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Chapter XXXIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8


The Sepoy Mutiny: its Causes - Character of the Bengal Army: its Composition vices of its Discipline - Effects of Caste - Effects of Recruiting from a Limited Area - Effects of Seniority Promotion - Sepoys begin to feel themselves Masters - Weakness of European Garrison - The Occasion of Mutiny arises - The Greased Cartridge - Sepoy Excitement - Mysterious Distribution of Cakes - Mutiny at Berhampore - Fires in the Stations - Barrackpore - Mangul Pandy and Adjutant Baugh - The 19th Native Infantry Disbanded - General Anson at Umballa: his Doings: he goes to the Hills - Mutiny at Lucknow - 34th Native Infantry Disbanded - Meerut - Mutiny of the 3rd Cavalry - Mutiny of all the Troops - Massacre of Europeans - Imbecility of General Hewitt – "On to Delhi " - Delhi: its Situation - Arrival of the Meerut Mutineers- Massacres in Delhi - Narrow Escapes - Willoughby in the Magazine- Blows it up - Flight of Europeans - The King's Sons massacre the Women and Children.
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The stipulations of the Treaty of Paris had not been fully carried out by the high contracting parties, ere England found herself involved in war with Persia on the west, and China on the east of her Indian Empire. A few months of active hostilities brought the Shah to reason, and happily released the troops employed and enabled them to return to India; while the regiments sent out from England to quell the Cantonese arrived in the Indian Ocean just in time to lend material aid in suppressing the mutiny of the Sepoy army in Bengal, and the rebellion of the people of several native states. It was the spring time of 1857. Lord Canning had been one year Governor-General of India. The King of Oude had just been deposed, and his kingdom annexed to the British dominion. On the surface all was peace at the opening of the year. In a few weeks there was a sputter of mutiny; in a few months an army was in revolt from Calcutta to Peshawur; the English were lying dead, or flying for their lives, or fronting and conquering the mutineers, or shut up in forts; and the last of the Great Moguls was ruler in the famous city of Delhi. There was first a struggle for existence, then a fierce and determined effort to regain ascendancy; finally, well-planned and successful measures to secure what had been won back literally from the jaws of death. The mutiny of the Bengal Sepoys is an event unique in modern history. It furnishes a story of confidence abused, treachery punished, and heroism rewarded. It vindicates the moral superiority of the European over the Asiatic. But if it has illustrated our strength, it has also illustrated our weakness and folly, for from them it sprang.

The Bengal native army was upwards of a hundred thousand strong. It consisted of troops of all arms. There were seventy-four regiments of regular and twenty of irregular infantry; there were ten regiments of regular and eighteen of irregular cavalry; and besides these, there was a due proportion of artillery brigades. The distinction between regular and irregular regiments consisted mainly in this; that the regular had the usual number of European officers, while the irregular had only three or four. There was no substantial difference in drill and discipline. In addition to this fixed native establishment, there were five corps d'armée furnished by native states, and called contingents. They were drawn from Gwalior, Bhopal, Kotah, Malwa, and Joudpore. These were small armies complete in themselves; the Gwalior contingent, supplied by the Maharajah Scindia, was the most formidable of these forces, being strong in numbers of all arms, and admirably drilled. Like the regular and irregular regiments of the Bengal army, those of the contingents were officered by Europeans. In one short year the whole of this force, except five irregular cavalry regiments and three regular infantry regiments, and the whole of the contingents, had either mutinied or been disarmed.

In order to form any reasonable idea of the causes of the mutiny which we are about to describe, it is necessary to explain the nature of the instrument which broke in the hands of the rulers of India. In outward form it was splendid. From the drill-sergeant's point of view, few things in this world could be more perfect. The infantry were tall, shapely, handsome. They moved with precision and regularity. They made a brave show at parades. The cavalry were also well-made men, with a dashing bearing, and excellent horsemen. The artillery were famous for the neatness and accuracy of their movements, and their ability to serve and point their guns. Such was the appearance of these troops. Their officers were proud of them, and years of unquestioned fidelity and obedience had made these officers confident that their men would follow them anywhere. But, as Colonel Jacob wrote in 1851, "the thing was rotten throughout, and discipline there was none." The wonder to this real soldier was, even then, that " even the outward semblance of an army had still been maintained." For the officers of this army, from various causes, had ceased to possess a hold over the confidence and regard of the men. They were no longer accessible as of old. They lived apart. " Young men," writes Mr. Gubbins, "were no longer taught to take a pride in their regimental duty." They were taught to look out for staff employment, that is, employment in either civil or military tasks away from their regiments. It was not that there were few officers left behind to do the ordinary duty that caused the evil; it was "the want of interest felt in their work by the officers present with the corps." Nor was this the fault of the officers. It arose from a vicious system, gradually introduced, which deprived the commanding officer of his due share of power. "The commanding officer of a regiment in Bengal," wrote Colonel Jacob in 1851, "is almost powerless for good. He is allowed to do nothing; his men are taught to despise him; and in many instances of late years the Sepoys have been allowed and encouraged to forward written complaints (secretly) against their commanders direct to head-quarters. What can be worse than this? It is utterly destructive of military discipline and soldier like pride." To give an instance, a flagrant one known to ourselves. A smart Madras officer was appointed to an irregular cavalry regiment - a kind of employment much coveted. Being a good soldier, he was just, but strict. There were two Brahmins in the corps. They were insubordinate, and he dismissed them. The Brahmins complained direct to head-quarters, and an order came down from Calcutta directing the officer to reinstate the two men. With commendable spirit the officer resigned his lucrative post, stating that if the authorities required the restoration of these men, they must find another officer to do it, for with mutinous men in the ranks he would not answer for the discipline of the regiment. His resignation was accepted, and the two mutineers were restored. If this could be done in Madras, we may well conceive what could be done in Bengal. In short, the commanding officers had no longer the power to reward and punish, and the Sepoys knew it. What could give them a better idea of their own power?

