How the events unfolded and Main Centers and events of the revolt:
After obtaining crucial victories in two major battles i.e. Battle of Plassey against Siraj ud Daula (Nawab of Bengal) in 1757 and the Battle of Buxar against the combine of Mir Qasim (Nawab of Bengal) & Shuja ud Daula (Nawab of Awadh) in 1764, the coast was clear for the British East India Company to establish and emerge as the supreme power in India.
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Soon after, the East India Company started consolidating their strong holds and built huge military garrisons stationing armies comprising of British and Indian soldiers. Though the rebellion of the Indian sepoys against their British officers started on full scale with the onset of revolt in the Meerut Cantonment on 9th May 1857, prior to that there were several fierce battles fought by the Company who had to face massive opposition by the Maratha Empire and the kingdom of Mysore.
The strength of The East India Company was furthered bolstered by victories in Anglo-Mysore Wars (1766-1799) against the Mysore kingdom headed by Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan and The Anglo–Maratha Wars (1775–1818).against Empire. These victories helped the Company to acquire control on vast territories in Western, Central and South India. Apart from these there were many sporadic incidents of uprising at several places in the country.
These expansionist policies of the Company and their growing interference and control on Indian rulers gave angered the native rulers who fought against the Company. Among them, was Kittur Rani Chennamma, the brave warrior queen who led an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in 1824 but was defeated in the battle field by the cunningness of the Company’s commanders who connived with some of the traitors in the Kittur army? The Kittur queen was taken prisoner and she breathed her last in Bylahongal jail near Belgaum.
First instance of such large-scale and violent mutiny by Indian sepoys against the East India Company took place on 10 July 1806 in one British garrison at Vellore, a small city in south India, which came to be known as “The Vellore mutiny”. This episode was predating the First Indian War of Independence 1857 by half a century. But the British suppressed the revolt by bringing additional forces from nearby Arcot garrison and most severe punishment was meted out to the mutineers and their leaders. Meanwhile the Company continued its policy of annexing territories either by waging wars against the small princely states or by entering into a series of military treaties offering to protect their kingdom from their enemies. Thus majority of small kingdoms in the country became vassal states under the East India Company.
Beginning of revolt
Behrampur (Odissa) – 26th Feb 1857 and Barrackpur (Bengal) – 26th March 1857
So resentment, hatred and discontent was brewing steadily among the Indian sepoys as well as the civilian population against the East India Company and they were looking at the right opportune moment to revolt. On 26th Feb 1857 Sepoys of the 19th Native Infantry at Berhampur (Odisha) refused rifle practice as they believed that the cartridges used in the riffles were wrapped in thick paper greased with pig fat and cow fat both of which are an anathema to the sentiments of Muslim and Hindu sepoys respectively.
Soon this news spread among various British garrisons and on 29th March 1857 in Barrackpore in Bengal, a young Indian sepoy Mangal Pandey attacked and wounded two British officers and Indian soldiers of 34th Native Infantry mutinied and refused the orders to restrain and arrest him…The sepoy Mangal Panday wounded himself while trying to kill himself. Next day he was tried in a military court accused of treason and was hanged. The 34th native Infantry was disbanded as the British feared of continued revolt.
But this failed to suppress spreading of revolt to other places starting with Meerut Cantonment. Thus The Meerut Mutiny (May 9, 1857) marked the beginning of the Revolt of 1857 or The First War of Independence, as it is popularly called. It was widespread but unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India during the period 1857–59. Begun in Meerut by Indian soldiers in the service of the British East India Company, it spread to Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow and Bihar.
Lord canning was the governor general at that time.
The news of the hanging of, Mangal Pandey, for attacking his officers in Barrackpore reached Meerut army Cantonment. Few days later, some sepoys of the regiment at Meerut refused to do the army drill using the new cartridges, which were suspected of being coated with the fat of cows and pigs. The rebel sepoys were dismissed from service and sentenced to ten years in jail for disobeying their officers. The response of the other Indian soldiers in Meerut to this harsh act of the Company was quite spontaneous.
