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Unit 2
Revolt of 1857

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to :

  • explain reasons and importance of the revolt of 1857
  • analyse the effects of the 1857 revolt
  • identify various British policies that resulted in the revolt
  • familiarise with the reasons for the failure of the revolt


People often get lost between the terminologies of “revolt” and rebellion” as both signify to rise against an oppressive rule or power structure. However rebellion is used to mention an unrest or an uprising to gain concessions or privilege from an oppressive power. In the case of a revolt, it’s all about overthrowing that power or the authoritarian figure all together paving the way for their freedom. In this context we have a revolt to deal with and that also against the British yoke by native Indians, involving sepoys, kings, native rulers, people belonging to various strata of the then society, etc. It is obvious that their ultimate aim was to overthrow the British rule in India as people were so much suffering under their oppressive and corrupt rule for centuries. This is very much reflected in the revolts that took place in Babylon, Egypt and other places in ancient period up to those that took place in America, France, etc., in the later years. Even though their causes differ, they always attain the same nature. However, some succeed while others fail due to varying reasons in their endeavours as far as these revolts are considered.

The revolt of 1857 is significant from the viewpoint that it was the first time ever since the Indian colonisation by English East India Company that they rose in open protest against their rule. In this, people from almost all strata of the society took part without any caste, creed, gender, class or community disparities.

We could understand that The East India Company had substantial parts of India under its control by the first half of the 19th century, but it still had two goals: to maintain its conquests and to profit from trade. There was no cap on the level of the company’s avarice and betrayal to achieve these goals. Many of the native dominions were forcibly incorporated into the British Empire before 1857. There was a great deal of animosity toward the British among the various sectors of the Indian population due to the East India Company’s reign from 1757 to 1857. The Mughal era’s collapse was a psychological shock to Muslims, many of whom had benefited from positions of power and favouritism under the Mughals and other Muslim provincial emperors. The company’s commercial policy destroyed the artisans and craftsmen, while the company’s varied land income policies—particularly the permanent settlement in the north and the Ryotwari settlement in the south—put the peasants on the road to poverty and misery. Rising tensions among people as a result of the overall unhappiness finally sparked the 1857 uprising. In this unit, we will investigate the revolt’s origins, consequences, and long-term ramifications of the British rule.

Key Words

East India Company, Doctrine of Lapse, Permanent Settlement, Revolution, Subsidiary Alliance

3.2.1 Causes of the Revolt of 1857

The revolt of 1857 started on 10th May when the Company’s Indian soldiers at Meerut rebelled. This is often termed as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ by the British, dubbed as the ‘First War of Independence’ against the British rulers by nationalist historians. The revolt became an important part of history despite having diversified opinion about the same among historians from different parts of the world. Indian soldiers thereafter killed their European officers and marched towards Delhi. They entered the Red Fort and proclaimed the aged and powerless Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the Emperor of India.

This rebellion was a major anti-colonial movement against the aggressive imperialist policies of the British. In fact, it was an economic, political and social struggle against the British rule. This severe outburst of anger and discontent shook the foundations of colonial rule in large parts of India. We will now study the causes of dissatisfaction among the Indian people which made them rebel against the then British rule.

