Lairdxs Thoughts on The Indian Uprising of 1857

Another one which might provoke a little discussion. My sources are cited at the end. Enjoy.

It has long been accepted in schoolboy history lessons that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was the result of the native sepoy troops refusing to use a new type of rifle cartridge. This cartridge greased with pork and/or beef fat had to be bitten off before the powder was poured into the breach of the rifle. The use of pork and beef by-products was offensive to both the Hindu , to whom the cow is sacred, and the Muslim, to whom the pig is distasteful. The native troops, understandably mutinied in response to this affront to their religious sensitivities. The version of this event taught to schoolboys has of course given a full account of how the British took a break from polishing the brass buttons on their tunics and whitening their cross-belts with pipe-clay, to put down the rebellious sepoys heroically.

Any historian with common sense must dismiss this simplified account as being biased and to a certain extent inaccurate. If one examines the details one quickly realises that parts of this story don’t fit. To begin with cartridges greased with animal fat, probably pork fat but likely any available rendering of a lard-like substance including mutton and beef by-products had been in use by the British army since the introduction of the Brown Bess in the early eighteenth century. The new rifle cartridges were designed for use with a newer weapon, the 1853 pattern Enfield Rifle-Musket, but in design the actual cartridges themselves changed very little. The new weapon fired a minnie bullet with a hollowed out rear which expanded to grip the barrels rifling but apart from improvements in the grade of powder used the cartridges, made of thick cartridge paper (hence the material used by artists today) remained much the same. A simple tube of paper folded over at the ends to encapsulate powder and shot and sealed with grease to prevent damp or leakage. In fact cartridges greased by these forbidden fats had been in use by the Bengal Native Army for some time and axle grease made of pork fat was used on wagons and gun carriages . It is more than likely that the Indian troops were simply not told that this was the case by arrogant British officers who seriously underestimated the resolve and ability of the Bengali troops they were commanding. One must not overlook the probability that, as enlisted men everywhere ridicule and poke fun at any available target; the Europeans in the Companies army probably taunted their Muslim and Hindu counterparts with the cartridges and surely must have revelled in the discontent and mischief they caused. Such is the way of soldiers. If the rifle cartridges triggered the uprising there is a strong argument that the situation in India was already primed and ready to ignite.

“It was not really the cartridge that had done the trick, however. ‘A consciousness of power,’ it was said after it was all over, ‘had grown up in the army which could only be exorcised by mutiny’ and if it had not been the cartridge some other excuse would inevitably have been found.”

This is not the place to give a full account of the general dissatisfaction within the British military rank and file as a whole and importantly not just the native Indian regiments indeed two years later, in 1859, “men of the grenadier company of the 3rd Bengal European Regiment” were court marshalled as mutineers.

At this stage it can be mentioned that one possible factor which greatly motivated the Bengali troops towards mutiny was that they were poorly paid. In an age when a soldier’s wage was scant enough the sepoys received lesser wages than their European equivalents. The poor wage combined with a lack of consultation over changes in a soldier’s terms of service were the most common reason for military mutiny both in the company’s army and the British army. It must also be acknowledged that mutiny during this period was not uncommon, indeed three companies of the British Strathspey Fencibles, forerunners of the 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment of Foot, one of the regiments engaged to put down the mutiny in India had themselves mutinied in 1794 over a dispute regarding pay and their own terms of service in Ireland. Mutiny it seems was part and parcel of military life throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

India was unique among the British dominions in that there was no large scale success in any attempt to convert the native population to the Christian faith, however the chief complaint of the mutineers was that “they [the British,] had tried to make Christians of us!”. In fact missions were set up but on the whole they were much less successful than they had proved in Africa and the Americas. This was largely because India already had well established mainstream religions, each with an established priesthood, and large, ston-built and often magnificent places of worship. There is a valid argument that the Indians, particularly those in the Army, suspected a British conspiracy to convert them to Christianity and undoubtedly there were those Europeans who felt that this would have been a noble objective. This belief was strengthened when the British furnished the soldiers with the aforementioned cartridges but is it really plausible? When one considers that no real effort was made by the British Government to change the religions already established in India and the only attempts were made by philanthropically funded or charitably organised Christian missions one must question whether or not any such conspiracy existed. what is plausible however is that the actions of the British Government in ignorance, could well have inadvertently encouraged the belief in an attempt to convert the Indians, and, along with the cartridges, provided the sepoys of the Bengal Native Army with an excuse to rise up in a mutiny for which the real reasons lay within British policy in general and more specifically the arrogance of the British authorities in relations with the Indian populace.

