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The British Empire in India, Sepoy Rebellion

Sepoy Rebellion, English East India Company, agrarian economy, Indian entrepreneurs, British Parliament

The annexation of Indian territory and the rigorous taxation on Indian land contributed to a revolt against British rule that began in 1857. The revolt started as a mutiny of Indian sepoys (soldiers) in the service of the English East India Company in Meerut, a town northeast of Delhi. The mutiny erupted when some sepoys refused to use their new Lee-Enfield rifles. To load the rifles, the soldiers had to bite off the ends of greased cartridges. Rumors that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs outraged both Hindus, who regard cows as sacred, and Muslims, who regard pigs as unclean. After taking Meerut, the mutineers marched to Delhi and persuaded the nominal sovereign of India, the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, to resume his rule. The revolt spread rapidly, with local rulers playing an active part in expelling or killing the British and putting their garrisons under siege, especially at Lucknow. The revolt extended through Oudh Province (now part of Uttar Pradesh) and present-day northern Madhya Pradesh. The British were able to crush it, making particular use of Sikh soldiers recruited in the Punjab. The mutiny ended by 1859, with both sides guilty of atrocities.

The Sepoy Rebellion, with its unanticipated fury and extent, left the British feeling insecure. In August 1858 the British Parliament abolished the English East India Company and transferred the company’s responsibilities to the British crown. This launched a period of direct rule in India, ending the fiction of company rule as an agent of the Mughal emperor (who was tried for treason and exiled to Burma). In November 1858, in her proclamation to the “Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India,” Queen Victoria pledged to preserve the rule of Indian princes in return for loyalty to the crown. More than 560 such enclaves, taking in one-fourth of India’s area and one-fifth of its people, were preserved until Indian independence in 1947. In 1876, at the urging of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.

Among the reforms introduced after the adoption of direct rule was a reorganization of the administrative system. A secretary of state, aided by a council, began to control Indian affairs from London. A viceroy (a governor who acts in the name of the British crown), implemented London’s policies from Calcutta. An executive and a legislative council provided advice and assistance. Provincial governors made up the next level of authority, and below them were district officials.

The army was also reorganized after the imposition of direct rule. The ratio of British to Indian soldiers was reduced, and recruitment policies were reshaped to favor Sikhs and other “martial races” who had been loyal during the Sepoy Rebellion. Castes and groups that had been disloyal were carefully screened out.

Although the system of revenue collection remained largely unchanged, landowners who remained loyal during the mutiny were rewarded with titles and grants of large amounts of land, much of it confiscated from those who rebelled. Later, during agitations for Indian independence, the British were able to rely on many landowners for support.

With the imposition of direct rule, the economy of India became even more closely linked than before with that of Britain. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the sailing time between Britain and India from about three months to only three weeks, enabling London to exercise tight control over all aspects of Indian trade. Railroads, roads, and communications were developed to bring raw materials, especially cotton, to ports for shipment to England, and manufactured goods from England for sale in an expanding Indian market. Development schemes, such as massive irrigation projects in the Punjab, were also intended to serve the purpose of enriching England. Indian entrepreneurs were not encouraged to develop their own industries.

Although some industrialization took place during this period, its benefits did not reach the majority of the Indian population. During the 1850s, mechanized jute industries were developed in Bengal and cotton textiles in western India, mainly by British firms. Although these industries expanded rapidly from 1880 to 1914, and although an Indian iron-and-steel industry was developed in the early 20th century, India remained essentially an agrarian economy. By 1914 industry accounted for less than 5 percent of national income, and less than 1 percent of India’s workforce was employed in factories. A succession of severe famines occurred at this time despite the general improvement of agricultural production, the expansion of the railways, and the development of administrative procedures designed to tackle such crises. With only small advances in public health, death rates remained high and life expectancy low.

The assumption of direct British rule in 1858 made Indians British subjects and promised in principle that Indians could participate in their own governance. Few reforms addressed this issue, however. Although local government councils had been elected even before 1857, it wasn’t until the Indian Councils Act of 1861 that Indians were permitted, by appointment, to participate in the Executive Council, the highest council of the land. Indian representation on local and provincial bodies gradually expanded under British rule, although never to the point of complete control. The higher civil service had theoretically been opened to Indians in 1833, and the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 confirmed this point again. Nevertheless, candidates for the service had to go to England to compete in the examination, which emphasized classical European subjects. Those few who managed to overcome these initial obstacles and join the service encountered discrimination that prevented them from advancing.

Article key phrases:

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