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01 March 2006

bite the bullet: the Sepoy Mutiny

The British Pattern 1853 Enfield (P/53) "3-Band"
Rifled Infantry Musket;
.577 caliber percussion;
cap-primer; muzzle-loader. This weapon was also

widely used by both armies
during the US Civil War 1861-1865.

from Wikipedia's account of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion or Mutiny, also called the First War of Indian Independence.

Pakistan became a sovereign nation, partitioning itself with a predominately Muslim population, after the British Empire withdrew from the Subcontinent in 1948. India retained a Hindu majority. Hindus and Muslims had worked together in the long political struggle for independence from Great Britain. British imperial rule of the Subcontinent had been called the Raj.



Sepoys were native Indian soldiers serving in the army of the British East India Company under British officers trained in the East India Company College, the company's own military school in England. The presidencies of Bombay [now Mumbai], Madras and Bengal maintained their own army each with its own commander-in-chief. They fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire. In 1857 there were 257,000 sepoys.

The Company also recruited Indians of other castes than the Brahmin and Rajputs; the latter is a traditional warrior caste in the Western part of North India, now Rajasthan. In 1856 sepoys were required to serve overseas during a war in Burma [now Myanmar, but maybe Burma again]. Hindu tradition states that those who 'travel the black waters' will lose their caste and be outside the Hindu community. Sepoys were thus very displeased with their deployment to Burma.

The sepoys were dissatisfied with various aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low and after the British troops conquered Awadh and the Punjab, the soldiers no longer received extra pay for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". However, they were not subject to the penalty of flogging as were the British soldiers. Sepoy soldiers found themselves constantly pitted against their countrymen in an army which the common soldiers increasingly began to feel was governed by wholly foreign influences. In a colonial setting, this is the prime breeding ground for a conflagration.

Into this conflagration, the Pattern 1853 Enfield (P/53) rifle was introduced into India. Its cartridge was covered by a greased membrane which was supposed to be cut by the teeth before the cartridges were loaded into the rifles. There was a rumour that the membrane was greased by cow or pig fat. This was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike, who considered tasting beef or pork to be against their respective religious tenets. The British claimed that they had replaced the cartridges with new ones not made from cow and pig fat and tried to get sepoys to make their own grease from beeswax and vegetable oils but the rumour persisted. A new drill was also introduced in which the cartridge was not bitten with the teeth but torn with the hand: the sepoys argued that they might very well forget and bite. The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices", and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.

Some began to spread the rumour of a prophecy that the Company's rule would end after a hundred years. Their rule in India had begun with the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

Start of the war

Several months of increasing tension and inflammatory incidents preceded the actual rebellion.

Fire near Calcutta

Fires, possibly the result of arson, broke out near Calcutta on 24 January 1857.

Bengal Native Infantry

On February 26, 1857 the 19th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) regiment came to know about [the rumors about the] new cartridges and refused to use them. Their Colonel confronted them angrily with artillery and cavalry on the parade ground, but then accepted their demand to withdraw the artillery, and cancel the next morning's parade [1].

Mangal Pandey (Indian Sepoy)

At Barrackpore (now Barrackpur), near Calcutta, on March 29, 1857, Mangal Pandey of the 34th BNI attacked and injured his British sergeant on the parade ground, and wounded an adjutant with a sword after shooting at him, but instead hitting the adjutant's horse.

It is alleged by the British that Pandey was heavily intoxicated with Bhang [cannabis, marijuana] at the time of this incident. General John Hearsey came out to meet him on the parade ground, and said later that Mangal Pandey was in some kind of "religious frenzy". He ordered a jemadar to arrest Pandey, but the jemadar refused. Pandey then tried to kill himself by pulling the trigger of his musket with his toe. He only managed to wound himself in the chest, and was court-martialled on April 6. He was hanged along with the jemadar on April 8. The whole regiment was dismissed as a collective punishment, because it was felt that they would harbour vengeful feelings towards their superiors after this incident. The other sepoys thought this a very harsh punishment.

April saw fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala.

