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1857 Essay

History Notes > Empires and World History (c. 1400-1900) Notes

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"Not so much the First War of Independence as a scatter of localized rebellions". Discuss this view of the 1857 Mutiny-Rebellion. In 2007, the Government of India celebrated the 150th anniversary of "India's First War of Independence". The very use of the term to describe the Mutiny-Rebellion of 1857 more than half a century after V. D Savarkar popularised it and Jawaharlal Nehru's independent Indian government adopted it speaks for the hallowed status the episode has attained and still enjoys in a segment of the Indian popular consciousness. Yet, for all the romantic mythology - created by both the Indian and the British side - that surrounds the revolt, there is arguably little apart from its greater scale and short-term success that can distinguish it from previous military and civil uprisings in India, either against the company raj or the indigenous polities that came before. Like these, the events of 1857 can be explained as a series of local uprisings with disparate grievances
- social, political and above all economic - not all of which were necessarily born of principled opposition to British rule. Indeed, the disunity of various rebel groups and even their occasional hostility towards one another along ancient factional, religious or regional lines has led some commentators to characterise the episode as a civil war rather than a revolt. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss out of hand the idea that 1857 represented something new: coincidence does not explain concurrent outbreaks of concerted opposition in Delhi, Awadh and central India, as well as the many small outbreaks elsewhere. Nor can we ignore the emergence at the rebellion's symbolic centre of Delhi of an overarching ideology of rebellion, which proclaimed the revival of the Mughal empire and couched opposition to the British in ethnic and religious - if not proto-'nationalistic' - terms, making particular use of the Islamic concept of jihad against foreign intruders. The question thus becomes whether this ideology lay at the heart of the rebellion - fuelling a movement that was, if a little incoherent, united in principle; or alternatively whether it was a superficial creation, limited to the elite surrounding the court at Delhi and intended to justify opposition and encourage unity where little existed. While religious millenarianism and anti-colonial sentiment played enjoyed wide currency in the rebellion en masse, the most pressing concerns of most local communities probably remained threats to their purses, and to their honour. At first glance, rebellion in the three major centres that rose up - the Northwest Provinces, Awadh and central India - was driven by different broad motivations, which encourages us to think of them as disparate movements. In the font of trouble, the Northwest Provinces, the main driving force was not popular sentiment, but the discontent of the army. Here above all the civil rebellion seems to have an extension of the army mutiny. The rumour that cartridges supplied to the sepoys for use with the new Lee Enfield rifle were greased with cow fat, which apparently sparked off the uprising, was clearly of direct concern to soldiers above all others, and this was only the most recent in a succession of grievances the Bengal army had developed against its white commanders. The 1856 General Services Enlistment Act had antagonised sepoys by forcing them to commit to potentially contaminating service abroad; the British policy of widening the range of castes and regional groups from which the army recruited was an affront to the Rajputs and Brahmins from Benares and Awadh who had until then been the mainstay of the native forces; and the invasion of Awadh in 1856 was not only a blow to the status of soldiers from that region, but had economic consequences for
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