Next day, the soldiers marched to the Military jail in Meerut, broke open it and released the imprisoned sepoys while attacking and killing their British officers. Large number of guns and ammunitions were captured and the rebels set fire to the buildings and properties of the British declaring a war on the British East India Company. The soldiers in rebellious mood were determined to bring an end to their rule in the country. But what is the alternative? The soldiers themselves found an answer to this question – the aged Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who in fact was reigning over small territory around red fort in Delhi. On May 10, they marched to Delhi.
The sepoys of Meerut rode in large numbers towards Delhi and reached there on 11th May 1857 as news of their arrival spread, the regiments stationed in Delhi also rose up in rebellion. In unison they attacked and killed the British officers seizing arms and ammunition, setting buildings on fire. Jubilient soldiers gathered around the walls of the Red Fort where the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar lived, demanding to meet him hailing him as their “Badshaw”. The emperor was quite reluctant to challenge the mighty British power but the soldiers persisted. They forced their way into the palace and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader. Finally the emperor acquiesced and gave in.
He sent letters of appeal to the other princes and nawabs requesting their support to fight the British. To the surprise of British, the emperor’s appeal received considerable support and many native rulers. Each for his own reasons offered to join the rebellion. Marhata leader Nana Saheb at Kanpur declared himself as Peshwa and proclaimed that he will fight the British in support of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Thanthya Tope joined Nana saheb as his commander. Another brave warrior Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and the son of Oudh’s Nawab Wajid Ali II along with his mother Begum Hazarat Mahal, both victims of Lord Dalhousie’s policy of “Doctrine Of Lapse” , a draconian act. Thus the appeal of the emperor gave an unexpected fillip to the rebellion much to the chagrin of British who thought that the “Cartridge Controversy “will fizzle out.
In Delhi the mutineers were joined by the Delhi sepoys and the city came under the rebel’s control. Next day, they proclaimed the ageing Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of Hindustan. But unfortunately Bahadur Shah was very old and reluctant. Not surprisingly he could not give any able leadership to the sepoys making it difficult for the Indian soldiers to hold on to the occupation of Delhi. The rebel sepoys was short-lived.
The British finally brought reinforcements from Punjab, Bengal attacked Delhi in September. Severe fighting lasted for a week. Despite brave and desperate fighting by the rebel forces, they lost. By September 1857, the British reoccupied Delhi. Thousands of innocent people were massacred and hundreds were hanged. The Mughal emperor was captured was exiled to Rangoon after a travesty of a trial where he was charged with sedition against his own empire. His sons were shot dead before his eyes. After deportation to Burma the old king was imprisoned there with his queen and he died in 1862... Thus ended the imperial dynasty of the Mughals. Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India and this set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the drain of wealth from India bringing it down from being one of the richest economies in the world to being one of the poorest.
The recapture of Delhi, however, did not mean that the rebellion died down after that. People continued to resist and battle the British. The British had to fight for long to suppress the massive forces of popular rebellion. The rebellion had spread to Lucknow which was the capital of Awadh. The state was annexed in the previous year by Company under their policy of “Doctrine of Lapse”. This policy of “doctrine of Lapse” had caused great resentment among the Indian rulers and their subjects .The rebellious sepoys in Lucknow joined the disbanded soldiers from the old Awadh army. Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of the begums of the ex-king of Awadh, took up the leadership of the revolt. Sir Henry Lawrence was the commissioner of Luknow at that time and on 30 June 1857 under his orders, the British fought against the rebel forces at Chinhut and were defeated and they retreated in great disorder to Residency on the outskirts of Lucknow... The rebels now besieged the Residency.
Lawrence was killed in the siege by a shell explosion...A relief force under Major-General Sir Henry Havelock failed to evacuate the besieged British army and civilians in the residency. Another relief force on 16 November 1857 under Sir Colin Campbell relief arrived. They stormed the Secundra Bagh, a walled enclosure that barred the way to the Residency. The British artillery opened a breach and the infantry stormed inside. In fierce fighting, they killed hundreds of rebels. After a week’s fierce fighting, Campbell was finally able to evacuate the Residency. Then Campbell ‘forces attacked the city of Lucknow, blasting their way through the city’s buildings while his infantry engaged the rebels in bitter hand-to-hand fighting.
