The Great Revolt of 1857

The 1857 Revolt sowed the seeds of Indian nationalism, which lay dormant in the subconscious of the Indian people. It started the movement which was a continuous struggle against the British rule till 1947.

Nature of the Revolt

The historical writings of the British scholars underplayed the character of the Revolt of 1857. Sir John Lawrence was of the opinion that the Revolt was purely a military outbreak, and not a conspiracy to overthrow British rule. On the other hand the Revolt of 1857 is hailed by the Indian scholars, especially by Vir Savarkar as the First War of Indian Independence.

Two distinguished Indian historians, R.C. Majumdar and S.N. Sen, have analysed the Revolt of 1857 in depth. The two scholars differ in their opinion. S.N. Sen believes that the 1857 Revolt was part of the struggle for Indian independence. R.C. Majumdar maintains that the outbreaks before 1857, whether civil or military, were “a series of isolated incidents” ultimately culminated in the Great Revolt of 1857.

Causes of the Revolt

Political Causes

The discontent and disaffection manifested in the form of revolts against the British Government were not confined to the ruling chiefs and royal families alone. On the contrary, the British rule was disliked by the people at large in any region when it was newly introduced.

Anti-British feelings were particularly strong in those regions like Burma, Assam, Coorg, Sind, and the Punjab which were unjustly annexed to the British Empire. The Doctrine of Lapse, particularly its practical application by Lord Dalhousie, produced grave discontent and alarm among the native princes, who were directly affected.

Economic Causes

The huge drain of wealth, the destruction of its industry and increasing land revenue had become the common features of the latter half of the eighteenth century. The East India Company, after attaining political power, used it to fund the growth of British trade and commerce at the cost of Indians.

The British damaged the Indian trade and manufacture by imposing a high tariff in Britain against Indian goods, and by encouraging all means the import of British goods to India. In England the ruin of the old handloom weavers was accompanied by the growth of the machine industry.

But in India the ruin of the millions of artisans and craftsmen was not accompanied by any alternative growth of new industrial forms. A new plantation system introduced in the year 1833 resulted in incalculable misery for the Indian peasants. This was the result of permitting Englishmen to acquire land plantations in India.

The hard hit were the peasants on the indigo plantations in Bengal and Bihar.

Social Causes

The Englishmen showed an arrogant attitude towards the Indians. Indiscriminate assaults on Indians by Englishmen became quite common. Also, a general alarm was raised among the Hindus and Muslims by the activities of the Christian missionaries.

The educational institutions established by the missionaries inculcated western education and culture in the place of oriental learning. The native population felt that were losing their social identity.

Military causes

Discontent against the British Raj was widely prevalent among the Indian soldiers in the British army. The Indian sepoys in the British Indian army nursed a sense of strong resentment at their low salary and poor prospects of promotion. The British military officers at times showed least respect to the social values and religious sentiments of Indian sepoys in the army.

Thus, although generally faithful to their masters, the sepoys were provoked to revolt. The Vellore mutiny of 1806, a precursor to the 1857 Great Revolt, was the outcome of such tendencies on the part of the military authorities. Another important cause of the sepoys’ dissatisfaction was the order that abolished the foreign allowance or batta when they served in foreign territories. Thus the discontent was widespread and there was an undercurrent before the volcanic situation of 1857. All that needed was only a spark to set it a fire.

The Beginning of the Revolt

The 1857 Revolt was sparked off by the episode of the greased cartridges. The new Enfield rifle had been introduced for the first time in the Indian army. Its cartridges had a greased paper cover whose end had to be bitten off before the cartridge was loaded into the rifle.

The grease was composed of fat taken from beef and pig. The religious feelings of the Hindu and Muslim sepoys were terribly wounded. The sepoys believed that the government was deliberately trying to destroy their religious and cultural identity. Hence they raised the banner of revolt.

The events that led to the Revolt began on 29 March 1857 at Barrackpore. Mangal Pandey (a sepoy) refused to use the greased cartridges and single-handedly attacked and killed his officer. Mangal Pandey was hanged. The regiment to which he belonged was disbanded and sepoys guilty of rebellion punished.

The British instead of diffusing the explosive situation, paved the way for a mighty crisis by the above act. A chain reaction was set in motion. At Meerut in May 1857, 85 sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry regiment were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for refusing to use the greased catridges.

Therefore, on 10 May the sepoys broke out in open rebellion, shot their officers, released their fellow sepoys and headed towards Delhi. General Hewitt, the officer commanding at Meerut was helpless to prevent the army’s march. Next morning the rebellious army reached Delhi.

bahadur shahThe city of Delhi fell into the hands of the rebellious soldiers on 12 May 1857. Lieutenant Willtashby, the officer in charge of Delhi could not prevent the mutineers. Soon, the mutineers proclaimed the aged nominal king, Bahadur Shah II of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperor of India.