Although there might not have been a concentrated effort on behalf of the British Government, to illuminate the Hindu’s, Sikhs and Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, with the divine light of Christianity, this was no obstacle to certain individuals who saw it as their Christian duty to preach.

“The Commissioner at Fatehpur put up at his own expense four pillars at each entrance to the city inscribed in Urdu and Hindi with the Ten Commandments, while one… …Colonel Wheler of the 34th Native Infantry, made no secret of the fact that he had preached the Gospel to his men for twenty years and that his avowed intention – ‘the aim and end of every Christian who speaks the word of God’ – was to convert them to Christianity.”

Through negligence to curb the actions of such men an ugly situation was brewing. Hindus were quicker to embrace the idea of a conspiracy to make all Indians Christians than were the Muslims or Sikhs. The British Government had introduced The Case Disabilities Act of 1850 which allowed Christian converts to inherit property, thus giving the religion of the British a material and financial advantage. In 1856 an act was passed which permitted widow remarriage. The Hindus believed, wrongly, that these laws were an attempt to force them into Christianity. In fact they were more likely the result of pressure from the British residents who found the practices of Suttee and infanticide disturbing and wished to suppress them. This proved to be a further example of traditional Indian culture under threat from the British. It must also be noted that the practice of suttee was almost non existent in the Upper Provinces and most common in the areas of Bengal and the lower provinces, precisely where the mutiny spread most quickly . This shows the areas where Britain had caused the most upset to traditional values.

By 1857 India was booming. As trade increased the use of English as the principle language expanded threatening traditional Sanskrit and Arabic and undermining traditional Indian teaching. The British belittled Hindu education and pressed the pursuit of European sciences and studies “at the expense of oriental learning.”
More and more were the British trampling on the beliefs of the Indian people. Indeed it was the aim of certain members of the higher echelons of British government to make, if not the whole of Indian society then at least the ruling classes, British at heart. In 1835 the whig historian and Indian administrator Thomas Babington Macauley wrote:

“It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of person , Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

With Trade came new technology. The construction of railways forced Indians of different Castes to travel together and is a clear example of the British overlooking the importance of traditional Indian values. Although one contemporary remarked that “thirty miles an hour is fatal to the slow deities of paganism.”

“The new railways, in India as in Europe, had profound social effects, making it possible for people to travel to new areas and form entirely new relationships. In India they had other effects too. Strict caste rules were never observed in the allocation of carriages or the serving of meals. Cracks began to appear in hitherto immutable customs.”

Fear of the loss of caste was a great problem for Indians. In 1856 the British brought in the General Service Enlistment Act which provided that new army recruits must serve overseas as well as in India. To serve overseas would destroy a Hindu's caste standing beyond repair. The act was passed to make sure that there were plenty of soldiers available for service in Burma where four years before the native regiments there had risen in a minor mutiny. Stanley Wolpert argues that the Sepoys thought the act was a conspiracy to pollute the higher caste people, thus making them more likely to become Christian. It must be considered that the General Service Enlistment Act on its own represented yet another example of the British government caring little for the wellfare, religion and culture of the Sepoys. By 1856 the Native contingent of the East India Companies army must have felt that the British Government only cared for them as an expendable resource and had no respect for their beliefs or heritage. Morale was low both amongst the sepoys in the East India Company’s army and amongst the civilian population.

Economic factors added to the causes of the revolt. When the Muslim Mogul government and clergy were ousted from power, they had no trade or vocation to fall back on. The Hindu middle class had to keep the economy going while the unemployed Muslims could only beg on the streets. When the soldiers in Oudh were disbanded, there was no other employment. What employment was obtainable was principally with the army and a native could not advance enough to suit his own ambitions let alone enlist at a rank which would not be detrimental to his Caste or family status. When the Governor General imposed later agricultural reforms, as an attempt to put farmers onto their own land, he had dispossessed and angered a wealthy land-owning elite. At face value the Governor General had a very noble motive but under closer scrutiny British interests were never far from the heart of the matter. In fact it is arguable that Britain’s influence deliberately held India back from “developing from a feudal, somewhat disorganised, but comparatively advanced society in the eighteenth century, into a modern industrial state.” Instead the British government held India back to maintain her status in the primitive role of a primary agricultural producer and home of a cheap workforce.

