1857: The events

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April 24, 1857: Meerut

The Times of India, Apr 23, 2016

How 85 sepoys’ refusal sparked a revolt on Apr 24, 1857

Ishita Bhatia

April 24, 1857, was a Friday. Col Carmichael Smith, commandant of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry Regiment, had ordered 90 sepoys to assemble and use the disputed "greased cartridges". The previous evening, the sepoys had taken an oath not to touch the cartridges. Thus, out of the 90 sepoys, 85 troops refused to use them. This was the first mass opposition to British authority triggering the Revolt of 1857. On the anniversary of the day when the troops refused to use 'greased cartridges', TOI revisits history.

Amit Pathak, fellow, Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR), and author of '1857 - A Living History', said, "The planners of the uprising had been trying to start a revolt ever since January 1857 but had failed till then. The April 24 incident, in fact, happened by chance. Loading an Enfield rifle-musket required tearing the greased cartridge — which is said to have been made with a mixture of cow and pig fat — with one's teeth. There were general orders to the entire Bengal army by the senior authorities that no officer should ask his sepoys to use the Enfield rifle until further orders. But Col Carmichael Smith took it upon himself to tell his men how to use the cartridges without biting them. Had it not been for Smyth's initiative, the uprising was planned for May 30."

The British maintained that the cartridges were not objectionable but because the sepoys refused to use them, the parade was dismissed which was followed by the proceedings at the court of inquiry in Meerut. After April 24, various fire incidents were reported in Meerut — the cause of which Britishers could not identify. The revolt had already begun.

However, on May 8, the troops of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry were found guilty by a court martial and handed out severe sentences — following which the rebellion officially started on May 10, 1857.

"Though it still remains debatable, it was believed that the cartridges that were introduced on April 24 had a mixture of cow and pig fat — while the cow was holy for Hindus, the pig was profane for Muslims. This move united Hindus and Muslims who rose against the British in rebellion. The Indians, indeed, put up a strong fight against the British and fought irrespective of religion, caste and creed," said Manoj Gautam, curator, Government Freedom Struggle Museum, Meerut.

Historians further believe that because 99.9% of Indians were illiterate back then, religion was the only ideology that they understood and this could bind them together for their country.

"With a number of failed attempts to start the uprising, April 24, 1857 was a day which sparked the Revolt. The main cause that held all the Indians together was their religion. Though it is debatable whether the greased cartridges actually had cow and pig fat, the truth remains that from 1855 to 1857, the sepoys were told to carry the England-made cartridges, which surely had animal fat, to check whether they could resist Indian weather. However, in those two years, they were not ordered to use them. The greased cartridges were carried by the sepoys without being informed about the animal fat it contained. This was enough to hurt their religious sentiments and forment a a mass opposition," said Pathak.

1857: An overview

The revolts that mattered

By Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, Dawn

Dawn 2007

The revolt of 1857 registered the instinct of defiance of the people of the subcontinent. This instinct survived even after the fall of Delhi. In the decades that followed, it translated into political movements with different shades which together helped remove the colonial yoke 90 years after 1857

Anniversaries of two historic events are falling this year: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, and the 150th anniversary of the Revolt of 1857. Though separated by a century, both events are interlinked. While the first resulted in the first annexation of an Indian territory, the latter completed the total annihilation of the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, a land inhabiting 150 million people in those days and having a territory 32 times bigger than that of England. The colonisation of India was realised through a venture of a trading organisation, the East India Company, which quite curiously established its own army on the pretext of securing trade routes and ensuring uninterrupted flow of trade. Once it completed its territorial occupation, the subcontinent was handed over to the British.

But while 1857 marked the end of the Mughal rule and the beginning of colonialism, it also symbolised the resistance of the people and their urge to liberate themselves from foreign occupation.

May 10

The rebellion of 1857 began with the events of May 10 when three regiments of the Bengal Army stationed in Meerut revolted against the court-martial and 10-year imprisonment sentence of their 85 colleagues a day earlier. The sepoys were court-martialed for refusing to use the greased cartridges to be bitten before loading. About the cartridges it was believed that their covering was made of fat obtained from cows and pigs. Both Hindu and Muslim soldiers had reason to resent the use of cartridges on the pretext of their respective faiths. But as the later events proved, the incident of cartridges came just as an excuse to torch an already volatile situation; during the course of the revolt in subsequent days, the revolting soldiers freely used the cartridges against the British. As to what in fact were the actual causes of the revolt which within days spread far and wide, to this we shall return.

Here, it is significant to see the extent of the revolt which was described as a mutiny by the British but was designated as the War of Independence in the nationalist political discourse. It is interesting to note that for the first time the events were described as a national revolution or revolt by no one else but the English liberal statesmen and politicians opposed to the mishandling of the Indian situation by the government and the highhandedness of the East India Company. On July 27, 1857, only two months after the outbreak of the violent incidents in India, Benjamin Disraeli, a leading opposition spokesman, contented while analysing the situation in India before the House of Commons, that the war was not a military mutiny, but the symptom of deep discontent among the whole population. Criticising the policies of Viscount Palmerston’s government, he inquired: ‘Is it a military mutiny, or is it a national revolt? … The measures which may be adequate in the case of military mutiny will not be adequate to cope with a national revolt.’

