The Great Indian Rebellion, 1857-58

MICHAEL EDWARDES HAS ARGUED that during the Indian Rebellion “the English threw aside the mask of civilisation and engaged in a war of such ferocity that a reasonable parallel can be seen in our times with the Nazi occupation of Europe”.1 This was the considered opinion of a historian who had spent his life studying and writing about India. How valid is his assertion? Certainly there can be no comparison between British methods of pacification and the Holocaust, and this was surely not what Edwardes intended. However, between British methods and the Nazi repression of the European resistance, there are very striking parallels. Let us consider the memoir of a certain Thomas Lowe. In his Central India During The Rebellion of 1857 and 1858 he laments that on one occasion the column in which he was serving had become encumbered with prisoners. While the policy was to take no prisoners, he told his readers that:

We must remember that flesh and blood—even the hardy Anglo-Saxons—cannot go on slaying from sunrise to sunset. However willing the spirit may be, physical force cannot endure it. Soldiery tire in the limb after great exertion as well as other good people, and thus it happens after a battle when the animal spirit is exhausted by heat and long-continued excitement, that many prisoners must be made.

Not to worry though. On this occasion all 76 of the men taken prisoner “were tried, sentenced and executed”. They were “ranged in one long line and blindfolded” with their executioners positioned “a couple of yards” in front of them. When the bugle sounded “a long rattle of musketry swept this fleshy wall of miscreants from their earthly existence”. Lowe himself acknowledges how “terrible” the scene was.

This was not an exceptional occurrence. It was routine, repeated on numerous occasions, sometimes with fewer victims, sometimes more, often with greater brutality. Much of the killing was carried out in the heat of battle, but there was also the execution on a large scale of rebels, suspected rebels and those executed solely to make an example, regardless of participation in the rebellion. Lowe himself was to participate in yet another mass disposal of prisoners, on this occasion the execution of 149 men. They were once again “ranged in one long line” and then simultaneously shot down from a few yards distance. One prisoner made a break for it and happily escaped.2

The violence with which the British put down the Indian Rebellion has only been approached in the history of the empire by the suppression of the United Irish rebellion in the 1790s and of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.3 What this chapter is primarily concerned to do is to establish the dimensions of that violence and to consider the reasons for it, to examine the nature of the Indian Rebellion, without any doubt the most serious challenge to British colonial rule in the 19th century and to look at the response in Britain to this most terrible of colonial wars.

By the sword

The British conquest of India, begun in the 18th century, was completed in the 19th century by a succession of bloody wars of aggression. One historian has described the campaigns conducted in a 30-year period from 1824 until 1852-53 somewhat over enthusiastically as “little short of awe-inspiring”. In 1824-26 there was the first invasion of Burma, in 1839-42 the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, in 1843 the conquest of Sind, in 1844 the occupation of Gwalior, in 1845-46 the first war with the Sikhs for control of Punjab, followed soon after in 1848-49 by the second Sikh War that completed that conquest, and in 1852-53 another invasion of Burma.4 These wars involved countryside laid waste, cities sacked, civilians robbed, raped and murdered, and tens of thousands of soldiers killed and mutilated. The wars with the Sikhs were particularly bloody affairs. One contemporary wrote of the siege of Multan in 1848 that “seldom or never in any part of the world has a city been exposed to such a terrific shelling as the doomed city of Multan”.5 What this succession of aggressions demonstrates, of course, is the predatory nature of the British state. Whereas Britain after 1918 was a “satisfied” empire, concerned to hold what it had rather than seize more, in the 19th century the British Empire, despite the liberalism of its metropolitan rulers, was a predatory empire engaged in continuous warfare. This was apparent to at least some commentators at the time. Richard Cobden, the radical MP whose opposition to the Opium Wars we have already encountered, argued that just as “in the slave trade we had surpassed in guilt the world, so in foreign wars we have been the most aggressive, quarrelsome, warlike and bloody nation under the sun”. In October 1850 he wrote to fellow radical Joseph Sturge that if you looked back over the previous 25 years “you will find that we have been incomparably the most sanguinary [bloodthirsty] nation on earth”. Whether it was “in China, in Burma, in India, New Zealand, the Cape, Syria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc, there is hardly a country, however remote, in which we have not been waging war or dictating our terms at the point of a bayonet”. Indeed, he believed that the British, “the greatest blood-shedders of all”, had in this period been involved in more wars than the rest of Europe put together. Cobden blamed this militarism on the aristocracy that had “converted the combativeness of the English race to its own sinister ends”. This last claim revealed the limits of the radical critique of the empire.6

