English East India Company and the Great Rebellion of 1857


Civilization mission is one of the major factors used to justify colonization. It involves the spread of western culture to indigenous communities. Its pedigree can be traced to the middle ages in the Christian tradition. At the time, the European colonial powers saw people from other nations as inferior to them. They termed them as backward and uncivilized societies. The perception made the imperialists assume that it was their duty to westernize these communities. Westernization was synonymous with civilization.

The colonial powers used the assimilation ideology as a tool for spreading their cultures.1 The Europeans were also racist and had a negative view of what they regarded as ‘backward’ nations. They wanted all societies under their control to abandon their native traditions and customs and embrace the new way of life. The colonial powers affirmed that traditional customs had to be destroyed at all costs. The societies had to fully adapt to and follow the western traditions. The parties who were unable to follow them had no choice but to disappear.

In this paper, the author will analyze the British civilization mission in India. The analysis will be in the context of the English East India Company. The author will analyze the company’s civilization mission in 1830. In addition, the Great Rebellion of 1857 with regards to the company’s incursions will be reviewed. It is apparent that the civilizing mission was the major reason behind the uprising.

British Civilization Mission in India

The presence of the British in India dates back to the early 17th century.2 When they first arrived, their main aim was to venture into trade with the locals and other foreigners in the country. On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth 1 gave in to the demands made by representatives of the investors and traders. The merchants wanted a new trading company to be granted a royal charter. Between 1601 and 1613, the British made twelve voyages to India.

The expeditions were made possible by the entrepreneurial intent of the East India Company merchants. In 1609, William Hawkins set foot in Jahangir’s court. The purpose of his visit was to seek authorization to establish a British company in India.3 In spite of the merchant’s overtures, Jahangir turned down his request. The permission was later granted in 1617. That was after Sir Thomas Roe’s visit to the Mughal Empire. Thomas was again permitted to set up a British factory in Surat in 1619. In addition, St. George Fort was established in 1639.

In 1757, Robert Clive led the British military to victory at Plassey. The army was fighting the Nawabs of Bengal forces and the Siraj-up-daulah. The triumph was a major milestone in the growth of the East India Company in India. As a result of the win, the establishment changed from an association of merchants to a conglomeration of rulers. The rulers went on to exercise their political powers in other parts of the country. In addition to the Plassey triumph, Robert dramatically increased the number of Indian soldiers recruited into the British force.4 Ten years later, East India Company gained the right to collect taxes in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. The development was a major boost to the political and economic campaigns waged by the establishment. The taxes were collected on behalf of the Mughal Empire.

The strengthening of the colonial presence was later made the responsibility of Warren Hastings. That was after the initial military successes. He dispelled the notion that East India Company was still under the auspices of the Mughal Empire. Hastings also ensured the British familiarized themselves with Indian history, geography, and culture. In addition, the new ruler established the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The institution was founded in 1784 under the leadership of Sir William Jones.5 At the time, British society had dedicated itself to studying India’s religion and cosmological texts. In spite of his efforts, he was impeached after his return to England. He was accused of engaging in criminal acts and misdemeanors.

The State of English East India Company from the 1830s

By 1830, East India Company had established itself as ‘the master’ of India. The new status was large as a result of Lord Wellesley’s leadership as the Governor-General. Lord Wellesley arrived in India in 1798. He arrived with a new vision that enabled the British Empire to take over the Asian sub-continent.6 In the 1820s, there was a major change in the theoretical understanding of India among foreigners. James Mill and Jeremy Bentham set the motion for utilitarianism. The knowledge created the desire to reform the Indian society. The restructuring was to be carried out in accordance with the model prescribed by the British.

The period between 1828 and 1835 saw a number of reforms implemented in India. For example, the company abolished some of the customs that were viewed to be intolerable. Christians and civilized citizens were tasked with the responsibility of eliminating these practices. At the time, Lord William Bentinck was the Governor-General. His first duty in office was the abolition of sati. He made this decree on 12th December, 1829.7 The practice was declared a criminal activity. Sati involved the burning of Indian widows alive with their deceased husbands.

It was done in the name of love and religion. It was a cultural practice that had mesmerized the missionaries and Europeans for more than two centuries. It elicited varying reactions among this group. They included admiration and abhorrence. However, the true meaning of the act was never made clear to them. The Europeans viewed it as either a Hinduism rite or an ancient practice of protecting a man’s honor. The criminalization of this practice was not supported by the locals. It was an indication of how the civilization activities of the East India Company led to the Great Rebellion of 1857. The reforms carried out by the British showed that the civilization mission had already come into play.

The Great Rebellion of 1857

The Indian uprising was brought about by a number of elements. They included economic, military, political, religious, and social factors. It started on 10th May, 1857. It began with the uprising of sepoys in Meerut town.8 The unrest later spread in the country to include civilian upheavals in central India and the upper Gangetic plain. Some of the regions that experienced major hostilities include present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.9 Other areas were Delhi and northern Pradesh. In spite of the major uprisings, some regions remained calm. They included Bengal, Bombay, and Madras Presidencies. The people were expressing their dissatisfaction with the civilization missions carried out by the British Company.

Causes of the Rebellion

It is a fact that the rebellion started as a sepoys’ mutiny against the British rule. However, there were other factors that fuelled its spread. They include civilian disquiet, economic factors, and the Enfield rifle.

Disquiet among the Civilians

The Indians were not pleased with the draconian rule of the British.10 The colonials engaged in rapid expansion and spread of western civilization. The Indians felt that the activities were conducted with disregard to their cultural practices. The company also abolished sati and child marriage.11 In addition, it proscribed a number of native religious customs. The natives viewed those acts as steps towards mandatory conversion to Christianity. The realization prompted them to join hands and fight for their religion and faith. They went staged wars against the British Christian men and women, sparing only those who had converted to Muslim.


