Of Agitators and Chapatis

In February 1857, throughout North India, the British became aware that things were not quite as they seemed. It started with the circulation of chapatis. It wasn’t just a few chapatis, but thousands.
The chapati was and still remains the staple food of many Indians throughout the subcontinent, this inoffensive flat bread made of water and unleavened flour, suddenly took on an ominous status.
So it happened that a man would come to a town during the night, and hand over 5 of these chapatis to the watchman, with the instructions to make 5 more and hand them onto the watchman in the next town or village. Occasionally goat’s meat and lotus flowers accompanied the chapattis. When questioned, it appeared the watchmen themselves could not explain why they were distributing the chapatis as no explanation had been given to them either. Where they originated wasn’t known either- but they travelled quickly, faster in fact than the Dak postal system, and very far from Farrukhabad to Gurgaon, from Oudh  via Rohilkhand and all the way to Delhi. Although everyone was aware this was a sign, no one could really say of what.

Passing on chapatis

After 2 weeks however, the circulation of the chapatis stopped – and although disturbing, the the actual meaning was never ascertained and remains until today, an incident much left to conjecture.
Other stories circulated – that the flour was tainted with bones, that the British were tampering with the wells to break the caste of those who drank the water. Rumours were rife, and no one had any idea how to stop them.


There is much to be said for the Mutiny of 1857 being a national revolt, India’s first war of independence. And there is also much to be said against it.
As we are all aware, history is written by victors so we must take into account that there is a twist of bias in British accounts. Unfortunately, Indian accounts are few and far inbetween and this said, they mostly cannot be taken at face value, often written by men who had a stake in being loyal to the winning side. It is a matter of sifting through as much material as possible and then drawing a conclusion somewhere in between. The true feelings of Indians contemporary to the times are however, for the most part, sadly lost. This said, we cannot disregard all the accounts of Europeans – not everyone was happy with the HEICo and many administrators disagreed vocally with the annexation of Oudh, they blustered loudly about the state of the Bengal Army and they shot off as many warnings as they could that something was up and Calcutta had best beware. But to no avail. Mistakes were made that no-one learned from, annexations were committed that were guaranteed to infuriate the population, the Doctrine of Lapse was used to further the vein of greed while administrators who lived with the people were routinely ignored.
All this said, it cannot be denied that a movement did ferment as far back as 1855 – whether this was an all encompassing plot to overthrow the British I will leave to your deduction, as taken in the context of the times, although far reaching, it did not include nor did it effect Bombay or Madras which still are a very large portion of India. For a national revolt, you would need to have a nation with united ideas and a united people, and India in 1857 was not any of those things. I do not say this to discredit India; but in 1857, although divided into three Presidencies, this was home to many different autonomous and semi-autonomous states.

India, 1797-1805
India in 1857

The Mutiny of 1857 had its instigators, conspirators and plotters. These were found in the ranks of the army; disgruntled sepoys firing up their colleagues with words of dissention,it festeredin the bazaar talk of the ordinary man and worried the servants who gave not so subtle hints to their employers. In the case of Mangal Pandey, not at all talk was idle. Ideas, as we know, 1do not come from thin air.

In 1857, it was communicated that up to 24 native infantry regiments were in a “mutinous spirit” and there is no doubt that they were all in touch with each other. Groups, often likened to cabals existed in all regiments of the infantry and the cavalry – groups of men who

“…more daring than others are allowed to take the lead while the more wary prepare to profit when the time suites; a few men in a few corps, a few corps in any army begin; if successful are joined by their more calculating and by their more timid comrades…To what extent the conspiracy was secretly carried out is unknown..and it may be assumed that each (regiment) had at least four agitators..”

