Read this article to learn about the causes, spread, suppression, nature and significance of the revolt of 1857 in India.

Causes of the Revolt of 1857:

The causes of the Revolt of 1857 divide them­selves into political, social, economic, military and religious heads,

(i) Among the political causes Dalhousie’s occupation of Satara, Sambalpur, Nagpur, Jhansi and stoppage of the payment of allowance to the ruling houses of Tanjore, Carnatic as well as of Nana Sahib, annexa­tion of Oudh on the plea of maladministration were not only immoral but also shocking to the Indian conscience for they revealed the utter selfishness of the British and the total disregard of immemorial Hindu customs.

The barbarous conduct on the part of the British in carrying away not only treasures of the Nagpur palace but also the cows, horses and elephants and the furniture of the royal palace and selling them at nominal price showed the lack of minimum decency and courtesy that a royal house could reasonably expect from the British and tarnished the name of the British race as a whole.


Similar con­duct was repeated towards Oudh where the near relation of the Nawab were all turned out into the streets and the royal treasury was broken open and looted. Such selfish, barbarous conduct came as a shock to the rulers of the native states all over India. “The rulers of native states all over India, must have asked themselves the question ‘who could be safe, if the British thus treated one who had ever been their faithfully”. That the British promise had no value became appa­rent from the abolition of the pensions to Nana Sahib, rulers of Tanjore and Carnatic.

On the Nawab family of Oudh a large number of their relations both male and female were dependent for their sustenance. This was nothing special with regard to Oudh, but in almost every native state all over India a host of people used to be dependent on the ruling house. When Oudh was occupied by the British a large number of families dependent on the Nawab had to sell out their ornaments and furniture to stave off starvation. “Families which had never before been outside the zenana used to go out at night and beg their bread”. Ultimately, however, the British government made arrangements for payment of pension to these families, but long before that was done many families had been reduced to beggary. It is needless to say that people’s resentment to all this was extremely great.

The British government introduced a new revenue policy in Oudh which dispossessed many of the Taluqdars. The fortresses of the Taluqdars were demolished and their retainers were disbanded. In place of the former judicial system of Oudh a new judicial system was introduced which made justice more time taking and expensive. These measures all the more increased the anti-British feelings of the people of Oudh. The highhanded policy of the British servants and particularly of Coverly Jackson and Gubbins made the people very much resentful towards the British.

(ii) Social cause was also responsible for preparing the ground for the Revolt of 1857. For half a century prior to the outbreak of the Revolt of 1857 the hatred of the British servants towards the Indians and their exclusiveness to avoid touch with the Indians had become manifest. This attitude of the British servants has been dealt at length in Siyar Ul Mutaqherin. In the letters of Warren Hastings also this is borne out.


This exclusiveness between the rulers and the ruled was not conducive to the growth of habitual obedience of the subjects to the rulers. British rule was first established in Bengal. But even after a hundred years an educated Bengalee remarked that there had not developed any feeling of mutual respect and friendliness between the English and the Hindus. Some of the liberal minded Englishmen also did not approve of this attitude of the English men towards the Indians.

In the writings of Lt. Verney it has been clearly stated that there was no social contacts between the British servants and the Indians. If any Indian would happen to come to any British for any reason, his hatred for the British would increase all the more after the meeting.

Spread of English and construction of railways and telegraph system, abolition of the Suttee etc. were reasonable and beneficent reforms no doubt, but as the Indians doubted the bonafides of the British these well-meaning reforms were looked upon with suspicion and regarded as having some ulterior motive behind.

The debauchery of the British officers and their organising harems with low born women made them hateful to the Indians.


(iii) Sufficient stress has not been put on the economic cause of the Revolt of 1857, but recent researches have revealed its importance. Drainage of Indian wealth during the hundred years preceding the Revolt of 1857 by the Company had the inevitable result of impo­verishment of the Indians.

The revenue policy Of the British added to the economic misery of the people. In the competition of the machine-made cloth and other industrial products imported from England soon ousted the small and cottage Industries of India by unequal competition. Many of the artisans were thrown out of employ­ment, with the spread of English education, the scholars in Sanskrit, Persian etc. lost their means of livelihood.

