Salute the Heroes of the 1857 Indian War of Liberation – Part 2

Suppression of the First Indian War of Independence

The 1857 revolt was suppressed eventually.  Delhi fell to English forces on 20 September 1857.  Lucknow, the second centre of the revolt, was captured by the English on 21 March 1858.  The cruelty that accompanied, and followed, the suppression of the first Indian war of Independence was truly barbaric and unspeakable.  The British press and statesmen alike spread scare stories about the atrocities committed by the insurgents, but these more often served as a smokescreen to cover up the infamies committed by England over a long period of time, especially during, and in the aftermath of, the revolt.

Capture of Delhi

On the capture of Delhi, the British forces subjected the town to wholesale bombardment, followed by its general plunder, with the inhabitants having had but one night to escape through three gates (the Ajmeri, the Turcoman and the Delhi gates) which were still under the control of the rebels.  During this precipitate flight, mothers were separated from their children, husbands from their wives.  Upon entering the city, the British subjected the unfortunate remaining citizens to a merciless slaughter, with every Indian that could be found being killed by the soldiers – not excepting women and children in many cases.  Hangings, shootings, blowing up people from the mouths of cannons, massacres, torching of whole areas, were the order of the day.

Those who fled Delhi, numbering tens of thousands of men, women and children, were to be seen wandering homeless and penniless, all over the country, while the British soldiers, moving from house to house and street to street, systematically stole everything of value and destroyed items they could not take away.

A Military Governor had been appointed; but he could do little to restrain the passions of those who surrounded him.  Natives were brought forward in batches to be tried by a Military Commission or by Special Commissioners, each one of whom had been invested by the Supreme Government with full powers of life and death. These judges were in no mood to show mercy.  Almost all who were tried were condemned; and almost all who were condemned were sentenced to death.  A four-square gallows was erected in a conspicuous place in the city; and five or six culprits were hanged every day.  English officers used to sit by, puffing at their cigars, and look on at the convulsive struggles of the victims” (T Rice Holmes, A History of the Indian Mutiny and of the disturbances which accompanied it among the civil population, p.397-8).

William Russell, who reached India in January 1858 on a year’s assignment as a war correspondent for The Times, found himself “…in the ruined streets of a deserted city, in which every house bore the marks of cannon or musket shot… I could scarcely believe that I was in a city which was described by an old traveller as being of the bigness of London, Paris and Amsterdam together and of … greater population and riches” (My Diary in India in the year 1858-59, Vol 2, p.53).


The Prize Agents declared that by conquest the entire city had become army property and hence a lawful ‘prize’.  This doctrine of dubious validity held sway for three whole months, during which Delhi was plundered with impunity – even the Sabbath brought no respite to the plunderers and the plundered.  Colonel Burn, the Military Governor of Delhi, estimated on 24 October 1857 the loss of property from plunder and wanton destruction by British soldiers to be of the order of two crores of rupees (20 million rupees), adding that no more than 15 lakhs (1.5 million) had been, or would be, realised by the Prize Agents.  Not surprisingly, then, English soldiers’ wives were to be seen coming to Church, dressed in the most exquisite finery, which could never have been purchased out of their husbands’ salary.  “I fancy every officer present at the siege [of Delhi] might be able to retire at once”, reported Sir William Muir, an Assistant Surgeon (Records of the Intelligence Department, Government of North-Western Provinces of India during the Mutiny of 1857, ed. Coldstream, Vol 1, p.239).  Some British officers simply used their servants for plunder and transport of anything of value.

Even rare and valuable manuscripts on theology, medicine and literature, which any government professing a ‘civilising mission’ would have been keen to preserve, came under the hammer by order of the Prize Agents.

Cruelties allegedly committed by sepoys

The British authorities attempted to create the myth that their barbarity stemmed from, and was justified by, the passion for revenge following the massacre of a number of Europeans in the Palace on 16 May 1857.  In fact, the practice of barbaric cruelty was a matter of premeditated policy, which had been in force long before the revolt of 1857, as well as during and in its aftermath.

At the end of his Diary in 1859, William Russell explicitly stated: ‘I am deeply impressed by the difficulty of ruling India, as it is now governed by force, exercised by a few who are obliged to employ natives as the instrument of coercion.  That force is the base of our rule I have no doubt; for I see nothing else but force employed in our relations with the governed’” (WH Russell, The Diary, My India Mutiny Diary, edited by Michael Edwardes, p.34)

I protest against meeting atrocities by atrocities … instead of bowing before the name of Jesus, we were preparing to revive the worship of Moloch”, Benjamin Disraeli, Speech at Newport Pagnell, September 1857.

