Today in South Asian history: the Siege of Delhi ends (1857)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

The 1857 Siege of Delhi is significant for at least two reasons, one more tangible than the other. On the practical level, Britain's victory effectively stifled the 1857-1859 Indian Rebellion, ensuring that it would ultimately fail even though the conflict continued for some time afterward. On the more intangible note, the siege marked the formal end of the Mughal Dynasty, which ruled most of modern India and Pakistan for more than three centuries. I say "formal" end because in any practical sense the Mughals were already long since defunct.

I have sitting on my bookshelf right now The Mughal Empire by John F. Richards, a book that, apart from some perfunctory closing notes, wraps up its narrative in the 1720s, at the beginning of the reign of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748). Why would a history of the Mughals end in the 1720s, when the Mughal dynasty stayed on the throne well into the 1850s? Because in relatively short order, at the beginning of the 18th century the Mughals lost control over their empire. Aurangzeb (d. 1707), the last effective Mughal emperor, laid the groundwork for this when he instituted a repressive and heavily Islamic style of rule that upended the dynasty's previous tolerance for other faiths (chiefly Hinduism) and thereby undermined the foundations of Mughal rule over the majority of their subjects.

Aurangzeb himself died before he got to witness the fallout of this shift in religious policy and ideology. After his death Hindu principalities, outraged by the new wave of repression that had replaced the Mughals' traditionally light touch, quickly began to assert their independence in central and southern India, and Nadir Shah's 1739 Sack of Delhi made it clear that Mughal power was on the wane. By the end of the 18th century the Mughals were under the "protection" of the Hindu Maratha Empire, based in the Deccan. It was the Marathas, not the Mughals, who resisted the expansion of British control over the subcontinent, and when Maratha power was finally smashed in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1816-1819) the Mughals came under the British East India Company's "protection" instead.

In a sense, the 1857 end of the Mughal dynasty may be one of the great historical examples of an anticlimax. For all practical purposes, the Mughal dynasty was over more than a century earlier. Still, I think the actual end of the dynasty is historically noteworthy.

Nominally, the 1857 sepoy (sepoy means "soldier" and derives from the Persian word sepahi, but in this case it specifically means local soldiers recruited to fight for the East India Company) mutiny that snowballed into a full-on Indian rebellion against British rule had as its aim the restoration of Mughal authority. But I have a hard time believing that the rebels who stood against Britain were really fighting for the Mughals. Rather, I imagine that "restoring the Mughals" was cover for "kick the British out" and was meant to serve as a rallying cry more than a concrete goal. I say this because none of the people who fought in the rebellion—hell, none of the people who were alive when it began—had been alive the last time the Mughal dynasty actually mattered in any real sense. But hey, whatever gets people out of bed, I guess.

The immediate cause of the revolt was much more mundane than restoring the grand old Mughal Empire—it was about guns and ammo. Specifically, it was about the introduction of the Enfield P-53 rifled musket, whose cartridges were allegedly greased, in part, with beef and pork fat. Since the procedure for loading the rifle called on the soldier to rip the cartridge open with his teeth, meaning he'd inevitably ingest a little of the grease, both Hindus and Muslims in the sepoy ranks had religious reasons to object.

As far as I know the idea that the P-53's cartridges were greased with animal fat never got beyond the rumor stage, though of course that doesn't mean it wasn't true. Nevertheless, by late-1856 sepoy grumbling over the weapon reached a level such that the East India Company announced that it would issue new ungreased cartridges that could be opened by hand rather than with the teeth. All this announcement really did was convince the sepoys that all the rumors about the cartridges were true. So they simply refused to use any new cartridges, while their EIC superiors insisted otherwise. After a handful of smaller outbursts between the soldiers and their EIC officers, a mutiny near Delhi in May 1857 was the one that caught fire.


The Enfield P-53 (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, the underlying causes of the revolt went a lot deeper than rifle cartridges and had to do with the upheaval of Indian society brought on by the arrival of the East India Company. The landowners who'd lost the most, economically and socially, to the EIC as it took control of the subcontinent were located in the north, where the Mughals had been centered, and it was in the north where the rebellion was centered. This could explain why a Mughal restoration became the rebel rallying cry. But as convenient as the Mughals were as a revolutionary mascot, their centrality may also have limited the scope of the uprising. To the south, which had never really taken to Mughal rule the way the north had, support for the rebellion remained relatively weak. This geographic disparity played a role in the revolt's eventual suppression, as a rebellion that truly encompassed the whole of India would have been difficult for even the mighty British Empire to take down.

