History of the British East Indian Company and the Sepoy Mutiny Part 1

About the history of the Sepoy mutiny against the British East Indian Company in India.



Background. The British East Indian Company had ruled India for 99 years when, in 1856, retiring Governor-General Lord Dalhousie stated, "I trust that I am guilty of no presumption in saying that I shall leave the Indian empire in peace without and within." Dalhousie was quite presumptive, for a year later the entire Ganges Valley was the scene of rebellion, massacre, and reprisal.

Using the Mogul puppet-emperor, the East India Company governed one third of India, while economically controlling the rest of the country. This British company had angered Indians by dethroning native rulers, seizing the property of landowners, and pushing its projects of "modernization." Considering Indian religions and customs barbaric, the British officials had further inflamed Indian sentiments by banning suttee (widow burning), suppressing the Thugs (a sect of sacred assassins), and proposing an end to the caste system.

Indian dissatisfaction with British policy became most pronounced in the East Indian Company's own private army. This army consisted of 46,000 British and 223,000 native soldiers, known as sepoys. The sepoys composed the lower ranks: British officers commanded them. Antagonized by the affronts to their religions and cultures, the sepoys of the Bengal Army in northern India were increasingly suspicious of their British officers. Rumors circulated throughout the ranks that the British planned forced conversion to Christianity. Through ignorance, the British fanned the embers of mutiny by proposing that sepoys serve overseas--not realizing that if a Hindu crossed saltwater, he lost his caste status. Finally, the growing hostility of the sepoys exploded into mutiny because of grease-covered cartridges.

The Mutiny. In 1857 the sepoys were issued new Enfield rifles, which required grease-coated cartridges. The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before the rifle could be loaded. Soon thereafter, an "untouchable" Hindu who worked in an arsenal asked a high-caste Hindu sepoy of the Second Bengal Grenadiers for a drink from his canteen. The sepoy refused, saying the "untouchable" would defile his water. The arsenal worker retorted that the sepoy had already defiled himself by biting the Enfield cartridge, which was covered with cow fat. Immediately, the rumor spread among the sepoys that the new cartridges were greased with the fat of cows (sacred to Hindus) and pigs (forbidden to Muslims). After the mutiny, an investigation showed that the grease did contain cow fat but not pig fat.

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