The 1857 Revolt: The 72 Hours That Brought Down British East India Company
How a rebellion – on this day in 1857 – at a cantonment in Meerut uprooted the British East India Company’s rule and changed the way the imperialists would govern India.
A 100 years after the British East India Company consolidated itself in Bengal, a rebellion uprooted its rule in India and changed the way the imperialists would govern Indians. The rebellion began as a mutiny in the cantonment of Meerut on 10 May 1857 and caught the British off-guard. By the time the British got wind of the developments, not just Meerut but Delhi too had fallen.
The events of 10 May 1857 in Meerut that would go on to mark the end of the company’s rule in India had a long prelude, but the chain of events beginning from Colonel George Carmichael Smyth’s ordering court-martial of 85 men of his 3rd Light Cavalry on 23 April would turn out to be the catalyst. Against the advice of his juniors, Colonel Smyth went on to inquire the 85 men of his regiment whether they would accept the new cartridges or not, which were believed to be greased with cow and pig fat. All but five refused. Colonel Smyth, however, initiated the proceedings of the court martial against all 85 men and they were all found guilty on 8 May. They were then stripped of their uniform and taken out in fetters in public view. It is said that when they were paraded through the cantonment, thousands saw and felt their humiliation. They were finally locked up in prison that was somewhere in present-day Meerut’s Victoria Park.
That night when Lieutenant Hugh Gough, a junior officer of the 3rd Cavalry, visited the imprisoned sepoys, one of them warned him of the impending mutiny. The next day the young lieutenant would convey this first to his Commanding Officer, Colonel Smyth, and then to Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who both ignored his warnings.
Even prior to the events at Meerut, there were reports of communication between sepoys throughout the Gangetic plains. Nightly panchayats were also a regular affair in sepoy lines. A native Christian inspector in Sitapur, Francois Sisten, has an interesting account. He was visiting the Saharanpur magistrate when he encountered a Muslim tehsildar from Bijnor. Sisten was sitting cross-legged and in Indian clothes. Upon learning that he was from Awadh, the tehsildar asked him, "What news from Awadh? How does the work progress, brother?" To this, Sisten played safe. He replied, "if we have work in Awadh, your highness will know it". The tehsildar replied, "depend upon it, we will succeed this time. The direction of the business is in able hands." The tehsildar was later identified as the principle leader of the revolt in Bijnor.
There were also reports of a mysterious circulation of rotis across the villages of north India, in which five rotis would be delivered to the watchman of a village by a runner, who would be asked to make and deliver five more rotis to the watchman of the next village and ask him to do the same. At some places, a lotus was also circulated along with rotis. Even after more than a century and a half, the roti episode remains a mystery. The rotis travelled faster than the British post. It spooked the British, who thought that it was some sort of secret messaging system developed by the natives.
Around Meerut, there were reports of a fakir doing rounds on an elephant. He was said to be visited by the sepoys. The role of religious preachers is also prominent, who fueled the popular sentiment. One of the most well-known places connected with the mutiny at Meerut is the Kali Paltan Mandir, commonly known as Augarnath Mandir today, where the sepoys met and listened to the priests, who chastised them of losing their caste and religion by serving in the British Army and signing up to cross the seas if ordered.
These issues pertaining to the loss of caste and religion had long plagued the popular psyche. By 1857, these issues had mated with the century-long British economic exploitation. That would combine with the social angst caused by a series of developments, the climax of which was the annexation of Awadh and the fall of the zamindars and talukdars in the region that broke down the established social order. The British rule had, therefore, by 1857, come to mark the end of the native way of life.
Rumours of the new cartridges being greased with cow and pig fat roused the ranks of the Bengal army, the bulk of which was recruited from Awadh and Bihar, the areas most affected with the British economic and social policies. Most of them were also rooted in peasantry, so they felt attacked on all fronts of life – social, economic, and religious. All of this combined with an old prophecy that said that the company rule in India was to last a 100 years. The year 1857 marked the hundred years of the consolidation of the company’s rule.
So when the sun rose on 10 May 1857 in Meerut, the native population rose with a determination hitherto unseen and undreamt of. It was Sunday, a holiday, and the British were off-duty and church-bound. As the British went to the church and the European soldiers of the 60th Rifles prepared for the church parade, around 5pm, native troops of 3rd Cavalry took to arms and rode to the prison where their comrades were locked. The guard of the 20th Rifles at the prison offered no resistance. As they freed the prisoners, the soldiers of the 3rd Cavalry and the guard of the 20th Rifles were joined by the rest of the 20th. Soon 11th Native Infantry also joined them. The mutiny was on.
Lieutenant Colonel John Finnis, Commanding Officer of the 11th, rode on his horse along with other officers to dissuade the mutineers. During the argument, a sepoy shot and wounded the colonel's horse and another shot the colonel. The colonel's corpse was riddled with bullets when it was later discovered.
The mutineers then went on a rampage in the cantonment. Arms and ammunition were seized and telegraph lines were cut down. The civilian population and Gujjars from the surrounding villages joined the sepoys in attacking anything and anyone associated with the British rule. They hunted and killed the British throughout Meerut as evening progressed.
As night fell over Meerut, the mayhem slowly receded and the villagers and townsfolk retreated to their homes. The mutineers took the road to Delhi. They arrived at Delhi around daybreak. Crossing over Yamuna, they entered Delhi and rode to the Red Fort. They were let into the fort by the guard of 38th Native Infantry. Once inside, they went on to cut down the British stationed in the fort. Around the same time, the mutineers from Meerut were joined by those from Delhi in attacking Europeans and Eurasians in Delhi.
Those in Red Fort demanded an audience with Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the octogenarian king of Delhi. They declared, "we have come from Meerut after killing all the Englishmen there, because they asked us to bite bullets that were coated with the fat of cows and pigs with our teeth. This has corrupted the faith of Hindus and Muslims alike". The reluctant Zafar granted audience. Upon the audience, the frail king was pleaded to take the reins of the revolt and he reluctantly complied. Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the sufi poet, was hailed as the emperor of India and that moment onwards, the war against the British was waged in his name.
Even as fighting continued through Delhi, the sepoys and the retainers at the Red Fort hailed Zafar as the emperor. The next day, on 12 May 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar II held the imperial court for the first time in over a decade. It was a day when the octogenarian emperor once again put on the imperial garb after what must have felt like several lifetimes.
People who had forgotten how it felt to breathe in free air, who had forgotten to raise their heads had now risen. As people oppressed for a 100 years rose, a nation rose with them, and its rise marked the fall of the British East India Company and the fulfillment of an old prophecy.
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