Geographical spread

What made the upheaval of 1857 a full-fledged revolt against the British was the fact that it drew into it a vast region of northern India, including Delhi, Awadh, Rohailkhund, Bundhailkhund, and Agra, and a vast region of Bihar. These regions together made a territory bigger than that of France, Austria and Prussia put together. Not just that, the regions of Punjab, Sindh and the Frontier where apparently the British were in good control, the revolt had reached even their far-off districts. Maulana Ghulam Rasool Mehar cites numerous incidents of rebellion and British atrocities in Lahore, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Multan, and Peshawar. Traces of such events could be found even in Karachi.

Army units affected

The extent of the revolt can also be gauged by the fact that almost all regiments of the British regular army and 10 of the 18 irregular regiments were affected by it. According to a source, of the 74 infantry regiments, 63 totally deserted and took up arms against the British.

The significance of the revolt did not rest on the area to which it had spread, but it was its high intensity which made it more important. Moreover, the rebel forces and the different states and their rulers who joined them, tried with sufficient success to build a united front and put their act together. In the past, Indian states had fought the British separately, thus while Bengal, Karnataka, Punjab and Sindh were annexed by the British, no other state had come to their rescue. At times, British annexation of a state was supported by another state. Though, in the great revolt of 1857, certain states stood behind the British, yet those who took to arms against foreign rule forged unity for the first time. This, too, gives to the 1857 revolt a wider and a national character.

Spreads further

Of great importance was the fact that religious differences were not allowed to cause a break in the Indian ranks. The months of revolt saw unique solidarity among religious groups, particularly Muslims and Hindus. Muslim commanders led forces with majority Hindu soldiers, cow slaughter was prohibited by Muslim rebel leaders in the areas under their control, the Muslim Ulema issued religious decrees binding Muslims to respect the faiths of other groups, and Hindu chiefs enlisted support of Muslim soldiers and public.

Beginning from Meerut, the revolt spread like fire as if it was being awaited in other regions. Just a day after the Meerut incident, Delhi was captured by the sepoys who declared Bahadur Shah Zafar emperor. The Mughal king had virtually lost control of all of India and was confined to the fort of Delhi. Beyond the fort, his authority did not extend even to the city of Delhi. He at best was a symbol of Indian rule, a position which was upheld by the British too, who had allowed him to survive in the fort for as long as he followed British authority. By getting access to the king, and by winning him over to their side, the rebels secured this important symbol. In the rest of the month of May, the uprising spread to Aligarh, Ferozpur, Etawah, Mathura, Lucknow, Bareilly, and Shahjahanpur. In the first week of June, Moradabad, Badaun, Azamgarh, Sitapur, Banaras, Kanpur, and Jhansi saw the uprising. A rebel leader, Nana Sahib laid siege to Kanpur on June 6. On June 7-8, the fort of Jhansi was captured and Rani Lakshmi Bai was restored to power. Between June 9 and 13, the revolt occurred in Daryabad, Fatehpur, Nowganj, Gwalior, and Fatehgarh. Towards the end of the month, Kanpur fell to Nana Sahib. The month of July saw revolt and popular uprising in Indore and the siege of Lucknow Residency by the rebels. In the same month, the rebels also started suffering defeats, as Nana Sahib’s troops had to retreat in Fatehgarh and Kanpur.

Tatiya Tope defeated at Bithor

In August, another rebellion constellation under Tatiya Tope was defeated at Bithor. In the middle of August the command of the English Army was given to Sir Colin Cambell. The month of September brought further defeat to the rebels as on September 14, Kashmiri Gate was blown up and on 19, Lahori Gate was secured by the British. By September 20, British troops were able to recapture Delhi. At this stage, Bahadur Shah Zafar was advised by General Bakht Khan to leave Delhi and join the resistance forces fighting in other states but he preferred to take refuge in Humayun’s tomb. Apparently, he had lost hope and was now waiting for his fate. He was arrested and was taken to Rangoon. He died and was buried there. The princesses were arrested and were murdered by Major Hodson. In October, Lucknow was reclaimed by the British. In other parts, certain commanders were still keeping up the fight. In October, Tatiya Tope dislodged the British from Kanpur but he was defeated by Cambell’s forces in December. In March 1858, Lucknow was brought under complete British control. In April, British forces attacked Jhansi and captured the fort, Rani Lakshmi Bai had to flee. Another rebel commander, Kanwar Singh who had defeated the British at Azamgarh, and Jagdishpur, was killed on April 26. In May, the British defeated another rebel leader Bahadur Khan at Bareilly and laid siege to Shahjahanpur held by Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah. In June, Rani of Jhansi was killed while fighting in Gwalior. Tatiya Tope, who had been fighting all along and had reassembled his forces after every retreat, was also finally captured and was hanged. Thus, within a few months of the beginning of the revolt, it was put down despite courageous fight by the rebels in various part of the country.

