A sepoy called Mangal Pandey was the first soldier who openly disobeyed orders. He killed two English officers at Barrackpore near Calcutta on 29 March 1857. He was arrested, tried and executed. The regiments of Barrackpore were disbanded.

The news of Mangal Pandey very soon reached other parts of the country and resulted in open revolts.

The most decisive uprising occurred at Meerut where 85 sepoys of the cavalry regiment were sentenced to 2-10 years imprisonment for refusing to use greased cartridges. The very next day, on 10 May 1857, three regiments broke into open mutiny. They killed British officers and broke open the prison to release their comrades.

They began to march towards Delhi, where they were joined by the local infantry and the common people. The rebels captured Delhi and killed many British officers. They declared the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah as the emperor of India.

From Delhi the revolt spread to other places. In Kanpur, Nana Sahib was declared the Peshwa. His troops were commanded by Tantya Tope and Azimullah. At Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal was assisted by Maulvi Ahmadullah. In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai and in Arrah, Kunwar Singh led the revolt. Khan Bahadur Khan was the leader in Bareilly.

The loss of Delhi greatly lowered the prestige of the British. To recover their lost prestige they took help of the loyal forces from Punjab. The siege lasted four months and Delhi was finally recaptured on 10 September 1857. It took another ten months of fighting before the Governor-general, Lord Canning, could proclaim the end of the Mutiny on 8 July 1858.

Stiff resistance had been offered to the British force by the heroic trio of the rebellion - Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Tantya Tope and Kunwar Singh. Rani Laxmi Bai led the rebel ranks. Mounted on horseback, she boldly faced the British cavalry but when her horse stumbled and fell she was killed.

According to the British commander-inchief, Sir Hugh Rose, she was the best and bravest military leader of the rebels. Kunwar Singh was killed in another battle in Bihar. Tantya Tope was captured while he was asleep. He was hanged after a trial. This was the end of the heroic trio and the rebellion was finally suppressed by the British.

The old Emperor Bahadur Shah along with his two sons was taken prisoner. After a trail he was deported to Rangoon, where he died in 1862, at the age of 87. His sons were shot dead at Delhi without a trial.

Nature of the Revolt

A big debate surrounds the revolt of 1857. British historians describe the events of 1857 -1858 as a mutiny by the sepoys. There were many uprisings by the sepoys prior to 1857. One example is the Vellore mutiny of July 1806 where Indian sepoys had revolted against the East India Company’s garrison. Nevertheless, order was restored very soon and this revolt did not go beyond the confines of the cantonment.

The revolt of 1857 was started by the sepoys but was joined in large numbers by the civilian population. The participation of peasants and artisans made the revolt a widespread and popular event.

In some areas, the common people revolted even before the sepoys. All this shows that it was clearly a popular revolt. It was characterised by Hindu-Muslim unity. Unity between different regions also existed. Rebels in one part of the country helped people fighting in other areas.

The Revolt of 1857 was not one movement but many. It was not a class revolt either. The peasantry did not rebel against the landlords. They only directed attacks against money-lending grain dealers or the representatives of the British Indian government. But their policies strongly influenced the way a particular region as a whole was going to react.

The Revolt in Awadh as well as in other regions, was popular, in that it pertained to people as a whole and was carried out by them. Talukdars and peasants in Awadh fought together against a common foe. But there is no doubt that the revolt of 1857 was the first time that soldiers of the Indian army recruited from different communities, Hindus and Muslims, landlords and peasants, had come together in their opposition to the British. It also provided the necessary foundation for the later successful anti-colonial struggles against the British.