Chapter-7 : The Revolt of 1857

Modern History : Arora IAS Class Notes 

Background (1757-1857)

  • Simmering Discontent:
    • British expansion and economic exploitation.
    • Peasant uprisings, religious rebellions.
    • Discontent among various social classes.

Causes of the Revolt

  • Economic Causes:
    • Heavy taxation on peasants.
    • Ruined traditional industries (handicrafts, textiles).
    • Loss of income for zamindars.
    • Growing poverty.
  • Political Causes:
    • Annexation of Indian states.
    • Doctrine of Lapse.
    • Loss of political power and prestige for Indian rulers.
  • Administrative Causes:
    • Rampant corruption in British administration.
    • Lack of Indian representation.
  • Socio-Religious Causes:
    • Racial discrimination by British.
    • Christian missionary activities seen as a threat.
    • Social reforms (sati, widow remarriage) seen as interference.
  • Military Causes:
    • Sepoy grievances:
      • Religious restrictions.
      • General Service Enlistment Act (1856).
      • Lower pay compared to British soldiers.
      • Annexation of Awadh (home of many sepoys).
    • Sepoys felt subordinate and discriminated against.

Triggering Event

  • The greased cartridge incident (1857): Rumors that new rifle cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat, offensive to Hindus and Muslims.


  • The revolt was largely unsuccessful and brutally suppressed by the British.
  • Marked a turning point in British rule in India:
    • End of East India Company rule.
    • New British government in India more cautious and focused on maintaining control.

Additional Notes

  • The revolt had both local and national dimensions.
  • Sepoys played a key role, but the revolt involved other social classes as well.
  • The revolt’s failure highlighted the need for greater unity among Indians.


The Beginning and Spread of the Revolt of 1857

The Spark

  • Sepoys were already discontent with British rule.
  • Rumors about greased cartridges (offensive to Hindus and Muslims) further inflamed tensions.
  • The Army administration did not address sepoy concerns.

Start at Meerut (May 10, 1857)

  • Sepoys in Meerut rebelled, refusing orders and freeing imprisoned comrades.
  • This sparked a wider mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed there.

Delhi Becomes the Center

  • Rebels from Meerut marched to Delhi and joined local forces.
  • The aged Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was proclaimed leader (symbolic).
  • This signaled the revolt’s transformation from a mutiny to a broader rebellion.

Spreading Rebellion (May-June 1857)

  • The entire Bengal Army soon rose in revolt.
  • Awadh, Rohilkhand, Doab, Bundelkhand, Central India, Bihar, and East Punjab joined the rebellion.
  • Civilians, including peasants, artisans, shopkeepers, and zamindars, also participated.

Leaders Emerge in Different Regions

  • Delhi: Bahadur Shah Zafar (nominal leader), General Bakht Khan (real commander)
  • Kanpur: Nana Saheb (adopted son of the last Peshwa)
  • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal (widow of the deposed Nawab)
  • Bareilly: Khan Bahadur (descendant of Rohilkhand rulers)
  • Bihar: Kunwar Singh (zamindar of Jagdishpur)
  • Faizabad: Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah
  • Jhansi: Rani Lakshmibai (refused to accept British annexation of her state)

Struggles and Sacrifices

  • The revolt lasted over a year, with heavy losses on both sides.
  • Common people like Shah Mal, a village leader, played a crucial role in organizing resistance.
  • The revolt ultimately failed due to a lack of unified leadership and superior British military power.


Suppression of the Revolt (1857-1859)

  • British Regain Control
    • Delhi captured in September 1857 after a long siege.
    • Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled to Rangoon, Mughal dynasty extinguished.
    • Kanpur recaptured in December 1857.
    • Lucknow recaptured in March 1858.
    • Jhansi recaptured in June 1858.
    • Other rebellions crushed by 1859.
    • British victory due to superior military power and resources.

Why the Revolt Failed

  • Limited Participation
    • Revolt mainly concentrated in northern and central India.
    • Eastern, southern, and western regions largely unaffected.
  • Reasons for Limited Participation
    • Brutal suppression of earlier uprisings in those areas.
    • Big zamindars, moneylenders, and some educated Indians sided with the British.
    • Many Indian rulers remained neutral or actively helped the British.
  • Inferior Military Strength
    • Sepoys poorly equipped with outdated weapons.
    • British forces had modern weaponry and communication technology.
  • Lack of Coordination and Leadership
    • No central leadership or unified strategy among rebels.
    • Rebel leaders not as skilled as British commanders.
  • No Clear Ideology
    • Rebels lacked a common vision for an independent India.
    • Diverse grievances and goals among different rebel groups.

Additional Notes

  • The British forced India to repay the costs of suppressing the revolt.
  • The revolt marked the end of the East India Company’s rule in India.


Hindu-Muslim Unity During the Revolt of 1857

  • Evidence of Unity
    • Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim emperor, acknowledged as leader by rebels (both Hindu and Muslim).
    • Hindus respected Muslim customs (e.g., banning cow slaughter in liberated areas).
    • Examples of cooperation:
      • Nana Saheb (Hindu) with Azimullah (Muslim advisor)
      • Rani Lakshmibai (Hindu) with Afghan soldiers (Muslim)
    • Significance
      • Demonstrates pre-colonial India wasn’t inherently divided along religious lines.