The joint declaration of the Hindus and the Muslims at the time of the Revolt of 1857 made clear reference to the economic distress of the people. Chowkidari tax, road tax, tax on vehicles, etc. all the more increased the econo­mic distress of the common people. “…. in Hindoostan they have exacted as revenue Rupees 3000/ when only 200/ were due and still they are solicitous to raise their demands. The people must therefore be ruined and begarred. They have doubled and quadrupled the Chowkidari tax and have wished to ruin the people. The occupa­tion of all respectable men is gone, and a million are destitute of necessaries of life”. Economic cause was also responsible for the growth of resentment among the Indian Sepoys. An Indian sepoy received only Rs.9 per month as salary.

The condition of the Sawar that is, cavalryman was no better. The salary of the Sarwar was a little higher compared to that of the sepoy but a good part of his salary would be cut out on different accounts. While for 3, 15,520 sepoys and native officers only 98 lac pounds used to be spent annually, for 51,316 British soldiers and officers 56 lac 68 thousand used to be spent.

(iv) But one of the most important causes of the Revolt was the dissatisfaction of the sepoys. The meagreness of their salary compared to that of the British soldiers naturally made then jealous of the British. It was mainly with the help of the Indian sepoys that the British had expanded their territories in India but they received for that by way of good salary and better behaviour, Further, the British officers did not hesitate to call the sepoys names arid although the British officers did not know the local direct would get by heart some filthy language which they would use against the sepoys. It may be mentioned here that at the beginning of the British rule the relation between the British officers and the sepoys were quite cordial.

But gradually there came a change in the attitude of the British officers towards the sepoys. There was also discrimination between the British and the Indians in matters of promotion. The Indian military officers and sepoys, however experienced, had no opportunity for promotion, whereas inexperienced British soldiers and officers would be promoted to highly responsible posts.

The British military officers were also indirectly responsible for setting an example before the sepoys to revolt. In 1809 when the Court of Directors by an order strictly stopped taking of bribes by the military officers of Madras at the time of giving contract for work in the cantonment, they revolted. The revolt had also spread to other cantonments outside Madras. This was an example before the Indian sepoys. Further, from the mutiny at Vellore as also mutiny at Barrackpore it becomes manifest that the Indian sepoys did not hesi­tate to express their resentment of the injustice of the higher officers by open revolt.

(v) When due to the above causes the sepoys had become highly resentful of the British the attempts of the Christian missionaries to convert the Hindus and Muslims into Christianity added fuel to fire. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his Causes of the Revolt of India (Risalah Asbab-i-Bhagawat-i-Hind) says that the social reform measures under­taken by the government, the activities of the Christian missionaries and the statement of the government officials created a feeling that the British were trying to convert the people of India into Christianity. The Christian missionaries were allowed to address the sepoys on Christianity.

They also visited the prison houses and spoke to the convicts. The impression spread among the sepoys that the abolition of the Suttee, widow remarriage act, even travel by railways which made it difficult to save one’s caste, etc. were calculated to convert the people into Christianity.

In fact, the Revolt of Vellore was caused by the order of the military authorities to wear head gear made of hide and to shave off beard. The Barrackpore revolt was caused by economic reason no doubt but the immediate cause was the order to go to Burma by crossing the sea, and sea journey was looked upon as a sacrilege.

At a time when the stage had been set for the revolt due to poli­tical, economic, social, military and religious causes, the British army authorities introduced a new kind of rifles called Enfield Rifle the cartridge of which had to be put into the muzzle after tearing it with the teeth. Grease made of animal fat, particularly of pigs and cattle was used in the cartridge. Soon the news spread among the Indian, sepoys both Hindus and Muslims that the cartridge was introduced by the British with the deliberate motive of defiling the religion of both the Hindus and the Muslims, with a view to converting them into Christianity.

