The Mutiny of 1857-58.
No one who was within the range of the hurricane of 1857, no one who was even on its edge, can ever forget it. When we now look back, we marvel that a single European in that part of India was spared to tell of its fierce struggle, its sad sights, and its fearful perils. The annals of the Mutiny are furnished in volumes filled with ample details. Its causes and consequences have been largely discussed. My narrower and humbler aim is to describe that terrible outbreak so far, and only so far, as it came within my own experience and observation. My narrative will, however, be better understood by stating briefly the causes, which, in my opinion, led to this great rising against us, and by giving an outline of its progress before reaching Benares, where we then resided.


Our position in India is very peculiar. The history of the world presents no parallel. A great continent, containing a number of nations, possessed of an ancient civilization, some of them composed of races given to war and noted for their prowess, with a population amounting at present to 253 millions, has been brought under the dominion of a country of limited extent and limited population like ours, separated from it by many intervening countries, and accessible only by thousands of miles of ocean. That continent has not been subjected to tribute, and then left to its native rulers. Over by far the greater part of India these rulers have been displaced, and British rule has been established. Where native rulers remain, they are bound to administer their affairs in accordance with the views of the Sovereign Power. Over a part of the Indian continent the rule commenced more than a hundred years ago, and from decade to decade it has extended till it now embraces its present vast proportions. It extends beyond India. In the North-West we have entered into what properly belongs to Afghanistan, and from Burma a large extent of territory has been taken; so that the east as well as the west coast of the Bay of Bengal has come under our rule. To all appearance the rule is as firmly established as if it had come down from ancient times.


It would be a great mistake to suppose that India had been conquered for England by its own people. If they had been left to themselves, no part of it would now belong to us. The small European force has always been the backbone of our armies; but in every battle native soldiers have formed the great majority. The French gave us the example of employing native soldiers to place their country under European rule. In the dissolution of the Mogul Empire, thousands of warriors were ready to fight the battles of any one, European or native, who would pay them well. The example of the French was followed by the English, till India, from Cape Comorin to the mountains of the north and the north-west, came under their sway, to an extent and with a completeness and firmness of grasp never reached by the Muhammadan power in its palmiest days. Each Presidency -- Bengal, Madras, and Bombay -- has had its own native army, in 1857 amounting altogether to 240,000 men. In the Bengal army, by far the largest of the three, there has never been a single native of Bengal Proper. It has been entirely composed of north countrymen, to a large extent of Brahmans, and Chhatrees the old fighting caste of India, who have entered our service on account of its good pay and good treatment, though alien from us in everything by which one people can be alien from another. Many of the native soldiers have been Muhammadans, who are intensely averse to us on both religious and political grounds. Under the influence of friendly intercourse and good offices performed to each other, a kindly feeling often sprung up between officers and men; but as a body they were mercenary troops fighting for strangers, and the history of the world furnishes abundant instances of such an army being as formidable to their employers as to those against whom they have been employed. In the course of time our native soldiers were more and more trusted; important places were garrisoned by them, military stores were entrusted to them; and nothing was more natural than that in the more ambitious of their number the thought should spring up that the time had arrived for expelling the stranger, and seizing the power within their grasp. In thus acting they could make themselves sure of the sympathy of their countrymen.


The Sepoys have been treated in the matter of pay, clothing, and food, as they never were under native rulers; but they have been subjected to strict discipline, and they have been cut off from the much-prized privilege of foraging, or rather plundering. They have at different times complained loudly of unjust treatment. Alleged breach of promises of pay, and their being sent to fight our battles in foreign countries such as Burmah, China, Persia, and Afghanistan, and to parts of India foreign to them, have been prominent among their causes of complaint. They have not confined themselves to complaint and remonstrance; they have again and again broken out into mutiny, which has led to some regiments being disbanded, and the mutineer leaders being severely punished. Years before 1857 it was asserted by persons eminently qualified to judge, like Sir Henry Lawrence, that grievous mistakes had been committed in the administration of the native army, and that our safety demanded great changes in its treatment and distribution. When one reads the statements they made, and the warnings they gave, the wonder is the mutiny did not sooner occur. Lord Ellenborough, before leaving India, declared the Sepoys were our one peril in India, and characteristically proposed we should keep them in humour by keeping them always fighting.

