India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Sepoy Army Revolts

At last we were overlords of all India. There was no one left to dispute our rule or break the peace of the land. True, we had once more to fight the Burmese, and added Lower Burmah to the empire, but in India all was quiet for seven years. Then suddenly war and wild confusion broke out. Our great native army rebelled.

All sorts of reasons have been given for this terrible outbreak. There was the story of the new cartridges, which the soldiers were told had been greased by the English with the fat of cows and pigs so as to cause defilement to Hindu and Mussulman soldiers alike. Mischief-makers went about secretly stirring up trouble, saying that the English wished to destroy the ancient native religions and turn all into Christians.

These things no doubt helped to infuriate the native army, but behind all this was the fact that the universal peace in India, which had succeeded long years of war, had left the sepoys, who were proud of themselves and their triumphs, restless and discontented. There was also an old-time prophecy that a white race should rule the sacred land of India for a hundred years, and was it not now just a century since the battle of Plassey?

Although the mutiny took us by surprise, there were many warnings of the coming storm, and it should have been possible to prevent it. There were midnight meetings of the sepoys followed by sullen disrespect to their officers. Also chupatis, or small cakes, were sent from village to village far and wide. Few of the English saw what it all meant, but every one felt that some strange secret was abroad in the land.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


The story of its horrors and of its heroes will be found in the histories of the Great Mutiny. The record is both horrible and fascinating. The first outbreak occurred at Barrackpore, about one hundred miles north of Calcutta. Thanks to that excellent old officer General Hearsay, it was quelled. But, unfortunately, when the storm burst at Meerut on May 10 the almost criminal folly of General Hewitt gave the mutiny its first chance. Although he commanded a strong force of British soldiers, yet he stood by while the sepoys fired the town and murdered every European, man, woman, and child, they could find.

Then, with their devil's work done, they raced off to Delhi, where our people were all unwarned by Hewitt of what was coming upon them. Bahadur Shah, the doddering old descendant of the great Akbar, was proclaimed their king, and for days Delhi was turned into a slaughter-house full of unnamed horrors, in which all that was English disappeared—men, delicate women, and little children being done to death, often with terrible cruelties. But not all died unavenged. Nine heroes held the Delhi arsenal, with its great store of powder and arms, until the mutinous hordes swarmed in upon them. Then Lieutenant Willoughby, after firing his last cannon-shot, lifted his hand. Scully fired the powder-train, and the great magazine and fort with all in it went to the skies with a mighty roar which shook the solid earth for miles around.

All over the country little isolated garrisons were staring death in the face bravely. Cawnpore fell in hideous massacre, but Lucknow defied the rebel hosts and held them back from Delhi, where a small British force daringly began the siege. Regiments hurried out from England, the Sikhs stood by us, and the little Gurkhas came down to our succour from Nepal. At last all seemed to hang upon whether we could take Delhi and whether the Lucknow Residency would fall.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


Swept by a merciless fire night and day, its garrison of heroes, led by the gallant Lawrence, were holding out with the utmost difficulty against thousands of furious enemies. Even wounded men at times of great pressure would crawl from the hospital to lie down and fire or load for others. Lawrence was killed by a shell, but Havelock and Outram, with a small force, burst through the enemy and strengthened the garrison, for now Delhi had been taken by John Nicholson and the tide was turning. The end came on November 16, when Sir Colin Campbell, with a strong force of British and Sikhs, attacked and carried, one by one, the great sepoy positions surrounding the Residency.

The fighting was desperate in the extreme, as our men stormed their way through or over great walled buildings amidst a rain of bullets. Perhaps most desperate of all was it at the Secunder Bagh, with its high walls, bastions and loopholes, held by a strong force of sepoys. "There never was a bolder feat," said stern old Sir Colin himself, "than the storming of the Secunder Bagh."

Highlanders at Lucknow


The enemy, finding escape impossible, fought with the courage of despair and religious hate. The air was full of horrible noises, the ceaseless rattle of musketry, the curses and yells of the sepoys, and the fierce cry of the British soldiers, "Remember Cawnpore, boys!" Into the Secunder Bagh we went at last, the fair legs of the Highlanders and the brown legs of the battle-loving Sikhs showing in strange contrast as they charged together through the gardens inside. Next morning the bodies of 20,000 sepoys dressed in their old British uniforms strewed the ground in tumbled heaps.

By such fighting was Lucknow saved from the awful fate of Cawnpore. More hard fighting lay before Colin Campbell before he could bring all the women and children to safety, but by May 1858 the mutiny had disappeared. It had vanished as the mutineer army at Agra had done on that day in late September after our recapture of the imperial city of Delhi.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


Night found them encamped on the Agra plains, fifty thousand strong, still an organised force, still determined and full of fight. Through the darkness flickered the watch-fires of a vast army, but when the dawn arose it had vanished into thin air and not a man was there to be seen. Suddenly in the night the fierce spirit of resistance had burnt itself cut. Panic had set in, and with the morning light all were scattering and hurrying to their homes, anxious only to seem like peaceful peasants and workers in the fields now that vengeance was abroad in the land.

Still stands the gaunt Residency, with its broken walls beaten by the rebel fire, a memorial ruin of the heroes, men and women, who held it. We can still see the place where Lawrence died and where, amidst the crash of shells and musketry, he received that last Communion, and then with a beautiful calmness urged all to resist to the last and on no account to surrender, to protect the women and children from all evil, and to remain tranquil, trusting in God. All round the Residency are still the various posts, each with a desperate little history of its own, from which we held the enemy at bay, and one of them, called Duprat's Post, is that where a gallant Frenchman of that name did right good service for us.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


After the Mutiny we swept away the last shadows of names once famous and formidable in India. First the phantom of a Moghul emperor and his court, which had given head to the rebellion, vanished from Delhi for ever. Secondly, the last pretender to the chieftainship of the Mahrattas disappeared from Cawnpore, where he had shared in the black treachery of Nana Sahib, the murderer of our women and children. Lastly, the entire government of India passed from the East India Company to the Crown.