On March 29, 1857 a sepoy named Mangal Pande openly revolted at Barrackpore Cantonment. Although others did not join him openly they showed sympathy with the cause of Mangal Pande. The British government disbanded the whole 34th N. I. Regi­ment and thereby sought to suppress the possibility of revolt. Mangal Pande and his associate Iswari Pande were put to death. But this did not extinguish the fire of revolt.

The sepoys of the disbanded 34th Regiment spread the news of the revolt in other parts of the country. On April 24, 1857 the next incident took place in the Cantonment of Meerut. At the time of the parade on that date 85 out of 90 sepoys refused to touch the cartridges of the Enfield rifle. They were tried by the military court and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

On 9th May all the sepoys who had been punished were marched bound in chains before all other sepoys and thrown into the prison. Next day other sepoys forcibly opened the gate of the prison and released their colleagues who had been sentenced to ten years imprisonment. On the same day when Col. Finnis was addressing the sepoys advising them to give up the path of revolt the Sepoys short him dead. With this began the Revolt of 1857 in its true sense.

Spread of the Revolt of 1857:

The revolt of the sepoys spread from Barrackpore to Meerut and thence to Delhi. On reaching Delhi the Sepoys declared Bahadur Shah II as the Emperor of Hindustan. Both at Meerut and Delhi the sepoys killed the Europeans wherever they came across. When the news of the occupation of Delhi by the sepoys reached Muzaffarnagar (May 13) the sepoys there also rose in revolt. Punjab, Naushera, Hatmardan, etc. also joined the revolt.

In Oudh and modern Uttar Pradesh the revolt took a serious turn, it became extremely wide-spread. Etwah, Mainpuri, Roorki, Etah, Hodal, Mathura, Lucknow, Bareilly. Shajahanpur, Moradabad, Bodao, Kanpur, Allahabad, Faizabad, Azamgarh, Dariabad, Fategarh, Fatepur, Hatrash and in other places revolt spread within a short time.

The sepoys threw open the prisons and looted the treasury in most of these places. Many civil population joined hands with the sepoys. In Oudh the Taluqdars who had been dispossessed of their estates after the occupation Oudh (1856) joined the revolt. The revolt spread throughout the length and breadth of Oudh and took the character of a national revolt.

Meerut, Delhi and Oudh apart, Kanpur rose in revolt under Nana Sahib. Jhansi under the Rani of Jhansi, and Jagadispur under Kunwar Singh. The Nawab of Banda in Bundelkhand as also the rulers of Banpur and Shahgarh took part in the revolt. As Bahadur Shah II was declared Emperor of Hindustan at Delhi, so was Nana Sahib de­clared himself as the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire.

The zamindars of Rohilkhand in Oudh declared themselves independent. Khan Bahadur Khan, a descendant of Hafiz Rahmat Khan proclaimed him­self as the local representative of the Emperor of Delhi and began to rule in virtual independence in Bareilly. His example was followed by Mahmud Khan of Bijnor. In this way the feudal lords in different parts assumed independent status and thereby sought to put an end to the British rule.

In Danapur in Bihar the sepoys revolted under the leadership of Kunwar Singh, the sepoys of Deogarh also joined them. In Dacca and Chittagong the sepoys revolted but they were soon put down. The revolt also spread to the Deccan, Central India, Rajasthan etc.

Suppression of the Revolt of 1857:

The intense hatred of the sepoys against the British took the shape of massacre of innocent women and children at places, but the inhuman cruelties perpetrated by the British on the revolting sepoys and others far surpassed the cruelties done by the sepoys.

At the initial stage of the British military officers and Generals soon turned the tide of success in favour of the British. These offi­cers and Generals were Sir John Lawrence, Sir Henry Lawrence, Have-lock, Outram, Sir Collin Campbell etc. The Sikh and the Nepalese soldiers fought on the side of the British which contributed much to the success of the British against the rebels.

