The Revolt of 1857

India Struggle for Independence 

Revision Notes or Short Notes



Start of the Revolt:

  • May 11, 1857: Sepoys from Meerut mutiny, cross Yamuna River, and reach Delhi.
  • Sepoys seek legitimacy by appealing to Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal Emperor (a figurehead).
  • Bahadur Shah is proclaimed leader (Shahinshah-e-Hindustan).
  • Delhi captured, British officials killed, public offices destroyed.

Significance of Delhi:

  • Provided a rallying point for rebels by symbolizing past Mughal glory.
  • Marked the beginning of a widespread rebellion across North and Central India.

Sepoy Discontent:

  • Several incidents prior to Meerut mutiny indicated sepoy resentment:
    • Berhampur (March 1857): Sepoys refuse new Enfield rifles, regiment disbanded.
    • Mangal Pandey (34th Native Infantry): Opens fire on British officer, executed.
    • 7th Oudh Regiment: Defies officers, faces disbandment.

Spread of the Rebellion:

  • Kanpur, Lucknow, Benares, Allahabad, Bareilly, Jagdishpur, Jhansi – all experienced rebel activity.
  • Anti-British sentiment fueled the rebellion.


  • In the absence of established leaders, rebels turned to traditional figures:
    • Kanpur: Nana Saheb (adopted son of last Peshwa) leads the rebellion.
    • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal (wife of deposed Nawab) takes charge.
    • Bareilly: Khan Bahadur (descendant of Rohilkhand ruler) commands the rebels.

Overall Impact:

  • Nearly half the Company’s sepoy force (232,224) rebelled.
  • The rebellion posed a significant challenge to British rule in India.



The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857: Leaders and Causes

Leadership in the Rebellion

  • Kunwar Singh (Jagdishpur):A zamindar wronged by the British, he joined the sepoys’ revolt.
  • Rani Lakshmibai (Jhansi):Fought the British after they annexed her state using the Doctrine of Lapse.
  • Other Centers:The rebellion spread across Bengal and some parts of Bombay presidencies. Only Madras remained loyal.

Causes of the Sepoy Discontent

  • Economic Disparity:Despite prestige, sepoy service offered less economic stability compared to pre-British times.
  • Religious Concerns:
    • The introduction of greased cartridges (believed to be made of cow and pig fat) offended sepoys’ religious beliefs.
    • Campaigns abroad (Burma, Afghanistan) made it difficult to follow caste restrictions, leading to social alienation upon return.
    • The Company’s growing disregard for sepoys’ religious needs caused friction.

British Efforts to Manage Sepoy Discontent

  • Initial Accommodation:The Company initially allowed sepoys to follow religious customs within cantonments.
  • Increased Difficulties:Expansion of operations made religious accommodation harder.
    • Caste restrictions hindered military effectiveness.
    • Discouraging Brahmin recruitment proved unsuccessful.

Examples of Sepoy Grievances

  • 1824:The 47th Regiment refused to travel to Burma fearing loss of caste due to crossing the sea.
  • Afghan War:Sepoys forced to eat/drink anything during the war faced social exclusion upon return for violating caste rules.


  • Religious and caste concerns, along with economic anxieties, proved more powerful than the prestige of serving the Company, ultimately leading to the Sepoy Mutiny.



Sepoy Discontent: Beyond Religion

Religious Issues:

  • Rumors of forced conversions by Christian missionaries fueled sepoy anxieties.
  • Open preaching by missionaries in cantonments offended religious sensibilities.
  • Fears about bone dust in flour and beef/pork fat in Enfield rifle cartridges heightened religious concerns.

Economic Disparity:

  • Sepoy pay was low (Rs. 7 for infantry, Rs. 27 for cavalry).
  • Cavalrymen had to bear significant expenses from their pay.
  • Sepoys felt discriminated against compared to higher-paid British counterparts.
  • Limited promotion opportunities and racial prejudice added to the discontent.

Social Connection:

  • Sepoys, as part of the rural population, shared the general resentment towards British rule.
  • A military officer warned Lord Dalhousie that infringing upon the rights of the people could lead to sepoy disloyalty.


  • Sepoy discontent went beyond religious anxieties. Poor pay, discrimination, and a sense of being disconnected from societal concerns fueled their growing resentment against the British.



The Sepoy Mutiny: Beyond Military Discontent

Sepoys Connected to Oudh:

  • Oudh provided a large number of sepoys (75,000).
  • Sepoys felt the impact of British policies like land revenue changes in Oudh.
  • Petitions (14,000) from sepoys highlighted hardships faced due to the revenue system.
  • A Delhi rebel proclamation reflected sepoys’ awareness of the population’s suffering under British rule.

Sepoy Mutiny and Civil Rebellion:

  • The sepoy revolt triggered a rebellion amongst the civilian population, particularly in North-Western Provinces and Oudh.
  • Sepoy action emboldened the population, leading to widespread expression of grievances.
  • Government buildings were attacked, treasuries plundered, and prisons opened.