Even among the sepoys there were deeper grievances than just the nature of their ammo. Most of the local soldiers who'd opted to fight for the British had done so because the pay was decent and because the East India Company made a few promises as to how they would be treated. But as the British pacified more and more of India, there were less and less chances for sepoys to earn hazard pay, and in 1856 the EIC changed the terms of enlistment to make them eligible for service overseas. Many local soldiers had only enlisted in the first place under the EIC's promise that they would never be sent overseas, and though the policy change was only meant to apply to new enlistees, current sepoys feared that it would eventually be applied to them retroactively.

Bahadur Shah Zafar (Wikimedia Commons)

The siege of Delhi began fairly soon after the rebellion started, mostly because the sepoy mutineers, over 2000 of them, had been based only about 40 miles away. Immediately after mutinying, they marched to Delhi to take an audience with the (last, as it would turn out) Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar (d. 1862). The sepoys stormed the palace and Zafar, voluntarily or not (he was probably coerced but there’s no way to know for sure), assented to the rebellion and became its nominal leader. He started minting coins, taking oaths of allegiance from nobles and soldiers, and generally doing the things that a real emperor, as opposed to an emperor on paper, does. Figurehead in place, what had begun as an isolated mutiny by one sepoy unit against the perceived abuses of the East India Company now became a full-scale uprising against the very idea of British rule. Fighters streamed into Delhi to join the cause.

The EIC began besieging Delhi in early June, 1857, but it was a piecemeal affair since they were stretched thin in terms of manpower. As other parts of the country were brought back under control, the EIC shifted more forces to Delhi to participate in the siege, but it wasn't until August when men began arriving in sufficient numbers to threaten the city, and not until early September when a sufficient amount of British artillery was finally in place. The British had about 12,000 soldiers and 100 guns to the rebels' ~40,000 men and ~100 guns. But that rebel manpower advantage dwindled as fighters began to slip out of the city when conditions worsened and their leaders seemed unable to cope. Also, as the siege moved into mid-September it seems that the rebels began to run out of things to shoot from their guns, and by the end the EIC had a clear edge in artillery.

British forces punched through the walls and into the city on September 14, but in the street-to-street fighting that followed, they were slowed down by heavy casualties and, hilariously, by rampant drunkenness courtesy of the liquor stores they'd seized. But the rebels, who'd been defending the city since June, were running out of food. Hangovers wear off. Hunger, unless you find some food, doesn't. By September 21, the surviving rebels having taken flight (including Bakht Khan, the sepoy who became Bahadur Shah's senior general and would continue to lead the rebellion after Delhi's fall) and Bahadur Shah Zafar having fled the palace, the EIC declared the city captured.

Thousands were killed during the siege and its final battle, and while we know that far more rebels and civilians were killed than British forces, there's no good count of the total number of dead. British soldiers sacked Delhi and, enraged by an Indian massacre of British women, children, and wounded at Cawnpore (Kanpur) back in June, inflicted their own massacre on hundreds of people, increasing the death toll considerably. The fighting continued through the middle of 1858 and actually extended into 1859 in Gujarat, but with the loss of Delhi and of the unifying symbol of the Mughal emperor the rebels also lost whatever chance they'd had of turning their revolt into a pan-Indian war of independence.

As I said earlier, the fall of Delhi marked the end of the Mughal dynasty. By the time the city was fully pacified, Bahadur Shah had already been captured mid-flight. He and his sons had holed up at the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, a short ways south of Delhi. British forces caught them there, killed the emperor's sons, and carted the emperor himself back to Delhi. He was tried for...well, I don't know, insurrection or something, the exact charges were irrelevant. Convicted, of course, he was exiled from India and spent the rest of his life in another British colony, Burma. With no male heirs and no empire left to rule, the Mughal house—descended from Genghis Khan and Timur and once perhaps the wealthiest ruling dynasty in the world—died with him.