Short Note On Revolt Of 1857

Short Note On Revolt Of 1857 – Background

In this short note on Revolt of 1857 we shall try to cover all the aspects related to the Revolt of 1857 namely – causes, beginning and spread, areas, leaders, nature, causes of failure and consequences. It is otherwise difficult to give justice to all the aspects in a short note on Revolt of 1857, nevertheless an attempt is made to address all the relevant details in a crisp and precise manner. 

Short Note on Revolt of 1857
Revolt Of 1857

The Nature of Revolt of 1857

  There is a significant diversity in the views of scholars on the nature of Revolt of 1857. On the whole the event can be attributed to the cumulative effect of British expansionist policies, economic exploitation and administrative innovations that adversely affected people across the board. The affected population included – sepoys, zamindars, peasants, rulers of princely states, traders, pandits, maulvis etc. The 4 key things dear to both Hindus and Muslims namely – honour, religion, life and property were endangered by the British rule. Some of the views of modern historians and scholars can be seen as:

  1. John Lawrence and Seeley – Thought it to be a sepoy mutiny and nothing more. According to them it was a wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support.This view was endorsed by many contemporary Indians like – Durgadas Bandopadhyay and Sir. Syed Ahmed Khan.
  2. L.E.R. Rees – He termed it as a fanatic war of fanatic religionists against Christians.
  3. Capt. J.G.Medley – He called it a ‘war of races’.
  4. T.R.Holmes – Propounded the view that the Revolt of 1857 was a conflict between civilization and barbarism.
  5. Sir James Outram and W.Taylor: They described the outbreak of rebellion as a result of Hindu-Muslim conspiracy.
  6. Benjamin Disraeli – Who went on to become British prime minister termed the rebellion as a ‘national rising’. This view was later endorsed by V.D.Savarkar who in his book ‘The Indian War Of Independence’ published in London in 1909 described it as ‘a planned war of national independence’.
  7. R.C.Majumdar and S.N.Sen: In later years both of them made exhaustive study of all the available official and non official records. They concluded that the Revolt of 1857 was not a result of careful planning nor were there any masterminds behind it.

Causes Of Revolt Of 1857

Regarding the causes of Revolt of 1857, earlier historians and scholars both Indian and British put great emphasis on military grievances and greased cartridges as primary causes of the Revolt of 1857. But modern Indian historians have negated this view and attributed many other reasons for the outbreak of Revolt of 1857.

In this short note on Revolt of 1857 we shall briefly delineate the primary causes of the outbreak of the rebellion.

Political Causes of Revolt of 1857

 Here in this short note on Revolt of 1857, we shall cover the political causes behind it. There was a great resentment among Indians due to the policies like – Effective Control, Subsidiary Alliance and Doctrine of Lapse. All the political causes of Revolt of 1857 stemmed from these 3 basic policies which can be seen as:

  • Dalhousie’s annexation of Awadh enraged the sepoys as almost 75000 of them belonged to this area. These soldiers were in reality  ‘peasants in uniform’ and the annexation directly affected them.

Moreover many nobles, retainers, gentlemen, officials and soldiers in the Nawab’s administration became unemployed creating a widespread resentment among them. Along with this there ushered in an era of higher taxation on food, houses, ferries, opium and justice.

  • There was no clear cut distinction between ‘dependent states’ and ‘protected allies’. In cases of disputed interpretations, the decisions of East India Company were binding and that of the Court of Directors final.
  • Regal titles of Nawabs of Carnatic and Tanjore were abolished.
  • Nana Saheb, the adopted son of Baji Rao II was denied pension after the death of Baji Rao II. Nana Saheb was forced to live in Kanpur.
  • Rani Laxmibai’s adopted son was denied the inheritance after her husband’s death.
  • The house of Mughals was humbled when Dalhousie passed orders in 1849 forcing Bahadur Shah Zafar (the last Mughal emperor) to abandon the Red Fort and move to a humbler residence at Qutab on the outskirts of Delhi.
    • In 1846 Lord Canning announced that after Bahadur Shah Zafar’s death, his successors would lose the regal title and would be called Princes.    
  • Another important political factor was the ‘absentee sovereignty ship’ of the British. Earlier foreign rulers like the Mughals and Pathans had settled in India. The revenue collected was spent in India which was not the case under British rule.
  • The Pindaris, Thugs and irregular soldiers who lived on plunder lost their livelihoods due British annexations. These groups too joined the rebels.

