Has the British Army ever mutinied

The depiction of the Sepoy uprising in recent book publications

Table of Contents


1 Background of the uprising
1.1 The situation of the Indian soldiers in the colonial army
1.2 Policy of annexation of the colonial power
1.3 Religious causes

2 The uprising from 1857 to 1858
2.1 The beginning - the mutiny in Meerut
2.2 The development towards the insurrection
2.3 The outcome of the uprising and its justification

3 Assessment of the uprising and its consequences and effects



The development of the British Empire into the global entity that it represented at the height of its development would not have been possible without the chapter "India". The key player in relation to the incorporation of the Indian subcontinent into the British Empire was the "British East India Company"[1] (EIC). When it was founded in London in 1600, this trading company continuously expanded its power in the Indian region. Initially only responsible for the organization of trade between England and India, the EIC developed more and more into a territorial power that also gained military importance and built up its own army. As part of the creation of this army, the EIC also made use of local forces.[2] For various reasons there was a mutiny in this part of the army in 1857, which was to have far-reaching consequences for the EIC, but also for India.

The aim of this work is to shed light on the individual aspects of the uprisings of 1857 and 1858. For this purpose, the work is divided into three sections: First, the background to this historical event is examined more closely, in order to describe the course of the uprising in detail in the second section. In the third section, the result of the uprising and possible reasons for it are discussed, as well as the lasting effects for India and equally for the EIC and the British are briefly explained.

1 Background of the uprising

The following section contains the causes of the uprising. Some authors see the uprising as the cause of the uprising as the sepoys mutiny, sparked by a very specific key event, the so-called “cartridge question”.[3] Some other authors, on the other hand, discuss far more extensive causes, which also go back significantly in time.[4] Before the events of 1857 and 1858 are described in more detail, a number of these discussed causes will be discussed.

1.1 The situation of the Indian soldiers in the colonial army

Due to the increasing rivalries among the European powers on the sub-Indian continent, the EIC turned more and more into a military actor. They built fortresses and raised their own contingents of troops made up of Indian and English soldiers.[5]

Rivalries existed within the Company Army, which mainly related to the officer corps. The non-European troops of the army were referred to as so-called Sepoys[6]who increasingly felt the differentiation between the “royal” and the “lower” troops. The generation of British officers who had witnessed the struggle for supremacy in India had long since been superseded and the change to a regular army increased the distance between officers and crew. The sepoys were seen more and more as subjects, which in turn led to a growing contempt for the British officers, also because the native officers were less and less accepted by their British comrades. This lost a crucial link between the Indian soldiers and the British officers.[7] This fact, like the tactlessness of the British officers, was to play a role in the outbreak of the mutiny in 1857.[8]

There were various riots within the army as early as 1857. The most serious revolt occurred in Vellore in 1806 when Indian soldiers attacked their officers. This mutiny has striking parallels to the event of 1857. The mutineers apparently feared attacks on their religion as a result of the introduction of European headgear. A company of the Bengali army mutinied in Java in 1815 and in Gwalior in 1834. In addition, there were riots during the Afghanistan campaign of 1839-1842 due to the lack of capable leaders.[9]

The dissatisfaction of the sepoys continued to rise in the 1850s, partly due to the "General Service Enlistment Act" from 1856, which obliges the Indian soldiers in the service of the British to also serve abroad. In addition, the British changed their recruiting policy and also recruited men from other castes and religious groups, which led to further uncertainty among the castes that had dominated military service up to this point. Another key aspect was the reduction in their pay during the invasion of Avadh in 1856 (due to the refusal to serve abroad) and the resulting loss of prestige in their eyes vis-à-vis other members of the army.[10]

1.2 Policy of annexation of the colonial power

Another cause of the uprising is the territorial revenue policy practiced by the British in India. In the early days of the struggle for supremacy, the power of the princes had been neutralized by treaties. After the British gained supremacy, loyalty to the alliance was more or less a burden and they switched to the method of annexation.[11] Even before the "great" revolt, this policy led to a large number of resistances in the period between 1800 and 1860. The most significant were the regular unrest among landowners, conflicts between landowners and their tenants against the background of high taxes, loss of prestige or power, and disputes between religious groups or different castes. All of these types of conflict occurred at regular intervals at that time, but as single events that were locally limited. In 1857 they reappeared in an exaggerated form, clearly more spacious and in a bundled form.[12]

James Dalhousie, who was Governor General of India from 1847 to 1856, was one of the main actors in terms of the policy of annexation and therefore also partly responsible for the uprising of 1857. From the beginning of his term of office he pursued a kind of modernization policy, which was expressed, among other things, in the construction of a railway network and the introduction of British irrigation technology, but also a merciless policy of annexation. Basically, all of his measures were aimed at increasing revenue and production efficiency.[13] Dalhousie's most important contribution to the government treasury was not the modernization or the result of costly military conquests, but the direct appropriation of land that was still owned by princely “allies”. One of the first measures taken by the new Governor General after his arrival in India was the introduction of the so-called "Doctrine of Lapse". This allows the British the appropriation of territory on the basis of a "breach of contract". The doctrine stipulated that the agreements once concluded between the Indian princes and the British would only continue to exist for "natural" heirs. A ruler dies without a physical successor[14], the EIC has direct control over the territory and its revenue. “Dissolute” and “depraved” ways of life or the accusation of mismanagement were also interpreted as a breach of contract and ultimately led to the contract being terminated and thus to territorial takeover by the British. After the doctrine was first used "successfully" against the Raja of Satara in 1848, this procedure was the general method.[15] In the period that followed, a large number of small states and principalities passed into the possession of the colonial rulers, including Jaipur and Sambalpur in 1849, Baghat in 1850, the Rajput state of Udaipur in 1852, followed by the central Indian state of Jhansi in 1853. What effects this policy had will become For example, the latter case clearly shows that the Rani von Jhansi, widow of the late ruler, played a decisive role in the uprising of 1857. After the death of her husband, the adoptive son was denied the throne because the land went to the British colonial masters by doctrine . The young princess fought against the British with bitter resistance, fought to the death on the back of her horse and thus went down in Indian history under the name "Joan of India".[16]


[1] Often as East India Company designated.

[2] Mohanty (2006), pp. 68f; Plaschka (2000), p. 140

[3] e.g. Bayly (2003)

[4] inter alia Plaschka (2000); Ganguly / DeVotta (2003); Wolpert (1997)

[5] Plaschka (2000), p. 140

[6] Plaschka (2000), p. 139: According to this author, it comes from the Portuguese word meaning "Mercenary" from. But there is also the view that it is the old Persian term "Sipahi" comes from, which means something like "soldier".

[7] Plaschka (2000), p. 140

[8] Kulke / Rothermund (1998), p. 316f

[9] Bayly (2003), p. 179

[10] ibid., p. 180; Innes (1985), p. 305

[11] Kulke / Rothermund (1998), p. 316

[12] Bayly (2003), pp. 169f

[13] Wolpert (1997), pp. 231f

[14] Traditionally, an inheritance gap was closed by an adopted son. The British excluded them as legitimate heirs through the doctrine.

[15] Erll (2007), p. 5; Wolpert (1997), pp. 226f

[16] Ganguly / DeVotta (2003), p. 43; Kulke / Rothermund (1998), p. 316; Mohanty (2006), p. 67

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