CHAPTER-7 The Revolt of 1857 (Spectrum – Modern History of India – Short notes (Prelims perspective)



                                                                           The Revolt of 1857

                                           Spectrum – Modern History of India – Short notes (Prelims perspective)


  1. Simmering Discontent-

  • The simmering discontent burst in the form of a violent storm in 1857 which shook the British empire in India to its very foundations.
  1. The 1857 Revolt: the Major Causes-
  • Economic Causes-
  1. The colonial policies of the East India Company destroyed the traditional economic fabric of the Indian society.
  2. British rule also meant misery to the artisans and handicrafts people.
  • The annexation of Indian states by the Company cut off their major source of patronage
  1. The Indian trade and mercantile class was deliberately crippled by the British who imposed high tariff duties on Indian-made goods.
  2. At the same time, the import of British goods into India attracted low tariffs, thus encouraging their entry into India.
  3. Free Trade and refusal to impose protective duties against machine-made goods from Britain simply killed Indian manufacture.
  • Zamindars, the traditional landed aristocracy, often saw their land rights forfeited with frequent use of a quo warranto by the administration.

EXAMPLE– In Awadh, the storm centre of the revolt, 21,000 taluqdars had their estates confiscated and suddenly found themselves without a source of income, “unable to work, ashamed to beg, condemned to penury”.

  • The ruin of Indian industry increased the pressure on agriculture and land.

Political Causes-

  1. The East India Company’s greedy policy of aggrandizement accompanied by broken pledges and promises resulted in contempt for the Company and loss of political prestige, besides causing suspicion in the minds of almost all the ruling princes in India, through policies as of ‘Effective Control’, ‘Subsidiary Alliance’ and ‘Doctrine of Lapse’.
  2. The collapse of rulers—the erstwhile aristocracy—also adversely affected those sections of the Indian society.

Administrative Causes-

  1. Rampant corruption in the Company’s administration, especially among the police, petty officials and lower law courts, was a major cause of discontent.

Socio-Religious Causes

  1. Racial overtones and a superiority complex characterised the British administrative attitude towards the native Indian population.
  2. The government’s decision to tax mosque and temple lands and making laws such as the Religious Disabilities Act, 1856

Influence of Outside Events-

  1. The revolt of 1857 coincided with certain outside events in which the British suffered serious losses—the First Afghan War (1838-42), Punjab Wars (1845-49), and the Crimean Wars (1854-56).

Discontent Among Sepoys-

  1. The conditions of service in the Company’s Army and cantonments increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys.
  2. In 1856, Lord Canning’s government passed the General Service Enlistment Act which decreed that all future recruits to the Bengal Army would have to give an undertaking to serve anywhere their services might be required by the government. This caused resentment.
  • Immediate cause of the sepoys’ dissatisfaction was the order that they would not be given the foreign service allowance (bhatta) when serving in Sindh or in Punjab.
  • History of revolts in the British Indian Army—in Bengal (1764), Vellore (1806), Barrackpore (1825) and during the Afghan Wars (1838-42).

Beginning and Spread of the Revolt-

  • The Spark-
  1. The reports about the mixing of bone dust in atta (flour) and the introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys’ growing disaffection with the government.
  2. The greased wrapping paper of the cartridge of the new rifle had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made of beef and pig fat.
  • Starts at Meerut-
  1. The revolt began at Meerut, 58 km from Delhi, on May 10, 1857 and then, gathering force rapidly, soon embraced a vast area from the Punjab in the north and the Narmada in the south to Bihar in the east and Rajputana in the west.
  2. Sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry, Mangal Pande, went a step further and fired at the sergeant major of his unit at Barrackpore.
  • On April 24, ninety men of the 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges.
  1. On May 9, eighty-five of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and put in fetters.
  2. On May 10, they released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers and unfurled the banner of revolt.
  • Choice of Bahadur Shah as Symbolic Head-
  1. This spontaneous raising of the last Mughal king to the leadership of the country was a recognition of the fact that the long reign of Mughal dynasty had become the traditional symbol of India’s political unity.
  2. The broad outlook of the rebels was not influenced by religious identity but by the perception of the British as the common enemy.
  • The entire Bengal Army soon rose in revolt which spread quickly. Awadh, Rohilkhand, the Doab, Bundelkhand, central India, large parts of Bihar and East Punjab shook off British authority.
  • Civilians Join-
  1. The revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the north-western provinces and Awadh. the peasants and petty zamindars took advantage of the revolt to destroy the money-lenders’ account books and debt records.
  • Storm Centres and Leaders of the Revolt-
  1. At Delhi the real command lay with a court of soldiers headed by General Bakht Khan Sir Hugh Wheeler, commanding the station, surrendered on June 27, 1857 and was killed on the same day.
  2. Nana Saheb expelled the English from Kanpur, proclaimed himself the peshwa, acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India and declared himself to be his governor.
  • Begum Hazrat Mahal took over the reigns at Lucknow where the rebellion broke out on June 4, 1857 and popular sympathy was overwhelmingly in favour of the deposed nawab.In March 1858, the city was finally recovered by the British.
  1. At Bareilly, Khan Bahadur, a descendant of the former ruler of Rohilkhand,not enthusiastic about the pension being granted by the British, he organized an army of 40,000 soldiers and offered stiff resistance tothe British.
  2. In Bihar, the revolt was led by Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of Jagdishpur. He unhesitatingly joined the sepoys when they reached Arrah from Dinapore (Danapur).
  3. Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad fought a stiff battle against the British troops. He emerged as one of the revolt’s acknowledged leaders once it broke out in Awadh in May 1857.
  • Rani Laxmibai, who assumed the leadership of the sepoys at Jhansi. The Rani of Jhansi and Tantia Tope marched towards Gwalior.Gwalior was recaptured by the English in June 1858.
  • Shah Mal, a local villager in Pargana Baraut (Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh) organised the headmen and peasants of 84 villages (referred as chaurasi desh), marching at night from village to village, urging people to rebel against the British hegemony. Shah Mal’s body was cut into pieces and his head displayed on July 21, 1857.
  1. Suppression of the Revolt-
  2. The revolt was finally suppressed. The British captured Delhi on September 20, 1857 Thus the great House of Mughals was finally and completely extinguished.
  3. Sir Colin Campbell occupied Kanpur on December 6, 1857.
  • Tantia Tope was captured while asleep in April 1859 and put to death. The Rani of Jhansi had died on the battlefield earlier in June 1858. Jhansi was recaptured by Sir Hugh Rose.

