The Indian Rebellion of 1857 occurred as the result of an accumulation of factors over time, rather than any
The sepoys were local soldiers, the majority Hindu or Muslim, that were recruited into the Company’s army.
Just before the Rebellion there were over 300,000 sepoys in the army, compared to about 50,000 British.
The forces were divided into three presidency armies: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. The Bengal Army
recruited higher castes, such as Rajputs and Bhumihar Brahmins, mostly from the Awadh and Bihar regions
and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855. In contrast, the Madras Army and Bombay Army
were more localized, caste-neutral armies that did not prefer high-caste men. The domination of higher
castes in the Bengal Army has been blamed in part for initial mutinies that led to the rebellion.
In 1772, when Warren Hastings was appointed India’s first Governor-General, one of his first undertakings
was the rapid expansion of the Company’s army. Since the sepoys from Bengal – many of whom had fought
against the Company in the Battles of Plassey and Buxar – were now suspect in British eyes, Hastings
recruited farther west from the high-caste rural Rajputs and Bhumihar Brahmins of Awadh and Bihar, a
practice that continued for the next 75 years. However, in order to forestall any social friction, the
Company also took pains to adapt its military practices to the requirements of their religious rituals.
Consequently, these soldiers dined in separate facilities; in addition, overseas service, considered polluting
to their caste, was not required of them, and the army soon came officially to recognise Hindu festivals.
This encouragement of high caste ritual status, however, left the government vulnerable to protest, even
mutiny, whenever the sepoys detected infringement of their prerogatives.
It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh (Awadh) by the East India Company in 1856, many
sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from
the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might bring about. Others
have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, reading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official
intent, were convinced that the Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to
Christianity. Although earlier in the 1830s, evangelicals such as William Carey and William Wilberforce had
successfully clamoured for the passage of social reform such as the abolition of sati (funeral ritual within
some Asian communities in which a recently widowed woman immolates herself, typically on the
husband’s funeral pyre) and allowing the remarriage of Hindu widows, there is little evidence that the
sepoys’ allegiance was affected by this.
However, changes in the terms of their professional service may have created resentment. As the extent of
the East India Company’s jurisdiction expanded with victories in wars or with annexation, the soldiers were
now not only expected to serve in less familiar regions, such as in Burma, but also make do without the
foreign service remuneration that had previously been their due. Another financial grievance stemmed
from the general service act, which denied retired sepoys a pension; whilst this only applied to new
recruits, it was suspected that it would also apply to those already in service. In addition, the Bengal Army
was paid less than the Madras and Bombay Armies, which compounded the fears over pensions.
A major cause of resentment that arose ten months prior to the outbreak of the Rebellion was the General
Service Enlistment Act of 25 July 1856. As noted above, men of the Bengal Army had been exempted from
overseas service. Specifically they were enlisted only for service in territories to which they could march.
Governor-General Lord Dalhousie saw this as an anomaly, since all sepoys of the Madras and Bombay
Armies and the six General Service battalions of the Bengal Army had accepted an obligation to serve
overseas if required. As a result the burden of providing contingents for active service in Burma, readily
accessible only by sea, and China had fallen disproportionately on the two smaller Presidency Armies. As
signed into effect by Lord Canning, Dalhousie’s successor as Governor-General, the Act required only new
recruits to the Bengal Army to accept a commitment for general service. However, serving high-caste
sepoys were fearful that it would be eventually extended to them, as well as preventing sons following
fathers into an Army with a strong tradition of family service.
There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. This, as well as the increasing
number of European officers in the battalions, made promotion a slow progress, and many Indian officers
did not reach commissioned rank until they were too old to be effective.