  1. Political causes: The annexation method of colonial expansion became a significant source of unhappiness for the Indian emperors. The British sought to acquire land and amass as much wealth as they could for England. With the help of their annexation strategy known as the Doctrine of Lapse and Subsidiary Alliance, the British Empire was able to absorb a number of sovereign kingdoms. The monarchs of these kingdoms, which were under British protection, had passed away without leaving a legitimate heir to their throne. As a result, their adopted sons were no longer able to legitimately inherit the land or collect the pension that the British had given them. The Maratha States of Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, and several other small kingdoms were thus annexed by Lord Dalhousie. When Baji Rao II passed away, the pension he had been given was revoked, and Nana Saheb’s request to receive it was turned down. Many Indian kings disapproved of the East India Company’s influence. Prior to the Doctrine of Lapse, the Indian kings had the power to choose an heir to the throne even if he was childless, but they now needed the British government’s permission first for such an adoption procedure . The annexation policy had an impact on all those who were reliant on the rulers, including troops, artisans, and even nobility. Even the traditional classes of scholars and priests lost the favours they were receiving from them. Numerous zamindars, aristocrats, and poligars lost control of their properties and the wealth generated by them.The British-loyal Nawab also objected to Awadh being annexed on the basis of bad governance. When the British took over Awadh, no alternative employment was offered to those who lost their occupations. Even the peasants were required to pay more taxes and more for land. The majority of people saw the Britishers ongoing meddling with traditional beliefs, traditions, and norms as a danger to their religion. The gap between the British authorities and the populace grew as they grew more haughty.
  2. Economic Causes: Another important cause of the revolt was the disruption of the traditional Indian economy and its subordination to the British economy. The British had come to trade with India but soon decided to exploit and impoverish the country. They tried to take away as much wealth and raw material from here as they could. The Britishers kept high posts and salaries for themselves. They used political control to increase their trade on foreign goods. All means were used to drain India of her wealth. The Indian economy now suffered under the British policies. Since they worked against the interests of Indian trade and industry, Indian handicrafts completely collapsed. The craftsmen who received royal patronage were impoverished when the states were annexed. They could not compete with the British factory made products where machines were used. It made India into an excellent consumer of British goods and a rich supplier of raw materials for the industries in England. The British sold cheap, machine made clothes in India which destroyed the Indian cottage industry. It also left millions of craftsmen unemployed. The British also sent raw materials to England for the factories there. This left little for the Indian weavers to survive upon.The Britishers also imposed heavy duties on Indian made goods. Now they could reap huge profits as there was no competition for their goods. Thus, the British drained India of her wealth and her natural resources in a systematic way. What other measures did the British take to exploit India? They in fact compelled the native Indians to buy raw materials and sell their finished goods in their home country at the rate fixed by them. They introduced steamships and railways which in turn opened up a vast market for the British and facilitated export of Indian raw materials abroad. The railways connected the raw material producing areas with the exporting ports. As a result British goods flooded the Indian market. But do you know that the railways played an important role in the national awakening of the country too. They let people and ideas come closer together, something that the British had never anticipated. In 1853, Dalhousie opened the first telegraphic line from Calcutta to Agra. They also introduced the postal service to India. Since land was the major source of revenue for them, the British thought of various means to extract revenue from the land. The colonial policy of intensifying land revenue demand led to a large number of peasants losing their land to revenue farmers, traders and moneylenders. This was done through the Ryotwari and Mahalwari systems.‘Permanent Settlement’ policy of Bengal,Bihar and Orissa did not recognise the hereditary rights of the peasants on land. On the other hand, if they failed to pay 10/11th of the entire produce, their property could be sold off. To prevent this situation the peasants often borrowed money from the moneylenders at a high rate of interest. Sometimes they even sold their property to the moneylenders. Even the officials harassed the peasants who dared not seek justice at the courts for fear of further harassment. The new class of zamindars that were created by the British became their political allies. They supported them in times of need and acted as buffers between the British and the people. Some of them even supported the British against the freedom movement. The economic decline of peasantry and artisans was reflected in 12 major and numerous minor famines from 1770 to 1857. All these factors helped to spread an anti-British feeling which ultimately culminated in the revolt of 1857.
  3. Social and Religious Causes: The British were not very sensitive to the feelings of the vast mass of Indian people. Social reforms against sati, female infanticide, widow re-marriage and education of women, made many people unhappy. With an objective to convert people, the Christian missionaries opened schools and colleges. It made the people believe that the Government was in collusion with the missionaries tried to eradicate their religion and convert them to Christianity. The passing of Act XXI of 1850 enabled converts to Christianity inherit ancestral property. The new law was naturally interpreted as a concession to Christian converts which further created anxiety and fear among the people. The religious sentiments of the sepoys were hurt in 1806 in the Madras presidency. The Hindus were asked to remove their caste marks from their foreheads and the Muslims were asked to trim their beards. Though the sepoy uprising was put down, it was evident that the British neither understood nor cared for the Indian soldiers. The loyalty of the sepoys was further undermined by certain military reforms which required them to serve overseas. This outraged their religious feelings. They had an aversion to overseas services, as travel across oceans meant loss of caste for them.
  4. Discontent in the Army: The soldiers in the East India Company’s army came from peasant families which were deeply affected by the governments’ policies. Indian soldiers were not given posts above that of subedars. Some sepoys wanted special bhatta/allowance if sent on overseas duty. Sometimes they were paid, but most of the time they were not. They, therefore, started distrusting their officers. These instances contributed in their own way to the revolt of 1857. The soldiers had other grievances too. They were paid salaries less than their English counterparts. As a result, the morale of the Indian sepoy was very low. On the other hand, when the soldiers refused to cross the ‘black water’ that is oceans and seas because their religion forbade it, the British were ruthless on them.
  5. Immediate Cause: Strong resentment was rising among the Indians and they were waiting only for an occasion to revolt. The stage was all set. Only a spark was needed to set it on fire. Introduction of greased cartridges in 1856 provided that fire. The government decided to replace the old-fashioned musket, ‘Brown Bags’ by the ‘Enfield rifle’. The loading process of the Enfield rifle involved bringing the cartridge to the mouth and biting off the top. There was a rumour among the Sepoys in January 1857 that the greased cartridge contained the fat of cow and pig. The cow is sacred to the Hindus and the pig is forbidden to the Muslims. The sepoys were now convinced that the introduction of greased cartridges was a deliberate attempt to defile Hindu and Muslim religion and their religious feelings. This sparked off the revolt of sepoys on 29 March 1857.

