The Rebellion of 1857 was a major Indian uprising that shook the colonial British East India Company and made the Indians realise that freedom was not a mere dream. In this series we bring you some untold stories of the first war of India’s independence.
Prof. Shamsul Islam
Image: “India-0037 – Red Fort” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
[The first fact we must remember about this great liberation war is that though known as 1857 war of independence, but it continued till the end 1859 steadily. This commemorative piece based on the contemporary documents appeared on of the 150th anniversary (2007) of India’s first great war of liberation, in English, Hindi and Urdu. The following revised version is being released on the 164th commemoration  of this great liberation War. The primary sources quoted in this essay are available with the author which were collected from different parts of the world in over a period of more than a decade. Another aspect author wants to highlight is that in this narrative mainly those incidents/individuals have been covered in which revolutionaries laid down their lives. I would make a humble request that researchers having interest in this theme, please, make copies of it and put in the libraries.]
Participation of common people in India’s First War of Independence
There is no denying the fact that the first sparks of India’s First War of Independence were ignited on 15th February 1857, when the soldiers of the 19th Native Regiment of East India Company rose in revolt at the Barrakpore cantonment in Bengal. The immediate reason for this revolt was the use of newly introduced cartridges which the soldiers had to bite before using. These were very smooth due to use of a greasy material and the soldiers had strong apprehension that this was due to the use of the fat of cows and pigs. British army officers failed in giving any convincing explanation that it was not the case.
Thus the religious feelings of Hindu and Muslim soldiers were equally hurt by the introduction of these new cartridges and outcome was mutinies in many cantonments. To suppress mutiny at Barrakpore the British rulers held Mangal Pandey responsible for it and presented him in front of a military court which finally ended in his being hanged to death on 8th April 1857. Mangal Pandey’s execution helped spreading the revolt in other parts of the country and most of the cantonments of the Company sepoys [Indian soldiers] started protesting.
It did not happen in isolation. Parallel to this were thousands of native rulers and taluqdaars [big landholders] who announced their independence in various parts of the country. This collective revolt came to a critical point when on 10th May 1857, Indian soldiers of the British army devastated the biggest cantonment of the East Indian army at Meerut army in North India. This rebellion did not remain confined to the Meerut cantonment. It seems that they had a plan and marched on to Delhi in order to have an audience with the captive Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar. They were joined by thousands of peasants on the way. Similar to this, rebel soldiers from the North India’s various cantonments and the common people continued marching towards Delhi, the capital of the independent Mughal Empire.
Under the leadership of Bahadur Shah Zafar, an independent government was formed in Delhi, which issued an announcement in the name of countrymen and called upon for eradication of British rule and put all the energy in this holy work because “if the British continue ruling India, they will leave no one alive”.[i]
The myths which have continually been propagated about this war of liberation are that it was a mutiny which occurred due to the indiscipline of the soldiers which was supported by the repressive, degenerated and corrupt feudal elements like kings and nawabs who backed the undisciplined soldiers and it was short lived and had no pan-Indian character.
Many of these insinuations appeared in the contemporary writings of many Indians who were in the service of the East India Company or the British stooges. The two such important works, both in Urdu were, Tareekh-e-Bhaghawat-e-Hind:Moharba-e-Azeem [History of Indian Mutiny: A Great War by Pandit Kanhaya Lal which appeared at the end of 1857 and the other by Syed Ahmad Khan (also known as Sir Syed) titled, Asbab-e-Bhaghawat-e-Hind [The Causes of the Indian Revolt] which was published in 1859.[ii]
The historians who thought on these lines believed that this struggle did neither enjoy the support of the country’s masses nor had pan-India character. On the 150th anniversary of this struggle, it is important to let the nation and the world be aware of the facts and demolish the myths constructed by the British stooges.
The first myth about India’s First War of Independence 1857 which we must confront is that it was short-lived rebellion which was suppressed in the year 1857 itself. The contemporary official documents (specially, The British government gazetteers) tell a different story. It continued in one form or the other till 1959. The last big battle was fought on 21st Jan 1859 near Sikar in Rajasthan. In this battle, due to the treachery of native rulers of the region, a huge army of the revolutionaries led by Tatya Tope, Rao Sahib and Shahzada Ferozshah’s had to face defeat. Smaller battles continued through 1960.
The second myth that it had no national character is not borne by the contemporary narratives. This First War of Independence of India true to its name was a national liberation war. It raged from Jammu in the North to Hyderabad in the South and from West in Afghanistan to East in Tripura, everywhere the British rule was challenged and in many cases overthrown. The liberation war which started from Meerut spread in the whole country like a wild fire.
