1857: Mangal Pandey, rebellious sepoy

On this date in 1857, ten days before the scheduled date for his execution, Mangal Pandey was hanged at Barrackpore, India, for mutiny against his British officers — a death sentence at the intersection of technology, faith and empire that would prefigure India’s first large-scale rebellion against English authority.

For a man of whom much is written and ponderous historical weight is imputed, Mangal Pandey is a mysterious character. Little is known of his life save the very end of it; its significance, as is so often the case, derives from the larger history that preceded and followed it on the subcontinent.

The march of industry was driving better and better ways to kill people, and to this end the British were upgrading old smoothbore firearms with more accurate rifled weapons. Early in 1857, Indian forces got the Pattern 1853 Enfield.

Soldiers of the day loaded their guns by biting open a paper cartridge, which Indian troops had been doing for years. But the Enfield cartridge, coated with a waterproofing grease, smelled or tasted different to many — and rumors spread that it was manufactured with pork lard (which would be an affront to Muslims) or beef tallow (which would be an affront to Hindus).

Controversially, this book says Pandey “is part of that imagination of historians. He had no notion of patriotism or even of India.”

The British didn’t take seriously the potential implications of this postulate among a population already resentful of aggressive Christian proselytizing. When a general petitioned for the expediency of switching back to the old cartridge paper, he got a characteristic response:

“Concessions made to the murmurs and threats of an ignorant race only increase their perversity and folly.”

On March 29, Pandey — possibly high — went on a protracted rampage on the parade grounds. The Indian soldiery resisted orders to restrain him, although it also did not answer Pandey’s incitement to mutiny, leaving the sepoy to a solitary performance in which he fought off in melee two British officers. Only the arrival of a general — the one who had wanted to replace the cartridges — mastered the situation.

The verdict was a foregone conclusion, but the criminality of Pandey’s outburst from the standpoint of the British military is a much easier matter to establish than the chain of events elevating him into national hero. Pandey lived his life forward, but his noteworthiness derives from retrospection.

A month after he hanged, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 broke out, an event (debatably) construed as an Indian War of Independence, dramatically recontextualizing the Barrackpore hanging. His exhortations about the cartridges, about “our religion”, suggest him as a like-minded martyr, but there is almost nothing to firmly establish why he did what he did. He even declined to defend himself at trial.

None of this undermines his place in India’s national pantheon, and perhaps Pandey’s own blank backstory facilitate his mythological adoption. A 2005 Indian film, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, recently placed it on the silver screen, drawing criticism both for naive Indian nationalism and for insufficient reverence for the title character.

Its rendition of Pandey’s conviction and hanging are here:

Update: BBC radio’s In Our Times takes on the 1857 mutiny.

* A weapon widely used by both sides in the U.S. Civil War.

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