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China-India standoff: a perspective from the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857

By Warren Reed - posted Thursday, 6 August 2020

In early July 2020, Chinese and Indian forces clashed in the Galwan Valley on the disputed border between the two countries at the edge of the remote Aksai Chin Plateau. It seems that the skirmish was brought on by China to test the mettle of Indian forces, a senseless example of bullying that saw lives lost on both sides.

As the Chinese regularly poke and prod the Indians, it might benefit them to look at how the Great Mutiny, or what the Indians refer to as their First War of Independence, came close to seeing the British off some 160 years ago. There's an interesting story behind what actually happened in 1857, but first here's the scope of the Mutiny and what's seen as the trigger that set it off.

At the time, India was controlled by the East India Company under its Charter from the British Parliament. The EIC maintained three separate armies, one each in the 'presidencies' or the administrative units into which they had divided India. These were known as the Bengal Army, covering the north, the Bombay Army in the west and the Madras Army in the south. It was only the Bengal Army that mutinied, with the other two remaining largely unaffected. The total number of soldiers in these armies was 238,000, made up of 200,000 Indian sepoys, as the local soldiers were known, and 38,000 Europeans. The Bengal Army consisted of 128,000 sepoys and 23,000 Europeans and at the time of the Mutiny 13,000 of those European soldiers were stationed in the Punjab, in the north-west of the country. The rest were thinly dispersed between Calcutta, the EIC headquarters in Bengal in the east and where the Governor-General resided, and Meerut, north of Delhi where the Mutiny broke out in May 1857. Peculiar to the Bengal Army was its predominance of Rajputs and Brahmans, the superior castes of Hindus who had their own distinct habits covering food and worship.


While the Mutiny was carefully planned, the trigger that set it off came in March of that year when Mangal Pandey, now one of India's national heroes but then a young sepoy of good repute with the 34th Native Infantry took a stand. He was stationed in an area where there were normally no British troops, but suddenly a detachment arrived, with the promise of more to come. Their mission was to bring in another Native Regiment for disarming on account of its sepoys having refused to bite on newly-issued greased cartridges, which were rumoured to contain fat from cows and pigs. Pandey, who was held in high esteem and affection by his fellow sepoys, took a stand against this and when his colleagues were ordered to arrest him they refused. He attacked two British officers who stepped in and was nearly killed in the resulting fracas. He was court-martialled not only for that attack but for inciting his fellow sepoys to mutiny and was executed. Other Indian soldiers refused to bite the greased cartridges and within days, at a cantonment at Meerut, north of Delhi, a full-scale revolt broke out, with Delhi soon captured.

Battles raged across northern and central India, focused mainly on the cities of Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur (which the British called Cawnpore) and Jhansi. There were only feeble demonstrations of discontent in the Bombay Presidency and no disturbances at all in the Madras Presidency. Despite the "extraordinary zeal" for an end to British rule that the general Indian populace displayed in many Indian states, most rulers hedged their bets. In some places, sepoy regiments flatly refused to join the rebellion even when their local rulers urged them to. Nevertheless, the fighting that raged across the country was brutal and thousands of lives were lost on both sides, with atrocities similarly committed. The British were especially vengeful when the Mutiny was finally quelled a year later.

But the story to be told here is not that of the military engagements involved. Rather, it is that of how the Mutiny was planned and by whom and why. That actually had little to do with the sepoys themselves. It began in the latter part of the 18th century, when EIC governor-generals like Lord Cornwallis (who had lost the American colonies in the War of Independence) and Warren Hastings largely devoted their energies to internal reforms, with little interference with Indian rulers. It was during the governor-generalship of Lord Wellesley (1798-1805), older brother of the future Duke of Wellington, that further territorial gains were made and more Indian rulers brought into alliance with the Company. By the time of Wellesley's recall in 1805, the Marathas – a proud and traditional power group spread across northern and western India and centred in Poona – were the only competing force for the sovereignty of the country. The Marathas, renowned for their warrior spirit, had also produced endless generations of statesmen, generals, scholars, thinkers, artists, poets and writers.

Wellesley was followed by Lord Minto who again focused on internal reform rather than annexation. It was during his time that the question of the admission of missionaries into India became a hotly debated issue. Minto was steadfastly against this, but eventually a Bishop of Calcutta and three Archdeacons were appointed, all paid for from Indian funds. Minto's successor, however, driven by the EIC's boundless greed, reverted to annexation and in 1818 the Marathas' territories and wealth were taken over. The Company's power over the major part of India was now paramount. The Peshwa, the Maratha ruler, was sent into exile in northern India with his family and court. The place chosen was Bithoor, a small town of great antiquity and significance on the banks of the Ganges, some 30 kilometres from Kanpur. It is where Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, propagated the human race on earth. Because the Peshwa, Baji Rao, was stripped of his army and dominions and was reduced to extremities, he was placed at the generosity of the British, who granted him a pension.

When he and his large retinue took up residence in Bithoor a jagir, or proclamation, was issued that exempted him and all of his followers from the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal courts of the EIC. Because Baji Rao was a man of learning Bithoor soon became a place of pilgrimage for scholars, and coupled with its religious heritage took on an atmosphere of great piety. It was renowned throughout the country.

Trouble started in 1851 when Baji Rao died leaving no direct male heir. By his will, he had bequeathed all his property to his adopted son who was known as Nana Saheb and seen as his successor. The Company recognised this inheritance but refused to continue the late Peshwa's annual pension of some £100,000; nor was Nana Saheb allowed to succeed to his adoptive father's privileges including immunity from the process of the British courts. This was narrow-minded and mean-spirited, especially in light of the close relationship that Baji Rao and Nana Saheb had developed with the British community. The Company was to pay for it dearly.


Nana Saheb, 28 at this time, was a striking figure. He had studied Sanskrit and was steeped in its culture, and was also proficient in Persian and Urdu. He was adept with a rifle and was a swordsman and horseman. On top of this he was well informed on the affairs of the British Government at home and abroad, knowledgeable about English history, arts and customs and well acquainted with the tenets of Christianity. Despite this, when he appealed to the governor-general in Calcutta to have Baji Rao's pension continued this was refused, even though some British officers familiar with the situation recommended that at least part of it be paid.

Nana Saheb then sent to London his personal secretary, Azimullah Khan, to plead his case. Azimullah, in his late twenties, was of humble birth and had started as a footman in Baji Rao's palace. But he was also unusually good looking and highly intelligent, having studied at a mission school and acquiring an outstanding fluency in English and French. He reached London in 1853 at a time when it was evident that the EIC was not governing India well. Immediately prior to the renewal of the Company's Charter in that year, the India Reform Society in London, formed in March of 1853 to further the cause of Britain's Indian subjects, had warned of this. The British Parliament had, in the 1830s, already passed major reform bills of its own.

Azimullah Khan was cordially welcomed into London society, and with almost every Indian visiting England seen as a prince or a nawab, he was immediately thought to be one of this class. After all, he carried with him diamonds and expensive Kashmiri shawls and, along with his charming personality, enchanted English women of distinguished families. He was extended "all sweet flattery" and soon made a name for himself among the titled ladies of London. It was said that when he strolled in a park crowds of women gathered to study this great Prince of India, as he came to be known. Not a few English women showed a keen desire to marry him and wrote the most revealing letters expressing their feelings.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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