Contemporary British narratives confessing mass character of the rebellion
In this liberation war, army men, zamindars, Rajas, Nawabs, peasants, common people, women, intellectuals, literary figures and journalists fought together. This truth is engraved on every page of the contemporary documents and memoirs. The official British military historiographer of the mutiny, Sir John William Kaye[iii] while underling the character of the rebellion stated that it was impossible to deny “the universal fact that the Black man had risen against the White.”.[iv] Another contemporary British historian Charles Ball confessed that 1857 revolution was a “national revolution”.[v]
WSR Hodson was a leading commander of the British army which put Delhi under siege after May 11, 1857; the day Mughal Empire was restored to Bahadur Shah Zafar by the rebels. He played prominent role in capturing Delhi at the end of September (1857), arrested Bahadur Shah Zafar and personally killed Mughal Princes in 1857. In a letter to his wife dated July 26, 1857 wrote that it was “an entire army and a whole nation” which was in revolt.[vi] Hodson who was regularly receiving official reports of the rebellion in different parts of the country in a letter dated July 20, 1857 admitted:
“From hence to Allahabad, the fort of Agra and the Residency of Lucknow are the only spots where the British flag still flies. We are more to be considered now as an isolated band, fighting for our very name and existence in the midst of an enemy’s country, than as an avenging army about to punish a rebel force.”[vii]
William Howard Russell, a veteran war correspondent of the British newspaper, The Times, who came, specially, to cover the mutiny, in one of the despatches candidly stated:
“Here we had not only a servile war and a sort of Jacquerie combined [an insurrection of peasants against the nobility in northeastern France in 1358 which was ruthlessly suppressed] but we had a war of religion, a war of race, and a war of revenge, of hope, of some national promptings to shake off the yoke of a stranger, and to re-establish the full power of native chiefs, and the full sway of native religions.”[viii]
Thomas Lowe being a physician, his clinical mind led him even to deliberate on the causes of the national rebellion. According to him, “It is quite evident that the resources of this country, instead of being developed and improved, have been permitted to lie as they did a thousand years ago, and decay; that such of the native arts and manufacturers as used to raise for India a name and wonder all over the western world are nearly extinguished in the present day; once great and renowned cities are mere heaps of ruins…ruin, ruin poverty and natural wealth everywhere, as though a leper had touched the land, it were hastening to decay. A question constantly asked of oneself is—‘whence arise all this?’ and the conclusion one arrives at is, that something must have caused such terrible result, and that something equally bad continues to perpetuate! [italics as in the original] Whether this ruin has been natural result of a vicious feudalism, or misgovernment on our parts of territories and their cities, absorbed by British power, is for others to decide.
“No one who has eyes and ears to use, can doubt for a moment that we have almost totally neglected the resources of such a mighty country, while we have introduced the trash of our manufacturing towns into every cranny of the land. It appears as though we had endeavoured to destroy every inherent useful production of an eastern nation for the introduction of western merchandise. And what must be the end of such short–sightedness if such an erroneous line of policy be pursued?”[ix]
Thomas Lowe shared an anecdote to convey the point that it was a state of helplessness for common people having no choice but rise in revolt.
“I remember asking on old man about the country and its owners, when he significantly said to me, ‘The jungles, sahib, the trees, the rivers, the wells, all the villages and all holy cities belong to the Sircar [British government]; they have taken all—everything (bahut achcha)—very good, what can we do?”[x]
“To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us!”[xi]
Lowe underlining the participation in the rebellion of servant class which stood at the lowest rung of the social hierarchy wrote:
“All had disappeared to a man; even the native servants had leagued with the murderers of their masters, and hurried away with the destroying stream.”[xii]
The perusal of the contemporary documents and narratives of the First War of Independence which this author has collected make one fact crystal clear. It is impossible to neglect that whether the initiators of this rebellion were army personnel but it didn’t take long to become a national independence struggle. The most important reason of this was that all the revolutionary soldiers came from peasant families and the plight of farmers naturally affected their thoughts and actions. The common people who were trapped in misery, they all became the part and parcel of this revolution and joined hands to throw the British rule lock, stock and barrel.