Military Causes of Revolt Of 1857

The military causes of Revolt of 1857 originated from the conditions of service in East India Company’s army and cantonments that came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys who were predominantly drawn from upper caste Hindus of North Western Provinces and Awadh. In this section of short note on Revolt of 1857 we shall probe into some other military causes that were instrumental in the outbreak of the rebellion. It must be kept in mind that it was the military causes that triggered the outbreak of the uprising.

  • There was a strict restriction on wearing of caste and sectarian marks. Initially the company tried to accommodate these demands but it was impossible to carry them on as the operations of the army expanded not only in India but also in various parts of the world. Moreover caste distinctions and segregations were not conducive for the cohesiveness of a fighting unit.
  • The sepoys were also apprehensive of the activities of the military Chaplains who openly preached Christianity and denounced native religions.  
  • In 1824 the 47th Regiment at Barrackpore was disbanded when the Sepoys refused to go to Burma as a sea voyage would make them an outcast in their own village.
  • There were rumors of bone dust being mixed with atta.
  • During the disastrous Afghan campaign the fleeing sepoys were forced to eat and drink whatever came in their way. The villagers of these sepoys refused to accept them in their biradari for they might not have observed the caste vows.
  • In 1856 Lord Canning government passed the ‘General Service Enlistment Act’ which provided that all future recruits of Bengal Army would have to give an undertaking that they would serve anywhere the company desired.
  • Indian sepoys were racially discriminated against and looked down upon especially in matters of promotions and privileges.
  • Prior to 1857, three mutinies had already occurred during Dalhousie’s tenure alone – 22nd, 66th and 38th Native Infantry in 1849, 1850 and 1852 respectively.
  • The British failed to realize the fact that a sepoy was a peasant in uniform and all matters that affected the society also affected him.
  • The disparity in numbers of British and Indian soldiers in 1856 had grown significantly for many Army officers were posted in administrative positions in the newly annexed areas. Along with this, the British losses at the Crimean war created a feeling in the sepoys that they had a fair chance of winning.
  • Finally the greased cartridges of the newly introduced Enfield Rifle provided an occasion to the sepoys to rebel, though the issue was not a new cause of discontent. 

Administrative and Economic Causes of Revolt of 1857

 India’s economic exploitation was perhaps the most important factor for the outbreak of the rebellion. The complete destruction of the economic fabric directly affected all the classes e.g. artisans, peasants, zamindars, and small businessmen. In this section of short note on revolt of 1857 we shall outline the important administrative and economic causes of the revolt of 1857.

  • The Indian aristocracy, after annexations found little chance of gaining their same old positions in the new administrative set up. All key positions, whether civil or military, were reserved for Europeans.
  • Chances of promotions in the army were very less. The highest post attainable by an Indian was that of a Subedar on a salary of Rs 70/month.
  • Similarly the highest post attainable in civil administration was that of Sadr Amin on a salary of Rs 500/month.   
  • The introduction of land revenue policies like Permanent Settlement, Mahalwari system and Ryotwari system created resentment due to excessive taxation.
  • Large estates were confiscated and sold to highest bidders who were mostly speculators and did not understand the needs of tenants and fully exploited them. 
  • The Inam commission appointed in Bombay in 1852 confiscated as many as 20000 estates.
  • The overburdened peasantry fell in the clutches of unprincipled moneylenders
  • The East India Company used political power to destroy the Indian handloom industry and completely subordinated it to the British textile industry.
  • The ruination of the handloom industry created a reverse migration i.e. artisans and skilled workers started migrating back to the villages thus putting pressure on the agricultural system.
  • Overall these factors contributed to the pauperization of the country.

Social Causes Of Revolt Of 1857

  • Racial discrimination was widely practiced. There was a significant amount of rudeness and arrogance towards Indian subjects.
  • Hindus were described as barbarians with no traces of culture and civilization. Muslims on the other hand were dubbed as bigots, cruel and faithless.
  • Europeans guilty of criminal assaults on Indians were tried by European juries that delivered lighter or no punishments.

Religious Causes

Religion has always been a dearest issue to all Indians. When the natives felt that their respective religions were in danger, the real problem started. In this section of short note on revolt of 1857 we shall explore the religious causes of Revolt of 1857.