Nature of the Revolt: Different Perspectives

  • British View (Sir John Seeley):“Sepoy Mutiny” – selfish act by soldiers, no popular support.
  • K. Datta:Primarily a military uprising, some civilian participation. Localized and poorly organized.
  • D. Savarkar (Early 20th Century):First War of Indian Independence, nationalistic uprising.
  • S.N. Sen:Began as religious fight, evolved into war of independence.
  • R.C. Majumdar:Not national or all-India in character, many regions unaffected.
  • Marxist View:Struggle against foreign and feudal rule, despite leaders’ feudal background.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru:Essentially feudal uprising with some nationalistic elements.
  • N. Roy:Last stand of feudalism against capitalism.
  • P. Dutt:Peasant resistance against foreign domination and feudal order.

Challenges in Categorization

  • Revolt wasn’t purely religious fanaticism or a clash of civilizations.
  • Concept of a unified Indian nation wasn’t fully formed.
  • Southern India largely uninvolved.
  • Leaders had personal motives.

National Character of the Revolt

  • Seen as a national struggle due to participation of diverse groups.
  • Can be considered the first major attempt by Indians to oppose British rule.

Open Questions

  • Were earlier uprisings as significant?

Overall Significance

  • The Revolt of 1857, despite its limitations, marked a turning point: a combined effort by various groups to challenge British rule, paving the way for the later Indian independence movement.


Consequences of the Revolt of 1857

Political Changes

  • End of British East India Company rule (August 1858)
  • Direct rule by British Crown
  • Queen Victoria named sovereign of India
  • Secretary of State for India created

Queen’s Proclamation (1858)

  • Promises made to Indians:
    • No more annexations of princely states
    • Respect for dignity and rights of native princes
    • Equal opportunities in government services
    • Freedom of religion
    • Respect for Indian customs and practices

Impact on the Army

  • Reorganization of British military
    • Reduced number of Indian soldiers
    • Increased number of European soldiers
    • “Martial races” recruited from Punjab, Nepal, etc.
    • Segregation of Indian and European troops
    • All higher military positions reserved for Europeans

Social and Economic Changes

  • Decline in reformist policies
  • More conservative British rule
  • Increased exploitation of Indian economy
  • Racial tensions between Indians and British

Long-Term Impact

  • Growth of Indian nationalism due to frustration with British policies
  • “Divide and rule” policy solidified

Note: The Revolt of 1857, despite being crushed by the British, marked a turning point in Indian history. It led to significant changes in British administration and fueled the rise of Indian nationalism.


Significance of the Revolt of 1857

  1. End of East India Company Rule:The revolt directly led to the abolishment of the British East India Company’s rule in India. The British Crown assumed direct control in 1858.
  2. Rise of Indian Nationalism:Though unsuccessful, the revolt ignited a sense of national unity and a desire for self-rule among Indians. It became a symbol of resistance against British rule.
  3. Reorganization of British Army:The British military was reorganized to prevent future uprisings. They reduced Indian soldier numbers, increased Europeans, and recruited from “martial races” considered more loyal.
  4. Queen’s Proclamation (1858):The British Crown issued a proclamation promising reforms like religious freedom, respect for Indian customs, and ending territorial expansion. However, many promises remained unfulfilled.
  5. Shift in British Policy:The optimistic reformist approach of the British waned. A more conservative and exploitative approach towards India’s resources and people emerged.
  6. Seeds of “Divide and Rule”: The British exploited existing social and religious differences to weaken Indian unity and maintain control. This policy of “divide and rule” intensified after the revolt.
  7. Exposure of Sepoy Discontent:The revolt highlighted the grievances of sepoys, including religious concerns, discriminatory practices, and resentment towards British superiority.
  8. Showcased Indian Leadership:The revolt saw the emergence of Indian leaders like Rani Lakshmibai, Nana Saheb, and Tantia Tope, who became symbols of resistance against British rule.
  9. Military Strategies Reevaluated:The revolt exposed vulnerabilities in British military tactics and communication, leading them to reassess their strategies in India.
  10. Spark for Future Movements:The revolt’s legacy inspired future generations of Indian revolutionaries and freedom fighters in their struggle for independence.


Revolt of 1857: Historical Perspectives

Nationalist Perspective:

    • Views revolt as “First War of Independence.” (R.C. Majumdar, V.D. Savarkar)
    • Emphasizes pan-Indian unity against British rule.
  • Sees revolt as a heroic fight for independence.

Marxist Perspective:

  • Views revolt as a class struggle. (R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib)
  • Focuses on economic exploitation and social injustices.
  • Sees revolt as a precursor to anti-colonial struggle.

Revisionist Perspective:

  • Challenges nationalist narrative. (Eric Stokes, Christopher Bayly)
  • Views revolt as fragmented, localized uprisings.
  • Highlights economic distress, social factors, and cultural anxieties.

Imperialist Perspective:

  • Views revolt as a sepoy mutiny. (Thomas Metcalf, C.A. Bayly)
  • Emphasizes religious, cultural, and political triggers for sepoy discontent.
  • Downplays Indian agency and grievances.

Regional Perspectives:

  • Focus on specific regions (Awadh, Bihar, Bengal, Delhi).
  • Analyze local socio-economic and political dynamics.
  • Offer unique interpretations of events and outcomes.

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