There had been rumblings of disaffection for months before, signals that read portentous in retrospect but passed by the oblivious occupation army. That March, aggrieved at having been issued new ammunition cartridges rumored to have been prepared with pig and cow fat in offense to both Muslim and Hindu soldiery,* Mangal Pandey wrote himself into India’s nationalist lore by mutinying at Barrackpore.
Pandey’s own revolt fizzled, and saw him hanged.
But he’s remembered as the precursor of the much wider rebellion that ensued.
On Sunday, May 10th — the British garrison’s guard was down for religious services — sepoys at Meerut mutinied, too. Just the day before they had seen 85 of their own brothers in arms provocatively marched in chains after refusing the controversial cartridges.
Now, they fell upon their commanding officers, and on their families and British civilians in an wave of pent fury. Brits misforunate enough to be caught in it spent the dark hours that night as prey.
“Never was dawn more welcome to us than on the 11th of May,” one Englishwoman who survived the harrowing night wrote. “The daylight showed how complete the work of destruction had been. All was turned into ruin and desolation, and our once bright happy home was now a blackened pile.”
Meerut is just 60 kilometers or so from Delhi, and the mutineers soon made for that city — where the last Mughal Emperor, 81-year-old Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, “reigned” as Prince of Delhi. In reality, he was a pensioned ward of the East India Company … but symbolically, he was the heir to a once-mighty empire.
The rebels fell on Delhi, slaughtering Englishmen and women who had not been quick enough to escape the city, and looting opportunistically. Zafar tsk-tsked the disorder but he and most of his princes joined the revolt. Why not? The Company had already made known that the imperial title would disappear with Zafar’s death; here was the one last chance to restore the Mughal dignity.
This ride on the tiger would prove instead to be the final destruction of Zafar’s house.
On May the 16th, the sepoys, who were far from deferential to the emperor they proposed to raise up, demanded 52 European prisoners that Zafar’s courtiers were holding — holding instead of murdering, a restraint the sepoys angrily suspected was calculated as a potential future sop to the returning British. By putting those prisoners all to sudden death, they relieved the emperor of any avenue for compromise, binding him inescapably to the insurrection.
From William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal:
The sepoys then called for the prisoners, who were being kept and fed by Zafar in a room beside the Palace kitchens, not far from the Lahore Gate. They bound them and took them to a peepul tree near the shallow tank in front of the Palace drum house, the Naqqar Khana, and began to taunt them that they were about to be slaughtered.
According to Jiwan Lal, “the King and his courtiers stood like dumb puppets” at first, horrified by what the sepoys were contemplating. “Then the King ordered the sepoys to separate into parties, Mahommedans and Hindus, and he appealed to each to consult their religious advisers to see if there was any authority for the slaughter of helpless men and women and children.” “Their murder can never be allowed,” said Zafar, adding that the Queen was also wholly opposed to any massacre. Sa’id Mubarak Shah recorded that
the king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them “take care — for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?” But the Mutineers refused to listen and replied “we’ll kill them, and in your palace, so that whatever the result you and we shall be considered one in this business, and you will be thought equally guilty by the English.”
… the King continued to argue with the sepoys and refused to give his consent to the murder, but was eventually silenced …
When Zahir saw that the sepoys were preparing to go ahead with the slaughter, he begged the hakim to make a last effort to stop the massacre: “I told him that I had seen the prisoners being taken out,” he recorded later,
and I was afraid that they were about to kill them, and that he must do something quickly to stop them. To this I got a reply, “What can I do?” I told him this is the time to prove our loyalty, and that if he wanted to save the King then he had to try and persuade the rebels to stop this crime and save the prisoners, otherwise the English would come and level Delhi and turn it into an empty wasteland in revenge for this spilling of innocent blood. Ahsanullah Khan replied, “You are still a child. You do not realize that in public life a man must use his reason rather than give way to his emotions. If we try to dissuade the rebels now they will kill us before they kill the English, and then they will kill the King.”
It was anyway too late. By the time Ahsanullah had finished speaking, the sepoys and the Palace mob had got to work.
They made the prisoners sit down, and one of them fired his carbine at them. After this two of the King’s personal armed retainers killed all the Europeans, men, women and children, with their swords. There were about 200 Mussalmans standing at the tank, uttering the coarsest abuse at the prisoners. The sword of one of the king’s retainers broke. After the slaughter, the bodies were taken on two carts, and thrown into the river. This occurrence caused a great excitement amongst the Hindus throughout the city, who said that these Purbeas who had committed this heinous and atrocious cruelty could never be victorious against the English.
For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. The sepoys were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.
Three weeks later, the British besieged Delhi. When the city succumbed that September, it lay at the mercy of a foe which had been incited to spectacularly furious revenge. Vengeful fantasies of razing Delhi to the ground and slaughtering its denizens en masse were openly mooted; if the actual reprisal never attained that scale, it was still wildly indiscriminate. Dalrymple once again:
Everywhere the British convinced themselves that the atrocities committed by the sepoys against their women and children absolved them of any need to treat the rebels as human beings: “Since they had butchered our defenceless women and children,” wrote Colonel A. R. D. Mackenzie, “we would have been more than human, we would have been less than men, if we had not exterminated them as men kill snakes wherever they meet them.” It soon became exceptional among the British to regard anyone on the opposite side of the battle lines as even belonging to the same species: “I [simply] cannot consider these sepoys human beings,” wrote Captain J. M. Wade, “and it is only common practice to destroy them as reptiles.” George Wagentrieber helped fan such flames from his new Delhi Gazette Extra printing press in Lahore: “Our army is exasperated almost to madness by what they have seen of the brutality of the insurgents,” he expostulated in one editorial.
Moreover, as far as many of the British troops were concerned, their fury and thirst for revenge were not so much a desire as a right enshrined in the Bible. One British soldier, “Quaker” Wallace, was in the habit of bayoneting his sepoy adversaries while chanting the 116th Psalm. As General Neill put it, “The Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life.” Padre Rotton was in full agreement. The rebels did not realise, he wrote, that the Uprising was in fact
a battle of principles, a conflict between truth and error; and that because they had elected in favour of darkness, and eschewed the light, therefore they could not possibly succeed. Moreover, they had imbrued their hands in the innocent blood of helpless women and children, and that very blood was [now] appealing to heaven for vengeance. The appeal was unquestionably heard. The Lord could not do otherwise than be avenged on such a nation as this.
1857 marks the textbook end date for the Mughal Empire.
For his support of the rebellion, and his failure to avert the May 16 massacre of prisoners, Zafar was deposed and sent to exile in Burma, where he wrote his own epitaph in Urdu verse:
I asked for a long life, I received four days
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.
The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb
How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.
Many of Zafar’s sons and grandsons were killed (at least 29 by execution, according to Dalrymple) as the revolt was crushed.