Among the first rank of leaders of the revolt were Nana Sahib and Tantia Topi. Tantia Topi’s real name was Ramchandra Pandu-ranga Topi but was known more as Tantia Topi. He was the right-hand man of Nana Sahib. Another close associate of Nana Sahib was Azim Ullah. When the British stopped Nana Sahib’s pension, Nana Sahib sent Azim Ullah to the Court of Directors in England for hold­ing discussion on the matter. Nothing, however, had come out as a result of the discussion. Another leader of the revolt was Kunwar Singh, a Rajput.

He was the Taluqdar of Jagadishpur in Arrah. Maulvi Ahmad Ulla of Faizabad had called upon the Hindus and the Muslims to unitedly stand against the British and took arms against the British with his own followers.

The Rani of Jhansi was perhaps the most famous of the leaders of the revolt. Her military ability, tact and foresight, her courage and power of leadership earned uns­tinted praise even of the British. Rani of Jhansi gave leadership of the revolt in central India and Bundelkhand. Tantia Topi later joined her and their joint effort succeeded in wresting Gwalior from the British. Rani of Jhansi lost her life fighting for the cause of the country in a battle with the British troops under Sir Hugh Rose and thus enshrined herself as one of the martyrs for the country’s cause. After defeat at the hands of Sir Hugh Rose Tantia Topi fled but was put under arrest after some time and was put to death. Nana Sahib fled to Nepal after his defeat.

Recapture of Delhi was imperative for the British, for occupa­tion of Delhi was symbolic of the sovereignty of India. After continued fighting’s for four months the British succeeded in recapturing Delhi. Bahadur Shah II was taken prisoner and deported to Rangoon where he died.

Nature and Significance of the Revolt of 1857:

There has been a prolonged controversy as to the nature of the movement of 1857. Opinions are at variance as to whether the revolt of 1857 was a Sepoy Mutiny pure and simple or a National Movement. British his­torians such as G. W. Forest, C. Ball, T. R. Holmes, J. W. Kaye, M Innes, G. B. Malleson and others of their way of thinking call it a sepoy mutiny. They argue that the native sepoys disobeyed their superior British officers and became rebellious and the civil popula­tion did not revolt against their alien rulers. Thus it was nothing more or less than a sepoy mutiny.

J. B. Norton, Dr. Alexander Duff and others of their way of thinking are of opinion that the movement of 1857 although began as a mutiny of the sepoys it gradually became wide spread and took the character of national movement.

Patriots like V. D. Savarkar as also Dr. S. B. Chaudhuri inflated the second of the above opinions and went to the extent of calling the revolt of 1857 as the first war of Indian independence. Dr. S. N. Sen, the official historian, gives somewhat qualified support to this view in his book Eighteen Fifty Seven. Both Dr. Sen and Dr.R. C. Majumdar, the latter’s book called The Sepoy Mutiny & The Revolt of 1857 have considered many new materials through research and have in the ulti­mate analysis come to more or less to similar conclusion that although the revolt of 1857 did not begin as a national movement and was primarily a sepoy mutiny, it took the shape of national movement in certain areas.

It became a national movement in most parts of the present Uttar Pradesh, a part of Central Provinces, western part of Bihar. “The most reasonable conclusion, therefore, seems to be that primarily the outbreak was a mutiny of troops… all the available facts fully support his (Raikes) thesis that the outbreak of 1857 was not a mutiny growing out of a national revolt or forming a part of it, but primarily a mutiny gradually developing into a general revolt in certain areas”. Obviously Dr. Sen relied cm the observations of Mr. Charles Rakes a contemporary British judge.

It may be mentioned here that the arguments of Dr. Sen or of Dr. Majumdar are not always unassailable. According to some historians opinions of both Dr. Sen and Dr. Majumdar are traditional and con­servative. There are other opinions worth considering. According to Michael Edwardes the revolt of 1857 originated in the reaction of Indian society to the modernising zeal of their British conquerors. Essentially the mutiny was a feudal reaction to the pressures of British dominion felt at all levels of the community.