The invasion of Burma in 1852 was, Cobden believed, a particular outrage. The pretext was the treatment of two British sea captains and the demand for £1,000 compensation from the Burmese. Their failure to immediately capitulate led to escalating threats that culminated in January 1852 with the Royal Navy seizing the royal yacht, shelling Burmese forts and incidentally killing hundreds of Burmese soldiers, and imposing a blockade. Lord Dalhousie, the governor general of India, now demanded compensation of £100,000 and, when this was refused, war was declared in April.7 When he came to examine the causes of the war Cobden was, he admitted, “amazed at the case”:

I blush for my country, and the very blood in my veins tingled with indignation at the wanton disregard of all justice and decency which our proceedings towards that country exhibited. The violence and wrongs perpetrated by Pizarro or Cortez were scarcely veiled in a more transparent pretence of right than our own.

It was not a war, but a massacre. The Burmese had “no more chance against our 64 pound red-hot shot and other infernal improvements in the art of war than they would in running a race on their roads against our railways”. And, moreover, “the day on which we commenced the war with a bombardment of shot, shell and rockets…that the natives must have thought it an onslaught of devils, was Easter Sunday!”8

Cobden published a savage indictment of the war, How Wars are got up in India: The Origins of the Burmese War, in 1853. Here he made the point that similar disputes with the United States had never ended in war for the simple reason “that America is powerful and Burma weak”. Britain, he insisted, quite correctly, “would not have acted in this manner towards a power capable of defending itself ”.9 The war ended in 1853 with the annexation of another large slice of Burmese territory, which fortuitously included the Pegu gold mines.10

Within India itself, after the defeat of the Sikhs, Dalhousie had no more enemies to conquer, but instead followed a policy of annexing the territory of Britain’s princely allies. This was his policy of “lapse” whereby if a ruler died without a direct heir Britain took over his territory and, more importantly, his revenues. In five years he annexed five princely states—Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Tanjore and, lastly, in 1856, Awadh. This last annexation was not as a result of lapse, however, but on the pretext of the mismanagement of the king, Wajid Ali Shah. As Dalhousie proudly observed, “Our gracious Queen has 5,000,000 more subjects and £1,300,000 more revenue than she had yesterday”.11 In fact, this last annexation was a huge mistake. It was regarded as an act of naked aggression against an ally, as an act that revealed the British as absolutely untrustworthy. Moreover, two thirds of the largest of Britain’s “native” (or sepoy) armies, the Bengal Army, some 60,000 men, were recruited from Awadh. Dalhousie’s last aggression was one of the most important grievances that provoked the Great Rebellion.

Company rule

British rule in India was exercised through the agency of the East India Company, an early private-public partnership, that had conquered and now ruled the subcontinent. Although it was originally a trading company, by the 19th century company revenues derived less from trade and more from the exploitation of the rural population through the levying of oppressive land taxes. By 1818 Indian revenues were worth some £22 million, dwarfing the profits made from trade. In 1820 the company remitted £6 million to Britain, tribute paid to the conqueror, a form of exploitation the Romans would have recognised. One important aspect of the company’s operations was, of course, the production and sale of opium. The revenues accruing from this trade were, as we have seen, great enough to be worth going to war for.12

By the 1850s India was still relatively undeveloped as a market for British exports. According to Karl Marx, writing in the summer of 1853, this was explained by the fact that the British had “a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating”. They had accomplished the destructive in a way that “unveiled before our eyes” all the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation …turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked”. Indeed, he wrote, “the historic pages of their role in India report hardly anything beyond that destruction”. Nevertheless, he believed that the work of regeneration had begun. Crucial to this was the interest that the British capitalist class had in fostering economic development in India. Once the “millocracy” had destroyed the Indian textile industry, it “discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance”. Railways were necessary to effectively exploit India’s natural resources. Moreover, it had become apparent to British capitalists that “you cannot continue to inundate a country with your manufactures, unless you enable it to give you some produce in return”. British manufactured exports to India actually fell in the course of the 1840s. Consequently, India had become “the battlefield” in the contest between “the industrial interest on the one side” and the financial and aristocratic interests represented by the East India Company.13

