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The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 Shook British Rule in India


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Violence Spread During the Sepoy Mutiny
Indian sepoys being disarmed by their British officers.

Indian sepoys being disarmed by their British officers.

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On March 29, 1857, on the parade ground at Barrackpore, a sepoy named Mangal Pandey fired the first shot of the uprising. His unit in the Bengal Army, which had refused to use the new rifle cartridges, was about to be disarmed and punished. And Pandey shot a British sergeant-major and a lieutenant.

In the altercation, Pandey was surrounded by British troops and shot himself in the chest. He survived, and was put on trial and hanged on April 8, 1857.

As the mutiny spread, the British began called mutineers "pandies." And Pandey, it should be noted, is considered a hero in India, and has been portrayed as a freedom fighter in films and even on an Indian postage stamp.

Major Incidents of the Sepoy Mutiny

Throughout May and June 1857 more units of Indian troops mutinied against the British. Sepoy units in the south of India remained loyal, but in the north, many units of the Bengal Army turned on the British. And the uprising became extremely violent.

Particular incidents became notorious:

  • Meerut and Delhi: In a large military camp (called a cantonment) at Meerut, near Delhi, a number of sepoys refused to use the new rifle cartridges in early May 1857. The British stripped them of their uniforms and put them in chains.

    Other sepoys revolted on May 10, 1857, and things quickly became chaotic as mobs attacked British civilians, including women and children.

    Mutineers traveled the 40 miles to Delhi and soon the large city erupted in a violent revolt against the British. A number of British civilians in the city were able to flee, but many were slaughtered. And Delhi remained in rebel hands for months.

  • Cawnpore: A particularly horrific incident known as the Cawnpore Massacre occurred when British officers and civilians, leaving the city of Cawnpore (present day Kanpur) under a flag of surrender were attacked.

    The British men were killed, and about 210 British women and children were taken prisoner. A local leader, Nana Sahib, ordered their death. When sepoys, abiding by their military training, refused to kill the prisoners, butchers were recruited from local bazaars to do the killing.

    The women, children, and infants were murdered, and their bodies thrown into a well. When the British eventually took back Cawnpore and discovered the site of the massacre, it inflamed the troops and led to vicious acts of retribution.

  • Lucknow: At the town of Lucknow about 1,200 British officers and civilians fortified themselves against 20,000 mutineers in the summer of 1857. By late September British forces commanded by Sir Henry Havelock succeeded in breaking through.

    However, Havelock's forces did not have the strength to evacuate the British at Lucknow, and were forced to join the besieged garrison. Another British column, led by Sir Colin Campbell, eventually fought through to Lucknow and were able to evacuate the women and children, and ultimately the entire garrison.

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