An elephant gun-battery in 1857, a wood engraving from the 1860's. These elephant guns were crucial to both sides.
Guns vs bow & arrows?
When it comes to the 1857 War, popular impression is that Indian ‘mutineers’ fought with swords, bows and arrows, and the British had guns and cannons.
For at least 400 years before 1857, India was the largest producer of gunpowder elements – specially crucial nitrates. India was the largest producer of nitrates (main component in gunpowder) – and availability of explosive material was not the problem in the 1857 War.
Not for Indians. Not for the British, too.
The Indian Court at the Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London 1851. | Painting by Joseph Nash | Click for image.
Since nitrate-production was concentrated in the greater Bengal area (Bihar, West Bengal, East Bengal), the purbiyas (the Easterners) were also the explosive experts. Malwa’s rulers recruited Purbias from Bengal and Bihar for their expertise in gunpowder. The British initially valued and later (after 1857) feared the Purbias for the same reason.
The purbiyas (the Easterners) were the main body in in Malwa and Mughal armies, in Sher Shah Suri and Ranjit Singh’s armies – and in the army of East India Company also. In fact, the main component of anti-British Indian soldiers in the 1857 War were the Bengal soldiers, the purbiyas (the Easterners).
Indian nitrate production was in the hands of the private sector – and the whole world bought its gunpowder from India. Indian rulers too, had to buy nitrates at near global prices.
But buying nitrates, hiring soldiers, buying guns was an expensive affair.
Note the damage to the structure. Soldiers of the 1st Madras Fusiliers seated amongst the remains of the British entrenchment de fences to barracks at Cawnpore which General Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler surrendered in June 1857. | Image by Felice Beato; source & courtesy - iwm.org.uk | Click for image.
Slavery, narcotics & piracy
Indian rulers ‘hampered’ by Indian dharma systems had limited access to funds. Taxation across India was set at 16.67%. Only in dire emergencies could the king impose the chauth rate (25%) of taxation – used by Shivaji.
The British East India Company could easily buy nitrates – funded by the riches of slave-trade, sugar production (using slave-labour), piracy, narcotics trade (opium to China).
Capital formation in Britain also pushed the Industrial Revolution – fully underway in Britain.
A cargo of seventy elephants from Burma during the 1857 Mutiny; |m Iage date: 1858–61; Albumen silver print; from Gilman Collection, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Click for image.
By 1857, production of armaments in Britain was the highest in the world. The Grand Expo of 1851 announced Britain’s industrial might and leadership to the world.
By 1857, steam engines were driving production in England. Indian armament industry was powered by manual power – instead of steam power in Britain.
But was industrial might the deciding factor?
Siege guns, 18-pounders were much used by the British to bombard Indian soldiers.
These guns drawn by elephants made a difference. But more than guns were elephants themselves.
Contemporary British accounts record capture of elephants from Indian armies. At least at one time, the British resorted to ship elephants from Burma to supplement their armies in India.
But what was the main achievement of the 1857 War? Western views is
Kashmiri Gate after the pounding by cannons during the 1857 War | Albumen print by Felice Beato; source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for image.
Indian Mutiny was a revolution which failed.
Except that it destroyed the East India Company as a quasi-government once and for all: when executive administration and military authority were restored in the Raj, both were firmly in the hands of the British Crown. And except that never again, in the 90 years which remained before Indian independence, would Britons stand so confidently astride the subcontinent. Its balance had been fatally shaken at Meerut and from that day onwards it was a matter of when, not if, the Raj would fall.
The story which began in 1857 has never quite been resolved. Not all of its million sub-plots found so neat an ending as the tale of Margaret Wheeler. More representative by far is the legend of Wheeler’s nemesis, Nana Sahib, the enigmatic rebel leader who oversaw the massacres at Cawnpore. Despite being the most wanted man in the British Empire, Nana Sahib was never captured. Long after his probable death, sightings continued to be reported. The last came in Gujarat in 1895 when a young British officer detained an elderly sadhu and excitedly cabled Calcutta: “Have arrested the Nana Sahib. Wire instructions.”
Calcutta’s reply, subtly redolent of exasperation at the power of myth and mirage under the Indian sun, read: “Release at once”. (via Bounty from a mutiny – Books – Scotsman.com).
If … But … Why …
If the 1857 War was such a failure, why was the East India disbanded? Why did Christian missionary program start taking a back seat? Added to this, after the 1857 War in India, Christian proselytism too had to take a back seat.
Victoria Regina’s Colonial India Government printed leaflets in tens and thousands to proclaim that the British Crown had no intentions to dictate faith to its Indian ‘subjects’. The 1857 War also forced the British to change the war. Instead of military means, the British mounted an intellectual war on India. Euro-centric historians to change the entire drift of world history.
Less than ninety years after the 1857 War, in February 1946 Indian sepoys raised the Indian flag of independence – again.
This time around the British decided to walk.