The British Empire had faced several ‘come-to-Jesus-meetings” during its existence that helped humble the arrogant nation and eventually break it apart. One was the American Revolution where a small group of colonists were able to defeat an Empire that was supposedly undefeatable. Almost a hundred years later, India followed the colonists path but in a more bloody process.
The revolt of 1857 has been called the “greatest revolt against British imperialism of its century.” (1) The reason behind this description is the evaluation of what each side had in its corner. The Indians were at a clear disadvantage with the British appearing to be easy victors. Though the result was a ‘loss’ for India, they sent a shockwave of fear throughout the British Empire as they “fought one of the most powerful empires in the world to near defeat with limited resources and even more limited training.” (2) Britain almost did not lose to an opponent equal in resources and ability. They almost lost to one with practically none.
This was a very humbling moment for the British Empire as it saw the culmination of “conquest of India and the cultural and religious oppression imposed on Indians by British rule.” (2) The more Britain pushed against traditional India, the more the fire of rebellion grew from a small spark to a pressured filled volcano. Torture, taxes, and oppression became the norm for the majority of Indians under British rule. (3) Britain did not leave any aspect of Indian life alone. They ground the natives down to “poverty and, when crops failed, they lacked the purchasing power to buy food even when it was available, causing famine.” (4)
In the end, Britain pushed too far. The revolt of 1857 showed India that it could fight and not just take it lying down. For Britain it looked too late that when any group of people, “once pushed into a corner, will fight for nothing more than the freedom to fight, and live, if not for religion then for their basic right to live in freedom.” (5) No more would the people take the abuse. The conflict came down to “a reaction against British racial arrogance.” (6) The British again thought themselves better than another ethnic group and discovered the same heart and desire for freedom and life beat within them.
(1) Joseph Coohill, “Indian Voices from the 1857 Rebellion,” History Today, 57, no. 5 (2007): 48-54.
(2) Nilesh Patel, “The Sepoy War of 1857: Munity or First Indian War of Independence?” Emory University, 1998, www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Mutny.html.
(4) Robert Johnson, British Imperialism, (Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 30.
(6) Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture and Political Economy, (Florence: Routledge, 2003), 76.