)

These native soldiers shed tears on that occasion. Nicholson's servants and orderlies also expressed "loud lamentations." Captain Lind, of the Multani Horse, attended the funeral with Nicholson's orderlies, namely Naurang Khan and Atta Muhammad. All three men are reported to have wept (ibid:351). Another report states that, among the spectators at Nicholson's funeral, "were the Pathans, Afghans and Multanis who had worshipped him, and as the clods of earth fell on the coffin, the Multanis flung themselves on the ground like children in their anguish and cried without restraint" (Harris 1973:147).

Muhammad Hayat Khan at Rawalpindi, 1860s (or 1870s)

Sirdar Muhammad Hayat Khan (1833-1901) was Nicholson's orderly in 1857. He is tentatively identified by Trotter as the son of Fathi Khan, "the brave Pathan chief who fell by Nicholson's side in the attack on the Margalla Tower in 1848" (ibid:371-2). This has since been regarded as an error. Hayat Khan was the son of Karam Khan, a Khattar chieftain at the village of Wah in the Peshawar area. The Khattar tribe are described as an indigenous Punjabi people. After the first Anglo-Sikh war, Karam Khan supported the British officials of Lahore, proving his loyalty in 1848 when a Sikh uprising occurred. He was one of the local Muslim chieftains and soldiers who accompanied Nicholson on his expedition to the Margalla Pass, where a strategic tower was secured. Even the intrepid Nicholson there became trapped. Karam Khan rescued him in a feat of courage. This caused the Irish soldier to become close friends with Karam Khan (Allen 2000:166ff).

Their acquaintance was abruptly terminated when Karam Khan suffered murder at the hands of his half-brother Fateh (Fathi) Khan, later that same year. His wife and children fled for refuge to the nearby Hazara region, where a British officer sent them to Nicholson. In a benign mood, the Irish officer restored the bereaved family to their estate, and arranged for the education of Karam Khan's orphaned children. As a consequence, Muhammad Hayat Khan gained a fluency in Persian; he was later appointed by Nicholson as a personal orderly and interpreter. This situation lasted for years until the Brigadier's death; Hayat Khan tended him at the hospital during his last days at Delhi.

The orderly subsequently achieved a distinguished career, including the role of a magistrate in the Punjab. In 1899, Hayat Khan was granted the princely title of Nawab in recognition of his services. His role in relation to Nicholson tends to offset some of the flaws visible in the latter's biography.

In the Punjab, "thousands of Sikhs, Punjabis, and Pathans bewailed the death of a master [hakim], whose like, while living, they had never seen before" (Trotter 1897:354). These admirers viewed Nicholson as a just legalist and a great warrior. Ironically, his Protestant aversion to the Indian scene was offset by a crossing of the ethnic and religious divide.

9.  Uprisings  at  Kanpur  and  Lucknow

During the siege of Delhi, the British also encountered grave problems in the former kingdom of Oudh (now in Uttar Pradesh). To the south-east of Delhi, the cities of Lucknow and Kanpur (Cawnpore to the British) were major scenes of rebel activity. The East India Company had precipitated extensive social unrest by exiling the Nawab of Oudh to Calcutta and annexing his territory. The inhabitants faced poverty, and were prey to banditry, a drawback created by the British when they disbanded the Nawab's army. Thousands of servants and tradesmen who had worked for the Nawab were now unemployed. No provision was made for them. The Company was instead eager to impose new taxes on the resentful people of this region.

l to r: Rebel general Tatya Tope after capture in 1859; Madras sappers and miners who assisted the British force at Lucknow, photograph dating to circa 1857.

The outbreak of rebellion at Meerut spread to Lucknow and Kanpur (Cawnpore), where British communities were in dire jeopardy. Local resentment of the white sahib reached boiling point. The burgeoning rebellion featured the aristocrat known as Nana Sahib (Dhondu Pant), the Raja of Bithur (Gupta 1963). This Maratha brahman was the adopted son of the last Maratha peshwa (prime minister) Baji Rao II (d.1851), who had been defeated by the East India Company in the Maratha wars. Baji Rao was exiled to Bithur, about 15 miles north of Kanpur; he continued to live in grand style, facilitated by an annual British pension of £80,000.

New rulings of the East India Company meant that Nana Sahib (born 1824) was refused a pension by Lord Dalhousie. The wealthy Nana Sahib maintained a luxury lifestyle, while also accumulating a heavy debt (Nayar 2007a:11-12). Nana Sahib resented his predicament, and in 1853 sent an emissary to England to plead his case with the British government. This effort was unsuccessful; the Raja nevertheless remained friendly with the British. The emissary was his secretary Azimullah Khan (1830-59), a Muslim who spoke English and French.

On June 4th, 1857, nearly all the sepoys at Kanpur mutinied. They burned British property, looted the treasury, and then left for Delhi, intending to ally themselves with the Mughal emperor. A relevant factor is easily overlooked. Sepoys threw away their regimental colours which distinguished them from the civilians and peasantry. Many of them are said to have come from the peasantry. Their idea now was to join the ordinary people, repudiating the British rule. Rebel supporters from neighbouring villages flocked to Kanpur; they had already been arming themselves. The peasants were abusive towards the British, also resenting other wealthy people in Kanpur, who were known to be allies of the East India Company. Destruction of "alien" properties was favoured. British officers were beaten. A Muslim aristocrat was humiliated by being made to ride a servant's mule.

Nana Sahib took possession of the Company treasury at Kanpur, and also the magazine. This Raja proclaimed that he wished to restore the Maratha confederacy, although he was apparently prepared to be a vassal of Bahadur Shah in Delhi. He redeployed the rebels marching to Delhi, persuading them to return to Kanpur, where he would reward them with gold if they destroyed the British force. Nana Sahib quickly informed Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler of his intention to attack the British entrenchment, an earthen wall only four feet high which sheltered almost a thousand men, women, and children (including some loyal sepoys). The defenders fought determinedly, but faced disaster with reduced ammunition, lack of food, and sunstroke.

On June 23rd, a major attack was launched by the rebels on the entrenchment. This date signified the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, an event significant for the consequent rule of the East India Company. Sepoys gave much credence to a prediction of astrologers that the Company would terminate exactly a century after the famous battle. The attack at Kanpur failed, and a new plan was devised.

Nana Sahib now offered terms of surrender, signing a treaty. The besieged British were to be given safe passage to Allahabad. In the disaster that followed at Satichaura Ghat (David 2003, chapter 14), over 300 British or "Europeans" were killed while boarding boats. British reports describe a treacherous ambush (e.g., Kaye and Malleson 1897, Vol. 2, pp. 256ff). There is disagreement over details. The only reliable first person narrative is that of Lt. Mowbray Thomson (1832-1917), who describes native boatmen jumping overboard, with the consequence that: "We fired into them immediately, but the majority of them escaped." These boatmen had resorted to arson on the boats. It is not clear which side fired first. The rebels opened fire with devastating effect. Rebel cavalry then moved into the water to finish off survivors with swords and pistols. General Wheeler's boat escaped, being pursued by rebels on the riverbanks. The survivors were taken back to Kanpur, where all the remaining men were executed. Only four daring men escaped, including Thomson. They were given haven downstream by a Rajput Raja who remained loyal to the British (Thomson 1859).

