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.

The Vellore Mutiny

Vellore was the capital of erstwhile North Arcot district in Tamil Nadu. At present, this district is named after its capital Vellore. It is a well fortified and beautiful city.

vellore mutiny

With the expansion of the East India Company’s rule in India, the native rulers and their dependents suffered. The native rulers either submitted or rebelled. These rebellions had no clear vision or ideal but purely motivated by the territorial interest of the native rulers and their ambition to preserve the old feudal order.

The heroism and sacrifice of individuals like Puli Thevar, Kattabomman and Marudu Brothers had no parallel. But all these leaders never organised the common people for a unified and meaningful cause. The ideas of nationalism, political consciousness and organized struggle came much later. In Vellore the native sepoys rose in revolt in 1806.

This incident differs from other previous rebellions in. The earlier rebellions were those of the native rulers. The Vellore Mutiny was organized by the sepoys. The earlier rebellions had only a regional interest. Every prince wanted to safeguard his own kingdom at any cost. But Vellore Mutiny was the result of spontaneous outflow of the feelings of the sepoys who served under the Company. It was a protest by the sepoys against the Company. This protest showed the future possibilities.

Causes of the Vellore Mutiny

Several causes are attributed to the Vellore Mutiny. Indian sepoys had to experience numerous difficulties when they went to serve in the Company’s army. The sepoys were forced to serve under the Company since their earlier patrons (the native chieftains) were all disappearing from the scene.

The strict discipline, practice, new weapons, new methods and uniforms were all new to the sepoys. Anything new appears to be difficult and wrong for a man who is well-settled in the old way of life for a long-time. Sir John Cradock, the commander-in-chief, with the -approval of Lord-William Bentinck, the Governor of Madras, introduced a new from of turban, resembling a European hat. Wearing ear rings and caste marks were also prohibited.

The sepoys were asked to shave the chin and to trim the moustache. The sepoys felt that these were designed to insult them and their religious and social traditions. There was also a popular belief that this was the beginning of a process by which all of them would be converted to Christianity. The English treated the Indian sepoys as their inferior. There was the racial prejudice.

This was the psychological base for the sepoy mutinies in India during the Company’s rule. The sepoys once served the local chieftains (either Hindu or Muslim). The chieftains were their own kinsmen but now they served under the foreigners. They can never forget their original loyalties. The Vellore uprising was preceded by a series of protests by the Indian troops. In May 1806, the 4th Regiment rose in revolt against the new turban. The Commander-in-Chief took severe action the sepoys who were found guilty were punished with 500 to 900 lashes.

Before the mutiny secret associations were formed and meetings held in which Tipu’s family took part. On June 17th 1806 a sepoy of the 1st Regiment named Mustapha Beg, secretly informed his commanding officer, Colonel Forbes, that a plot had been planned for the extermination of the European officers and troops. But this was not taken seriously .

On the eve of the Mutiny at Vellore Fettah Hyder, the first son of Tipu, tried to form an alliance against the English and sought the help of the Marathas and the French. Fettah Hyder received secret information through one Mohommed Malick.Besides, princes Fettah Hyder and Moiz-ud-Deen in particular were active in planning the execution of the Mutiny. Thus, there was the desire to revive the old Muslim rule in this region.

The sepoys were aware of the tragic end of Puli Thevar, Khan Sahib, Kattabomman, Marudu Brothers, Tipu Sultan and others. Hence there were ill-feelings about the British in the minds of the sepoys. All these led to the rebellion.

Course of the Mutiny

On July 10th in the early morning the native sepoys of the 1st and 23rd Regiments started the revolt . Colonel Fancourt, who commanded the garrison, was their first victim. Colonel Me Kerras of the 23rd Regiment, was shot down on the parade-ground. Major Armstrong was the next officer to be killed during the mutiny. About a dozen other officers were also killed.

Major Cootes who was outside the fort dashed to Ranipet, 14 miles away, and informed Colonel Gillespie at 7 am . Col. Gillespie reached the Vellore fort at 9 A.M. Meantime, the rebels proclaimed Futteh Hyder, Tipu’s first son, as their new ruler and hoisted tiger-striped flag of Tipu Sultan. But the uprising was swiftly crushed by Col. Gillespie. 800 Indian soldiers were found dead in the fort alone. Six hundred soldiers were imprisoned in Tiruchi and Vellore. Some rebels were hung, some shot dead. The uprising was thus brought to a bloody end.

Tipu’s son was sent to Calcutta. The commander-in-chief and the governor were recalled. Vellore Mutiny failed. There was no proper leadership. The rebellion was also not well organized. But it is the starting point of a new era of the resistance of the sepoys to the British rule. The 18th century was marked by the resistance of the local chieftains. The first six decades of 19th century was marked by the resistance of sepoys. K.K. Pillai rejects the thesis that Vellore Mutiny led to the 1857 revolt. V.D. Savarkar calls the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 as the prelude to the first War of Indian Independence in 1857. N. Sanjivi proclaims that the Tamils had taken the real lead in the Indian freedom struggle. K. Rajayyan argues that this mutiny was a continuation of the Marudu Brothers’ resistance movement against the colonial rule.