For Marx, the nature of company rule was best demonstrated by its seldom acknowledged reliance on torture. Writing after the outbreak of the Great Rebellion, he discussed “the official Blue Books on the subject of East India torture, which were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857”. These reports established “the universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India”. It was admitted that revenue officers and the police routinely used torture in the collection of taxes. As he observes, while this was freely admitted, “the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British government itself ”. The practice of torture “is entirely the fault of the lower Hindu officials”, while British officials were not only not involved, but had “done their best to prevent it”. This claim, as Marx points out, was contradicted by much of the evidence assembled in the reports. He concluded that here we have a chapter:

From the real history of British rule in India. In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects.14

What did this torture involve? It ranged from rough manhandling through to flogging and placing in the stocks and then on to more extreme measures:

Searing with hot irons…dipping in wells and rivers till the victim is half suffocated…squeezing the testicles…putting pepper and red chillies in the eyes or introducing them into the private parts of men and women…prevention of sleep…nipping the flesh with pincers…suspension from the branches of a tree…imprisonment in a room used for storing lime…15

What is remarkable is how little this regime of torture has figured in accounts of British rule in India. It is a hidden history that has been unremarked on and almost completely unexplored. Book after book remains silent on the subject. This most surely calls into question the whole historiography of the Raj.16

One last point is worth noting here: the extent to which everyday relations between the British and their Indian subjects were characterised by abuse and violence. Servants were routinely abused as “niggers” and assaulted and beaten by their masters, something that worsened during and after the Great Rebellion. Lord Elgin, writing in August 1857, described British feelings towards the Indians as consisting of “detestation, contempt, ferocity”. Their feelings were ones of “perfect indifference”, treating their servants, “not as dogs because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy”. This indifference when combined with hatred produced “an absolute callousness…which must be witnessed to be understood and believed”.17 The war correspondent William Howard Russell witnessed a fellow Briton attacking with “a huge club” a group of coolies for idling, leaving them maimed and bleeding. He thought murder might have been done had he not intervened to restrain the assault.18 Sometimes there was regret. One British officer confided to his diary how he had kicked and injured his servant: “I must never kick him or strike him anywhere again, except with a whip, which can hardly injure him”.19 This everyday abuse and violence continued until the end of the British Raj.

The Great Rebellion

Speaking in the House of Commons on 27 July 1857, Benjamin Disraeli, one of the leaders of the Conservative Party, asked, “Does the disturbance in India indicate a military mutiny, or is it a national revolt?” It was, he concluded, answering his own question, a national revolt.20 This interpretation of the outbreak was subsequently endorsed by the governor general, Lord Canning, who made it clear that as far as he was concerned the struggle “had been more like a national war than a local insurrection…its magnitude, duration, scale of expenditure, and in some of its moral features it partakes largely of the former character”.21 From a different point of view, Karl Marx argued that in their creation of a sepoy arm, the British themselves had inadvertently created “the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people were ever possessed of ”. There had been mutinies before, but “the present revolt” was different in that “Mussulmans and Hindus, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters”. Indeed, he saw the revolt as part of “a general disaffection against English supremacy on the part of the great Asiatic nations”.22

The contemporary recognition that the Great Rebellion had many of the features of a national uprising later became an embarrassment to the British once arguments for their continued rule became predicated on the claim that there was no such thing as an Indian nation. Increasingly, it was Indian nationalists who claimed the rebellion as a national movement, as the first blow in India’s national struggle. In 1909 V D Savarkar published his The Indian War of Independence, 1857, the first substantial statement of this position. The book was, of course, banned in India, but still appeared “on the Indian bookstalls, wrapped in a cover labelled Random Papers of the Pickwick Club”.23 Academic disputes concerning the character of the rebellion continue to this day, with many historians arguing that while there was certainly a rebellion or rebellions, it was not a national movement. Certainly, the rebellion had many components, military mutiny, peasant revolt, legitimist insurrection, artisan rebellion, religious uprising, but these were all given shape by a ferocious popular hostility to British rule. The problem is that those historians who emphasise these various components have a static view, whereas the rebellion has to be regarded as a dynamic phenomenon. It can best be seen as a national revolt in a particular phase of development, full of contradictions certainly, but put down by the British before these could be resolved. If the rebels had been more successful in spreading the revolt, marching on Calcutta, for example, instead of consolidating at Delhi, the story might have been very different. Instead they were destroyed.

