Priti Joshi, “1857; or, Can the Indian ‘Mutiny’ Be Fixed?”


In the 150 years since it occurred, little about the events that shook northern India in the waning days of the East-India Company’s rule has been fixed. The skeletal facts are seldom contested, but their meanings so disputed that what is known appears to recede. Take, for instance, the nomenclature: long known as the “Indian Mutiny,” the events under scrutiny were neither “Indian” (in any pan-Indian or collective sense) nor only a “mutiny.” Alternatives abound—Sepoy Mutiny; Sepoy War; Revolt of 1857; the Uprising of 1857; the Rebellion of 1857; the Great Rebellion; the First War of Independence—each offering an interpretive gloss on the May 1857-June 1858 events. This essay offers an overview of key nodes of debate—who participated and why? who led whom? how planned were the events? how unified were actors—in the current historiography of 1857.

print of the hanging of two rebels

Figure 1: Print of the hanging of two rebels, 1858

Despite decades of clarification by scholars, the name “Indian Mutiny” remains fixed in popular imagination as the shorthand for the events that occurred in the North-west Provinces of India.[1] That “Indian Mutiny” and its cognate “Sepoy Mutiny” were the terms used by Britons as events were unfolding is not surprising: the instability began when Indian soldiers—known by the Anglicized version of the Urdu word for soldier, sepoy or sipahi—in map iconMeerut mutinied against their British officers, on 10 May 1857. On the heels of the mutiny at Meerut, sepoys in garrisons across North India—Delhi, Aligarh, Lucknow, Kanpur, Jhansi, Gwalior, and dozens more—rebelled as well. If this were all, the “Sepoy Mutiny” would indeed be an accurate moniker. But the disturbances did not remain contained: as sepoys refused orders and turned on officers, captured the treasury and ammunition storehouses, burned buildings, shed their uniforms, and abandoned their garrisons, they were joined by civilians from adjoining towns and villages. Where this happened, civilians broke open jails, attacked police stations and tax offices, burned the account books and records of money-lenders and magistrates, plundered the property and in some cases persons of those—Europeans and Indian—associated with colonial rule (Bengali middle-men were a particular target). Before long, some 500,000 sq. miles of the northern plains, from map iconAllahabad to map iconDelhi, were in upheaval.[2] What began as a military mutiny in several garrisons of the Bengal Army morphed into or converged with a civilian rebellion.[3]

As early as 27 July, Disraeli, then an MP, argued in the House of Commons that “the Indian disturbance is not a military mutiny, but a national revolt” (qtd in Metcalf, 73). Marx, writing from London on 31 July, also suggested that there was more to the disturbances than a mutiny; highlighting their national character, he wrote: “the Sikhs, like the Mohammedans, were making common cause with the Brahmins, [giving rise to] a general union against the British rule.”[4] With a little more distance, John William Kaye, the events’ first historian and a former military man, titled his 1864-76 volume A History of the Sepoy War in India. While the volume itself focuses largely on the sepoys and the British India Army, Kaye’s choice of “war” rather than the customary “mutiny” suggests that, like Disraeli and Marx, he too viewed the events as more than a military disturbance.[5] As accounts of the events passed from first-person narratives to historical studies, the singularly “mutinous” character of 1857 has shrunk even further. The literature on the participation of civilians in the uprising is extensive, and scholars today avoid referring to the events that swept through the north Indian plains as the “Indian Mutiny” or even “Sepoy Mutiny.”[6] In popular usage, however, “mutiny” persists. Rather than deploy a term whose inaccuracy signals a certain ideological perspective, I eschew the term fixed in the popular imagination and shall refer to these events as “1857.” (Note: strictly speaking, “1857” dated from May 1857 to June 1858).

