Quick Notes on Revolt of 1857: Observations by Historians

The revolt of 1857 is an important marker in Indian History, and is an area where questions have repeatedly featured in the Civil Services (Prelims) and Civil Services (Mains) Examinations conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Here we outline some of the observations made by noted Indian and British historians. This will be helpful in giving different perspectives on the revolt to civil services aspirants. 

  • C. Majumdar, tried to summarize the revolt differently. According to him, the revolt was neither the first, nor was it national, nor was it a war of independence.
  • In fact, he made a significant observation, that this revolt was not the first, and that there was a tradition of revolts with the onset of British occupation in India.
  • Sometimes, these revolts were peasant revolts, sometimes it took the form of tribal uprising, civil uprisings, sometimes even the military revolted, for Example: Vellore Mutiny (1806)which was a glaring example of the military discontentment.
  • Revolts were not entirely against the British alone, they were also against the collaborators of the British rule.
  • In the 100 years of the East India Company (since 1757), there were many revolts. According to Majumdar, the revolt wasn’t National, as the context of Nationalism wasn’t present at that time.
  • After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, India was a divided geographical expression, with a regional ruling system and regional sentiments.
  • The spread of the revolt of 1857 was also confined to Northern India only. Southern, Eastern, and Western parts of India were not actively involved in the revolt. Even in Northern India, some of the strong ruling houses actively participated in suppressing the revolt.
  • There were many classes, including the middle class intelligentsia who were not in favour of the revolt. Therefore, one cannot say that it was a National Revolt.
  • Also, India was a divided geographical expression, with various incumbent ruling houses that had control over various units of the state. Therefore, there wasn’t any feeling of Nationalism in the modern context of the expression.

 S.N. Sen’s Observations on the Revolt of 1857:

He was of the opinion that it was nothing but a military revolt. S.N. Sen called this revolt a ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. He was of the opinion that it was mainly an outburst of the military in which certain other groups also started participating.

Observations by British Historians on the Revolt of 1857:

  1. Reese, observed that the revolt was a ‘war against Christianity’. But the statement of Reese, had certain strict reservations, as Christianity as such was not targeted during the revolt even though some of the conservative sections of Indian society were against the imposition of Christianity over them.
  2. Outram observed that the revolt was a ‘Muslim Conspiracy’ to overthrow the British from India. In fact, the empire of the EIC developed on the ruins of the Mughal Empire, and the involvement of Bahadur Shah Zafar as the leader of the revolt was only symbolic of all-India sovereignty, and he didn’t have any concrete participation in the revolt. In fact, he was immediately arrested and sent to Rangoon. So Outram’s view, that Muslims wanted to bounce back into the ruling system, and thus conspired against the British rule is definitely not a valid ground of expression.
  3. R. Holmes, said that this revolt was a ‘clash of civilization and barbarians’.
  4. Benjamin Disraeli described it as a ‘National Revolt’.
  5. But Lawrence and Seeley had some coherence with the Indian viewpoint, especially with that of S.N. Sen, that it was a military revolt in the real sense. So, therefore out of the many viewpoints that we see, the Indian historians and British historians had different contexts of expression.


1) But the modern analysis is more rational to understand, i.e. different groups participated in this revolt because of their own factors- this is called ‘differentiality of factors’.

2) For example, peasants had grievances of the land revenue system, artisans because of the loss of the artisanal mode of production, Raja’s and Nawab’s because of the loss of their state- owing to the expansionist policies of the British. Example: The adopted son of the Queen of Jhansi, RaniLakshmiBai wasn’t accepted by the British as the successor to the throne. This sparked her conflict with the East India Company.

3) Thus, the nature of the revolt can be summarized that there was a differentiality of factors, but a commonality of interests (i.e. against the British and collaborators of the British). This resulted in the change of guard, and the beginning of the rule of British Parliament in India.

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