All other causes of revolt were light compared with the charge often advanced and believed that we were bent on the destruction of their religion. From the outbreak at Vellore in 1806, on to the great mutiny of 1857, this charge was persistently made. The Sepoys were allowed all the religious liberty compatible with military obedience; they had every facility for following their religious customs; they were fenced off from Christian influences as no other part of the community was; they were solemnly assured again and again their religion would be scrupulously respected; they had full evidence before their eyes that with few exceptions their officers had no Christian zeal. Whence, then, this charge of tampering with their religion? The explanation is to be found in the character of Hinduism. It is intensely outward. It is a matter of rite and ceremony, of meat and drink, of clothing and posture. It may be filched from a man without any act of his own by the act of another, and he may not be aware till informed that the fatal loss has been incurred. Something may be introduced into his food which will deprive him of his religion, and make him an outcast all his days. What more easy than to introduce a defiling element, such as the blood or fat of the cow or bullock, of which the Brahman or Rajpoot might unaware partake? To this intensely outward religion people of these castes are passionately attached from custom, from superstition, and still more, I think, from the consideration among themselves and others which caste purity secures. Their honour, izzat, as they call it, is their most valuable possession. An attack on it is bitterly resented. This honour is quite consistent with licentiousness, robbery, plunder, and even murder; but to violate caste by drinking from the vessel of a low-caste man, or eating with him, would bring with it indelible disgrace. To partake of the cow, the sacred animal, is the greatest crime which can be committed, and, if done unconsciously, the greatest calamity.

Notwithstanding the fact that the English as a people had little zeal for their religion, the Sepoys thought they saw reasons for our wishing to effect their conversion. If Christians, they would be fitter instruments for carrying out the designs of their English conquerors. They would in that case be no longer hampered by class distinctions, commissariat arrangements could be more easily made, they would have no objection to serving in foreign lands, and they would become identified with us. What was more easy than to effect the change by the manipulation of their food? Their imagination led them to interpret facts as justifying suspicion, and the supposition was enough to drive them to revolt.

The Muhammadans in India have become Hinduized to a large extent; they continually speak of themselves as a caste, and Muhammadan soldiers have shared with their Hindu comrades in the fear that the English were bent on destroying their religion. They took the most prominent part in the mutiny at Vellore in 1806. They were injudiciously required there to put on the English military hat, to shave their beards, and put on leather belts, which they maintained were made of pigs' skins; and all this was done, they said, to turn them into Topeewalas, Hatmen -- in other words, into Englishmen and Christians.


Outside the army there have been causes, co-operating with those within, in prompting the soldiers to rise against us. Our government is a very foreign one. There is a national gulf between the rulers and the ruled, and consequent absence of the sympathy which would draw them to each other, if they were of the same people. Our government is at once expensive and strong, requiring a large amount of taxation considering the resources of the country, and able to enforce its payment. India has been greatly favoured by high-minded and able rulers; but often, with the best intentions, from want of thorough acquaintance with the native character and customs, injustice has at times been done by the decisions of our courts. Though giving security for person and property, such as India had never previously enjoyed, our government has borne hardly on some classes, such as the officials of the native states we have annexed, the numerous dependents of the abolished native courts, and the able and enterprising members of the community, for whom no suitable sphere has been open, as the main prizes in both the military and civil services are reserved for the English stranger. Then deposed princes have now and then intrigued with the army to draw it away from its allegiance.

In the spring of 1856 Lord Dalhousie laid down his office, after his long and memorable Proconsulship. So little did he anticipate the events of the coming year, that in the elaborate Minute he wrote on his retirement he satisfied himself with saying, regarding the native army, that the condition of the Sepoy could not be improved. Till the closing months of the year there was no fear of the coming storm. Profound peace reigned throughout India. War had been declared against Persia, but hopes were entertained that victory would soon crown our arms, and these hopes were fulfilled.


Towards the end of 1856 and early in 1857 there were mutterings of the storm. A number of men were selected from each regiment to be taught the use of the Enfield rifle, and for this purpose a new cartridge was required, which required to be bitten with the teeth. The report spread like wild-fire, and was firmly believed, that the cartridge was smeared with bullock's fat to destroy the caste of the Hindus, and with pig's fat to destroy the caste of the Muhammadans. The Adjutant-General of the army declared there was not the slightest ground for the statement; but the more strongly our innocence of design on their religion was asserted, the more firmly did the Sepoys believe our guilt. Paper was offered to them, and they were told to prepare cartridges for themselves; but they said the paper was dangerously glazed, and they would not accept it. Among other things causing disquietude was an order that in future all enlisting must engage to go wherever they might be sent in India or beyond. Hitherto some regiments had been enlisted only for service in India, and could not be sent out of it except by their own consent. On every side there were signs of a new era setting in, which forbode no good to the ancient customs and institutions of the land. The more aspiring spirits among the Sepoys had evidently formed the project of uniting the whole army in the attempt to drive the English into the sea, and secure power and emolument for themselves.


