Bahadur Shah Zafar looked out of his window on the morning of May 11, 1857 and realised something odd was going on. From the far side of the River Jumna which his palace overlooked, a cloud of dust was rapidly approaching. Zafar feared he was under attack but soon he could see the dust was raised by a group of sepoy cavalrymen of the East India Regiment.
The sepoys, native troops who served under British command had mutinied at the garrison of Meerut the previous night, turning British Army - issue guns on their British officers. After the bloodshed the mutineers had ridden overnight to Delhi to ask the Emperor for his blessing for a wider rebellion.
Reading out their complaints the mens' leader said, "The English are people who overthrow all religions and are the common enemy of both Hindu and Muslim. We should unite in their slaughter and by this our lives and faiths will be saved."
The sepoys then stormed Delhi and slaughtered every Christian they could find.
This began the notorious Indian Mutiny, one of the bloodiest rebellions against a European power in the colonial era.
Among the few military personnel to escape from Delhi was a Captain Roberts whose fluency in Hindustani (Urdu to Muslims) enabled him to report the depth of feeling among the Indians. This is not a mutiny, it is a revolution he said.
The root of the problem was the sepoys both Hindus and Muslims had been issued with musket charges wrapped in paper greased with animal fat and the army refused to differentiate between those greased with beef fat and those oiled with pork lard.
The officers had responded by telling their men concern about such things was unchristian and therefore complaints were dismissed. On May 9, two days before the mutiny began a group of sepoys had refused to drill with the Lee Enfield rifles that used the suspect cartridges.
The protesters had been charged with insubordination, stripped, flogged and sentenced to ten years penal servitude. A young sub - lieutenant, John McNabb wrote in a letter home "it is much worse than being sentenced to death. They will never see their wives or families again and will lose their service pension rights for the wholes of their service in the regiment, forty years in the case of one man."
All it would have taken to quell the rebellion and prevent the massacre in Delhi and perhaps head off the mutiny was for a senior British officer to assure the regiment that neither pork lard nor beef tallow was used to grease the cartridge paper and that would have been no more than the truth. Nobody knows how the rumour started.
(A historical note: though the army had rifles rather than muskets, those issued to sepoys were quite primitive, the gunpowder charge that propelled the ball was not contained in a metal casing but wrapped in greased paper. The soldiers had to bite the paper and tip the powder into the muzzle of the rifle, compacting it with a ramrod and securing powder and ball with wadding. Breech loading rifles were only issued to elite Rifles regiments.)
A total of 130000 of the 13900 sepoys in the British army were to join the revolt which snowballed throughout the following months as the pent - up resentment of the Indian people against increasingly oppressive British colonisation suddenly found an outlet in religious fervour.
The British had effectively ruled India for well over a century. The East India Company which was not actually a commercial trading company but a quasi autonomous government agency - a quango as we would say now, had operated in the sub - continent from early in the 17th century, administering benignly as they were only interested in trade and left matters of religion, law and culture to the traditional local rulers. By end of the Napoleonic wars 1n 1815 life had changed in Britain; there had been a puritan backlash against the progressive thinking of what has become known as the age of Enlightenment although in reality it only lasted around three decades.
Had not the anarchic and morally degenerate ideas of Enlightenment writers, philosophers and artists been responsible for the French and American revolutions. Did the discoveries of Enlightenment scientists not challenge the teachings of the established church?
These things were true, at that time there was a widespread rejection of the old religious hegemony, new existentialist and humanist philosophies were studied and debated, a wave of interest in natural sciences led to a wave of innovation that produced commercial and social benefits and new religious thinking. The Unitarian Church which rejected the notion of the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus had become very powerful as had the Methodists founded by John Wesley. Both these movements were socially progressive and opposed the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church of England (the Roman Catholic church was suppressed at this time in Britain.) On top of all this the economic recession that followed the war had led to new political movements that by the middle of the century were challenging the supremacy of the old elite.
This forerunner of the 1960s "Swinging England" and "Cool Britannia of the 1990s led to the resurgence of overt piety and religiosity that typifies the Victorian era among the type of people whose comfort zone lies only within a very solid framework of certainties and constraints. The section of society that liked to think of itself as God - fearing had to restablish its position.
At home the unfortunate members of the working class were the targets of this evangelism, with Temperance movements and moral vigilante groups springing up in urban and rural areas alike. But if the working class enclaves of Britain were a happy hunting ground for people eager to promote their evangelical credentials, India, with approaching a half a billion "unbaptized heathens" (including the ancestors of my Grandma Thorpe) all simply yearning to be embraced in the arms of Jesus according to Evangelical preachers seemed to offer a veritable Land of Milk and Honey. Unfortunately nobody had thought to ask the Hindus and Muslims of India for their views on this.
Britain was now run by people who were convinced God was an Englishman and the divine mission of the British Empire was to bring civilised (i.e. British) values to the native people, whose civilisation was actually older than Europe's, and shine the light of Christianity on the lives of the benighted multitudes. And Britain knew best.
