The 37th and the Indian Mutiny, 1857-1859


The Indian Mutiny was a rebellion against the rule of the British East India Company that ran from May 1857 to July 1859. The revolt, which led to more than 100,000 Indians being killed, was not the result of one single factor, but rather a build-up of grievances over many years. Most of these were directed against the East India Company which, after establishing itself in the country as a trading company in 1612, had expanded its role rapidly in the mid-18th Century through military victories at Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764).

The Company went on to increase its influence in Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) and, later, throughout India by its successes in the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1766-99) and the Anglo-Maratha Wars (1772-1818). The early 19th Century saw even more of India come under Company control, with the encouragement of Governor-General Richard Wellesley (brother of the Duke of Wellington). This was achieved either by alliances between the Company and local rulers – which created the Hindu maharajas and the Muslim nawabs – or by military annexation, as happened in North West Frontier Province, Punjab, Berar and Oudh. During this period many within the Company spoke in terms of reform and improvement. The historian Thomas Macaulay – a member of the Company’s ruling council in the 1830s – asserted that the policy was to create ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’. However, he also recognised that it was ‘impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people’. Macaulay was correct. Company rule was limited and conservative. Most resources went to its three presidency armies – from Bengal, Bombay and Madras which, together, provided more than 300,000 sepoys or soldiers – not on schemes that improved the lot of the people.

Company rule consolidated, rather than weakened, the caste system and the authority of Brahmins, while the creation of new rulers at the expense of old aristocracies was hugely disruptive and inevitably caused resentment. Meanwhile, in the countryside, new rules on land ownership and taxation alienated both landowners and swathes of Indian peasant farmers.

However, it would be wrong to view the Mutiny as the result of traditional India rejecting these limited attempts at reform. In some areas – Bengal and the south, for example, which had long been under British rule – no revolts took place. In the areas that did rebel in 1857, the Company appears to have alienated large sections of the population before significant numbers had had time to benefit from the reforms.

This was particularly true in the kingdom of Awadh (Oudh) which the Company annexed in 1856, deposing the ruler and depriving many landowners of control over their estates. Taxes in the region were high while many Hindus and Muslims feared the appearance of Christian missions presaged a programme of forced conversions.

The revolt which took place in large areas of northern India could probably have been contained if the Company had not also alienated the soldiers, or sepoys, of the Bengal army, whose mutiny set off the 1857 rebellion. The Bengal army was recruited not from Bengal itself but from northern India, especially Awadh. Great status was attached to serving in the Bengal army, but the sepoys did so largely on their own terms – they would not, for example, serve overseas.

As more flexible soldiers from Nepal and the Punjab became available, the Bengal army was told it must modernise. Under the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856, new recruits had to agree to serve overseas if required. This angered serving high-caste sepoys who feared the Act would eventually be extended to them. There were also more general grievances over the increasing number of Europeans in units which made promotion for Indians slow.

The spark that finally ignited the Mutiny came when the Army issued pre-greased paper cartridges for its new Enfield P-53 rifle. To load the weapon, sepoys had to bite open the cartridges to release the powder. The grease on the cartridges was rumoured to include tallow made from beef, offensive to Hindus, and pork, which would offend Muslims. Although the Army subsequently ordered that all cartridges should be free from grease, the damage had been done with many sepoys in the Bengal army convinced that the British were bent on undermining their jealously guarded elite status and on destroying the religions of the Indian people.
When the sepoys refused to accept British authority, long held grievances over tax and land reforms and suspected religious infiltration burst forth. Disaffected aristocrats and princes, joined rural landowners, villagers and townspeople in rebelling alongside British rule.

The Mutiny

In May 1857 sepoys of the Bengal army stationed at Meerut shot their British officers before marching on, and capturing, Delhi where they proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar the Emperor of all India. They were supported by a large number of Indian civilians in northern and central India, roughly from Delhi and the west to Benares in the east. For several months British forces were reduced to beleaguered garrisons – most famously Cawnpore and Lucknow – until sufficient reinforcements could be mustered to restore control in 1858.

Of the Bengal army’s 74 regular Native Infantry Regiments 54 rebelled. All ten of the Bengal Light Cavalry regiments mutinied. Among the army’s irregular infantry, units from Awadh rebelled en masse, but others – three Gurkha and six Sikh units, for example – actively supported the Company. This reflected the fact that not all regions of India supported the Mutiny. The south remained largely loyal as did Bengal and the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Pathans of the North West Frontier. The Sikhs in particular were alarmed by the elevation of Bahadur Shah Zafar, fearing a return to the persecution they had suffered under previous Mughal rulers.