Afterwards, about 200 surviving women and children were imprisoned in a building known as the Bibighar. Nana Sahib had apparently decided to use these prisoners in negotiations with the Company. There was no reconciliation. General Havelock's relief force, advancing from Allahabad, cleared rebels from the road to Kanpur. Various accounts give contrasting details of subsequent events. One version is at Cawnpore Mutiny.

Nana Sahib sent two armies against the Company relief force. Word reached Kanpur that the British troops led by General Havelock and General Neill were engaging in violent actions against peasant villages. Some of Nana Sahib's advisers wished to kill the Bibighar prisoners, apparently in retaliation for the murder of villagers by the Company army. However, the women of Nana Sahib's harem and household resisted that decision, to the extent of commencing a severe fast and threatening to throw themselves out of windows. This humane protest was ignored.

On July 15th, someone in the rebel camp gave orders that the Bibighar prisoners were to be killed. The details are not clear. The sepoys concerned at first refused to obey the drastic command. They only complied when Tatya Tope threatened to execute them for insubordination. The sepoys agreed to remove the victims for execution, afterwards finding that the women had barricaded their quarters. About twenty sepoys then fired into those quarters. A second squad fired another volley. However, these men were so disturbed at what they saw and heard that they fired harmlessly into the air. The sepoy riflemen then refused to continue, knowing that some damage had been done.

Implicated at this juncture is Hussaini Khanum, the servant girl of Nana Sahib's favourite courtesan. A British informant relayed a story credited to Tatya Tope, the lieutenant of Nana Sahib; the girl was reputedly an enemy of Nana Sahib who wished to incriminate him. She is also said to have goaded Azimullah Khan to hire killers. Such versions are in question. More reliably, "finally five civilians, two of them butchers, were hired" (Jerosch 2007:102). The five men included both Hindus and Muslims who wielded swords (Heathcote 2007). Two were Muslim butchers, while two were Hindu employees of Nana Sahib (one of them a brahman named Souracun). The ringleader was Sarvur Khan, a member of the bodyguard attending Nana Sahib (David 2003:253-4; cf. Harris 1973:92). Sarvur Khan nurtured a grudge against the British, which he now carried to an extreme.

The resulting situation of misused swords (tulwars) can arouse strong reactions. There were no survivors. One interpretation of the massacre is that rebels believed General Havelock would cease his advance to Kanpur if there was no hope of liberating the prisoners; a more convincing version is that the prisoners were killed to prevent exposure of details embarrassing to the rebel leaders. The fact is that this ghastly episode involved the murder of 73 women and 124 children. Six of these victims were afterwards still alive, nevertheless being thrown down a well along with the corpses. Sarvur Khan did not escape retribution; he was hanged two years later (David 2003:373).

An alternative version of these events is found in a contemporary account by the Chitpavan brahman Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar (1827-1903), who acquired information via two informants from Bithur at the time of the Mutiny. The Bibighar event, here associated with Bithur, is described as involving a small number of women and children. One of those white women tried to get a message smuggled out to British officials, saying the rebel troops were drunk and incapacitated, making them easy to eliminate. This message was discovered. Rebel soldiers were so annoyed by the contents that they killed the women and children, ignoring the protest of Nana Sahib (Versaikar 2011, chapter 3). Versaikar lamented the murders, emphasising the discrepancy with mandates of Hindu religion (his notable record of the Mutiny was based upon his own journeys and also second-hand accounts; the Marathi original was published in 1948).

The Bibighar massacre certainly added fuel to the escalating British sense of vengeance. Two thousand relief troops, afflicted by sunstroke and cholera, entered Kanpur on July 16th. Nana Sahib fled, thereafter remaining elusive. Along with other rebel leaders, the fugitive Nana Sahib was forced into Nepal by the British forces in January 1859. He is thought to have died of fever that same year.

The Company invaders resorted to looting and burning in Kanpur; innocent local people suffered from undiscriminating aggression. General Havelock captured nearby Bithur in August, 1857. According to an early Maratha account, thousands of inhabitants were massacred at Bithur; the Company army also looted and burned the Peshwa's palace (Versaikar 2011, chapter 3). A British Empire account refers to the strategy of General Havelock in that respect. "A detachment was sent out under Major Stephenson, of the Madras Fusiliers, to beat up the quarters of the some-time Pretender to the Peshwaship" (Kaye and Malleson 1897, Vol. 2, p. 294). This is a reference to the palace of Nana Sahib at Bithur, which had been abandoned. Not only the palace, but also local temples were destroyed, in retaliation for the Kanpur massacres.

At Kanpur, General James Neill (1810-57) gave an order that all captured rebels, whether proved guilty or no, were to be hanged after suffering indignities. Gallows were set up next to the Bibighar. The British had already begun what some commentators have called a "reign of terror." At places like Allahabad, parties of soldiers moved about the countryside conducting hangings without trial.

British troops executing Sikh protesters by cannon in 1872, a painting by Vasily Vereshchagin circa 1884

To a much lesser extent, execution by cannon was also in vogue, resurrected from Mughal usage. The origins of this practice go back to Portuguese colonialists in the sixteenth century; Mughal rulers employed this recourse during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The East India Company started to use this barbarous punishment by 1780. In the summer of 1857, at Peshawar, over forty rebels were executed by the Company in this manner. "Blowing from a gun" was here employed by the British as a public spectacle to intimidate opposition. Thousands of spectators were confronted by the implications.

The British military proved that they were no better than the Portuguese and the Mughals in this horror tactic. A searing and gut-blowing cannon shot at point blank range is no evidence that the victims were wrong to revolt. There were numerous instances of blowing from a gun during 1857, usually in small numbers, including solitary instances; the punishment was employed in various places as far south as Bombay and Hyderabad (blowing from a cannon also featured in later years).

In August 1857, the Muslim preacher Maulvi Ibrahim created an insurrection in Hyderabad amongst civilians, while gaining the support of soldiers from the Nizam's household guard; the British Residency was attacked and occupied. The rebel leader and his colleagues were subsequently executed by cannon before a large crowd at a famous mosque, an event which caused another revolt at nearby Secunderabad, where the cantonment was attacked and British officials killed, to the annoyance of Lord Canning, Governor General of India.

In the Peshawar valley, during May-September, over 500 rebels were executed, mainly by shooting. Forty-four of these men were despatched by cannon. Lord Roberts describes how two rebel sepoys were executed by cannon at Lahore in early June 1857. He rationalises the extremist recourse in terms of being "probably the most humane, as being a sure and instantaneous mode of execution" (Roberts 1896:68).