I begin with a broad outline of agreed-upon facts, followed by nodes of debate amongst scholars striving to make sense of the uprisings. On 10 May, 1857, three regiments of sepoys at the Meerut cantonment mutinied and attacked officers. The immediate reason for their defiance was the court-martial and sentencing to hard labor of 85 of their comrades who had refused to bite the casings off the new Enfield rifle cartridges that were rumored to be greased with the fat of cow or pig (a rumor denied by the Government of India in January; see David 54). Following the attack on officers, the mutinous sipahis released their comrades (and other prisoners) from the Meerut jail. The men, now joined by a number of Meerut’s citizens, headed to Delhi, some forty miles away. Delhi was the seat of the Mughals, the last rulers of a broad swath of northern India. It was home to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the titular emperor of the Mughals and now a pensioner of the British Government. Upon arriving in Delhi, the men from Meerut proclaimed Bahadur Shah their Emperor and demanded that he lead them. As Bahadur Shah demurred—he was a poet, not a politician—the Delhi regiment of the Bengal Army mutinied. Throughout May, a similar pattern repeated itself across the map iconGangetic plains: a garrison mutinied, sepoys shed their uniforms, civilians from surroundings towns and villages joined the sepoys, and a former local noble (generally one ousted by the British) was pressed to lead the insurgents.[7]

The most notorious of the mutinous garrison-towns was map iconKanpur—or Cawnpore in its Anglicized name. On 5 June, the garrison’s sipahis, joined by comrades from other garrisons and civilians from the town, mutinied and besieged the cantonment, holding 450 Europeans prisoners inside the compound for three weeks. General Wheeler, the commander, negotiated with Nana Sahib, a former noble-turned-rebel-leader, to secure their release, but as the trapped men and women stepped onto the boats that were to carry them to safety, rebels opened fire and killed most of the men. The surviving 150 women and children were escorted to the infamous Bibighar, a small space, where many succumbed to disease and death in the two weeks that followed. As British relief forces approached Kanpur, the women who had managed to survive were brutally murdered, their bodies thrown into a well.[8] The “Well at Cawnpore” sealed public opinion in Britain against “perfidious Indians.”[9]

Lieutenant-Colonel James Neill commanded the relief troops (which included British soldiers as well as sepoys from Punjab and the Bombay and Madras armies) charged with retaking the garrisons and imposing order. Neill and his men were infamous for their indiscriminate brutality as they swept through the plains. They burned villages and, without trial, hung scores whom they suspected of involvement in or of supporting the rebellion. As they moved through the plains, one by one they retook towns and garrisons: Kanpur/Cawnpore on 17 July 1857; Delhi on 21 September; Lucknow on 23 December; Jhansi on 1 April 1858; and finally Gwalior on 20 June.[10] Skirmishes continued through 1858, but the fall of Gwalior in June, followed by the transfer of Indian administration from the East India Company to the Crown on 2 August 1858, effectively marks the end of the uprising.

By the time the dust settled, it appears that of the approximately 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal Army, over 100,000 rebelled.[11] Other numbers are harder to fix. The blurry line between sepoy and civilian, especially as the former shed their uniforms; the hesitation and vacillation of many in joining the uprising; the elites’ shifts from neutrality to pro- or anti-government stances, depending on rivals’ stance—all these factors make it difficult to settle definitively the numbers who “participated” in the uprisings.[12] In some regions, large portions of the local population supported the uprisings; in others fewer did. In all, locals both joined rebels and rescued Europeans. In terms of territory affected, 500,000 sq. miles sounds like a lot, but looking at an 1857 map always comes as a surprise: comparatively speaking, relatively little of the subcontinent was affected by the uprisings. As with any seismic event, however, its tremors resonated far wider than might appear apparent on something as fixed as a map. The remainder of this essay drills into finer points of the event, focusing particularly on archival work that has deepened our understanding of rebels, their relations to one another, and motives. (The essay will not focus on the reaction in Britain to 1857, a worthy topic deserving its own entry).

A revolt of a people trying to redeem their own past[13]

As with any charged historical “event,” assessments of facts or analyses of their meanings proliferate; in this case, what 1857 “was” often seems difficult to pin down. In part because the archive has until recently been fairly static and European-centered, in part because large portions of that archive were written in the heat of outraged response, and in part because meaning has to be teased out of acts for which no written archive exists, 1857 serves as a signal case of what the historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee calls “the textuality of history” (Spectre, 3).[14] For over 150 years, historians have debated almost every aspect of 1857—the who, the why, the how—with a particularly rich crop of studies based on new archival work appearing in the last two decades. I trace here key points of inquiry and debate, highlighting issues at stake in unpacking the meanings of 1857.