Palayakkarar Rebellion against the British

In Tamil Nadu, as in other parts of India, the earliest expressions of opposition to British rule took the form of localized rebellions and uprisings. Chief among these was the revolt of the Palayakkarars (Poligars) against the East India Company.

The Palayakkarar system had evolved with the extension of Vijayanagar rule into Tamil Nadu. Each Palayakkarar was the holder of a territory or Palayam (usually consisting of a few villages), granted to him in return for military service and tribute.

In most cases, the Palayakkarars gave little attention to perform their duties and were interested in increasing their own powers. With their numerical strength, extensive resources, local influence and independent attitude, the Palayakkarars came to constitute a powerful force in the political system of south India.

They regarded themselves as independent, sovereign authorities within their respective Palayams, arguing that their lands had been handed down to them across a span of sixty generations. Such claims were brushed aside by the East India Company.

Puli Thevar

Among the Palayakkarars, there were two blocs, namely the Western and the Eastern blocs. The Western bloc had Marava Palayakkarars and the Eastern bloc had Telugu Palayakkarars. Puli Thevar of Nerkkattumseval headed the former and Kattabomman of Panchalamkuruchi led the latter. These two Palayakkarars refused to pay the kist (tribute) to the Nawab and rebelled.

Many of the neighbouring Palayakkarars put up certain pretexts and did not pay the tribute. Mahfuz Khan, with the assistance of the British army under Col. Heron undertook an expedition to suppress the revolt in March 1755. Puli Thevar and the Marava Palayakkarars of the Western bloc stood firm against the British. Col. Heron decided to deal with the Maravas firmly.

Col. Heron tried to change the mind of Puli Thevar by diplomatic moves and by show of force. But he failed in his attempts. Puli Thevar proceeded to consolidate his position by organising the Marava Palayakkarars of the West into a strong confederacy. He also attempted to get the support of Haider Ali of Mysore and the French against the British.

The British approached Ramnad, Pudukottai and the Dutch for help. Haider Ali couldn’t help Puli Thevar due to a Mysore- Maratha struggle. Yusuf Khan (Khan Sahib) was entrusted by the British with the duty of tackling Puli Thevar and his allies. Puli Thevar attacked Madurai and captured it from Mahfuz Khan. Puli Thevar’s military success had no parallel.

The native ruler triumphed against the British. It is a clear demonstration of the Marava might and the heroism of the patriots. But Yusuf Khan recaptured Madurai. With the help of the Palayakkarars of the Eastern bloc and the king of Travancore, Yusuf Khan had many victories. After fierce battles, Nerkkattumseval was attacked in 1759. In 1767, this city was captured by Col. Campbell.

Puli Thevar escaped and died in exile without finally fulfilling his purpose of checking the growth of the British influence. Although his attempt ended in failure, he leaves a valiant trail of a struggle for independence in the history of South India.

Vira Pandya Kattabomman

Vira Pandya KattabommanVira Pandya Kattabomman became the Palayakkarar of Panchalamkuruchi at the age of thirty on the death of his father, Jagavira Pandya Kattabomman. The Company’s administrators, James London and Colin Jackson had considered him as a man without education but of peaceful disposition. Yet, several events led to the conflict between Kattabomman and East India Company.

During this period the collection of tribute served as a cause of friction. The Nawab of Arcot who had this right surrendered it to the English under the provisions of the Karnatac Treaty of 1792. Therefore, the chief of Panchalamkuruchi, Kattabomman had to pay tribute to the English.

In September 1798, the tribute from Kattabomman fell into arrears. Collector Jackson in his characteristic arrogance and rashness wrote letters to Kattabomman in a threatening language. There is a tradition to indicate that Kattabomman declared : “ It rains, the land yields, why should we pay tax to the English?”

By the 31 May 1789, the total arrears of tribute from Kattabomman amounted to 3310 pagodas. Though Jackson wanted to send an army against Kattabomman, the Madras Government did not give permission. Hence, on the 18 August 1798 Jackson sent an order to Kattabomman to meet him at Ramanathapuram within two weeks. In the meantime, Kattabomman went with arrears of tribute to meet Jackson.

Kattabomman was humiliated twice by Jackson when the former wanted to meet him at Tirukuttalam and Srivilliputttur. But he was told that he could meet the collector only at Ramanathapuram. Despite this humiliation, Kattabomman followed Jackson for twenty three days in a journey of 400 miles through the latter’s route and reached Ramanathapuram on the 19 September.

An interview was granted by Jackson and Kattabomman cleared most of the arrears leaving only 1090 pagodas as balance. During this interview Kattabomman and his Minister, Sivasubramania Pillai, had to stand before the arrogant collector for three hours together. Still he did not permit them to leave the place, but directed them to stay inside the fort.