It was not only Lowe who found that the servants of the British officers had suddenly disappeared. Hodson in a letter to his wife on 5th June 1857 wrote:
“I have tried everywhere to get a bearer, but the natives will not serve us now, and I could get no one even on double pay. Only two days ago I succeeded in getting a Bheestie [Bhishti or water-carrier].”[xiii]
John Kaye stated that even before the start of the rebellion the domestic servants had disappeared. It was no ordinary disappearance; before parting they had damaged or carried the weapons. Kaye while narrating the events of Sialkot (now in Pakistan) uprising on July 9, 1857 wrote that household servants
“took an active part against their old masters. That they knew what was coming seems to be proved by the fact that the Brigadier’s sirdar-bearer, or chief body servant, an ‘old and favourite’ domestic, took caps off his master’s pistols in the night, as they lay beside him while he slept. And how thoroughly they cast in their lot with the soldiery is demonstrated with equal distinctness by the fact that they afterwards fought against us, the Brigadier’s khansaman [cook], or butler, taking an active part in operations…”[xiv]
Kaye observed that servants were acting in league with other sections of the populace. According to him:
“There seems to have been perfect cohesion between all classes of our enemies—the mutineers, the criminals from the gaols, the ‘goojurs’ [Gujars] from the neighbouring villages, and the servants from the houses and bunglows of the English. From sunrise to sunset the work went on bravely. Everything that could be carried off by our enemies was seized and appropriated…And nearly everything belonging to us, that could not be carried off, was destroyed and defaced, except—a strange and unaccountable exception—the Church and Chapel, which the Christians had reared for the worshipping of the Christian’s god.”[xv]
Fred Roberts who played a vital role in suppressing the mutiny of 1857 and later became the chief of the British army in India, in a letter to his mother on 7th September 1857 admitted:
“All Natives are the same, and I believe we are as thoroughly hated in the Punjab as elsewhere…Without being severe, I have always kept my servants well in order, once they trip, I give it them well. Yet, all this time, when whole sets have gone off and many officers are without one.”[xvi]
Whatever, may be claimed by the pro-British historians about 1857; it being a mutiny of the army, what Roberts as a British military commander faced was a mass revolt. In a letter to his mother from Camp Bulandshahar [approximately 60 kilo-meters from Delhi] on 30th September 1857, Roberts stated:
“With scarcely an exception, all the Police and Native Civil Authorities joined at the very commencement [of the rebellion], and the many independent Rajahs raised their Standards against us. Every villager tore down European and robbed their property.”[xvii]
George Otto Trevelyan [Lord Macaulay was his maternal uncle] was part of the British ruling elite. In the beginning of his career he served as a civil servant in India. In his book Cawnpore (published in 1866) he narrated how different subaltern sections, specially, performers prepared ground for the nation-wide rebellion.
“Sometimes it was a couple of fakeers perched on an elephant; sometimes a party of country-people on their way to the Ganges for their annual dip in the sacred stream; a gang of gipsies [sic]; a string of camel-drivers; or a troop of musicians escorting a celebrated nautch-dancer to her home in Cashmere [sic], after a successful season in Bengal. However, it might be, it invariably happened that, a few hours after the strangers had entered the station, the bazaar and the cantonments were in a ferment of gossip and conjure; the sepoys at once grew sulky and idle; the Mahomedans [sic] of the town became insolvent, and the Hindus pert.”[xviii]
The insubordination had spread even to the domestic servants of the British officials, Trevelyan stated:
The very domestic servants appeared to share the contagion; the cooks got drunk and the grooms stupid; the water-carrier omitted to fill the bath, and the butler to ice the Moselle [white wine]; the peon spent twice his usual numbers of hours in conveying a note to the next compound; while the bearers delighted to insult their mistress by smoking under her window, and coming bare-headed into her presence…”[xix]
William Kaye while highlighting the causes of the mutiny held the puppetry artist responsible for spreading the disinfection amongst common people specially the Company soldiers. Describing the themes of the puppet-shows in ‘Bazaars and the Lines [the cantonments], he stated:
“There were two subjects which the Kootpoolee-Wallahs [sic] extremely delighted to illustrate-the degradation of the Mogul [sic], and the victories of the French over the English, one intended to excite hatred, the other contempt, in the minds of the spectators”.[xx]
By June 1857 the British had mobilized a force outside Delhi which in strength and resources was never witnessed in the colonial history claiming that they will turn the city into wreckage. Their spies and compradors with strong presence in the city were continuously involved in the destructive activities to facilitate the British to enter Delhi. However, the British could enter Delhi only at the end of September and that too after a series of conspiracies. The common people of Delhi stayed united against the British siege and relentless artillery bombardments which was underlined by Hodson in a letter to a senior officer in a letter dated July 27 ,
“The news-letters [most of which were brought by the spies] from the city mention meetings in the marketplace and talkings at the corner of the streets, with big words of what they intend to do…”[xxi]
We can know more about the sacrifices of the common people of Delhi against the British fortification by getting acquainted with the names of those who laid their lives on different battle fronts and this has been documented officially which is a proof of the marginalized sections’ participation in the revolt. The available list includes martyrs like Abdul (rubber-stamp maker), Chosa Bhishti (water-carrier), Eman Kahar (palanquin lifter), Gannoo Halwai (sweet-meat seller), Heera Dom (scavenger), Laloo Teli (oilman) etc.[xxii] Such martyrdoms were witnessed throughout the country.
