Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sepoy Mutiny erupted in India, unleashing long-simmering anti-British sentiment generated by the increasingly oppressive tactics of the British East India Company as it took control of the Indian subcontinent. Although eventually put down, the mutiny resulted in the usurpation of the company by the British government, which instituted direct rule of India.

Summary of Event

By 1848, the British East India Company British East India Company;and Sepoy Mutiny[Sepoy Mutiny] had presided over more than two hundred years of British colonialism on the Indian subcontinent. It had subjugated or eliminated all major indigenous Indian states, making India the “Crown Jewel of the British Empire.” In 1848, however, the company faced financial difficulties. Great Britain imposed a higher tax on it, and in order to raise the necessary revenue to pay this tax, the company began once more to expand its Indian holdings. To acquire and maintain new territory, the company needed a relatively large army, composed mostly of indigenous South Asian soldiers called “sepoys.” The company’s 250,000 sepoys were overseen by 35,000 British officers. Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858) India;Sepoy Mutiny British Empire;Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858) British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [kw]Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule (May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858) [kw]Mutiny Against British Rule, Sepoy (May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858) [kw]Rule, Sepoy Mutiny Against British (May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858) Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858) India;Sepoy Mutiny British Empire;Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858) British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [g]British Empire;May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858: Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule[3170] [g]India;May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858: Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule[3170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858: Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule[3170] [c]Colonization;May 10, 1857-July 8, 1858: Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule[3170] Pande, Mangel Bahādor Shāh II Campbell, Sir Colin

By 1857, the sepoy force dominated India, but the British solidiers tended to view the sepoys with contempt, creating tension between the two factions. Meanwhile, tensions were also increasing between the British forces and the general Indian populace. The expansion of the last decade had entailed the annexation of more than ten formerly autonomous rāj, or kingdoms, and the prince of each kingdom had been disenfranchised, losing not only political power but material wealth as well. The anger of these princes did not spark the war that was to break out in May, but it certainly contributed to its longevity.

The motivation for the war is still in debate, but it is almost certain to have been caused by a mixture of Indian religious convictions, reactions to British attempts to Westernize their colonial subjects, British use of divide-and-conquer tactics, and the aforementioned annexations. One proximate cause of the war was much more concrete, however: At Meerut, where the uprising began, sepoys were resisting the requirement that they bite the ends of their Lee-Enfield rifle cartridges prior to loading them. The cartridges were greased with pig fat and beef tallow. Islam;and Sepoy Mutiny[Sepoy Mutiny] Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, and Hindus revere cows, so biting the cartridges was both a religious violation and physically revolting to members of both the major religions of India.

The British indifference to the sepoys’ objections was merely the final instance of the imposition of Western values upon Eastern soldiers and subjects in which the British had engaged for years. They had abolished the ritual suicide of widows at their husbands’ funerals, for example, twenty-eight years earlier. The sepoys were also growing increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that they were fighting for outsiders against their own people. They were being forced to pay taxes to the British East India Company, taxes that seemed to increase constantly, and they endured torturous treatment at the hand of British officers who were not subject to the same laws that governed the sepoys and other indigenous Indians.

Execution of Sepoy rebels.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

An atmosphere of distrust had been building between sepoys and their British officers for several decades, and early in 1857 fires had broken out in Calcutta and a mutiny had been attempted there. A battle had occurred at Berhampore, further to the southeast. It was in such a charged atmosphere that in March, 1857, Mangel Pande Pande, Mangel , a young sepoy of the Thirty-Fourth Native Infantry, shot his sergeant-major’s horse out from under him in Barrackpore. Pande then wounded the officer with a sword, panicked, and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. He was later court-martialed and hanged. The Thirty-fourth Native Infantry was disbanded and publicly humiliated across India; “Pande” became military slang for “mutineer” and eventually a derogatory term for any Indian.

The majority of sepoys considered this treatment of the Thirty-Fourth Native Infantry unjust. They soon began to revere the disbanded regiment as martyrs. Then, in April, sepoy cavalry troops in Meerut refused to handle the new cartridges. They were arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to ten years at hard labor. In a public display meant to humiliate them, the soldiers were stripped, shackled, and marched off to prison. The injustice of this treatment proved too much for Britain’s colonized subjects to bear. The following day, Sunday, May 10, 1857, mob warfare erupted in Meerut. The mob invaded the European sector of the city, sacking and burning. Whole families of Europeans were slaughtered. After a few hours of this havoc, the sepoys, fearing retaliation, fled to the palace of Bahādor Bahādor Shāh II Shāh II, the last of the Mughals, down the road in Delhi.

