24 April 1857
On 24 April 1857, eighty five Indian soldiers of the Third Bengal Light Cavalry stationed at Meerut, a town 40 miles north east of Delhi, refused orders to use cartridges covered by paper greased with pig and cow fat. They had been ordered to bite off the greased paper before loading the cartridges into the rifles. It was a humiliating command, conflicting with the most fundamental religious beliefs of both Hindu and Muslim recruits. The trial of the 85 took place over six days in early May. A British officer recalled the varying reactions among the suspects:
‘After their first arraignment, all pleading “not guilty”, they were allowed to sit on the ground. It was curious to watch their faces. Some, especially the older soldiers, men who had seen and done good service, and wore several medals, looking worn and anxious; others sullen and apparently unconcerned and, native like, trusting to fate.”1
On 9 May, they were all severely punished for having dared to defy orders. Seventy four were sentenced to ten years hard labour and a further eleven to a reduced sentence of five years on account of their youth. All of them were immediately placed in fetters and escorted to the Meerut jail located on the road to Delhi. The next day other Indian soldiers mutinied. They were egged on by locals and a young British woman. Mees Dolly, the widow of a sergeant and a local sex worker, is alleged to have jeered at the Indian soldiers, telling them ‘we have no kisses for cowards,’ and urged them to rescue their imprisoned comrades. This they duly did, initiating an uprising against British rule that spread across much of the subcontinent, which soon became known simply as the Indian Mutiny.2
- Cited in Kim A Wagner, The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising, Dev Publishers and Distributors, 2014, p. 119.
- Sara Mills, Gender and Colonial Space, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005, p. 69.
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