The revolt of 1857: First war of Independence

4 Nov 2022  Read 8681 Views

The revolt of 1857, also known as the Indian mutiny or Sepoy Mutiny, was the first-ever fight for independence by the Indians. A landmark event in Indian history that marked the defeat of the East India Company and the rule of the Crown of England. Of course, it cannot be summed up briefly as there is a hell lot to know about such a war. So, do not miss anything here. People usually tend to discuss the failures of this revolt, but it also marked a milestone towards Hindu- Muslim unity. Therefore, let's touch on this aspect as well in this article.

We will discuss the storyline or history of the revolt of 1857, its causes, leaders, failures, impacts and many more. Let's get started!

Firstly you must know that there were two major views on the nature of this 1857 revolt, that is, the Sepoy Mutiny and the First War of Independence. Scholars such as Syed Ahmad Khan, Munshi Jeevan Lal & Durgadas Bandyopadhyaya, Stanley, John Seeley,  R.C. Mazumdar etc., consider it as a Sepoy Mutiny, whereas scholars such as Benjamin Benjamin Disraley, Karl Marx, V.D. Savarkar, K.M. Pannikar, etc. consider it as a War of Independence.

History of the East India Company

As we see it today, India was very different in the mid-19th century; it didn't exist as a country but consisted of different territories controlled by various rulers. The greatest of these was the British East India Company which governed two-thirds of the subcontinent.

Let’s take a ride of the history of the East India Company (EIC) first in order to understand why the first war of independence ever held. The East India Company was originally formed in 1600 solely to trade with the Mughal Empire, to establish its commercial posts at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. For this, the company purchased land from Indian rulers to build its settlements on it & admitted some native armed forces to protect them. Then, these ultimately evolved into the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Armies. (Note: The Sepoy Mutiny or Revolt of 1857 revolves around the Bengal army specifically)

Battle of Plassey 1757- How did East India Company gain control of India?

In the mid-18th century, the dominant Mughal Empire was collapsing, which was powerful before, because the native and European states attempted to build their own power bases. The French East India Company, founded on 1 September 1664, was a colonial commercial enterprise aimed at competing with the British and Dutch trading companies in the East Indies. 

  • The Battle of Plassey was fought in north-eastern India on 23 June 1757 when the British East India Company troops, led by Robert Clive, came up against the forces of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last Nawab of Bengal and his French allies wherein the British EIC achieved victory at Plassey & established its rule in India after Mughals.

  • From the early 1800s, the EIC tried to develop the Indian economy & legal system. The Britishers outlawed many traditions without regard for Indian culture; however, few of them deserved to be outlawed, such as the Sati system. 

  • After taking over Punjab in 1849, the Company reduced the number of British Army regiments in India because of the economy and to send men to the Crimean War (fought from 1854-56 by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia as Russia invaded the Turkish Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (now Romania).

  • In 1857, out of the 159,000 men on the Bengal Army establishment, 24,000 were European and 135,000 were Indian sepoys (infantry) and sowars (cavalry). 

Role of Mangal Pandey in Revolt of 1857

In February 1857, there was some tension in the 19th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) because of fears that the cartridges of the Enfield P-53 rifle, that was to be introduced to the army that year, comprised grease made from the fat of cows and pigs. This was offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. 

  • On 29 March 1857, Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of the 34th BNI, rebelled against his commanding officers of the East India Company. This event and Pandey’s subsequent punishment led to more resentment among the sepoys of the Bengal Army, thus leading to the Revolt of 1857. 

  • Mangal Pandey’s mutiny did not directly cause the revolt, but it accelerated the anger and frustration in Indian sepoys against the Britishers. However, the Mutiny properly began at Meerut on 10th May, 1857.

  • It was him whose attack on British officers was the first major incident of what came to be known as the Indian, or Sepoy, Mutiny (revolt of 1857).

  • The situation escalated. 

  • The following day Delhi fell to the mutineers. With the news being spread, furthermore, mutinies got activated. And all 10 Bengal Light Cavalry Regiments and most of the 74 Bengal Native Infantry Regiments were affected. While few units were disarmed before they had the chance to mutiny. There were only 35,000 British soldiers in the whole subcontinent who were scattered, acting one thing went in favour of the Britishers it was almost exclusively soldiers of the Bengal Army who mutinied.

  • The Company’s Madras and Bombay Armies (as discussed above) were relatively unaffected, and other Indian units, including Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims and Gurkhas, supported the British. A reason for this support was considered their fear of a return to Mughal rule. 

So, thousands of common people joined the revolt, like a few for religious reasons, others out of loyalty to their old rulers or for looting. The revolt was also divided into religious lines. Most sepoys were Hindus, while other rebels were Muslims fighting a holy war.

Causes of the 1857 Revolt

Fears that the cartridges of the Enfield P-53 rifle, comprised of grease made from the fat of cows and pigs, have been considered the prime cause of the 1857 revolt. However, according to some recent developments, it has been found out that it was not the sole cause but there were multiple causes, be it social-religious-political- economic, all working together to produce the rebellion. Let’s discuss this one by one:

  • Religious & Social Causes – Racism or racial discrimination was believed to be a major cause wherein Indians were exploited and kept away from mixing with Europeans.

