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Painting of a fight involving the 5th Bengal European Cavalry

How the Indian Mutiny forever changed the landscape of the British Empire

Image: Public Domain

When a mutiny broke out among the native troops of the East India Company’s army in 1857, it led to a bloody rebellion that was met with a brutal response by the British. The Indian Mutiny - or the 'Sepoy Rebellion' or the 'First War of Indian Independence', as it is also known - marked a watershed in the history of the British Empire and led to a complete change in how the subcontinent was run.

The seeds of rebellion are sown

It all started with a rumour. Word spread amongst the East India Company’s Muslim and Hindu ‘sepoys’ (native Indians who were employed as soldiers) that the British were about to issue them with a new type of rifle cartridge greased with pork or beef fat, and the news was met with horror. As the troops had to bite the cartridges before they could be used, this meant the immediate desecration of thousands of deeply religious Hindus and Muslims, for whom the cow was sacred, and the pig was out of bounds, respectively.

Despite the Company's best efforts to quash the cartridge rumour, including conceding that sepoys could tear the cartridges with their hands instead of with their teeth, this only made the troops more suspicious. After all, if the cartridges were not greased with forbidden fat, why were they changing the way they should be opened? Added to this was the fact the paper felt stiffer on the new cartridges compared to the old ones. Were these also penetrated with grease, so that even if torn with fingers, they would still cause the sepoys to break their religious oaths?

The first shot of the rebellion was fired at the Company’s Barrackpore parade ground near Calcutta. A sepoy of the 34th British Native Infantry by the name of Mangal Pandey began shouting and waving a gun. When the company adjutant, Lieutenant Henry Baugh, came out to investigate, Pandey shot at him, hitting Baugh’s horse. After the rest of the company, bar one man, refused to arrest Pandey, the 34th was disbanded, with each man being subjected to a stripping of his uniform on the parade ground. The men of the 34th returned to their home disgraced, humiliated and angry. Pandey was hanged.

News of Pandey’s death and the fate of the 34th soon spread. If the British could do it to them, what was to stop them from doing it to other sepoys who refused to handle the new cartridges? Resentment quickly boiled over into fury.

The mutiny

The rebellion began in earnest in the town of Meerut. At the time, Meerut was home to one of the largest garrisons of native and British troops in India. When the commanding officer of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered 90 men to perform a firing drill using the new cartridges, all but five refused. The 85 men who refused were subsequently court-martialled, sentenced to hard labour and publicly stripped of their uniforms before being clapped in irons and marched off to jail. It was an insensitive response to a sensitive situation that the British would soon pay for in blood.

The imprisonment of the sepoys was the final straw. A plan soon formed to break the prisoners out. Some of the Indian soldiers tried to warn off-duty British officers that a breakout was in the offing, but they were ignored. Very quickly, the plan to rescue the prisoners turned into an open revolt, and the sepoys began slaughtering any British troops they came across. They then began breaking into the homes of officers and killing their wives, children and servants. Before long, the British residential quarter of Meerut was ablaze. The prisoners were rescued and the sepoys took to the Grand Trunk Road. Their destination was Delhi.

The rebellion gains pace

The 3rd reached Delhi two days later. As news spread across the city, soldiers and Indian civilians began killing British officials, their families, shopkeepers and Indian Christians. As the violence spread, soldiers guarding a huge arsenal of guns and ammunition in the city fired on their sepoy colleagues, eventually destroying the arsenal in a huge explosion that killed many people in the surrounding streets. When news of the carnage reached three regiments of native troops stationed in and on the outskirts of the city, they joined in the fight.

The rebellion was now in full swing. Word of what had happened in Meerut and Delhi spread like wildfire. Mutinies broke out in regiments across Northern India, eventually spreading to large areas of the south and the east. In Delhi, Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor of India, was declared the leader of the mutiny.

The British were slow to retaliate against the mutineers, allowing them time to capture the cities of Baran and Bijnor and most of the villages between Delhi and Meerut. Eventually, a British force was able to overcome the sepoys at the Battle of Badli-ki-Serai, which led to the Siege of Delhi and the eventual capture of Bahadur Shah and the restoration of British rule in the city. Bahadur’s sons, Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan, and his grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr, were executed for their part in the rebellion.

Cawnpore And Lucknow

Very soon after the mutiny at Meerut, the Company entrenchment at Cawnpore and the British Commissioner's Residence in Lucknow came under attack from mutineers. At Cawnpore, after a three-week siege, the British leader General Hugh Wheeler agreed to accept the rebel leader Nana Sahib’s offer to evacuate his troops and their families. However, as they were boarding the boats Sahib had laid on for them, the sepoys opened fire, killing many of those trying to evacuate including Wheeler. Those who survived were captured. The men were shot, and the women and children were taken hostage.

As a British force marched on Cawnpore, Sahib ordered the execution of the hostages. His sepoys refused, so two Muslim butchers, a couple of Hindu peasants and one of Sahib’s bodyguards carried out the slaughter with knives and axes. When news of the massacre reached Britain, the country erupted in demands for swift and bloody revenge.

At Lucknow, meanwhile, a gruelling six-month siege left many of the Residency’s defenders and their dependents dead or on the verge of starvation. After two attempts, the British, under the British India Commander-in-Chief Colin Campbell, relieved the siege and evacuated those who had managed to survive.

British revenge

By the beginning of 1858, troops who had sailed from Britain or crossed overland from the Crimean War, aided by sepoy regiments who had stayed loyal to the Company, began to overcome the rebel forces, including defeating and killing the female rebel leader Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi at the Battle of Gwalior. Another rebel leader, Tantia Tope, fled after losing a series of encounters with the British, and Nana Sahib disappeared after the relief of Cawnpore. Emperor Bahadur Shah was deposed and exiled to Burma. Queen Victoria was given the title ‘Empress of India’.

Outraged by the massacre they uncovered at Cawnpore, as well as by other atrocities carried out against British troops and civilians elsewhere in India, the British took bloody revenge on the mutineers. Many were tortured and hanged, while hundreds of Indian women were raped by rampaging British troops. A particularly grisly fate awaited some of the mutineers - they were strapped to the front of cannons and blown to pieces. In Cawnpore, Muslim and Hindu rebels were forced to eat pork and beef and made to lick the blood from the walls and floor of the room in which the women and children had been murdered.

The death toll on the Indian side was far larger than that on the British. Approximately 6,000 British troops and civilians died during the rebellion; a staggering 800,000 Indians are thought to have died during and after, many from starvation in the famine that followed.


The Indian Mutiny is now considered the first war of Indian independence. After it was quashed, significant changes to the way India was governed were made. A more conciliatory approach was taken to Indian religion and culture in an effort to ensure nothing like the Mutiny ever happened again. The East India Company was dissolved and the British Raj was established, with direct rule from London aided by an increasingly educated Indian civil service. As a result, there would not be a rebellion on the scale of the Mutiny throughout the rest of the time the British ruled India.

The consequences of the rebellion were profound. Perhaps the most important of them all was that the seeds were sown for an Indian nationalist movement that, led by the very people the British educated and elevated to senior positions in the civil service following the Mutiny, would one day lead to independence.