Like all stories, this story starts in capital and industry. Small arms and guns manufacturing using interchangeable parts took off in America in the first half of nineteenth century. In the 1851 Great Exhibition, the gun exhibits by US companies attracted great fanfare. In 1853, a Royal Commission was formed to figure out why the British were lagging in new technology and do something about it and in 1854 a factory was established in Enfield to develop and deploy new rifles using interchangeable parts. By 1856, machinery and expertise imported from US was in operation at Enfield with the output of 1200 rifles per week. The P53 rifle, known forevermore as the Enfield and later the Lee-Enfield, was shipped off to British forces in India [Enfield would later become the second most used arm in the Civil War, natch].
The P53 ammunition was a paper-wrapped cartridge with the powder and ball in it. The paper was greased to be water-proof. For a single-hand load, the soldier would tear the cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder down the muzzle, put the ball in the muzzle, shove it with the ramrod, aim and fall over dead from the other guy’s shot. For demonstration, watch Barry Lyndon, go to your local Civil War ReEnactement or visit this site for a pictoral how-to.
The cartridges were produced in Fort Williams, Calcutta and supplied to the depots where instructions were handed out in their usage. One depot in Calcutta, Dum Dum [later giving its name to the bullet developed there], was the source in early 1857 of rumors that the grease used to water-proof the paper was made up of a mixture of cow and pig fat [I won’t go into it here but the Dum Dum testimony had lotas, chapatis and sepoys!]. The Commanding officers immediately tried to spread the word that it was mutton-fat and wax, but the news, along with chapatis, was spreading out across the land. Barrackpore was a cantonment, sixteen miles from Calcutta, by the banks of Hooghly river. Resident there were four native regiments, the 2nd Grenadiers, the 34th Native Infantry, the 43rd Light Infantry, and the 70th Native Infantry. The 34th Native Infantry constituted of 335 Brahmins, 468 lower castes, 16 Christians, 74 Sikhs and 200 Muslims with similiar makeup among the other regiments. Also stationed there was the all-European Presidency Division headed by General John Hearsey.
On the 24th of January, 1857, General Hearsey reported that Dharma Sabha, a Hindu orthodox party formed in Calcutta in 1830 to protest English ban on sati, was spreading rumors among the sepoys of Barrackpore. The rumors held that John Company was attempting to sully the faith of both Hindus and Muslims to make them fall prey to Christian missionaries. These rumors were not new. In fact, since 1848, the same rumors had surfaced in relation to the supply depots and caravanserais set up by the Company along the portions of the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Barrackpore. Those road-side food stalls, the rumors noted, were built specifically to mix the foodstuffs of castes and force the people to destroy their caste purity. The [ill]intentions of the Company were fodder for general rumors but the Company had always been extra-phobic about the talk in the bazaars [read Kim]. Removed, by language and purpose, from their colonial subject, the Company forever feared the ill-logic of the native mind.
On the 6th of Feburary, 1857, General Hearsey called up an inquiry from the Barrackpore regiments. Byjonath Pandey, called upon, said that he had heard in the bazaars that the paper was tainted. When quizzed what about the paper was tainted, he replied, “My suspicion of the paper proceeds from its being stiff and like cloth in the mode of tearing it; it seems to us different from the old paper in use amongst us”. Chand Khan, the next witness, said that “when burning, the paper made a fizzing noise and smelt as if there was grease in it”. When the cartridge was burned in the court, Chand Khan failed to detect any smell but refused to take back his statements. General Hearsey wrote to the Presidency that “…this foolish idea is so rooted in them that it would, I am of opinion, be both idle and unwise even to attempt its removal. I would accordingly beg leave to recommend, for the consideration of the Government, the expediency, of ordering this rifle ammunition to be made up of the same paper used for the common musket cartridge, by which means this groundless suspicion could be at once disposed of”. To which the response was that “concessions made to the murmurs and threats of an ignorant race only increase their perversity and folly”.
On Feburary 24th, 1857, a detachment from the 34th Native Infantry reached the military camp at Berhampore, roughly a hundred miles from Barrackpore. The sepoys talked. That night when cartridges were handed out for a blank ammunition drill in the morning ordered by Colonel Mitchell, the sepoys refused to take the cartridges. Colonel Mitchell argued with them and went to bed. Around 3 in the morning, he awoke to find most of his regiment had forcibly armed themselves and were getting into formation. Again, more argument led to their disbanding but left Colonel Mitchell shaken. He had only 200 men against 800 sepoys. News travelled back to Barrackpore and further back to the Calcutta and the Governor-General. General Hearsey ordered another general parade back at Barrackpore. He made another attempt at allaying the fears, “I then took a letter I received many years ago from Maharajah Golab Sing from a gold tissue kharita and handed it successively to all the native officers, and bid them open it and look at it, and tell me it was not more glossy than the cartridge paper they suspected, and to go into the ranks and show it to their men”. The ranks must not have been impressed.
At half past three on Sunday March 29th, 1857, a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry named Mangal Pandey put on his red army coat and hat, but left his traditional dhotti on instead of the standard issue pantaloon, grabbed his musket and went out to the regiment ground shouting – “Come out, you bhainchutes [sister-fuckers], the Europeans are here. From biting these cartridges we shall become infidels. Get ready, turn out all of you.” When the sergeant-major came rushing out, Mangal Pandey took a shot at him and sent him hiding. The adjutant Lt. Baugh was informed and he rushed out on his horse with a brace of pistols in the holster. As he entered the regiment ground, Mangal Pandey shot the horse from under him. Baugh jumped off the horse and fired on Pandey who was reloading. Then he drew out his sword and rushed at Pandey who dropped his musket and drew out a talwar. They fought ferociously until Pandey seriously injured Baugh who retreated before the fatal blow could fall. At the same moment, sepoy Sheikh Pultoo grabbed Mangal Pandey and called on the Jemadar Ishwari Pandey of the guard to help bring Panday down. The Jemadar never moved an inch; Mangal Pandey wrestled himself free and wounded Pultoo as well. The men of Barrackpore stood and watched as the first struggle of the mutiny played out before them.
Mangal Pandey walked back and forth in front of the guard with a loaded musket asking men to assemble and take arms. “Nikal ao, paltoon; aao hamaray sath. It is you who have sent me here; why don’t you come out and join me?” No one moved. Lt. Col Wheeler, the commanding officer of the 34th Regiment, appeared at the scene. He ordered the sepoys to load and aim at Mangal Pandey. The native officers failed to budge. He chastised them and the guard advanced a few paces and stopped again. “The men won’t go”. Wheeler decided that he will get nowhere and went to find General Hearsey. He found the General riding towards the guard. Upon reaching the assembled sepoys, Hearsey placed himself in front of the guard and ordered a march towards Mangal Pandey. Upon seeing this, Mangal Pandey sank to his knees, put his musket barrel to his chest and pulled the trigger with his toe. He only managed to wound himself and was taken into custody. Also taken into custody was Jemadar Ishwari Pandey.
Tomorrow, the transcript of Mangal Pandey’s testimony and the spread of the mutiny.