Then there was the grave evil arising out of caste. The Bengal army was composed mainly of high caste men from Oude and Behar and Rohilcund. A very large part came from the same districts, and were relatives. The army was, in fact, a sort of military club, and caste, as in other clubs, determined admission or exclusion. But what were the consequences? The army became subject to the control of Brahmins and Fakirs. A man was not chosen on account of his fitness to be a soldier, but because he was tall and handsome and of high caste. "Whatever be his other qualifications," writes Colonel Jacob in 1851, as we must repeat, " if a man think that a stone with a patch of red paint on it is not to be worshipped as the Creator - still more, if he have been a shoemaker, &c. - he is not to be admitted into the ranks of the Bengal army, for fear of offending the lazy and insolent Brahmins. The consequences are ruinous to discipline. By reason of this, a native soldier in Bengal is far more afraid of an offence against caste than of an offence against the Articles of War, and by this means a degree of power rests with the private soldier which is entirely incompatible with all healthy rule. Treachery, mutiny, villany of all kinds, may be carried on among the private soldiers unknown to their officers, to any extent, where the men are of one caste of Hindoos, and where the rules of caste are more regarded than those of military discipline. To such an extent does this evil exist, that I have known a Bengal commanding officer express his regret at being compelled to discharge an excellent Sepoy, because the other men had discovered him to be of inferior caste, and had demanded his dismissal." By this subservience to caste all real power rested in the hands of the private soldier. Thus the Bengal Sepoy would not form what is called a "working party," and it was thought a perfect wonder that in Afghanistan, when fighting for life, a Sepoy regiment handled the spade. A native cavalry regiment would not unsaddle, picket, feed, and groom its horses - a host of inferiors, grooms and grass cutters, were kept for those purposes. To such an extent was this system carried that men were kept to strike the gongs at the guard-houses; the high-caste Sepoy would not do it. And all this time, while the troops of all arms in Bengal were petted and ruined in this way, on the ground that no rule of caste must be infringed lest it should lead to mutiny, in Bombay, Sepoys from the same villages in Bengal, relatives of the pampered gentlemen we have described, did all that their officers required of them, and drilled, lived, and slept side by side with men of many inferior castes. The army wherein caste was the first thing thought of, and discipline and a soldier's duties the second, mutinied from end to end. The army wherein caste was not considered remained faithful, and did good service against the mutineers. Nor was this all. Colonel Jacob's splendid regiment of Scinde Irregular Horse was composed to a very great extent of exactly the same material as that of the Bengal army. It was disciplined on sound principles, in accordance, as we may say, with the laws of Nature. Accordingly, it did anything and went anywhere at the orders of its officers.

But there were other evils in this unhappy Bengal army. The bad system of promotion was, in the opinion of Colonel Jacob, the worst of all. "In the Bengal army," he says, "the promotion of natives is made to depend on seniority only, so that if a man keeps clear of actual crime, and lives long enough, he must become commissioned officer, however unfit for the office. Under this system, the private soldier feels himself entirely independent of his officers; he knows that they neither hasten nor retard his advance in the service. He has nothing to do but to live and get through his duties with listless stupidity, and with the least possible trouble to himself. No exertion on his part can help him - neither talent, courage, fidelity, nor good conduct are of any avail. Confidence and pride in each other between men and officers cannot exist. There is no real co-operation; for the one being powerless to aid, the other becomes careless of offending. This is the effect on the private soldier. The system is equally, if not more baneful as respects the native officers, commissioned and non-commissioned. The whole of the native commissioned officers are entirely useless; the amount of their pay is a dead loss to the State; every one of them is unfit for service by reason of imbecility, produced by old age, or where, in rare instances, the man may not be altogether in his second childhood, he is entirely useless from having been educated in a bad school." Mr. Gubbins has given us a specimen of the subadar - that is, native captain - of Bengal and the subadar of Bombay. He met two in one village in Oude; they were both pensioners. "The old Bengal officer was worn out, and seemed to have acquired few ideas and little information during his long period of service." Nor is this any wonder, since he obtained his promotion simply by outliving his comrades. " The Bombay officer was a young man. He was exceedingly intelligent, and had acquired such a knowledge of men and things that one could converse with him with a certain feeling of equality." He had obtained his rank, not by long life, but by proofs of capacity and character.