Marx was the first to confront, and refute, the hysteria created in Britain over the cruelties allegedly committed by the insurgents.  While not denying the “outrages” attributed to the rebels, he put them in perspective by showing that they were merely a response to England’s own conduct in India.  “However infamous the conduct of  those sepoys,” he wrote in the New York Daily Tribune of 16 September 1857, “it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last 10 years of a long settled rule.  To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy”.  He added: “There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself” (Marx and Engels, page 94).

There was little reason for England to display superciliousness in this regard in view of her own fiendish record.  Alluding to England’s first Opium War against China (1839-42), Marx goes on: “to find parallels to the sepoy atrocities, we need not, as London papers pretend, fall back on the Middle Ages, nor even wander beyond the history of contemporary England.  All we want is to study the first Chinese War, an event, so to say, of yesterday.  The English soldiery then committed abominations for the mere fun of it; their passions being neither sanctified by religious fanaticism nor exacerbated by hatred against an overbearing and conquering race, nor provoked by the stern resistance of a heroic enemy.  The violations of women, the spittings of children, the roastings of whole villages, were then mere wanton sports, not recorded by mandarins, but by British officers themselves” (ibid. p.95).

Marx cites several examples to show that even in the war then being fought “… it would be an unmitigated mistake to suppose that all the cruelty is on the side of the sepoys, and all the milk of human kindness flows on the side of the Engllish” (ibid.),

Marx tells his readers never to forget that, whereas “… the cruelties of the English are related as acts of martial vigour, told simply rapidly, without dwelling on disgusting details, the outrages of the natives, shocking as they are, are still deliberately exaggerated.  For instance, these circumstantial account first appearing in ‘The Times’, and then going the round of the London press, of atrocities perpetrated at Delhi and Meerut, from whom did it proceed?  From a cowardly person residing at Bangalore, Mysore, more than 1000 miles, as the crow flies, distant from the scene of action.  Actual accounts of Delhi evince the imagination of an English parson to be capable of breeding greater horrors than even the wild fancy of a Hindu mutineer”, adding, “… the horrid mutilations committed by the sepoys, of course more revolting to European feeling than the throwing of red-hot shell on Canton dwellings by a Secretary of the Manchester Peace Society, or the roasting of Arabs pent up in a cave by a French Marshal…” (ibid. p.97).

Exposing the “frantic roars of the ‘bloody old times’ in rousing vengeful hatred for what they really were”, Marx concludes his article thus: “as Delhi has not, like the walls of Jericho, fallen before mere puffs of wind, John Bull is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears, to make him forget that his government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it had been allowed to assume” (ibid. p.98).

Capture of Lucknow

In the attack on Lucknow, the British bayonet, wrote Engels, “… has done more execution in any one of these onslaughts on the panic stricken natives than in all the wars of the English in Europe and America put together” (Details of the attack on Lucknow, Marx and Engels, page 149).

The capture on 21 March 1858 of Lucknow (the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Oudh) made way immediately for indiscriminating plunder. “A merry scene it must have been”, said Engels, “for a true, liberty-loving John Bull to see his British soldiers helping themselves to the jewels, costly arms, clothes, and all the toggery of His Majesty of Oudh” (ibid, page 150).  Continuing, Engels paints the following devastating picture of the barbarity, lawlessness and thievery which characterised the British Army then, and still does, as any Irish, Iraqi, or Afghan will vouch for – all accompanied by the Goebbelsian propaganda about the allegedly humane conduct of this murderously mercenary machine:

“This is indeed a pretty state of things in a civilised army in the 19th century; and if any other troops in the world had committed 1/10 of these excesses, how would the indignant British press brand of them with infamy!  But these are the deeds of the British Army, and therefore we are told that such things are but normal consequences of war.  British officers and gentlemen are perfectly welcome to appropriate to themselves any silver spoons, and jewelled bracelets, and other little memorials they might find about the scene of their glory; and if Campbell is compelled to disarm his own army in the midst of war, in order to stop wholesale robbery and violence, there must have been military reasons for the step; but surely nobody will begrudge these poor fellows a week’s holiday and a little frolic after so many fatigues and privations”.

The fact is”, adds Engels, “ there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British.  Plundering, violence, massacre – things that everywhere else strictly and completely banished – are a time-honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier.  The infamies committed for days together, after the storming of Badajoz and San Sebastian, in the Peninsular War, without a parallel in the annals of any other nation since the beginning of the French Revolution; and the mediaeval usage, proscribed everywhere else, of giving up to plunder a town taken by assault, is still the rule with the British.  At Delhi imperious military considerations enforced an exception [and this is saying something in view of what happened in Delhi as outlined above]; but the army, though bought off by extra pay, grumbled, and now at Lucknow they have made up for what they missed at Delhi [and they did not miss much even there].  For 12 days and nights there was no British Army at Lucknow – nothing but a lawless, drunken, brutal rabble, dissolved into bands of robbers, far more lawless, violent and greedy than the sepoys who had just been driven out of the place.  The sack of Lucknow in 1858 will remain an everlasting disgrace to the British military service” (ibid. pp.151-152).

