The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857

As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sides

to the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly no

exception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth century

it is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion exists

regarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. The

British being in control of the subcontinent and their sense of

superiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek to

downplay any acts of rebellion. While the Indian subjects on the other

hand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise the

importance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalist

cause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, does

it lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalistic

side, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of the


Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behind

the outbreak of rebellion in 1857. Primarily he sees `accumulating

grievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal' as the most important factor.

The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale' amongst the army lay

with several reasons. Much of the Sepoy army was comprised of

`Brahmins and other high caste Hindus' who assisted in promoting a

`focus of sedition'. The `generally poor ezdard of British

officers', plus the lack of improvement to the overall position of

those men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. At

this point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed from

those of Bengal and Madras', as the Bombay and Madras armies took no

part in the rebellion of 1857. But the more pronounced military factor

was the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain' meant that many

areas were `virtually denuded of British troops'.

These military grievances which although significant were not

themselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attack

on the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. The

first of these perceived threats was that the British government was

preparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly to

Christianity'. Although not based on fact the actions of some `pious

British officers did nothing to dispel' the rumours to the contrary.

Added to this British lethargy was the Brahmins who tended to be

`peculiarly watchful for potential threats to their religion and


Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle'

with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bitten

before loading'. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was

either from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred to

Hindus' or `pollution to Muslims', was interpreted as attacking at the

core of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. These rumours unlike

those regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of the

caste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the British

government `withdrew the objectionable grease'. This belated action

proved futile as the damage had already been done.

However this only accounts for the military aspects of the

uprising which display the version of events `accepted in official

circles [as] basically army mutinies'. This version preferred by the

British fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among the

civilian population', who saw much of the British government's actions

as amounting to interference and contempt for the `long established

rules and customs'.

Disraeli saw the causes of the uprising as not being the

`conduct of men who were ... the exponents of general discontent'

amongst the Bengal army. For Disraeli the root cause was the overall

administration by the government, which he regarded as having

`alienated or alarmed almost every influential class in the country'.

Yet other British saw the overall social situation and

government administration as having no effect in causing the uprising.

For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of the

revolt' was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition for

the Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the trigger

incident, with the root cause being the long term reduction in

discipline in the army and the poor ezdard of officers in command.

The British ezdpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a

mutiny. This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of the

military, yet this fails to include the sections of the