  • Political Causes – The British expansion had led to the propagation of unjust policies that led to the loss of power of the Nawabs and Zamindars residing at various places of India. The introduction of unfair policies like the policy of Trade and Commerce, the policy of indirect subordination, the policy of war and annexation (direct annexation), the policy of direct subordination (doctrine of lapse), the policy of misgovernance (through which Awadh was annexed) greatly tampered with the interests of the rulers of the native states

  • British policy of expansion: A large number of Indian rulers and chiefs were removed.

  1. Rani Lakshmi Bai’s adopted son was not allowed to sit on the throne of Jhansi. She died on the field while trying to recapture her throne

  2. Satara, Nagpur and Jhansi were annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse.

  3. The annexation of Awadh by Lord Dalhousie (policy of misgovernance) and Nana sahib was refused pension as he was the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II. 

  • Economic Factors -There were various reforms in the taxation and revenue system that affected the peasants heavily. 

  • Military Factors – Indians faced discrimination from British officials concerning their salaries, pensions, and promotions. Indians were subjugated in the military, while their European counterparts faced no such discrimination. This led to discontent.

Vellore Mutiny

Before the revolt of 1857 (50 years before), an Indian mutiny took place. It erupted on 10th July 1806 in Vellore (currently known as Tamil Nadu) and lasted only for a day, but it was brutal, and it was the first major mutiny by the Indian sepoys in the East India Company.

Who are the leaders of the revolt of 1857?

There were many leaders of this 1857 revolt, however only these three people stands out of the rest: Rani Laxmi Bai (Queen of Jhansi), Bahadur Shah Zafar (the last Mughal emperor), and Mangal Pandey (Hindu Sepoy). 

Leaders in the Revolt of 1857


Mangal Pandey


Bahadur Shah II, General Bakht Khan


Hakim Ahsanullah (Chief advisor to Bahadur Shah II)


Begum Hazrat Mahal, Birjis Qadir, Ahmadullah (advisor of the ex-Nawab of Awadh)


Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib (nephew of Nana), Tantia Tope, Azimullah Khan (advisor of Nana Sahib)


Rani Laxmibai

Bihar (Jagdishpur)

Kunwar Singh, Amar Singh

Allahabad and Banaras

Maulvi Liyakat Ali


Maulvi Ahmadullah (He declared the Revolt as Jihad against English)


Tufzal Hasan Khan


Mohammad Khan


Abdul Ali Khan


Khan Bahadur Khan


Firoz Shah


Tantia Tope


Kandapareshwar Singh, Manirama Datta


Surendra Shahi, Ujjwal Shahi


Raja Pratap Singh


Jaidayal Singh and Hardayal Singh


Gajadhar Singh


Sevi Singh, Kadam Singh

British Officials connected with Revolt

General John Nicholson

Captured Delhi on 20th September 1857 but his son died.

Major Hudson

Assassinated Bahadur Shah's sons and grandsons in Delhi.

Sir Hugh Wheeler

Defense against Nana Sahib's forces till 26th June 1857. British forces surrendered on 27th on the promised of safe conduct to Allahabad.

General Neil

Recaptured Banaras and Allahabad in June 1857. He killed Indians at Kanpur as grudges against Nana Sahib's forces.

Sir Colin Campbell

Final recovery of Kanpur on 6th December, 1857. Final reoccupation of Lucknow on 21 st March, 1858. Recapture of Bareilly on 5th May, 1858.

Henry Lawrence

Chief Commissioner of Awadh who died during the seizure of British residency by rebels at Lucknow on 2nd July, 1857

Major General Havelock

Defeated the rebels (Nana Sahib's force) on 17th July, 1857. Died on December 1857.

William Taylor and Eye

Suppressed the revolt at Arrah in August 1857.

Hugh Rose

Suppressed the revolt at Jhansi and recaptured Gwalior on 20th June, 1858. He brought the entire Central India and Bundelkhand under British control.

Colonel Oncell

He captured Banaras.

Reasons for Failure of Revolt of 1857

  • Bahadur Shah had gone old and weak & was not the best leader, so was unable to lead the revolt. The revolt was badly organized, with no central leadership.

  • With the restricted territorial spread, many large princely states, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, and Kashmir, as well as the smaller ones of Rajputana, did not join the rebellion.

  • Many zamindars, rich merchants, and traders supported the Britishers.

  • Modern educated Indians viewed the revolt as backwards-looking.

  • The Indian soldiers were poorly equipped & the revolt lacked a clear understanding of British rule.

Impact of the Revolt of 1857

  1. The Revolt of 1857 ended the rule of the British East India Company (EIC).

  2. Government of India Act, 1858: Under this Act, the rule of the EIC was abolished, and the British Parliament took direct responsibility for ruling India. The EIC again became just a trading organization.

  3. Governor-General’s role became more prominent and his profile changed to Viceroy.

(Viceroy acted as the representative of the Queen, whereas the Governor-General was the representative of the British Parliament whose authority was restricted to British India & not to the Princely States)

  1. The 1784 Pitt’s India Act established a Board of Control, which was abolished. A new ministry was created known as ‘India House’, headed by the Secretary of State for India, a minister of cabinet rank.

  2. There were 15 advisors to the ‘India House’ who had wide experience working in India. 


The Revolt of 1857 did fail. However, it did have a significant impact in gaining independence approx 90 years later. People believe that it was this revolt that made India learn how to fight and it is also known to be the first war of independence. The Hindu-Muslim fellowship was not seen before this revolt of 1857, and it was a positive sight for many Indians too. Therefore, making this topic a crucial event that ever happened in Indian history and for competitive exams.

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 269 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Manager at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course). She is a patent analyst & had also done advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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