Kattabomman suspected the intensions of Jackson. Hence, he tried to escape with his minister and brother Oomathurai. At the gate of the fort there followed a clash, in which some people including Lieutenant Clarke were killed. Sivasubramania Pillai was taken prisoner. But Kattabomman escaped. After his return to Panchalamkuruchi, Kattabomman appealed to the Madras Council submitting the facts.

The Madras Government directed Kattabomman to appear before a Committee. Meanwhile, the government released Sivasubramania Pillai and suspended the Collector, Jackson. In response Kattabomman decided to submit. He appeared before the Committee, with William Brown, William Oram and John Casmayor as members. The Committee found Kattabomman not guilty. S. R. Lushington was now appointed Collector in the place of Jackson, latter was eventually dismissed from service.

League of the Palayakkarars

Thus the English removed the source of grievance to Kattabomman. Yet, the humiliation suffered by Kattabomman affected his self-respect. During this time, Marudu Pandyan of Sivaganga organized the South Indian Confederacy of rebels against the British.

The Tiruchirappalli Proclamation was made. He sentmissions Panchalamkuruchi. Thus a close association between Kattabomman and Marudu Pandyan established. The events now moved to a crisis. In August 1798 the son of the Palayakkarar of Sivagiri and his adviser visited Panchalamkuruchi and held consultations.

Kattabomman decided to establish his influence in Sivagiri with the aid of the son of the Palayakkarar. As the Palayakkarar of Sivagiri was a tributary to the Company, the Madras Council considered this move as a challenge to its own authority and ordered war against Kattabomman.

Expedition to Panchalamkuruchi

In May 1799, Lord Wellesley issued orders from Madras for the advance of forces from Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur and Madurai to Tirunelveli. Major Bannerman, armed with extensive powers, assumed the command of the expedition.

On the 1 September, 1799 the Major served an ultimatum directing Kattabomman to surrender and attend on him at Palayamkottai on the 4th. Kattabomman replied that he would submit on a lucky day.

Bannerman considered this reply as evasive and decided on military action.

On 5 September Kattabomman’s fort was attacked. On the 16th reinforcements reached from Palayamkottai. In a clash at Kolarpatti the Palayakkarar troops suffered heavy casualty and Sivasubramania Pillai was taken prisoner. Kattabomman escaped to Pudukkottai. The ruler of Pudukkottai captured Kattabomman from the jungles of Kalapore and handed him over to the British.

Fall of Kattabomman

Bannerman brought the prisoners to an assembly of the Palayakkarars and after a mockery of trial sentenced them to death. Sivasubramania Pillai was executed at Nagalapuram on the 13th of September. On the 16th of October Vira Pandyan was tried before an assembly of Palayakkarars, summoned at Kayattar. In an assertive tone and with contempt for death he admitted the charges levelled against him.

Thereupon, Bennerman announced death penalty. On the 17th of October Kattabomman was hanged to death at a conspicuous spot near the old fort of Kayattar. Vira Pandyan faced the last moments of his life with the pride of a hero.

Marudu Brothers

Despite the exemplary repression of Palayakkarars in 1799, rebellion broke out again in 1800, this time in a more cohesive and united manner.

Although the 1800-1801 rebellion was to be categorized in the British records as the Second Palayakkarar War, it assumed a much broader character than its predecessor. It was directed by a confederacy consisting of Marudu Pandian of Sivaganga, Gopala Nayak of Dindugal, Kerala Verma of Malabar and Krishnappa Nayak and Dhoondaji of Mysore.

The insurrection, which broke out in Coimbatore in June 1800, soon spread to Ramanathapuram and Madurai. By May 1801, it had reached the northern provinces, where Marudu Pandian and Melappan provided the leadership.

Oomathurai, the brother of Kattabomman emerged as a key leader. In February 1801, Oomathurai and two hundred men by a cleverly move took control of Panchalamkuruchi Fort. The fort now re-occupied and reconstructed by rebel forces, Panchalamkuruchi became the centre of the uprising. Three thousand armed men of Madurai and Ramanathapuram, despatched by Marudu Pandian, joined up with the Panchalamkuruchi forces.

However, British forces quickly asserted itself. The Palayakkarar forces based at Panchalamkuruchi were crushed. By the orders of the government, the site of the captured fort was ploughed up and sowed with castor oil and salt so that it should never again be inhabited.The British forces quickly overpowered the remaining insurgents.

The Marudu brothers and their sons were put to death. Oomathurai and Sevatiah were beheaded at Panchalamkuruchi on 16 November, 1801. Seventy-three of the principal rebels were sentenced to transportation. So savage and extensive was the death and destruction wrought by the English that the entire region was left in a state of terror. The suppression of the Palayakkarar rebellions of 1799 and 1800-1801 resulted in the liquidation of the influence of the chieftains. Under the terms of the Karnatac Treaty (31 July, 1801), the British assumed direct control over Tamil Nadu. The Palayakkararr system came to a violent end and the Company introduced the Zamindari settlement in its place.