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Lakshmi Bai and the Indian Rebellion of 1857

Statue of Lakshmi Bai (right) and the Assault of Delhi (left)

Indian Mutiny Against The East India Company

The long burning stifling heat of summer 1857 throughout India was accompanied by a shocking wave of bloodletting against British rule which saw thousands die across the racial and religious divide.

The rebellion, instigated mainly by native Indian sepoy troops in the East India Company was also a symbolic protest against the company itself which had evolved from a trading institution in the 16th and 17th centuries to one of policing every aspect of military and social life in India by the 19th. The violent and tragic mutinies represented a turning point for British rule in India which saw the demise of the world’s most powerful trading company after 200 years of governing the country.  

Lakshmi Bai, the Indian Joan of Arc

In Spring 1857 sporadic violence in villages and military camps in the north of India led to massacres on both sides from Meerut to Delhi and its capital Calcutta, gradually turning India into a battlefield of vicious conflict between tribal and religious sects who were either opposed to or allianced with the country's British rulers. In the midst of this chaos one woman, a Queen, disinherited from her destiny by the East India company, found herself at the epicentre of the troubles which turned her from widow to warrior in what became the largest mutiny in the world.  

The Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai has been described by historians as India’s Joan of Arc. But unlike the French maid from Orleans, Lakshmi Bai was not captured by her enemies and cruelly dispatched by fire. Instead, the Indian warrior Queen died in battle fighting the British in a manner that earned her respect and admiration by her enemies.  

Early grievances

The East India Company recruited largely Indian troops across its military posts, the lowest ranking soldiers being the sepoys who were trained along European lines.  The sepoys, largely from the ‘peasant’ community of agricultural labourers and viewed within Indian society as the lowest caste, numbered around 300,000 in the army compared to around 50,000 British. It was the company’s new policy recruiting more higher caste Indians in its forces such as the Bengal unit while restricting the enlistment of sepoys that has been partly blamed for initial mutinies leading to a catastrophic rebellion. 

Changes to terms of the sepoys’ professional services which included being expected to make do without ‘foreign service’ remuneration contributed to a growing atmosphere of grievances against the East India company. Earlier serious concerns, not only for the sepoys but also other Indian soldiers of both Hindu or Muslim origin was controversy over issued rifle cartridges that were greased with animal fat which soldiers were expected to tear open with their teeth.

Further ill thought out policies instigated by the company that helped tip the scales from discontentment within the sepoy ranks to violent mutinous action was the lowering of their status which included a reduction of pay while they lived in inhospitable barrack accommodation, compared to higher caste Indians. The addition of making sepoys pay for their new uncomfortable uniforms was another insult contributing to a powder keg of disillusionment and anger with British governors.

The triggers for mutiny

The first mutiny began on 10 May 1857 in the garrison town of Meerut, forty miles northeast of Delhi. As the headquarters of both the Bengal Artillery and a division of the Bengal army, the beautiful city of Meerut was a key military station. It was here when eighty-five Muslim and Hindu soldiers were tried for collective disobedience, after refusing to fire rifle cartridges they believed were contaminated, that a punishment of ten years imprisonment with hard labour acted as the fuse to an explosive bloody rebellion across the country. 

'Destruction of a bungalow at Meerut,' Illustrated London News, 1857

For the condemned men the punishment was worse than death as it meant losing their livelihoods, status and contact with their families. Some of the other native soldiers ‘wept’ for their condemned brothers, particularly during an arduous two hours of shackling the convicted felons in what was a humiliating spectacle witnessed by both British and Indian troops. Not all British colonels agreed with the court-martial verdict and despite the volatile state of the Indian troops, added security was provided by two dozen sepoys and not British soldiers. 

The orgy of violence was merciless, resulting in many wives and children of officers being slain either in their homes or while trying to escape by foot and carriage

Although warnings were raised about a possible mutiny by Indian troops, such declarations were treated with contempt by the garrison’s commanders. Even rumours about rallying cries in the city to slaughter European citizens were given short shrift. 

