Chapter 207: The Indian Rebellion (Part 2)
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"The Turbulent Thirties," The 19th Century: 100 Years of Revolution, Innovation, and Expansion
Written by Professor Abel Fisher of Cambridge University, 2021

"...Despite the East India Company's unpopularity following the end of the Anglo-American War, the rebels were not widely supported across India. The majority of sepoys that rebelled against British rule were from the Bengal Army, which mainly consisted of higher castes such as Rajputs and Bhumihar from the Awadh and Bihar states. This was a stark contrast to the Madras Army and Bombay Army, both of which were less insistent on recruiting high-caste men and fielded 'caste neutral' armies. As such, even before the rebellion began, there was a distinct line between the Bengal Army and the other two armies, which made cooperation difficult, if not outright impossible. However, it should be recognized that five regiments within the Bombay Army mutinied, two of them within Saugor. While this small mutiny within the Bombay Army was crushed swiftly by the British, the short delay resulted in the Indian rebels successfully seizing Gwalior. This setback would extend the duration of the rebellion and temporarily secure the city of Delhi (containing the newly declared Emperor of India, Akbar Shah II)...

More importantly, rebel-sympathizing Muslims' attempts to call a jihad failed as the ulemas of both the Sunni and Shia sect sided with the British. While the Kanpur Famine created popular anti-British sentiments in the affected regions, the ulemas believed that there was no good reason for a jihad against the British. Muslims still maintained their religious rights despite the chaos brought by the aftermath of the Anglo-American War. Additionally, the rebels' lack of overall unity presented a weak argument to start a potentially ruinous war against the powerful British Empire. While many individual Muslims joined the crusade against British rule, they received no official backing from their respective religious leaders. By the end of the rebellion, approximately a third of the insurgents were Muslims from various northern Indian provinces...

Even with the lukewarm response from the rest of India, the rebellion was met with great enthusiasm across northern India. Many locals were still suffering from the effects of the Kanpur Famine and chaffed against the East India Company's oppressive rule. The Ceded and Conquered Provinces (which were later reorganized to become the Northwestern Provinces after the end of the Indian Rebellion) saw widespread violent uprisings, which prompted the British to retreat most of their military forces from the area during the initial stages of the Rebellion. This caused the princely state of Rampur, which Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan ruled, to formally 'surrender' itself to the rebels to avoid occupation. The same fate befell upon the princely state of Garhwal while Sirhind proclaimed neutrality. Meanwhile, the King of Awdh, Nasir-ud Din Haidar Shah, threw his support behind the East India Company due to his pro-British sentiments, though his state found itself sieged by the rebels. A revolt in Bihar was brutally suppressed, though this only angered the local population and resulted in thousands from the region joining up arms against the British.

One advantage the rebels enjoyed was the East India Company's disorderly response when most of the Bengal Army mutinied. Several figures in the East India Company, such as the former chairman of the EIC Henry St. George Tucker, suspected a rebellion was on the brink of exploding. Tucker was especially well-versed in local state affairs, as he spent decades living in the subcontinent and saw the harsh effects of the EIC's new policies. However, the administration in Calcutta ignored their concerns, with Chairman William Astell asserting that the East India Company's forces would easily quash any rebellion in India. When nearly the entire Bengal Army mutinied, and the rebels rapidly took over large swathes of northern India, the East India Company entered a state of panic. The British government was already keen on reeling in the East India Company even before the Anglo-American War in a bid to end its monopoly on the China Trade and its reckless financial decisions.
London had refused to shoulder a portion of the EIC's debts in 1834 due to its own financial troubles, which caused the EIC's decisions to raise taxes and seize land from locals (and subsequently, contributed to the Kanpur Famine). If the EIC called upon the British government's assistance to quell the rebellion, it would mean the nationalization, or worse, the dissolution of the East India Company. Chairman Astell was especially keen on maintaining the EIC's power to administer and collect taxes in India, which resulted in his initial rejection of assistance from London.