The rebellion was precipitated by a mutiny in the Bengal Army over the infamous issue of the greased cartridges for the new Enfield rifle. This proved to be the great fear into which all the sepoys’ other grievances (pay and allowances, abuse at the hands of British officers, the annexation of Awadh) were poured. Increasing resentment against British domination was given a religious expression with all their very real transgressions being summed up as their perceived determination to forcibly convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. What is astonishing in retrospect is that the mutiny took the British by surprise. There had been plenty of warning. In September 1855 a senior officer, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, had interfered with a religious procession and was nearly beaten to death by outraged sepoys. The men’s worries regarding the cartridges had been made known to their officers, but were disregarded. Moreover, the fear that the cartridges were greased with cattle and pig fat was justified, showing a disregard for caste sensitivities that is astonishing. In February 1857 troops at Berhampur and at Barrackpur had refused to use the cartridges. The first sign of what was to come, however, took place on 29 March when a young soldier, Mangal Pandy, tried to raise the standard of revolt at Barrackpur. He fought with and wounded two British officers before being overpowered, but while the other sepoys did not join the revolt, neither did they take action against him. Pandy was hanged and for the British his name was to become a generic term for rebels.

The explosion finally came on 10 May at Meerut. Men here refused to handle the cartridges and 85 of them were placed in irons. Their comrades mutinied, according to one account, urged on by a British woman, the widow of a British sergeant, known as “Mees Dolly”. She was summarily hanged.24 The mutineers freed their comrades, killed or drove off their officers and then marched on Delhi. The decision to march on the old Mughal capital turned the mutiny into a rebellion. They seized the city and its arsenal on the 11th with the sepoy garrison joining the revolt. The Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, a man in his eighties, who had spent his adult life as a helpless pensioner of the British, found himself reluctantly installed as the figurehead for a full-scale rebellion.

The revolt spread across northern and central India with the beleaguered British managing to hold out only at Kanpur, Agra and in the residency compound at Lucknow (the city itself was in rebel hands). Wherever sepoys mutinied, the local population rose up, artisans and labourers in the cities and the peasantry in the countryside. A number of historians have pointed out the unevenness of this popular mobilisation, but this is true for every revolutionary outbreak. The popular movement compelled a number of princes and rulers, with varying degrees of reluctance, to embrace the rebellion, Bahadur Shah as we have already seen, but also Nana Sahib at Kanpur and the Rani Lakshmi at Jhansi. Most of the rulers remained loyal to their British patrons, however.25 More to the point, British rule collapsed across a huge area, swept away as the company’s means of repression slipped from its grasp. The rebellion engulfed 150,000 square miles with a population of 45 million.26 It was, without doubt, one of the largest revolutionary outbreaks of the 19th century, arguably only exceeded in scale by the contemporaneous Taiping revolt in China. Of course, one reason for the rebellion’s defeat was that it did not spread further, a point to which we will return.

To the extent that the rebellion is remembered at all in Britain, it is remembered for the Kanpur (or Cawnpore) massacre. The attack on General Wheeler’s small force as it evacuated under negotiated terms on 27 June is portrayed as the height of treachery. More important though is the fate of the survivors of this attack, the 180 people, overwhelmingly women and children, who were massacred, hacked to death, on 15 July, as the British approached the city. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in his Spectre of Violence, has made a convincing attempt at contextualising these events. He shows that the attack on Wheeler’s force at Satichaura Ghat was a popular collective affair, celebrated as a great victory over the oppressor. The massacre of the women and children at the Bibighar, however, was something very different. The sepoys refused to take part and the killing was instead carried out by men procured by Nana Sahib’s retainers.27 They were killed on the orders of people who had nothing to lose, because their lives were already forfeit if they should fall into British hands.28 This is, of course, not to minimise the horror of what took place. Indeed, wherever rebellion broke out, the popular fury often involved killing all the British, men, women and children that the rebels could lay their hands on. According to Marx, this was:

Only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last years of a long-settled rule…it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument is forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.