I touched upon one of the early controversies of 1857: was it only or even primarily a military mutiny or did it have a broader, civilian character? While that debate has been settled—it was both—scholars continue to probe the precise nature of the relation between the sipahis and civilians, as well as the relation between sepoys and the leaders they sometimes had to corral into service. Who led whom? Who joined the uprisings and why? These questions circle back to that of motive. The Greased Cartridge serves as a popular explanation, but it fails to explain the spread of uprisings to garrisons where no sepoy was punished for refusing to bite the bullet, nor explains the involvement of a vast range of civilians.[15] Further, it masks deeper sources of dissatisfaction as it reduces rebels to merely religious fanatics. Discontent among sipahis had been growing for some years, due to new policies on pay and pension, limited prospects for promotion (the officer core of the Bengal Army was exclusively British), the requirement to fight overseas with no additional compensation, and the distance between officers and men, perceived to be the outcome of younger officers’ arrogance and Evangelical leanings (Habib 7; Metcalf 47).

Lower pay and higher taxes, however, are only part of the story. The East India Company’s 1856 annexation of map iconOude/Awadh, a large principality in the center of the North-west Provinces, was an additional sore point. Not only was the annexation viewed as unjustified, but it imposed a revenue structure that stretched many small landowners (Habib 7-10). Given that upwards of 40,000 of the men of the Bengal army were from Awadh, the 1856 annexation chaffed many a sepoy in the Bengal Army.[16] The annexation also displaced familiar patron-client and hierarchical relations with ones that felt sterile and “foreign” to many. Mukherjee writes: “The Raj assaulted the traditional view of social norms and obligations, the realms of mutual interdependence between the raja and the peasant that constituted its moral economy” (“Awadh” 230; see also Bayly 208). Mukherjee’s notion of a fractured “moral economy” illuminates why so many Awadhians rebelled (and not all did), as well as why many non-Awadhians did. Awadh was by no means the only territory annexed; Punjab was annexed in 1849 at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. War rankled, but less so than the “doctrine of lapse,” the Company’s policy of annexing territory that lacked a male heir or had one deemed “incompetent.” The policy was repeatedly applied in the 1840s and ‘50s. The young Rani of map iconJhansi, pensioned off in 1854 on the grounds that she was the widow of the deceased raja and her son adopted, was a notorious instance of such legally dubious territorial expansion. In short, to grasp the dissatisfactions the uprising so quickly kindled, we need a canvas that can place concerns that were complementary in the same frame. Political concerns about bureaucracy and social relations developed in concert with economic concerns, which in turn ignited fears about the growing presence of missionaries. These concerns, in turn, were harnessed to and articulated as apprehensions about the loss of a “way of life.”

A broader canvas, too, illuminates the reason sepoys’ actions were so rapidly echoed by civilians throughout the country-side. In his posthumously published The Peasant Armed, Eric Stokes coined the phrase “peasant in uniform” to describe the sipahis. As men who were first agrarian (many small-landowning families in Awadh had maintained prestige in difficult economic times by sending a son into the Bengal Army), their allegiance was to the land. Consequently, the sipahis and their grievances spoke to their brethren and explain the blurring—or merging—of sipahi and civilian once the former left their cantonments. Stokes’s “peasants in uniform” did much to highlight the civilian character of 1857, but his work has been challenged by Mukherjee who argues that Stokes erred in identifying the leaders of the civilian rebellion. Stokes highlighted “elites” or “magnates” such as talukdars (tax collectors) and zamindars (land-holders) who had been marginalized and squeezed by the Company as leading the rebellion, but Mukherjee, emphasizing a “moral” rather than economic motive, argues that the reasons talukdars became involved were “not necessarily related to the losses they suffered under the British revenue settlement. . . . [T]alukdars who had lost as well as those who had benefitted [under the British] were both involved in the rebellion” (Mukherjee “Awadh” 221-2). At heart, the debate between Mukherjee, the Subaltern Studies scholar, and Stokes comes down to the question of leadership: for Mukherjee, Stokes’s emphasis on magnates suggests that the peasants were subordinate to or manipulated by elites. On the contrary, Mukherjee argues: “The revolt [in Awadh] had a mass and popular base—peasants and clansmen could and often did act outside magnates’ initiative” (“Awadh” 229).