It took a month of negotiations and strong-arming to allow British reinforcements to support the EIC's endeavors against the insurgents. After Chairman Astell conceded, regiments from the British East Indies arrived within weeks to combat the rebellion. Before the Indian Rebellion began, London had sent thousands of its veterans from the Anglo-American War to Java to prepare for a war against China to re-establish British trade in Canton. Most of them were re-directed to India, which delayed the First Opium War by several years (as the British government was forced to reorganize India following the Indian Rebellion and repurpose its newfound wealth to rebuild the British Isles). Prime Minister Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice gave these regiments specific orders to give the Indian rebels 'no mercy' and seize any properties and riches of the British's rebelling provinces for themselves and the British government. Many historians believe that this set of orders led to much of the crimes committed by British troops against the Indian population and the mass looting of various princely states, some of which were pro-British but occupied by the rebels during the Indian Rebellion...

By this time, the rebels were already running wild over northern India and looking eastward towards the British fortress of Lucknow. Eight mutinied regiments and brigades and thousands of armed locals under Commander-in-Chief Mizra Salim's command threatened the city. Salim was hastily appointed to lead a swathe of the rebels as he was Akbar's son and held strong anti-British views, though he was untrained in military affairs. He was tasked with securing the remaining British strongholds in the area by taking Lucknow, which stood in their way surrounding Awdh and threatening Bihar. Lucknow was defended by 1st Bengal Fusiliers, the hastily-reinforced 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, the Corps of Bengal Miners and Sappers, and the 1st British Artillery Brigade (which was reformed after merging the 1st and 2nd Brigades after the mutinies). Along with them were three Bengal Native Infantry Regiments (the 31st, 32nd, and 33rd) and two Bengal Light Cavalry Regiments (3rd and 5th) that remained loyal to the British administration.

The two sides met on December 27th of 1835 in the first 'official' battle of the rebellion. Salim's attempts to besiege the city failed due to the Bengal Miners and Sappers' efforts, which managed to erect formidable defenses around the city and blunt most of the bombardments unleashed by the rebelling 2nd Bengal Artillery Battalion. Regardless, Salim continued to bombard the British defenses for two weeks before receiving information that a significant British relief force was on its way to aid Lucknow. While the rebels held numerical superiority over the British forces, Salim believed that he would lose that advantage if the reinforcements arrived before the city fell. On the morning of January 9th of 1835, he ordered a full-frontal assault to take the city, with much of the experienced regiments leading the charge on the British stronghold. This turned out to be a fatal mistake and a great loss of life for the rebel forces.

The British troops were firmly entrenched in Lucknow, and when the rebels advanced towards the city, they released deadly volleys to shatter the offensive. The European Fusiliers were armed with breechloading rifles, unlike their Indian counterparts, who were armed with rifled muskets. Additionally, Salim had unwisely wasted most of his artillery's ammunition while the British had reserved theirs for a direct attack on the city. Led by Major General Henry Pottinger, the British soldiers and their Indian allies decimated the exposed Indian rebels and forced Salim to retreat in a panic. Only the most disciplined veterans of Salim's forces managed to fire on the British lines, and even they failed to deal significant casualties to the defenders despite suffering hundreds of casualties.

Within four hours, a stalemate had turned into a complete rout and an overwhelming British victory. The battle would've turned into the complete annihilation of Salim's forces if Lieutenant Mukta Sen (who had recovered from his injuries from two months before) and the survivors of the 5th and 11th Bengal Native Regiments hadn't stood their ground to allow the other rebels to escape. When the Bengal Light Cavalry regiments departed the city to chase down the fleeing survivors of the battle, Lieutenant Sen hastily formed two infantry squares and succeeded in fending off the cavalry units. This gave Salim and his remaining men enough time to escape, while Sen fought a fighting retreat to Chhibramau, the nearest rebel stronghold.