The stomach or back of the victim was tied to the muzzle of a cannon. This grim operation caused a shower of blood and entrails to cover both the gunners and observers. An unpleasant picture of "blowing from guns" early appeared in Charles Ball's History of the Indian Mutiny (2 vols, 1858); this was a decidedly pro-Company version of history. A first person account of the same ritual comes from a gunner instructed to proceed by General Havelock (lionised in British accounts). This abhorrent episode featured a young sepoy (apparently caught for spying) whose wrists were tied to cannon wheels, the gun muzzle being aimed at his stomach. "He never flinched for a moment" (Maude 1894, Vol. 1, p. 170).

Mutineers executed by the Bengal Horse Artillery in 1859, Oudh campaign. Painting by Orlando Norie (1832-1901)

Havelock was a Protestant Christian. He gained a repute for pomposity, wearing a large number of medals on his uniform. He became a national hero in England. His relentless campaign in Oudh (Awadh) caused the whole province to rise in arms (Harris 1973:123). Various officers are implicated in the executions by cannon and the rope. "Quite often those condemned to death were tortured before being killed by the soldiers, without their officers bothering to intervene" (Jerosch 2007:95). This detail relates to the trail of quelled mutinies occurring en route from the Punjab to Delhi in 1857. Subsequent events did not improve the situation.

The violent example set by Brigadier-General Neill is horrific. He reputedly included cannon executions at Kanpur, where Maratha supporters were hunted down (Versaikar 2011, chapter 3). Neill, a staunch Protestant Christian, personally supervised many executions; he is said to have "decimated the rebel population." This zealous colonialist is reported to have imprisoned brahmans from Kanpur who were outsiders to the Bibighar massacre. He ordered them to clean up (and lick) the blood associated with the victims; while doing this, they were whipped until they collapsed. They were then hanged. Neill indulged in a ritual humiliation of his victims; Hindus and Muslims were forced to eat forbidden food (beef or pork) before being hanged. Some Muslims were reportedly sown into pig skins. British soldiers looted alcohol stores in Kanpur, a factor which did not assist reasoning.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee has mediated the report of a British official concerning earlier events in June at Allahabad: "Every native that appeared in sight was shot down without question, and in the morning Colonel Neill sent out parties of regiment... and burned all the villages near where the ruins of our bungalows stood, and hung every native that they could catch, on the trees that lined the road. Another party of soldiers penetrated in to the native city and set fire to it, whilst volley after volley of grape and canister was poured into the fugitives as they fled from their burning houses" (Spectre of Violence).

However, Neill was not responsible for all the stern sentences at Benares (Varanasi), where rows of gallows appeared the day after the rebellion at this city. Some young boys were here amongst the victims. "The real culprits were the civilian officials who had been empowered by a recent piece of legislation, Act XIV of 6 July 1857, to execute any Indian even suspected of fomenting rebellion" (David 2003:233).

British historians have depicted General Neill, and some others, as exceptional instances of violence. However, Mukherjee argues that such episodes were routine during the Mutiny. By comparison with the large number of rebels and civilians eliminated, insignificant numbers of British were attacked or killed. According to Mukherjee, the colonial narration of Kanpur events does not provide sufficient evidence on a number of points (Mukherjee 1998 cf. Ward 1996 cf. Richards 2007). Early accounts of the Kanpur siege contain contradictions. The Indian analyst urges that the reports and reminiscences, even by original participants at Satichaura, were often influenced by the lurid descriptive style appearing on the British media of that time (Chakravarty 2005). From 1859 until the 1980s, some seventy British novels were published about the Mutiny.

Exaggerations really did occur. The Earl of Shaftesbury stated, in a widely reported speech (of 1857) at Wimborne, that British women were arriving at Calcutta with their ears and noses cut off, and their eyes put out. The Earl later retracted his assertion upon learning that he had been misinformed. Factors of realistic occurrence relate to Eurasian women and captivity. One of these was Amy Horne (d.1921), an Anglo-Indian (or Indo-French) girl, aged eighteen when captured by rebels at Kanpur. Forcibly converted to Islam, her captor was a a sowar cavalryman (Breckon 2012; Anderson 2012, chapter 5). One version implies marriage to the sowar. Horne (Amelia Bennett) wrote different accounts of her tribulation.

She became the concubine of her captor, a sowar named Ismail Khan, and remained with him and the rebel army for nine terrifying months, never knowing whether each new day would be her last. Finally, in April 1858, after a lengthy spell in Lucknow, she persuaded her captor to release her in return for a written promise that she would do everything she could to "obtain a pardon for all the atrocities he had committed, no matter of how black a dye." Within days she had reached the house of her great-uncle in Allahabad. (David 2003:220)

The notorious Bibighar massacre of British women and children is thought to have been influenced by news of the killings achieved by Neill at Allahabad and by Major Renaud at Fatehpur. When Havelock's men moved out of Allahabad, they found a wasteland dotted with the ruins of villages; they "marched between lines of corpses hanging from the trees" (Harris 1973: 90). This grim scenario was created by Renaud, who had killed every man he could suspect, via the process of ruthless military oppression.

A British belief emerged that Nana Sahib was responsible for the Bibighar massacre. Mukherjee argues that the primary materials do not implicate this aristocrat. According to the disputed diary of Nanak Chand (who lived in Kanpur), Nana Sahib did not endorse the plan for massacre. In contrast, Lt. Colonel Williams, compiling a colonial record of Kanpur events, portrayed Nana Sahib as a complicit party. More to the point here, the extent of atrocity committed by British soldiers can create shock. A graphic web article relays some details:

The [British] victors retaliated against the civilians [at Fatehpur) by sacking villages, raping women, killing children and hanging hundreds of men. When the people of Cawnpore [Kanpur] heard this, they feared similar retaliation..... At Fatehgarh, for example, when the English defeated the enemy, their officers ordered a mass scale killing [of] the rebels and the citizens on the spot. General Neill had also ordered Hanging parties.... No evidence was sought and none given before executing the victim.... When the [78th] Highlanders moved to another village, they caught about 140 men, women and children. They selected sixty men from the group, forced them to build the gallows of wooden logs taken from the burning homes. They then chose ten men of the group [and] hanged them without any evidence or trial. For others, they had reserved flogging and beating to teach them a lesson..... At one of the villages, about two thousand villagers armed only with their lathis [wooden canes] turned out in protest. They stood up to face the [78th] Highlanders. The British troops surrounded them and set their village on fire.... The villagers trying to escape were shot to death. One soldier describes the incident thus: 'We took eighteen of them prisoners; they were all tied together, and we fired a volley at them and shot them on the spot' .... Stringing and shooting the men in front of their family was a sport the troops enjoyed. Watching women stooping and begging for the lives of their men seemed to thrill the young soldiers and their officers. The prisoners were made to stand under the hot summer sun for hours till they fainted. It was easy to flog them when they were half-conscious, otherwise, they would squirm and make it hard to strike. Flogging invariably ended in killing of the victims. The English wanted to break the faith of their Hindu and Moslem prisoners. (V. S. Saxena, Revolt and Revenge: A Double Tragedy, 2003, at chilit.org)

