10 May 1857
On 10 May 1857, the Indian Mutiny broke out in the garrison town of Meerut, 40 miles north east of Delhi. A day earlier, on 9 May, 85 Sepoys, serving as soldiers for the East India Company, had been severely punished for refusing to handle cartridges covered with paper greased with cattle and pig fat. This had enraged both Hindu and Muslim soldiers since the greased paper covering had to be bitten off before the cartridges could be loaded into the rifles.
Their British officers, indifferent to such religious sensitivities, determined to make an example of them, sentencing 74 of the recruits on 9 May to ten years hard labour and the remainder, on account of their youth, to five years and immediately placing them all in leg irons. Many of those sentenced couldn’t understand the severity of their punishments, including several who proudly wore medals testifying to many years of loyal service. The next day other Sepoys deserted their posts in sympathy and freed their imprisoned colleagues, burned down the barracks, killed their officers and immediately decided to march on Delhi, 36 miles away.
As the mutiny continued to spread, the British press was incensed by the ‘disastrous and truly alarming news’ from India as Delhi was reported to have fallen into ‘the hands of the rebellious soldiery, and… of an equally rebellious populace.’1 The correspondent of The Times insisted that the rebels were without ‘any real cause to be dissatisfied,’ while the London Daily Newsmaintained that the mutiny was not ‘an outbreak of discontent irresistible surging up in one place,’ but a revolt ‘organised and prepared with sorcery and skill.’2 By August, reports of massacres committed against British troops and ‘unmentionable outrages on European females’ ignited a chorus of calls for ‘bloody vengeance.’3
An editorial in The Times, foreshadowing the mass slaughter of mutineers and Indian civilians in the following months, demanded that the ‘merciless fiends… these Indian ruffians be made to feel the consequences to themselves of the wrath which they have provoked’ and promised that ‘European officers and soldiers now employed in the suppression of this military mutiny may look for the unhesitating support of their countrymen however stern may be the measures which they may think it proper to employ.’ The paper added that it doubted that ‘officers could restrain (their men) if they would, and we doubt still more if there will be the will among the officers to restrain them if they could.’4
- ‘The Indian Mutinies and Massacres,’ The Lancaster Gazette, 4 July 1857 and ‘Indian Mutiny: Delhi Maintained by the Rebels,’ The Newcastle Journal, 1 August 1857, p. 5.
- ‘The Mutiny in India,’ The London Daily News, 15 July 1857, p. 5 and The Times cited in ‘The Mutiny in the Indian Army’ in the Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette, 4 July 1857, p. 3.
- ‘Unmentionable Outrages on European Females – The Day of Retribution ! and Bloody Vengeance,’ The Hampshire Advertiser, 8 August 1857, p. 2.
- Editorial, The Times, 6 August 1857, cited in The Hampshire Advertiser, op. cit.
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