Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Were They Thinking: The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857

This is actually a photo of a sepoy
from the Madras Presidency, which was not involved in any
of the uprisings mentioned in my post, but it's
a great picture, no? (Watercolor by Alex Hunter)
By Supriya Savkoor

It’s 1857, and the British East India Company is at the height of its powers. Back in England, a gun manufacturer comes out with a striking new innovation: the Enfield Pattern 1853 (or the Enfield P53) rifle-musket.

For a decade and a half, right into the U.S. Civil War, this innovative new rifle allowed cartridges made of gun powder to propel metallic balls through the barrel, or the body of the weapon, through threaded grooves rather than smooth ones. This process instilled confidence in front-line soldiers because the rifle’s manufacturers had sold them on the fact that second-line soldiers literally had their backs. That is, it was believed the soldiers in the back could aim better at their targets with more assurance that they wouldn't hurt their fellow soldiers right in front of them. Plus the tips of the rifles were equipped with bayonets, so it also helped protect the soldiers if they ran out of cartridges and had to come face to face with an opponent. And in fact, just two years earlier, the Enfield P53 saw significant action in the Crimean War.

A sepoy from Awan in north India (Painting by
Major A.C. Lovett, circa the early 20th century)
The British East India Company’s administrators led the Indian soldiers, known as sepoys, mostly through the local Indian kings who reported up the chain of command back to the company itself. The company, you see, played the maharajas off each other, leading the sepoys into skirmishes against one another, and the sepoys had no option but to obey their kings.

Nice little scheme the Brits had going there, no? So how could they possibly screw it up?

Try the most reckless and downright arrogant way possible. Get this.

One feature of the Enfield P53 is that you could reload it as rapidly as you could load bullets into the muzzle (or the front of the weapon). The bullets, however, had to be greased before loading. The way it worked at the time is that the soldiers had to tear open a cartridge, typically using their mouth since they held the rifles in their arms, then pour gunpowder down the barrel and remove the ram-rod before firing the weapon. Further, If the cartridges weren’t greased, you could moisten them using saliva. But whether they were greased or not, the fastest way to load them was to hold as many as you could in your mouth and transfer them quickly into the muzzle.

Makes sense, but no sooner than the Enfield P53 had been introduced into the Indian military, a rumor started going around that the cartridges had been greased with pork and beef lard, a practice that would obviously offend the sensibilities (and religious traditions) of the mostly Muslim and Hindu forces. 
Such an interesting illustration! The Indians appear to have all the control here,
with their rather malevolent expressions, while the Brits look sort of blank, as
though they are not only just defending themselves, but have really no emotion at
all about what's happening to them here. ("Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan
Battery at Lucknow, July 30th, 1857," a steel engraving, c.1860,
source/photographer Charles Ball)

When confronted with questions about this practice, the commanders wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing but instead responded that the sepoys were welcome to prepare their own cartridges using whatever oil, butter, or whatever lubricant of their choice. But the overwhelming indifference of the Brits who had grossly insulted the men they commanded led to one of the most brutal of all uprisings. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, as it came to be known, started in the town of Meerut in the state of Uttar Pradesh in May 1857 and, over the next two years, dominoed into other mutinies in Delhi, Kanpur (then called Cawnpore), Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, and other princely states. 

From all accounts, the British doled out brutal executions post
mutiny, such as these, death by cannon. {{PD-1923}}
The British East India Company dissolved in 1858, when the British government reorganized the Indian army and took over the government administration, including finances, of India. As the new ruler, the crown governed what came to be known as the British Raj. The change led to the collapse of the Mughal Empire as well as the once-powerful Maratha Empire. I don't know the particulars, but I'm told one of the commanders leading the Brits during the mutiny was asked to help quell the Confederates during the U.S. Civil War. 

While the British government ruled India for close to a century, the sepoy mutiny gave rise to the first wave of freedom fighters and began India’s nationalist movement that juggernauted over the next few generations until the country finally won its independence in 1947. You could say it all started with a little animal fat….


  1. I've always found novels about this era fascinating. Thanks for the post.

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