The Indians, unlike the native people of Africa were considered capable of being "improved" by civilising influences. Due to their arrogance and short sightedness two things completely escaped the British rulers; first, India had its own civilised values which had existed since before the rise of the Roman Empire; second, the commercial relationship worked very well to the benefit of both India and Britain. If only they had heard the phrase "if it ain't broke don't fix it".
Under the leadership of a young, ambitious and overzealous Governor - General, the Marquis of Dalhousie the British had begun to impose a whole package of "the benefits of civilisation."
A Telegraph system was installed, a railway network constructed, industrial technology was applied in traditional industries and western education and law was imposed.
This policy of cultural subjugation was known as the Forward Policy. Though intended to be entirely secular, under Dalhousie's weak supervision it soon took on a tone of evangelical fanaticism. The preachers convinced the young Lord that India was to be redeemed for Jesus.
India did not see it that way. The traditional rulers were not fools, for many yeas they had known that the "benefits of civilisation" mainly benefitted the colonial rulers but so long as Indian life was not interfered with they were prepared to tolerate them rather than invite the slaughter that would result from conflict with the British Empire. When changes began to undermine the traditional social structure however, that tolerance ran out.
The catalyst for a change of mood began when the colonial government set aside the traditional Laws of Lapse which governed inheritance and decreed that when a ruler or landowner died without a legitimate heir their titles and assets would transfer to the crown.
Things came to a head in Jhansi, a province in northern Rajastan in 1853 when Rajah Lakshmi died childless. his eighteen year old widow made a personal protest to Dalhousie but was contemptuously dismissed. Dissing the widow of a Rajah of one of India's oldest royal houses was The Marquis' big mistake. The goodwill of the ruling class was lost.
On top of that a new wave of evangelical fervour only made matters worse. Part of Dalhousie's push to industrialise India had been the introduction of lithographic presses, more suited to Indian scripts than the more common letterpress printing machines. Unfortunately, with his usual disregard for local sensibilities, the Governor - General allowed this to result in the frenetic production and distribution of Christian religious literature. Rumours spread that the British were about to embark on a campaign of compulsory conversion.
It was not just literature that fuelled these rumours. British missionaries had embarked on a policy of seizing orphaned Hindu and Muslim children and bringing them up as Christians. There was the beef /pork fat cartridge paper issue which was not resolved as the sepoy troops had simply been told it was none of their business; people had also been caused to lose caste by being made to eat and share washing facilities with Europeans as a condition of employment, temples and mosques had been demolished in modernisation schemes for towns and cities and the Imperial administrators had allowed Christian missionaries to preach in the streets, anathema to Indian society.
By 1858, with the mutiny still spreading and still being fuelled by rumour, Rajah Feroze Shah published a pamphlet claiming that the British intended to ban traditional Ayurvedic medicine, declare all marriages not conducted by Christian clergymen illegal and burn all Hindu and Muslim sacred books. His document then listed a multitude of similar outrages, all equally ridiculous and without foundation but in view of things the British had actually done all very believable.
Religious unrest had been simmering for years before the actual uprising but to the arrogant aristocratic and upper class British administrators except the few like Captain Roberts (sic) who had learned the languages and gained awareness of the culture, the cartridge - grease problem was the first they knew of local feeling about their actions. In reality the damage to relations between rulers and ruled went much deeper.
While politicians in London employed elaborate rhetoric and Pentecostalist zeal in preaching the gospel of free trade in reality the British were fiercely protectionist and exploitative. India's newly built railway network came in very handy for distributing imported grain from the ports while the cost to Indian farmers of moving their surplus crops to the areas where demand existed was prohibitive. This made it easy to control prices in the home market to the delight of farmers and merchants whose votes would ensure the return of another free trade government.
In another example of protectionism a 1,500 mile fence was erected to prevent the "smuggling" of salt between Indian provinces in order to protects the interests of Cheshire rock salt extractors thousands of miles away in North West England.
These are just two examples from many hundreds showing how in the exchanges between Britain and its wealthiest colony the dice were always loaded in favour of the rulers. And all this went on under the auspices of a Government that preached of the civilising effect of free markets. Britain was the world's dominant power and the markets would be as free as it suited Britain to let them be.
In this explosive, almost hysterical atmosphere of resentment and mistrust the fanatics had a field day.
On June 8, 1857 insurrectionists freed a rabble rousing preacher of violent jihad, Ahmadullah, a sort of Osama Bin Laden of the nineteenth century who had been arrested the previous February for inciting riots.
Accompanied by a thousand followers he lad a march on Lucknow, the most British of Indian cities. Simultaneously other local religious leaders, men such as Liquat Ali, Fazal Kahirabad and Ali Quadir were also gathering guerrilla armies.
The sepoys, responsible for organising the fighting forces were overwhelmingly Hindu but the British chose to inflate the role of Muslim fanaticism in animating the revolt because Islam was seen as a greater threat to British interests around the globe and so Muslims were made the main targets for retribution.
By late summer the rebels had gathered so much support they felt confident enough to nominate a day on which the hated British would be defeated and humiliated, freeing India from colonial rule.
The day they decided on was the tenth day of the month of Muharran, in the western calendar September 11.