“The content of the ancient village system… …was drained off ; and, just as with the other systems of land-tenure introduced… …in India, it’s purpose was to establish an economic system for a well-ordered exploitation of the Indian people as producers of raw materials for the British industrialists and as consumers of British merchandise.”

These factors affected the civilian as much if not more so than those Indians in the company’s army. The civil disturbances which followed the military mutiny were much more than opportunistic responses to the breakdown of law and order. The careless policies of the British government had left a deep rooted resentment right across India. This was the reason that the uprising gathered so much support so quickly.

In conclusion it can be said that the 1857 Uprising was caused by insensitivity on behalf of the British Government and inability or unwillingness to consider the effects of British policies on the Indian populace. The Military were the first to rise up and the civil disturbances that followed were more the result of sympathetic civilians rallying to the cause than a rabble taking advantage of the breakdown of public order. The British Government had exploited and milked India as though she were a cash cow for more than a century and resentment against British interference in Indian cultural affairs had been heaped upon the more mundane causes such as the frustration of Indian soldiers whose pay and promotion prospects were lacking compare to the enlisted Europeans. The perceived threat to their religion was however probably the principle cause and that which most Indians found most intrusive. The warning signs were present but they went unheeded. “I can detect the near approach of the storm” wrote one perceptive and anxious British officer on the eve of the catastrophe. “I can hear the moaning of the hurricane, but I can’t say how, when or where it will break forth… …I don’t think they know themselves what they will do, or that they have any plan of action except of resistance to invasion of their religion and their faith.”
Over the course of the period the British government developed an attitude of near complacency and were ill prepared to deal with any problems which might arise.
C.H. Philips summarises nicely that “No government of the period was equipped to undertake the ruling of British India.”

To blame the native sepoys of the East India Company’s army as the cause of the uprising is unfair. The civil disturbances were more than an uprising. To the Indians this was no mere revolt, this was a war. The Indian Mutiny was the direct response of an angry populace against an interfering world super-power who saw India as a resource to feed the engines of British industry and provide an inexhaustible supply of military recruits.


M.E. Chamberlain, Britain and India: The Interaction of Two Peoples, (Newton Abbot, 1974)
Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, (London, 2003)
John Harris, The Indian Mutiny, (London, 1973)
Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, (London, 2001)
Ramkrishna Mukherjee, The Rise and Fall of the East India Company, (New York, 1974)
C.H. Philips, The East India Company 1784-1834, (Manchester, 1961)
Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-1995, (Harlow, 1996)
The Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, (London, 1940)
Peter Stanley, White Mutiny: British Military culture in India 1825-1875, (London, 1998)
Vincent A. Smith, The Oxford History of India (Oxford, 1958)
Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India (Oxford, 1982)
The Qur'an
The King James Bible

Records and Archives 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment.
Lord William Bentinck, On Ritual Murder in India, (1829) in Speeches and Documents on Indian Policy 1750-1921, ed. Arthur B. Keith (Oxford, 1922)
Another good one MiLairdx, have you any info on whether the Chappati bread was an official part of the rising?.
whiffler said:
Another good one MiLairdx, have you any info on whether the Chappati bread was an official part of the rising?.
Or the watered down lager? :wink:

Was interesting by the way.
The watered down lager was no doubt the principle cause. I shall abandon the research I have done thus far and pursue this new line of enquiry.
Another good book to read on the subject is, The Indian Mutiny - 1857, by Saul David. It has only been out for about a year so quite up to date in its analsys.

As it the revolt was mainly contained in the northern territories of India, it was provoked by people such as 'Nana Sahib' to profit from it for themselves. However is was not the widespread when you consider that the Sikhs, who had only been conquered eight years before remained loyal

The thing I find disturbing, having been to India in my youth was that when you visit old sights, such as the Kashmir Gate in Delhi, the memorial plaques have been left in place, but the Indian Government have put their own plaques there trying to re-write their own history. The Indian term for the conflict is 'The First War of Independence.'
Well, the book I read didn't mention the lager, but there were numerous accounts of a fresh chappati being baked and delivered to nearby villages, who would repeat the process the next evening. Even those who participated seemed not to know why they did it, but the mutiny followed soon after and some considered it to be the cue for the mutineers to act.

I can't quote the book, but I read it approx 5 years ago. Early chapters were hilarious in detailing daily routine of an officer in garrison.

