Friday 20 May 2016

Guest Blog by Tom Williams: Indian Mutiny

Here’s a fascinating and erudite article by my friend, the novelist, Tom Williams who writes about the Napoleonic and Victorian eras. His most recent novel Back Home is set in Britain in 1859 and its hero also figures in an earlier novel, Cawnpore. The latter is set in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 and it is on this historical event that he focuses here. Tom draws some very interesting parallels with our own time.You can find more about him at the end of the piece – I trust you’ll enjoy it! 

Does the Indian Mutiny have any lessons for today?

It's probably helpful to start by asking what the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 was. For starters, it wasn't a mutiny.

British India 1856 - it included
modern Pakistan and Bangladesh
Yes, everything kicked off at Meerut when Indian soldiers – known as Sepoys – refused musket drill using the new cartridges which, it had been claimed, were greased with both pig and beef fat. So they were mutineers. But, contrary to the way that we think about it now, the East India Company's army mutinied all the time. The refusals to obey orders were usually treated as localised difficulties and life moved on with no perceptible impact on the machinery of colonial government. This mutiny was different and to understand why, we need to look at the political background.

When the British first started to gain ascendancy in India they were regarded as just one of many political powers in the land. Many local rulers made alliances with them. Relations between the two communities were generally friendly. Intermarriage between British soldiers and Indian women was common and tacitly encouraged by the East India Company. European officers would join in Hindu ceremonies, piling their swords alongside the sepoys’ muskets to be blessed by the holy man. British soldiers and administrators were fascinated by the country they had come to rule and adopted many local customs – as reflected in our 21st century English vocabulary and our most popular choice of Friday night eating.

The British relied on Indian soldiers for their security. These men came from warrior castes and were happy to serve any masters who respected their martial prowess and led them to victory. This the British, at least initially, did.
6th Madras Light Cavalry Sowar (cavalry equivalent of Sepoy)
 By the middle of the 19th century things were changing. A significant factor in this was the role of the missionaries. Christian organisations in England had decided that the British Empire could be a force for good if it Christianised its colonies. Missionaries duly arrived in India and started to tell the locals that their Muslim God and their Hindu deities were abominations unto the Lord and that they should adopt Christianity. To make things worse, some senior British officers joined in this proselytization. Their troops began to feel under pressure to convert. There were even remarkable rumours, including one that British women were being shipped en masse to India where Indian men would be forced to convert to Christianity and marry them. 
"A Sale of English-beauties, in the East Indies" by James Gillray
Published by William Holland, hand-coloured etching and aquatiint, 16th May 1786
(with acknowledgement to the National Portrait Gallery, London)
Given the famous “fishing fleets”, in which young women came out every year to net themselves a husband in the colonial administration, perhaps the idea did not appear as obviously unrealistic to the locals as it seems to us now. In any case, what mattered was not what was true, but what was believed to be true. This is particularly the case with the famous cartridges.

Most people with even the slightest knowledge of the Indian Mutiny will know that it was triggered when troops were ordered to use cartridges which, it was claimed, had been greased with pig and beef fat. The standard way of using a cartridge was to bite the end off the waxed paper that surrounded the ball and the powder. The use of these animal fats meant that "biting the bullet" was forbidden to both Hindus and Muslims. The insistence that they do so led to a refusal to obey orders at the large British base at Meerut and everything went rather downhill from there. Historians nowadays can find no evidence that pig or beef fat was used in the cartridges – which is not to say that it was not, but simply that people chose to believe this in the absence of any clear facts one way or the other. 
David Ochterloney, a famously well-assimilated Englishman and his Indian household
(a scene increasingly uncommon as the 19th Century progressed)
The move to Christianise India went alongside a general decline in respect for Indian customs. Indian soldiers believed that they would lose caste if they served overseas, and this had always been recognised, but now there were rumours that the British might order Indian regiments abroad. (Remember that we were fighting in Crimea at the time.) Indian soldiers began to feel that their traditions were not respected. European officers were now discouraged from taking Indian wives. The easy relations between the two cultures were breaking down.

At the same time, put simply, the British were getting greedy. As they had taken over more and more of India, the British came to believe that they simply had a right to all of it. Lands were seized on flimsier and flimsier pretexts. This came to a head with the Doctrine of Lapse. The British argued that where they had an arrangement with a local ruler to maintain control of his own lands, this would lapse when his line died out. This, in itself, was an uncertain moral or legal position to take, but it was made massively worse because the British insisted that they would recognise only natural heirs. Traditionally, in the absence of a male heir Indian rulers had adopted children. It was well understood in India that such an adopted child had clear rights to inherit. The British simply refused to accept this. This obviously led to considerable unhappiness amongst the Indians. Although the British had seized control of states where there was no male heir as early as 1824, the doctrine was introduced as official policy in 1848. Significantly, the important state of Oudh was seized under this doctrine in 1856. The Mutiny, of course, was in 1857.