In this sadistic religious and colonial war, the 78th Highlanders became popular heroes in Britain. They were even called "saviours of India" and "heroes of Lucknow." The truth is rarely welcome in ethnocentric and nationalist portrayal. The dehumanising effects of European military psychology are not justified by commercial war books glorifying violence. The following requires to be comprehended about the Havelock-Neill campaign:

Cannon-shows were announced to a whole village. Here, a prisoner would be tied to the mouth of a cannon. The cannon would then be fired, blowing the poor man to pieces. Small bits of flesh mixed with fresh blood exploding in the air made a spectacular show. The next prisoner was forced to pick the flesh pieces from the ground, [and] clean the cannon [of flesh] before he was tied to the cannon mouth. In several cases, a victim would be flogged before being sewn alive in pigskin and be left in the sun to die of asphyxiation and heat. Such punishment was meant to demonstrate the military power of the British. (V. S. Saxena, Revolt and Revenge, 2003, at chilit.org)

As an ambassador of war crime, General Henry Havelock marched to Lucknow. He was delayed by rebels, who were justified in opposing him, despite the current postcolonial obscurantism which glorifies military atrocity (discrepancies include a Wikipedia error depicting the rebels of Kanpur as being collectively involved in the Bibighar episode, thereby justifying Highlander savagery, an oversight which cannot even count to five, i.e., "the rebels, by now in a murderous frenzy," accessed 22/03/2014). Only five murderers were involved in the Bibighar massacre; the rebel sepoys who refused to fire at women and children surely had more conscience than some British soldiers. "Special Commissioners and Magistrates who tried to find evidence of torture and rape [on the part of rebels] could not. Even Lady Canning questioned the rumours of torture and rape" (Babb 2014:83).

Ruins of the Lucknow Residency

The besieged garrison at the Residency at Lucknow (Wilson 2007) comprised over 850 British soldiers, over 700 Indian soldiers (including Sikhs and Hindus), 153 civilian volunteers, and over 1,200 non-combatants (including women, children, and servants). They were heavily outnumbered by many thousands of rebels, the number being uncertain, estimates varying from 30,000 to 60,000. Until recently, Lucknow had been the royal capital of Oudh; local support for the deposed Nawab was strong. Civilians, peasants, and slaves swelled the rebel force, a factor that did not mean anything to the colonial war machine.

Slavery in India was a complex and pervasive phenomenon (Major 2012). During the 1840s, about a thousand African slaves had been sold in Lucknow to the Nawab of Oudh. They proved loyal to their Indian master, fighting for the rebels against the British. One of these black slaves was "Bob the Nailer," so named because he shot numerous opponents from the upper window of a house near the Residency. According to a British officer, the "African negresses... fought like wildcats" (Babb 2014:105). One African female sniper also killed many in the Company army during this conflict.

Havelock (with Sir James Outram) did not break through to the garrison until the end of September 1857. General James Neill died in the assault, being shot in the head. Outram decided to remain in Lucknow, being unable to remove all the wounded and non-combatants, also discovering a large store of supplies. What made the entry into Lucknow so difficult was the "mass resistance of an entire population" (Mukherjee 1984:148). Colonial accounts convey the impression that Indians were totally wrong to resent the civilising and superior British presence at the Residency, a building associated with annexation and oppression.

A flashback is required here. There were 70,000 sacked employees of the deposed Nawab. These working class people would congregate and curse the British for their misfortune. The middle classes of Lucknow had also been seriously affected by the increase in prices, the general insecurity, and corruption. Banditry appeared on the road to Kanpur. In a petition dated March 28th 1857, Lucknow residents complained to the Governor General of India about a contractor who was involved in quadrupling taxes, imprisoning people, and maintaining a regime of bribes. This Muslim was operating with "the collusion of British officers." The residents also complained about the total breakdown of law and order in Lucknow. "The residents warned that if negligence and oppression on the part of the British officers did not stop, a great rebellion might take place in Lucknow" (Misra 2004, chapter 9).

The extremely wealthy East India Company ignored such warnings. The situation was rather too convenient for them. "In cities like Kanpur, the trade and manufacture of nearly all consumer goods had passed into British hands." On May 31st, sepoy regiments rebelled in Lucknow, but were repelled by the Company. A civilian uprising then occurred; the crowds dispersed after heavy casualties inflicted by the military arm of ruthless British capitalism. Widespread reprisals followed against the natives. Islamic maulvis (religious scholars) were hanged as troublemakers; it is true that a number of them did now preach jihad against the British. Then commenced "the systematic demolition of the city which was to take a horrifying shape after 1857. Many baghs were ruined, houses destroyed.... the only concern of the British seemed to be to secure a line of defence" (Misra 2004, chapter 9).

The early phase of Lucknow insurgency included native magistrates, traders, and craftsmen. They stood no chance against the military, being crushed by the oppressive Company. This urban revolt of Oudh might have expired if a series of mutinous sepoy units had not occurred in major districts. Sepoys then gathered at Lucknow, their ranks swelled by peasants and talukdari forces (created by landlords owning villages). Twelve miles from Lucknow, the battle of Chinhat was a turning point for the diverse rebels.

Sir Henry Lawrence (1806-57) arrived with his soldiers to smash the insurgents at Chinhat on June 30th. This conflict has been described in terms of Hinduism and Islam versus Christianity and "the myth of racial superiority, on which rested the whole edifice of the Imperial empire" (Misra 2004, chapter 9). Lawrence imagined that he was going out to fight a small army, whereas the rebels outnumbered him by about 6,000 to 600. The opposition, led by the Muslim sepoy Barkat Ahmad, included peasant followers of landowners. The East India Company soldiers were defeated, many of the Indians defecting to the rebel cause. Lawrence moved back to Lucknow and the Residency, quarters now invested by the defenders with a sense of great importance as a civilised outpost of the superior race (although Lawrence had formerly expressed an atypical concern that native welfare should receive attention). The siege then commenced.

The 93rd Highlanders attack rebels at Secundra Bagh, November 1857

Not long after, British reinforcements were arriving in India from overseas. British warships were sent from Hong Kong to Calcutta, a naval brigade resulting. Sir Colin Campbell left England in July to assume command of the Company forces. This military messiah marched on Lucknow with 4,000 men, arriving in mid-November to relieve the besieged Residency. Avoiding any struggle in the narrow streets of the city, Campbell accomplished a flanking strategy obstructed by the fortified walled enclosure called Secundra Bagh.

