This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012


(From September 2006)

I have been trying to help a friend's daughter with her school project on the "First War Of Independence" of 1857 - the 150th anniversary of which is going to be next year, and the politicians are already up in arms about committees to celebrate the occasion. Anyway, if we leave the politicians out of it, what do we have?
Was 1857 a real war of Indian independence, or was it, as the British continue to claim, just a sepoy mutiny?
To consider this question it is impossible to avoid an overview of Indian history as it was before the "mutiny" or whatever one might choose to call it. The years prior to 1857 had seen the collapse of the Mughal Empire to the extent that it controlled nothing more than the Red Fort in what was then the walled city of Delhi.
The aged Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, called Bahadur Shah Zafar, was a pensioner of the British East India Company. The fiction of the empire was already vitiated by such obvious land grab techniques like the Doctrine of Lapse (which puts paid to falsehoods like that propagated by the despicable pair of Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in their piece of pulp fiction masquerading as history, Freedom At Midnight, that the Brits came by their empire against their own wishes and virtually by accident).
There is evidence that in fact the British had in any case decided to overthrow the Mughals and impose direct rule, something they could have done with little or no effort.  
Whatever the result, let's just have a quick overview of how it started.
Although there was at least one rebellion prior to 1857, at Vellore in 1806, it was a minor affair, easily quelled within a few hours. By 1857, the East India Company was the de facto ruler of the Indian subcontinent, with the Sikh empire subjugated, the strong local kingdoms virtually all rendered powerless, and the British deciding who would rule and when the kingdoms would be annexed.  This was not unnaturally  resented by the kinglets and princelings who would be affected, as well as more substantial rulers who feared the loss of their empires. Religious obscurantists were hard at it too, talking of how the spread of telegraph and railway would bring cultural ruin and destruction to the people (echoed today by railers against Valentine's Day and nudity in movies). Such newfangled ideas as the banning of Sati and the promotion of widow remarriage (ironically at the behest of Indian reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy) were held up as examples of such dire threats.
This is not to say, by any means, that the Brits were not to blame. The East India Company was so corrupt that it was seriously suggested that Warren Hasting's statue be shown with one hand accepting a bribe; it was worse even than the court of Bahadur Shah, which was rotten to the core.
Although the intial excuse for the rebellion is generally held to be the "greased cartridge" episode, of which more anon, there was a lot more to it than just that handy excuse. The situation was rather conducive to rebellion, and signals were being sent around along with prophecies of a change of ruler...and it was a hundred years since the battle of Plassey, which was an extraordinary prefiguring of what was to come (see that link). 
The immediate excuse for the rebellion was the introduction of the Enfield Rifle. This episode needs to be  considered in some detail, because an extraordinary lot of myths have grown up around it, and a lot of muddled thinking. Basically, what happened was this:
For hundreds of years, the firearm used by the British and British controlled forces was the Brown Bess musket. Although the firing mechanism had changed over the centuries, from flintlock to percussion, the basic weapon remained the same.It was not an effective weapon, being smooth bored and therefore not accurate at long ranges. It did have to be loaded from the muzzle end like all weapons of that age. In older centuries the soldier would have had to pour a measured quantity of gunpowder from a powder horn down the muzzle. After this he would be expected to put in the musket ball, then a wad of cloth to keep it all from falling out, and ram it down the barrel with a ramrod. Then one would sprinkle gunpowder in the firing pan, put a flint in the striker, aim, and pull the trigger, on which the flint produced a spark which ignited the powder in the firing pan, which (hopefully) would set off the main charge and send the ball out of the barrel.If one had not already been killed by then one might expect to hit an enemy soldier who was at most a hundred metres away. Great.
The advance made on this was the percussion cap, which was placed on the back of the barrel in place of the firing pan and was struck by a hammer or firing pin and not by a flint. This was accompanied by the manufacture of a cartridge - a pre-packed musket ball with a measured gunpowder charge in a paper tube attached to it. One was supposed to open the back of the tube and let out the gunpowder, generally by biting with the teeth (which was convenient) and drop it down the barrel, ramming it home with the rod. No wad or powder horn necessary.
Now this was a smoothbore musket. Its accuracy was still the same, up to 100 metres, and the Company's Indian soldiers were using it. Now a radical new design appeared in the Enfield, which had a rifled barrel, with spiral grooves to provide a spin to the bullet. The improvement was such that the new gun was accurate out to some 800 metres. Of course, the ball would not spin unless the barrel gripped it tightly enough to give it a twist. So unlike the Brown Bess, the bullet would be a tiny little bit larger than the barrel's internal diameter (the soft lead ball would deform enough with pressure to fit). This had a very important corollary. The cartridge would not easily slide down the barrel duing loading; it had to be lubricated for easy ramming down the barrel. That lubrication was achieved with grease.