By early 1857, there were clear signs of unrest in India. Europeans were bewildered but frightened by incidents like those of the chapattis (circular unleavened flatbread). Chapattis would be carried from village to village, the recipient being required to bake more and pass them on in the same way. Some sort of message, presumably, was being spread with these apparently innocuous offerings, but nobody to this day knows exactly what the message was. Lotus flowers were sometimes passed amongst military units in the same way. Unlike the chapattis the message here seems clearer: the lotus flower was a symbol of war. Incidents like this were accompanied with rumours that 1857 was to be "a red year" with the implication that it would be a year of bloodletting. 1857 was, in any case, potentially dangerous simply because of a real or imagined Indian obsession with celebrating anniversaries. 1857 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Plassey where Clive of India began the process of imposing British rule. Many people believed that a hundred years after Plassey, the British would be driven out as dramatically as they had arrived.

Against this background came the rumours of the grease on the cartridges. As I've mentioned, there is no clear evidence that beef or pig fat ever was used and once the rumours started specific orders were sent to the arsenal at Dum Dum, where the cartridges were made up, insisting that no objectionable animal products be included. So the refusal of troops to ‘bite the bullet’ was not a random act of disobedience, but the response to long-term political agitation. Nor was this all one-sided. The man who gave the order, the splendidly named Col George Monro Carmichael-Smyth was making his own political point, insisting on parading his men and drilling him with the new cartridges at a time when wiser heads in the Company’s army were advocating that the issue be allowed to die away.
"The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut", as depicted by the Illustrated London News
So the action at Meerut was a political event. At first, technically, it was a mutiny, but the failure to see it in its wider context led quickly to disaster. The troops did not vanish away into the countryside: they marched in ordered ranks to put themselves at the service of the Mogul Emperor in Delhi. At this point, the Mutiny was already taking on the appearance of an uprising. Local rulers, like Nana Sahib, the villain (for want of a better word) of my novel, Cawnpore, saw the opportunity to re-establish their power while the British, deprived of the support of their native troops, were weakened. 
The first massacre at Cawnpore - after surrender, British families were allowed to leave
by river, but many were murdered as their boats departed
One of the first acts of the rebels in many places (including Cawnpore) was to open the jails. So beside the mutinying troops and the various forces of the native rulers, many of those who joined in the fighting were local convicts who simply saw an opportunity to profit from the general unrest. Thus natives who were associated with the British (such as Christians or other Eurasians) were often attacked and murdered, less to achieve military or political goal than because their attackers could then loot their property. With an almost complete breakdown of law and order and mass conflict spreading across huge areas of the country, there was an opportunity for many old scores to be settled.
Contemporary impression of second massacre at Cawnpore -woman and children the victims
Within a remarkably short time, much of north-west India was in revolt, in a conflict which is called, in India, the Indian War of Independence. What we don’t notice at this distance (and with the benefit of hindsight) is how close this came to defeating the British.

So: are there any lessons?

The key point to be aware of is that, although British troops (and Indian troops who remain loyal) performed logistical wonders and acts of great bravery, they were salvaging a situation which would not have arisen if there had been a more intelligent political understanding of the country in the first place. Unrest had grown because of the breakdown in the easy communication between Indians and Europeans. By 1857 the European political and military leaders had little idea of the mood of India. If they had, it is likely that, for example, the Doctrine of Lapse would not have been applied so ruthlessly.

From the point of view of the army, it is easy to consider that the mistakes were primarily made by politicians, but the military had to accept responsibility too – and at all ranks. Senior officers (like Col Carmichael-Smyth) misjudged the situation and junior officers – many of them having arrived in India with nothing but contempt for the “niggers” (yes, the obnoxious term was used of Indians – although older and wiser heads considered this offensive) could easily make bad situations worse. At Cawnpore (I use its 1857 Anglicised name – nowadays it's Kanpur), where the garrison was under the command of General Hugh Wheeler, the situation was already tense when a drunken 21-year-old European who recently left the Army under a cloud shot at a native patrol which had legitimately challenged him. At his trial the next day, it was accepted that his weapon had gone off accidentally, a decision that did not impress the men who had been shot at. Two days later the troops at Cawnpore mutinied. Probably they would have mutinied anyway, but it's far from certain.