Social Base of the Rebellion:

  • The rebellion involved various social groups: landowners, peasants, artisans, religious figures, civil servants, shopkeepers, and boatmen.
  • The sepoy mutiny snowballed into a popular uprising.


British Policies and Discontent

Impact on Peasants:

  • Excessive taxes led to widespread debt and poverty.
  • Revenue focus: Maximizing revenue with minimal effort.
  • Hasty land settlements ignored land resources.
    • Bareilly (1812): Revenue increased by Rs. 14.73 lakh in short time.
  • Coercive revenue collection: Torture used to collect taxes (e.g., Rohilkhand: 2.37 lakh coercive actions, 1848-56).
  • Reluctance to grant remission even in difficult situations.

Impact on Landowners:

  • Oudh (a center of the Revolt): Taluqdars (landowners) lost power and privileges.
  • Confiscation of estates left 21,000 taluqdars impoverished and resentful.


  • British policies like excessive taxes, harsh revenue collection, and dispossession of landowners created widespread discontent that fueled the Sepoy Mutiny.


Broader Discontent with British Rule

Impact on Artisans:

  • Annexation of Indian states reduced patronage for artisans.
  • British policy favored British goods, harming Indian handicrafts.
  • Skilled artisans lost income with no viable alternatives.

Impact on Religion and Culture:

  • British social reforms (influenced by utilitarianism) were seen as a threat to traditions.
  • Orthodox Hindus and Muslims feared religious and cultural destruction.
  • Reform measures were viewed as aiding Christian missionary efforts.
  • This led to religious opposition to British rule.

Nature of the Rebellion:

  • Unclear if the Uprising was Planned or Spontaneous:
    • Lack of evidence from the rebels’ side makes it difficult to say for sure.
    • Leaders’ actions suggest no major pre-existing plan.
    • Bahadur Shah (Delhi) and Rani Lakshmibai (Jhansi) initially seemed surprised by the revolt.
    • Links between Nana Saheb/Maulvi Ahmad Shah and cantonments remain unproven.
    • The purpose of circulating chapatis and lotus flowers is unclear.
  • Widespread Uprising: Despite the uncertainty about planning, the revolt became widespread within a month.


Organization of the Rebellion

Efforts After Delhi’s Capture:

  • Letters sent to neighboring rulers seeking support and participation.
  • Establishment of an administrative court in Delhi (10 members, 6 military, 4 civilian).
  • Decisions made by majority vote, ruling in the Emperor’s name.
  • Similar attempts at organization in other centers.

Unifying Figure: Bahadur Shah Zafar

  • Recognized as Emperor by all rebel leaders.
  • Coins minted and orders issued in his name.
  • Khan Bahadur Khan in Bareilly administered under the Mughal Emperor’s name.
  • Delhi seen as a central point for the rebellion.

Challenges Faced:

  • Limited resources: Difficulty in acquiring arms and ammunition beyond initial captures.
  • Inferior weaponry: Facing modern British arms with swords and pikes.
  • Lack of communication: Inability to coordinate effectively between rebel groups.
  • Isolated struggles: Each center fighting independently, hindering mutual support.


  • Despite organizational limitations, the rebels fought for over a year against heavy odds.


The Sepoy Mutiny: Limited Support and Leadership

Limited Support for the Rebellion:

  • Merchants, intelligentsia, and some Indian rulers did not join the rebellion.
  • Some rulers actively supported the British, fearing the Doctrine of Lapse.
  • Almost half the Indian soldiers remained loyal to the British and fought against the rebels.
    • The British recaptured Delhi using a force with a significant number of Indian soldiers.

Leadership Issues:

  • Bahadur Shah Zafar and his wife lacked faith in the sepoys and negotiated with the British.
  • Many taluqdars (landowners) focused on protecting their own interests, switching sides when convenient.
  • Lack of a shared vision for the future beyond opposing British rule.
  • John Lawrence (British official) believed a strong rebel leader could have significantly challenged British rule.

Rebellion Despite Weaknesses:

  • The rebels displayed courage and commitment to their cause.
  • Thousands fought and died for their beliefs.

The Fall of the Rebellion

  • Delhi fell on September 20, 1857, a major blow to the rebellion.
  • Key rebel figures:
    • Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi died fighting in June 1858, earning British respect for her bravery.
    • Nana Saheb escaped to Nepal in 1859.
    • Kunwar Singh died in May 1858, a thorn in the British side until his death.
    • Tantia Tope was captured and executed by the British in April 1859.

Legacy of the Rebellion:

  • The rebellion, though unsuccessful, challenged British dominance in India.
  • The sepoys’ act of fighting for freedom is considered a patriotic and progressive step.
  • The rebellion served as inspiration for future Indian independence movements.

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