He went on to complain of the reporting of the rebellion in the British press that “while the cruelties of the English are related as acts of martial vigour, told simply, rapidly, without dwelling in disgusting details, the outrages of the natives, shocking as they are, are still deliberately exaggerated”.29

Events at Kanpur and elsewhere were indeed wildly exaggerated into stories of rape and torture. It was widely reported that British women had been cooked alive, forced to eat their children, horribly mutilated with noses and ears cut off and eyes put out, and stripped naked and publicly raped. These stories were untrue. Exhaustive investigations carried out by the British authorities themselves produced no evidence whatever of rape and torture and it was subsequently accepted that none had occurred. At the time, however, the stories were used to justify the most fearsome reprisals, although it is important to remember that these reprisals were already well under way before the massacre at the Bibighar. One last point worth making is that, terrible though it was, the Bibighar massacre was a small-scale affair put alongside the British sack of Allahabad, Delhi, Lucknow and Jhansi. Its prominence derives, as Russell put it, from the fact “that the deed was done by a subject race”.30


Why did the Great Rebellion fail? The most important reason is that it failed to spread. Of course, this begs the question of why this was the case. In Punjab the British response to unrest, orchestrated by John Lawrence, was both determined and absolutely ruthless. They effectively stamped out the movement before it could master sufficient strength to make a fight of it.31 This was a serious blow to the rebel cause because, once successfully pacified, Punjab was to supply large numbers of troop reinforcements, including many Sikhs, for the attack on Delhi. Equally serious was the rebels’ own concentration of their forces at Delhi, rather than despatching mobile columns to spread the revolt and, in particular, to strike at Calcutta. As Eric Stokes has put it, this tendency “to congregate at Delhi…was to deprive the rebellion of its expansive proclivities”. Their strategy saw them “surrender the initiative” at the very time that they had the British on the run, effectively forfeiting “the option of a war of movement at the most opportune hour”.32 The establishment by the British of a fortified camp at Delhi, described quite correctly by one historian as “a knight’s pawn move against the enemy king”, only reinforced the tendency to rally on Delhi.33 Delhi was not really under siege until August, but in the meantime the rebels wasted their strength making brave but futile assaults on the British position, suffering heavy losses when they should have been spreading the revolt. This strategic failure was decisive.

To a considerable extent the strategic failure derived from the failure to establish an effective revolutionary government in Delhi. An attempt was made to establish a democratic regime, the Court, under the auspices of Bahadur Shah, but it never succeeded in establishing its authority, in becoming a revolutionary regime on the model of the French Revolution.34 Similarly, the military leader in the capital, Bakht Khan, was never able to take effective command of the rebel forces. When it came to the conduct of military affairs, although the rebels had an overwhelming numerical superiority, this was often not realised on the actual battlefield because of problems of command and control. Lack of experienced officers and a weak chain of command meant that rebel forces were often defeated piecemeal without individual units supporting each other. On the field of battle numbers were often more equal than appeared on paper. And, of course, the British had an overwhelming technological advantage. The Enfield rifle had a far greater range than the Brown Bess musket, and although not all British troops were equipped with it, enough were to enable the British to inflict heavy losses on the rebels before they were even close enough to return fire. Moreover, thousands of rebels did not have firearms at all, but were equipped with swords, shields, spears and even bows and arrows. Most important, however, was the British superiority in artillery, the decisive weapon in the war, which enabled the British both to batter down rebel defences and to slaughter them in the open. One historian has remarked that in the circumstances the wonder was that the rebels “won any battles at all”.35


British military operations were accompanied by the most savage repression. In Punjab, John Lawrence proceeded to disarm those sepoy regiments considered unreliable, accompanied by the execution of individuals believed to be sympathetic to the rebellion. One disarmed regiment, the 26th, mutinied, broke out of camp and fled with their families. They were hunted down with 150 of them killed in the process and another 282 handed over to Frederick Cooper, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar. He proceeded to execute them in batches. When over 200 had been shot, the remainder barricaded themselves in their prison and were left overnight. The next morning, they were found “dead from fright, exhaustion, fatigue, heat and partial suffocation”. Undeterred, Cooper had the last 20 survivors shot. Another 40 were eventually rounded up and sent to Lahore where they were blown from the guns. Within 48 hours nearly 500 men had been executed and the entire regiment had been destroyed. The natives who were witness to the executions, according to Cooper, “marvelled at the clemency and justice of the British”. He was much congratulated, with Lawrence himself commending his “energy and spirit”. Cooper also recounts the fate of another regiment that broke out and was hunted down. Within 30 hours 659 soldiers of the 51st Native Infantry had been slaughtered. As he observes, “no misplaced leniency was extended to any captures. The offence was mutiny, the design treason, the punishment—death”.36 This was how Punjab was kept quiet.