Major General John Nicholson -

worshipped as Nikal Seyn
One of the things that becomes very clear to anyone who reads the history of the Mutiny is the importance of the relationship between officers and men. While many regiments in the north west of the country mutinied, some stayed loyal, often because of the affection that they felt for their commanders. The Indian Mutiny was, to a quite remarkable degree, a story of the successes and failures of officers to inspire loyalty in their own men and the wider population. For example, a crucial reason for the failure of the rebellion was that the rebels were not supported by the Afghan tribes, which could easily have used the situation to cross the frontier and challenge the British within the borders of India. This was largely due to the respect that the Afghanis had for John Nicholson, who may have been mad and with a sadistic streak, but who some of the locals worshipped as a god. (If the Internet is to be believed, he was still being worshipped in some of the more remote parts of Pakistan into the 1980s.)

Have we learned from this in the intervening 150 years? Quite possibly not. In 2009, the Financial Times carried a story claiming that: “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no Pashto speakers and only a third of the Dari speakers it deems necessary to operate in Afghanistan.” Apparently it was okay not to have any Pashto speakers as: “According to the FCO’s own assessment, it requires no Pashto speakers to work effectively in Afghanistan, even though it is the main language of Helmand province.” So our senior politicians and diplomats don’t see any necessity to learn the language of countries where we have military operations. At the other end of the line of command, a search for the word “raghead” on the Army rumour service produced 192 hits. So the combination of ignorance and obvious contempt that contributed to the disaster of the Indian Mutiny still seems alive and well.

A lack of awareness of local sensitivities can lead to incidents such as the shooting at the gates of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, where a misjudgement by private soldiers led to the death of an Afghan soldier with potentially serious political implications.

The modern army is probably more aware than in the past that winning hearts and minds can be as important as winning the actual physical conflict, but these incidents and the attitudes behind them suggest that the strategic awareness of this necessity does not necessarily translate to the situation on the ground any better now than in 1857.

What about the actual fighting? I am not a soldier so as far as military strategy goes, I will limit myself to two remarks. The first is the importance of communications. The telegraph had only recently been introduced into India, but its use proved critical. The telegraph clerk in Delhi gave his life to get out the warning that the insurrection had started there and this resulted in the British being able to respond much more quickly than would have been the case otherwise. The mutineers were probably aware of the importance of telegraph and cut the wires in the areas they controlled, but the message had already got out and the machinery of a military response was already in motion. The Indian Mutiny is therefore notable as the first major conflict in which electronic communication proved a decisive factor. The ability to communicate effectively remains crucial today.
A mixed body of mutineers and what appear to be civilian supporters on the march
The second point is that the British response to the Mutiny was handicapped by the fact that India was regarded as pacified and safe and we therefore had a totally inadequate level of military preparedness. We relied excessively on native infantry, essentially because this was an awful lot cheaper than using Europeans. We also promoted entirely on seniority with the result that some key positions were filled by generals intellectually or physically clearly incapable of the task. One young officer claims that he served under a brigadier so blind that when he reviewed his troops he could not tell which direction they were facing.

When the Mutiny broke out, there just weren't enough troops and many of those that there were available were badly commanded. My own feeling is that history has judged General Wheeler’s actions rather cruelly, but some of his decisions do not seem to have been particularly wise and, at the age of 68, he certainly lacked the stamina for the situation he found himself in. After the death of his son, who served as his aide de camp, he had some sort of breakdown and was effectively incapable of command.

Critically, we were able to divert troop ships that were on their way to fight a colonial war in China. We also still had troops in Crimea, left over from the war there that had finished the previous year. Although reinforcements were sent out from England, they would have been too late to decisively affect the critical initial stages of the war. The implication, I think, now as then, is that you cannot have an army that plans for peace. While everybody in India had hoped for peace – and expected peace – it was the duty of the Army to have prepared for war. The lessons for today are, I think, self-evident.


The Indian Mutiny Julian Spilsbury: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2007)
Our Bones Are Scattered Andrew Ward: John Murray (1996)
Afghan mission lacks language skills Alex Barker  

About Tom Williams

Tom Williams lives in the 21st century and isn't sure he belongs there. When he's not writing about the 19th century, he likes to dance tango and street skate. You might think that roller-blading is a very 21st century activity, but the first in-line skates were patented in 1760. Tom is the sort of person who knows stuff like that.


  1. Fascinating stuff Tom, always enjoy your writing and rich descriptions and the amount of research you must do makes your work a joy to read. Wishing you much continued success. So wonderful to read all this and see the illustrations too :) xx