The ferocity of the assault on Secundra Bagh is almost legendary. Some of the formidable 93rd Highlanders reputedly went through the breach with a battle cry of "Remember Cawnpore!" They were assisted by the 4th Punjab Infantry, many of whom were Sikhs. Mukarab Khan, a Pathan subadar ("lieutenant"), boldly prevented the gate from being closed by thrusting forward his arm and shield. When their muskets were empty, the Punjabis fought with bayonets. No quarter was given; a large heap of dead and wounded rebel sepoys was described by eyewitness Lord Roberts (a number of army officers became wealthy lords, as did Campbell). The rebel dead in that bloodstained compound numbered 2,200, many killed by the bayonet. Contemporary British reports were triumphant. A recent Indian commentator urges that the rebel sepoys were ruthlessly eliminated (Mukherjee 1998).

A number of Victoria Crosses were awarded to British participants in the Lucknow fighting. This award had been introduced in 1856, but was not available to Indians until 1911. Indian soldiers had to be content with the Indian Order of Merit, signifying a much lesser status. The helplessly wounded sepoys, in the mound of rebel casualties at Secundra Bagh, are reported to have expressed abuse for British officers. They could not extricate themselves from the corpses. No Red Cross facilities were available in such sectors of elimination.

Some of the popular British war books read like colonial propaganda to critical analysts. Readers are expected to hurrah the victors and boo the defeated. For many years, it was heresy even to suggest that the rebel sepoys were defending their own city against a commercial alien with a dubious history of annexation and war crime.

Campbell rescued the British garrison at the Residency, nevertheless deciding that he could not hold the city. The local rebels were strong, also active in the region of Kanpur and other places. Havelock died of dysentery in late November. Campbell (with most of the civilians and 3,000 soldiers) returned to Kanpur to support his invader colleague General Windham, who was resisting a native army of about 20,000 led by Tatya Tope (1814-59).

The rebel leader here was a Maratha supporter of Nana Sahib. His father had been a prominent nobleman at the Maratha court of Peshwa Baji Rao. Along with Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope escaped from Kanpur when the British force of Neill arrived. While Nana Sahib fled into concealment, Tatya Tope continued to fight against the British, amassing a large army to recapture Kanpur. He was eventually defeated by Campbell's army in December, afterwards turning south.

Romantic British painting, The Relief of Lucknow, by Thomas Jones Barker

Campbell did not return to Lucknow until March 1858. This time he was victorious. Rebels were systematically hunted down; their death toll was high. Overall, the number of rebels killed in reprisals during the Mutiny has been estimated by Indian analysts at a minimum of 150,000 in Oudh (Awadh) alone. This has been compared to the killing of 2,000 British in mutinous excesses of massacre, which aroused such indignation amongst colonialists. The British ranks lost about 11,000 men, many of these killed by disease or sunstroke. The major losses were not on the British side.

The rebel defenders of Lucknow were said to have numbered 100,000 in March 1858. This has seemed exaggerated, indicating a very large body of combatants who had many cannons. The British could not establish any reliable report of the numbers involved. Some analysts say that the peasant followings of landowners were strongly represented. The Company soldiers acted under firm orders to eliminate the rebels.

Only long after did there emerge such details as "the great wall of Lucknow," meaning a giant rampart of mud which the inhabitants of Lucknow constructed to defend themselves against the British (Llewellyn-Jones 2007, chapter 3). A well known British painting of the nominal heroes (The Relief of Lucknow) is romantically sanitised for colonial appreciation. There is no indication here of what really happened from the Punjab to Oudh:

Gallows were erected in city centres where men were hanged in batches, with no discimination made between the rich, the poor, the civilians and the sepoys, or indeed frequently between the innocent and the guilty.... The routes along which the British troops marched were marked by the corpses of Indian men hanging from trees. (Llewellyn-Jones 2007:xiii-xiv)

The East India Company presents a spectacle of "licensed looters" whose actions are far less than commendable (Llewellyn-Jones 2007, chapter 4), whatever the colonial rhetoric about mutinous "pandeys." Villages were burned, the inhabitants hanged, the countryside devastated for many miles. War crimes were commonplace. "Ethnic cleansing" is one description of the campaign (Heathcote 2007, chapter 6).

In June 1858, an official British estimate stated: "Probably three-fourths of the adult male population of Oudh, had been in rebellion" (Mukherjee 1984:166). The number was assessed by one source as being 200,000 men. This large scale participation of the peasantry in rural Awadh is a fact, and to that should be added an unknown number of urban civilians. The Hindu villagers fought with bows and arrows, spears, swords, and some muskets. They would often appear quickly, then move away with due haste from the invading Company soldiers. The East India Company objective was to disarm them and punish them for daring to resist. Untold thousands were shot and hanged. They could so easily be forgotten and their simple homes burned.

In contrast, violent campaign entities like Brigadier Neill and Sir Campbell were celebrated as saviours of the Residency. Campbell was raised to the peerage as Baron Clyde in August 1858. This was encouragement for his winter campaign in Oudh (Awadh), which continued until January 1859. That campaign destroyed hundreds of forts, while 150,000 armed men "were subdued" (Forrest 1912, Vol. 3, p. 539). Only about 35,000 of these insurgents were soldiers (see also Heathcote 2007, chapter 10, describing counter-insurgency strategy in 1858-59).

A very critical view of the colonial activity has urged a theme that the British military continued the campaign against all rebellion for ten years after 1857, causing the deaths of nearly ten million people. The conventional chronicles only refer to about 100,000 Indian dead during the Mutiny. Amaresh Misra describes the problem in terms of an "untold holocaust," meaning that the colonialists were secretive about details in their obsession to eliminate urban and rural populations (Misra 2007; cf. Metcalfe, 1964). The subject extends into famines.

The high death toll posited by Misra is resisted by other analysts, including military historian Saul David, who has given the assessment of "hundreds of thousands." Of course, this number is far higher than the older yardstick, and in itself quite sufficient to strongly query (and repudiate) the colonial strategy, however long that actually lasted. Another Indian investigator, Shabi Ahmad, has suggested that depopulation of a conflict zone can be interpreted in terms of migration rather than murder (India's secret history).

One explanation for the numerical discrepancies in the death tolls is that of rifle power. The rebel sepoys did not have access to the superior Enfield rifle. Instead they fought with the old "Brown Bess" musket that was a hopeless performer by comparison. The musket had only an effective range of 100 yards, whereas the Enfield rifle could claim 600 yards and more. The Enfield used by British soldiers could be rapidly reloaded, firing up to four rounds a minute, as compared to one a minute for the musket. In some battles, the Enfield was the clear winner against numerical superiority (the large numbers being regarded by some Indians as an exaggerated device of the British). Evading such factors, the East India Company and their supporters preferred a theme of white supremacy to explain victory (Sepoy Rebellion).