Elsewhere things were not so civilised. At Benares, Colonel James Neill, a particularly brutal Christian psychopath, crushed the 37th Native Infantry on 4 June and instituted a reign of terror. Hundreds of people were hanged. Parties of armed British civilians set themselves up as “volunteer hanging parties”, helping to pacify the city and surrounding districts with summary executions. Among those hanged were some young boys who had paraded in rebel colours. From Benares, Neill proceeded to Allahabad, where news of his approach actually provoked a rising. He shelled the city and put it to the sack. Once again hundreds were hanged, some, as F A V Thurburn, the deputy judge advocate general, observed, with “slight proofs of criminality”.37 His troops carried the terror into the surrounding countryside, burning villages and hanging “niggers”. By the time his terror had exhausted itself some 6,000 men, women and children had been killed. As Neill piously observed, “God grant I may have acted with justice. I know I have with severity, but under the circumstances I trust for forgiveness”.38

Neill sent off a column under Major Sydenham Renaud to relieve Kanpur, terrorising the countryside on the way. Renaud was explicitly ordered to attack and destroy all the villages of the Mubgoan district: “Slaughter all the men; take no prisoners.” He was ordered to make “a signal example” of the town of Futtehpore, “all in it to be killed”.39 Renaud proceeded to burn and hang (12 men were hanged because their faces were “turned the wrong way”) until ordered by General Havelock to burn “no more villages unless occupied by insurgents”. As Russell was to observe, Renaud’s “severities could not have been justified by the Cawnpore massacre, because they took place before that diabolical act”.40 John Sherer, the resident magistrate of Futtehpore, described the scene:

Many villages had been burned by the wayside and of human beings there were none to be seen. A more desolate scene than the country we passed through can scarcely be imagined…the blackened ruins of huts…the utter absence of all sound that could indicate the presence of human life…the occasional taint in the air from suspended bodies upon which, before our eyes, the loathsome pigs of the country were engaged in feasting; all these things, appealing to our different senses contributed to call up such images of desolation and blackness and woe as few, I should think, who were present will ever forget.41

Havelock’s forces entered Kanpur unopposed on 17 July, the rebels having fled. He left Neill in command and marched on to attempt the relief of the besieged residency at Lucknow. Neill proceeded to exact a terrible vengeance for the Bibigher massacre. On 25 July he ordered that prisoners were to be taken to the house and forced to lick clean a portion of the bloody floor, beaten until they complied, and then hanged. He saw himself guided by “the finger of God in this”. This procedure continued in operation until early November when General Colin Campbell finally put a stop to it. By then Neill himself was dead, shot in the second attempt to relieve Lucknow. He received a posthumous knighthood from Queen Victoria. For some, Neill’s retribution did not go far enough. Colonel John Nicholson, another Christian soldier, soon to become a popular hero, urged the passing of “a bill for the flaying alive, impalement, or burning of the murderers of women and children”. If he had his way, “I would inflict the most excruciating tortures I could think of on them with a perfectly easy conscience”.42

Delhi was finally stormed on 13 September, although fighting continued for another week, as the city was put to the sack. According to one officer, Lieutenant Charles Griffiths:

There is no more terrible spectacle than a city taken by storm. All the pent-up passions of men are here let loose without restraint. Roused to a pitch of fury from long-continued resistance and eager to take vengeance on the murderers of women and children, the men in their pitiless rage showed no mercy.

Looting began even while the fighting continued and many British troops were soon drunk. If the rebels had been able to organise a counter-attack, the British would have been driven from the city. Instead it was given over to looting, rape and murder. British and Sikh troops actually began fighting among themselves. Griffiths described the scene:

Not content with ransacking the interior of each house, the soldiers had broken up every article of furniture, and with wanton destruction had thrown everything portable out of the windows. Each street was filled with a mass of debris consisting of household effects of every kind… Not a single house or building remained intact.

This continued for three weeks, leaving Delhi to all appearances “a city of the dead on which some awful catastrophe had fallen”. There were dead bodies “in almost every street, rotting in the burning sun, and the effluvium was sickening”. As for the population, those who survived were driven from the city:

Old men, women and children …half-starved…the most wretched-looking objects I ever saw…by order of the general, they were turned out of the gates of Delhi and escorted into the country… I fear that many perished from want and exposure.