Bloody rebellion

On an unbearably hot Sunday morning, loyal sowar servants tried to warn their masters and the garrison’s church-going residents that anger was escalating in Meerut city and that mutiny was imminent. As the evening approached enraged sepoys from the 20th battalion’s right wing had shot and killed many of the garrison’s officers as sporadic rioting turned into a mob which included violent badmashes from the bazaars, Gujar tribesmen and some Indian troops causing civilians to flee towards the safety of European lines. The orgy of violence was merciless, resulting in many wives and children of officers being slain either in their homes or while trying to escape by foot and carriage. A witness described the carnage of ‘burning bungalows’ as ‘Europeans were flourished by fiends’ against cries of ‘Mohamed, let us kill the Christians’

With signs of mutiny about to take place in Jhansi as rebellious sepoys approached the city, British officials realising that European residents were in danger requested assurance from Lakshmi to grant them safe passage out of the city. The Rani herself signed a letter of oath that no harm would befall the English citizens. Despite this oath where Hindu rebels swore to eat beef and Muslims pork if they broke their word, the fate of the fifty-six men, women and children ended in bloody massacre when the group was ambushed outside the city gates and hacked to death with swords.  Lakshmi vehemently denied responsibility for the attack and blamed the vicious murders on rogue sepoys who she couldn’t control.  The East India Company was reluctant to believe her.

What started as a moral issue over rifle cartridges...evolved into an avalanche of violent mutiny across the country

By sunset, many of the native prisoners were freed from the New Gaol in the city to join the mutineers and a terrifying turning point was reached under the watch of the East India Company – the beginning of a vicious bloody religious war.  The official body count of European and Eurasian residents at Meerut was around fifty. What started as a moral issue over rifle cartridges offending the religious convictions of both Hindu and Muslim soldiers, evolved into an avalanche of violent mutiny across the country affecting villages, towns and cities with bloodshed on both sides. Jhansi, the principality that had been a peaceful district before 1857 was soon to become famously associated with a warrior Indian Queen who would prove to be a formidable enemy of the East India Company.

Wrath of an Indian queen

The allegedly beautiful Lakshmi Bai, was well educated, spoke English and skilled in the martial arts of riding, shooting and fencing.  She married the elderly Maharaja of Jhansi, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

After her husband’s death, Lakshmi (the Rani) may have resisted taking up arms against the British if it hadn't been for her anger at being disinherited from ruling Jhansi due to the 'Doctrine of Lapse' law instigated by the East India Company. This power reducing policy removed princely status and rendered Lakshmi little more than a tenant in a modest two-storey palace with a small pension. But it was the fact that this arbitrary annexation policy also invalidated the Rani's five-year-old son's legitimate claim to his father's throne that incensed and compelled Lakshmi to finally fight British troops rather than relinquish her destiny as Queen. 

Lakshmi’s dilemma

Despite the tragic event at Jhansi which reached English newspapers causing a furore and a wave of public anger against Indians, the British governors realised it would still be prudent to entrust the Jhansi district to Lakshmi and so help prevent further mutiny. Such a decision was made on a promise that if the Rani collected taxes and policed the state she would be dealt liberally once the rebellion was over and British rule restored. But Lakshmi’s fears that she would still be held responsible for the massacre and then forced to relinquish control of Jhansi may have encouraged her to side with the mutinous rebels.  Still reeling over her enforced status as mere landlady of her own principality no doubt helped stoke Lakshmi’s feelings of vengeance against the East India Company and British rule. 

The Siege of Jhansi

Lakshmi didn’t immediately make a decision to defend Jhansi against the British. Her predicament was made more complicated by her Indian troops threatening to leave her service if she didn’t attack. Once her mind was made the Rani was undaunted by her task to prepare for battle and organise her defences.

She took flight from the fort wearing a breastplate, a sword and two revolvers.    

