Part 9 – The Great Revolt of 1857

  • The 1857 Revolt sowed the seeds of Indian nationalism, which lay dormant in the subconscious of the Indian people

  • It started the movement which was a continuous struggle against the British rule till 1947

Nature of the Revolt

  • The historical writings of the British scholars underplayed the character of the Revolt of 1857.

  • Sir John Lawrence was of the opinion that the Revolt was purely a military outbreak, and not a conspiracy to overthrow British rule

  • On the other hand the Revolt of 1857 is hailed by the Indian scholars, especially by Vir Savarkar as the First War of Indian Independence.

  • Two distinguished Indian historians, R.C. Majumdar and S.N. Sen, have analysed the Revolt of 1857 in depth.

  • S.N. Sen believes that the 1857 Revolt was part of the struggle for Indian independence

  • R.C. Majumdar maintains that the outbreaks before 1857, whether civil or military

  • Were “a series of isolated incidents” ultimately culminated in the Great Revolt of 1857.

Causes of the Revolt

Political Causes

  • On the contrary, the British rule was disliked by the people at large in any region when it was newly introduced.

  • Anti-British feelings were particularly strong in those regions like Burma, Assam, Coorg, Sind, and the Punjab which were unjustly annexed to the British Empire.

  • The Doctrine of Lapse, particularly its practical application by Lord Dalhousie, produced grave discontent and alarm among the native princes,

Economic Causes

  • The huge drain of wealth, the destruction of its industry and increasing land revenue had become the common features of the latter half of the eighteenth century.

  • The East India Company, after attaining political power, used it to fund the growth of British trade and commerce at the cost of Indians.

  • In England the ruin of the old handloom weavers was accompanied by the growth of the machine industry

  • But in India the ruin of the millions of artisans and craftsmen was not accompanied by any alternative growth of new industrial forms

  • A new plantation system introduced in the year 1833 resulted in incalculable misery for the Indian peasants.

  • The hard hit were the peasants on the indigo plantations in Bengal and Bihar

Social Causes

  • The Englishmen showed an arrogant attitude towards the Indians. Indiscriminate assaults on Indians by Englishmen became quite common.

  • Also, a general alarm was raised among the Hindus and Muslims by the activities of the Christian missionaries.

  • The educational institutions established by the missionaries inculcated western education and culture in the place of oriental learning.

  • The native population felt that were losing their social identity

Military causes

  • Discontent against the British Raj was widely prevalent among the Indian soldiers in the British army.

  • The Indian sepoys in the British Indian army nursed a sense of strong resentment at their low salary and poor prospects of promotion.

  • The British military officers at times showed least respect to the social values and religious sentiments of Indian sepoys in the army.

  • Thus, although generally faithful to their masters, the sepoys were provoked to revolt.

  • The Vellore mutiny of 1806, a precursor to the 1857 Great Revolt, was the outcome of such tendencies on the part of the military authorities.

  • Another important cause of the sepoy’s dissatisfaction was the order that abolished the foreign allowance or batta when they served in foreign territories.

  • Thus the discontent was widespread and there was an undercurrent before the volcanic situation of 1857.

The Beginning of the Revolt

  • The 1857 Revolt was sparked off by the episode of the greased cartridges

  • The new Enfield rifle had been introduced for the first time in the Indian army

  • Its cartridges had a greased paper cover

  • Whose end had to be bitten off before the cartridge was loaded into the rifle.

  • The grease was composed of fat taken from beef and pig

  • The religious feelings of the Hindu and Muslim sepoys were terribly wounded.

  • The sepoys believed that the government was deliberately trying to destroy their religious and cultural identity.

  • Hence they raised the banner of revolt.

  • The events that led to the Revolt began on 29 March 1857 at Barrackpore.

  • Mangal Pandey (a sepoy) refused to use the greased cartridges and single-handedly attacked and killed his officer.

  • Mangal Pandey was hanged.

  • The regiment to which he belonged was disbanded and sepoys guilty of rebellion punished.

  • The British instead of diffusing the explosive situation, paved the way for a mighty crisis by the above act.

  • At Meerut in May 1857, 85 sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry regiment were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for refusing to use the greased catridges

  • Therefore, on 10 May the sepoys broke out in open rebellion, shot their officers, released their fellow sepoys and headed towards Delhi.