Fiendish racism

What kind of fiendish racism permeated British official circles at the time can be gauged from the following words of General Nicholson, the “hero of the mutiny”.  “Let us propose”, he wrote to his friend, Edwards, “a Bill for flaying alive, impalement, or burning of the murderers of women and children at Delhi.  The idea of simply hanging the perpetrators of such atrocities is maddening.  I wish I was in that part of the world, that if necessary, I might take the law into my own hands” (quoted by Majumdar, page 112).

For this racist and brute representative of a racist and brute civilisation, simply hanging his enemies was not good enough; the hangings had to be preceded by flaying and followed by impalement for the fun of the representatives of this lurid civilisation.  He is wrong on two counts though.  First, it was the British who were mainly guilty of the crimes he attributes to the insurgents.  Second, the British officials hardly ever felt their freedom of action limited by law; they acted in total disregard of their own laws as well as the rules of conduct among civilised peoples – they were the law and those at the receiving end, the Indian people, were fully aware of it; in India, British officialdom was precisely in that part of the world, their Indian Empire, where it was free to take the law into its own hands – and actually frequently did so.

In the face of overwhelming evidence of the barbaric infamies committed by the British forces, some apologists of British colonialism came up with the thesis that there were atrocities on both sides which it was best to forget.  Not only is the colossal scale of the atrocities on the British side in no way comparable to some such isolated acts on the side of the insurgents, the very idea of putting on the same plane the violence of the oppressors and the oppressed is absurdly perverse.

Conduct of the insurgents

The revolt of 1857 reached its peak in Oudh.  Even in the heat of the battle, the conduct of the insurgents was truly admirable.  Forrest was obliged to pay this tribute to the self-restraint, discipline and regard for humanitarian considerations of the population of Oudh: “the troops mutinied and the people threw off their allegiance, but there was no revenge and no cruelty.  The brave and turbulent population, with a few exceptions, treated the fugitives of the ruling race with marked kindness and the high courtesy of the barons of Oudh was conspicuous in their dealings with their fallen masters” (A History of the Indian Mutiny, volume 1, page 217).

The episode concerning the alleged dishonouring and mutilation of British women by the forces of Nana Saheb in Kanpur is well-known.  The British media and spokesmen gave it extensive publicity and roused anti-Indian hysteria to a pitch.  Even the official British historians, Kaye and Malleson, found these stories to be “fictions of an excited imagination”.

The refinements of cruelty – the unutterable shame – with which, in some chronicles of the day, the serious massacre was attended, were but fictions of an excited imagination, too readily believed without enquiry and circulated without thought.  None was mutilated, none was dishonoured… This is stated in the most unqualified manner, by the official functionaries who made the most diligent enquiries into all the circumstances of the massacres in June and July (History of the Indian Mutiny, Vol II, p.281).

In regard to Delhi too, there were stories of British women being forced to walk the streets naked, that some had had their breasts cut – not even small girls spared.  White Christian parsons were the loudest in spreading these stories.  But Sir William Muir, chief of the intelligence department put the record straight, saying that “… however much of cruelty and bloodshed there was, the tales which gained currency of dishonour to the ladies were, so far as my observations and enquiries went, devoid of any satisfactory proof” (quoted by Savarkar, page 125).

It is noteworthy that whenever the insurgents soldiers were guilty of acts of inhumanity towards women and children, the leadership of the rebellion condemned such acts in the most stern terms.  That this was done at the height of a national war against such a hated enemy as British colonialism redounds to the nobility of the insurgent side. Allamah Fazle Haq of Khayrabad in his War Journal says that among the rebel sepoys there “… were those who did evil things and went beyond the limits and committed excesses and cruelties.  The children and women were also killed.  They earned degradation and disgrace by murdering women and distribute and dishonour by killing children” (Fazle Haq, The Story of the War of Independence).

British brutalities

If the stories spread by the British side about the reign of terror allegedly perpetrated by the insurgents were largely fictions and products of an excited imagination, the savage brutality on the British side was on such a scale that it even worried Lord Canning.  The proceedings of the Governor General in Council, dated 24 December 1857, contain this minute:

“… the indiscriminate hanging, not only of persons of all shades of guilt, but of those whose guilt was at the least very doubtful, and the general burning and plunder of villagers, whereby the innocent as well as the guilty, without regard to age or sex, were indiscriminately punished, and in some cases, sacrificed, had deeply exasperated large communities not otherwise hostile to the government; that the cessation of agriculture and consequent famine were impending;… and lastly, that the proceedings of the officers of the Government had given colour to the rumour … that the government meditated a general bloody persecution of Mohammedans and Hindus” (quoted by Edward Thompson, The Other Side of the Medal, pages 73-74).

