Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

The Indian Mutiny

While the Queen was presenting the Victoria Cross on that summer day of 1857 to those of her brave soldiers who had distinguished themselves in the Crimea, alarming news reached England of a native revolt in another part of her dominions, a revolt known in history as the Indian Mutiny.

Marquis of Dalhousie


Discontent had long been simmering throughout India. Lord Dalhousie, one of the most famous governor-generals India has ever seen had brought province after province under British rule. He had added Satara in 1818, the first year of his governorship, and the Punjab in the following year. Later, the Rajah of Nagpur died without heirs and that principality was likewise added to the British dominions, being known to-day as the Central Provinces. After this the kingdom of Oudh was annexed—a country as large as Belgium and Holland—until Lord Dalhousie had increased Britain's possessions in India by more than a third. A colossal worker, he sought to bind together the scattered parts by telegraph and railway. He also made the largest of Indian canals, carried the Grand Trunk road through the Punjab, and only returned home to die when his physical strength failed to bear the burden of office longer.

Indian Races


At this time every one at home and in India believed in the loyalty of the native soldiers, or Sepoys, as they were called. When the mutiny broke out, there were just five times as many Sepoys as British soldiers in India.

For some time there had been a growing feeling among the natives that the old state of things was passing away; they thought that the British wanted to destroy their customs and religions, and they dwelt on the native prophecy which said that a hundred years after Plassey British rule in India should cease.

Another incident at this time shook their faith in their rulers. Up to this time the Sepoys had been armed with a musket popularly known as "Brown Bess ". In 1857 an improved rifle, known as the Enfield, was substituted. It was rumoured that the new rifle required greased cartridges, and that they were greased with hog's lard, forbidden to Mohammedans. A panic of religious fear ran from regiment to regiment, from village to village.

Brown Bess Rifle


Early in May some cartridges were served out to a native regiment at Meerut, near Delhi. They were refused by 85 Sepoys, who were tried, disarmed, publicly paraded, and marched in chains to the local prison, which was guarded by native officials.

The following day was Sunday. The weather was fiercely hot, but, as evening wore on, the little British community made ready for church. They little thought that the church bells were to mark the beginning of the great Indian Mutiny. It was the arranged signal for the Sepoys to revolt.

They burst open the jail, released the 85 prisoners and then proceeded to fire on their officers. Some 30 British against 2,000 angry mutineers had little chance, and soon the dusky natives were marching forth in full battle array for Delhi, 38 miles distant.

Delhi, one of the oldest and stateliest towns in the newly acquired Punjab, on the sacred Jumna, was surrounded by a wall pierced by seven gates, about a mile distant one from another. At one end stood the Imperial Palace, where lived the last King of Delhi—the descendant of the Great Mogul. The mutineers arrived early on the morning of May 11, shouting defiantly, and slaying any British whom they met.


DELHI, 1853.

Delhi was entirely held by Sepoys, officered by Englishmen. These Englishmen, with their wives and children, were now butchered without mercy, and the mutineers held the city of Delhi through long months against a British army, until an attack planned by John Nicholson, succeeded.

Meanwhile the mutiny had broken out in other parts of Northern India. Cawnpore was an important station on the banks of the Ganges, some 270 miles from Delhi. It was held by Sepoys and a handful of British soldiers under Sir Hugh Wheeler, an old man of seventy-five.

In June, a revolt of the Sepoys took place under a powerful Hindu named Nana Sahib. He pretended to be on friendly terms with the British.

The little white population entrenched themselves as best they might behind low mud walls, and here for three dreary weeks a few Englishmen defended themselves, their wives and children, against the onslaught of the enemy.

The days passed heavily by, each with its deeds of heroism, its acts of self-sacrifice, its pitiful record of wasted life. In three weeks no fewer than 250 had died from hunger, thirst, and wounds. On June 23—the anniversary of Plassey—a determined assault was made by the enemy, but in vain. The following day found the little garrison in despair. "The British spirit alone remains," wrote the old general, "but it cannot last for ever." This was true, and when, on the twenty-first day, Nana Sahib offered a safe passage to Allahabad to those willing to surrender, the general felt obliged to accept for the sake of the women and children.



Slowly the feeble remnant of the besieged, "speechless and motionless as spectres," tottered from their forlorn shelter, to make their way to the banks of the Ganges, for them "the Valley of the Shadow of Death". They had not reached the boats, when suddenly a bugle rang through the silent air, and from the banks of the river a murderous fire was poured into the hapless crowd. Sir Hugh Wheeler was among the first to perish. Happy were those whose sufferings were not prolonged.

Some 120 survivors were dragged back to Cawnpore, where a yet more terrible fate awaited them. They were crowded into a small building with two rooms, no bedding, and no furniture; the British ladies were made to grind corn for the traitor Nana, who had already murdered all the men, their husbands, brothers, and sons. Sickness and death thinned their ranks day by day. They did not know of the help even now approaching. General Havelock, a little iron-grey man, no longer young, with the "tiniest force that ever set forth to the task of saving an empire", was marching to the relief of Cawnpore. "If India is ever in danger," it had once been said, "let Havelock be put in command of an army and it will be saved."

In July he began his march at the head of 15,000 men to save the garrison at Cawnpore. The ground over which he had to take his men was swampy with the first rains of summer, the skies were white with the glare of an Indian July sun, but "Havelock's Saints ", as they were called, never wavered in their great task.

On July 17, after a march of 126 miles, Havelock reached the outskirts of Cawnpore. But he was too late. A terrible massacre of the women and children had just taken place by order of Nana Sahib, from which not one soul had escaped alive. All the bodies had been thrown into a well in the courtyard hard by. When Havelock and his men entered the rooms where their fellow countrywomen had been butchered so lately, the scene was both horrible and pitiful. The floor was strewn with relics: there were pinafores, little shoes and hats, the fly-leaf of a Bible, and some children's curls all speaking of a time of anguish unspeakable.

To-day over the well at Cawnpore where the poor bodies were thrown stands a white marble angel with clasped hands and outspread wings—a memorial of those sufferings which are part of the price of empire.