Decades of simmering economic, cultural, social and religious resentments to the rule of the East India Company finally ignited in the military cantonment of Meerut in North India. By 1857 the East India Company reigned supreme in the subcontinent. After the debacle of the Afghan War in 1839, the independent Sikh State of the Punjab had been conquered over the next decade bringing direct British rule to the Afghan frontier. In the East two wars with Burma had expelled the Burmese from Assam and conquered South Burma. About a third of the subcontinent was ruled by Indian Princes under the protection of the East India Company – the larger states were allowed to have their own armies.
Yet in the previous decades a series of actions by the Company started building resentment. Enthusiastic reformers like Monstuart Elphinstone wanted to “educate the natives” and “bring civilization to India.” Governor General William Bentinck abolished Sati – a welcome progressive reform, but as one imposed by a foreign master may have triggered resentment. The Bengal Army was simmering with resentment for being forced to campaign abroad in Burma without foreign service bonuses and having lower pay than the Bombay and Madras armies.
Then Governor General Dalhouse started chipping away at one of the legs supporting British Rule with the Doctrine of Lapse. Princely states were annexed when rulers died without a male heir ignoring the Indian custom of adopting a relative as heir (Kolaba, Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi) or alleged misrule (Oudh). The annexation of Oudh in 1856 would cost the British dearly since the annexation left a bunch of pissed off and unemployed nobles, artisans and soldiers from the Oudh army.
The spark that ignited this bundle of resentments came from the greased paper cartridges for the new Enfield rifles issued to the sepoys which had to be bitten open to release the powder. A rumor that the grease contained beef or pork fat became widespread – alienating both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. Evangelical activity made it easy to make people believe that this was a plot to convert the soldiers. Mutinous activity from the cartridges had occurred in preceding months. On 24th April, 1857 the commander of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry ordered his soldiers to commence firing drills. Most of them refused. On May 9, 85 of the mutineers were court martialled. As they were led away the convicted sepoys berated their comrades for not supporting them. The next day the revolt began. The imprisoned soldiers were freed and the sepoys headed off for Delhi, a mere 40 miles away.
In Delhi the last of the Mughals Bahadur Shah II still reigned. His actual realm covered only Delhi and he was under British protection. Nominally the British were vassals of the Mughal, but since the 1830s the Mughal Emperor had been replaced by the King of England on coins issued of the East India Company. Bahadur Shah II had no desire to lead a rebellion but succumbing to the urging of his wife and sons and the implicit threat of the sepoys he allowed himself to be proclaimed the titular head of the rebellion.
The rebellion shook the East India Company to its core. British historians have dismissed the revolt as a Sepoy Mutiny. Indian nationalists call it a War of Independence. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The revolt involved more that sepoys. Prominent leaders included dispossessed artistocrats like Nanasaheb, the adopted son of the last Maratha Peshwa and Laxmibai the widow of the last Raja of Jhansi.
But there was no coordinated national strategy and most of India outside the Gangetic belt and Central India stayed quiet. The Sikhs so recently independent supported British efforts to crush the rebellion. The Princes who had not been dispossessed stayed loyal
The uprising was marked by massacres of civilians – notoriously in Kanpur at the behest of Nanasaheb (who became the primary villain for the British), Delhi and Jhansi – including women and children. The death of women and children enraged the British and their reprisals were equally savage – many rebels being blown up by cannons. Ultimately the British retook Kanpur and Delhi. The aged Bahadur Shah was deposed and packed off to imprisonment in Burma. Two of his sons and a grandson were shot in cold blood. Nanasaheb and the Begums of Oudh (who spearheaded the revolt in Lucknow) escaped to Nepal where they remained at large. Nanasaheb remained a bogeyman for the British in India for the next few decades. Laxmibai was driven out of Jhansi but in a bold countermove captured Gwalior. She was killed fighting trying to break out of the British siege of Gwalior.
The British Governor General Lord Canning counseled moderation in dealing with the rebels, earning him the derisive sobriquet “Clemency Canning” in the British press. The Uprising marked the end of Company rule which was liquidated the next year in favor of direct British rule.
The British had learned their lesson and the Queen’s proclamation in 1858 tried to address the causes of the revolt. There would be no more lapsed Princely States (a lapsed state – Mysore – was actually restored). The Princes henceforth would be the strongest bulwark of British rule. Freedom of religion was guaranteed and there would be no longer government sponsored meddling in religion. Religious reformation would now have to come from the ground up. In 1877 (partly to assuage her ego since her daughter was one day to be Empress of Germany) Victoria would be proclaimed Empress of India.