The large scale participation of common people in the countryside can be gauged by the fact that according to the contemporary British gazetteers hundreds of villages in the districts of Gurgaon, Delhi, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Aligarh, Faruqabad, and Bulandshahar were burnt to ashes with villagers confined inside. This kind of savagery was perpetrated in order to punish the peasants for participating and supporting the rebellion.
How bravely and daringly Delhi commoners defended Delhi when the British, after almost 5 months long preparations and Indian stooges in tow, went for all-out assault on the city from the Kashmiri Gate side on September 14, has been chronicled by none else but Kaye who had access to all the contemporary military memos in the following words:
“So furious was the fire of the enemy, and so heavy the shower of stones and bricks from the crumbling walls, which the maddened insurgents poured upon us, that it was difficult, for a little time, to plant the ladders in the ditch so as to ascend the scrap on the other side….So fearful, indeed, was the carnage that when Baynes [British commander] found himself opposite the Water Bastion, the seventy-five men who had started with him on their perilous mission were reduced to only twenty-five.”[xxiii]
The revolutionaries were always denigrated by the British as a bunch of budmash [those who are in evil professions], looters, Pandies and what not. They were described as cowards but Kaye while narrating the details of the defence of Delhi by the ‘insurgents’ referred to the comments of a prominent British commander, Chamberlain who, “could not but admire the dashing manner in which the Native officers rode in among the ranks of the mutineers, urging them and leading them on to battle against the British and Jummoo troops nor was his admiration, in this conjuncture, without some feeling of anxiety. For it seemed at one time that the enemy might break through our Subzee-mundee [even presently known by this name only] defences, carry the undefended battery below Hindoo Rao’s house, and take possession of the post itself, with its hospital and its magazine.”[xxiv]
Hodson who had been using the filthiest language against the rebels wrote on June 10, 1857 that “they are splendid artillerymen, however, and actually beat ours in accuracy of fire”[xxv], further confessing,
“Our Artillery officers themselves say that they are outmatched by these rascals in accuracy and rapidity of fire, and so they have unlimited supply of guns and ammunition from our own greatest arsenal, they are quite beyond us in many respects.”[xxvi]
On June 27, 1857 he wrote to his wife:
“The cannonade was very heavy, and I have seldom been under a hotter fire than for about three quarters of an hour at our most advanced battery, covered every moment with showers or rather clouds of dust, stones and splinters…The only formidable part of the enemy is their artillery, which is amazingly well served, and in prodigious abundance, as my experience this morning abundantly proved.”[xxvii]
Another prominent British military commander Griffiths narrating the status on the day [September 14] his troops stormed Delhi from Kashmiri Gate side wrote:
“Advancing from our first place at the main guard, No. 5 Column pushed forward to the College Gardens, Marching through narrow streets and lanes, with high houses on each side. But how can I describe that terrible street-fighting, which lasted without intermission the whole day? From every window and door, from loopholes in the buildings, and from the tops of the houses, a storm of musketry saluted us on every side, while every now and then, when passing the corner of a street, field-guns, loaded with grape, discharged their contents into the column. Officers and men fell fast…”[xxviii]
The resolute resistance by the rebel forces and commoners against the British attack at the Delhi front was not isolated happening. The contemporary British military documents are full of thousands of such stories.