The Nawab of Oudh's palace was captured and looted, but many of its defenders escaped into the countryside. Finally the British forces captured Lucknow on 14 March 1858. The queen Hazarath mahal escaped to Nepal
Nana Saheb, was the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II. He joined the revolt primarily because he was deprived of his pension by the British after the death of Peshwa Baji Rao II. In June 1857 the sepoys at Kanpur rebelled under the leadership of Nana Saheb and laid siege to Major General Hugh Wheeler’s garrison. Nana Saheb captured Kanpur and proclaimed himself as the “Peshwa.” and declared that Bahaddur Shaw Zafar was his emperor.
When Nana Saheb learnt that a British relief force was approaching Kanpur, he offered Wheeler in the garrison, a safe passage for his officers and civilians downstream to Allahabad. It was not clear whether it was pre-planned ambush or just happened at the spur of the moment by excited rebels. Nevertheless the British boarded waiting boats and were then fired upon mercilessly. Any men who survived the ambush were immediately killed. About 120 women and children were imprisoned. They were murdered and their bodies thrown down a well when it was heard the British were approaching under Major-General Sir Henry Havelock to assist General Campbell. The victory was short- lived.
The British defeated Nana saheb’s men and held Kanpur until November, When Lieutenant-General Sir Colin Campbell marched most of its garrison to Lucknow, and He left behind a small detachment under Brigadier Charles Windham. Meanwhile Nana Sahib's commander, Tantya Tope, had gathered an army to recapture the city. Windham drove off Tantya's advance guard and held on to the city until Campbell returned from Lucknow and joined him. Together they fought a fierce battle against Nana Saheb’s forces commanded by his general Thantya Tope finally defeating them on 6th December 1857 recapturing Kanpur .All the revolt in the city was suppressed with terrible vengeance. The rebels were either hanged or blown to pieces by canons. Nana Saheb escaped. But his brilliant commander Tatya Tope continued the struggle. Tatyaa Tope was finally defeated,
In Jhansi, the 22 year-old Maratha Queen Rani Lakshmi Bai alias Manikarnika Tambe led the rebels when the British refused to accept the claim of her adopted son (named Gangadhar) to the throne of Jhansi. The British stormed and looted Jhansi killing thousands of defenders. Lakshmi Bai after personally leading a counter-attack fought gallantly against the British forces. But she was ultimately defeated by the English. On 3 April 1858.
Rani Lakshmi Bai escaped. Later on, the she was joined by Tatya Tope and together they marched to Gwalior and captured it. Sindhia, a loyal ally of the British, was driven out. Fierce fighting followed. Though Rani of Jhansi fought like a tigress, she was defeated. Fighting to the very end she died on 17th June 1858 at near Kalpi. Rani Lakshmi Bai became a martyr and legend in Indian History. The British officer Hurose quoted in his diary that “she was the only man among the rebels”.
Gwalior was recaptured by the British on 19 June 1858.Tantia Tope escaped to the jungles of central India and continued to fight a guerrilla war with the support of many tribal and peasant leaders. He was captured, tried for treason and was hanged by British in April 1859.
In Bihar the revolt was led by Kunwar Singh who belonged to the royal house of Jagdishpur, He was the leader of Landlords and joined the call for revolt by rebel forces. He was the chief organiser of the fight against the British in Bihar Though a very old man in his eighties, he fought valiantly against Bihar for nearly a year and died on 26 April 1858.
After the British East India Company’s army’s forces suppressed the rebellion of the Indian soldiers at major centres of Delhi, Agra, Bareilly, Kanpur, Lucknow and Arrah. It was easy for them to put down small sporadic incidents which took place in several parts of Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra. Thus the first war of Indian Independence ended unsuccessfully.