The Backdrop of The Revolt of 1857

Sepoy Mutiny


The year 1857 is a landmark in the history of India, for it witnessed one of the most massive and widespread armed revolts in different parts of Central and Northern India. This is popularly known as the Revolt of 1857 that ultimately culminated in the end of the rule of East India Company in India, which now came to be replaced by that of the British Crown. Various aspects of the Revolt have long been and continue to remain the subject of vigorous debate among historians, one of the most important among them being the backdrop of the Revolt for a thorough study of this can help us to understand the very nature of the Revolt, i.e. whether it was merely a case of mutiny of the sepoys that had primarily been engendered by the issue of the Enfield rifles; or whether there were other factors at play as well whereby the ongoing political disturbances contributed to the situation as well.

Sepoy Mutiny

The mutiny of the sepoys though not the sole one but was nevertheless undoubtedly one of the crucial aspects of the Revolt of 1857. However, the disaffection of the army cannot be merely attributed to the issue of the Enfield rifles but rather can be traced to various other factors. Initially, during the mid-18th century, the Company’s government respected and thereby maintained the traditions and customs of the indigenous communities, and the high caste character of the army was deliberately encouraged. This was quite evident from the composition of the Bengal army, which had a marked high caste character as it primarily consisted of Brahmans, Rajputs, and Bhumidars. It must be noted here that not only was the Bengal army composed in a particular manner, but the Company’s government also proved to be attentive to the caste norms of the sepoys whereby the caste rules, dietary and travel restrictions of these sections were rigorously respected and maintained by the army administration, under the instructions of Warren Hastings. However, certain changes were introduced in the 1820s when the Company government began to curtail some of the caste privileges and pecuniary benefits to establish tighter control over the army administration. These reforms were followed by various acts of resistance which continued in the 1840s. Not only did the sepoys’ religious beliefs come to contradict the new service conditions, but in addition to this, their salary level was dropped, they came to be discriminated against in matters of promotion and pension, and lastly, in the 1820s, the extra allowance which they had hitherto received for service outside their own regions came to be abolished as well. Apart from the discontent with the new service conditions, there was a constant fear concerning the British conspiracy to convert them into Christianity which was aggravated further by various factors such as the presence of the missionaries, the rumours concerning the mixing of cow and pig bone dust with flower and lastly the controversy concerning the Enfield rifles. The newly introduced Enfield rifles that replaced the existing Brown Bess musket and was rumoured to have been greased with cow and pig fat further aggravated the existing tensions. For these newly introduced cartridges, having been required to be bitten off before loading further affirmed the fears and suspicion of the sepoys concerning a conspiracy to destroy their religion and thereby convert them to Christianity. The rumour that was not entirely bereft of truth spread like wildfire across various cantonments, and despite the immediate termination of the production of these cartridges and the repeated concessions provided to the sepoys by the government in order to allay their fears, the damage had already been done and was beyond repair. The annexation of Awadh further contributed to the crisis. It must be noted here that nearly seventy-five thousands of the sepoys of the Bengal Army came from the Awadh region who perceived the annexation as the ultimate proof of the untrustworthiness of the British, thereby compromising their loyalty. Besides given the strong links of the sepoys with their parent society coupled with their middle farmer origins, which has led a section of historians to argue that the sepoys were basically peasants in uniform, they were quite evidently perturbed by the declining conditions of the peasantry following the summary settlements in Awadh. In fact, it must be noted here that nearly fourteen thousand petitions preceded the Revolt from the sepoys about the hardships engendered by the new revenue system. Hence, the Enfield rifles, albeit crucial, were by no means the only factor responsible for the increasing discontent among the sepoys and the Revolt.

Doctrine of Lapse

The notion that the Revolt was primarily caused by the issue of the greased cartridges basically stems from the common misconception that the sepoy mutiny was the sole aspect of the Revolt of 1857, whereas in fact, the sepoy mutiny was accompanied by massive civilian Revolt as well. The latter too cannot be explained by merely a single cause but rather can be attributed to myriad reasons, which in turn may be ascribed to the fact that the colonial rule having had a differential impact on various sections of the Indian society, their responses varied as well. Different classes had different grievances, which too varied from region to region. It must be remembered that the revolting population was by no means homogeneous but rather comprised of various elements which can be broadly divided into two categories, i.e., the feudal elements and big landlords on the one hand and the peasants on the other. As far as the feudal elements were concerned, their chief objection was regarding the annexations that took place under the Doctrine of Lapse system of the Doctrine of lapse introduced by Lord Dalhousie, whereby the adopted sons of the deceased princes were derecognised as the legal heirs leading to the annexation of their kingdoms by the Company government. This could be seen in the case of kingdoms like Satara (1848), Nagpur, Sambalpur and Baghat (1850), Udaipur (1852), and Jhansi (1853), which were all taken over in quick succession. This came to be perceived as British interference in the traditional system of inheritance which was clearly resented, thereby culminating in the creation of a group of disgruntled feudal lords who had every reason to join the ranks of the rebels. The annexation of Awadh in 1856 further triggered the problem, for it not only affected the Nawab and his family who were deported to Calcutta but rather the entire aristocracy attached to the court. The deposed princes who had to bear the brunt of the Doctrine of Lapse in many cases provided leadership to the rebels in their respective regions and thereby legitimacy to the Revolt. Mention may be made of Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II who assumed leadership in Kanpur, Begum Hazrat Mahal who took control over Lucknow, Khan Bahadur Khan in Rohilkhand, and lastly, Rani Laxmibai in Jhansi.

