Could the Indian mutiny of 1857 have been successful

Revolt against the white sahibs

In 1757, Clive laid the foundation stone for the British Empire in India at the Battle of Plassey. A hundred years later, North India rose against foreign rule. But India's first war of independence ended in defeat.

The garrison town of Meerut is located around 60 kilometers northeast of Delhi. From the beginning of April the temperatures rise relentlessly until everything sinks into glistening heat and brown dust in the pre-monsoon season. In the early days of May, the evening hours can still bring a slight cooling. Stroll through tree-lined avenues to St. John's Church, the oldest church in northern India, which was consecrated in 1822. A guard opens the door to the spacious classical building. In the semi-darkness one can make out a number of grave inscriptions below the gallery. Later, in the largely overgrown cemetery, one finds gravestones on which the barbaric and early death of British officers and women is lamented, who, 150 years ago, were called "Indian Mutiny" by the British and by the Indians as " First War of Independence ┬╗called the uprising of the Sepoys had lost their lives.

warning sign

May 10, 1857 was a Sunday and everything seemed to be going as usual in the British garrison. In the morning the officers had gone to church with their memsahibs and children. After the sumptuous lunch, everything sank into the afternoon stupor. Even the pankawallah, who patiently served the large fan attached to the ceiling, was unable to bring any relief. Half-dazed people would wake up from their siesta when the sun began to set in the late afternoon. One more time went to mass or for a walk in the early evening hours before the rapidly falling darkness spread over the parched north Indian plains.

Legion is the literature on the "Indian Mutiny", and many an author, with the favor of the late born, said that there had already been numerous warning signs of growing unrest among the native British troops before May 10th. At the beginning of 1857 protests broke out in Dum Dum, not far from Calcutta, over the use of new bullets.

These were greased, and rumors quickly spread that cow and pork fat had been used, which was a sacrilege for Hindus and Muslims alike. The execution of an insubordinate Indian soldier, Mangal Pandey, created additional unrest. But on the afternoon of May 10th, the British officers and their families in Meerut had gone to their siesta, carefree and certain that they would rule India for a long time to come. Nobody was prepared for what would tragically turn out to be a few hours later.

After the telegraph connection was cut, local foot soldiers attacked the white officers and their families. The rebels were outraged by the severe punishment of regimental colleagues who had resisted the use of the new bullets. The hunt soon spread to the hated strangers throughout the garrison. Many seized the opportunity to loot and pillage the residences of the British officers. Already in the first hours of the mutiny the basis for what is probably the most powerful myth of the "Indian Mutiny" was created.

English newspapers should report extensively on the cruelty of the insurgents towards women and children. Victorian England, especially after the Kanpur massacre at the end of June 1857, was only too willing to take up the racist descriptions of the brutal, animal brown-skinned people who assaulted the white, innocent virgins and mothers. Significantly, the heroic deeds of the locals, who, even in Meerut, had brought the British to safety at great risk for their own lives, should hardly be mentioned.

Departure and failure

Today, the suburbs of Delhi are less than an hour's drive from Meerut. At that time, 150 years ago, after getting rid of the foreign officers, the rebels were supposed to make their way to Delhi at night and arrive there in the morning hours of May 11th. The destination was an ancient resident of the Red Fort in the former imperial city, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last descendant of the once powerful Mughal dynasty. Aurangzeb, who had ascended the peacock throne exactly a hundred years earlier, had extended his rule over almost the entire subcontinent. The last Mughal ruled Delhi for a few square kilometers. Nevertheless, and this suggests that the rebellion was not just a spontaneous act by dissatisfied foot soldiers, the insurgents had recognized the high symbolic value of the approval of their action by the descendants of Babur, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The connection with the rule of the Mughals made the usurpatory nature of the British Raj all the more clear, and it was indeed possible to claim that the Bharat, humiliated by the foreigners, should be restored to the dignity of sovereignty.

After some hesitation, the old man in the Red Fort decided to give the rebels his blessing, an act for which he was to pay for by going into exile eleven months later. The uprising began to spread quickly in the scorching hot summer weeks and months. The British garrisons were besieged and stormed in Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow. It was not until late autumn that the tide finally turned in favor of the British. After it had temporarily even appeared possible that Clive's successor would have to move in the Union Jack in the dazzling white governor's palace in Calcutta, the victorious British embarked on a brutal campaign of revenge, in the course of which the magnificent Oudh (Lucknow) became a real Sacco di Roma was delivered.

When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, the Indian possessions, with a population of nearly 100 million, were ruled by just 50,000 British people. The legitimate question therefore arises as to why the uprising was unsuccessful with such a disproportion between rulers and ruled. The answer can be found in the principle that the British had implemented with great skill around the world: divide and rule. The insurgents had no chance because they were at odds among themselves, because their leadership was weak and poorly coordinated, and because many compatriots themselves met with great distrust. The Sikhs, recently subjugated by the British Raj, were reluctant to go to war again. The Gurkhas remained unwaveringly loyal to their paymasters. Hardly anyone moved in the Bombay and Madras Presidency, and in Delhi itself, as with many a Hindu Raja, the symbolic tribute that the insurgents paid to the last Mughal was viewed with great suspicion. It was not forgotten that the Muslim foreign rulers of India were often not squeamish with the Hindus.


Regardless of the failure, the "Mutiny" should have long-term consequences. On November 1, 1858, the East India Company was dissolved and rule over India passed from a private enterprise to the British Crown. From then on, the former governor general was to bear the informal title of viceroy. Finally, in 1877, Disraeli gave his beloved queen a new title, that of the "Empress of India". The last British monarch to bear the Indian imperial title was the father of today's Queen. But all the glamor of late Victorian imperialism was not supposed to save the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Great Britain was bled to death by the First World War, and finally Mahatma Gandhi, whom Churchill had described in imperialist arrogance as a "half-naked fakir", was to complete the work begun by the insurgents in 1857.

Urs Schoettli