Not only was the rebellion crushed down with the maximum might commanded by the British, but after quelling it, a wave of brutal atrocities was unleashed. The whole populations were wiped out, villages were targetted, and houses were burnt. Not only the rebel leaders, but ordinary people were also hanged from trees. The royal ladies were especially subjected to worst humiliation, a good account of which has been given by Khawaja Hasan Nizami in his Begmaat Kay Aansoo. Renowned Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib’s letters also give the sad description of Delhi’s Shahar Aashob (tumult of the city).

East India Company’s economic and political manipulations

To know how the events of May 1857 transformed a mutiny into a full-fledged revolt, one needs to look into the economic and political manipulations carried out by the East India Company and to understand the repercussions of its policies for Indian society. The company was first given its charter to do trade with India in 1600. In the next 150 years, it gradually consolidated itself in India. In the 17th century, it was successful in establishing trading depots in different parts of the country. For example, it established its centre at Surat in 1612 and in Madras in 1632. In 1669, Bombay was leased to the company. This was followed by the establishment of its economic enterprise in Fort William, Calcutta, in 1696.

Apart from establishing its trading centres, it also started taking interest in, and interfering with, the matters of different states, which remained contesting the central Mughal rule, claiming their autonomy, and were often also pitted against each other. Moreover, on the pretext of securing the trade routes, the East India Company established its own army, whose soldiers were recruited mostly from India. The company’s success in the Battle of Plassey, established its control over an Indian territory which was used for its future advancements. Soon after acquiring control of Bengal, the company made far-reaching changes in the economic system disturbing to the roots the traditional agricultural and indigenous industrial system. The weakening of the Mughal centre in the latter part of the 17th century and in the first half of the 18th century signified that socially and economically the traditional system of production had come under strain and needed to be reformed.

According to Rajni Palme Dutt, the internal wars in India symbolised the break-up of the old order which would have paved the way for the emergence of a new order built around the advancing merchant, shipping, and manufacturing interests in Indian society. But before the capitalist relations could consolidate, the British capitalist class, backed by ‘superior technical and military equipment and socio-political cohesion thwarted this normal course of evolution’, and forcibly superimposed itself on the old Indian society.

From the annexation of Bengal till the end of the 18th century, the company remained occupied with accruing maximum gains from Indian economy. The establishment of its administrative authority over a significant territory that Bengal was enabled the British to secure maximum goods for their minimum payment. The English merchant came to dictate the terms of trade to the individual producer, weavers and peasants. The merchants often forcibly took goods and commodities from the peasants for, at times, only a fourth part of their value. The company did not leave any distinction between trade and plunder. No better authentication of this can be cited than the statement of a member of the British parliament, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who declared on the floor in 1858: ‘no civilised government ever existed on the face of this earth which was more corrupt, more perfidious, and more rapacious, than the government of the East India Company from 1765 to 1784.’ The practice of plunder got regularised with the granting of Diwani, civil administration of Bengal, to the company in 1765. The administration of revenue enabled it to commit endless plunder through manipulation, a fact acknowledged in the debates of the House of Commons.

In the 19th century, British economy witnessed the transformation of its basis from trade capitalism to industrial capitalism. It was the massive flow of wealth from India to England that provided the necessary accumulation of capital needed for England’s advancement towards industrial revolution.

In contrast, the economic conditions in India degenerated. The loot and plunder at the hands of a foreign power sent a vast population into acute poverty and unemployment. In 1770, the conditions in Bengal were further aggravated by a famine in which an estimated 10 million people died. Despite this devastation, the land revenue collected showed an increase, thanks to the cruel methods adopted by the company.

As the East India Company’s campaign of annexation moved from Bengal to other regions, the process of exploitation also extended, so that by the middle of the 19th century a large part of India was subjected to it. The company’s policies of plunder almost ruined Indian economy. Its traditional system of land settlement was done away with, the local industry and craft were spoiled, and the trading class lost its independent existence. This plunder of India affected all local classes in varying degrees with the result that the seeds of deep-rooted social discontent had been sowed.

Though Bengal was first to fall prey to British policies, in certain cases the exploitation in other regions was worse and more acute than it was in Bengal. For instance, unlike the Permanent Settlement of Bengal and Bihar, the Mahalwari system introduced in northern India involved revenue collection on a constantly increasing rate.

‘In the first half of the 19th century, the revenue increased in real terms (i.e. when adjusted to prices) by nearly as much as 70 per cent’, observes Professor Irfan Habib. Moreover, the arbitrary and harsh means employed to extract revenues, resulted in forced alienation of land by both landowners and peasants. According to Profesor Habib, it is, therefore, not surprising that the 1857 revolt was started by the sepoys of the Bengal Army whose ‘recruitment zone was largely confined to the limits of the present-day UP together with Haryana and western Bihar’. They came the agrarian classes which had suffered immensely due to the exploitative British policies. This explains why a military mutiny did not confine to the military and soon enlisted popular support, particularly of the agricultural classes, landowners and peasants.