The British Resistance

  1. Delhi – Lieutenant Willoughby, John Nicholson, Lieutenant Hudson
  2. Kanpur – Sir Hugh Wheeler, Sir Colin Campbell
  3. Lucknow – Henry Lawrence, Brigadier Inglis, Henry Havelock, James Outram, Sir Colin Campbell
  4. Jhansi – Sir Hugh Rose
  5. Benaras – Colonel James Neill

Why the Revolt Failed

All-India participation was absent-

  1. Limited territorial spread was one factor; there was no all- India veneer about the revolt.

All classes did not join-

  1. Big zamindars acted as “break-waters to storm”; even Awadh taluqdars backed off once promises of land restitution were spelt out.
  2. Educated Indians viewed this revolt as backward looking, supportive of the feudal order and as a reaction of traditional conservative forces to modernity.
  • Rulers who did not participate included the Sindhia of Gwalior, the Holkar of Indore, the rulers of Patiala, Sindh and other Sikh chieftains and the Maharaja of Kashmir.

Poor Arms and Equipment-

  • The Indian soldiers were poorly equipped materially, fighting generally with swords and spears and very few guns and muskets.

Uncoordinated and Poorly Organised

  1. The revolt was poorly organised with no coordination or central leadership.
  2. The principal rebel leaders—Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh, Laxmibai.
  • The mutineers lacked a clear understanding of colonial rule; nor did they have a forward looking programme, a coherent ideology, a political perspective or a societal alternative.

Hindu-Muslim Unity Factor-

  • According to Maulana Azad, “Two facts stand out clearly in the midst of the tangled story of the Rising of 1857. The first is the remarkable sense of unity among the Hindus and the Muslims of India in this period. The other is the deep loyalty which the people felt for the Mughal Crown.”

Nature of the Revolt-

  • It was a mere ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ to some British historians—“a wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support”, said Sir John Seeley.
  • A “planned war of national independence”, by V.D. Savarkar in his book, The Indian War of Independence, 1857. Savarkar called the revolt the first war of Indian independence.
  1. Dr S.N. Sen in his Eighteen Fifty- Seven considers the revolt as having begun as a fight for religion but ending as a war of independence.
  2. Jawaharlal Nehru considered the Revolt of 1857 as essentially a feudal uprising though there were some nationalistic elements in it (Discovery of India)


  1. The revolt of 1857 marks a turning point in the history of India. It led to far-reaching changes in the system of administration and the policies of the British government.
  2. The British Parliament, on August 2, 1858, passed an Act for the Better Government of India. The Act declared Queen Victoria as the sovereign of British India and provided for the appointment of a Secretary of State for India
  • The assumption of the Government of India by the sovereign of Great Britain was announced by Lord Canning at a durbar at Allahabad in the ‘Queen’s Proclamation’ issued on November 1, 1858.
  1. The proclamation also promised equal and impartial protection under law to all Indians, besides equal opportunities in government services irrespective of race or creed. It was also promised that old Indian rights, customs and practices would be given due regard while framing and administering the law.
  2. The Army Amalgamation Scheme, 1861 moved the Company’s European troops to the services of the Crown.
  3. ‘Conservative brand of liberalism’, as it was called by Thomas Metcalf—had the solid support of the conservative and aristocratic classes of England who espoused the complete non-interference in the traditional structure of Indian society.The Indian economy was fully exploited without fear.
  • In accordance with Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, the Indian Civil Service Act of 1861 was passed, which was to give an impression that under the Queen all were equal, irrespective of race or creed.
  • Racial hatred and suspicion between the Indians and the English was probably the worst legacy of the revolt. The complete structure of the Indian government was remodelled and based on the notion of a master race—justifying the philosophy of the ‘Whiteman’s burden’.

Significance of the Revolt-

  • It brought out in the open grievances of people and the sepoys, which were seen to be genuine.

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