Updated December 20, 2022
The great revolt of 1857 is considered as the first war of independence for India. However, 1857 rebellion is also seen as the culmination of many big and small local rebellions that had occurred in the preceding years of British rule. There were several preceding events that influenced the 1857 Uprising.
As we all know 1857 revolt was first collective protest against the policies of British rule, it sent shock waves to British crown. consequently in the aftermath of the revolt you would see enactment of many legislations all aiming to consolidate the power of crown and a futile attempt to instill confidence in people at large
A Primer on Great Revolt of 1857
It is no denying fact that The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a massive protest against the rule of the British administered by East India Company. The company functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.
The rebellion began on 10 May 1857 in the form of a mutiny of sepoys of the Company’s army in the garrison town of Meerut, 40 mi (64 km) northeast of Delhi (now Old Delhi). It then erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions chiefly in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, though incidents of revolt also occurred farther north and east.
The rebellion posed a considerable threat to British power in that region and was contained only with the rebels’ defeat in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. On 1 November 1858, the British granted amnesty to all rebels not involved in murder. However, they did not declare the end of hostilities until 8 July 1859.
Terms for great revolt is contested, and it is variously described. You can find the revolt as the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurrection, and the First War of Independence.
Whatever be the title of this great struggle, it manifested a strong opposition to British rule by bringing together all forces, opposing each other usually. Close examination of history shows that the seeds of the 1857 revolt were sown in the smaller protests occurred in early years and they all acted as a potboiler for the massive 1857.
The Preceding Events Influencing the 1857 Revolt
We will through all previous rebellions big or small one by one and see how could they have influence an upcoming major revolt.
The Sepoy Mutinies
The opposition to British rule from the sepoys was quite evident through the previous protests that occurred before the 1857 uprising. The mutinies such as Vellore mutiny in 1806, Bengal mutiny in 1764, etc. showed that anger was brewing inside the armed sepoys. The anger came out blazing when events like the Royal Enfield rifles controversy occurred. The Sepoy Mutiny was a violent and very bloody uprising against British rule in India in 1857. It is also known by other names: the Indian Mutiny, the 1857 uprising, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the Indian Revolt of 1857.
People of both sides have a different perspective over sepoy mutiny, on one hand where Britain and in the West, it was almost always portrayed as a series of unreasonable and bloodthirsty uprisings spurred by falsehoods about religious insensitivity while on other hand, in India, it has been viewed quite differently. The 1857 uprising have been considered the first outbreak of an independence movement against British rule.
The uprising was put down, but the methods employed by the British were so harsh that many in the western world were offended. One common punishment was to tie mutineers to the mouth of a cannon and then fire the cannon, completely obliterating the victim.
A popular American illustrated magazine, “Ballou’s Pictorial”, published a full-page woodcut illustration showing the preparations for such execution in its issue of October 3, 1857. In the illustration, a mutineer was depicted chained to the front of a British cannon, awaiting his imminent execution, as others were gathered to watch the grisly spectacle.
The Tribal Rebellions
Tribal movements or rebellions or uprising in India were inspired by revolutionary tendencies. They wanted to make use of the situation to fight and eliminate evils and ill-tendencies that existed in the contemporary tribal society. The tribals opposing British intervention in their lands rose up in form of uprisings such as Santhal rebellion, Munda Rebellion, Kol Mutiny, etc. The short-term success gained by tribals coaxed them to fight against the British.
Tribal communities revolted more often and far more violently than any other community, including peasants, in India. The insurgency of the Adivasis was a deliberate and desperate way to escape from the clutches of extortionate usurers, venal police, irresponsible officials, and the like.
Among the numerous tribal revolts in British India, few stand out. The Santhal ‘hool’ was one of them. In 1855-56, the Santhals, living between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal, rose in revolt against the dikes or outsiders. Their courageous insurrection was brutally crushed by the British Army. While providing anecdotal evidence of tribal uprisings, it shall be difficult not to underscore Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan or Great Tumult in the region south of Ranchi in 1899-1900. Birsa’s hymns of hate against the then Europeans and the Thikadars still reverberate.
Apart from these, the Chenchu revolt in the Nallamalai Hills (1898), the upsurge of the Oraons of Chotanagpur (1914), and the fituri led by Alluri Sitarama Raju (1922-24) were also significant.
The Civil Rebellions
The civil rebellion began as British rule was established in Bengal and Bihar and they occurred one after the other in different areas as the foreign rule started extending its reach. There was hardly a year without armed opposition or a decade without a major armed rebellion in one part of the country or other. From 1763 to 1856, there were more than forty major rebellions, apart from minor ones.
The major cause of all these civil rebellions, taken as a whole, was the expeditious change in British policy, economy, administration, and land revenue system. The avidity to collect land revenue and reap as large amount as possible produced a catastrophe in an Indian village.
The umbrage and unhappiness of the farmers were due to their exploitation. Though land revenue was collected by them, not even a part of that was spent on the development of agriculture or the welfare of cultivators. The New court and legal system gave a further fillip to the dispossessors of land and encouraged the rich to oppress the poor.
The Religious Opposition
Many orthodox sections believed that the British were interfering in their religious faith. This made them support the rebellion of 1857. The religious groups were both Hindu and Islamic. And one of the major reasons for the revolt was the socio-religious policies of the British which included racial superiority and discrimination, missionary activities, and deliberate efforts to subvert the religious beliefs of the people in India.
This created a kind of discontentment and distrust among the people against the British rule. It seemed to the people that their socio-religious customs that they cherished and held sacred were being destroyed by the British. This created a kind of discontentment and distrust among the people against the British rule.
Racial superiority was also major among all the socio-religious causes which created Religious opposition against British rule. British were guided by the assumption that they belonged to a superior race. They also used this assumption to justify the political enslavement of India and its people. British administrative attitude towards the Indian masses was guided by racial overtones and a superiority complex which resulted in the ill-treatment of the people due to discrimination along racial lines.
British hurling insults mixed with racial slurs and abuses, towards Indians was a common sight in colonial India. In fact, racial discrimination was also common in the administration and army. Indian officials and soldiers were paid less salary as compared to their British counterparts. Also, higher posts both in the administration and the army were reserved exclusively for the British.
Thus, it can be observed that the uprising of 1857 was not a stand-alone event in the history of India, instead, it was driven by a long-standing opposition manifested through big & small rebellions that occurred in preceding 100 years of British Rule.
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