The Indian Mutiny, also known as the First War of Indian Independence, began in Meerut.
By the middle of the 19th century, the British East India Company ruled two thirds of the Indian subcontinent on behalf of the government. The remainder paid tribute to the British, but there was increasing discontent among native rulers about their rapidly declining position. For ordinary Indians there were also concerns about the pace of Westernisation that threatened local traditions and ignored religious practices.
Against these undercurrents of hostility the East India Company relied on its sizeable army to maintain order. Although figures vary between sources, by 1857 up to 300,000 Indian sepoys had been recruited to the army alongside approximately 50,000 European troops. While this meant the Company relied on local troops to maintain control, this presented few problems until the introduction of the Enfield P53 rifle in 1856.
The new rifle required soldiers to bite the end off a pre-greased cartridge to release the powder and load the weapon, but rumours began circulating that the grease was made from cow and pig fat. The former was offensive to Hindus, while the latter was offensive to Muslims. On 9 May 1857, 85 seepoys of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry were court marshalled in the garrison town of Meerut, 40 miles northeast of Delhi, for refusing to use the new cartridges.
Sentenced to up to ten years’ imprisonment, their comrades broke them out of jail the next day. They killed a number of Europeans, as well as up to 50 Indian civilians, before marching to Delhi from where the uprising spread throughout northern India. The response from the British was brutal, but it still took them more than 18 months to regain control.