C. A. Bayly, who edited Stokes’s unfinished manuscript, argues that in the latter’s usage “peasant” does not equal “downtrodden masses,” but in fact includes small landholders and high-caste Brahmins, cultivators and pastoralists. In the shifting landscape of north India, as some of the better-off peasantry bumped up against debased gentry and as revenue structures forced many landholders to become cultivators (211-12), numerous districts saw the growth of  a “rich peasantry,” while others witnessed a “’peasantized’ gentry.” Stokes’s “peasant” includes the full range of these actors, leading Bayly to conclude that “1857 was not a peasant rebellion in the sense of a rebellion for peasants as a class” (213), but rather a rebellion of those who were closely associated with the land.

The significance of the Stokes/Bayly/Mukherjee debate lies in the effort to explicate the relation between “the people” and the leadership in 1857. The dispute about magnates and “peasants” mirrors a similar one about the relation between “the people” and traditional or “aristocratic” leaders. Bayle notes that “Stokes stressed the role of the new magnate elements because it was they alone who were able to protect British interests in a district when the sepoys had mutinied and the police disintegrated. . . . Where no such magnate element existed, groups of rebellious villages almost always tried to create an overarching structure of authority either by calling in the forces of one of the famous rebel leaders from a nearby area or by designating some local gentleman raja or viceroy of the Delhi emperor” (211; emphasis added).  Examples of traditional nobles called upon to provide “an overarching structure of authority” include Bhadhur Shah, the last Mughal emperor, as well as Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi; Birjis Qadr, the son of the deposed nawab of Awadh; and Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the exiled Maratha peshwa.[12] Any study of the civilians of 1857, then, must distinguish between “peasants” or those most closely associated with the land, those who might be called magnates (tax collectors and gentry), and finally the local ruling classes.

The traditional leaders and the sipahis/civilians’ turn to them is one of the most perplexing aspects of 1857. In early accounts by Britons, these former rulers were assumed to be instigators of the disturbances. Their trials and the archives have revealed that most former rulers, rather than rushing to the cause of the sipahis and civilians, often had to be coerced into assuming leadership. Many hesitated, resisting rebels for as long as they could, while others never did join them (the most prominent being the Maharaja of Gwalior). Bhadhur Shah’s equivocations are well-known; Iqbal Husain’s work on the chaos and mismanagement of Delhi post-11 May provides further evidence of Bhadhur Shah’s reluctance to enter the fray. Tapti Roy’s work on the Rani of Jhansi is especially provocative. When sepoys in Jhansi rebelled on 6 June 6 1857, they demanded the rani’s assistance, “threatening to kill her if she did not comply or if she extended any assistance to the English” (210). Yet Laxmibai, (in)famous for her “bravery” and “valor” in leading rebels against the British, held off joining or leading the rebels well into January 1858, in the meantime, “regularly correspond[ing] with the English expressing [her] helplessness in the face of ‘disorder’ caused by the soldiers and earnestly solicit[ing] help” (215-6). Dozens of such examples abound, leading Roy to conclude that “regional potentates” were “drawn into the midst of actions over which they had little control” (217). In short, rather than the upper echelons leading, 1857 appears to be very much a “subaltern”—in both the military and post-colonial senses—uprising.

