The Great Mutiny
A.D. 1857 TO A.D. 1859
Heaven knows there were not wanting signs and portents in India before
"'fifty-seven" which might have put statesmen on their guard--had they
known of them.
But the terrible fact is that they did not know of them. Why? Because
those whose duty it was to keep their fingers on the pulse of the body
corporate, whose duty it was to note every passing symptom
f the new
organism of whose life so much remained to be learnt, did not, as a
rule, know enough of the language of India; the language by which
alone they could gather information at first hand.
Reading the records of these fateful two years, plodding through
question and answer in many a weary enquiry or trial in which long
pages of evidence are given by officers who required an interpreter in
dealing with the men under them, the connection comes home
startlingly, that the greatest cause of the Indian Mutiny was the
ignorance of Englishmen. And this much is certain; that in every case
where incipient rebellion was quelled, where officers seemed to have
had some hold over their subordinates, the influence came through
"knowledge of the vernaculars."
Yet so great was the ignorance of England, that even General Hearsay,
a man noted for his tolerant friendliness with his sepoys, could write
on the 11th February 1857: "We have at Barrackpore been dwelling on a
mine ready for explosion."
Still some there were who saw, who feared and even gave expression to
their fears, like Sir Charles Metcalfe.
"I expect to wake some fine day and find India lost to the English
Fateful words, which might have come true but for the national
characteristic of Englishmen: their readiness to die in order to
retrieve the mistakes they have lived to make.
What, then, were those signs. There were many. Chief amongst them the
steady distribution northwards and westwards of the hearth-baked cake
which passed from the hands of one village watchman to the other, with
the mysterious message? "For the elders; from the south to the north,
from the east to the west." What did it mean? Heaven knows. Most
likely it was merely an attempt to arouse in the calm, steadfast lives
of the peasants in their fields, something of the unrest which was
being felt wherever native life impinged upon the life of the new
master. It failed, of course. Throughout the whole Mutiny, the India
of the wide wheat-fields, the flooded rice-patches, the sugarcane
brakes, the tall millet-stretches, and the snow-tufted cotton bushes,
dreamt on peacefully.
Then there was the general grievance, started craftily in Calcutta
and carried throughout every native regiment in India, of the
grease-defiled cartridges. Was the tale true or untrue? In the
beginning, at Dum-Dum, there may have been a possibility of suet
smearing. Afterwards there was none. But that mattered little.
Agitators, professional agitators, were abroad, and in India no lie is
too gross to be believed.
Then the commissariat flour was defiled purposely by bone dust--(it
may have been of malice prepense, for agitation in India sticks at
nothing); no righteous man could eat of it and live. This was a dish
prepared for the high-caste Brahmins, and Kshatriyas of Oude; and for
the Mussulmans a like poisoned plat was made ready by the English
shiftings and shufflings over the annexation of that country and the
deposition of its king.
Taking this, and a like anger from every decadent court in India, the
absolute brutality of the Mutiny ceases to be inexplicable. Every
scoundrel in India was against us. Doubtless, honest dread of
wholesale conversion, even a sense of duty, drove many fairly honest
men to murder; but the whole Mutiny was, so to speak, engineered by
lust of power which had passed.
The 34th Native Infantry began the ball at Barrackpore, about 100
miles north of Calcutta, and so within reach of the priestly power
that gathers always round Mai-Kali's famous and bloody shrine. Thanks
to General Hearsay's prompt action, it was quelled. The story of the
old man's gallop across the parade-ground, revolver in hand,
accompanied by his protesting son as aide-de-camp, is well worth
telling, but there is no time for it here. Then fires began to break
out in cantonments all over India, showing a state of unrest, which
made old General Hearsay give the warning so early as the 18th of
April, that "the Hindoos, generally, are not at present trustworthy
servants of the State."
By the 2nd of May his words were found true in Lucknow, where a
regiment of irregular cavalry--part of the late Nawab's marauding
army--mutinied openly over the greased cartridge question--which had
now so openly become a pretence--and was disarmed by Sir Henry
Lawrence's prompt action. But India had not an indefinite supply of
heroes and hard-headed old campaigners ready and able to cope with
danger, and the 10th May at Meerut found hopeless, helpless weakness.
In order to abate the growing grievance of the cartridge, orders
had been issued that they were no longer to be bitten as of old,
but torn, thus obviating, it was thought, all possible danger of
caste-defilement. It was a mistaken order, since it gave credence to
the lie of their being greased at all. Consequently, the 3rd regiment
of Light Cavalry (Oude-recruited almost to a man) refused even to
handle them. On the 9th of May, eighty-five men, condemned to ten
years' penal servitude for mutiny, were, by General Hewitt's senseless
severity, degraded publicly before the whole garrison, and marched off
to prison; he the while watching the proceedings complacently from his
buggy, for he had already been removed from the Peshawar command on
account of physical unfitness for duty.