The sepoy rebels believed that Bahādor Shāh leading them in revolt against the British was their only hope of survival: They expected no mercy if captured. The situation soon worsened, as the sepoys seemed to bring the murderous riots from Meerut to Delhi with them. Most Europeans and Indian Christians in the city were murdered. Bahādor Shāh, though unsympathetic to the sepoy cause, was finally persuaded to lead an insurgency, and Delhi became the center of the resistance.

The British soon struck back. Two months after they were forced out of Delhi, they were again at its outskirts. Forces from the southeast arrived first; they set up camp, awaiting help from John Nicholson and his Punjabi Sikh unit, the Punjab Movable Column, who were approaching from the west. Sikhs were traditional foes of Delhi Hindus, and the British used that pent up animosity to their advantage, keeping the “mutineers” at bay until heavy siege guns arrived to overcome the sepoy forces in Delhi. Nicholson allowed his Sikh troops to loot the city, but he was killed in the skirmish. The Sikhs’ allegiance had been to their commander, not to the British, and they departed after he died, but Delhi was already defeated. Bahādor Shāh Bahādor Shāh II was convicted of treason and exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.

The reclamation of Delhi did not end the sepoy resistance, which made several territorial gains outside that city. Kanpur (Cawnpore)—site of an important ford across the Ganges River and the junction of the main roads along the Gangetic plain—was taken by sepoy forces during the summer months of 1857, after a relatively short siege ravaged the British troops there, who were hopelessly exposed. The overcome British colonists were forced into boats, and the sepoys began to transport them into exile downriver. All went well, until confusion among the sepoys caused several to man the boats and make for shore, upon which the British, who had been allowed to retain their sidearms, opened fire. In response, the sepoys on the riverbanks massacred all but a few women and children. These survivors were herded into a former officer’s residence to await an even more grisly fate a few days later, when an unruly mob hacked them to pieces and threw them down a well.

News of this event horrified the British, and Kanpur became a symbol of redoubled British effort in the war. All new troops were channeled through Kanpur to be shown the site of the massacre before moving on to their posts. It was during the sepoy Siege of Lucknow that the tide finally turned in favor of the British. The Europeans in Lucknow, about seventeen hundred in all governed by Henry Lawrence, had assembled in the Residency compound in late June and fortified it to make their stand. They were able to resist sepoy advances, even when the sepoys resorted to tunneling under the fortifications, which they were unable to breach. Finally in October, a British force led by Sir Colin Campbell Campbell, Sir Colin was able to secure the city against sepoy advance until the occupants of the Residency could escape.

Lucknow was left to the rebels. With the relief of the Lucknow captives, however, the British garnered their strength and reasserted themselves with a thirst for vengeance that at least equaled the murderous sepoy frenzy. The British counterattack, known as the “Devil’s Wind” among the locals, lasted from the end of 1857 through the first half of 1858, as the British gradually retook all they had lost during the ill-fated sepoy war. Vengeful British troops considered whatever cruelties they dished out justified, just as any loot they secured seemed to them to be repayment in kind for what they had endured at the hands of the sepoy rebels. Fortunes were made for many British families during this expansive repacification of north-central India. When the looting and vengeance were complete, peace was officially declared on July 8, 1858.


Perhaps no other military skirmish within the British Empire, prior to 1857, so captured the imagination of the British as did the Sepoy Mutiny. The British had come to think of themselves as global benefactors to all “backward” peoples of the world, and their worldview was contested by the events in India. It remained largely intact, however, as the Victorian imagination lacked the capacity to understand the sepoys as oppressed people seeking justice. The sepoys fought the British—perhaps the most powerful empire of the age—to a near defeat with very little at their disposal. Even their temporary success was a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to find the energy to resist severe and long-lasting oppression. This success was followed, however, by the vengeful coldness of a self-perceived superior culture reasserting its own imperial form of justice. Even though the uprising failed, the war marked the end of corporate governance in India, as the British government determined it needed to take direct control of its colony.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alavi, Seema, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition, 1770-1830. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Account of the evolution of the sepoy army under the wing of the British East India Company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. Great Mutiny: India, 1857. New York: Penguin Books, 1980. A standard study of the uprising, its causes, and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokes, Eric. The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986. Less conventional account of the Sepoy Mutiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Andrew. Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacre and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. New York: H. Holt, 1996. Meticulously researched account of the cycle of massacres at the heart of the Sepoy Mutiny.

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