The city of Lucknow in northern India was the site of an infamous prolonged siege during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. Weller’s engraving —part of a series of maps from around the world published in the British Weekly Dispatch newspaper —emphasized the dividing lines within the recently acquired settlement, highlighting the separation of the British Residency and encampment from the rest of the city. Its portrayal of a seemingly calm and orderly city on the eve of the rebellion contrasts with many of the violent and dramatic images of the siege itself that circulated in Britain. An inset map tells a story about the rebellion itself, documenting the two attempts by British forces to relieve the city from the siege.
A Brief Overview of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857
By 1857, the British East India Company had established both a firm presence in India and a respectable military presence that most notably included Indians – known as sepoys – recruited to serve in the British military. The British East India Company controlled the Armies of the three Presidencies of British India – Bengal, Madras, and Bombay – all of which included sepoy regiments.
In the years prior to 1857 tensions had been mounting between officers of the British East India Company and the sepoys due to various encroachments on the part of British officers. General alienation of sepoys, especially those of a lower caste, as well as attempts on the part of the East India Company officers to convert sepoys to Christianity fueled the fire of discontent among the Indian ranks.
Tensions reached a breaking point with the introduction of the Enfield rifle to sepoy regiments Dumdum, a village outside of Calcutta. The rifle used a new type of greased cartridge that soldiers had to bite in order to use. In January of 1857 the sepoys learned that the grease on the cartridges was composed of cow and pig fat, the consumption of which was forbidden by both Hindus and Muslims. The news of the offense spread quickly through sepoy regiments across India. A serious oversight on the part of the British, the sepoys made requests that their superiors amend the situation, and by February the administration of the British East India Company obliged. However, as the news spread, many sepoys saw the situation as an attempt by the British to defile their religion and convert them to Christianity.
Minor disturbances occurred in the Northern and Central regions of India and by May 10th the first bloodshed occurred in Meerut. Sepoys from the Bengal Army shot their officers and released prisoners. After this instance, uprisings began in cities across regions in Northern India. Over the summer of 1857 the rebellion generated the most support in the northern regions of Uttar Pradesh and Oudh in the cities of Delhi, Kanpur, and Lucknow. Shortly after the incident in Meerut, sepoy rebels took Delhi, then took the nearby city of Lucknow under siege. By late June the rebels had also secured the city of Kanpur.
Although British soldiers were able to retake these cities in the fall, vicious fighting continued into 1858 with rising civilian and military death tolls. Indian popular opinion blamed the rebellion on the British East India Company and its numerous instances of disregard for Indian culture, societal structure, Hinduism, and Islam. By the time the British had effectively retaken control, the East India Company had lost definitive control of their once-proud forces. No longer able to properly maintain administration and political power, the British East India Company dissolved and transferred what powers and territories remained to the British Crown in 1859.
The atrocities committed by both the Indian and British created a lasting relationship of hostility and mistrust. Additionally, the British government maintained a firmer control on India – arguably the “crown jewel” of its global empire – to avoid any further loss of power. The tensions between the Indians and British held until India gained independence in 1947.