Something like - Rise at 4, swim, go out and shoot some (preferably) beautiful birds at 5, return for massage and breakfast, write some letters, play billiards for an hour, lunch, swim, sleep, go out and shoot something else, tea, swim, mess dinner.

Meanwhile the troops were getting w@nkered on local brews.
On a side issue, I am re-reading a very interesting book called "Britain's Forgotten Wars" by a guy called Ian Hernon.

It covers the likes of the little known Jamaica Rebellion in 1865 and the numerous kickings the British Army and East India Company troops got in Ceylon before pacifying that island in the early 19th Century.

And, also, my current favourite of the moment, the 45 minute long Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896. :D

Worth a ten good pounds sterling of anyones cash.
Sounds good Duckypoos. Does it mention the 'Battle of the Red Lion Inn' where a lone lairdx subdued a rebellious mob armed only with half a tuna baguette?
Lairdx said:
Sounds good Duckypoos. Does it mention the 'Battle of the Red Lion Inn' where a lone lairdx subdued a rebellious mob armed only with half a tuna baguette?
No mate. Though I reckon it was the stench of the Tuna Baguette (is that a euphemism for the slapper you picked up that night?) that drove the madding hordes back, rather than you yourself, mate.

It's fun to have a giggle , but please don't pull Lairdx's posts off topic. There has been a lot of hard work put into this and other posts , and I'm sure we all appreciate the effort he's gone to.

As do his troops no doubt, because he's in Coy lines all day tapping away like a maniac and not beasting them silly :)

I'd like to see more in depth discussion on the points LairdX raises , including the assertion the GM Fraser makes in Flashman and the Great game? that the East India Company troops were respectful of their native colleagues, and it was only later , that that respect disappeared.

Also , the change or disintegration? in the native army after Chinwillah.

PTP, quite agree.


What do you think about the significance of the year 1857, 100 years after the battle of Plassey. I'm sure 1807 is also significant but a quick check at my references fails to show why.
PartTimePongo said:
As do his troops no doubt, because he's in Coy lines all day tapping away like a maniac and not beasting them silly :)

Actually PTP as I have been working on these for some time and had most of it prepared in advance saved on my hard disk. I am guilty of cut and paste. The little Barstewards don't get out of a beasting that easily. Although I have been a little soft on them today and not made them each wear six wooly pullovers and mark time for three hours due to the heat.

George Macdonald Frazer raises a good point with regards to the respect european troops had towards native troops in both the British army and the company's army. It wouldn't take much to upset them though and I really think that the imagined threat to religion combined with the gradual destruction of the caste system did far more harm than the somewhat triffling affair of the rifle cartridges upon which, in my mind, too many historians place too much importance.
polar said:
PTP, quite agree.


What do you think about the significance of the year 1857, 100 years after the battle of Plassey. I'm sure 1807 is also significant but a quick check at my references fails to show why.
I honestly hadn't thought about that. What do you think?
Lairdx said:
I honestly hadn't thought about that. What do you think?
Was reading RAJ by Lawrence James.

Can't remember exact details but he thought the date was quite significant. For some reason I think 2007 will be also (I am sober).

Will re-read the book/chapter and post a better reply
I'd like to see more in depth discussion on the points LairdX raises , including the assertion the GM Fraser makes in Flashman and the Great game? that the East India Company troops were respectful of their native colleagues, and it was only later , that that respect disappeared.
A good point. I recall reading in more than one source that the calibre of both civil and military officer which John Company began attracting after the early decades of the 19th century was somewhat different to that which had gone before. There was less respect shown to native troops and their traditions, with such practices as the blessing of a regimental stand of arms and colours becoming less frequent. An additional factor was the role of European women, who constituted 'portable little packets of morality'; they put an end to the previous habit of the taking of native mistresses, which, from a purely practical viewpoint, had allowed European officers to gain a greater understanding of local languages, dialects, and customs. When this changed, the gap in understanding between European officer and native sepoy widened. With the consolidation of the European presence in India, it may well have been that many officers felt that there was no need to make the effort. As already metioned, the increasingly poselytizing manner of European Christian missionaries in India served to alienate and anger many across all classes in Indian society.

It was also felt in certain official circles, both in India and Britain, that the expansion of the Company in the years after 1815 in particular had been too fast. This was felt to have resulted in the ad hoc adminstration of the newly-acquired territories, often under widely varying treaty terms.