Very soon the rebellion spread throughout northern and central India at Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Banares, in parts of Bihar, Jhansi and other places.


The leadership at Delhi was nominally in the hands of Bahadur Shah, but the real control was exercised by General Bakht Khan. On the side of the British the combined effort of Nicholson, Wilson, Baird Smith and Neville Chamberlain enabled the recapture Delhi by September 1857.

In Delhi, Emperor Bahadur Shah II was arrested and deported to Rangoon, where he remained in exile till he died in 1862.


tantia topeAt Kanpur the revolt was led by Nana Saheb, the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. Nananana saheb Saheb expelled the English from Kanpur with the help of the sepoys and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. Nana Saheb in his efforts against the British was ably supported by two of his lieutenants.

One was Tantia Tope, the other was Azimullah. Sir Hugh Wheeler the commander of the British garrison at Kanpur surrendered on the 27 June 1857. But, soon Kanpur was recaptured by the British commander Sir Colin Campbell.


 Begum of OudhThe principal person responsible for the revolt in Lucknow was the Begum of Oudh. With the assistance of the sepoys, the zamindars and peasants, the Begum organised an all out attack on the British. Henry Lawrence, the chief commissioner tried to defend the British.

Lawrence was killed in a bomb blast during the fight. The final relief for the British forces in Lucknow came in the form of Sir Colin Campbell, who suppressed the revolt.


Rani Lakshmi Bai of JhansiRani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, the widowed queen of Gangadhar Rao played a heroic role in this revolt. Rani Lakshmi Bai was affected by Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse, was joined by Tantia Tope. The combined efforts of Rani and Tantia Tope saw the capture of Gwalior.

Meanwhile, Sir Hugh Rose defeated Tantia Tope and stormed Jhansi on 3 April 1858. He then captured Gwalior. The Rani of Jhansi died a soldier’s death on 17 June 1858. Tantia Tope was captured and hanged on charges of rebellion and murder in the massacre of Kanpur.


Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur near Oudh, was the chief organiser of the revolt in Bihar. He fought the British in Bihar. Kunwar Singh sustained a fatal wound in the battle and died on 27 April 1858 at Jagdishpur.

Ultimately the 1857 Revolt came to an end with the victory of the British. Viceroy Canning proclaimed peace throughout India.

Causes for the Failure of the Revolt

The first and foremost cause was that the Revolt failed to embrace the whole of India. Different sections of society such as moneylenders, merchants and modern educated Indians were actually against the Revolt. The lack of interest shown by the intellectuals in the movement was a serious setback.

The resources of the British Empire were far superior to those of the rebels. Similarly, the insurgents lacked a carefully concerted general plan or a strong central organisation to plan the movements of the army and oversee their strategy. On the other hand, the British possessed better equipment.

In addition, the British were aided by new scientific inventions such as the telegraph system and postal communications. This enabled the British to keep in touch with all parts of the country and to manoeuvre their troops according to their needs. All the said factors combined to cause the defeat of the rebels of the 1857 Revolt and ended in the victory for the British.

Significance and Effects of the Mutiny

sepoy mutiny

The Revolt of 1857 though completely suppressed had shaken the very foundations of British rule in India, for the simple reason that the Revolt exhibited the popular character. It brought together the disgruntled sections of society to rise against the British rule. The common people rose up in arms often fighting with spears and axes, bows and arrows, lathis and scythes, and crude mulkets.

However, this civilian revolt was not universal but sporadic and inconsistent. Nevertheless, it added a new dimension to the character of the 1857 Revolt. Another significant aspect of the 1857 Revolt was the Hindu-Muslim unity. As far as the effects of the Revolt are concerned, it brought about fundamental changes in the character of Indian administration which was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1 November, 1858.

At the same time the Governor-General received the new title of Viceroy. Lord Canning had the unique opportunity to become the Governor-General as well as the first Viceroy according to the Act of 1858. Lord Canning proclaimed the new Government at Allahabad on 1 November 1858 in accordance with the Queen’s Proclamation.

The latter has been called the Magna Carta of the Indian people; it disclaimed any extension of territory, promised religious toleration, guaranteed the rights of Indian princes and pledged equal treatment to her subjects, Indians and Europeans.

The Revolt of 1857 ended an era and sowed the seeds of a new one. The year 1857 is a great divide between the two landmarks in Indian history. One was that of British paramountcy in the first half, and the other is that of the growth of Indian nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

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