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The Origins of the Indian Mutiny, Episode 49 - 23/02/06

Overview

Nana Sahib leads his band in the Indian Mutiny (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Rebel leader Nana Sahib leads his band in the Indian Mutiny
(Getty Images)
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The British still call the rebellion the Indian Mutiny but that is misleading. It was not an all-India mutiny. It was confined to Bengal and started with discontent among sepoys - Indian soldiers in the British army.

This was not the first rebellion. In 1806 sepoys mutinied because they had been ordered to wear a new style of head dress, to trim their beards and stop wearing caste marks. They believed these orders were another pressure on them to become Christians. This led to a massacre of Europeans at Vellore.

It is wrong to accept the popular reason that sepoys refusing to use cartridges coated in animal fat caused the 1857 rebellion. There were relevant causes other than greased cartridges:

1. The British restructured India on European lines thus usurping centuries of right and privilege.

2. Governor-General Dalhousie seized states claiming that the Hindu custom of accession was illegal. This was known as the Doctrine of Lapse.

3. Many sepoy regiments were recruited from the wrong areas and castes and didn't want to serve outside their own regions.

4. Discipline in many regiments was poor.

5. Promotion was on time serving rather than ability and this added to discontent as well as inefficiency.

6. For decades there had been friction between the British and Indians because the latter, with some considerable justification, believed it was government policy to aid British missionaries who tried to convert Indians to Christianity with the force of the 1813 Charter Act encouraging them so to do.

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Historical Figure

James Andrew Broun-Ramsay (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie
(Getty Images)
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Marquess of Dalhousie 1812-1860

James Andrew Broun-Ramsay was born at Dalhousie Castle, Midlothian and educated at Harrow and Christ Church Oxford. In 1843 he was Vice President of the Board of Trade under Peel. Gladstone was the board President and in 1845 Dalhousie succeeded the future Prime Minister. In 1847 became the youngest Governor-General of India. He started the Indian railway, the expansion of the telegraph and introduced plans for a nationwide irrigation system. Dalhousie revised the Indian Civil Service and opened it to all races. His health was broken by India and he retired the year before the mutiny.

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Did You Know...

The story of the greased cartridges started in the 1850s. The army was changing over to a new weapon. The cartridge was partly greased to make it easier to ram down the barrel. The army needed to know how a greased cartridge would react to the temperature and humidity in India. During the two years of the tests there were no complaints from the sepoys.

The greasing came in three parts, the most sensitive being tallow. Towards the end of January came the first signs that the Indian soldiers, including officers, had asked that the greased composition should be changed. The answer: sepoys should be issued with clean cartridges and they should be allowed to grease them with whatever they wished. Moreover, any tallow would be that from goats or sheep.

However, the rumour persisted that the tallow was from pigs and cows. It was clear by February that the cartridge and grease question was a vehicle to raise the wider grievance. By then, rebellion was inevitable.

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Contemporary Sources

Lord Dalhousie's plan for acheiving English control of the throne of Delhi

From Lord Dalhousie's minute to the Court of Directors of the East India Company

"On my arrival in Calcutta I received the despatch of the Honourable Court in reply to my letter on the succession of the throne of Delhi. In that letter I had recommended to the honourable court that, on the death of the present King, the title of Sovereignty should be withdrawn from the head of the House of Timour, that the Palace now occupied by the royal family within in the city of Delhi should pass into the possession of the Honourable Company, and that the exemption from judicial process now enjoyed by every member of the family should be withdrawn, excepting only the prince and his immediate family. The Honourable Court have conveyed to the Governor-General in Council full authority to carry those measures into effect. But I have for some time been made aware through various channels that the measures I have thus proposed regarding the throne of Delhi have not met with the concurrences of the authorities in England, whose long experience and knowledge of Indian affairs entitle their opinions to great weight, and that many there regard the tendency of these proposed measures with anxiety, if not with alarm.

"I have reconsidered the recommendations which I formerly submitted to the honourable court and the reasons on which they were founded. With unfeigned deference to the opinions of those to whom I have alluded, I still hold the views I then expressed. I still think it of great importance that the palace at Delhi should be exclusively in the hands of the British government, and I earnestly desire that that object should be pursued."

A British spin on the greased cartridges issue

From a letter from George Barnes, Commissioner and Superintendent of the Cis-Sutlej states to Robert Mongomery, judicial commissioner for the Punjab, 5th February 1858

"The spark which lit the train was undoubtedly the greased cartridges. A change in the shape of a turban had led, in eighteen hundred and six, to the mutiny and massacre of Europeans at Vellore, and there can be no doubt that the danger to their caste, supposed to be hidden in the obnoxious cartridge, was sufficient case, in the existing temper of the sepoys to incite a revolt...

"Incendiary fires began to blaze in every large cantonment and soon the special grievance of the new cartridge was lost in the unmistakable signs of general mutiny. In February, the 19th Native Infantry refused even the old cartridges which, in common with the whole Bengal army, they had used for years."

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