Course of the Revolt

A sepoy called Mangal Pandey was the first soldier who openly disobeyed orders. He killed two English officers at Barrackpore near Calcutta on 29 March 1857. He was arrested, tried and executed. The regiments of Barrackpore were disbanded. The news about Mangal Pandey soon reached other parts of the country and resulted in open revolts.

The most decisive uprising occurred at Meerut where 85 sepoys of the cavalry regiment were sentenced to 2-10 years imprisonment for refusing to use greased cartridges. The very next day, on 10th May 1857, three regiments broke into open mutiny. They killed British officers and broke open the prison to release their comrades. They began to march towards Delhi, where they were joined by the local infantry and the common people. The rebels captured Delhi and killed many British officers. They declared the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah as the emperor of India. From Delhi the revolt spread to other places. In Kanpur, Nana Sahib was declared the Peshwa. His troops were commanded by Tantya Tope and Azimullah. At Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal was assisted by Maulvi Ahmadullah. In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai and in Arrah, Kunwar Singh led the revolt. Khan Bahadur Khan was the leader in Bareilly. The loss of Delhi greatly lowered the prestige of the British. To recover their lost prestige, they took help of the loyal forces from Punjab. The siege lasted four months and Delhi was finally recaptured on 10th September 1857. It took another ten months of fighting before the Governor-general, Lord Canning, could proclaim the end of the Mutiny on 8th July 1858. Stiff resistance had been offered to the British force by the heroic trio of the rebellion – Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Tantya Tope and Kunwar Singh. Rani Lakshmi Bai led the rebel ranks. Mounted on horseback, she boldly faced the British cavalry but when her horse stumbled and fell, she was killed. According to the British commander-in-chief, Sir Hugh Rose, “She was the best and bravest military leader of the rebels”. Kunwar Singh was killed in another battle in Bihar. Tantya Tope was captured while he was asleep. He was hanged after a trial. This was the end of the heroic trio and the rebellion was finally suppressed by the British. The old Emperor Bahadur Shah along with his two sons was taken prisoner. After a trial, he was deported to Rangoon, where he died in 1862, at the age of 87. His sons were shot dead at Delhi without a trial.

The revolt was started by the sepoys but was joined in large numbers by the civilian population. The participation of peasants and artisans made the revolt a widespread and popular event. In some areas, the common people revolted even before the sepoys. All this shows that it was clearly a popular revolt. It was characterised by Hindu-Muslim unity. Unity between different regions also existed. Rebels in one part of the country helped people fighting in other areas. According to some scholars, the revolt should be seen as the first nationalist struggle in India for independence from foreign rule. The Revolt of 1857 was also considered as not one movement but many. It was not a class revolt either.

The peasantry did not rebel against the landlords. They only directed attacks against money-lending grain dealers or the representatives of the British Indian government. But their policies strongly influenced the way a particular region as a whole was going to react. The Revolt in Awadh as well as in other regions, was popular, in that it pertained to people as a whole and was carried out by them. Talukdars and peasants in Awadh fought together against a common foe. But there is no doubt that the revolt of 1857 was the first time that soldiers of the Indian army recruited from different communities, Hindus and Muslims, landlords and peasants, had come together in their opposition to the British. It also provided the necessary foundation for the later successful anti-colonial struggles against the British.