All in all, the first engagement turned out to be disastrous for the rebels, as they suffered over three thousand casualties for only three hundred British casualties. This battle would set the tone for the rest of the war, as Britain's vast military experience and technological advancements triumphed over the disunited and relatively inexperienced Indian rebels. From Lucknow to Gwalior to Delhi, the British regiments would steadily push back the rebels and re-occupy the rebelling territories, unleashing its fury upon the civilian population and looting anything valuable. However, the rebels were not the only enemies against the British during the Indian Rebellion...

Despite Britain's hegemony over the Indian subcontinent, two independent kingdoms remained free of British rule: the Sikh Empire and the Kingdom of Nepal (also known as the Empire of the Gorkhas). The former was ruled by the founder of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, while King Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah ruled the latter. Maharaja Ranjit was a hardy warrior who conquered large swathes of territory to secure his empire's borders. His governance allowed the Sikh Empire to become a stable and secured state due to his religious tolerance and his efforts to ensure that his nation was self-sufficient in arms. When the Indian Rebellion erupted, the Sikh Empire was at its height, and the aging emperor was in a strong position to influence neighboring states.

Meanwhile, King Girvan was an intelligent and skillful politician. He subtly influenced Mukhtiyar Bhimsen Thapa during the early years of his reign, pretending to be a naive and innocent king acting as a puppet of the Mukhtiyar before turning the tables and removing him from office after the prime minister lost popularity among the nobles and elites. He pitted Bhimsen against the Pande family and slowly eroded Bhimsen's power by removing his authority over the civil administration and establishing his own private army to counter Bhimsen's military influence. By the time the aging prime minister discovered King Girvan's schemes, it was far too late for him to act, and he was removed from power after King Girvan declared himself Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese Army. After Bhimsen's removal, the king appointed Karbir Pande to replace him, but it remained clear that the king had the final say in all governmental matters. By the time the Indian Rebellion occurred, King Girvan was the unquestioned ruler of Nepal, and the nation was slowly modernizing.

Before the Indian Rebellion, both nations were looking to expand elsewhere; Nepal aimed towards Qing-controlled Tibet while the Sikh Empire saw Afghanistan as its primary enemy. However, with the breakdown of order across northern India and Britain's retreat from the border regions, both nations saw an opportunity to secure their borders against the looming British threat. Both King Girvan and Maharaja Ranjit were well-aware of the threat the British Empire presented to their nations' independence. Nepal had fought against the East India Company during the Anglo-Nepalese War and lost some territories in the west and east (Sirmur, Garhwal, and Morung). Meanwhile, Britain's direct rule was spreading westward, and territories directly administered by the EIC now bordered the Sikh Empire. Additionally, the British were influencing Persia and Afghanistan to curb Russia's influence in the region, which ran contrary to the Sikh Empire's own foreign policy. The British negotiated the peace between the Ottoman Empire and Persia during the Ottoman-Persian War of 1822-1824 and, through Persia, pressured Afghanistan to block Russian influence spreading towards India. As such, the Sikh Empire was slowly being surrounded by Britain...

The Sikh emperor was aware that the British would eventually look to dismantle the Sikh Empire and thus, recognized the need to deal with potential British aggression. The same went for the Kingdom of Nepal, especially King Girvan, who believed that the British would attempt to invade his nation again once the rebellion was settled. Both sides did not have strong opinions of the other. Still, when King Girvan offered an olive branch and a temporary alliance to further their strategic interests, the Maharaja responded positively...