Also, the nature of the conflict between local and foreign interests helped forge unity among the followers of different religions. By binding Muslims and Hindus in the same regiment, the British had planned to prevent bonds of affinity among the sepoys, but the issue of greased cartridges undid it as both Muslims and Hindus took it against their respective faiths. Once the revolt extended to the rural areas, British control crumbled in villages and small towns and the local authority passed to local zamindars and peasants.

What had added to this widespread discontent was the feeling in the cities and in the administrative departments governed by the British that the locals were not allowed promotions above a particular post. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote in The Causes of the Indian Revolt, that ‘the Indians, especially the Muslims, were aggrieved because they had held important posts in the past, but now they were being progressively deprived of their importance and influence.’

The failure of the 1857 revolt

The failure of the 1857 revolt was as inevitable as its beginning. The revolt symbolised the contest between two systems. One was represented by most advanced and astute colonial power which was materially powerful, had the best weapons and was highly organised. It had also created for itself reliable sources of information and espionage as is amply proved by the publication of the reports and letters of the informers who were in its pay (see, Is Ghar ko Aag Lag Gai: Ghaddaron kay Khatoot, edited by Salim Qureshi and Syed Aashoor Kazmi). On the other hand, there was a backward society without effective political authority that could have symbolised its unity. India had lost its political glory and power that it had once amassed during the Sultanate and Mughal periods.

The rebels of 1857 sought to create unity and political authority but neither this was possible nor were these rebels in a position to perform this task at such a later stage. It should also not be forgotten that 1857 was not the beginning of British designs in India; it was in fact the culmination of its annexation process started a century ago. In these one hundred years, it had made best use of Indian contradictions. It struck deals with rulers of hundreds of autonomous states, deployed its forces there, and appointed its residents to oversee the affairs of these states.

Therefore, by 1857, it was already in control of almost all of India and for it the challenge of 1857 meant how to reassure this control which was threatened by rebellions. It is interesting that the British heavily relied on the support of the loyal states and their rulers and recruited soldiers from there in order to quell the rebellion in other states. So it is not surprising why so many states did not support the rebellion; what is surprising is how despite such strong control, several states took to the path of revolt.

Another factor that went against the rebels was the lack of coordination among them and their being not under a strong and effective central command. Moreover, they were fighting either with traditional weapons or the ones they had taken away with them while deserting their regiments. These were not sufficient to sustain a fight for long. The places seized by the rebels posed another set of problems. For example, it was difficult to maintain law and order and to ensure the supply of essential goods, with the result that chaos prevailed in most of such places.

The revolt of 1857 had to fail given the details given above. It, however, registered the instinct of defiance of the people of the subcontinent. This instinct survived even after the fall of Delhi; in the decades that followed it translated into political movements with different shades which together helped remove the colonial yoke 90 years after 1857.

1857: Day-by-day chronology



March 29 | Mangal Pandey rebels in Barrackpore

May 10 | Sepoys revolt in Meerut and head for Delhi

May 13 | Bahadur Shah Zafar proclaimed emperor

June 8 | Siege of Kanpur; entrenchment by rebels begins

June 27 | Massacre of British at Satichaura Ghat, Kanpur

June 30 | Siege of Lucknow Residency by rebels begins

July 16 | Nana Saheb defeated in Kanpur

Sept 20 | Delhi cleared of rebel troops

Sept 25 | First relief of Lucknow by James Outram, Henry Havelock


March 21 | Lucknow cleared of rebels

May 22 | Hugh Rose defeats rebels at Kalpi

June 17 | Death of Rani of Jhansi

Nov 1 | Royal proclamation abolishes East India Company

Death Toll: No figures. Historian R C Mazumdar puts it at 2.5 lakh, others say this is a conservative estimate

(With inputs from Arnab Ganguly)

Pandey’s bust in Barrackpore 

AMIDST THE SLAUGHTER: Felice Beato’s iconic picture of the skulls and bones of sepoys

Delhi’s Jama Masjid was almost destroyed in the immediate aftermath of the uprising

General Wheeler's Entrenchment in Kanpur where the British were beleagured by the rebel Nana Saheb

Did the Revolt begin in Ambala?

1857: Ambala led the charge

Pardeep Rai, TNN Mar 26, 2011

The Times of India Mar 26, 2011

AMBALA: Think of the 1857 Revolt and the name of Mangal Pandey and pictures of Meerut immediately flash in our minds. However, a well-known historian from this city has irrefutable proof that it was in fact Ambala which led the charge against the British.

In 1964 professor KC Yadav, later director of history council of Haryana, made historians of this country and abroad to accept this.