Ere twenty-four hours had passed, he proved himself also mentally
unfit to grapple with a great emergency. Meerut was in flames, women
and children lying murdered, yet His Majesty's 60th Rifles, the 6th
Dragoon Guards, the European Artillery, and no small loyal contingent
from the native regiments, were cooped up, inactive; not even one man
sent to warn Delhi, but 30 miles away!
How the heart aches as one reads of brave men on their knees begging
for a squadron! Only a troop! For a gun! for anything! wherewith to
dash down the broad, white road, and guard the way to Delhi--begging,
and being refused!
All one can say is that, inadvertently, General Hewitt did good
service to his country, in that his folly precipitated, and made
premature, an outbreak which, had it gone on to full growth, would
surely have lost us India for a time.
"To Delhi! To Delhi!" That was the one cry of the half-dazed
mutineers, feeling freedom full in their faces; unexpected,
unhoped-for freedom. Yet, even so, the old habit was strong on them.
They must have a master; if the new one hid like a coward, they must
find another. And at Delhi was the representative of the House of
Timur, of Akbar, whose memory still lingered in the hearts alike of
Hindu and Mahomedan. He, the man without a State-religion, the man who
had held the balance true, to whom all religions equal, was master
indeed! Whether old Bahadur-Shah, his degenerate descendant, who since
Akbar II.'s death had dozed and dreamed away a drugged life full of
causeful and causeless complaints, was in the plot beforehand, or
whether it took him by surprise to find himself acclaimed King instead
of Puppet, is a moot point. All that is to be known of this is, that a
nine months' trial--a trial, be it remembered, by a victorious,
autocratic accuser which thus, in a country like India, where strength
ever goes to the strong, could have its pick of witnesses--failed to
find evidence of complicity.
Not that it mattered, save to one poor, dottled old man saved thus
from the hangman's noose, whether he knew or did not know. Events
marched with terrible rapidity, murderous certainty, whether the
palace gave orders for them or whether it watched, stupefied,
expectant. The Ridge was swept clear of Englishmen, women, children,
save for the few who sought refuge in the Flagstaff Tower, thus
deferring for a time their inevitable fate. Dawn had brought the first
troopers to shoot down the captain of the palace guards and savagely
to cut to pieces Simon Fraser, the Commissioner, who attempted to
harangue them, and all day long massacre had gone on unabashed; but
even the blood-drunken assassins paused and held their breaths when at
sunset, with a great roar, a shaking of solid earth which by force
made the bodies of the mutineers shiver, the "Glorious Nine" in the
Arsenal sent their message of defiance to the skies. Truly, that
blowing-up of the magazine by the "Nine"-by Willoughby, Forrest,
Scully, Buckley, and five others--may be likened to the roar of the
British Lion, as yet half-asleep.
It was the only note of defiance that was heard at Delhi for five long
Women and children were murdered; the Palace, roused from its
dreamings, took the goods the Gods gave--and small blame to it, seeing
how coincident had been the dwining of the Moghuls' power with the
widening of English influence; the mutineers looked in each others
faces, almost appalled at their own success; yet still the master made
no sign. Truly had it been said that their rule was but to be one
hundred years, and was not this the centenary of Plassey, when
Sabat-Jung, the "Daring in War," had first laid finger on Hindustan?
If the "Daring in War" had been here now! That was a thought which
surely must have been in the minds of many of these hereditary
soldiers whose fathers may have fought against Clive. But there were
no such sahibs nowadays; Suraj-ud-daula--on whom be peace!--had said
sooth when he held the English but a small nation--scarce ten thousand
warriors all told!
In good sooth, however, there was some excuse for inaction. Of
personal courage--take a stronger word and say heroism--there was no
lack, but of national preparedness, nothing. Mutiny spread like
mushroom spawn in the dark, and everywhere took authority by surprise,
so holding back the power which otherwise would have been free for
giving help where help was needed. Fortunately, some places found a
man able and willing to take the lead. At Benares, two hundred
Europeans faced and overpowered two thousand sepoys, chiefly owing to
the personal vitality of Colonel Neill, and at Lucknow Sir Henry
Lawrence, after crushing one rebellion, was calmly making his
preparations for the next, which he knew must come ere long. Whether
in his sagacious head lay the thought that by holding Lucknow at all
costs he might lessen the pressure of Delhi, and so divert the
attention of some mutineers from that central point, who can say? But
his action undoubtedly saved the whole situation. Had Lucknow--the
defenders--gone, thus setting free the hordes of rebels investing it,
the forlorn hope of attackers who clung to the Red Ridge of Delhi in
almost helpless defiance all the long hot summer could not have held
So when the question is raised as to which heads the list of
importance in this history of the Mutiny--the Defence of Lucknow or
the Forlorn Hope of Delhi--the only possible answer is, that they both
form part and parcel of the one desperate effort to retain hold of
Empire in India.