High velocity bullets of the Enfield could exert a devastating effect. A significant British report relates to the battle of Trimmu Ghat in July 1857. At 300 yards, rebel sepoy muskets were firing at twice their optimum combat range. Most of the musket fire was totally ineffective. The situation was very different for the Enfield of the British force. "At that range there were very few wounded [rebels], a solid hit would tear a jagged entry hole and leave an exit wound the size of a dinner plate" (last article linked).

10.  Rebel  Leaders  and  Maulvi  Ahmadullah  Shah

In Calcutta, the East India Company pinned blame for the Mutiny on the treachery of Indian aristocrats. In this way, they offset any rebuke relating to Lord Dalhousie and his annexation programme (Jerosch 2007:80). Some attention should be given to rebel leaders, despite the insubstantial and contradictory data, and the legendary elements discernible.

Strongly associated with rebel Lucknow (Lakhnau) is the Muslim figure of Begum Hazrat Mahal (c.1820-79), the first wife of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. After her husband was exiled to Calcutta by the British, her supporters became rebels during the Mutiny, gaining control of Lucknow. The Begum declared her eleven year old son, Birjis Qadir, as the ruler of Oudh (Awadh). Qadar petitioned Bahadur Shah in Delhi, who delegated him to rule Oudh as his representative.

The Mughal prince Firoz Shah circulated a document alleging British intentions to replace Hinduism and Islam with Christianity. Although the British denied this motivation, the belief was strong amongst the opposing elite. The revolt was viewed by rebels as a war of religion. Many rebel leaders issuing proclamations at this time were Muslims. They notably did not invoke any religious divisions amongst their followers. The perspective was that of a tolerant Hindu-Muslim co-existence under imperial Mughal rule from Delhi. The insurgents strongly identified with Mughal traditions. Hindu rebels even hailed Birjis Qadir as Lord Krishna (Mukherjee 1984:149, 153). In direct communications to Hindus, the Begum would refer to the avatars Rama and Krishna.

The Mughal heritage had achieved a certain degree of religious liberalism, so notably under the emperor Akbar and the prince Dara Shikoh, although constricted by Aurangzeb. The nineteenth century revival associated with the Mutiny was pitted against the East India Company. The average British soldier (and officer) had no conception of the intricacies involved in Mughal history. The twentieth century mood of Partition (relating to 1947) did not exist a century earlier.

Social factors involved are less impressive. Statements of the rebel elite attest the importance of royal lineage. The proclamation of Birjis Qadir includes the phrase "respectability according to their respective ranks," further qualifying this clause in terms of Mughal or Pathan status amongst Muslims, and Brahmin and Khatri status amongst the Hindus. "No person of a lower order such as sweeper, chamar, dhanook... can claim equality with them [the higher classes]." The propertied classes were in the ascendant (Mukherjee 1984:155). This stipulation has aroused a criticism that the rebel cause was not trying to establish any new social order, but instead a reversion to the old one.

Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah

The rebel leaders at Lucknow achieved a degree of organisation. This grouping included court officials deemed useful for an administration. However, there were tangents; landowners (talukdars) and some rebel leaders often acted independently. The major challenge to the Begum's authority transpired to be the Maulvi, a Muslim religious teacher named Ahmadullah Shah (1787-1858). This development divided the rebel leaders into two separate factions, which clashed in January 1858 (Mukherjee 1984:135ff).

Ahmadullah was distinctive amongst the rebels. Yet like others in that grouping, he was an aristocrat, the son of a Nawab at Madras. Some sources say that he belonged to a family of Oudh who had moved to the Deccan. He was trained in the Islamic religious sciences and also in warfare. Ahmadullah spent some years at Hyderabad, from where he visited London; he reputedly knew English (Jafri 1998). Returning to India, his strong interest in Sufism led him to become the disciple of a Qadiri pir in Rajputana. Moving to Agra, himself gaining disciples, he opposed British rule in a spirit of jihad (holy war). Critics said that he was not a true dervish, but a prince desiring to promote a war. The Maulvi eventually arrived in Lucknow at the end of 1856, gaining the reputation of a warrior faqir calling for jihad against the British. He was apparently a skilled swordsman.

The British began to monitor his activities, posting troops at his residence. The pressured Maulvi moved to Fyzabad, again preaching jihad. A talukdar or landowner, his property was confiscated by the East India Company. He is described as travelling widely through North India, being instrumental in precipitating the Mutiny. The Maulvi also wrote revolutionary pamphlets which he distributed. The British arrested him, apparently after a violent confrontation in which some of his followers died (Misra 2004, chapter 9; cf. Guha 1988:163ff). He was tried for sedition and sentenced to be hanged. Imprisoned at Fyzabad, his situation was grim. Soon afterwards, on June 8th 1857, sepoys mutinied at Fyzabad, freeing the Maulvi from jail, choosing him as their leader. Both the Hindus and Muslims accepted him; he was not the typical jihadi of insular type found in more recent times. The Maulvi urged both Hindus and Muslims to oppose the colonialists.

As a consequence, the Maulvi prominently participated in the battle of Chinhat, leading both the Hindu and Muslim sepoys of Fyzabad. This contingent were successful in hand to hand fighting against the army of Sir Henry Lawrence, who came out from Lucknow. The British suffered a severe defeat on June 30th. Armed with lances and swords, the Maulvi and his sepoys afterwards made an assault on the Lucknow Residency, during which he suffered a bullet injury.

The Maulvi stressed the need for cannons in competition weith the British. He was concerned to discipline the sepoys, who had become reckless and even arrogant, causing hardship to civilians by their new habit of plunder. Maulvi Ahmadullah was in conflict with the family of Birjis Qadir, a Shi'ite Muslim. The Maulvi believed that Qadir was too young to lead the war, and incapable of administering due discipline to the unruly sepoys. At Lucknow, the rebels seem to have been divided into two factions, with leaders frequently changing sides. An opposing sepoy tried to assassinate the Maulvi, whose alert bodyguards fatally despatched the intruder.

When the Company force proved triumphant at Lucknow in November 1857, the Maulvi continued his version of rebellion on the borders of Oudh, also in Rohilkhand to the north. He proved tenaciously adaptable. The Begum Hazrat Mahal conciliated with him, wishing to join him; although at first cautious in this respect, he eventually agreed. The prince Birjis Qadir offered him allegiance. Still critical of the royal contingent, the Maulvi exhorted the Begum's officers to renounce their wealth. This attitude caused much resentment, possibly reflecting the Sufi element in his disposition. The royal supporters backed away when the Maulvi and his rebels made a surprise attack on the feared Gurkhas who assisted the British.

Suffering losses at Bari (in Oudh), the Maulvi retired to Muhammadi, where he declared himself to be an independent ruler. This measure is thought to have been a means of reviving the sinking morale of the rebel leaders. Several of these visited him, including prince Firoz Shah and Nawab Bahadur Khan of Bareilly. The latter was a Rohilla Pathan of senior years, defeating four columns of British soldiers who attacked Bareilly, a major city of Rohilkhand. Bahadur Khan was markedly liberal towards Hindus. Forced to retreat into the Himalayan foothills, he was eventually captured and hanged by the colonial force. Meanwhile, the Governor General, Lord Canning, offered a high reward for the capture of Maulvi Ahmadullah.

