Ghadar of 1857 - Barbaric retribution of a “civilized” colonial power

The British colonisers could not easily crush the Ghadar of 1857. Apart from sending their troops to reconquer North India, they passed a series of laws to crush the insurgency. A number of Acts were passed in May and June 1857, placing the whole of North India under martial law. Military officers and even British citizens were given the power to try and punish Indians on mere suspicion of their having been involved in the rebellion. There was only one form of punishment – death!

Armed with these special draconian laws and reinforcements from Britain, the British colonialists set about crushing the revolt. With the importance of capturing Delhi in mind, they mounted a two-pronged attack. One force moved from Calcutta and the other from the Punjab to reconquer Delhi.

Barbaric retribution

The caption at the bottom read: “The news of the terrible massacre at Cawnpore (Kanpur) produced an outburst of fiery indignation and wild desire for revenge throughout the whole of England.”
Source: Justice, Punch, 12 September 1857.

But the insurgent patriots from all over North India had come to Delhi to defend the capital. Thus, though the British attempts to recover Delhi began in early June 1857, it was only in late September that the city was finally re-captured, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.

Attempts by the British to reconquer the Gangetic plain too faced heavy resistance. The forces had to reconquer the area village by village. The countryside and the people around were entirely united against the colonialists. As soon as they began their counter-insurgency operations, the British realised that they were not dealing with a mere mutiny but an uprising that had huge popular support. In Awadh, for example, a British official called Forsyth estimated that three-fourths of the adult male population was in rebellion. The area was brought under control only in March 1858 after protracted fighting.

The British used military power on a gigantic scale. But this was not the only instrument they used. In large parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh, where big landholders and peasants had offered united resistance, the British tried to break up the unity. They seized the lands of the landholders who had fought against the British and handed them over as rewards to the big landlords who had been loyal to the British. Many landholders died fighting the British or escaped into Nepal where they died of illness or starvation.

Terrified by the threat to their rule, the British initiated a policy of mass killings of the patriots of the Ghadar of 1857. Horrific tales of British atrocities against the patriotic warriors of 1857 still haunt our people especially in UP, many generations after.

Secundrah Bagh

British forces led by Campbell killed over 2000 patriots who held Secundra Bagh in 1857. The skeletons strewn on the ground were meant to serve as a warning to all those daring to take up arms against the colonial rulers.
(Source:…) photograph by Felice Beato, 1858

When the news of the re-capture of Delhi and crushing of the rebellion reached Britain, demands for retribution grew louder. Newspapers published visuals and news intended to whip up anger among the British, to jusify revenge and violent repression against the insurgents. The fact that a colonized people had risen up in arms to challenge the might of the world greatest imperial power was a big insult to the colonisers, a potential threat to their unrivalled domination in other parts of the world. They set about to re-establish their invincibility with the utmost barbarity. Here we see an imaginary female figure of justice with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. Her posture is aggressive and her face expresses rage and desire for revenge. She is trampling insurgent sepoys under her feet while a mass of Indian women with children cower with fear.


The scene of execution here appears to be a stage where a drama is being performed - an enactment of brutal power. Mounted soldiers and sepoys in uniform dominate the scene. They have to watch the execution of their fellow sepoys and experience the chilling consequences of rebellion.
Source: Illustrated London News, 3 October 1857

Vengeance and retribution by a power which called itself “the most civilized” was expressed in the most brutal way. The rebels were executed mercilessly, they were blown from the mouth of cannons or hanged from the gallows. Images of these executions were widely circulated through popular journals, to strike terror in the hearts of our people.

Whole cities were looted, innocents were massacred and villages razed to the ground. Every tree on the Grand Trunk Road had at least one body hanging. The killings were so massive that Awadh and Bhojpur faced shortage of workforce till the 1890s. More than 20 lakh letters were returned from addresses in Awadh. British labor surveys and road department reports state clearly that more than 25 lakh died in Awadh alone. Records of the Muslim Ulema and Hindu akhadas also show that more than 50 lakh people were killed. In Bhojpur in Bihar, nearly 25% of the workforce was reported killed. Nearly one crore people were decimated and their land and property looted.

There were mass migrations outside the country to Mauritius, West Indies, East Timor, etc. Millions fled the Gangetic plain. The textile towns of Malegaon and Bhiwandi in Maharashtra are known to have given refuge to thousands of weavers fleeing from North.


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1857    History    Great Ghadar    Jun 16-30 2017    Voice of the Party    History    2017   

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