Various things favoured the project. It was well known that many throughout India hated the English, and were ready to join in their expulsion. Forts and arsenals were left in their keeping, unchecked by the presence of European soldiers. The mass of the European force was in the far North-West, in the Punjab, and towards the border of Afghanistan, as if there the danger lay. The Sepoys saw that if they could combine and act in concert they could with ease strike us to the ground. Then the prophecy was widely spread that our rule was speedily to come to an end. It had commenced with our victory at Plassey on June 23, 1757; and when the sun of June 23, 1857, should set, not one English face would be seen in India. Mysterious cakes, resembling our bannocks, were sent on from village to village, like the fiery cross in Scotland in former days, to prepare the people for great and startling events. Early in 1857 the ferment among the soldiers was spreading among large classes of the people.

During the cold weather of 1856-57 I spent some weeks in travelling with my family in the country to the east of Benares, on the Calcutta road. We left the high-road and made our way, as I have already mentioned, to Rohtas Gurh, a famous abandoned fortress on the top of a hill. In some of the villages to which I went to preach the Gospel the bitterest feeling was shown, especially by young men, towards our rule and religion. In one place the feeling manifested was so bitter that I thought they were prepared to lay violent hands on me. I remember remarking more than once, as I returned to the tent weary and worn out in body and mind, that a strange feeling was coming over the people, which I had never previously observed, and that I feared dark days were approaching.


At Berhampore, more than a hundred miles above Calcutta, and Barrackpore, a few miles from it, the Sepoys broke into open mutiny, which led to the leaders being executed and their regiments disbanded. The outbreak at these places made a painful impression on the entire English community, and created deep anxiety. That anxiety was increased by the reports received from day to day of the mutinous spirit shown by the Sepoys all over the country. We were told of midnight meetings, insolent conduct, and incendiary fires. The most sanguine could not but fear that we were entering a calamitous period. The most hopeful were those officers who had been long with native regiments, and were sure that whatever others might do, their men would remain staunch.


At length, on May 10th, the storm burst out at Meerut in all its fury. I cannot enter on a detailed account of the events of that sad, memorable day. I can only in a few words mention what took place. On the previous day 87 men of a native cavalry regiment had, before the whole garrison of the place, been put in irons for repeated persistent disobedience. Though there was a large European force a native guard was put over the prisoners, who were confined in a place close to their comrades. No precaution was taken against their rescue. On the evening of the next day, Sunday, as the Europeans were gathering for Church, the Sepoys rose, murdered their officers, hastened to the parade ground, liberated their imprisoned comrades, opened the jails, raised all the villainy of the native town, massacred the Christians whom they met, men, women, and children, set houses on fire, and then set out for Delhi, the great old imperial city. There they were welcomed by the titular king and his family, and there, as at Meerut, they murdered all the Christians on whom they could lay hold. By the mismanagement of the large European force at Meerut, a small portion of which was well able to cope with the Sepoys, they did not arrive on the scene of revolt till the Sepoys had done all the mischief on which they were bent, and had set out for Delhi.

That 10th of May we remember vividly. We had had our usual afternoon service with the native Christians. In the evening we walked out in the garden. The moon was shining in an unclouded sky. Hot though the weather was we enjoyed our quiet walk, talked of the services of the day, and the threatening appearance of affairs. Little did we think of the terrible scenes which were then being enacted at Meerut.

The outbreak at Meerut awoke as with a peal of the loudest thunder the entire English community in India, and especially in Northern India, to a sense of imminent peril. We had hitherto lived in the enjoyment of profound security. There had been uneasiness on different occasions, when our power seemed imperilled by the disasters which overtook us in Afghanistan in 1841-42, and by the life and death struggle we had afterwards with the Sikhs. Our enemies were then watching for our fall, and the reasons for uneasiness at those times were stronger than the community generally were aware of. There had been also at different times uneasiness in reference to the Sepoys, but they came to be regarded as wilful children, who might be troublesome, but who would do us no harm. In our own country, among our own people, we could not have felt safer than we ordinarily did. At the travelling season we went about, pitched our tents in solitary spots, for weeks together perhaps did not see a white face, and were treated not only with courtesy, but generally with profound deference, as if we belonged to a superior race. The people in their obsequious fashion, and with their idolatrous views, would almost have given us divine honours. All at once we realized ourselves as living in the midst of a dense alien population. Our own trusted soldiers, serving under our banners, receiving our pay, and sworn to defend us, had risen against us; and with them as declared enemies, in whom could we confide? Our obsequious servants of yesterday might become our murderers to-day. We felt ourselves at bay, surrounded by a host who might any moment fall on us and destroy us.

chapter xv return to benares
Top of Page
Top of Page