This rebel leader moved to Shahjahanpur in early May 1858, being able to muster nearly 8,000 cavalry. Sir Colin Campbell defeated him, but the Maulvi escaped again. Campbell was the victor at Bareilly on May 5th. By that time, surviving rebels were experiencing problems with supplies. From May onwards, the rebel infantry and cavalry resorted to plunder. The Lucknow court was bankrupt.

The Raja of Pawayan was apparently eager to claim the reward offered by Lord Canning. This prince requested the Maulvi to visit the fort of Pawayan, on the border of Rohilkhand. Ahmadullah obliged, riding a war elephant. The agent of treachery refused to open the gate; the Raja's brother shot dead the Maulvi. "The following day his severed head was delivered to the British magistrate at Shahjahanpur in exchange for a reward of 50,000 rupees" (David 2003:370). This was in early June, 1858. To his credit, the Maulvi is not known to have assassinated or murdered, instead confining his punitive action to the battlefield.

11.  The  Rani  of  Jhansi

Protecting investments of the East India Company was a bloodstained business. While Campbell furthered his northerly campaign at Oudh, in January 1858, Major-General Hugh Rose started out from Bombay to confront the rebels in Central India. His target was the fort of Jhansi, where the distinctive young queen (Rani) had become a rebel leader. A Maratha, her name was Lakshmibai. This legendary figure does have some factual ballast, despite controversies.

Rani of Jhansi, cinema images

Lakshmibai (1828-58) was born in Benares to a Maratha brahman who had accompanied the Peshwa's family into exile. The pater eventually moved to Bithur, site of the new palace of the ex-Peshwa. The girl did not stay there, instead marrying the old Maharaja of Jhansi in 1842. In 1854, the East India Company insatiably annexed the city of Jhansi, relegating the Rani, and obliging her to pay the debts of her late husband (Forrest 1912, Vol. 3, pp. 3-4).

The claim of her adopted son to the throne was rejected by means of the infamous Company strategem known as the Doctrine of Lapse (David 2003, chapter 20). The same year that Jhansi was annexed, the Company officially condoned the local slaughter of cows. This development aroused strong protest from Hindus, including the Rani herself (Jerosch 2007:38-9). The complaints were ignored, in a typical colonial manner that could be interpreted in terms of a Christian encroachment upon Hinduism.

On June 5th, 1857, sepoys of the 12th Bengal Native Infantry mutinied at Jhansi, along with a squadron of the 14th Irregular Cavalry. They gained control of the Jhansi fort, killed two British officers, plundered the town, and released prisoners from jail. The sepoy leaders, who threatened their colleagues with death if they did not cooperate, visited the Rani's palace to demand supplies. There is disagreement about her role at this juncture (Jerosch 2007, chapter 6). The remaining fifty-six British and Eurasians were treacherously killed by the sepoys after the fort was surrendered. The rebels took their captives to the Jokhan Bagh, a large orchard outside the city walls. The victims were hacked to death with swords. Only two Eurasians escaped, being mistaken for non-Christian Indians. Eighteen women and eighteen children were amongst the dead, testimony to the savagery of rebellion. The mutineers soon left for Delhi on June 11th.

The British believed that Lakshmibai was an accomplice to the massacre; however, this has been disputed. The Rani was still willing to support the British, writing letters to explain her situation. A British officer even reported in a telegram that she had been forced to aid the rebels with money and guns. The East India Company chose to decide against the Jhansi queen; they made so many mistakes in their social relations. As a consequence, the Rani became an alienated rebel.

Jhansi was soon threatened by the expansionist ambitions of neighbouring Indian rulers, meaning the Ranis of Orchha and Datia, both of these militant women remaining loyal to the British. The Jhansi Rani's situation was not that of a struggle for national independence (Jerosch 2007:91). The army of Orchha besieged Jhansi in October 1857, while claiming to be acting for the British. The Rani sent pleas for help to the East India Company, who ignored her.

She had also sent an envoy to [Major] Erskine and had let it be known that if she was treated 'kindly' she would 'in no way oppose the British force'; if not, she would 'fight to the last.' In the meantime her warlike preparations - in the form of arms and ammunition manufacture  -  went on unabated. (David 2003:353-4)

The Rani was forced to recruit rebels, also favouring reliance upon 500 Kabuli Pathans (Story of the Storm). A total of 1,500 Afghan troops are mentioned in some accounts. The invading army of Major-General Hugh Rose (1801-85) is another reason to criticise colonial tactics. Sir Rose and Sir Robert Hamilton were privileged and pretentious emissaries of war crime. Hamilton had not even bothered to reply to the Rani's civilised letter of January. This was the superior race showing how things should be done in the tendency to ethnic cleansing.

They [the Company army under Campbell] had been executing all the mutineers they had captured, as well as anyone they so much as suspected of being a rebel. Trials, if they were held, were cursory. Many others had simply been murdered out of hand. Plundering had been extensive, even at times taking precedence, for some at least, over military and humane necessity; British wounded being left to die while plunder was taken. Any who objected to this behaviour were ignored. Those objecting included Lord Canning, the Governor General, and Queen Victoria. (Rani of Jhansi)

Even the Company hierarchy could now see that something was wrong in the military approach. However, humane considerations were ridiculed by such colonialists as Dr. Thomas Lowe, a medical officer attached to the army of Rose. "Mawkish sentimentality" was here the derogatory phrase for ethics. Indicative of a religious bias is the British description of Lakshmibai as "the Jezebel of India." If she was unjustly blamed for the massacre at Jhansi by sepoys, a very plausible argument, such Biblical glosses reveal the superficial mentality of the military master race.

The military sense of justice is epitomised by the report of an officer dating to February 1858: "Sir Hugh [Rose] knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says." If the prisoner was captured while possessing a weapon, the only recourse was to shoot him. At Sehore, the semi-literate Rose had 149 rebel sepoys (after a hasty trial) lined up and shot by a firing squad of 150. The killers could not even get that procedure right; some of the surviving victims were finished off by the hazardous blow of a sabre (The British Return).

The siege of Jhansi commenced on March 22, 1858. The invaders conducted a ten day bombardment with artillery, in addition to rifle fire. When they forced a breach in the town wall, the resisting figure of Tatya Tope appeared with an incoming rebel force of 20,000. Rose then divided his army, defeating Tope outside Jhansi. On April 3rd, the British made an assault on the city, with horrific slaughter following. The Rani escaped, but thousands of others could not. A Hindu eyewitness, Vishnu Bhatt Godse Versaikar, reported "four days of fire, pillage, murder and looting." Sir Hugh Rose had commanded his soldiers not to spare anyone over sixteen, except women. There are some contradictions. "No quarter was given by the British, even to women and children" (Edwardes online).