The fact that a whole month elapsed ere the blow given at Meerut was
returned, made the task of the Red Ridge a harder one. But for the
loyalty of the Punjab the counterblow might have been even longer in
coming. Sir John Lawrence, however, was at Lahore, and none of the
Lawrences ever failed their country. Still, Fate was unkind, and
Englishmen--brave, patriotic Englishmen--still more unkind
in their lack of comprehension. When the blow was finally struck at
Budli-keserai, and the mutineers ran pell-mell for Delhi, 6 miles off,
they were not followed, though the Kashmir and the Mori gates were
open wide, though the populace were waiting, waiting, watching for the
master's return. But we condemned Delhi unheard. We held every man in
it a rebel, and so, as night fell, the open gates were closed once
more. How many men's life-blood was spilt thereinafter in trying to
open them as wide again? God knows. So the army clung to the Red Ridge
instead, and as the heat grew and the rocks seemed to blister and the
sunshine to scorch, half of it gave up the struggle for a quiet sleep
in the shadow of Earth's breast. Even the generals died; but the
change of command brought no change in action, until, on the 5th of
August, a tall, lank, black-bearded man rode into camp ahead of the
relief column with which he had marched from Peshawar. It was John
By a curious coincidence, a faint echo of the challenging roar which
Willoughby and Forrest, Buckley and Scully, had sent to the skies just
three months before, greeted his entry as the powder factory in the
rebel camp blew up. But this was no challenge; it was a salute. Within
ten days of the arrival of the four thousand who had come to relieve
the six thousand on the Ridge, the battle of Nujufghur had been won.
On this occasion the troops under Nicholson marched 36 miles through a
morass, and fought a desperately hard fight in six-and-thirty hours.
But Nicholson did not spare others, because he did not spare himself.
Then ensued a wait of nine days, ere the siege-train arrived; a wait
that was full of work. The man saw what had to be done, and made up
his mind to do it, despite all difficulties placed in his way; for he
was but six-and-thirty, and the older officers had not his fire, his
It was on the 14th of September 1857, at three o'clock in the grey
dawn, that the assault of Delhi commenced: by noon it was taken, but
the man who had taken it lay shot through the breast. He had attempted
the impossible. He had seen his own regiment--Jacob's rifles, the 1st
Bengal Fusileers--hesitate, and hesitate perhaps rightly, seeing that
the storming of that lane by the Burne bastion had been attempted many
times and failed. So he had given the old call, "Forward, Fusileers!
Officers to the front!" and had led the way.
The rush did not fail that time. The Burne bastion was taken, but the
heart and soul of the man who had arisen for this purpose had orders
for recall. John Nicholson lay dying.
He lived to see the whole city taken, the English flag floating over
the Palace. Concerning the charge that drunkenness amongst the English
army was the cause of the five days' delay in achieving this end, much
has been written. Field-Marshal Earl Roberts, who was on the staff,
has given an authoritative denial to this charge, by stating that he
did not see a single drunken man throughout the day of the assault,
although in the "discharge of his duty, he visited every position held
within the walls."
This sounds satisfactory, were it not for the fact that this
inspection was immediately followed by a general order for fatigue
parties to destroy all liquor found in the shops (though some of it
was urgently needed by the hospital); and also for the subsequent
despatch which says, three days later, that an attempt to take the
Lahore gate had failed, "because of the refusal of the European
soldiers to follow their officers."
But Delhi was taken, and, practically, the Mutiny was at an end. For
the sepoys could not live without a master, and the master, a
trembling, distracted old man, had given himself up from his
hiding-place in his great ancestor Humayon's tomb, to Major Hodson, of
Hodson's Horse. Concerning the yielding up of, and the subsequent
shooting down of, the Delhi princes, much again has been written.
Whether honourably or treacherously given, they richly deserved their
fate; but the validity of the excuse that the shooting down was a
sudden necessity which arose out of the fact that rescue was attempted
while Major Hodson was conveying them under escort to Delhi, is
fatally injured by a tiny scrap of evidence, irrefutable absolutely.
Hodson's favourite orderly, in telling the story in after years,
invariably gives this detail: "Prince Abul-bakr wore a talisman on his
arm; so I said to Hodseyn-Sahib: 'Wait a bit, Huzoor! to kill him with
that on will bring ill-luck. I'll take it off ere we shoot him.'"
No hurry there, no stress of circumstances surely, to make the
immediate use of a revolver necessary?