The rebels initially pushed back Company forces, capturing several important towns. However, when the British brought in reinforcements and counterattacked the mutineers’ lack of centralized command quickly became apparent. The rebels did produce some fine leaders such as Bakht Khan but in general they relied on a mixed bag of rajahs and princes.

In June 1857 the British sent two columns from Meerut and Simla to Delhi, killing and hanging numerous Indians en route. The two forces – which included Gurkha units from the Bengal army – eventually met up and defeated the rebels at Badli-ke-Serai, driving them back to Delhi.

The siege of Delhi began in early July. A column of British, Sikh and Pakhtun soldiers under John Nicholson arrived in mid August, but it was not until a heavy siege train joined the besieging forces that the British finally managed to breach the city walls and destroy the rebel artillery. On September 14 the British stormed the breaches and after a week of fierce street fighting the city fell. A large number of civilians were killed in retaliation for the Europeans slaughtered by the rebels, including the sons and grandson of Badahur Shah.

The fall of Delhi was followed shortly afterwards by the relief of Agra. With the retaking of Cawnpore, the Company re-established a line of communication across India. By the end of 1857 the tide had turned. Lucknow was retaken in March 1858 and three months later the last rebels, including the Rani of Jhansi, were defeated at the Battle of Gwalior. On July 8 1858, a peace treaty was signed and the rebellion ended.

The Mutiny was notorious for the brutality displayed by both sides as this extract from a soldier’s letter published after the fall of Delhi testifies:
‘All the city’s people found within the walls of the city of Delhi when our troops entered were bayoneted on the spot, and the number was considerable, as you may suppose, when I tell you that in some houses forty and fifty people were hiding. These were not mutineers but residents of the city, who trusted to our well-known mild rule for pardon. I am glad to say they were disappointed.’

At Cawnpore, the rebels massacred men and soldiers of the British garrison who had endured a three-week siege. The men were butchered as they attempted to reach boats that were to take them to safety, apparently after having been guaranteed safe passage.
The surviving women and children from Cawnpore – around 200 – were removed and held hostage for two weeks in the home of the local magistrate’s clerk, The Bibigarh. Confined in atrocious conditions, 25 died from cholera and dysentery in one week. Then, with a British relief force approaching, the rebels butchered the remaining women and children with knives and hatchets. The bodies were thrown down a 50ft deep well and, when that was full, into the River Ganges.

The horrific events at Cawnpore left many British soldiers – and an outraged press – clamouring for revenge. Thousands of rebels were hanged while others were ‘blown from cannon’, in which sentenced prisoners were tied over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces when the weapons were fired. Back in Britain, public opinion was deeply shocked both by the magnitude of the uprising and the indiscriminate killing of soldiers and civilians by both sides.

The Mutiny had far-reaching consequences. Most significantly, it led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858 and the introduction of direct rule by the Crown in what became known as the British Raj. There were also major reorganisations of the army, the financial system and the administration in India. In total, only 12 of the original Bengal Native Infantry regiments survived to pass into the new Indian Army.

The 37th Foot and the Mutiny

The outbreak of the Mutiny in May 1857 saw the 37th based in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Six companies were promptly dispatched to India as reinforcements, arriving in Calcutta on 13th June. From here they moved to Barrackpore where they helped to disarm three sepoy regiments.

The 37th then headed to Benares, three companies by bullock train along the Grand Trunk Road, the remainder following by river. The leading companies successfully secured Benares while the second three headed upstream towards Cawnpore where General Havelock was held up for lack of men.

However, on reaching Dinapore on 24th July, they were stopped and disembarked to deal with a crisis. Three disaffected sepoy regiments at the local garrison had mutinied and marched off with guns and ammunition for Arrah, where British officials, residents and a handful of loyal Sikhs had collected in a large house. A 100-strong contingent of the 37th under Captain Robert Harrison was sent forward to Arrah in flat-bottomed boats towed by a steamer, but this quickly ran aground. This force was joined by the rest of the regiment along with 160 soldiers of the 10th and around 70 Sikhs and together they made their way towards Arrah.