Explaining how he traced the truth, professor Yadav said, 'The memories are still fresh in my mind. In 1963 while I was doing a research on some topics, I suddenly found some historical letters that revealed the actual origin of the 1857 Revolt. European soldiers, who were posted in Ambala during the revolt, had written those letters to their near and dear ones. In these letters the soldiers hinted how Indian soldiers revolted in Ambala. With these clues I went ahead and finally could establish the real history.'

In 2000 his pupil, UV Singh, head of history department in SD College, Ambala, carried out further research on this topic for her PhD. Her research on Ambala's contribution to the freedom struggle helped to identify the specific locations of the revolt incidents in Ambala.

Nine hours before Meerut

How the revolt failed

Strangely, there is no official account of the incident in the published government papers. However, private letters dated May 14, 1857, written by a British officer who was an eyewitness, throw light on what happened. At approximately 9 am on Sunday, May 10, 1857, about nine hours before the outbreak of mutiny at Meerut, the 60th Infantry openly revolted at Ambala. The sepoys left their lines as one man, seized arms and arrested their European officers. But to their great surprise they found themselves surrounded by a greater number of European forces. Tipped of by Sham Singh, the British ambushed the Indian soldiers who were then unable to go ahead with their plans. Around 120 mutineers were then hanged to death by an oak tree near Kali Palton Pul.

Excerpt from the letter that well-known historian of India RC Majumdar wrote to professor KC Yadav (in pic) April 12, 1969.

'...the most important article is on the Mutiny at Ambala. That there was an open revolt of the sepoys there on the morning of the 10th May, before the outbreak at Meerut, is, I must confess, a news to me and probably to many others. I congratulate you...'

Seeds of revolt

Towards the end of 1856, the British introduced an imported fire arm -- Enfield rifle instead of Brown Bess -- in the Indian army. Cartridges for the new rifle were greased with the combined ingredients of cow and pig fat. These cartridges were supplied to three musketry depots at Dum Dum, Ambala and Sialkot. Indian soldiers felt that the British were trying to create conflicts among them based on caste and religion.

This triggered a revolt and various firing incidents took place in Ambala Cantt. Bungalows and stores of British officers were targeted. Mutineers also targeted the lodge of British officers.

1857: British vindictiveness and cruelty

A microcosm of British vengeance

By Prof Sharif al Mujahid

Dawn 2007

“Vengeance sleeps long, but never dies” -- so goes an old Italian adage. And were anyone to seek an explication as to how it unravels, s/he shall have only to turn Delhi’s blood-stained pages during September 1857-March 1858, indeed, the most bleak period Delhi, the good old Delhi, had to wade through in its long, chequered history. And during these six horrible months, Delhi represented quintessentially the most telling microcosm of arrogant British vengeance that had so brazenly stalked the ‘troubled’ spots in northern and central India in the wake of the 1857 Revolt.

For one thing, during these months, in its magnificent, tree-lined boulevards, broad streets and narrow lanes no less than in its imposing forts, sprawling palaces and humbler dwellings, stalked and strutted about, relentlessly and shamelessly, a demonic monster – that of British dreaded vengeance. For another, tormenting and torturing princes and populace alike, knifing them, hanging them, bayoneting them, blowing them from guns, and subjecting them to a slow death by amputation, impalation and other devilish devices that fiends had ever conceived in their worst moments of barbarity – such was the ghoulish nature of British imperial vengeance.

Governor-General Lord Canning’s report

And this, by no means, is an exaggeration. Listen to what the highest British potentate in the Indian realm, Governor-General Lord Canning has to report. “There is,” he reported to his bosses in London, “ a rabid and indiscriminate vindictiveness abroad, even among many who ought to set a better example, which it is impossible to contemplate without a feeling of shame for one’s countrymen … Not one man in 10 seems to think that the hanging and shooting of 40,000 or 50,000 men can be otherwise than practicable and right.” (Quoted in Thompson, The other Side of the Medal, p. 54).

Qaysaral Tawarikh

A low figure indeed to atone for the “crimes” of the “mutineers”! For that matter, in Delhi alone, according to Qaysaral Tawarikh (vol II, p. 454), the number of persons executed (only executed) was no less than 27,000. After all, are not the British entitled to exact a fulsome retribution for these ‘crimes’? Why, then, should Disraeli condemn those who insisted “that upon the standards of England ‘vengeance’, and not ‘justice’, should be inscribed”? Why, then, should the Begum of Oudh ever think of anyone ever dreaming that the English could forgive an “offence”?

No, the English would not forgive any offence. Not at least during the ‘mutiny’ days. It was simply unthinkable in the flush of “victory”, especially of their first major “victory” since the great revolt broke out at Meerut on May 10, 1857. No, they would even punish innocence – to give their enemies, still abroad, a lesson in discipline, in loyalty, in slavery. Otherwise, how would you account for 27,000 executions in the city of Delhi alone? What if only a handful of British residents had been killed on May 11-12 in Delhi? British justice takes for granted that each and every sepoy and citizen in the city was responsible for the murder. What hamstrings British justice, then, to bring every living soul in the city to summary trial and slow death? After all, is not one European life worth a thousand native heads?