The main centers of the revolt were Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Jhansi, Bareilly and Arrah. Some important leaders of the revolt were Bakht Khan, Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope, Azimullah, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Maulvi Ahmadullah, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Khan Bahadur Khan and Kunwar Singh. The revolt failed to end British rule in India. The major reasons for its failure were – its localised and unorganised nature, weak leadership and lack of weapons and finances.


Although the revolt was a big event in the history of India, it had very little chance of success against an organised and powerful enemy. It was suppressed within a year of its outbreak. We must now look into the causes for the failure of the “Revolt of 1857” as various elements led to its failure. There was no unity of purpose among the rebels. The sepoys of Bengal wanted to revive the ancient glories of the Mughals while Nana Saheb and Tantya Tope tried to reestablish the Maratha power. Rani Lakshmi Bai fought to regain Jhansi, which she had lost as a result of British policy of the Doctrine of Lapse.

Secondly, this rising was not widespread; it remained confined to North and Central India. Even in the north, Kashmir, Punjab, Sind and Rajputana kept away from the rebels. The British managed to get the loyalty of the Madras and Bombay regiments and the Sikh states. Afghans and Gurkhas also supported the British. Many Indian rulers refused to help the rebels. Some were openly hostile to them and helped the British in suppressing the revolt. The middle , upper classes and the modern educated Indians also did not support the revolt.

Thirdly, the leadership of the movement was weak. Indian leaders lacked organisation and planning. The rebel leaders were no match to the British soldiers. Most of its leaders thought only of their own interests. They were motivated by narrow personal gains. They fought to liberate only their own territories. No national leader emerged to coordinate the movement and give it purpose and direction. Lakshmi Bai, Tantya Tope and Nana Saheb were courageous but were not good military generals. With the escape of Nana Sahib and the death of Bahadur Shah Zafar, came the end of Peshwaship and the Mughal rule. The rebels were short of weapons and finances. Whatever few weapons existed were old and outdated. They were no match to the sophisticated and modern weapons of the British. The rebels were also poorly organised. The uprisings in different parts of the country were not coordinated. Often the sepoys behaved in an uncontrolled manner. On the other hand the telegraphic system and postal communication helped the British to speed up their operation. The English mastery of the sea enabled them to get timely help from England and crush the revolt ruthlessly.

3.2.3 Aftermath of the Revolt

The revolt of 1857 was a turning point in the history of India. It showed the people of India that they could unitedly challenge British rule and also inspired future generations to fight for independence. The revolt also led to a number of changes in the British policy, which made the people feel that their rights were being safeguarded. The revolt of 1857 was thus a significant event in the history of India, and it is important to understand all its causes and effects. Furthermore, we could see that there was a restructuring in the administration of India that took place right after the revolt. The control over the Indian colony was changed from the English East India Company to the hands of the British Royal Crown itself so that India came under the direct control of the British Royal Family. Attempts were also made to correct the financial misappropriations to a certain extent.

One thing to be noticed here is that the possibilities of the Indian army were explored to a great level in this revolt. People from various strata of the society despite having any disparities learned to stood together for a common goal setting aside their differences for a while. Hindu-Muslim unity was achieved for a certain time period to face off against a common enemy, the British. New administrative changes were initiated and the Act of Good Governance of India was passed in the year 1858. Similarly, a council known as the Indian Council, was established to consult and take decisions on the matters concerning India. The Secretary of State was to preside over the Council which constituted 15 members, with nine of them having spent at least ten years in the state.

Further changes were also initiated with regard to the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, In which the title of “The Governor-General” was changed to that of the “Viceroy”, whereby Lord Canning became the first Viceroy of British possessions in India. As per the proclamation, it ensured that all those treaties and contracts made with Indian Princes and other rulers would be preserved as such under the rule of the Crown. Furthermore, it promised that from then on it would assure a good governance devoid of corruption and exploitation. The proclamation provided the provision to practise any religion as per one’s wishes and opposed forcible conversions of any sort.

Following the revolt , the British lost their trust in Indians who worked alongside them in the army adorning the rank of a ‘sepoy’. They became more suspicious and cautious about the activities of Indians in the army which made them adopt precautionary measures to stop any future mutinies. So, in order to ensure loyalty and effectiveness inside the army, the proportion of Britishers in the army was increased considerably. The recruitment of Indian soldiers to the British army began to be limited. Moreover, separate British troops were stationed in all major areas alongside Indian soldiers in the British army to curb any kind of plot or disruption that might occur within the army or civilians. Inshort, the British army was re-moulded in a new way where trust, discipline and loyalty became the cornerstone of its existence in India.

