The Coming of 1857
The Revolt of 1857 began as a Mutiny of the Bengal Army sepoys, who throughout the course of the Revolt, proved themselves to be the most steadfast in its cause. The Bengal Army was much larger than the other two of the East India Company' s. Presidency armies (Madras and Bombay), combined; it was in fact the largest modern army operating east of Suez. By the time it broke into revolt, it had 1-39,807 "natives" as sepoys, officered and watched over by 26,089 "Europeans".1 For the previous eighteen years or more, the Bengal Army sepoy had been continuously employed in pursuing the frenzied territorial ambitions of Free-Trade Britain. He bore the brunt of the First Afghan War (1839-42), the sanguinary clash with the Scindia' s troops (1843), the two closely contested Punjab Wars (1845-46 and 1848-49), and the Second Burma War (1852). He was shipped across the seas to fight in the Opium Wars against China (1840-42 and 1856-60) and the Crimean War against Russia (1854). There were few armies in the world after the fall of Napoleon in 1815 that had been called upon to risk the lives of their soldiers so constantly for such a long period. At the first signs of unrest in the Nineteenth Infantry at Berhampore in late February 1857, its Colonel (Mitchell) immediately threatened it with being "sent to Burma or to China, where the men would die".2 The gallantry with which the sepoy had served his masters now seemed to be his undoing, as the calls upon him became endless, the fatalities mounting.
If his role as the cannon-fodder of imperialism was at last telling on the sepoy' s morale, there was the constant reminder too of his absolutely servile position within the army that further enflamed an inner resentment. He could rise after long service (for seniority was the only consideration) to be a "Jamadar", and then "Soubahdar", there being
h Formerly Professor of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh
Social Scientist, Vol. 26, Nos. 1 - 4, Jan. - Apr. 1998