British hordes enter Delhi

Such was the spirit in which the conquering British hordes entered the imperial city of Delhi. The result: “All the city people found within the walls when our troops entered were bayonetted on the spot; and the number was considerable, as you may suppose, when I tell you that in some houses forty and fifty persons were hiding. These were not mutineers, but residents of the city, who trusted to our well-known mild rule of pardon. I am glad to say they were disappointed”. (Montgomery Martin’s letter in the Bombay Telegraph, quoted in Thompson, p. 75)

“Harmless citizens were shot, clasping their hands for mercy. Trembling old men cut down ...” (Holmes, A History of the Indian Mutiny, London, 1885, p. 370)

And these “panic-stricken wretches, hiding about in holes and corners … when found entreated the ‘Sahib-logue’ to shoot them at once, and not cut them with cold steel.” (Martin, The Indian Empire Vol II, p. 449)

Vengeance, brutal vengeance, was the order of the day. To what despicable depths of barbarity it could reduce man to can never be fully conceived. For instance, read the following anecdote:

An officer of engineers … in a letter published in The Times (London), writes: “I saw one man (sepoy) have both hands cut off with a tulwar; shot in the body; two bayonet wounds in the chest; and he still lived till a rifleman blew his brains out. I did not feel the least disgusted, or ashamed of directing, or seeing such things done, when I reflected on what those very wretches perhaps had done.” (Martin, p. 445)

“In fact, the people of Delhi had expiated, many times over, the crimes of the mutineers. Tens of thousands of men, and women, and children were wandering, for no crime, homeless over the country. What they had left behind was lost to them for ever. For the soldiers, going from house to house and from street to street, ferreted out every article of value, and smashed to pieces whatever they could not carry away. A military governor had been appointed, but he could do little to restrain the passions of those who surrounded him. Natives were brought forward in batches to be tried by a military commission or by special commissioners, each one of whom had been invested by the supreme government with full powers of life and death. These judges were in no mood to show mercy. Almost all who were tried were condemned. And almost all who were condemned were sentenced to death. A four-square gallows was erected in a conspicuous place in the city; and five or six culprits [this is obviously an understatement] were hanged every day. English officers used to sit by, puffing at their cigars, and look on at the convulsive struggle of the victims. Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, a civilian, whose house had been gutted by the mutineers, and who to do him justice, would never have turned his back, in the days of their triumph, upon any number of them, was foremost in the work of retribution. One anecdote will show the terror which he inspired.

“An English lady happened one day to be inspecting some ornaments which a native jeweller had brought to her. Thinking that the prices which he asked for them too high, she exclaimed, ‘I will send you to Metcalfe Sahib’. In a moment the man had fled, leaving all his goods behind. To many, however, it seemed that not nearly enough had been done to avenge the massacres of the 11th of May, and to vindicate the outraged majesty of the imperial race.” (Holmes, p. 386)

In short, “It is not likely that the number of natives, whether sepoys or city people, who were slaughtered at Delhi, will ever be even approximately estimated ... But the capture of the city will, in all probability, find its historian, as the previous ones, have done; and then some light will be thrown on the sufferings of the 69,738 men, and the 68,239 women, who inhabited Delhi before the siege. Meanwhile, we may rest assured, that no such scene had been witnessed in the city of Shah Jehan since the day that Nadir Shah, seated in the little mosque in the Chandnee Chouk, directed and superintended the massacre of its inhabitants.

“If an answer could be obtained to the question of how many women and children died of sheer destitution in consequence of the siege, or escaped starvation or dishonour by jumping into wells, rivers, or some other mode of suicide – where is the Englishman who would make the inquiry? That the European soldiers, maddened as they were with the thirst for vengeance, and utterly insubordinate through drunkenness, really refrained from molesting the women, is what many may hope; but few who have had any experience of military life, in the barrack or the camp, will credit… The taking of Delhi has a distinct characteristic; for never before, in the annals of war, did the inquirer fail to find ‘lust hardened by hate’. The truth is, that the history of the capture of Delhi has found no chronicler except as regards the exclusive military proceedings which Colonel Baird Smith and Captain Norman have given with a fullness and precision not often found in official documents”. (Martin, p 450)

Charles Ball/ The History of Indian Mutiny

A glimpse of the devastation wrought by insane Britishers in Delhi could, however, be got from the description given by Charles Ball in his The History of Indian Mutiny, which, incidentally, brings into sharp focus the other side of the British medal, says he, “The city of the Moguls was now, indeed, but little better than a vast and hideous ruin – its houses and streets deserted; its defences unmanned; and the sentence of utter demolition suspended over its shattered gates and once defiant towers, the carcasses of some thousands of its defenders, who had fallen in their insane struggle…, had been necessarily gathered by the sweepers and camp followers into deep pits, and were so hidden from mortal sight …” (Vol, II, p. 167)

Terrible as the general massacre was, more terrible was the looting in the wake of the fall of Delhi. Charles Griffiths tells us in A Narrative of the Siege of Delhi (London, 1910, P. 226f) that “While the siege was progressing, even at a time when clouded with anxiety as to the future, men’s minds were full of the uncertain issue of the fight; the thoughts of all in camp turned involuntarily to the rich harvest awaiting the army should Delhi fall into our hands… During the actual bombardment, when the end seemed at hand, this subject of prize was the topic of conversation among both officers and men.”

