Sepoys of the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence

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Sepoys of the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence

Post  buistR on Sat 27 Feb 2010, 5:47 pm

As every history student knows (or used to), in May-June 1857 most of the quaintly named Honourable East India Company's Bengal regiments mutinied, ostensibly because of a misunderstanding over greased cartridges but actually because of a range of military, religious, social and political issues. The rising was put down after 18 months of fierce fighting with much courage and many atrocities on both sides , and the British Government then took over direct rule of India. In Britain it is still known as the "Indian Mutiny" and in India as the "First War of Independence". A recent film "Mangal Pandey - the Rising" gave an accurate portrayal of most of the uniforms worn though it took liberties with some of the historical events.

The attached picture is of poor quality but is of interest as possibly the only actual surviving photograph of sepoys of a Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) regiment. It is captioned simply as having been taken during the 1850s and it is not clear if it shows sepoys of one of the sixty-two BNI regiments that subsequently mutinied (or were disarmed and disbanded) or one of the 12 that survived the Mutiny and passed into the new Indian Army. At any rate they all looked much the same in their red coatees and dark grey "Oxford mixture" trousers (white in hot weather). The white chest braiding on the front of the coatees was common to all regiments, who were distinguished by differing facing colours on collars and cuffs, and the regimental number in bronze on the front of the round Kilmarnock cap (worn with a white cover in hot weather). Contemporary paintings and sketches of Mutiny scenes usually show sepoys in high wide topped shakos without peaks, but these had been abolished for the HEIC's Bengal regiments in 1847.

This particular group includes a havildar (sergeant) third from left and a subedar (Indian officer) standing second from right. The latter wears a single breasted scarlet coatee without braid, a sword and a cord of gold beads below his collar (more clearly visible in the original photo).

Another photograph in the same collection shows a similar representative group in the 1850s from a Madras Native Infantry (MNI) regiment. The HEIC's Madras Army was separate from those of Bengal and Bombay and remained unaffected by the Mutiny. Their uniforms differed in detail from those of the Bengal Army and the photograph shows them wearing the high bell topped "turbans" (actually a form of peakless shako) that they retained until they passed into Queen Victoria's service in 1860.

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