3.2 Examples of Practice: Teaching about the 1857 Indian Rebellion

Why study the 1857 Indian Rebellion?

There are a number of reasons why you may wish to include a study of the 1857 Indian Rebellion in your key stage 3 curriculum:

  • The history of the Indian Rebellion is powerful narrative full of dramatic events, fascinating characters and particular places. It has enormous potential to fire pupils' curiosity and imagination.
  • The Indian Rebellion was the greatest anti-colonial uprising against a European Empire during the nineteenth century. It represented a significant turning point in the long and complex relationship between Britain and India.
  • A study of the Indian Rebellion can encourage pupils to consider fundamental questions of identity and diversity. An increased emphasis on significant events in Britain's colonial past, such as the Indian Rebellion, can help to create a more diverse and inclusive history curriculum. For pupils of Asian origin, the Indian Rebellion represents a particularly important part of their heritage and personal identity.
  • A vast range of sources are available to support pupils' enquiry into the Indian Rebellion. In recent years, sources have been uncovered and translated that allow the events of 1857 to be seen, for the first time, from an Indian perspective.
  • The Indian Rebellion provides a rich context for the study of interpretations of history. The Rebellion continues to be the focus of intense scholarly debate and competing popular representations. 

What makes the 1857 Indian Rebellion such an emotive and controversial issue?  

  • The Indian Rebellion resulted in the deaths and suffering of thousands of men women and children. The extreme violence of the Rebellion, and the brutality of the British reprisals, calls for sensitive planning and teaching.
  • What makes the Rebellion particularly emotive and controversial is its continued contemporary significance in India and in Britain, and its potential personal resonance for pupils of Asian origin.
  • Recent scholarship on the events of 1857 has emphasized the religious dimension of the Rebellion. In contemporary Britain, where 9/11 and 7/7 have led to heightened tensions, a study of past conflict between Hindus, Muslims and Christians requires careful handling.  

How can we help pupils to explore the complexity of the Indian Rebellion?  

A determination to help our pupils explore the complexity of the Indian Rebellion is a useful point for planning an engaging and worthwhile sequence of lessons. By using a range of contemporary sources, and by developing a deep and complex understanding of the causes and nature of the Rebellion, we can move pupils beyond singular narratives and stereotypical views.

1. Use a range of sources that allows pupils to explore Indian perspectives  

There is an abundance of first-hand narratives of the Rebellion from British soldiers and civilians. However, an over-emphasis on British sources can mean that pupils will develop a one-sided view of events. Two recent works provide a fascinating insight into Indian perspectives:

  • William Dalrymple in his stunning book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (Bloomsbury 2006), makes extensive use of the Mutiny Papers from the Indian National Archives and provides a rich and fascinating insight into the motivation, experiences and dilemmas of the ordinary people of Delhi in 1857.
  • Joseph Coohill in a recent article, Indian Voices from the 1857 Rebellion (History Today, May 2007) focuses on surviving Indian narratives of the Rebellion.

2. Investigate the complex causes of the Rebellion  

The traditional explanation of the 1857 Indian Rebellion focuses on the controversy over the newly-introduced Enfield rifle cartridges greased with pork and beef fat. But this is, of course, only part of the story. A complex understanding of the causes of the Indian Rebellion will allow pupils to explore:

  • Earlier Indian revolts against the British.
  • The significance of Mangal Pandey and his attack at Barrackpore in April 1857.
  • The harsh sentences and humiliation of the 85 Meerut sepoys.
  • The breakdown in mutual esteem and goodwill between British officers and sepoys.
  • The territorial expansion of the British in India including the annexation of the Punjab and Oudh.
  • Lord Dalhousie, Govenor General of India (1847-56), and the introduction of the ‘Doctrine of Lapse' which allowed the East India Company to extend its control into Indian territory when an Indian ruler died without what the Company considered to be an Indian heir.
  • The fear of forced conversion to Christianity.
  • British interference with Indian customs.
  • The imposition of colonial taxes
  • The growing gulf between Indians and British
  • The extent to which everyday relations between the British and their Indian subjects were characterised by abuse and violence.
  • The Indian desire for freedom from British domination.

3. Explore the diverse nature of the Rebellion

In the years after 1857 the Indian Rebellion was portrayed in Britain as a mutiny among the sepoys bravely defeated by the British. For nationalist historians in India the Rebellion was a great unified war of independence waged by heroic freedom-fighters against wicked imperialists. Historians continue to argue over whether the Rebellion was a mutiny, a peasants' revolt, an urban revolution or a war of independence. Recent scholarship views the Rebellion as a mixture of very different uprisings and acts of resistance often determined by local and regional situations.

A sensitive treatment of the Rebellion will allow pupils to explore the diverse nature of the Rebellion including:

  • The circumstances surrounding the Meerut Mutiny
  • The spread of the revolt from Meerut to Delhi
  • The sieges of Delhi, Agra, Kanpur and Lucknow
  • The role of Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor
  • The role played by different civilian rebels
  • The experiences of people caught between the British soldiers and the rebels
  • The religious nature of the uprising
  • The massacre of Indian Christians
  • The circumstances surrounding particular atrocities such as the murder of British women and children at Kanpur
  • The experiences of Indians who remained loyal to the British
  • The experiences of British converts to Islam who fought with the rebels
  • The appalling British retribution which accompanied the defeat of the Rebellion
  • The way in which the Rebellion was reported in Britain
  • Diverse reactions to the Rebellion in Britain  

How can we get pupils to really care about the Indian Rebellion?  

Getting pupils to really care about what happened in the past, or to move beyond the ill-informed and one-sided views they may have developed through their community histories, is a difficult challenge. In devising learning activities that engage pupils with contentious aspects of history, and that encourage pupils to care about past events, a helpful approach is to engage pupils' emotions as well as their intellects.

One useful strategy for engaging pupils' emotions is to make the history personal. Pupils often find it difficult to engage with topics in history that are written or presented as generalities and abstractions. When pupils' learning about controversial issues such as the Indian Rebellion is focused on the experiences of individual people in the past they are more likely to connect with past events and situations. It is through individual human stories that we can connect pupils to the different world of nineteenth century India.

William Dalrymple's book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (Bloomsbury 2006) provides rich details of the experiences of a wide range of individuals caught up in the story of Delhi. These include members of the Mughal Imperial family, individuals in the rebel army and various Delhiwallas, as well as British officials and soldiers. Many of these individual stories could be used to elicit an emotional response in pupils.

What makes a good enquiry question about the 1857 Indian Rebellion?  

Crafting an enquiry question on the 1857 Indian Rebellion that captures the interest and imagination of our pupils is an important stage in planning for effective learning. A rigorous, challenging and intriguing historical enquiry will ensure that pupils enjoy a purposeful learning experience. Some important points to consider are:

  • Is the enquiry question academically rigorous?
  • Will the question appeal to pupils?
  • Will the question allow pupils to explore the complexities and controversies surrounding the Rebellion?
  • How will the question combine outline and depth knowledge about the Rebellion?
  • Which concepts and processes will the enquiry reinforce?


From the list below, which enquiry question do you think offer most scope for an interesting, rigorous and sensitive approach to learning about the 1857 Indian Rebellion?  

Possible enquiry questions on the 1857 Indian Rebellion:



How can we find out about the Indian Rebellion?



What can different sources tell us about the Indian Rebellion?



What caused the Indian Rebellion?



Why did so many people support the Indian rebellion?



What mattered to different people during the Indian Rebellion?



What made the Indian Rebellion so terrible?



Why did the Indian Rebellion fail?



Why should we remember the Indian Rebellion?



How should we remember the Indian Rebellion?


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