The 'greased cartridge' aspect was one of the triggering factors, but it it hadn't been this it would have almost certainly been something else; those in the know knew that something was brewing.
Yet another outstanding indepth post well done Lardix, we'll even forgive you for the photo, many years ago we'll assume.
So greaseing of the cartridge was an old time honoured procedure (must go back to before Cromwells time).
I must admit I had never wondered why the Greaseing suddenly became important as I am not a weapons expert.
Religion ah yes now this was/is always a bad subject where any form of disipline is conncerned. I do not have any strong religious beliefs so I do wonder why folks place so much emphasis on spiritual matters, but they do and this must be accepted. So many of todays problems still centre around religion, N.I. of my time and the Jewish/Islam, Sunni/Shia of today let alone the sh1t we had with that old failed religion of Karl Marks.
Women, Oh My Buddha, well we do need um but at 57 I still can't make my mind up if they deserve to have equal rights, for the always have the last say in bed and I've never been in ta rape. 50/50 split on devorce then they want their share of your 50%.
Yes White Women in what had been a 'totally' male preserve would probably have been sufficent cause for the mutiny.
The tobbacco industry out here has/had large numbers of former Zimbabwaene men in management positions and the tales of their wives attitudes to locals, are still a source of wispers, the probelm is not the men it's the honkey bitches who cause the trouble.
A great exspansion of territory under control would also cause massive problems with administration and of course KGB's friends up narf would not have helped.
Excellent artical look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.
I must confess to knowing far too little about the Indian Mutiny.

On basic historical principles however, I'd like to raise a point about Christian conversion and natives. How might the fact that before 1857, all British control in India was (technically) via an NGO change our perspective on NGO Christian organisations trying to convert the Indians (I'm aware that NGO is an anachronism; it gets the point across). And how can we understand 'conversion' in the C19th sense? My background is in Roman history, but there, when we think about conversion, you've got to consider the culture as well. Would an Indian brought up with Vishnu, Shiva and performing arti daily, when converted to Christianity, immediately lose all that? Or would he (or she - what's the role of women in this?) still be culturally Hindu/Muslim/native religion, but with a Christian veneer? I think that can quite significantly affect our understanding of social history for any period - the understanding that we can't put things into such discrete categories as 'Christian' or 'native'.

I'm not accusing you of any methodological flaws, Lairdx - your post was highly interesting and informative, it taught me a lot - just suggesting another aspect to consider. Also, a historiographical point - does the bibliography on this topic still fall into the trap that a lot of work on Roman Britain still does (tho' it's getting better) - that 'the Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, because the Britons were only natives at the time'? Your post scrupulously avoids any taint of progressive views of civilisation, and I'm interested in whether that's a reflection of the literature on the topic. If it is, that suggests some interesting comparitive points between ancient and more modern history.

My tuppence,

good question smithie. It's probably more a reflection on me. I genuinely believe that the british government did not attempt to change the religion. There was already an established religion, laces of worship, clergy of a kind. Unlike say in africa where there was no mainstreem religion as such and the natives proved more easy for the missionary to convert.

I think the trouble was that The british did nothing to prevent the Percieved threat. It was a policy of arrogance to an ancient culture which did far more damage than new rifle cartridges ever could.

I am not really a proffessional historian - just a bit of a dabbler and Your question has really made me think. I will give it some thought. I am pleased that my post has inspired this kind of comment because the truth is I really don't know.
Perhaps the development of the steam-ship was a prerequisite for the change in mentality, as this slashed the journey time from Britain to India, made the attitudes of the "mother country" more accessible to the British in India and lessened the assimilation of the British in India that had previously developed.

I had read somewhere that cartridges were greased with vegetable oil and waxes because of the concerns of the sepoys. Does anyone know if/when this occured?
Fantastic post, Lairdx. I grew up in Delhi and was delighted to see such a well written piece on something I am very interested in myself.

One point that did occur to me, following the discussion on european attitudes to the natives, was that (in a rather strange way) it was a fundamental cause of British victory in the Peninsula War. Wellington had gained the majority of his experience leading Queen's and Company regiments at Seringapatam, Arguam and Assaye in the sub-continent. During the war in Spain and Portugal, Napoleon constantly dismissed the fears of his Marshals that Wellington was a problem and as he considered him to be a "Sepoy General", i.e. fine against natives but incapable against "proper" troops. This attitude made Boney continually under estimate the British and continued right up until Waterloo when they faced each other for the first and only time!

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