The establishment of an independent India under the kingship of Bahadur Shah Zafar after rebels had declared freedom from the British slavery was in no way restoration of the degenerated and dehumanized rule of the feudal elements as was alleged by the British rulers and their Indian stooges. This was clear from almost all the proclamations of independence issued by rebellion leaders in different parts of the country. These proclamations made solemn promise to the commoners that their rights would be safeguarded. For instance in in Oudh[xxix], British had deprived the Pasis [Sudras] of their ancestral profession of guarding (chowkidaari) the countryside and cities. The independent rule of Birjis Qadar under the regent ship of her mother Begum Hazrat Mahal through a proclamation assured that
“Pasis should know that gate-keeping is their ancestral profession but the British appointed Berkandaaz [police with guns] in place of them and so they were deprived of their livelihood. It will not be repeated.”[xxx]
The tribal areas of India too became centres of armed uprisings. The contemporary records are full of tribal uprisings against the British rule. Bheem Naik, a prominent Bheel tribal leader of Nimar (Barwani State) in the then Central India organized a valiant armed resistance against the British rule in the area. He was able to unite other tribes like Bhilalas, Mandlois and Naiks for a joint military campaign to oust the British from the area. He also joined forces with Tatya Tope and made daring attacks on the British positions on Bombay-Agra road between Sindhawa and Khull. Revolutionary army under his command continued the War till 1859. But due to the treachery of many non-tribal princes of the region they were defeated. They shifted their base into the forest and continued with the guerilla warfare. He could be captured in 1861, sentenced for life imprisonment, sent to Andaman Islands where he died (date not known).[xxxi]
It is not only sad but shameful that we forgot these startling facts of the First War of Independence. If we had remembered this glorious heritage, the rise of communal polarization as well as gradual take-over of the independent India by the pro-feudal-capitalists-imperialist ruling class would have been scuttled.
[i] For the whole text see Husain, Iqbal (ed.), Proclamations of the Rebels of 1857, ICHR, Delhi, p. 28.
[ii] Lal, Kanhaya, Tareekh-e-Bhaghawat-e-Hind:Moharba-e-Azeem [History of Indian Mutiny: A Great War], Munshi Nawal Kishore Press, Awadh, 1889 and Khan, Syed Ahmad (Sir Syed), The Causes of the Indian Revolt, Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library, Patna, 1999 reprint [first edition 1859.
[iii] Kaye, A History of the Sepoy War in India (in three volumes).
[iv] Kaye, John William, A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858, vol. iii, London, 1870, Preface p. vi.
[v] Ball, Charles, The History of the Indian Mutiny, vol. ii, The London Printing & Publishing Co, 1858.
[vi] Hodson, George E (ed.), Twelve Years of a Soldier’s Life in India: Being Extracts from the Letters of the Late Major WSR Hodson (BA Trinity College; First Bengal European Fusiliers, Commandant of Hodson’s Horses) Including a Personal Narrative of the Siege of Delhi and Capture of Delhi and Capture of the King and Princes, John W. Parker, London, 1859, p. 246.
[vii] Hodson. p. 240.
[viii] Russell, William Howard, My Diary in India:In the Year 1858-9, vol. i, Routledge, Warner & Routledge, London, 1860, p. 164.
[ix] Lowe, pp. 357-358.
[x] Lowe, p. 327.
[xi] Lowe, p. 59.
[xii] Lowe, p. 57.
[xiii] Hodson. p. 196.
[xiv] Kaye, vol. ii, pp. 630.
[xv] Kaye, vol. ii, p. 631.
[xvi] Fred, p. 56.
[xvii] Fred, p. 75.
[xviii] Trevelyan, GO, Cawnpore, Macmillan, London, 1866, pp. 34.
[xix] Trevelyan, GO, Cawnpore, Macmillan, London, 1866, pp. 34-35.
[xx] Kaye, A History of the Great Revolt, vol. i, p. 246.
[xxi] Hodson, p. 243.
[xxii] Chopra, PN, pp. 1,30,39,43,55,81-82.
[xxiii] Kaye, John William, A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858, vol. iii, London, 1870, pp. 592-593.
[xxiv] Kaye, John William, A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858, vol. iii, London, 1870, pp. 610-611.
[xxv] Hodson. p. 201.
[xxvi] Hodson, p. 205.]
[xxvii] Hodson. pp. 219-220.
[xxviii] Griffiths, Charles John, A Narrative of the Siege of Delhi with an account of the Mutiny at Ferozepore in 1857, John Murray, London, 1910, p. 159.
[xxix] For Oudh multiple spellings have been used like Oude, Awadh as mentioned in the contemporary narratives.
[xxx] Husain, Iqbal (ed.), Proclamations of the Rebels of 1857, ICHR, Delhi.]
[xxxi] Iqbal, Rashida (ed.), Unsung Heroes of Freedom Struggle in Andamans: Who’s Who, Andaman & Nicobar Administration, Port Blair, 2004.
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