3rd Light Cavalry at Meerut

On 9 May, 85 troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry at Meerut refused to use their cartridges. They were imprisoned, sentenced to ten years of hard labour, and stripped of their uniforms in public. It has been said that the town prostitutes made fun of the manhood of the sepoys during the night and this is what goaded them.

When the 11th and 20th native cavalry of the Bengal Army assembled in Meerut on 10 May, they broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. They then liberated the 3rd Regiment and attacked the European cantonment where they killed all the Europeans they could find, including women and children, and burned the houses. The rebelling forces were then engaged by the remaining British forces in Meerut. Meerut had the largest percentage of British troops of any station in India: 2,038 European troops with twelve field guns versus 2,357 sepoys lacking artillery. Some commentators believe that the British forces could have stopped the sepoys from marching on Delhi, but the British commanders of the Meerut garrison were extraordinarily slow in reacting to the crisis. They did not even send immediate word to other British cantonments that a rebellion was in process. It seems likely that they believed they would be able to contain the Indians by themselves.

On 11 May the rebels reached Delhi, where they were joined by other Indians from the local bazaar, and attacked and captured the Red Fort (Lal Qila), killing five British, including a British officer and two women. Lal Qila was the residence of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II and the sepoys demanded that he reclaim his throne. At first he was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to the demands and became the leader of the rebellion.


Blogger Abbas Halai said...

the rising: the rising:ballad of mangal panday was made into an award winning film last year.

also just so you know "the company" they refer to is the east india trading company, better known on this side of the pond as the hudson's bay company, the oldest corporation in the world, which just got bought out by jerry zucker.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Oh man don't make me enroll in a university course on British colonial history, but my fuzzy hazy recollection of these things (and my travels to HBC towns in the Canadian Arctic) leads me to believe the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company weren't the same, but two similar Royal chartered private companies. (Doubtless during the centuries when the profits were rolling in, the same kinds of Gentlemen had shares in and served on the governing bodies of both companies.)

Hudson Bay Company of course in our lifetimes had morphed into "The Bay," one of Canada's biggest and most famous department store chains.

They told me there was a HBC store on the only street in Moosonee, Ontario (on James Bay), but I couldn't find it. The sign had blown down in a storm a couple of years earlier, and they never bothered to put up a new sign. "You find it, or you starve," the post office guy told me. HBC was the monopoly in the Arctic for buying everything (furs) and for selling everything. Locals still refer to HBC as "Here Before Christ." For centuries in huge swaths of Canada, the presence and influence of Hudson Bay Company was far more important than the presence of the Canadian government.

The East India Company was the same in India/the Subcontinent. Its influence dwarfed the direct influence of the British government, or rather the British government provided some of the colonial military muscle, but largely did the East India Company's bidding.

Gonna rent the flick, thanks for the tip. Rarer than hen's teeth in these parts: movies about the Euro Colonial Days where the locals are the heroes. He who owns the Movie Studio gets to decide which guy is the hero and which guy is the villain. Maybe one of these days I'll get a chance to rent a movie about the Vietnam War that was made in a studio in modern Hanoi. John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone will be the villains.

Here's another hen's tooth movie about life under the Raj: "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" (2001). The villains are the Brits, the heroes are poor Indian farmers on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, who play one cricket match against the Brits. If they lose, the Brits take their land. If they win, they get a 5-year immunity from their ruinous land taxes. The match is as intense as a battle in the Sepoy Mutiny.

I confess that it's the only cricket match I've ever watched. We don't play a lot of cricket down here. From another movie, I know what a googly is. Or I think I do. Are you a cricketer?

"Bite the Bullet" is also one of my favorite Western movies, a magnificent cast. Just as The Old West is dying around 1900, a newspaper sponsors a 1000-mile cowboy horse race through the Rockies with a huge $$$ prize. A very adult look at the Old West, and two very surprising themes: Love of animals, and the birth of the American culture of Competition -- all this Winners and Losers crap. Gene Hackman, Candace Bergen, James Coburn, and my alltime favorite cowboy movie star, Ben Johnson, in one of his last movies. Something to think about, but also a great popcorn and sofa movie.


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