The activities of this group are also attributed to their dissatisfaction with the colonialists. The group was made up of local soldiers who had been recruited into East India Company’s military arm. Prior to the uprising, the number of locals recruited into the force was six times that of the foreigners.12 As the British territory expanded, the professional terms of the sepoys changed. They started serving in areas they were less familiar with. In addition, they worked without the company’s service reimbursement. Retired personnel were also denied pension. The limitations applied to new recruits. Later on, the British stopped viewing the sepoys as foreign soldiers. That was after the invasion of Oudh and Punjab. The soldiers received low pay for their services and were denied extra allowances.13 The reductions and harsh treatment made the troop lose faith in the company. That led to a revolt against the British, which escalated into a rebellion.

Economic Factors

The locals were not pleased with the heavy taxes imposed on them by the British. For example, tax on land was increased. Bentinck repossessed tax free land. In addition, he confiscated a number of Jagirs.14 The locals were angered by the acts, leading to deep seated resentments. They directed their bitterness towards the landed aristocracy and the middle-class British settlers. The tracts of land were later impounded and placed on sale.

The Enfield rifle

It was another factor behind the unrest. The gun was a major contributor to the uprising. The fighters were issued with the Pattern 1853 Enfield musket rifle. The new gun was more accurate at greater distances compared to the Brown Bess.15 However, it scored low on the loading process. Both weapons were loaded by biting off the cartridge and powering the gunpowder in the muzzle. The sepoys believed the cartridges were lubricated with lard and tallow. Both Muslims and Hindus considered these two elements as unclean. As such, they were not happy using the rifles.

The Four Rebels of the 1857 Uprising

The rebellion was associated with a number of ordinary rebel representatives. Each played a unique role at the time. In addition, each had his own perception of foreign rule and its impacts on Indian way of life. The rebels were Shah Mal, Devi Singh, Gonoo, and Maulvi Ahmadullah.

Shah Mal

He was a Bijraul resident. The community was located in the eastern part of Pargana Barout. At the time of the revolt, he was a Malik of a part of Bijraul village. The community had been divided into two parts, Kullo and Ladura. His rebellion against the British began as a local affair. He cut off the communication lines between the British forces.16 He also brought together communities within his territory. His region acted as a strategic rear and supply base.

Devi Singh

He was a rebel from Tappa Raya in Mathura. His rebellion had no exterior intervention. His revolt was carried out by a peasant community in a small region.17 He was also a master of fourteen villages. Later on, the villages merged and formed a single state. Out of him, a peasant king was made. He derived his power from Jat’s age-old tradition.


In comparison to the other rebels, Gonoo had a lower social status.18 He was a farmer from Singhbhum. He went on to become a leader in spite of his humble beginnings. He used the threat of collective aggression to enhance co-operation in his tribal community. In addition, he carried himself as a Singhbhum and wore mankee attires.

Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah

Some people were personally involved in the uprising. The individual mentioned above became a preacher at a very young age. He travelled a lot around the country. In November 1856, Ahmadullah was in Lucknow. He pulled large masses of people to his meetings and preached against the British government.19 On 8 June, 1857, he was appointed a leader by the insurgents.


The civilization mission in India led to the Great Rebellion of 1857. The British justified their rule by asserting that Indians needed to be civilized.20 The revolt posed a threat to the British rule after they acquired the territory in 1757. In addition to the sepoys, the old aristocracy offered great resistance to colonial rule in the country. The upheaval made the Indians realize that they cannot be ruled forever by a foreign nation. It also marked the end of the East India Company’s rule in the country. The organization closed down on mid 1858.


Bayly, Christopher. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Guha, Ranjit. Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hay, Stephen. Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 2: Modern India and Pakistan. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Kishore, Prem, and Anuradha Ganpati. India: An Illustrated History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2003.

Metcalf, Barbara, and Thomas Metcalf. A Concise History of Modern India. 3rd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Sugata, Bose, and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2011.

Travers, Robert. Ideology and Empire in the Eighteenth Century India: The British in Bengal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Waligora, Melita. “What is Your ‘Caste’?: The Classification of Indian Society as Part of the British Civilizing Mission.” In Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, edited by Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann, 68- 91 London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2004.


  1. Melita Waligora, “What is Your ‘Caste’?: The Classification of Indian Society as Part of the British Civilizing Mission,” in Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, eds. Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann (London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2004), 71.
  2. Christopher Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 72.
  3. Ranjit Guha, Selected Subaltern Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 25.
  4. Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, 3rd ed, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 61.
  5. Metcalf and Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, 62.
  6. Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in the Eighteenth Century India: The British in Bengal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 51.
  7. Waligora, “What is Your ‘Caste’?”, 80.
  8. Stephen Hay, Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 2: Modern India and Pakistan, 2nd ed, (New York: Free Press, 1988), 73.
  9. Bose Sugata and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, 3rd ed, (London: Routledge, 2011), 36.
  10. Guha, Selected Subaltern Studies, 93.
  11. Prem Kishore and Anuradha Ganpati, India: An Illustrated History (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2003), 52.
  12. Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth Century India, 71.
  13. Bayly, Indian Society, 89.
  14. Kishore and Ganpati, India: An Illustrated History, 49.
  15. Travers, Ideology and Empire in the Eighteenth Century India, 86.
  16. Guha, Selected Subaltern Studies, 135.
  17. Ibid, 145.
  18. Guha, Selected Subaltern Studies, 156.
  19. Ibid, 163.
  20. Kishore and Ganpati, India: An Illustrated History, 112.