We are talking 1857 here. There was no petroleum jelly, and hydrogenated vegetable oils did not exist. The easiest way of greasing was with tallow. That is to say, the fat of animals.
It was not as though the British did not know the fact that their largely upper caste sepoys would object to this greasing. In fact, they ordered the cartridges to be greased with vegetable oils and claimed that this had been done. If I remember right, though, no less a personage than the then Governor General suspected that the Company had in fact used beef and pig tallow since it was plentifully available and much less expensive than vegetable oil.And remember that the cartridges had, as part of the standard drill, to be bitten to release the powder. The Brits, in a last ditch effort to avoid a conflagration, ordered a new firing drill for native sepoys where the cartridge was to be opened by hand, and they told the sepoys they could bring whatever they wanted to lubricate the cartridges, to no avail (yet the selfsame sepoys, as the British oberved ironically, would have no problem using the "polluting" greased cartridges when the rebellion broke out).
The episode of Mangal Pandey has been much reported and much exaggerated, especially in the ridiculous film. In reality, Pandey was such an insignificant character that the only contemporary Indian account extant, Subedar Sita Ram Pandey's Kissa Sita Ram Ka, does not even mention him. As analysed in this book, Pandey just happened to have his name accidentally associated with the rebellion by fortuitous timing. If he had been a genuine nationalist he would not have joined the Company's army at all. And at his trial, where all the judges were Indians under Subedar Jawahar Lal Pandey, he admitted to being drunk and under the influence of bhang. So much for him.
By the time of the middle months of 1857, the British had become seriously worried about the possibility of a military uprising and, as I said, told the soldiers that they could bring their own vegetable oil to grease the cartridges and also introduced a new drill where the hand was used to open the back of the cartridge, not the teeth. It had little effect, one reason being that the cartridges were an excuse, no more. The uprising that broke out at Meerut was betrayed to the British, but they ignored warnings. Some half-hearted attempts to disarm "mutinous" regiments merely roused passions even more.
I do not intend to dwell on the actual history of the rebellion step by step. But let me make a few observations:
First: The Mughal Empire was not just a dying institution in 1857, it was on life support. It had ceased to exist in any meaningful way a good century before, during the reign of Muhammad Shah ("Rangila").
There was no point in putting a tired old man of no great courage, ability (in fields other than Urdu poetry), or charisma like Bahadur Shah II on the putative throne of Hindustan. In fact, it more likely than not put off those who might have been part of the rebellion but had historical reasons to hate and fear the Mughals.
Second: Only one of the three armies of the East India Company, the Bengal Army, rebelled, and the rebellion was confined only to North and North-Central India (Delhi in the North West to Varanasi and Jhansi in the South East, essentially). The other two armies, those of Bombay and Madras, not only did not revolt but were used by the British to suppress the rebellion, an imperialistic and colonial enterprise in which the newly conquered Sikhs enthusiastically joined, and this is something which they still defend. Only those princes joined the rebellion who were at threat from the British, and, no matter how courageous they were, like Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Nana Saheb, or Tantiya Tope, they did so essentially for their own reasons and not for any pan-national sentiment. The mass of the people did not join in the effort, for reasons of caste or indifference, or for outright disapproval. And those princes who stayed out were rewarded by the grant of their positions as long as they stayed loyal to the crown, while those "martial races" who helped the British put down the movement were rewarded with preferential recruitment to the army, something which in practice endures to this day.
Third: If the rebellion had succeeded, it would have led to the rapid unravelling of the "country", which had never in fact existed as a unified political entity, into small nation states. Whether that would have been a bad thing is in my view, debatable, since our gigantic nation is not exactly the best governed on the surface of the earth.
Fourth: Neo-imperialist bastard "historians" like Niall Ferguson and Christopher Hitchens claim that the British "benefited" India immensely by bringing railways and telegraphs.  In this view, Indians were profoundly ungrateful to have rebelled. Question: Did only colonised countries get railways and telegraphs? Why did the Brits strip India's artisans of their livelihood, the country of its natural resources, taking raw materials from here to be sold again to the people at a profit? Did they have any right?
 And, fifth: Does any rebellion essentially carried out by army rebels and disaffected princes, for reasons however good, but not supported by the vast majority of the population, qualify as a war of independence? It was not just a sepoy mutiny, certainly; but what exactly was it?
The two pictures I used to illustrate this post depict the Emperor Bahadur Shah II, in Imperial regalia, and as a broken old man in exile. The latter, taken in Yangon, is thought to be the only photograph of a Mughal Emperor (albeit a deposed one) ever taken.

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