The Revolt in the Indian Army
By Karl Marx
New York Tribune - July 15, 1857
The Roman Divide et impera was the great rule by which Great Britain, for about one hundred and fifty years, contrived to retain the tenure of her Indian empire. The antagonism of the various races, tribes, castes, creeds and sovereignties, the aggregate of which forms the geographical unity of what is called India, continued to be the vital principle of British supremacy. In later times, however, the conditions of that supremacy have undergone a change. With the conquest of Scinde and the Punjaub, the Anglo-Indian empire had not only reached its natural limits, but it had trampled out the last vestiges of independent Indian States. All warlike native tribes were subdued, all serious internal conflicts were at an end, and the late incorporation of Oude proved satisfactorily that the remnants of the so-called independent Indian principalities exist on sufferance only. Hence a great change in the position of the East Indian Company. It no longer attacked one part of India by the help of another part, but found itself placed at the head, and the whole of India at its feet. No longer conquering, it had become the conqueror. The armies at its disposition no longer had to extend its dominion, but only to maintain it. From soldiers they were converted into policemen; 200,000,000 natives being curbed by a native army of 200,000 men, officered by Englishmen, and that native army, in its turn, being kept in check by an English army numbering 40,000 only. On first view, it is evident that the allegiance of the Indian people rests on the fidelity of the native army, in creating which the British rule simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people was ever possessed of. How far that native army may be relied upon is clearly shown by its recent mutinies, breaking out as soon as the war with Persia had almost denuded the Presidency of Bengal of its European soldiers. Before this there had been mutinies in the Indian army, but the present revolt is distinguished by characteristic and fatal features. It is the first time that sepoy regiments have murdered their European officers; that Musssulmans and Hindoos, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters; that “disturbances beginning with the Hindoos, have actually ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan Emperor;” that the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities; and lastly, that the revolt in the Anglo-Indian army has coincided with a general disaffection exhibited against English supremacy on the part of the great Asiatic nations, the revolt of the Bengal army being, beyond doubt intimately connected with the Persian and Chinese wars.
The alleged cause of the dissatisfaction which began to spread four months ago in the Bengal army was the apprehension on the part of the natives lest the Government should interfere with their religion. The serving out of cartridges, the paper of which was said to have been created with the fat of bullocks and pigs, and the compulsory biting of which was, therefore, consider by the natives as an infringement of their religious prescriptions, gave the signal for local disturbances. On the 22nd of January an incendiary fire broke out in cantonments a short distance from Calcutta. On the 25th of February the 19th native regiment mutinied at Berhampore the men objecting to the cartridges served out to them. On the 31st of March that regiment, stationed at Barrackpore, allowed one of its men to advance with a loaded musket upon the parade-ground in front of the line, and, after having called his comrades to mutiny, he was permitted to attack and wound the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major of his regiment. During the hand-to-hand conflict, that ensued, hundreds of sepoys looked passively on, while others participated in the struggle, and attacked the officers with the butt end of their muskets. Subsequently that regiment was also disbanded. The month of April was signalised by incendiary fires in several cantonments of the Bengal army at Allahabad, Agra, Umballah, by a mutiny of the 3d regiment of light cavalry at Meerut, and by similar appearances of disaffection in the Madras and Bombay armies. At the beginning of May an emeute was preparing at Lucknow, the capital of Oude, which was, however, prevented by the promptitude of Sir H Lawrence. On the 9th May the mutineers of the 3d light cavalry of Meerut were marched off to jail, to undergo the various terms of imprisonment to which they were sentenced. On the evening of the following day the troopers of the 3d cavalry, together with the two native regiments, the 11th and 20th, assembled upon the parade-ground, killed the officers endeavouring to pacify them, set fire to the cantonments, and slew all the Englishmen they were able to lay hands on. Although the British part of the brigade mustered a regiment of infantry, another of cavalry, and an overwhelming force of horse and foot artillery, they were not able to move until nightfall. Having inflicted but little harm on the mutineers, they allowed them to betake themselves to the open field and to throw themselves into Delhi, some forty miles distant from Meerut. There they were joined by the native garrison, consisting of the 38th, 54th and 74th regiments of infantry, and a company of native artillery. The British officers were attacked, all Englishmen within reach of the rebels were murdered, and the heir of the late Mogul of Delhi proclaimed King of India. Of the troops sent to the rescue of Meerut, where order had been re-established, six companies of native sapers and miners, who arrived on the 15th of May, murdered their commanding officer, Major Fraser, and made at once for the open country, pursued by troops of horse artillery and several of the 6th dragoon guards. Fifty or sixty of the mutineers were shot, but the rest contrived to escape to Delhi. At Ferozepore, in the Punjaub, the 57th and 45th native infantry regiments mutinied, but were put down by force. Private letters from Lahore state the whole of the native troops to be in an undisguised state of mutiny. On the 19th of May, unsuccessful efforts were made by the sepoys stationed at Calcutta to get possession of Fort St. William. Three regiments arrived from Bushire at Bombay were at once dispatched to Calcutta.
In reviewing these events, one is startled by the conduct of the British commander at Meerut his late appearance on the field of battle being still less incomprehensible than the weak manner in which he pursued the mutineers. As Delhi is situated on the right and Meerut on the left bank of the Jumna – the two banks being joined at Delhi by one bridge only – nothing could have been easier than to cut off the retreat of the fugitives.
Meanwhile, martial law has been proclaimed in all the disaffected districts; forces, consisting of natives mainly, are concentrating against Delhi from the north, the east and the south; the neighbouring princes are said to have pronounced for the English; letters have been sent to Ceylon to stop Lord Elgin and General Ashburnham’s forces, on their way to China; and finally, 14,000 British troops were to be dispatched from England to India in about a fortnight. Whatever obstacles the climate of India at the present season, and the total want of means of transportation, may oppose to the movement of the British forces, the rebels at Delhi are very likely to succumb without any prolonged resistance. Yet even then, it is only the prologue of a most terrible tragedy that will have to be enacted.