Even so, what are we to make of the sipahis‘ and peasants’ recourse to traditional leaders? To some, the rebels’ embrace of feudal authority-figures reads like devotion to an illiberal past and rejection of an egalitarian future.[18] For many post-Independence Indian scholars, the fragmentation, internecine quarrels, and “feudal” leadership of 1857 were something of an embarrassment. Recent scholars offer more generous readings. Mukherjee argues that “in the revolt of 1857. . . the world of paternalism and beneficence, reasserted itself” (“Awadh” 230). Rajat Kanta Ray examines accounts of the troubled relations between traditional elites/former nobility and the sipahis/peasants, and, in a subtle revision, concludes that the uprisings of 1857 point to a “feotal national community. . . steeped in a mentality that could only express the struggle in the older language of restoring the chiefs and reinstating the religions” (286). The writings of Iqbal Husain, Irfan Habib, Tapti Roy, and Mahmood Farooqui support this finding: each demonstrates that, despite the rhetoric of restoration, in fact deference was matched with a “curiously republican-democratic component within its hierarchical, princely structure” (Ray 284-5). The short-lived rebel constitution, which suggested elected civilian and military leaders, is a case in point, leading Habib to conclude: “the rebel regimes were not mere royal or princely old order restoration” (14). Ray echoes this reading: “The restored ‘feudal’ chiefships of 1857 could not thus be likened to the old regimes of the eighteenth century” (285). As he aptly concludes: “Incapable of generating a new world, imprisoned within a fragmented, timeworn cosmos, yet strenuously driven by circumstances to reorder the fragments into a different, unfamiliar constellation, the Mutiny was at once a ‘traditional resistance movement’ and a movement unrecognizable to tradition” (Ray 287). Ray’s argument deftly straddles the conundrum of 1857: it was at once “traditional,” as well as the birth of a new political consciousness.

One final node of discussion remains: what, if any, coordination or unity existed amongst the various actors? Stokes and more recently Peter Robb have argued that “the uprising was not a coordinated or even a related set of events. Rather it was a mass of separate happenings and responses that fed off one another” (Robb 66). Others have offered variations. Mukherjee writes: “The outbreak of the mutinies was not chaotic or disorderly. On the contrary, the sipahis showed a remarkable degree of planning and co-ordination in the way the mutinies were carried out” (“Mutinies” 123). Iqtidar Alam Khan’s essay on the Gwalior contingent and those sipahis’s judicious weighing of factors and deliberate decision to mutiny only after many months of resisting, offers a detailed case-study on the matter. But sipahis—men trained to plan and follow—are one thing, civilians another. Were civilians coordinated in their response? As the reaction of the nobles and others who refused to join the rebellion demonstrates, civilians were not of one mind. The purpose of the question, however, is not to erase or flatten differences as to ascertain the degree to which 1857 might be viewed as the start of the making of an “Indian” nation. Despite all the differences—of region, class, interests, religion—at play within the North-west Provinces and on the subcontinent, the distance of a century-and-a-half allows some perspective. Tapti Roy concludes in her fine essay on the map iconBundelkhand region that “It was through the unique political experience of that summer of 1857 that the rebellion evolved, gathering different strands of protest into one single concerted defiance. Local situations and immediate conditions determined patterns of mobilization, motifs of actions and articulations and the varied expressions of political consciousness” (225; emph. added). In short, we need to acknowledge both the many and varied experiences of uprising—the many “mutinies,” as Mukherjee insists—as well as the loosely unified, nascent or “feotal” community the events spawned. 1857 was one thing and multiple; it was an “event,” yet it lacked a center; it was a birth and stillborn.

published November 2013

Priti Joshi is Professor of English at the University of Puget Sound where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature and culture and post-colonial literatures. She has published essays on Chadwick, Dickens, the Brontës, Frances Trollope, Henry Mayhew, masculinity, and empire, and is currently working on a book about an English-language newspaper published in India in the mid-nineteenth century.


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—. “The Sepoy Mutinies Revisited.” India’s Colonial Encounter: Essays in Memory of Eric Stokes. Eds. Mushirul Hasan and Naraysni Gupta. New Delhi: Manohar, 1993. 121-132. Print.

—. Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1998. Print.

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[1] Recent works include Saul David’s 2003 The Indian Mutiny, D. Kingsley’s 2001 They Fight Like Devil: Stories from Lucknow During the Great Indian Mutiny, 1857-58, Julian Spilsbury’s 2007 The Indian Mutiny, and Andrew Ward’s 1996 Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

[2] Though a sizeable area, this land as only a portion of the territory administered by the British.