  • Since the Charter Act of 1833, Christian missionary activities gathered a new momentum in India.
  • Sepoys were promised promotions if they accepted Christianity.
  • British attempts of abolition of Sati, support to widow remarriage and women’s education were seen by Indians as an interference in religion.
  • The fear was further compounded by the government’s decision to tax temple and mosque lands.
  • Legislative measures like ‘Religious Disabilities Act 1856’ allowed inheritance of parental property after conversion to Christianity was frowned upon by Indians

 Immediate Cause of Revolt of 1857

 It all began with the apprehensions about mixing of bone dust in atta and the introduction of Enfield Rifles that required biting off the grease of the cartridges that were reportedly made of beef and pork fat before loading. This enhanced the growing disaffection against the government. The army administration did nothing to allay these fears and the sepoys felt that their religion was in grave danger. In this section of short note on Revolt of 1857, we shall trace out the beginning and spread of the uprising in a chronological manner.

  • In March 1857 the 19th Native Infantry at Barrackpore refused to use the newly introduced Enfield Rifles. This was regarded by the authorities as an act of insubordination and punished accordingly. Soon the Regiment was disbanded. 
  • On April 6 1857, Mangal Pande, a sepoy at 34th Native Infantry fired and killed a Sergeant Major of his unit at Barrackpore. He was soon overpowered and executed.
  • On 3rd May 1857, the 7th Awadh Regiment defied orders and met with a similar fate.
  • Around 7th May 1857, 85 sepoys of 3rd Cavalry Regiment were court-martialed and sentenced to long term imprisonment. This enraged the other sepoys and sparked off the mutiny on 10th May.
  • 10th May 1857: The enraged sepoy unfurled the banner of revolt by shooting their officers and releasing their comrades. General Hewitt who had 2200 European soldiers at his disposal could not do anything about the mutineers.
  • 12th may 1857: Delhi was seized and the Palace and the city was occupied. The officer in charge at Delhi Lt. Willoughby did offer some resistance but all in vain. Some European inhabitants of Delhi were shot dead. The 80 years old Mughal scion Bahadur  Shah Zafar II was proclaimed emperor of India. The loss of Delhi was a serious blow to the Prestige of the British.
  • Soon the rebellion spread in Northern and Central India. But fortunately for the British, the Indian rulers in general remained loyal and rendered valuable service for the suppression of the rebellion.
  • With initial hesitation Bahadur Shah Zafar II wrote letters to Indian rulers urging them to unite and fight the British.
  • Soon the entire Bengal Army rose into revolt that spread quickly to Awadh, Rohilkhand, Doab region, Bihar, Central India and East Punjab.
  • The rebellion initiated by the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion in the civilian population as well particularly in North-western Provinces and Awadh. Peasants, zamindars, some Princely States, artisans, labours, religious mendicants, priests and civil servants actively participated.
  • Debt records and account books of moneylenders were destroyed by taking advantage of the situation.

Storm Centers And Leaders Of Revolt of 1857

  • Delhi: After the proclamation of Bahadur Shah Zafar as the emperor of India, his able General Bakht Khan organized his soldiers. The weakest link of the rebellion was Bahadur Shah Zafar himself. His weak personality, old age and lack of leadership qualities created a policy paralysis at the nerve center of the revolt.
  • Kanpur: Nana Saheb the adopted son of Baji Rao II, expelled the British from Kanpur and declared himself the Peshwa and acknowledged Bahadur Shah Zafar as the emperor of India.  The Commanding Officer Sir Hugh Wheeler surrendered on 27th June 1857.
  • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal with popular support took over the reins of the rebellion on 4th June 1857. She declared her minor son to be the Nawab and a regular administration was set up with Hindu and Muslim officers. Henry Lawrence the officer in charge along with some soldiers took shelter in a residency. But the residency was soon besieged by the rebels and Henry Lawrence was killed.
  • Jhansi: In June 1857, Rani Laxmibai, the widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao mutined. 
  • Bareiley: Khan Bahadur, from the former Rohilkhand royal family took charge. With his 40000 troops he gave a stiff resistance to the British.
  • Bihar: Kunwar Singh, a zamindar, actively supported the rebels when they reached Arrah.
  • Faizabad: Maulvi Ahmadullah, a native of Madras who had migrated north fought a stiff battle.


Though the British forces suffered some initial setbacks, soon the rebellion was brought under control. In this section of short note on Revolt of 1857, we shall area wise outline the suppression of the rebellion. Suppression of Revolt of 1857 had many notable events.

