India: The Rebellion of 1857 – Threat against an Empire

“We could subdue the mutiny of 1857, formidable as it was, because it spread through only a part of the army…But the moment a mutiny is but threatened, which shall be no mere mutiny, but the expression of a universal feeling of nationality, at that moment all hope is at an end, as all desire should be at an end, of our preserving our Empire.” – Sir John Seeley, a historian of the Empire.

The revolt, which many see as the first Indian war of independence, begins on May 10, 1857.

The insurrection is directly sparked by the introduction of cartridges rumoured to have been greased with pig or cow fat, which is offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim and Hindu sepoys or soldiers. More fundamental, the insurrection is a reaction by an indigenous population to rapid changes in the social order engineered by the British Empire over the preceding century.

Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, drawn mostly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutiny at the Meerut cantonment near Delhi, starting a yearlong insurrection against the British.  In Meerut, every European they find is killed. They march to Delhi and place themselves under the leadership of an impotent and bewildered Mogul Emperor Bahadur Shah. Throughout May and June the mutiny spreads through the Ganges valley, the Rajputna, Central India, and parts of Bengal.

The vengeance of the Empire is swift and harsh: suspected mutineers are tied to cannons and executed.

After surrender on June 20, 1858, the British end both the East India Company and the Mughal Empire, sending the deposed Emperor Bahadur Shah to exile in Burma. The British government is forced to assume direct control over the Indian subcontinent. At home, many English, feel betrayed by peoples they thought they had befriended, experiencing the revolt as a trauma – the amazing psychology of an Empire.

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