[3] The Meerut cantonment was part of the Bengal Army, one of three such units on the subcontinent (the Madras and Bombay Armies were the other two). The Bengal Army consisted of roughly 139,000 sepoys led by 26,000 European officers (see Habib 6).

[4] Karl Marx, Karl, “Indian News.” Marx was wrong about the Sikhs who, by and large, did not mutiny or rebel; indeed, regiments of the Punjab army played a prominent role in suppressing the uprising and retaking towns.

[5] Kaye died before he completed his study. G. B. Malleson continued the project and in 1888-9 published all six volumes under the revised title, History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8.

[6] Nationalist historians at the turn of the 20th century, following the lead of V. D. Savarkar, referred to 1857 as the “War of Independence” or “First War of Independence.” The nomenclature did not find favor with historians, but has recently been revived by the Indian parliament in the 150th-year anniversary celebrations (Bandyopadhyay 16-17).

[7] Between 13 May-5 June, the unrest spread, in what Mukherjee has called “a contagion of movement” (“Revisited” 122), to Ferozpur, Muzaffarnagar, Aligrh, Naushera, Etawah, Mainpuri, Roorkee, Etah, Nasirabad, Mathura, Lucknow, Bareilly, Shahjahanpur, Moradabad, Sitapur, Banaras, Jhansi, and Kanpur (see Pati, 295).

[8] The most nuanced account of the Cawnpore events, including the massacres at the Satichaura Ghat and Bibighar, is Mukherjee’s Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres.

[9] See Joshi 56-66.

[10] See Pati 295-7.

[11] Habib cites an 1858 India House report that notes that only seven regiments of 7,796 sepoys remained in service. Making allowances for sepoys who may have been a part of a regiment but did not actively rebel, he arrives at the generally accepted estimate of “well over 100,000” mutinying sepoys (8; see also Banddyopadhyay 5).

[12] E. I. Brodkin’s work on the inutility of the categories “rebel” and “loyalist” is still pertinent. He argues that the “disappearance of British authority in much of northern India was followed by the re-emergence of traditional rivalries in the area” (278). With the Bijnor district as his case, he demonstrates that “the district was the scene of a bloody civil war between Pathan and Rajput, a war in which the combatants did not consider the central issue to be the future of the British Empire” (288).

[13] Mukherjee, “Awadh” 230.

[14] E.g., the “chapati incident” where bundles of flat bread mysteriously started to circulate from town to town in the central plains in February 1857. Their appearance spooked British officials, and in the aftermath of the uprisings, many thought of the “chaputty movement” as an early form of organization. Historians have debunked the notion.

[15] While most accept 10 May, the day the Meerut sepoys mutinied, as the start of the events, an alternative start-date has attracted adherents: on 29 March 1857, Mangal Pandey, a young sepoy at the Barrakpore station, refused to bite off the end of his Enfield cartridge and turned his weapon on his sergeant. Pandey was court-martialed and hanged; though his comrades rallied behind him for a while, the matter rested there. Unlike the refusal of the Meerut sipahis and the subsequent actions of their comrades, Pandey’s actions had no legs and died with him (for an alternative view, see Habib 8). Nevertheless, his name and fame have captured the imagination: the word “pandy” or “pande” has entered the English language as a derogatory synonym for sepoys who mutinied. See William Russell: “I heard a good deal of ‘potting pandies’, and ‘polishing-off niggers.’” (from The Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed, March 2005) for “pandy,” n. 2). More recently, a 2005 Hindi film, Mangal Pandey, has kindled interest in Pandey-as-nationalist-hero.

[16] Habib (7) and Anderson (3) cite 40,000 as the number of recruits from Awadh; Bandyopadhyay (5) gives the number as 75,000.

[17] One notable exception was Bakht Khan, a soldier who had risen through the ranks in the Bengal army. Although a formidable leader and organizer, he was hampered by the internecine fighting of the Delhi princes (see Husain).

[18] See Anderson: “Indeed, it has been argued that in its widespread desire to see a return to the old order, the uprising was more of a counterrevolution than a forward-looking nationalist one” (11).