ABSTRACT

By far the most dramatic expression of Indian discontent with colonial rule came in 1857-58 when much of northern India was rocked by a series of mutinies and popular revolts which would eventually convulse most of the central Gangetic Plain and reach down into Central India. For several months in mid-to late-1857, the very survival of British rule in India was in doubt, and when the magnitude of the crisis became known in Britain in the summer of 1857, one popular magazine captured the anxious mood when it wrote: ‘Our house in India is on fire. We are not insured. To lose that house would be to lose power, prestige, and character – to descend in the rank of nations, and take a position more in accordance with our size on the map of Europe than with the greatness of our past glory and present ambition’ (Illustrated London News, 4 July 1857). The rebels, whether they were sepoys, peasants or taluqdars, also quickly appreciated the significance of these events or what they termed the ‘devil’s wind’. The actual cost in human lives will never be known with any certainty. It has been roughly estimated that 6,000 of the approximately 40,000 Europeans then in India were killed. The number of Indians who died during the mutiny and the famines and epidemics that followed in its wake is far more difficult to compute. Attempts to do so based on comparisons between the very sketchy demographic data that we have for the period before 1857 with the census results of 1871 have suggested that the number of deaths might be around 800,000. It could well be higher than that. In addition, the revolt led to tremendous property destruction and caused the government of India’s debt to jump from £60 million to £100 million. Not surprisingly, the increased burden of debt financing was borne by Indian revenues. More alarmingly, however, the war quickly took on the attributes of a race war, one in which intensified racial and religious animosities caused participants on all sides to commit atrocities against each other.