And, ultimately, when the city fell, they, in the words of an eye-witness (Allama Fadi-i-Haqq of Khairabad), looted first whatever gold and silver was found with the captives, and also plundered their covering sheets, clothes, tahbands and trousers ...” (Journal of Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, Vol. V, PT 1, Jan. 1957, p.38)

“From September 14 to 20, much looting took place in the city. Our troops, both English and native, and especially the Sikhs, entered houses during these days and managed to secrete about their persons articles of value …” (Griffiths, p.232)

According to the same author, houses were searched, floors were unravelled, closets ransacked and people were intimidated and tortured in an attempt to unravel the treasures that lay hidden. “We have”, writes an unabashed officer of the 61st in The Times (November 27, 1857), “plundered all the shops, and all the valuables are being collected and sold for prize. Our vengeance cannot be appeased.”

Besides what individuals stole for themselves, the valuables, gold and jewellery secured by the government-sponsored prize agents alone amounted to about three-fourths of a million sterling on a very modest estimate (Griffiths, p. 237)

No wonder, Lord Eliphistone, in his letter to Sir John Lawrence, bemoans, “as regards looting, we have indeed surpassed Nadir Shah (Life of Lawrence, Vol. II, p.262).

Not only in destruction and plunder, but also in their treatment towards the king and his family, the British outdid Nadir Shah whom they have not discontinued calling “savage”, “terrible”, “fiend”, and what not. In his hour of supreme triumph, Nadir Shah had, at least, the princely demeanour to treat the vanquished Shah Alam magnanimously, to spare him his life, and dignity which his position commanded, and even comply with his request and stop his (Nadir Shah’s) nine-hour, non-stop, indiscriminate slaughter – but the “civilised” British that entered Delhi in September 1857 knew not how a victorious chief treats his fallen foe.

Captain Hodson

Captain Hodson, who captured the king and the queen and the young prince, was neither moved with compassion for “the utterly exhausted”, “very old and infirm man whose misfortune it was to bear” such a terrible fate nor had any reverence for the great name he bore. On the other hand, this rascal felt aggrieved that “he dared not enjoy the triumph of slaying the last of the Moguls, and was obliged to encounter the obloquy of having spared his life. [More] he intimates, that his plighted word, as the representative of General Wilson, would not have sufficed to insure the safety of the royal prisoner” (Martin, P. 446).

“The orders I received were such,” he shamelessly boasts, “that I did not dare to act on the dictates of my own judgment, to the extent of killing him, when he had given himself up, but had he attempted either a flight or a rescue, I should have shot him like a dog.” (Hodson’s Twelve Years in India, p.324)

At another place, he boasts, “I would much rather have brought him into Delhi dead than living” (Hodson of Hodson’s Horse, p. 233)

And as Martin remarks, this “was a breach of faith; and, indeed, Hodson’s whole behavior was inconsistent with the pledge of protection against personal indignity given to the King” (p.447). This avaricious “rascal” robbed the King and his party of their costly swords and all the other valuables on their person before he took them to Delhi and delivered them to the civil officer.

But what this “rascal” could not do with the person of the king, he ghoulishly perpetrated on the person of three princess, including Mirza Moghul Beg, who surrendered to him later. While on their way to Delhi, a mob had surged round the ruth in which the princes were seated. Hodson presently came on the scene, “galloped among them, saying that the prisoners were the butchers who had murdered and brutally used women and children”. The fierce shouts of the hundred Seik [Sikh]s troopers, armed to the teeth, effectually seconded this denunciation, and the crowd moved off slowly and sullenly. Hodson then surrounded the ruth with his troopers; desired the princes to get out; seized their arms, made them “strip and get into the cart: he then shot them with his own hand”.

After gathering up the weapons, ornaments, and garments of the princess, Hodson rode into the city, and caused the dead bodies to be exposed in front of the police court (until, “for sanitary reasons, they were removed”). (Martin, p.448; Hodson’s Twelve Years in India, p.302). This was horrible enough, but what was simply revolting was that he thought it fit to send the severed heads of the princes to the crestfallen king (Journal of Pakistan Historical Society, Jan. 1957, p.36). Despite this, Hodson goes on to confess, “I am not cruel enough, but I confess I did rejoice at the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches” (Hodson of Hodson’s Horse, p.224).

