Sepoy Mutiny question: Were the cartridges really greased with animal fat?

Inspired by this thread.

The immediate cause of the Sepoy Mutiny in India was the belief that the Lee-Enfield rifle’s cartridges were greased with cow and/or pig fat. I’m finding conflicting information about whether that belief was mistaken or not. Some sources (including the Encyclopedia Americana) claim it was vegetable fat from the beginning and the animal-fat story was nothign but a rumor. Other sources (including the Columbia Encyclopedia) say the use of animal fat really happend. Who has the straight dope?

Well, in all my history textbooks during school (Bombay), we were fed the above story (animal fat).

I have the following quote from

British History in the Nineteenth Century:1782-1901

written by George Macaulay Trevelyan
Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge

Ninth impression 1930; original May 1922

pg 320, last para

Emphasis mine below.

According to “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars”, by Byron Farwell, W.W. Norton & Co., London, Copy. 1972, p86:

This source presents it as true, but also goes on to say that local British officials were horrified at this having happened, and the Governor-General issued a proclaimation denouncing any attempt to offend local religious beliefs.

The rifle in question was the 1857 Enfield (a muzzle-loading black powder rifle); the Lee-Enfield was not introduced until the late 1890s, and had a metallic cartridge.

The newly-introduced Enfield rifle required a soldier to bite off the end of the cartridge containing the bullet, and pour the powder down the barrel of the rifle. The bullet was then put in and rammed home. The greased paper around the bullet made it easier for the bullet to be rammed down the barrel, and also created a seal around the bullet which helped prevent “windage,” or gas escaping around the bullet during its short trip down the barrel during firing.

A great deal of confusion surrounds exactly which troops got which bullets with which greasing (which was done as much to waterproof the cartridge as for lubrication while loading); the British Army was still experimenting to find the ideal substance for lubrication; the Army was notoriously indifferent to explaining reasons for orders and procedures to the rank-and-file (European or Indian); and there were already many rumours spreading about the British trying to break the Sepoys caste by nefarious means, including bone meal from cows in the chuppati flour, that the cartridge paper itself was manufactured with beef fat (it wasn’t), and so on.

The rumours were groundless, but spread quickly, quite possibly helped on (or even started) by the Indian Princes, who were alarmed at the way the British had supplanted their power, collected taxes they had historically collected, and the British trend towards “democratisation” (at least compared to the absolute rule of the Princes).

In fact, cartridges manufactured in Great Britain (and shipped to India) were greased with tallow made from pig fat; those manufactured at Dum-Dum Arsenal in India used tallow from cow fat. This upset both Hindus and Muslims, and stands as an example of the remarkably insensitive attitude of British officialdom (mostly the War Office in London). In Bengal, the Adjutant-General of the Indian Army issued a sensible order which said, in part:

But the power of rumour was greater than any sensible compromise; in late February 1857, Indian troops at various locations in Bengal refused to take the new cartridges; this escalated into open mutiny when the British decided to disarm some Indian troops. Interestingly, the mutineers did not seem to worry about using the suspect cartridges once the killing began.

An excellent precis of the beginning of the Mutiny (by a retired Indian Major) may be found here:

To clarify my cites for above–Philip Mason’s “A Matter of Honour” mentions that some of the cartridges manufactured in three arsenals in India may have also used tallow from swine; he also asserts that none of these were issued to “Native” troops. (I was writing from memory, since my copy of Mason’s book is at work).

An excellent reference (and a fairly balanced view of the events of 1857) is Christopher Hibbert’s “The Great Mutiny: India 1857.” Hibbert says that the circulating rumours included the assertion that the British were planning to explode mines underneath parade-squares to destroy Sepoys, and that British Crimean War widows were being shipped to India, where they would be forcibly married to Sepoys (ensuring the Sepoy’s estates would eventually come under Christian control).

As far as the cartridges themselves, Hibbert says that

So it looks like the sepoys had some grounds to be suspicious of the cartridges!

My history professor in college (who was a visiting scolar from India) presented as fact that animal product was used in cartridge making.

However, she did make it clear that the principal reasons for the rebellion were deeper than offense over biting animal fat - that was mainly an aggravating factor.

Just to add another source, here’s what Andrew Ward has to say in his book, Our Bones Are Scattered, The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (1996, Henry Holt and Company, New York)

The end-note for this passage cites as reference A Matter of Honour by Mason (see Rodd Hill’s earlier posting) and also quotes Lieutenant Mowbray Thomson of the 53rd Native Infantry. Thomson was one of the very few survivors of the siege of the cantonment at Cawnpore and wrote in his memoirs, The Story of Cawnpore, that the cartridges were

Later in his book, Ward points out that this issue was handled in various ways by various English officers throughout India. General Hugh Massey Wheeler at Cawnpore did not force his sepoy troops to use the new cartridges, but

After the recalcitrant sowars were imprisoned, placards appeared in the bazaars calling for the slaughter of all Europeans. By May 10, the native troops in Meerut had mutinied and the fuse was lit.

