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The Sepoy Rebellion (I), Episode 50 - 24/02/06

Overview

Fighting at Lucknow (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Mutineers attack British troops at Lucknow
(Getty Images)
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The Sepoy Rebellion began in the spring of 1857 in Bengal among the sepoys - a Sepoy is an Indian soldier. Some 45,000 white British soldiers, half of them in Punjab, waited in May anticipating the uprising. There was no chance of immediate reinforcements from England.

The rebellion began at Meerut on 10 May. Within three days a figurehead Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah the Second, was proclaimed. Inside three weeks the rebellion covered the Ganges valley.

The reasons for the rebellion were long standing and included: attempts by British missionaries to convert all India to Christianity; ineffectual command of the army in Bengal; insensitive recruiting policy and "Europeanization" of the sepoy regiments and sepoy objections to serving outside their homeland and traditional areas. The spark that started the rebellion was the relatively new objection by sepoys to cartridges coated with animal grease. This offended both Hindus and Muslims.

Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner, observed that "these combinations, arsons and émeutes are all caused by the disaffection which has arisen from the introduction of the new cartridge; nothing will put a stop to this state of affairs short of giving up the use of new cartridges of any kind. The disaffection pervades the whole of the Native Regular Army and will extend to the irregulars. Even punishment will not prove effective; for the sufferers will become objects of sympathy and be looked upon as martyrs for their religion".

At Meerut on 23 April 1857 troops refused to use the new cartridges. On 9 May they were publicly degraded, stripped of their uniforms and jailed. This prompted other sepoys to break open the jail and kill any European officer they could find before heading for Dehli. For some reason the British hadn't a full regiment on standby. On 30 May came the uprising at the Lucknow garrison followed by the notorious massacre of Europeans in Cawnpore.

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Historical Figure

Sir John Lawrence (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Sir John Lawrence
(Getty Images)
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Sir John Lawrence 1811-1879

Sir John Lawrence was the brother of Sir Henry Lawrence who was killed during the siege of Lucknow in 1857. John Lawrence came from Richmond, Yorkshire and joined the Indian civil service in Delhi. As Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab he became famous for defending the local people from the excesses of their own leaders. It was he, with the sympathies and then military help of the local people who overcame the Punjab mutineers (relatively small in number) and so perhaps tipped the course of the mutiny in the favour of the British because the Punjab did not follow Bengal. In 1863, seemingly to his surprise, he was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General although he left no significant mark at government house.

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Did You Know...

Further evidence that the greased cartridges were not the reason for the mutiny comes from documents showing there had been for some time secret meetings to call a general uprising against the British for later that year.

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Contemporary Sources

Sir John Lawrence's view of the cause of the Rebellion

From a minute in the India Record Office

"Sir John is convinced that these combinations, arsons and émeutes are all caused by the disaffection which has arisen from the introduction of the new cartridge; and he is persuaded that nothing will put a stop to this state of affairs short of giving up the use of new cartridges of any kind. The sepoys are ignorant men; they believe that it is contemplated to force upon them what is objectionable in their eyes; and an opinion of this kind having got abroad nothing short of abandoning the introduction of all new cartridges will prove effectual to remove it. If this be not done and made generally known, mischief will spread. The disaffection pervades the whole of the Native Regular Army and will extend to the irregulars. Even punishment will not prove effective; for the sufferers will become objects of sympathy and be looked upon as martyrs for their religion."

The British attempt to prevent the Sepoy Rebellion

From a proclamation from the Governor-General's office, 16 May 1857

"The Governor-General of India in Council has warned the army of Bengal that the tales by which the men of certain regiments have been led to suspect that offence to their religion or injury to their caste is meditated by the government of India are malicious falsehoods. The Governor-General in Council has learnt that this suspicion continues to be propagated by designing and evil minded men not only in the army but among other classes of the people… The Governor-General in Council enjoins all such persons to pause before they listen to false guides and traitors who would lead them into danger and disgrace."

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