Emerging national consciousness was an end result of the revolt. The then Indian natives, rulers and people from different sections of the society became aware of the corruption and exploitation meted out by the Company officials. Even though each and everyone had their own personal reasons for going against the authoritarian regime, a common cause united them all which was to attain freedom from the British foreign rule. It created momentary alliances for the time being between different communities and castes to achieve their aim. These measures instilled a kind of patriotic feeling among people and made them fight for a common cause despite all other things.

The new British administration under the Crown concentrated more on maintaining animosity between rulers of India and among different castes and communities of India by exploiting their differences. This is the ultimate culmination and expansion of their ‘divide and rule’ policy through which they could maintain their control over India by splitting up the people. In this way, they were able to eradicate the possibility of a united resistance as they witnessed in the case of the 1857 revolt. They generated racial animosity among the natives through their policies and rules so that it felt like that they favoured one section of the society while going against the other. They maintained this trend all throughout the administration ever since it came under the hands of the British Royal Crown.


The 1857 revolt was caused by a number of factors, chief among them was the increasing power of the British East India Company and the resentment it bred in Indian subjects. The company’s monopoly on trade, its exemption from taxation, and its ever-growing landholdings created great inequality and injustice. In addition, British policies such as the Doctrine of Lapse and the Vernacular Press Act further angered the Indians. Students studying this period of Indian History should be aware of all these causes to gain a complete understanding of one of India’s most significant uprisings.


  • Policies like the Doctrine of Lapse and the ones of similar nature created a situation where native rulers were prompted to go against the British regime
  • Economic exploitation as well as corruption by British officials was another cause of the revolt
  • The humiliating treatment meted out to the sepoys also made them to turn against the British
  • Suppression of natives socially and religiously also made the civilians turn against them
  • The use of greased cartridges in guns and the issues related with Mangal Pandey triggered the spark for starting the revolution
  • Revolt failed due to lack of uniformity and proper planning
  • Advanced warfare techniques, technologies and the efficiency of British Generals alongside their strategies were the other causes for its failure
  • Changes in administration, military and governing strategy can be consid-ered as the main consequences of the revolt
  • The revolt united the natives for the very first time against the foreign rule
  • Revolt of 1857 is often defined as the ‘First War of Independence’ by nationalist historians

Objective type questions

  1. Who killed two English officers at Barrackpore and started the revolt?
  2. Who led the revolt in Jhansi?
  3. Who was declared the ‘Emperor of India’ by the revolters?
  4. Who led the revolt in Arrah?
  5. Who was the Governor-General during the 1857 revolt?
  6. Who was declared as the Peshwa in Kanpur?
  7. Who was the British Commander-in-Chief during the revolt?
  8. Who assisted Begum Hazrat Mahal in Lucknow?
  9. Who led the revolt in Bareilly?
  10. Who commanded the troops of Nana Sahib?

Answer to Objective type questions

  1. Mangal Pandey
  2. Rani Lakshmi Bhai
  3. Bahadur Shah Zafar
  4. Kunwar Singh
  5. Lord Canning
  6. Nana Sahib
  7. Sir Hugh Rose
  8. Maulvi Ahmadullah
  9. Khan Bahadur Khan
  10. Tantya Tope and Azimullah


  1. Critically evaluate the changes that happened in the British Army after the revolt of 1857.
  2. Bring out the salient features of the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ which is considered one of the main reasons for the revolt.
  3. Give an account of the socio-religious reasons that made the civilian population to support the revolt against the British.
  4. Elaborate on the major events that determined the course of the ‘First War of In-dependence’ in India.

Suggested Reading

  1. Sayanekar, Shyam, History of Modern India (1857-1947), Sheth Publications, 2016.
  2. Grover B.L., Grover S., A New Look at Modern Indian History, S. Chand and Company, New Delhi, 2001.
  3. Kundra & Bawa, History of India, Neelam Publishers, Delhi, 1995.
  4. Eugene D’Souza, History of Modern India, Manan Prakashan, 2016.
  5. S.C.Raychoudhary, Social,Cultural & Economic history of India (Earliest times to present times) Surjeet publication, Delhi, 2005.