At around 11pm, with the troops nearing the outskirts of Arrah, Harrison suggested to his senior officer that the contingent should stop for the night, only to be overruled. As the column pressed on along a narrow causeway flanked by deep ditches it suddenly came under devastating rebel fire which brought down many officers and men, including the company commander. The survivors scrambled into the surrounding fields and awaited daylight when it was decided to abandon the march on Arrah and return to the steamer.

More men were lost to sniping on the difficult retreat. By the time the remnants of the force reached Dinapore the 37th had lost two lieutenants, an ensign and 62 men killed and missing and another 24 wounded. The rebel success was shortlived. Almost immediately a 150-strong force of 5th Fusiliers defeated the mutineers and relieved Arrah.

Shortly afterwards the survivors of the 37th were moved to Ghazipore where another company from Benares reinforced them. Here the regiment was engaged for many months in combating Kunwar Singh, a Rajput landowner who had sided with the rebels in Behar and Eastern Oudh.

Meanwhile, the regiment’s headquarters and three companies under Colonel Francis Skelly left Ceylon, reaching India in early November. They quickly headed to Dinapore while the Benares companies moved to Ghazipore to bolster the forces there which had been badly hit by disease. In March 1858 the Ghazipore wing transferred to Azimgurgh to try to track down Kunwar Singh. They were replaced in Ghazipore by the headquarters.

Rather than bring Kunwar Singh to heel, the Ghazipore garrison instead found itself besieged by a large force under the rebel leader at the end of March. A sortie on March 27 failed to shift the mutineers and the regiment suffered a dozen casualties, including Captain Bedford. However, two relief convoys under Lord Mark Kerr did make it through to Azimgurgh in early April, on both occasions the regiment distinguishing itself by the assistance it provided in bringing the columns safely home.

In mid-April a column from the recently relieved Lucknow under Brigadier Lugard attacked the rebels in the rear at the Jaunpore bridge. Kunwar Singh fled southwards towards the Ganges, pursued by two columns of British troops, including one comprised of 37th soldiers under Brigadier Douglas. This came up with the enemy at Natherpur on April 17. While artillery bombarded the rebels’ position, Douglas sent his infantry to turn their flank. The attack was completely successful. The 37th, led by Captain Raymond Pelly and Lieutenants John Collum and George Savage, rushed the position and captured a Colour of the mutinous 28th Bengal Regiment.

The enemy made off hurriedly, but the pursuing British overtook them again on April 20 when crossing a river near Ghazipore. Despite being tired after a long march, Douglas’s men attacked vigorously, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing an artillery piece and many wagons and elephants. The rebels now dispersed and although Kunwar Singh reached the safety of the Jagdispur jungles he died shortly afterwards.

Douglas wrote enthusiastically of his men’s great marches. In five days, under a burning sun and on scanty rations, they had covered 120 miles. He strongly commended Captain Harrison, who commanded the 37th, whose losses totalled one killed and seven wounded.

The start of May found six companies in the Ghazipore district, hunting down dispersed rebels. However, by May 16 they had re-joined headquarters because of the number of deaths caused by heatstroke on the long marches.

From July, three companies under Captains Charles Luxmoore and Edward Burton took the field as part of a larger force charged with keeping the Grand Trunk Road open in the face of attacks by Kunwarde Singh’s brother, Anwar. In September some 70 of the 37th helped to round up 700 mutineers at Peroo, the sepoys being dislodged by the infantry and then hunted down by the cavalry who had outflanked them.

During October and November, Douglas carried out a wide sweeping movement through the area between the River Ganges and the River Soane. A column which included Captain Luxmoore’s three companies stormed a rebel detachment at Nonadee village, routing the mutineers for the loss of one man killed and four wounded

In mid-December, a company of the 37th, supported by men of the 29th, outflanked and dispersed a strong enemy position near the Bugha Maroo Pass in the Kaimur Hills. Luxmoore was highly commended for the manner in which he led his troops.

In April 1859, the regiment returned to Ghazipore where it remained for the remainder of the year, ensuring that the peace deal struck the previous year held. It was a difficult posting, with large numbers of men suffering ill health. The numbers sick never fell below 100 in 1859 and often exceeded 150. Fifty men died and another 50 were invalided. Things only improved when the regiment was moved to the Rajmahal Hills, 3,000ft above sea level, in September 1860.