Versaikar "saw temples filled with the dead bodies of priests and worshippers; he also claimed that women were killed, particularly in the weavers' locality, where the death toll was at its highest" (David 2003:360). Compare the apologist reporting of Dr. Lowe: "Every woman was treated with kindness and respect" (ibid). More credible is the doctor's statement: "I exaggerate not when I say I saw the streets stained with blood" (ibid:359).

According to Versaikar, who became part of the Rani's entourage at the Jhansi fort, the queen rejected the British invitation to surrender. In response, General Rose had a message circulated to the surrounding villages that the British would raid the city and kill all males above the age of five and below the age of eighty (Versaikar 2011, chapter 4). The eyewitness wrote that rebels in Jhansi who could not escape threw their women and children down wells and then jumped to death themselves. This was the only way to evade British military wrath; the jumpers knew that surrender meant elimination. Some victims were dragged out of the wells and bayoneted by the merciless onslaught. "The streets were so full of corpses that all the squares were turned into cremation grounds."

The British claimed to have killed 5,000 rebels in this city, although many of the dead were deducibly innocent citizens. One conclusion is that the entire civilian population of Jhansi was massacred, the full number of dead being unknown. Dr. Lowe rejoiced that the enemy were killed "in their puffed up thousands." Such elite attitudes had passed down to the rank and file soldiers who hacked and gutted with cold steel. The military crime should be permanently censored, despite the celebrated Victoria Crosses awarded. The British invaders indulged in a week of looting, in which the library of Jhansi was destroyed and all valuables stolen from the city by soldiers.

A relevant observation reads: "The crime for which this retribution was so enthusiastically meted out, the massacre of nearly a year previous, had been committed by a handful of men who had left Jhansi almost immmediately, men who had nothing to do with Jhansi other than that they had been stationed there by the British" (The Real Jhansi Massacre).

After the Rani escaped, she featured in the battle of Kotah-ki-Serai on June 17th, 1858. This time she was among the dead, a fact which dampened the enthusiasm of rebels in this final round of the conflict. The Rani was apparently killed by a member of the 8th Hussars, who did not actually know her identity. She was dressed as a man, a cavalry trooper. Her rebel colleague Tatya Tope escaped, only to be hanged the following year. The Begum Hazrat Mahal and her son Birjis Qadir obtained asylum in Nepal. The British triumph is mitigated to close analysts by glaring discrepancies in the record of colonial exploitation and violence. In 1866, Sir Hugh Rose was raised to the peerage as Baron Strathnairn; ascent within the colonial status system can be strongly questioned.

12.  Aftermath

At the period under discussion, there is evidence for an extensive chain of mutinies throughout India (Misra 2007). Orissa, Gujarat, and South India were all involved, if to varying degrees. At Madras, the 8th Madras Cavalry mutinied in October 1857; that unit was disbanded, and the British suppressed information.

In the volatile Peshawar region to the far north, Pathan rebels fought the British. Elsewhere, the Rohilla Pathans featured in the rebellion, a period when British rule was ousted in Rohilkhand. Yet the Rohillas of adjacent Rampur remained loyal to the British. The Rohilla revolt was put down, some tribes moving south. The Rohilla city of Bareilly became a prominent centre of Islamic learning, while a minority of Rohillas adapted to Western education.

Indian Muslim soldiers, 1895. The caption to this image by Fred Bremner reads "All Hindustani Musulmans." The image is associated with the North-West Frontier.

As a consequence of the rebellion, the East India Company lost administrative power (while continuing to trade until 1874, when the Company was dissolved). In November 1858, a royal proclamation to "the princes, chiefs, and people of India" now meant that the British Crown assumed responsibility for the government of India. This proclamation declared the familiar Company figure of Lord Canning to be "our first Viceroy." The formal transition furthermore occurred during Sir Colin Campbell's fastidious crushing of the rebels in Oudh.

A pardon was offered to all rebels not involved in murder. However, in relation to those guilty, "the demands of justice forbid the exercise of mercy." The Indian aristocracy were extended the placatory clause: "We shall respect the rights, dignity and honour of native Princes as our own." Queen Victoria was anxious to dispel the idea that the British were trying to impose Christianity upon all Indians. "We disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our [Christian] convictions on any other subjects." She is known to have condemned the atrocities occurring on both sides of the 1857-8 conflict. The proclamation was too late to stop the bloodshed, and did not prevent various repercussions (Misra 2007, Vol. 2). The British effort to reconquer Awadh (Oudh) lasted for eighteen months. Not until early 1859 did the British army finally defeat those rebels fighting for the Begum Hazrat Mahal and Nana Sahib.

Begum Hazrat Mahal of Oudh was the only rebel leader who responded to the Queen's proclamation. The Begum escaped to Nepal, resisting British attempts to retrieve her for trial as a rebel. Her "counter-proclamation" condemned all the Company annexations in North and Central India. She asked why Queen Victoria did not "restore our country to us when our people wish it" (Mukherjee 1984:154-5).

The Begum asserted that the British claim to permit freedom of worship was false; in this perspective, the East India Company had destroyed mosques and temples in preference for roads, while sending out preachers of Christianity. She also refers in her statement to the notorious greased cartridges and the drinking of wine (forbidden in Islam). While some analysts have deemed this viewpoint to be confused in some details, the focus on religious matters is evident. "Thousands were hanged rather than abandon their religion." This is not how the colonialist elite opted to view matters.

Many minor rebels accepted the royal pardon. The situation was different for hard core rebels like Nana Sahib, who were harassed by the culminating Oudh campaign of Sir Colin Campbell in late 1858. The insurgents were chased to the Nepal border, where a number of them entered the Nepal Terai, notorious for fever-infested forests. Some died from disease, others were captured and hanged. In contrast, the Begum Hazrat Mahal gained permission (from the Nepalese government) to reside in Nepal with her son Birjis Qadir (David 2003:371-2). Rebels were still being executed by cannon, in 1859, during the Oudh campaign. Not until July of that year was a "State of Peace" declared by the Viceroy.

The British rule of India now modified the administrative and economic activities. The new legislative council of 1861 gained an element of Indian election, contrary to the precedent of Europeans only. From 1876, Queen Victoria (rgd 1837-1901) used the "Empress of India" title.

The Indian army was extensively reorganised. By 1861, the proportion of British to native troops had been altered in accordance with a ratio of 1:2. There were now about 70,000 British troops to 135,000 native troops. The British Crown rule was very careful to hold all the arsenals and the major forts, contrary to the situation under Company rule. The British Raj thereafter preferred the Gurkhas, the Sikhs, and the Pathans, in contrast to the north-east native contingents associated with the rebellion. The Indian Army, moulded by the British Raj, became a major component of the First World War, even though largely ignored in many British history books.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

March 2014 (modified April 2021)


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