Lakshmi’s adversary in the British army was one Sir Hugh Rose, a general who despite having received honours from the likes of the Sultan was still seen as having a lack of experience. He proved his critics wrong. 

Massacre of Europeans

The siege lasted several weeks and Lakshmi demonstrated masterful leadership by securing Jhansi fort and making sure there were plentiful supplies of food and provisions for troops and citizens. ‘She enlisted as many men as volunteered to join and place them in position’ observed one visitor.  Despite Rose’s troops causing devastating damage to the fort’s rampart, Lakshmi’s rebels, inspired by her fearless determination to fight her enemy, continued to put up fierce resistance. Eventually, with British troops forcing an entry on the south wall and ultimate victory for Captain Rose only a matter of time, Lakshmi took heed of advice for her to save herself. She took flight from the fort wearing a breastplate, a sword and two revolvers.    

The Rani's last stand

During the last days of Lakshmi's by now legendary actions as a warrior queen, she fled from British troops to the Gwalior province where she hoped to persuade its pro-British Maharaja Scindia to join her and the rebel forces. Instead, Scindia instructed the rebels to leave and in doing so brought upon himself and his own army the wrath of Lakshmi.  The Rani led two hundred of her cavalrymen against the Maharaja's army eventually leading him and his close associates to flee to Agra.

Such a victory was to be short-lived for Lakshmi who once again having to face her foe in the form of Captain Rose and his troops fought her last battle clad in military attire in a red jacket, red trousers and wearing jewels she had taken from the banished Scindia.

The Death of Lakshmi

The Rani's fierce determination to defend Gwalior and push back Captain Rose's troops began with promise as her expertise at military manoeuvres and courageous zeal forced the British into retreat. But it wasn't long before the British cavalry made a surprise appearance and caused Lakshmi's escort to scatter in all directions as she herself rode on horseback observing the bombardment. According to an eyewitness Lakshmi 'attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded' while firing at her assailant with her pistol. The soldier in question not realising who she was, nor the fact that there was a bounty on her Royal head, dispatched her with his rifle. 

Clemency

After the Rani's death, there were some in British circles who were prepared to acquit her for her alleged crimes such as allowing the massacre of European citizens at Jhansi. Evidence from a variety of sources suggested it unlikely that Lakshmi would have been able to prevent such killings which were beyond her control.

'Seeing her army broken and defeated, with rage in her heart and tears in her eyes, she mounted her horse and made her course towards Gwalior.'

A more likely explanation for the Rani taking up arms against the East Indian Company was that as an intelligent diplomat who understood the benefits of professing her allegiance to the British, it was only when Lakshmi realised she would be blamed for the Jhansi massacre that she cast in her lot with the rebels.

What was never in doubt, even in the minds of Lakshmi's enemies was her formidable intelligence and bravery. One John Latimer of the Central India Field Force even praised the Rani's military capabilities when he wrote 'Seeing her army broken and defeated, with rage in her heart and tears in her eyes, she mounted her horse and made her course towards Gwalior. Here the last stand was made, she disdained further flight, and died, with a heroism worthy of a better cause. Her courage shines pre-eminent and can only be equalled but not eclipsed by that of Joan of Arc'.

The dissolution of the East India Company

The East India Company’s demise can be attributed not only to the unforeseen mutiny but also its unpopularity in Britain itself with the ordinary public viewing its seventeen hundred stockholders as being symbols of an institution of privilege. By 1857 the company had outgrown its abilities and a combination of debt and a damning view of it as an inefficient anachronism finally sealed its fate. Ironically the rebellion which speeded up the two-hundred-year-old company's ignoble end was triggered by a series of ill-judged policies and laws among India's loyal subjects which tragically and unnecessarily snowballed into a nightmare of conflict and bloodshed. 

Richard Bevan

By Richard Bevan

Friday, July 27, 2018

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to History UK channel. Represented by MMB Creative agency.