My history lessons in school (Bombay) never treated this issue as anything other than fact. Unfortunately, I can’t produce a reference from my history books because my last history lesson was about 10 years ago :stuck_out_tongue:

Welcome to the boards, Gyan9! Which school did you go to?

Just FYI here— historians in India and Pakistan don’t call it the “Sepoy Mutiny”, feeling that that name trivializes the massive uprising that shook the whole subcontinent for two years. “Sepoy Mutiny” makes it sound as though it were just some native troops having a spat with their officers. In fact, the whole nation including civilians was in an uproar and even the Mughal royal family was part of it. Indians and Pakistanis prefer to call it the “War for Independence.”

Again I ask… Jomo Mojo, how come you’re so well informed about so many things Indian?

kyunki meri bivi Bharat se ati hai

Just to follow his tangent for a sec - I’ve seen this and I think one can make a reasonable argument for it. However, when it comes right down to it I think “The Great Sepoy Mutiny” or the equivalent is probably a slightly better descriptor. If it was a war of independance at all, it was less an Indian war of Independance, than a Mughul war of independance - And even that is a bit misleading.

The reason is, is that as widespread as the uprisings were, they were still overwhelmingly centered in northern India. The Bombay and Madras “Presidencies” weren’t affected much and most of the native princes, including almost all of the more powerful ones like Hyderabad, refused to participate. As for Bahadur Shah II, he was an old ( 82 ), frail man of apparently gentle mien. It appears the leadership role ( figurehead, really ) was thrust upon him, and not entirely willingly. Ultimately, as anti-British as the revolts were, I’m not sure just how much they stemmed from a conscious idea of pan-Indian nationalism ( I understand some of the figures involved might have had such thoughts, but I don’t think most did ).

In this case, as with the casting of earlier leaders like Shivaji as supposed heros of “Hindu nationalism” , I think there is an element of wishful thinking, or perhaps just overreaching a little in describing this as an explicitly Indian war of independance. MHO.

Though to be wishy-washy, I do think there were enough elements of Indian nationalism invoked to make it a close call :).

  • Tamerlane

I don’t have anything to add to the debate, but I just wanted to say that Our Bones Are Scattered is an excellent book. Ward is a first-rate writer and makes the characters come alive as individuals. Even if you aren’t fascinated by the subject, this book deserves to be on your “To Read Someday” list.

Tamerlane, thanks for the historical precision as to exactly who was and who was not involved. I still think the Indian historians have a valid point that calling such a massive uprising that changed the course of Indian history the “Sepoy Mutiny” is belittling to the Indian people and that it needs a better name. We have become so accustomed to hearing only one side of the story: the British colonialist side, are we forgetting that the other side has its own point of view and that we are all one global community? Or are we still viewing history from a colonialist perspective in which the dark-skinned people, the “Sepoys,” are other, and thus have no voice and nothing to say to us?

I just don’t see it. Why it would be belittling that is. The Sepoys were hardly something to be ashamed of in the context of the time. Damn fine soldiers. And truly, it didn’t change the course of history in India in any significant way. Yes, the East India Company was retired, but they were virtually a governmental agency by that point anyway. The Mughul state was dissolved, but it too was a fiction by that point. The military system was altered a bit ( higher proportion of British to Indian soldiers in India thereafter ), but nothing drastic - Though to some extent the twisted notion of “martial castes” that began to arise may derive from the behavior of the humiliated British generals of the rebellious Bengal Presidency.

But as nasty as an upheaval as it was, I don’t think it ultimately changed much.

Well, sure. I don’t think I’m ignoring that. But by the same token, Indian historians can be just as guilty of retroactive jingoism and bullshit historical revisionism as the Americans, Japanese, Russians, or anyone else. We share strengths as well as weaknesses as people.

Mind you, as I said I don’t think this case merits such strong accusations, as the above. But I do think there is a tendency to seize on moments an overstate their impact and significance. IMHO only, this falls ( weakly ) into that category.

Well, I would hardly consider myself “pro-colonial” ;). I don’t think I’m ignoring voices so much as trying to place them in a proper historical perspective. But, hey - YMMV as always :).

  • Tamerlane

I think you’re all missing the point. It’s not the “Sepoy” part that they’re offended by, it’s the “mutiny” part. A “mutiny” implies a wrongful (and probably doomed) resistance to lawful authority, and that very designation is offensive and prejudicial to a native population that doesn’t feel the British ever were a lawful authority.

Well, one can certainly make the argument that the British were the lawful authority of the sepoys ( if not the various other factions that rebelled ) they recruited, trained, armed, and paid.

But I do see your point.

Would revolt be less offensive?

  • Tamerlane

And I use the dark arts on this thread ("IT’S ALIIIIVE!!! IT’S ALIIIIIIIVEEEEEE…!!) to mention that, in Spanish, the official name of that particular event is “La rebelión de los Cipayos”, that is, “the revolt of the Sepoys”.

Just mentioning :slight_smile: