Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Indian Mutiny from The Macquarie Dictionary

a revolt of indigenous Indian regiments in British India, 1857--59, resulting in the transfer of the administration of India from the East India Company to the Crown.

Summary Article: The Indian Mutiny
from World History Encyclopedia

The Indian Mutiny of 1857–1858 was a determined, if disorganized, effort mainly undertaken by Indian soldiers, or sepoys, who served in the Bengal army, the largest of the three armies maintained by the British East India Company in India. Their goal was to end the company's dominance over India. The word "mutiny" was first used by British historians in the nineteenth century to indicate an illegal action against British authority, but many scholars, especially Indians, tend to characterize the rebellion as an act of resistance to foreign rule and hence refer to it as India's First War of Independence.

Many factors led to this event. Many Indians had suffered economically under British rule. The flourishing Indian cotton textile industry had almost been destroyed by British policies of protecting their own markets and using India as a captive market for its own products. The agricultural revenue structure introduced by the British in some parts of India through the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 increased the burden of taxes on the peasants and made tax collection more ruthless. The British encouragement, if not coercion, of Indian peasants to cultivate commercial crops such as cotton, jute, tea, indigo, and opium rather than food products led to food scarcities and, when exacerbated by drought, widespread famine. Finally, there was the gradual drain of wealth from India that, in many ways, depleted India for the benefit of Britain. The only groups that benefitted economically from company rule were the comprador bourgeoisie (trading and commercial classes who profited from their association with the British), the zamindari classes (the new landowning gentry that British agricultural policies created), and those who directly entered company service.

In addition, the assumption of new administrative responsibilities by the British and their expansion into new territories in the early 1800s alarmed many Indians. The British gradually evolved from being traders to being tax collectors, providers of law and order, and eventually direct administrators of different provinces. The older Mughal administrative elite felt progressively marginalized, and the emperor himself eventually became little more than a cultural token with only partial jurisdiction over a city. Moreover, the British were acquiring territories either through outright conquest (Sind in 1845 and Punjab in 1849) or through the application of the Doctrine of Lapse enunciated by Lord Dalhousie, governor-general of India during 1848–1856, that allowed the company to annex any Indian princely state (e.g., Satara, Jhansi, Oudh) that did not have a direct male successor after the death of a local ruler or was simply considered to be incompetently administered.

Christian missionary activity also generated concern among many Indians (particularly Muslims), while certain social reforms supported by the British, such as banning widow self- immolation and child marriage, were perceived as threats to native religious traditions. In addition to the growing unease about British rule in the general population, the company faced growing dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Indian army. The armies of the company were overwhelmingly native. By 1856, there was a total of about 43,000 British troops and more than 223,000 Indian soldiers in the company forces. However, Indian soldiers were poorly paid and shabbily treated, and they complained about pensions and promotions and were resentful of being deployed outside of India.

Military and religious resentment became explosively intertwined with the introduction of the new Lee-Enfield rifles in 1857. It was widely believed that the cartridges, which had to have the ends bitten off before being loaded, were greased with fat from pigs (considered unclean by Muslims) and cows (deemed sacred by the Hindus). In February 1857 the troops of the Bengal infantry refused to use these cartridges, and in March a native soldier named Mangal Pandey fired on a British officer to register his protest. Finally, in April in Meerut, the Indian soldiers, joined by some townspeople, rose up in open revolt, massacred most of the British, and marched toward Delhi. They took the capital in May, killed all the British residents and soldiers who could not escape, and proclaimed the Mughal ruler the emperor of India. These events were spearheaded by Indian troops, often led by rulers and elite of the princely states and vestiges of the Mughal nobility, and received enthusiastic, if sporadic and localized, support from ordinary people.

It should be pointed out that the rebellion was mainly focused on the upper Gangetic plains, which constitute parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. Most of the Bombay and Madras presidencies and much of the country did not join in this effort. While the fighting was most intense in some of the princely states (particularly those where the rulers had been deposed), many other such states (Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore) remained aloof. Even the Bengal Army, which formed the core of the uprising, did not represent a united front in its opposition to the British, and some segments of the military, such as the Punjab and Gurkha regiments, actually supported the British. Also, solidarity and resolve were eroded by disagreements among the Indians over tactics, leadership, and jurisdictions, which led to dissension among Shia and Sunni, Hindu and Muslim, and easterners and westerners. Nonetheless, as a direct challenge to British rule, the event acquired huge symbolic significance and later inspired much romantic lore and patriotic sentiment.

The superior strategy, weaponry, and organization of the British ultimately prevailed over the spontaneity and passion of the Indians. Delhi was retaken by the British in September 1857, while other centers of rebellion were pacified with vengeful authority. British operations were carried out with a merciless zeal (particularly in Delhi) that was both overwhelming and horrific. The events had several consequences. Parliament terminated the operations of the East India Company, and the Crown assumed jurisdiction over India. The Doctrine of Lapse was renounced, and new understandings were reached with the princely states. Mughal rule formally ended. The Bengal Army was all but disbanded, new units were recruited, and new arrangements of command and control were instituted. The British administrative and financial system in India was also incrementally reorganized, and more attention was paid to education, employment, and the participation of Indians in their own governance through their gradual incorporation into the Indian civil services and as participants in the Indian legislative councils.

  • Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 New York: Knopf, 2007.
  • Pati, Biswamoy. The 1857 Rebellion New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Pramod, Nayar, ed. India 1857: The Great Mutiny New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
  • Saul, David. The Indian Mutiny London: Penguin, 2003.
Ahrar Ahmad
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

Related Articles

Full text Article Indian mutiny
Dictionary of British History

(1857-58) A rebellion against British rule, originating in the Bengal army of the East India Company but supported by part of the civilian...

Full text Article Indian Mutiny (1857–1858)
Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations

“Sepoy Rebellion.” It is better known in Indian history as the First War of Independence. It was essentially an Indian Army revolt that...

Full text Article Indian Uprising
Chambers Dictionary of World History

A serious rebellion against British rule, triggered off partly by the belief among Indian sepoy troops in British East India Company service...

See more from Credo