In the same vein does an engineer officer writes with ghoulish glee, under the date, Sept 23, “…We are getting on capitally; we have got the king prisoner, and are only waiting for leave from Calcutta to hang him. His eldest son and heir, Mirza Moghul Beg… was caught and shot like a dog … I saw all the three bodies exposed in the Khotwalee this morning. I am happy to say we are not so lenient as we were.” (quoted in Ball, Vol. I, p.516)

Through these fiendish acts, Hodson had hoped for great honours and immortality. But even in the heat and suspicions of those very days, even his own countrymen condemned him for these brutal murders (see Holmes, p. 376-377; Star, 27 November, 1857) and “the French speaking of him in a language applicable to an executioner who looked sharply after his pre-requisites, asserted that he stripped the princes ‘pour ne pas gater le bulin’” (Martin, p.448). But what conscience could such a fiend as Hodson bear? While every civilised man and woman stood horrified at his bestiality he continued to glorify himself in having made, to use his words, “the last of the House of Timur eat dirt” (Hodson’s Twelve Years in India, p. 279)

And how they made “the last of the House of Timur eat dirt” could be seen in an account, given by his wife (Mrs Hodson) in The Times and other papers. According to this account, the king was kept in a small room with a low small door, divided in two by a grass matting; “in one half of which a woman was ‘cooking some atrocious compound; in the other, on a native bedstead (that is, a frame of bamboo on four legs, with grass ropes strung across it)”, lay the king of Delhi. The writer proceeds to state: “No other article of furniture whatever was in the room. I am almost ashamed to say that a feeling of pity mingled with my disgust, at seeing a man, recently lord of an imperial city almost unparalleled for riches and magnificence, confined in a low, close, dirty room, which the lowest slave in his household would scarcely have occupied, in the very palace where he had reigned supreme, with power of life and death, untrammelled by any law, within the precincts of a royal residence as large as a considerable-sized town; streets, galleries, towers, mosques, forts, and gardens; a private and a public hall of justice, and innumerable courts, passages, and staircases.”

Zeenat Mahal

Likewise, Zeenat Mahal, the queen, was lodged in a room, much “smaller, darker, dirtier” than the one occupied by the king, and had a charpoy which she shared “with some eight or 10 women” (quoted in Martin, p.453).

And here is an account by Mr Layard, M.P. for Aylesbury, who visited Delhi in May 1858, an account which speaks for itself.

“I saw that broken-down old man – not in a room, but in a miserable hole of his palace – lying on a bedstead, with nothing to cover him but a miserable tattered coverlet. As I beheld him, some remembrance of his former greatness seemed to arise in his mind. He rose with difficulty from his couch; showed me his arms, which were eaten into by disease and by flies – partly from want of water; and he said, in a lamentable voice, that he had not enough to eat! Is that a way in which as Christians, we ought to treat a king? I saw his women too, all huddled up in a corner with their children; and I was told that all that was allowed for their support was 16s. a day! Is not that punishment enough for one that has occupied a throne?” (quoted in Martin, p/455)

Such was the measure of British meanness and such their injustice towards the king and the royal family. The king to whose ancestors generosity and magnanimity, the British owed their trade, their riches, their empire; the king whose ancestors’ the merchant adventures, in the first instance, “kotooed” and salamed for permission for trade, and to build a warehouse or two; and, later, “repeated the process for leave to fortify their factories, and defend their goods from the marauding incursions of the Marahattas – those disturbers of the peaceful subjects of the Great Mogul” (Martin, p.457); the king to whom even the governor-general of India could not approach as an equal, to whom the British officers in Delhi even till May 11, 1857, were obliged to show, in their intercourse with him, all the outward marks of respect which a sovereign had a right to demand. Such was the reward that Jehangir’s descendant received for granting the British string of requests for trade, building factories and their fortification. Such the treatment the last in the line of Timur received at the hands of his family’s foremost beneficiaries.

No wonder, one is inclined to say in Firdausi’s strains: “Tufu bar tuw aye charkh-e-gardan tufu” (“Fie on thee, ‘O Time and Tide, Fie”).

All said and done, however, the humiliation of the last king of Delhi represented, in essence, the humiliation of the whole of India, in the larger context. For one thing, once Delhi, the coveted seat of the empire, fell, the revolt lost its tempo, its momentum, its snowballing and self-perpetuating power. Not a battle, but a war was lost; indeed the First War of independence was lost. For, another, no other city across length and breadth of India donned a more critical a role, stood a more severe test, and bore a more terrible fate than did Delhi.

And what was once, in the haunting words of Dagh,

Falak zamin wo mala’ik janab thi Dilli,

Bihisht wo khuld say bhi intikhab thi Dilli

Jawab kahay kuw thi, lajawab thi Dilli

Magar khiyal say dekha tow khab thi Dilli

had turned into what The Times mournfully describes “Desolate Delhi!”

See also

1857: The events

1857: The causes

1857: A jihadi revolt?

1857: The geographical spread

1857: Heroes and heroines

1857: The aftermath

1857: Contemporary reportage

1857: Books and folksongs about

1857: Little known but important facts

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