Discontent among the Taluqdars

The other section that was highly affected by the new policies of the Company government and thereby joined the Revolt was the landed magnates or the taluqdars. The summary settlement, which was introduced in Awadh in 1856, resulted in the dispossession of a number of powerful taluqdars. The settlement was made with the actual occupiers or proprietors of the land in order to disregard all the other proprietary rights in order to enable the Company to realise maximum revenue. This was done to ensure popularity among the agricultural population and remove the unwanted middlemen who stood between the peasants and the government. The taluqdars of Awadh incurred huge losses owing to this as they lost about half of their estates, were disarmed and their forts were demolished, thereby culminating in the loss of both status and power in the local society. As a result of these changes, Awadh became the hotbed of discontent of the landed aristocrats who, with the initiation of the Revolt, quickly moved into the villages which they had recently lost and in fact faced no resistance from their erstwhile tenants for the latter in turn being bound by ties of kinship and feudal loyalty happily acknowledged the claims of their lords and joined hands against their common enemy, i.e., the British.

Peasant Disaffection

As far as the large-scale peasant participation in the Revolt is concerned, this may be attributed to the fact that they too had to bear the brunt of the new revenue system under which they were subjected to inordinately high revenue demands of the state. The summary settlement in Awadh was such that, albeit the overall assessment was reduced, but it also witnessed gross over assessment in certain pockets, which in turn came within the aegis of what has been described by certain historians as the areas of taluqdar-peasant complementarity. As a result of this, the moral economy of the rural world received a sudden shock. The peasant, who was now exposed directly to the problems info 2such as over assessment of the Raj and the strict methods of Brtish revenue collection, no longer had the taluqdar as his lord and protector to turn to. Unlike earlier, there ceased to be the guarantee that in times of hardship or crop failure, the effects of the calamity would be shared equally in the village or chances of being helped out in special circumstances such as marriage or death, all of which was now replaced by a large and fixed revenue demand to be paid in regularity. The shift from grain sharing to a fixed revenue demand that was commuted in money terms had a disastrous impact on the peasantry. For previously, when the peasant paid a fixed proportion of the grain heap, he shared with the raja cum taluqdar not only the benefit but also the loss incurred from the price of harvest variations. But the revenue demand becoming fixed under the new settlement, now the entire brunt of over assessment or of bad harvest or lower prices had to be borne solely by the peasants. This ruptured the hitherto existing ‘subsistence ethic’ of the Awadh peasantry, thereby resulting in widespread discontent both among the taluqdars and the peasants. The Awadh peasantry perceived this as a shift from the realm of dependency that provided a certain amount of security by guaranteeing subsistence to a more direct unprotected relationship with the colonial state, whose operation, in turn, was alien to its world. Besides contrary to the Raj’s theory of the taluqdars being interlopers, recently a section of historians have shown that far from being interlopers, in certain cases in fact, the taluqdars had a certain stake in the continuity of cultivation and property. Although it is indeed true that the wealth that accrued to the taluqdars was never invested in any kind of productive enterprise, but it nevertheless served to maintain a certain kind of lifestyle where networks of patronage, protection, and loyalty held sway. The removal of the taluqdars implied that the part of the surplus which hitherto remained with the taluqdars and portions of which circulated with the rural economy as salaries to retainers and info 3other forms of patronage, now came to be entirely extracted by the bureaucratic machinery of the Raj. The annexation of Awadh coupled with the summary settlement with the taluqdars and the peasants completely rendered upside down the traditional world of Awadh whereby from the network of co-operation and patronage, the rural world was thrown directly into the world of colonial revenue policy and efficient bureaucratic implementation. As a result of all this, the emotional grievance against a foreign power came to be linked with the real bread and butter grievances. However, it must be noted here that the peasants by no means played a mere rear-guard subaltern role. In fact, the peasants were on the side of the rebellion even in the areas where the taluqdars remained loyal to the British. This perhaps best illustrates the fact that the rebellion was not always elitist in character but rather in places like Awadh; it had a mass, popular base. Furthermore, while in certain cases, the taluqdars could and did, in fact, manage to get pardoned, the sipahis and the peasants who rebelled faced the certain risk of being massacred in case they surrendered.

Regional Variations

Indeed, it must be remembered that not all taluqdars suffered under the British revenue system. As has been shown by a section of historians, in certain areas the proprietary rights circulated among the traditional landed castes. Besides, newly landed magnates emerged from the declining castes. These successful taluqdars, who have been info 4described by some historians as the ‘new magnates’, succeeded in adjusting to the current situation. As a result of this, not only did they not Revolt, but they also exerted a sobering influence on their respective communities. Neither did all peasants suffer equally, for those in the fertile and well-irrigated areas managed to withstand the burden of over assessment unlike their counterparts in the backward regions, for whom in turn it was far more a sense of relative rather than absolute deprivation which proved to be the main cause of resentment. In fact, the only common trait binding all layers of the rural society was the suspicion of the British rule, allegedly threatening their religion. Thus it may be concluded that it is nearly impossible to provide a single causal explanation for such a large-scale event such as the Revolt of 1857, which was marked by several complexities, and hence it is extremely important to take into cognizance the multi-layered nature of this Revolt while discussing its backdrop as well.


  • Bandyopadhyay,Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009.
  • Chandra, Bipan. India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988.
  • Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858: A Study of Popular Resistance.  Delhi : Permanent Black, 1984.


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