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

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The 1857 Siege of Delhi is significant in at least two ways, one more tangible than the other. Regarding the former, Britain's victory effectively stifled the 1857-1859 Indian Rebellion, largely ensuring that it would 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 more or less ends 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 when he instituted a repressive Islamic governance that upended the dynasty's previous tolerance for other faiths (chiefly Hinduism) and thereby completely undermined the foundations of Mughal rule over the majority of their subjects.

Aurangzeb himself died before he got to witness the fallout of his shift in religious policy. 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 British 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, although again I think we're on safe ground assuming that a genuine Mughal restoration wasn't really among them. The landowners who'd lost the most, economically and socially, to the increasing British-EIC control of the subcontinent were located in the north, where the Mughals had been centered, and it was in the north where the rebellion had its strength, so Mughal prestige had some cache as a symbolic aim. To the south, which had never really taken to Mughal rule the way the north had, support for the rebellion was relatively weak. This geographic disparity played a role in the revolt's eventual suppression, as a rebellion that had truly encompassed the whole of India would have been difficult for even the British Empire to take down.

Even among the sepoys there were deeper grievances than the nature of their ammo. Most of the local soldiers who'd opted to fight for the British had done so because they 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 sepoys 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 action at Delhi happened fairly soon after the rebellion began, mostly because the sepoy mutineers, over 2000 of them, had been based only about 40 miles away and immediately, upon mutinying, marched there to take an audience with the current--and ultimately final--Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar (d. 1862). The sepoys stormed the palace and Zafar, voluntarily or not (it seems probable that he was coerced to some degree, but it's impossible to know just how much), 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. And here's where the rallying cry paid off--what had begun as an isolated mutiny by one sepoy unit against the perceived abuses of the East India Company now became, by virtue of the Mughal emperor's imprimatur, a full-scale rebellion against the very idea of British control over India. Fighters streamed into Delhi to join the cause.

The EIC began besieging Delhi in early June, 1857, but it was a piecemeal affair due to their manpower shortage. 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 that enough British artillery was finally brought to the party. 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 rebel 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 in the artillery battles that attended the final British assaults on the city, the EIC had the clear advantage.

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 get ahold of some food, doesn't. By September 21, the surviving rebels having taken flight (including Bakht Khan, the sepoy who became Bahadur Shah's leading general and would continue to lead the rebellion after Delhi's fall) and Bahadur Shah Zafar having fled the palace, the EIC deemed the city taken.

Thousands were killed during the siege and its final battle, and while 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.

Ah yes, the Mughals. 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--once probably the wealthiest and most powerful ruling house in the Islamic (heck, maybe the entire) world, a dynasty descended from the two great Central Asian conquerors, Genghis Khan and Timur--died with him.