  • Delhi: In September 1857 the Delhi was recaptured by the British under the leadership of John Nicholson who later succumbed to the injuries he received during the onslaught. 
  • Lucknow: With Henry Lawrence gone the command of the besieged garrison devolved on Brigadier Inglis who held out against heavy odds. Earlier attempts by Havelock and Outram did not deliver any results. In November 1857, Sir Colin Cmpbell the newly appointed Commander in Chief, entered the city with the help of Gorkha Regiment and evacuated the Europeans stranded there. In March 1858 the city was finally recovered but guerilla activities continued till September.
  • Kanpur: Tatya Tope, the able general of Nana Saheb performed well but had to succumb to the superior British forces. On 6th December 1857, Kanpur was recovered by Sir Colin Campbell. Tatya Tope escaped and joined Rani Laxmibai at Jhansi. Meanwhile Nana Saheb escaped to Nepal, never to be seen again.
  • Jhansi: Was recaptured by Sir Hugh Rose on 3rd April 1858. Rani Laxmibai died fighting like a warrior. This was acknowledged even by the British. Tantia Tope escaped south where he was captured by a feudatory of Scindia. He was handed over to the British who hanged him. In this whole affair Scindia remained loyal to the British.
  • Benaras: Col. Neil mercilessly suppressed the rebellion in July 1858.

Thus by July 1858, the rebellion had been almost completely suppressed, teaching the British a lesson for its future governance in India.

Causes Of Failure Revolt Of 1857

There are a plethora of causes of failure of Revolt of 1857. Right from the reasons of outbreak to the way it was conducted made the rebellion a doomed failure. In this section of short note on Revolt of 1857 we shall probe into the causes of failure of Revolt of 1857.

  • Limited territorial spread: The uprising was largely confined to northern parts of India. Areas south of Narmada river remained unaffected.
  • Limited Sepoy Participation: Sepoys of a few Native Infantry regiments participated. The Bombay and Madras Army remained Loyal.
  • Limited Resources and Personnel: The mutineers fought with primitive weapons as compared to the British army which possessed modern guns and a well trained army. Luckily for the British in 1856, the Cremean wars and the Chinese wars had also ended and British troops numbering 112000 poured into India from all parts of the world. Moreover the electric telegraph regularly updated the Commander in Chief about the movement of rebels.
  • Non participation of many classes: The educated Indians refrained from participation. Big zamindars acted as breakwaters in the storm. Taluqdars from Awadh backed off once assurances were given on the restoration of their lands. Moneylenders who suffered the wrath of the rebels naturally did not participate as they felt their interests are better protected under British rule.
  • Poor organization: There was no coordination with the central leadership. Most of the leaders of the movement like Nana Saheb, Laxmibai and Kunwar Singh were no match to their British counterparts who were professionally trained and able leaders.
  • Ideological weakness: The movement was devoid of any forward looking program, a political perspective and a coherent ideology. Nor did the leaders have any social perspective. The concept of modern nationalism was yet unknown to India. Moreover the leaders were fighting for their own vested interests rather than a unified view.

Conclusion – Short Note On Revolt Of 1857

 Although the Revolt of 1857 was an audacious challenge to British rule in India, it failed to achieve the desired result for a variety of reasons discussed above. On the whole it affected only 10% of the Indian population. As far as planning of the rebellion is concerned, all the commissions and boards appointed after the suppression of the rebellion hinted that there was no planning involved. R.C. Majumdar and S.N.Sen also reached a similar conclusion after their extensive research on the subject. Moreover the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar II proved that the revolt was as much a surprise to him as to the British.

Revolt Of 1857 – UPSC Questions

What was the immediate cause of the revolt of 1857? (1996)
a. Lord Dalhousie’s usurpation policy
b. Suspicion of British interference in religion
c. Military dissatisfaction
d. Economic exploitation of India

Ans. c

What was/were the main object/objects of Queen Victoria’s Proclamation (1858)? (2014)                                                 1. To disclaim any intentions to annex the Indian States.                                                   2. To place the Indian administration under the British Crown.                                                                                       3. To regulate East India Company’s trade with India.

a. 1 and 2
b. 2 Only
c. 1 and 3
d. 1,2 and 3

Ans. a

See Also

    The Charter Act 1833 – Background, Features and  Implications

   Charter Act of 1813

   Pitt’s India Act 1784


What started the 1857 revolt?

There were many causes for the outbreak of the rebellion. The trigger was the issue of cartridges greased with beef and pork fat. Kindly refer to the blog for all the causes.

Why did the 1857 revolt end?

The revolt ended simply for one outstanding reason and that was the superiority of the British forces in terms of organization, technology, resources and planning.

What are the five main causes for the 1857 revolt?

1. Non participation of many classes
2. Limited Sepoy Participation
3. Poor organization
4. Limited territorial spread
5. Ideological weaknesses

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