The Indian Mutiny & Cawnpore Massacre

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Background to the Indian Mutiny: 1857 - 1859


The 1850's saw a deterioration in relations between the British officers and the Indian other ranks in the East India Company's Bengal Army. Many Indians believed that the British were seeking to destroy traditional Indian social, religious and cultural customs, a view shared by the sepoys of the Bengal Army, a substantial number of whom were high-caste Brahmins. Discipline, administration and command in the Bengal Army had for some time been inferior to that in the Company's other two armies and matters were brought to a head by the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. The rumour spread that its cartridges were greased with pig and cow fat, thus offending both Moslems and Hindus. In February 1857 the 19th (Bengal Native) Infantry refused to use the cartridges. They were quickly disbanded but their actions were to spark a chain of similar events through central and northern India.


The Mutiny began in earnest at Meerut on 10 May 1857 when 85 members of the 3rd (Bengal) Light Cavalry who had been imprisoned for refusing the cartridges were rescued by Indian comrades. The following day Delhi fell to the mutineers. News of these events spread rapidly, leading to further mutinies elsewhere. Eventually all ten Bengal Light Cavalry Regiments and most of the 74 Bengal Native Infantry Regiments were affected. Some

regiments were disarmed before they had the chance to mutiny while in other cases British officers simply refused to doubt the loyalty of their men until it was too late. Many local rulers supported the mutineers, having been alienated by the East India Company's annexation of native states. There were only 35,000 British soldiers in the whole sub-continent and these were widely scattered. Furthermore, reinforcements took months to arrive. Fortunately for the British the Mutiny was almost exclusively confined to the Bengal Army. The Company's Madras and Bombay Armies were relatively unaffected and other units, including Sikhs, Punjabi Moslems and Gurkhas, remained loyal.


The walled city of Delhi became the focal point of the Mutiny. It was the seat of Bahadur Shah, the aged Mughal Emperor, and it occupied a key strategic position between Calcutta and the new territories of the Punjab. The recapture of Delhi became a priority for the British. On 7 June 1857 a hastily-raised force of 4,000 men succeeded in occupying a ridge overlooking Delhi but was far too weak to attempt to retake the city itself. Faced by over 30,000 mutineers they came under increasing pressure themselves and began to suffer losses through cholera. However reinforcements gradually arrived from the Punjab, including a siege train of 32 guns and 2,000 men under Brigadier-General John Nicholson. By 14 September the British had about 9,000 men before Delhi. A third were British while the rest were Sikhs, Punjabis and Gurkhas. Breaches were made in the city walls, a gate was blown and after a week's vicious street fighting, Delhi was back under British control. Although operations continued until 1859, notably in central India, the recapture of Delhi proved a decisive factor in the suppression of the Mutiny.


When news of the Mutiny reached Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Oudh, he fortified the group of buildings that made up his Lucknow Residency and stockpiled supplies, ready for a siege. Lawrence had about 1,500 troops, half of them loyal Bengal sepoys, to defend the Residency and a similar number of civilians to protect. The Mutineers began attacking the Residency on 4 July 1857. Lawrence was killed almost immediately and command passed to Colonel John Inglis of the 32nd (The Cornwall) Regiment of Foot, which formed the main part of the British half of the garrison.

A relief force under Major-General Sir Henry Havelock fought its way into Lucknow on 25 September but was too weak to evacuate the defenders of the Residency. However a month later a stronger force under Lieutenant-General Sir Colin Campbell arrived and on 16 November his troops stormed the Secundra Bagh, a walled enclosure that barred the way to the Residency. Campbell's men had learned of the massacre at Cawnpore where over 200 British women and children had been butchered by mutineers. Enraged by this, they showed no mercy to the Secundra Bagh's 2,000 defenders, slaughtering all but a handful. On 22 November Campbell was able to evacuate the Residency. After routing a large rebel force under the rebel leader Tantia Topi outside Cawnpore on 6 December and clearing the area of Mutineers, Campbell returned to Lucknow in March and, reinforced by Gurkha troops sent by the King of Nepal, he finally recaptured the city.

The Aftermath

Following the Mutiny the East India Company was abolished by Act of Parliament and the government of India was transferred to the Crown. To ensure that British rule could never be threatened in such a way again the Indian Army was reorganised so that it needed its British components to function effectively. The Indian soldiers were issued with a rifle that was inferior to that of their British counterparts and given only limited logistical support. Control of the Indian Army's artillery remained firmly in British hands. In effect the Sepoys became auxiliaries to, rather than substitutes for, British soldiers.

The 'Indian Mutiny' : Main Events


May 10 Mutiny at Meerut
May 11 Europeans Massacred at Delhi
June 27 Cawnpore falls to the rebels. British prisoners massacred.
July 16 Mutineers defeated at Cawnpore
September 20 Delhi stormed by British forces
September 25 British relief force fights it's way into the bieseged Lucknow Residency but the seige continues.
November 16 Second British column breaks into Lucknow and evacuates the Residency


March 16 British recapture Lucknow.
June 19 British victory at Gwalior effectively ends the mutiny. Harsh reprisals against mutineers follow.


This article from an original published by The Education Forum.