Any attempt to explain the revolt of 1857 as traditional India's rejection of modern reform is far too crude. Impulses towards change before then had been weak and uneven. In Bengal and in the south, which had long been under British rule, there were no revolts. In the areas that did rebel in 1857, the British seem to have succeeded in creating disaffection, and deposed noble Indians from their thrones, without as yet attracting significant support.
In the most recent British acquisition of all, the kingdom of Awadh (Oudh), annexed in 1856, not only had the ruler been deposed but many landowners had lost control over what they regarded as their estates. Taxes were high throughout the region, and there were few opportunities for the enterprising to make a profit. Western influences were limited in the towns, but the first Christian missions had appeared there, and new colleges had opened, which seemed to be an unwelcome intrusion to many devout Hindus and Muslims. They also fed fears of a Christian offensive and of forced conversions.
Northern India had a long tradition of spasmodic disorder and resistance to government. These upheavals would probably have become more intense in the mid 19th century, but could have been contained if the British had not alienated a group of people on whom their security depended. These people were the soldiers, or sepoys, of the Bengal army, whose mutiny eventually set off the 1857 rebellion.
The Bengal army was recruited not from Bengal itself but from northern India, especially from Awadh. To be a soldier in the Bengal army had become an occupation to which high status was attached. The sepoys saw themselves as an élite. Over many years the Bengal army had fought faithfully for the British, but on their own terms. They would not go overseas and they required an elaborate train of camp followers, and by 1857 the British high command was losing patience with this.
Supplies of more flexible soldiers who would not stand on their privileges were becoming available in Nepal and the Punjab, and the Bengal army was told it must modernise - by accepting obligations to serve outside India, and by using a new rifle. The spark that ignited the soldiers' great fear - that their cherished status was to be undermined - was the rumour concerning the use of pig and cow fat, forbidden in the Muslim and Hindu religions respectively, as lubricant on the cartridges for the new rifles. Cantonment after cantonment rebelled. When the soldiers refused to acknowledge British authority, the way was left open for disaffected princes and aristocrats, and for village and town people with grievances, to revolt alongside the soldiers.
Find out more
Aftermath of the Revolt: India 1857-1870 by Thomas R. Metcalf (Princeton, 1964)
Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858: A Study of Popular Resistance by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Delhi, 1984)
'India 1818-1860: The Two Faces of Colonialism' by D. A. Washbrook, published in Andrew Porter, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, III, The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1999)
Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (London, 1998)
The New Cambridge History of India, II. 1, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire by C. A. Bayly (Cambridge, 1988)
The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857 edited by C. A. Bayly (Oxford, 1986)
The Oriental and India Office Collections in the British Library provides access to material relating to all the cultures of Asia and North Africa and the European interaction with them.
The National Army Museum, Chelsea has information specifically about the Indian mutiny.
The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, has a permanent exhibition on the Indian army.
Places to visit
The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Clock Tower Yard, Temple Meads, Bristol, BS1 6QH, will open its galleries on 26 September 2002. There will be a temporary exhibition, called 'India: Pioneering Photographs, 1850-1900' during 2002. Meanwhile, inquiries to see the collections of photographs and documentary archives or to use the oral history archive are welcome (telephone: 0117 925 4980).