Even the formalities of the court-martial trial were honoured in their breach and reduced to farce.  T R Holmes, in his History of the Sepoy War, gives us this glimpse of such proceedings: “Officers as they went to sit on the court-martial swore that they would hang their prisoners, guilty or innocent and, if any dared to lift up his voice against such indiscriminate vengeance, he was instantly silenced by the clamours of his angry comrades.  Persons condemned to death after a hasty trial were mocked at and tortured by ignorant privates before the execution, while educated officers looked on and approved” (p.124).

None other than Lord Elphinstone, writing to Sir John Lawrence about the sack of Delhi, expressed himself thus:

 “After the siege was over, the outrages committed by our army are simply heartrending.  A wholesale vengeance is being taken without distinction of friend or foe.  As regards the looting, we have indeed surpassed Nadirshah” (Aitchison, Life of Lawrence, Vol II, p.252).

The number of persons executed in Delhi was, according to reliable sources, 27,000.

A British officer, who had been in active service, in his History of the Siege, painted this horrifically graphic picture of the actions of the British officers en route from Ambala to Delhi:

Hundreds of Indians were condemned to be hanged before a court-martial in a short time, and they were most brutally and inhumanly tortured, while scaffolds were being erected for them.  The hair on their heads were pulled by bunches, their bodies were pierced by bayonets and then they were made to do that to avoid which they would think nothing of death or torture – cows’ flesh was forced by spears and bayonets into the mouth of the poor and harmless Hindu villagers” (quoted in Savarkar, page 134).

What happened at Delhi after the siege was over, was repeated after the capture of Lucknow, with the sepoy and the civilian alike butchered by the victorious British, one of whom gives us this description of what happened:

“… at that time of the capture of Lucknow a season of indiscriminate massacre – such distinction was not made and the unfortunate who fell into the hands of our troops was made short work of – sepoy or Oudh villager it mattered not, no questions were asked; his skin was black, and did not that suffice?  A piece of rope and the branch of a tree or a rifle bullet through his brain, soon terminated the poor devil’s existence” (quoted in 1857 In our History, P C Joshi, p.44).

During their campaigns in the countryside, the British forces behaved like a hunting party on a turkey shoot.  The actions of the British Army during General Neill’s march through the countryside, between Benares (Varanasi), Allahabad and Kanpur, get the following description from Kaye and Malleson:

Volunteer hanging parties went out into the districts and amateur executioners were not wanting to the occasion.  One gentleman boasted of the numbers he had finished off quite ‘in an artistic manner’, with mango trees for gibbets and elephants as drops, the victims of this wild justice being strung up, as though for past-time, in the form of a figure of 8” (Vol II p.177).

Such was the extent of the atrocities committed by the British forces in India, that it alarmed some liberal elements in high places in Britain, who feared that these actions threatened “liberties at home”.  Writing in Greater Britain, Sir Charles Dilke had this to say:

Those who doubt that Indian military service makes soldiers careless of men’s lives, reckless as to the rights of property, and disgraceful of human dignity, can hardly remember the letters which reached them in 1857, in which an officer in high command during the march upon Kanpur reports, ‘a good bag today, polished off rebels’, it being borne in mind that the ‘rebels’ thus hanged or blown from the guns had not taken any arms, but villagers apprehended ‘on suspicion’.  During this march, atrocities were committed in the burning of villages and massacre of innocent inhabitants at which Mohamed Toglak himself would have stood ashamed, and it would be to contradict all history to assert that a succession of such deeds would not prove fatal to our liberties at home.” (quoted in Major B D Basu, Rise of the Christian Power in India, 1931, p.959).

Relevance of remembering 1857

Reading the above account, there are those who will say that it is pointless to harp on the atrocities committed by British forces in India 150 years ago; that stirring up the memory of those momentous events only stands in the way of reconciliation between the two countries and their peoples; and, therefore, we should let bygones be bygones.  Such an attitude, besides constituting suppression of historical truth, implies our inability to learn from history.  He who would know the future must know the past, so runs a Chinese saying.  The whole meaning of recounting the events of 1857 is not to put the entire British people in the dock, for it is not they who committed these horrible crimes against the Indian masses.  It was British capitalism and colonialism that was guilty of these crimes.  One has only to know what British imperialism, along with its senior partner, US imperialism, is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, to realise that it has not changed for the better in the slightest since 1857; that it is today, in its decadent, moribund and parasitic stage, even more dangerous and cruel than at an earlier period in history; that it is today engaged in committing a genocide of far greater proportions than that of 1857, that it is the common enemy of the British proletariat at home and the oppressed peoples abroad; that only its overthrow and the establishment of socialism can bring true peace, prosperity and happiness to the British proletariat and the oppressed people alike.

[To be concluded in next issue with the reasons for the failure of the uprising and the legacy of this first war of the Indian people for independence.]