The British were aware that agitation in the army came from within the army, but they were powerless to stop it as the men they commanded were unwilling to give up their comrades. That a plot for revolt existed in the years before 1857 is not disputed.
On the civilian level, there are some obvious choices for key conspirators. One of them is undoubtedly Nana Sahib who bore the HEICo a legitimate grievance in regard to his inheritance. He in turn was accompanied by Azimullah Khan, his confidant whose failed mission to England to seek regress directly from the Queen and his reports to the Nana regarding the British failure at Sebastopol in 1855 (which he witnessed himself – it was not uncommon for civilians to be witness to battles, an idea that nowadays would fill most of us with horror). He returned to India convinced that the British Army was for the lack of better words, in a “state of depression.”
The story even circulated in India that the defeats the British had suffered in Crimea were tantamount to their complete annihilation at the hands of the Russians, that no English soldiers remained and all of their ships were at the bottom of the sea. This of course led the subjugated to believe that HEICo was anything but invincible – and when one believes that the last remaining English soldiers left on earth are in India, it must have seemed it would be very easy chase them out. The British had already proved they were not invincible (Afghanistan to point and the reversals suffered in the Sikh Wars) so Crimea was simply another example of their weakness.
Azimullah wasted no time in organising his own mission in India, with the Nana. Together they went on a “pilgrimage” supposedly to the hills, but in fact it was planned excursion to every military station along the main Grand Trunk Road, though this did not actually take place, since the Nana only took on three journeys – to Kalpi, Delhi and finally to Lucknow. Azimullah however, did make it to Ambala.
Not that the Nana was sitting quietly by. As early as 1855 Nana Sahib had communicated with the princes, rulers and former rulers of the states of Gwalior, Assam, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Baroda, Hyderabad, Kolapore, Satara and Indore, trying to incite them to rebellion – but it took the annexation of Oudh for them to send him any answers to his letters.
The first one to jump on Nana’s suggestion is said to have been Man Singh, one of the biggest landowners (talukdar) in the Faizabad district of Oudh, who had fared very badly during the revenue settlement of 1856,that had left him with only three villages. Other talukdars followed suite as did the the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Goulab Singh. The King of Delhi himself was in the fold – however their assistance as such in fermenting the rebellion was one of financial assistance – money used to entice sepoys and disbanded soldiers of the army of the King of Oudh in the furtherance of plots.
The deposed king of Oudh was not taking his forced exile in Calcutta lightly either and although his retainers worked closely with the Bengal Army, their attempt at a coupe in Calcutta on 26th January 1857 was foiled by some of the sepoys and the jemadars themselves, who gave warning to the British.
General Hearsey, on the 28th of January reported to Calcutta on the arson attacks on European houses at Barrackpore and Raniganj telegraph office- where coincidentally wings of the 2nd NI were stationed. These arson attacks were said to be a signal – starting in Raniganj, further arson attacks were to have been carried out on telegraph offices all the way to the Punjab allowing those who were privy to the plot to know that the time was coming close for all out rebellion.
What this also points to however, is that the rebellion had less to do with wounded religious sentiments and was far more political.
The regiments most affected by the annexation of Oudh, were those stationed in Lucknow – the 19th, and 34th, while they found co-conspirators in the 17th.

“Both these regiments were full of bitterness … and from them letters were written to other Purbeah regiments. The 34th took the lead. These letters reminded every regiment of the ancient dynasties of Hindustan; pointed out that the annexation of Oudh had been followed by the disbandment of the Oude army, for the second time since the connection of the English with Oudh; and showed that their place was being filled by the enlistment of Punjabis and Sikhs, and the formation of a Punjab army. The very bread had been torn out of the mouths of men who knew no other profession than that of the sword. The letters went on to say that further annexations might be expected, with little or no use for the native army. Thus was it pressed upon the Scpoys that they must rebel to reseat the ancient kings on their thrones, and drive the trespassers away. The welfare of the soldier caste required this; the honour of their chiefs was at stake.”

Undoubtedly agents of the kings of Delhi and of Oudh were sent out all over India to test the waters so to speak, working “on the feelings of the sepoys, telling them how treacherously the foreigners had behaved towards their king. They invented ten thousand lies and promises to persuade the soldiers to mutiny and turn against their masters…”
Of course Wajid Ali, as the ex-king of Oudh, was not beyond making promises and it has been established that men of the 17th, 19th and the 34th all offered him their services during the annexation in 1856. In Barrackpore a jemadar writing to the king, promised there were men in the 34th and in the 2nd who would willing side with him – and the king on his part, convinced them “if they broke away from the English harness, they would obtain more lucrative service under the restored kingship of Oudh.”

General Hearsey himself was convinced that the story of the cartridges itself had been spread on the instigation of the King of Oudh- from his residence at Garden Reach he had more than enough influence with civilians who could do the work for him. Hearsey warned the government that the men at Barrackpore had been “misled by some designing scoundrels who have managed to make them believe that their religious prejudices, their caste is to be interfered by the Government.” What we can surmise is that the cause of the rebellion ultimately cannot be put down to just a fear of religion; it must be seen as a general dissatisfaction with the British rulers themselves, catapulted forwards by the annexation of Oudh which had been the prime recruiting ground of the British army, the changes to the recruitment policy in which high-caste played a lesser part, and wrapped up with the poor pay and the promotion by seniority. To put it bluntly, the army was looking for a better pay master and they felt that new employers were needed.

For rulers and landowners deposed by the British government, the goal was clear- the restoration of their titles and their estates. The defeat of the British would have allowed them to retake their thrones, reinstate themselves as the rulers of their states and provinces.They had a common goal, but what they lacked was cohesion – for their plan began and ended with a rebellion. And as we have seen already not everyone was ready to take the plunge – leading a rebellion past its first steps would prove to be much more difficult than anyone had imagined.

Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi-Charles T. Metcalfe (translated,1898)
Narrative of the Mutinies in Oude- Maj- Gen George Hutchinson (1859)
Selections of Letters, Despatches and other State Papers– G.W. Forrest, (1893-1912)
From Sepoy to Subedar; being the life and adventures of Subedar Sita Ram, a Native Officer of the Bengal Army, written and related by himself – James Lunt, editor. (1970)
My Diary in India 1858-9 in 2 volumes– W.H. Russell (1860)
HIstory of the Sepoy War in 3 Volumes – Sir John Kaye ( 1864-67)