“Behind the rebels there temporarily coalesced a wide and conflicting range of interests. There has been much controversy—engendered in the main by Indian histo­rians—about ‘national’ character of Mutiny. There was none”. But Michael Edwardes concedes that “… most of the leading rebels were united on one simple issue, the ejection of the British. When this seemed impossible to achieve, everything else fell into pieces”. Here we need draw the conclusion that the movement had become national for one simple issue as Edwardes himself says was the ‘ejection of the British. What else could be the aim of a national movement? Its failure does not take way it basic character, certainly.

Further J. B. Norton and Dr. Alexander Duff point out that pro­clamation by the sepoys that Bahadur Shah was the Emperor of Hin­dustan and Bahadur Shah’s appeal to all Hindus and Muslims to join hands in driving the British out of India, gave the movement a natio­nal character. There was also popular support to the revolt in varying degrees. According to Dr. Sen “The revolt commanded popular sup­port in varying degrees in the principal theatres of war, which extended roughly from western Bihar to the eastern confines of the Punjab”. There was also no total lack of unity among the different groups of sepoys. In many places the peasants also joined the revolt.

In the circumstances the conclusion is irrestible that considering the then political condition of India any movement against the British was bound to have begun as a revolt of the sepoys and once it had begun it spread like fire and took the shape of national movement in certain areas. Further, it should be remembered that it will be a mistake to judge the character of nineteenth century nationalism by the present day standard of nationalism and if the revolt of 1857 had started as a mutiny of the sepoys there was no ground to deny its national character which it had actually assumed eventually.

Finally it may be observed that any definite, firm conclusion as to the character of the revolt of 1857 will only be possible after fur­ther researches on the subject.

The revolt of 1857 failed, but the revolt was, not without its significance.

It led to a radical change in the administration of British India:

The authorities in England fully realised the un-wisdom of leaving the administration of so vast an empire in the hands of a private corporation. Thus the immediate step taken was to transfer the authority of the Company to the British Crown. For the improve­ment of the Indian administration a Council with a secretary and fif­teen members was formed in England which was authorised to run the Indian administration on behalf of the Queen of England. The Governor-General of India was henceforth called Viceroy represent­ing the Sovereignty of the British Queen Victoria. All this was done by an Act passed by the British Parliament in 1858.

The British realized the danger of interfering with the religion and time-honoured customs of the Indians. They now began to fol­low a policy neutrality in respect of Indian religions and customs. It also became the policy of the British government not to initiate any social reforms on their own initiative but to let the initiative to be taken by the Indians themselves.

It became clear to the British that it would be wise to keep the native states on their side for otherwise inimically disposed native rulers might combine to sweep them off. The proclamation of the Queen set aside the Doctrine of Lapse and assured the native rulers that the British had no intention to extend their Indian territories. It was also made clear that the question of succession in native states would be guided by the custom of the respective native state and the native rulers would have full liberty to adopt an heir where there was no natural heir.

The principle of inducting more Indians in the administration was also accepted. It was also realised that communication gap between the British administration and the Indians was one of the reasons of the revolt of 1857, hence it was thought necessary to appoint more Indians in the administration.

By the Charter Act of 1833 the legislative power of the Bombay and the Madras Councils was centralized into the hands of the Gover­nor General’s Council at Calcutta. After the revolt of 1857 this policy of centralization was abandoned and by the Councils Act of 1861 the legislative power of the Bombay and Madras Councils was revived. It was also accepted as a principle of policy to establish a council in any province that might be newly formed. In all such Councils the principle of taking in Indians as members was adopted.

The revolt of 1857 engendered a feeling of fear and suspicion about the intentions of the Indians and in order to ensure security of the British Indian empire the British government began to follow the policy of divide et impera and started to saw the seeds of communalism among the Indians.

The British government also realized the danger of depending on Indian sepoys and the enrolment of the Indians in the army was drasti­cally reduced from 2, 58,000 in 1857 to 1,40,000 in 1863 and brought a large number of English soldiers to India. This was done in order to forestall any possible revolt by the Indian sepoys. Further, in res­ponsible military posts only English officers were appointed.

Lastly, realizing that beneficent, social reforms were also contri­butory factors to the causation of the revolt of 1857, the British government virtually became reactionary.