The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was more than just a mutiny, although that was how it began. Of the 148 major units (battalions of infantry or regiments of cavalry) of the Bengal Army ninety-three mutinied or were disbanded as likely to mutiny. The Bombay and Madras armies were largely unaffected and the regiments of the Punjab remained loyal. Soon the mutiny became a rising as disaffected elements of the population joined the mutineers.
What it was not, despite the claims of today’s Indian politicians, was a war of independence – there was then no sense of Indian nationhood, the country at that time being made up of three British presidencies, a Portuguese territory (Goa) a French territory (Pondicherry) and 700 independent princely states, some of which were in a treaty relationship with the British. The causes of the rising were many and complex.
It was the culmination of a long period of unrest, an overstretch of resources with insufficient administrators, and a failure of leadership. With India at peace the better British army officers had sought employment in the Punjab, where there was the opportunity of active service on the frontiers, or in the political service, leaving the less able or the idle with the regiments. The General Service Act requiring soldiers to serve out of India was unpopular with Hindu soldiers and in any case there were too many high caste sepoys, while the arrival of Christian missionaries, despite the attempts by the East India Company to keep them out, gave rise to suspicion that the British were about to embark on forced conversion.
For a time British power in India hung by a thread, but eventually the rising was put down, largely by loyal Indian and Gurkha troops who formed eighty percent of the forces opposed to the mutineers, with British troops in a minority. The result was the abolition of the East India Company and the assumption by the Crown as the government of British India, the reorganisation of the armies to result, eventually, in one of the world’s finest all volunteer army and the recognition that forthwith the British Empire should exist for the good of its inhabitants.
My favourite books are firstly: The Raj by Lawrence James (Little, Brown & Company, London 1997. While not specifically about the Mutiny, although it is covered, this is a magisterial sweep of the history of British India from the arrival of the first traders of the East Indian Company with a charter from Elizabeth I to Indian independence in 1947.
Secondly I like The Indian Mutiny by Julian Spilsbury (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2007), which weaves together eye witness accounts, letters, reports and contemporary documents to tell the story of those momentous events.
Next would be Tony Heathcote’s Mutiny and Insurgency in India 1857-58 (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2007). In this book the author tells the story of the atrocities, ethnic cleansing and war crimes committed by both sides in what he considers was a ‘bloody civil war’.
The Indian Mutiny 1857, by Saul David, Penguin Viking, London, 2002) combines the writing of a gripping narrative with much new research, and challenges many of the accepted assumptions of the period. Finally, most histories of the Indian mutiny, at least those in English, are written from the British point of view.
William Dalrymple, in The Last Mughal (Penguin Viking, London, 2006) tells the story of the mutiny through the eyes of Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal who, as the titular king of Delhi, was reluctantly elevated to be the figurehead of the rising. Unlike most other writers Dalrymple has scoured the original sources written by the mutineers in Hindi and Urdu and has produced a fascinating counterpoint to the Anglo-centric view of the affair.