Meanwhile, “executions by hanging were a common occurrence in the city”,43 and similar scenes were to be repeated at Lucknow and Jhansi.

The worst massacre carried out by the British is not even acknowledged as such, but was instead celebrated as a heroic epic with no less than eight Victoria Crosses being awarded to the participants. This was the storming of the Sikander Bagh, a walled garden, during the second relief of Lucknow. There were over 2,000 rebels in the enclosure and they were attacked by troops from the 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab Infantry. According to the future Field Marshal Lord Roberts, then a young officer, the scene required “the pen of a Zola to depict”. The rebels found themselves trapped and, according to Roberts, “fought with the desperation of men without hope of mercy”. He wrote:

Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion, and into the space between it and the north wall where they were all shot or bayoneted. There they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving surging mass of dead and dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… The wretched wounded men could not get clear of their dead comrades, however great their struggles, and those near the top of the ghastly pile of writhing humanity vented their rage and disappointment on every British officer who approached by showering upon him abuse of the grossest description.44

Another officer wrote of “hundreds of sepoys dead or dying, many on fire…a suffocating, burning, smouldering mass”. He saw 64 prisoners lined up “and bayoneted…God forgive us”.45 The next day another future field marshal, Garnet Wolseley, saw a handful of survivors surrender to the Sikhs who “made them kneel down and …killed them with their tulwars [sabres]”.46 According to Malleson, “more than 2,000 corpses lay heaped around… It is said that of all who garrisoned it, only four men escaped, but even the escape of four is doubtful”.47 Some 60 Scottish and Sikh troops were killed. This was clearly not a battle, but a massacre. Hundreds of men, who had ceased to offer any resistance, were killed without mercy. There were women and children, shot and bayoneted, among the dead.48

This was a war of innumerable horrors: prisoners blown from the guns, mass hangings (Sergeant William Forbes-Mitchell saw 130 men hanged from one giant banyan tree)49 and the merciless sack and pillage of ancient cities. William Howard Russell recounted another incident in Lucknow where a young boy approached a British officer and asked for his protection. The man put his pistol to the boy’s head and shot him. What made the crime worse was that the weapon misfired three times before the boy could be killed. Muslims were smeared “with pork-fat before execution” and “Hindus were forced to defile themselves”. There were things being “done in India which we would not permit to be done in Europe”.50 Lord Canning, the governor general, complained to Queen Victoria of “a rabid and indiscriminate vindictiveness” having gripped the British in India. People seemed to think “that the hanging and shooting of 40 or 50,000 mutineers besides other rebels can be otherwise than practicable and right”. He confessed to “a feeling of shame for one’s fellow countrymen”. Canning’s attempts to urge, not so much restraint, as some discrimination, in the slaughter, earned him the derisive nickname of “Clemency Canning”.51

Let us close this section by looking at the letters home of Major Harcourt Anson. They provide a horrific chronicle of the pacification of rebel India. On one occasion, he told his wife, they surrounded a village with orders to kill every man found there:

Fathers are shot with all their womenkind clinging to them, and begging for their lives, but content the next moment to lie in their blood howling… Unarmed cowherds were mercilessly pistolled together with about 20 armed men. What the poor women and children in this place are to do without their men who are being killed in every house, I cannot say.

On 4 January 1858 he wrote home telling her how the rebel leader Nazir Khan was hanged. He was surrounded by “soldiers who were stuffing him with pork…well flogged and his person exposed, which he fought against manfully… He died game.” On the 10th he told of how there were “14 men hung or rather tortured to death” and the following day he described “one of the most remarkable sights I ever in my life beheld; no less than 20 men all hanging naked on one tree”. On 25 February he wrote of how another village was punished with “a number of women…killed while clinging to and trying to hide their delinquent husbands”. Other women died when they refused to leave a house that was set on fire, although, as he observes, “their fate was preferable to two unfortunates who were ravished to death”. He confided that he was worried he would return home “without a heart or feelings of any soft humanising tendency”. On another occasion, he wrote home, “The only real wonder to me in this land is that all do not at once rise upon us and exterminate the hated Feringhees [the British] who so grievously oppress them”.52

