The Sepoy Rebellion and the Threat to British India

From a Lecture Series presented by Professor Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

The Sepoy Rebellion—the uprising of thousands of Indian soldiers—was the single greatest threat to British India since the Battle of Plassey in 1757. But this uprising was much more than a simple military mutiny or nationalist uprising.

Map of India from 1837 to 1857, showing territory changes.
Map of India showing territory changes from 1837 to 1857.

The Indian Mutiny and Great Uprising of 1857 to 1858 was known as the Sepoy Rebellion, after the Persian word for soldier, sipahi. In order to better understand this important period, it’s important to know the context of the time.

The sources of alienation can be best understood against the historical background— massive change in India from the 1820s through the 1850s. The events of 1857 and 1858 were far more complex, layered, and colored by class, caste, and region than simple labels imply.

Two Seapoy Officers and one Seapoy Private

Once we understand the external and internal factors, we will have a better understanding of the Uprising, and see how it should be seen as an inevitable outcome of the way the Company ruled India—with its fiscal obligations impeding its political responsibilities as a political sovereign in India.

Religious Resentment

First, there were the religious and cultural resentments. The period of “liberal reform” by British officials, missionaries, and observers had critiqued India like never before. Indians of many stripes started to resent British meddling in their religious, cultural, and social matters.

The religious grievances were the most pronounced. The steady stream of missionaries after the 1810s theologically assaulted Hinduism and Islam to an unprecedented degree. Many Indians, including the sipahis who served the Company, felt their religions were “under attack.”

And it didn’t help that some British officers who were sympathetic with evangelical Christianity allowed missionaries to preach in the barracks. And since their methods were confrontational and polemical, many Indians and sipahis felt, “Hey, not only is our country being changed, but the British want to make us Christian.” Or as it was sometimes said, “The Company has plundered our lands, and now wants to plunder our souls.”

This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. It’s available for audio and video download here.

Since this was happening at a highpoint of British imperial and global might, the British were slow to understand this reaction and were often blinded by their own arrogance. There were also economic grievances. The continual shoring up of debts affected Indian soldiers. To cut costs, high-caste sipahis saw their pay bonuses, or battas, cut. The Company’s military and political ambitious were always greater than their fiscal resources. And loyal Indian soldiers were now being asked to foot the bill.

Economic Discontent

Add this to the wretched situation of the agrarian economy, of peasants and cultivators, and we can see in hindsight that the economic discontent was real and felt by many. There were also political grievances that had been building up. First, there was the symbolism of alien rule. Company rule and reform after the 1820s brought visibly “modernizing” effects: law courts, government offices, the telegraph, railways, and British commerce.

There was also a spat of rapid annexations from the late 1830s which started to unsettle many regions the British had not yet touched. Due to the fiscal debts the Company was constantly trying to recover, the period between 1833’s loss of trading monopoly and the 1856 annexation of Awadh was a Janus-faced one. The “liberal improvement” of India was also the height of the Company’s most militant expansionism. It was no irony that the Company was the most aggressive when it was fiscally the reddest.

Map of 'Northern India: the Revolt of 1857-58' showing centres of rebellion including the principal ones: Meerut, Delhi, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Lucknow, Jhansi, and Gwalior
Map of Northern India: the Revolt of 1857-58 showing centres of rebellion including the principal ones: Meerut, Delhi, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Lucknow, Jhansi, and Gwalior

The Events of the Uprising

It got started in Barrackpore in March of 1857, just before the summer heat of Hindustan arrived. Mangal Pandey, of the 34th Native Infantry, ran amok one evening, high off bhang (marijuana mixed with milk). He tried to raise a religious revolt against the British, and attacked his British officers. He was arrested, and then hanged. After this event, the term “pandy” was used by the British to describe any mutineer or rebel.

Yet the events really took off in Meerut two months later, in May. The Company had introduced a new Enfield rifle for soldiers sometime in April. Yet there were rumors that their cartridges were greased with swine and cow fat. And further, the ends of the cartridges needed to be bitten off to fire properly, which of course would necessitate oral contact. Now, who would this offend? You got it…both Hindus and Muslims.

Even though the cartridges were likely greased with linseed oil and beeswax, it didn’t matter. Hindu and Muslim solders interpreted this as a clandestine plot to convert India to Christianity or at least to undermine their beliefs. You can see why it would have made sense, given the steady accumulation of grievances. Many sipahis refused to load the new cartridges, and were many court-marshaled.

Learn more: The Indian Mutiny-1857

And on the 10th and 11th of May the 11th Native Cavalry Regiment mutinied throughout the evening and early morning. They quickly overran their British officers and looted the armory.

Tapping into existing resentment, the sipahis soon overran most of North India with arms. Company authority quickly disappeared in large areas of North India. The sipahis and others marched to Delhi and proclaimed the aged Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as “Emperor of Hindustan.” In fact, one mutineer told him bluntly: “Old man, we have made you king!”

Now, why would they rally around the Mughal emperor? Weren’t the Mughals more or less out of business? Well, the Mughal Emperor was still symbol of sovereignty, and one that could mobilize the masses. The sipahis and those who joined them absorbed many tracts of rural countryside west of Delhi. And they found support among peasants, cultivators, and displaced weavers, who all felt the economic pains associated with British rule.

Recently-annexed Awadh was in outright revolt. People in cities and villages suddenly had something in common. They were joined by zamindars and peasants, and the newly-installed British administration of Awadh was gone… like that.

Keep reading:
British India: How Britain Lost the Jewel in the Crown
A History of British India: The Torch Podcast
Ancient India—Sacred Cows and Ayurveda
Indian Spices: An Explosion of Flavors and Color

From the lecture series: Victorian Britain
Taught by Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Images Courtesy of
Map of India, Imperial Gazetteer of India
Two Seapoy Officers, One Private, Handcoloured engravings by Frederic Shoberl from his work ‘The World in Miniature: Hindoostan’. London: R. Ackerman, 1820′
Indian Rebellion of 1857, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons