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The Revolt of 1857

· In 1857, a Revolt broke out in Northern and Central India and nearly swept away British rule.

· The Revolt began with a mutiny of the sepoys, or the Indian soldiers of the Company's army, but soon engulfed wide regions and people. Millions of peasants, artisans, and soldiers fought heroically for over a year and by their courage and sacrifice wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the Indian people.

· The Revolt of 1857 was much more than a mere product of sepoy discontent. It was, in reality, a product of the accumulated grievances of the people against the Company's administration and of their dislike for the foreign regime.

Immediate Cause of Revolt

·· The new Enfield rifle had been introduced in the army. Its cartridges had a greased paper cover whose end had to be bitten of before the cartridge was loaded into the rifle.

· The grease was in some instances composed of beef and pig fat. The sepoys, Hindu as well as Muslim, were enraged, as the use of the greased cartridges would endanger their religion.

· Many of the sepoys, believed that the Government was deliberately trying to destroy their religion.

· The major causes of 1857 Revolt can be studied under the following heads

Economic Cause

· the most important cause of the people’s discontent was the economic exploitation of the country by the British and the complete destruction of its traditional economic fabric.

Socio-Political Cause

· Other general causes of revolt were the British land revenue policies and the systems of law and administration. In particular, a large number of peasant proprietors lost their lands to traders and most of the lenders found themselves hopelessly burden under debt.

· The common people were hard hit by the prevalence of corruption at the lower levels of administration. The police, petty officials, and lower (law) courts were notoriously corrupt.

· The middle and upper classes of Indian society, particularly in the North, were hard hit by their exclusion from the well-paid higher posts in the administration. · Displacement of Indian rulers by the East India Company meant the sudden withdrawal of the patronage and the impoverishment of those who had depended upon it.

· Religious preachers, pandits, and maulavis, who felt that their entire future was threatened, were to play an important role in spreading hatred against the foreign rule.

· · The British army suffered major reverses in the First Afghan War (1838-42) and the Punjab Wars (1845-49), and the Crimean War (I854-56).

· In 1855-56, the Santhal tribesmen of Bihar and Bengal rose up armed with axes and bows and arrows and revealed the potentialities of a popular uprising by temporarily sweeping away British rule from their area.

· The British ultimately won these wars and suppressed the Santhal uprising; however, the disasters British suffered in major battles revealed that the British army could be defeated by determined fighting, even by an Asian army.

· The annexation of Avadh by Lord Dalhousie in 1856 was widely resented in India in general and in Avadh in particular. It created an atmosphere of rebellion in Avadh and in the Company's army. · Dalhousie's action angered the Company's sepoys, as most of them came from Avadh.

· The annexations rule of Dalhousie, created panic among rulers of the native states. They now discovered that their most groveling loyalty to the British had failed to satisfy the British greed for territory.

· This policy of annexation was, for example, directly responsible for making Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi, and Bahadur Shah their staunch enemies.

· Nana Sahib was the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. The British refused to grant Nana Sahib the pension they were paying to Baji Rao II, who died in 1851.

· The British insistence on the annexation of Jhansi incensed the proud of Rani Lakshmibai who wanted her adopted son to succeed her deceased husband.

· The house of the Mughals was humiliated when Dalhousie announced in 1849 that the Successor to Bahadur Shah would have to abandon the historic Red Fort and move to a humbler residence at the Qutab on the outskirts of Delhi.

· In 1856, Canning announced that after Bahadur Shah's death, the Mughals would lose the title of kings and would be known as mere princes.

Religious Cause

· An important role in turning the people against British rule was played by their fear that it endangered their religion. The missionaries tried to convert people and made violent and vulgar public attacks on Hinduism and Islam. They openly ridiculed and denounced the long cherished customs and traditions of the people.

· In 1850, the Government enacted a law, which enabled a convert to Christianity to inherit his ancestral property. · The sepoys also had religious or caste grievances of their own. The Indians of those days were very strict in observing caste rules, etc.

· The military authorities forbade the sepoys to wear caste and sectarian marks, beards, or turbans. · In 1856, an Act was passed under which every new recruit undertook to serve even overseas, if required. This hurt the sepoys' sentiments as, according to the current religious belief of the Hindus, travel across the sea was forbidden and led to less of caste.

Historical Cause

· The sepoys' dissatisfaction was because of the recent order that they would not be given the Foreign Service allowance (batta) when serving in Sindh or in the Punjab. This order resulted in a big cut in the salaries of a large number of them.

· The dissatisfaction of the sepoys had, in fact, a long history. A sepoy mutiny had broken out in Bengal as early as 1764. The authorities had suppressed it by blowing away 30 sepoys.

· In 1806, the sepoys at Vellore mutinied but were crushed with terrible violence.

· In 1824, the 47th Regiment of sepoys at Barrackpore refused to go to Burma by the sea route. The Regiment was disbanded, its unarmed men were fired upon by artillery, and the leaders of the sepoys were hanged.

· In 1844, seven battalions revolted on the question of salaries and batta. · The sepoys in Afghanistan were on the verge of revolt during the Afghan War Two subedars, a Muslim and a Hindu, were shot dead for giving expression to the discontent in the army.


The Revolt began at Meerut, 36 miles from Delhi, on 10 May 1857 and then gathering force rapidly spread across Northern India. It soon embraced a vast area from the Punjab in the North and the Narmada in the South to Bihar in the East and Rajputana in the West. Even before the outbreak at Meerut, Mangal Pande had become a martyr at Barrackpore.

· Mangal Pande, a young soldier, was hanged on 29 March 1857 for revolting single-handed and attacking his superior officers. This and many similar incidents were a sign that discontent and rebellion were brewing among the sepoy, and then came the explosion at Meerut.

· On 24 April 1857, ninety men of the 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges. On 9 May 1857, eighty five of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, and put into fetters. This sparked off a general mutiny among the Indian soldiers stationed at Meerut.

· Delhi was soon to become the center of the Great Revolt and Bahadur Shah its great symbol.

· The entire Bengal Army soon rose in revolt which spread quickly. Avadh, Rohlikhand, the Bundelkhand, Central India, large parts of Bihar, and the East Punjab, all shook off British authority.

· In many of the princely states, rulers remained loyal to their British overlord but the soldiers revolted or remained on the brink of revolt. · More than 20,000 of Gwalior's troops went over to Tantia Tope and the Rani of Jhansi.

· Many small chiefs of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, revolted with the support of the people, who were quite hostile to the British. Local rebellions also occurred in Hyderabad and Bengal. · The tremendous sweep and breadth of the Revolt were matched by its depth.

· After the sepoys had destroyed British authority, the common people was up in arms often lighting with spears and axes, bows and arrows, lathis and scythes, and crude muskets.

· It was the wide participation to the Revolt by the peasantry and the artisans which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt, especially in the areas at present included in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

· The popular character of the Revolt of 1857 also became evident when the British tried to smash it. They had to wage a vigorous and ruthless war not only against the rebellious sepoys but also against the people of Avadh, North Western Provinces and Agra, Central India, and Western Bihar, burning entire villages and massacring villagers and urban people.

·· Much of the strength of the Revolt of 1857 lay in Hindu-Muslim unity. Among the soldiers and the people as well as among the leaders there was complete cooperation as between Hindus and Muslims. · In fact, the events of 1857 clearly bring out that the people and politics of India were not basically communal in medieval times and before 1858.

Centers of 1857 Revolt

· The storm-centers of the Revolt of 1857 were Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Jhansi,and Arrah in Bihar.


· At Delhi, the nominal and symbolic; leadership belonged to the Emperor Bahadur Shah, but the real command lay with a Court of Soldiers headed by General Bakht Khan who had led the revolt of the Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi.


· At Kanpur, the Revolt was led by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa.

· Nana Sahib expelled the English from Kanpur with the help of the sepoysand proclaimed himself the Peshwa. At the same time, he acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India and declared himself to be his Governor.

· The chief burden of fighting on behalf of Nana Sahib fell on the shoulders of Tantia Tope, one of his most loyal servants.

· Tantia Tope has won immortal fame by his patriotism, determined fighting, and skilful guerrilla operations.

· Azimullah was another loyal servant of Nana Sahib. He was an expert in political propaganda.

· Unfortunately, Nana Sahib tarnished his (Azimullah’s) brave record by deceitfully killing the garrison at Kanpur after he had agreed to give them safe conduct.


· The revolt at Lucknow was led by the Begum of Avadh who had proclaimed her young son, Birjis Kadr, as the Nawab of Avadh. Jhansi

· One of the great leaders of the Revolt of 1857 and perhaps one of the greatest heroines of Indian history, was the young Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi.

· The young Rani joined the rebels when the British refused to acknowledge her right to adopt an heir to the Jhansi gaddi (throne) annexed her state, and threatened to treat her as an instigator of the rebellion of the sepoys at Jhansi.

· Rani captured Gwalior with the help of Tantia Tope and her trusted Afghan guards.

· Maharaja Sindhia, loyal to the British, made an attempt to fight the Rani but most of his troops deserted to her.

· The brave Rani died fighting on 17 June 1858. Arrah (Bihar)

· Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur near Arrah, was the chief organizer of the Revolt in Bihar. · Though nearly 80 years old, Kunwar Singh was perhaps the most outstanding military leader and strategist of the Revolt. ·· Maulavi Ahmadullah of Faizabad was another outstanding leader of the Revolt. He was a native of Madras where he had started preaching armed rebellion.

· In January 1857, Maulavi Ahmadullah moved towards the North to Faizabad where he fought a largescale battle against a company of British troops sent to stop him from preaching sedition.

· When the general Revolt broke out in May, Maulavi Ahmadullah emerged as one of its acknowledged leaders in Avadh. After the defeat at Lucknow, he led the rebellion in Rohilkhand where he was treacherously killed by the Raja of Puwain who was received Rs 50,000 as a reward by the British.

Outcome of 1857 Revolt

· The Revolt was suppressed. Sheer courage could not win against a powerful and determined enemy who planned its every step.

· The rebels were dealt an early blow when the British captured Delhi on 20 September 1857 after prolonged and bitter fighting.

· The aged Emperor Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner. The Royal Princes were captured and butchered on the spot. The Emperor was tried and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862.

· John Lawrence, Outran, Havelock, Neil, Campbell, and Hugh Rose were some of the British commanders who earned military fame in the course of the revolt.

· One by one, all the great leaders of the Revolt fell. Nana Sahib was defeated at Kanpur.Defiant to the very end and refusing to surrender, he escaped to Nepal early in 1859,never to be heard of again.

· Tantia Tope escaped into the jungles of Central India where he carried on bitter and brilliant guerrilla warfare until April 1859 when he was betrayed by a zamindar friend and captured while asleep. He was put to death after a hurried trial on 15 April 1859.

· The Rani Jhansi had died on the field of battle earlier on 17 June 1858. · By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib brother of Nana Sahib, and Maulavi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the Begum of Avadh was compelled to hide in Nepal. · By the end of 1859, British authority over India was fully reestablished, but the Revolt had not been in vain. It was the first great struggle of the Indian people for freedom from British imperialism. It paved the way for the rise of the modern national movement.

Weaknesses of Revolt

· Indian sepoys and people were short of modern weapons and other materials of war. Most of them fought with such ancient weapons as pikes and swords.

· Indian sepoys and other revolt participants were also poorly organized. There was communication gap and they lacked consensus. · The rebel units did not have a common plan of action, or authoritative heads, or centralized leadership.

· The sepoys were brave and selfless but they were also ill-disciplined. Sometimes they behaved more like a riotous mob than a disciplined army. · The uprisings in different parts of the country were completely uncoordinated.

· Once the Indian people overthrew British power from an area, they did not know what sort of power to create in its place.

· They failed to evolve unity of action. They were suspicious and jealous of one another and often indulged in suicidal quarrels. For example, the Begum of Avadh quarreled with Maulavi Ahmadullah and the Mughal princes with the sepoy-generals.

· The peasants destroyed revenue records and money-lenders' books, and overthrown the new zamindars, became passive not knowing what to do next.

· Modern nationalism was yet unknown in India. Patriotism meant love of one's small locality or region or at most one's state.

· In fact, the Revolt of 1857 played an important role in bringing the Indian people together and imparting to them the consciousness of belonging to one country.

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