The war at home

Public opinion in Britain was inevitably mobilised behind the war to suppress the Great Rebellion by the atrocity stories that appeared in the press. On 30 October 1857 Lord Shaftesbury, in a widely reported speech, told of how “day by day ladies were coming to Calcutta with their ears and noses cut off and their eyes put out” and that children were being “put to death under circumstances of the most exquisite torture”. The speech was immediately published as Lord Shaftebury’s Great Speech on Indian Cruelties. Prompted by this, Lord Ellenborough, himself a former governor general of India, called in the House of Lords for every man in Delhi to be castrated and for the city to be renamed “Eunochabad”.53 Even Charles Dickens could long for the opportunity “to exterminate the race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth”.54 Inevitably, the Radicals retreated in the face of this surge of opinion. Although privately Richard Cobden could still confess that if he were an Indian “I would be one of the rebels” and that “Hindustan must be ruled by those who live on that side of the globe”, discretion proved the better part of valour. He reluctantly came to accept that the rebellion had to be put down, although he still thought it “terrible to see our middle class journals and speakers calling for the destruction of Delhi, and the indiscriminate massacre of prisoners”.55

There were still voices raised in support of the Indian cause, however. The Chartist and socialist Ernest Jones, on the public platform and in his newspaper, the People’s Paper, campaigned in support of the rebels in what has been described as “a magnificent climax to his revolutionary career”. Earlier, in 1851, he had written a long poem, “The New World”, which was now republished as “The Revolt of Hindostan”. It was in the preface to this poem that Jones made his celebrated observation that “the blood never dries” on the British Empire. Now as early as 4 July in the People’s Paper, he argued that the Indian rebels “are now fighting for all most sacred to men. The cause of the Poles, the Hungarians, the Italians, the Irish, was not more just and holy.” The rebellion was “one of the noblest movements the world has ever known”. And the working class in Britain was being asked to pay for its suppression, sustaining “one of the most iniquitous usurpations that ever disgraced the annals of humanity”. On 1 August he wrote to insist that the rebellion was “not a military mutiny but a national insurrection” and urged recognition of “the independence of the Indian race”.56

Jones returned to these themes regularly, as Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny put it, “making Kossuths [after the Hungarian revolutionary hero] of all the Hindus”. The East India Company, he pointed out, collected taxes by the use of torture. If you could not pay, “they hung you up with your heads downwards in the burning sun, lashed you, tortured you, tied scorpions to the breasts of your women, committed every atrocity and crime”. What, he asked, would the British people do if subjected to such a tyranny? He replied:

You would rise—rise in the holy right of insurrection, and cry to Europe and the world, to heaven and earth, to bear witness to the justice of your cause.

As for the atrocities committed by the rebels, he elsewhere insisted that their conduct, “throughout the mutiny, has been in strict and consistent accordance with the example of their civilised governors”.57 Jones continued his powerful support for the rebellion through its defeat.

One last point worth making is that there were Britons who fought in the rebel ranks against British rule. In Delhi a former British sergeant major named Gordon served with the rebels and was captured in September 1857. His fate is unknown. In Lucknow, Felix Rotton and his three sons fought against the British. And there was a widely held belief at the time that Brigadier Adrian Hope had been killed by a British soldier in the rebel ranks owing to his cockney accent and slang when taunting his opponents. There were undoubtedly other “unofficial Europeans”, Britons who lived among and had married into Indian communities, fighting against the British Empire.58

The aftermath

Only when the rebellion had already been effectively defeated did rebel leaders, most notably Tanti Topi, adopt the methods of mobile warfare. As one historian has observed, however, “this display of tactical brilliance was too late to influence the outcome of a war which had already been decided by British victories in Delhi and Awadh”. If mobile columns had been sent out to spread revolt when the rebellion was at its height, the story might well have been different.59 Even so, guerrilla warfare continued well into 1859. Indeed, the hunt for rebels hiding out in the villages continued into the 1860s, a demonstration that much of the countryside still remained outside effective British control.60

What did the rebellion accomplish? The answer is best left to one of the rebel leaders, Mahomed Ali Khan, awaiting execution in February 1858. Sergeant Forbes-Mitchell was in charge of the guard detachment. He prevented Ali Khan’s defilement and the two men became friendly. On one occasion when Ali Khan faltered in the face of death, he steeled himself with the words, “I must remember Danton [a leader of the Great French Revolution] and show no weakness.” As far as Mahomed Ali Khan was concerned, the rebellion might have been defeated but it had destroyed company rule and this was a first step. He was duly hanged. And, as he had foreseen, in August 1858 the British ended company rule in India.61

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