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Sepoy Rebellion

of India 1857

One of the most well-known uprisings during the British colonization of India was a mutiny of the native troops known as "sepoys".   When it began on Sunday, May 10, 1857 the Sepoy rebellion was a complete surprise to the British, many of whom were "blind to the unrest that had been created, in part, by the rapid imposition of direct British control over two-thirds of India" [1].  The campaign to suppress the revolt lasted until April 1859 [2].  

Return to "India under British Rule" Chronology

The British East India Company began recruiting native citizens as troops in 1667, in order to maintain control during their trading operations.  In 1748, the British government followed suit and began recruiting and training Indians to fight with their weaponry and methods.  The Indian units were called "native sepoys" and soon became the largest part of the British forces in India, eventually outnumbering European troops ten to one [3].

After Britain had gained two-thirds of India's land and imperialism had begun to affect every part of Indian life (whether by technology like the telegraph, evangelical missionary efforts, or administrative and land ownership reform), there was an incredible amount of tension that only needed a small spark to set off a huge revolt.  There had been minor outbreaks within the sepoy ranks before 1857, but these had all been quickly and brutally suppressed.  The "spark" that came to begin this period of revolts was the introduction of the new, more accurate breech-loading Enfield rifle.  The loading of these rifles entailed the biting of a greased cartridge, which the sepoys feared was made with either cow or pig fat - "the first, from an animal sacred to the Hindus, and the second from an animal held unclean by the Muslims.  The Hindu sepoys saw this as an attempt to break their caste as a preliminary to making them all Christians" [4].  The Muslim troops were disgusted and no less insulted than the Hindus: the revolts were about to happen.

The first event was the bloody uprising at the garrison in Meerut, in which the mutineers murdered every European they found.  Then they marched to Delhi and "placed themselves under the leadership of the impotent and bewildered Mogul Emperor Bahadur Shah" [5].    Throughout May and June the idea of mutiny spread through the Ganges valley, the Rajputna, Central India, and parts of Bengal.  "By June, Cawnpore had surrendered to Nana Sahib, and Lucknow, the only British-held outpost in Oudh, was besieged" [6].  On July 17 it was discovered that 200 European men, women, and children had been murdered a month earlier in the mutiny and siege at Cawnpore.  Vengeance was swift and harsh: suspected mutineers were tied to cannons and executed.  "In six months, the mutiny had been broken, and, within the next year, British power was restored" [7].  These rebellions would be remembered later by some Indian freedom fighters as the first stages of the struggle for independence from colonialism - whether they were related to later uprisings or not, the sepoy rebellions certainly sent a message to the British that demanded to be heard.




[1] Olson, James S. and Robert Shadle, v. 1.

[2] Edwardes.

[3] Olson, James S. and Robert Shadle, v. 2.

[4] Edwardes.

[5] Olson, James S. and Robert Shadle, v. 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harappan Civilization




Edwardes, Michael, Battles of the Indian Mutiny (London; B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1963) pp. 7-19.

Olson, James S. and Shadle, Robert, eds.  Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, v. 1  (Westport, Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 1996) pp. 566-568.

Olson, James S. and Shadle, Robert, eds.  Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, v. 2  (Greenwood Press, 1996) pp. 995-996. Sepoy Rebellion of India Sepoy Mutiny



Researched and Written By:
Maria Elde
HIST 2260: The Modern World

Text © 2016 by ThenAgain.  All rights reserved.