British Indian soldiers in 1857

On May 10, 1857, Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, drawn mostly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied at the Meerut cantonment near Delhi, starting a year-long insurrection against the British. The mutineers then marched to Delhi and offered their services to the Mughal emperor, whose predecessors had suffered an ignoble defeat 100 years earlier at Plassey.

The uprising, which seriously threatened British rule in India, has been called many names by historians, including the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the Revolt of 1857; many people of the subcontinent, however, prefer to call it India’s “first war of independence.” The insurrection was sparked by the introduction of cartridges rumored to have been greased with pig or cow fat, which was offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim and Hindu sepoys (soldiers). In a wider sense, the insurrection was a reaction by the indigenous population to rapid changes in the social order engineered by the British over the preceding century and an abortive attempt by the Muslims to resurrect a dying political order. When mutinous units finally surrendered on June 20, 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah to Burma, thereby formally ending the Mughal Empire. As a direct consequence of the revolt, the British also dissolved the British East India Company and assumed direct rule over India, beginning the period of the British Raj. British India was thereafter headed by a governor general (called viceroy when acting as the direct representative of the British crown). The governor general, who embodied the supreme legislative and executive authority in India, was responsible to the secretary of state for India, a member of the British cabinet in London.