(BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 – continued)

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India's Sepoy Mutiny

India had hundreds of independent states, with the British ruling less than half of its total area. It was a rule motivated by commerce. From India, Britain's manufacturers were receiving raw cotton, and the British were exporting to India manufactured goods – one tenth of Britain's exports going to India. As the government for the British in India, the British East India Company was paying the expense of troops to defend their interests, saving the budget conscious British government this expense. Some of India's princely rulers were puppets of the East India Company. If such a prince failed to cooperate with the company, the company might dispose of him and annex his territory, ousting him from power using the Indian troops that it employed. Ninety-six percent of the company's army of 300,000 men in India were native to India.

Among common Indians the introduction of rail lines and telegraphy had spread fear of being overwhelmed by the British, and they feared that the British intended to Christianize them. Rebellion against rule by foreigners came in 1857 from those the British East India Company had hired as troops – the Sepoys. The British had introduced a new rifle which used rifle cartridges the end of which had to be bitten off before use, and the cartridges were rumored to be greased with oil made from animal fat – the fat of sacred cows being taboo to Hindus and the fat of pigs being repulsive to Muslims. In May 1857 a soldier shot his commander for forcing the Indian troops to use the new rifles. Violence against the British spread among the Sepoys, and it spread as leading landowners encouraged revolt among civilians, the landlords hoping to regain losses from land reform that the British had imposed on them. The revolt spread to Kanpur, on the Ganges River 250 miles southeast of Delhi, and it spread to Lucknow, 45 miles northeast of Kanpur. A leading participant in the rebellion was Bahadur Shah II, a Sufi Muslim belonging to the Mughal Dynasty, whose shaky diminishing empire, centered in Delhi, had been protected by the East India Company. Rebels looked to the Mughal shah the power that would drive the British from India. It was what Indians would view as their first war of independence and the British would call the Sepoy Mutiny.

The rebellion included attacks on various European civilians and on British women and children. The British press exaggerated, describing the rebels as tossing British babies into the air and bayoneting them for sport. But there were British women and children taken hostage at Kanpur when the rebels took control of that city, and on July 15, three days before an army under Britain's General Neill retook the city, the rebels slaughtered their hostages and threw the dismembered bodies into a deep well.

By September, one year after Europe's Crimean War had ended, Queen Victoria was writing about the horrors committed on women and children in India making "one's blood run cold." In a letter to her uncle, King of the Belgians, she wrote that events in India were "so much more distressing than the Crimea – where there was glory and honourable warfare, and where the poor women and children were safe."

The Kanpur massacre, as well as similar events elsewhere, were seen by some British as reason for unrestrained vengeance. The British "Army of Retribution" under General Neill committed its own series of atrocities in retaking Kapur.

India remained too divided for success against the British. It was divided in language, with Hindi spoken by only a third of the population, and Bengali by one-sixth. The powerful Indian state of Hyderabad was not interested in supporting the rebel leader, Emperor Bahadur Shah II. Other Indian states followed Hyderabad's example, and the Sikh warriors hired by the British also failed to join the rebellion.

The British public viewed their military officers serving in India as gentleman-warriors defending dignity, God's purposes and Britain's civilizing mission. There was talk of "the resolute vigor of the Anglo-Saxon race." The British viewed those Indians who supported the uprising as ungrateful and treacherous.

During the rebellion the British government took control of India from the East India Company, Britain's possessions in India henceforth to be governed by a government-appointed viceroy and the British government's colonial office. And a more friendly policy toward the Indians was considered. Queen Victoria was concerned, and she exercised the crown's interest in foreign affairs and its right to give advice and to be consulted on government policy. In a proclamation she promised to preserve the rule of Indian princes in return for loyalty to the British crown. Indians under British rule were to be British subjects, and they were promised their own governance over local affairs.

Queen Victoria wrote about attracting Indians with British generosity, about the privileges which the Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown, and the prosperity following in the train of civilization. note45

Historian Arthur Herman writes that the Sepoy Mutiny left "a permanent stamp of race fear in England" and Britain's defeat of the mutiny reinforced the British attitude that they "were born to rule and the Indians to obey." note46

The rebellion made a stand in central India, under Tatya Tope, a Brahmin Maratha leader. He was captured and executed in April 1859, and in July the British described the rebellion as all but defeated. The British claimed that only a few thousand rebels were still in the field, men "belonging to the most guilty regiments and those which murdered their officers."

The British exiled the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, to Burma and the Mughal Empire in India was formally liquidated.  Britain's Queen Victoria promised the Indian people equal treatment under British law. There remained, however, widespread mistrust of British rule.


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