With an army managed as this was, the really surprising thing is not that it mutinied in 1857, but that it did not mutiny years before. Except in the mere outward show, it was not an army at all, and all that was required to destroy it was opportunity. The fact that there were good officers in the Bengal army, beloved and trusted by their men, does not invalidate the opinion we have set forth. These officers had triumphed over the system, in so far as the system tended to make the Sepoy despise his officers; but they could not triumph over the system, in so far as it affected the men. That bad influence went on with unfaltering steadiness. Day by day the Sepoys felt that they became more and more the masters of India. Day by day a sense of their own importance grew and flourished in their breasts. They were able to conspire with safety under the very noses of the Europeans; and the gulf which separated them from their officers enabled intriguers to sow the seeds of mutiny unchecked and unseen. Thus the native army of Bengal became combustible, ready to take fire and flame up if a spark fell on it. This combustible state was not produced in a year or ten years; it had been growing for a quarter of a century. In short, it grew as the vicious system of depriving commanders of power was developed; as the Sepoys, on plea of caste, shirked more and more the duties of soldiers, and as the senile system of promotion by seniority produced its inevitable effects. The recent annexation of Oude, the late Russian war, the spread of British dominion beyond the Indus, the scanty garrison of Europeans actually in India in 1857 - these were only the collateral influences, and only to a limited extent causes. They were, indeed, rather occasions than causes; the root of the whole colossal evil being the absence of discipline in the Bengal army.

Let the reader figure to himself this army scattered about the country in military posts, from the eastern provinces on the Irrawaddy to spurs of the mountains beyond the Indus on the north-western boundary. Here they are gathered in brigades of two or three regiments of all arms; there stands a solitary regiment of infantry or cavalry; in another place a squadron or a company. From Fort William in Calcutta, up the valley of the Ganges, and beyond it across the Punjaub to Peshawur, ran a chain of military stations; throwing out detachments to the right and left, on one side towards the Himalayas and Nepaul, on the other over the jungles of Central India and Rajpootana, until the outposts touched those of Madras in Nagpore and the Deccan, and those of Bombay in the valley of the Nerbudda. In each of the stations there are the native lines with open parades in front, and the detached quarters of the European community; long rows of thatched dwellings, and cottages standing in gardens or "compounds." In some there are no European troops; indeed, so few are the Europeans in this vast region, that their presence is the exception and not the rule. For instance, the great fort and magazine of Allahabad, at the junction of the Ganges and Jumna, is in the hands of native troops. The fortified city of Delhi, with its two magazines, is entirely occupied by native infantry. In the whole of Oude there is only one European regiment, the 32nd, at Lucknow. At Cawnpore, a very important station, there are no Europeans. Mooltan, the key of the valley of the Indus, is, in like manner, almost destitute of Europeans. In other stations there are one or two European regiments or parts of regiments. Thus, at the great station of Dinapore there was the 10th foot; at Agra, the 3rd Bengal Fusiliers; at Meerut, a whole European brigade of all arms, 6th Dragoon Guards, 60th Rifles and artillery; at Lahore, the 81st Foot and some artillery; and at or near Peshawur, the 27th, 70th, and 87th Foot. In the hill-stations of the north-west and in the Punjaub, the European element was stronger than elsewhere, for there were fourteen regiments, including two of horse, scattered about in that quarter. There were thus about 12,000 Europeans north and west of Delhi, but there were upwards of 40,000 Hindostanees, and beside these several thousand Sikhs and Punjabees. Between the Jumna and the Nerbudda there was not a single European regiment. There were only the civil servants and the officers of the native troops with their wives and families. British India altogether was six regiments short of her complement of European troops; but four of these were in Persia making war on the Shah, and with them were Generals Outram and Havelock. Such was the state of affairs at the end of 1856, when India stood on the threshold of an awful calamity and knew it not. The country seemed to be profoundly tranquil, but there were 5,000 fewer British soldiers than was usual to secure or defend the sway of their race.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

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