  • General Hewitt, the officer commanding at Meerut was helpless to prevent the army’s march.

  • The city of Delhi fell into the hands of the rebellious soldiers on 12 May 1857.

  • Lieutenant Willtashby, the officer in charge of Delhi could not prevent the mutineers

  • Soon, the mutineers proclaimed the aged nominal king, Bahadur Shah II of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperor of India.

  • Very soon the rebellion spread throughout northern and central India at Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Banares, in parts of Bihar, Jhansi and other places


  • The leadership at Delhi was nominally in the hands of Bahadur Shah, but the real control was exercised by General Bakht Khan

  • In Delhi, Emperor Bahadur Shah II was arrested and deported to Rangoon

  • Where he remained in exile till he died in 1862


  • At Kanpur the revolt was led by Nana Saheb,

  • The adopted son of Baji Rao II

  • The last Peshwa.

  • Nana Saheb expelled the English from Kanpur with the help of the sepoys and proclaimed himself the Peshwa

  • Nana Saheb in his efforts against the British was ably supported by two of his lieutenants.

  • One was Tantia Tope, the other was Azimullah.

  • Sir Hugh Wheeler the commander of the British garrison at Kanpur surrendered on the 27 June 1857.

  • But, soon Kanpur was recaptured by the British commander Sir Colin Campbell.


  • The principal person responsible for the revolt in Lucknow was the Begum of Oudh.

  • With the assistance of the sepoys, the zamindars and peasants

  • The Begum organised

  • An all-out attack on the British

  • Henry Lawrence, the chief commissioner tried to defend the British

  • Lawrence was killed in a bomb blast during the fight.

  • The final relief for the British forces in Lucknow came in the form of Sir Colin Campbell, who suppressed the revolt


  • Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, the widowed queen of Gangadhar Rao played a heroic role in this revolt.

  • Rani Lakshmi Bai was affected by Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse

  • The combined efforts of Rani and Tantia Tope saw the capture of Gwalior.

  • Meanwhile, Sir Hugh Rose defeated Tantia Tope and stormed Jhansi on 3 April 1858.

  • He then captured Gwalior.

  • The Rani of Jhansi died a soldier’s death on 17 June 1858.

  • Tantia Tope was captured and hanged on charges of rebellion and murder in the massacre of Kanpur


  • Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur near Oudh

  • Was the chief organiser of the revolt in Bihar

  • He fought the British in Bihar

  • Kunwar Singh sustained a fatal wound in the battle and died on 27 April 1858 at Jagdishpur.

  • Ultimately the 1857 Revolt came to an end with the victory of the British.

  • Viceroy Canning proclaimed peace throughout India.

Causes for the Failure of the Revolt

  • Foremost cause was that the Revolt failed to embrace the whole of India. Different sections of society such as moneylenders, merchants and modern educated Indians were actually against the Revolt.

  • The resources of the British Empire were far superior to those of the rebels.

  • The insurgents lacked a carefully concerted general plan or a strong central organisation to plan the movements of the army and oversee their strategy.

  • In addition, the British were aided by new scientific inventions such as the telegraph system and postal communications.

Significance and Effects of the Mutiny

  • The Revolt of 1857 though completely suppressed had shaken the very foundations of British rule in India,

  • It brought together the disgruntled sections of society to rise against the British rule

  • However, this civilian revolt was not universal but sporadic and inconsistent

  • Another significant aspect of the 1857 Revolt was the Hindu-Muslim unity

  • It brought about fundamental changes in the character of Indian administration

  • Which was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1 November, 1858

  • At the same time the Governor-General received the new title of Viceroy.

  • Lord Canning had the unique opportunity to become the Governor-General as well as the first Viceroy according to the Act of 1858.

  • Lord Canning proclaimed the new Government at Allahabad on 1 November 1858 in accordance with the Queen’s Proclamation.

  • The latter has been called the Magna Carta of the Indian people;

  • It disclaimed any extension of territory, promised religious toleration

  • Guaranteed the rights of Indian princes and pledged equal treatment to her subjects, Indians and Europeans

  • The year 1857 is a great divide between the two landmarks in Indian history.

  • One was that of British paramountcy in the first half

  • Other is that of the growth of Indian nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

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