But, once again, Delhi was taken. "If ever India needs a deed of
daring done, John Nicholson is the man to do it." So had said a
comrade-in-arms years before, and now the deed was done. Delhi, which
had focussed rebellion for four long months, was taken by assault.
And how of defence?
Lucknow still held out, despite the death of the man who had made
defence possible, for Henry Lawrence died from a shell-wound on the
4th July; but he left stout hearts behind him. And then, with all
justice be it said, the besiegers were but half-hearted. They must
have been so, else how could a scant garrison of fifteen hundred, in a
weak position, with scarce a palisade in some places between them and
the foe, have held their own against close on twelve thousand
soldiers, backed by the wildest, wickedest, most wanton town-rabble in
all India? And the population of Lucknow runs into hundreds of
Meanwhile, English troops on their way to China had been stopped and
diverted to India by telegraph; England, grasping the magnitude of the
disaster, was sending out regiment after regiment, and divisions were
being formed up and sent hither and thither to quell and to punish.
Amongst the commanders of these, Henry Havelock stands first, and at
the head of a movable column, started for Cawnpore in July. Too late
to save the beleaguered garrison, pent up foolishly in untenable
entrenchments; too late even to save the horrible tragedy of the well
at Cawnpore, into which, by the wanton wickedness of a courtesan, two
hundred English women and children were thrown, after being foully
They did not, however, die in vain; for from the moment the news of
the awful massacre reached the English camps there was no more
hesitation. Not by God, but by the slaughter-house at Cawnpore, every
man swore that retribution should be bitter and deep. How deep, how
bitter it was, it is not well to say. Let the dead past bury its dead.
It was hard for the British soldier to believe that the peasants whose
villages he entered in his forced marches scarcely knew that war was
abroad. But so it was. Within 20 miles of Delhi itself there are
villages which passed through the Great Mutiny time knowing no more of
it than that "the Toorkh"--the bugbear of Indian rustic life--had
appeared again. That sometimes with a dark face, sometimes with a
white one, he appeared, plundered the grain-stores, perhaps cut down a
man or two, mayhap ravished a woman, and then disappeared. That was
all. To the vast, the overwhelming majority of the people of India,
that was all!
But to those who had sworn by the festering, blood-stained well at
Cawnpore, all life seemed bound up in those two thoughts: "Will Delhi
fall ere we reach it to help?" "Will Lucknow hold out ere we can
There was so much to be done. All over the country isolated
resistances were staring death in the face bravely. At Arrah, half a
dozen civilians held a miserable thatched bungalow for days, almost
amusing themselves in its defence, strengthening its possibilities
with mud from the garden, and using their sporting rifles with deadly
effect on their foes. In another place a magistrate used his bulky
files to fortify the public office roof, writing afterwards to report
coolly that for impenetrability he could recommend a good criminal
case, full of hard swearing.
All this, and hundreds of other heroisms, filled up the long hot
summer of '57. The rains fell copiously, the crop was a bumper one,
the peasants, mercifully, had no time to think, even, of aught save
its harvesting and husbanding; there was so much to be done.
On the 25th of September, just five days after the final fall of
Delhi, Havelock and Outram, with a small force, had pushed their way
through to Lucknow, but, though the garrison was relieved, the
generals did not feel themselves strong enough to march out and face
the rebels. So once more, but now heartened up by the certainty of
success which came to every Englishman in India with John Nicholson's
daring deed, Lucknow waited for more help.
It came with Sir Colin Campbell's force on the 16th of November, when,
leaving Outram to hold the Alumbagh with three thousand five hundred
men, the general marched back as he had come, triumphantly carrying
with him the women, the children, and the sick.
Thus the Defence had ended, the Attack had succeeded, and only
By this time the Delhi column, set free from its task, had marched
southwards for further assault. Agra, Jhansi, Central India generally,
had to be settled, and settled they were satisfactorily.
By the 11th of May 1858 the Mutiny had disappeared, as the mutineers
themselves had disappeared on that fateful day in late September 1857,
when, having retreated--some fifty or sixty thousand strong--from
Delhi to the plains about Agra, the dusk found them encamped, still
coherent, still resolved on struggle, and the night glittered with the
watch-fires of a vast army. But the dawn, coming cloudily,
reluctantly, found only the dead ashes of a resolve that had passed in
the night; the men who had made it had vanished into thin air. They
were hurrying back to their homes, eager to be found peacefully at
work when the master should once more come on his tour of inspection.
The 2nd of August in that same year a bill for the "Better Government
of India" passed into law.
It had eighty-five sections, but its general object was to transfer
the whole administration of India from the Company to the Crown.
Whether better government has resulted, or not, is a question which it
is to be hoped the English reader of this mere sketch of Indian
history may be more qualified to judge than he (or she) was before the
perusal of these slight pages.