As the brunt of the British forces and rebels clashed in Gwalior, Nepalese troops advanced into the besieged princely state of Awdh on March 20th. The 15,000 Gurkhas beat back rebels and pro-British soldiers alike, catching them completely off-guard from the unexpected offensive from the north. In the west, on April 7th, Garwhal and Sirmur were attacked by a smaller Gurkha army numbering at 5,000, though still formidable enough to defeat the sparse rebel forces in the area (Nepal had been storing up ammunition and arms acquired from abroad for years, in preparation for a potential conflict with the Qing Empire or Britain). Around the same time, 10,000 soldiers of the Sikh Empire entered the relatively undefended princely state of Bahawalpur, defeating a thousand garrison forces in the capital and overrunning the defenses in the region. Ludhiana was subsequently occupied with a large force led by Maharaja Ranjit himself. Within a span of two months, Nepal and the Sikh Empire rapidly occupied a chunk of British India, though both nations planned to turn their newly gained territories into buffer zones rather than expand the boundaries of their realms. The leaders of the two nations believed that the British would be far too occupied with dealing with the Indian rebellions but entrenched their forces to prepare for a potential British counter-offensive.

The counter-offensive never came as the British exhausted themselves on putting down the rebellion (and after the Government of India Act of 1837, Queen Charlotte recognized the gains made by the Sikh Empire and Nepal as Britain's priorities shifted elsewhere). Since the rebels managed to seize large swathes of northern India during the beginning of the Indian Rebellion, the British were forced to fight through rebel-occupied territory to reach Delhi, the capital of the newly 'reborn' Mughal Empire. After the Battle of Lucknow, the rebels were defeated in Chhibramau two weeks later. Gwalior was seized a month after the fall of Chhibramau. By the time Gwalior was retaken, British troops from the British East Indies laid waste the countryside, punishing those that rebelled against British rule harshly and looting the recently-liberated city of Gwalior of its riches. These heavy-handed tactics prompted more resistance against the British from the locals, which reached a near fervent pitch when the rebels were pushed by to Aligarh, just a few kilometers from Delhi.

Additionally, many of the surviving rebels rallied around Mukta Sen, as a demoralized Akbar Shah appointed Sen as the new Commander-in-Chief following Salim's numerous blunders. Commander Sen was a veteran of the Anglo-American War and emulated American guerilla tactics employed during the Anglo-American War. Knowing that the Indian rebels would never be able to defeat the British in a direct battle, he harassed British troops and supply lines with his fighters, opting to retreat and blend in with the civilian population when the situation turned against him (ironically, resulting in more civilian casualties as the British veterans were far too familiar with the tactics carried out by their former enemies in North America). The Sikh Empire also supplied the rebels with various arms and ammunition to exhaust the British and slow down their advance towards their territory, which significantly bolstered Commander Sen's forces. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the British slogging through hostile territory for months before finally putting down the rebellion and capturing Emperor Akbar.

The Indian Rebellion was finally crushed after the final rebel stronghold in Simla was seized in January of 1837, just over a year after the Indian Rebellion began in Meerut. During this battle, Commander Sen was finally killed in action, shot by a British sharpshooter as he desperately attempted to rally the final soldiers under his command. 400,000 Indian rebels and civilians alike were directly killed during the rebellion, with an additional 300,000 dying due to the aftermath of the Rebellion (famine and devastation). Dozens of cities and towns were looted by the British Army, including Delhi, which was sacked after being taken in November of 1836. 20,000 British troops and civilians perished in the conflict, with most British civilians killed as retaliation for the British atrocities across India. The Government of India Act of 1837 was passed shortly after the Indian Rebellion, with Queen Charlotte becoming the Queen of India. However, the real administrative power over India was in Parliament's hands, and it carefully looked at the failures of the East India Company to avoid another rebellion while continuing the exploitation of the subcontinent. The treasures 'captured' by the British forces during the Indian Rebellion would help replenish Britain's coffers and support the British Isles' reconstruction. While the British Empire left the Nepalese and Sikhs to their gains temporarily, it planned to force the two nations to submit in the near future (especially since the temporary alliance between the two was already fracturing due to regional and strategic differences).

However, Britain had another nation it had set its eyes on for the time being. Their new target humiliated them during the Anglo-American War and was needed to help revive Britain's trade and income: the Qing Empire...