Indian Popular Uprising of 1857-59

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Indian Popular Uprising of 1857-59


(also, Sepoy Mutiny or Indian Mutiny), a mass revolt in India against British colonial domination. In English literature the event is often called the Sepoy Mutiny, because sepoys formed its military nucleus. The center of the uprising was the territory situated between the Punjab and Bengal. It began in the Bengal army, which was raised in this area.

By the middle of the 19th century conditions had developed for a movement by the basic strata of Indian society against the British colonialists. A sharp increase by the colonial administration in taxes exacted from landowners and communal farmers, as well as the liquidation of the tax privileges of the Brahmins, led to a worsening of the position of these social strata and the loss of land because of unpaid debts and arrears. It was from these elements that the Bengal army was recruited. Moreover, not long before 1857 the sepoys had been deprived of a number of rights, and their salaries had been cut. Colonial oppression weighed heavily upon artisans, who were being ruined as a result of the competition of factory-made British goods. By force or on the basis of a law on escheat promulgated by the governor-general of Dalhousie, the British were taking principalities and estates away from many big feudal lords. The popular masses, above all the peasants and communal farmers, were the driving force of the uprising, but feudal lords played the main role in its leadership.

On May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut three sepoy regiments rose up and then moved on to Delhi, where they met the support of the Delhi sepoys and the local population. The insurgents proclaimed the restoration of the Great Mogul Dynasty and forced the padishah Bahadur Shah II to sign an appeal for a war to liberate the motherland. In the course of the uprising two centers of the insurgent armies emerged in addition to Delhi— Kanpur and Lucknow, the capital of Oudh. Independent governments appeared in these three centers. In Delhi, along with the government of Bahadur Shah II, a higher administrative council was created from sepoys and townsmen, a member of which, Baht-Han, assumed direction of the Delhi troops. In Delhi and Lucknow the governments, which had been created from the former court nobility, failed to organize an administration, and discord arose among the insurgents. Matters were somewhat better in Kanpur. Here measures were taken to organize the administrative apparatus and to guarantee the supply of provisions to the troops and population.

The defensive tactics of the leadership of the Sepoy Mutiny helped the colonialists to localize the revolt in the Ganges Valley and to seize the military initiative. At the end of May 1857, British troops launched an offensive up the Ganges. In June, Benares and Allahabad were occupied, and on July 15 and 16 the British inflicted a defeat on Nana Sahib, leader of the Kanpur grouping. On September 19, after a four-month siege, the British took Delhi. Oudh became the center of the uprising. On Mar. 19, 1858, Lucknow fell. The military victories of the colonialists were accompanied by monstrous atrocities. The insurgents switched to guerrilla war, in which the military talents of their leaders Ahmad Shah, Maulavi, Tantia Topi, and the rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi-Bai, were strikingly displayed. On Nov. 1, 1858, a manifesto from Queen Victoria was published extending a pardon to the feudal lords who had participated in the uprising and granting recognition of their estate rights; this manifesto tore the feudal upper stratum from the uprising. By April 1859 the colonialists were able to suppress the guerrilla offensive as well.

The basic reasons for the defeat of the Sepoy Mutiny were the military superiority of the colonialists over the insurgent people; divergence in aims among the insurgents, especially between the peasants and feudal lords; and the lack of unity that still prevailed between the nations of India, helping the colonialists to isolate the most important centers of the uprising and to mobilize all the resources of the Deccan, Bengal, and the Punjab for its suppression.

Despite the defeat of the Sepoy Mutiny, the British colonialists were compelled to change their policies. As early as Aug. 2, 1858, the British parliament had passed a law on the liquidation of the East India Company and transference of the administration of India to the Crown. The colonialists made the Indian princes and landowners their allies, promulgating a number of laws strengthening their feudal rights to landed property. At the same time the colonial authorities had to take into account the enormous discontent of the peasants and to issue laws dealing with the leasing of land, which limited somewhat the feudal arbitrariness of the zamindars.


Narodnoe vosstanie v Indii, 1857-1859. Moscow, 1957.
Gordon-Polonskaia, L. R. “Osveshchenie narodnogo vosstaniia 1857-1859 gg. v indiiskoi i pakistanskoi periodicheskoi pechati.” In the collection Indiia. Moscow, 1959. (Uchennie zapiski Instituta vos-tokovedeniia AN SSSR, vol. 20.)
Osipov, A. M. Velikoe vosstanie v Indii, 1857-1859. Moscow, 1957.
Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny, vols. 1-5. London, 1888-89.
Sen, S. N. Eighteen Fifty-Seven. [Calcutta-Delhi] 1957. (Bibliography.) (This article was based on an article by A. M. Osipov in the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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