Although I regularly used to drive down Meerut Road in Brockenhurst on my way home from work for many years, it wasn’t until I read George McDonald Fraser’s superbly researched ‘Flashman in the Great Game,’ that I came to realise that Meerut was not, as I had imagined, the name of some long-dead local worthy but the British garrison town in India where the Sepoy Mutiny had first broken out on 10 May, 1857.
Ask anyone who has heard of the mutiny what caused it and you will almost certainly be told that it was due to the fats used to lubricate the rifle cartridges supplied to native troops offending against their religions. But is this true?
Post 1947, many Indians began to object to the use of the word ‘mutiny’ to describe this conflict as to them the insurrection was a legitimate uprising against British colonial oppression that should now more correctly be referred to as the ‘First War of Independence’ or the ‘Revolt of 1857’ but as the British press reported on the events at the time as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny,’ that is the terminology that I will use in this article. ‘Sepoy’ refers to an Indian infantryman in the employ of Europeans, usually the British East India Company.
My interest in the mutiny was rekindled recently when I was given a handful of Pritchett bullets with which to make up some reproduction cartridges to try out in my original Enfield Pattern 1856 rifle-musket. ‘Pritchett’, ‘Pritchett-Metford’ or ‘Enfield’ bullets as they were variously known, were used by the British infantry from 1853 when the .577 Enfield rifle-musket was first introduced until the 1860s when existing stocks of muzzle-loading rifles were converted to breech-loading using the Snider mechanism. Modern shooters of both original and reproduction rifles of this period tend to use the later Burton ball (the design of which dates from the American Civil War) together with phials containing pre-measured charges of powder so I was very keen to make up a batch of authentic British Enfield cartridges containing smooth sided Pritchett bullets with which to experiment at the range.
Reproducing this type of cartridge inevitably raises the question of lubrication and this in turn set me pondering on the role that the bullet lubricants used by the Victorians had played in triggering the mutiny. Did the use of particular animal fats really lead to the cruel deaths of so many innocent men, women and children or was it just a convenient excuse used to discredit the British and so justify the violence?
The aim of this article is not to provide a detailed account of the events in India but rather to consider how rifle cartridges were made in the 1850s and while doing so to look into the implications of the choice of the materials used and the impact this had on the sepoys who rebelled. I was also keen to carry out live-firing tests at the range to see for myself exactly how these cartridges would have been used more than 160 years ago.
A Brief Chronology of the Mutiny
To put the cartridge lubrication question into context, it makes sense to consider briefly the bloody events that are said to have resulted from their use.
Prior to January 1857 – Signs of unrest begin to be noticed among the sepoys in the garrison towns including clandestine nocturnal meetings, isolated arson attacks on British officers’ bungalows and the mysterious and unexplained ritual passing of chapattis from village to village, all of which create an atmosphere of unease and foreboding.
January 1857 – Unrest is reported at Dum Dum regarding the composition of the grease used to lubricate the new Enfield cartridges. Rumours are being circulated that the grease is made from beef fat (sacred to Hindus) and from pork fat (unclean to Muslims).
February 1857 – The 19th Bengal Native Infantry refuse to accept the issue of the new cartridges at Barrackpore.
March 1857 – At Barrackpore, Sepoy Mangal Pandey, under the influence of the narcotic bhang (edible cannabis), injures two British officers with his talwar (an Indian heavy sword) then shoots and injures himself. Pandey is court-martialled and hanged two days later.
May 9-10 1857 – At Meerut, 85 sepoys who refuse to accept the cartridges are arrested and humiliated by being put in irons. A native uprising to release the captives follows and two British officers’ wives are brutally murdered, Mrs Chambers by having her unborn child hacked from her belly by a butcher and Mrs Dawson who at the time was recovering from smallpox, by having her clothing set on fire by the mob. These atrocities set the tone for future events and the conflict spreads rapidly.
June 1857 – Boats carrying British survivors away from the siege of Cawnpore (Kanpur) under a written safe conduct treaty with Nana Sahib are set ablaze. 60 male survivors of this action are immediately killed and all the women and children are imprisoned in the Bibighar or ‘Ladies’ House’ in the town.
July1857 – Hearing that British troops are approaching Cawnpore, the Nana orders that the 210 women and children held prisoner be shot. The sepoys botch the shooting and local butchers have to be called in from the bazaar to finish the job with cleavers. The bodies are disposed of by being thrown down a deep well and, according to some accounts at least, some of the children are still alive when this takes place.
‘The place was literally running ankle deep in blood, ladies’ hair torn from their heads was lying about the floor; poor little children’s shoes lying here and there, gowns, frocks and bonnets belonging to these poor creatures scattered everywhere. But to crown all horrors, after they had been killed, and even some alive, all were thrown down a deep well in the compound. I looked down and saw them lying in heaps. I very much fear there are some of my friends included in this most atrocious fiendish of murders.’
Major George Bingham at Cawnpore, 1857
This atrocity more than any inflamed British feeling against the mutineers and a reign of terror ensued with Indians, both guilty and innocent, being hanged by enthusiastic groups of vigilantes by way of retribution. Wherever possible, mutineers were strapped to cannon and executed by being ‘blown from a gun.’ George Carter Stent described the process thus:
‘The prisoner is generally tied to a gun with the upper part of the small of his back resting against the muzzle. When the gun is fired, his head is seen to go straight up into the air some forty or fifty feet; the arms fly off right and left, high up in the air, and fall at, perhaps, a hundred yards distance; the legs drop to the ground beneath the muzzle of the gun; and the body is literally blown away altogether, not a vestige being seen.’
September 1857 – When the British recapture Delhi the troops begin an orgy of drunkenness, violence and looting and refuse to obey their officers’ orders. At Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence who had been killed in July by shell fire into the besieged Residency had refused to allow neighbouring mosques and houses to be demolished. The defenders suffer many casualties from sniper fire as a consequence of Lawrence’s cultural and religious sensitivities.
November 1857 – Relief of Lucknow. Women and children are evacuated.
December 1857 – The British go on the offensive under Brigadier Charles Windham and attack Lucknow. Lieutenant-General Sir Colin Campbell’s timely arrival with heavy naval guns proves decisive. Nana Sahib’s general Tantya Tope flees the scene and the Nana’s troops are defeated to the north of the city.
March 1858 – Campbell retakes Lucknow.
April 1858 – Major-General Sir Hugh Rose defeats Tantya Tope and storms and loots Jhansi killing at least 5,000 defenders but, after personally leading a counter-attack, the 23 year old Rani escapes.
May and June 1858 – Rose continues to advance on rebel held cities taking Kalpi and Morar. At Kotah-Ke-Serai the Rani’s forces are defeated and she is killed in action dressed as a man, sword in hand. Gwalia is retaken by Rose 19th June and Tantya Tope goes into hiding. He is eventually captured in April 1859 and hanged.
August 1858 – The East India Company is dissolved.
July 8 1859 – Peace in India is finally declared.
1877 – Queen Victoria assumes the title of Empress of India on the advice of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli
There is much controversy as to the numbers of casualties on both sides of the conflict and while ‘only’ 1,000 – 1,500 British civilians are known to have lost their lives and 2,163 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action, the toll among Indians and Anglo-Indians was undoubtedly much greater although claims of ‘millions of dead’ are more than likely modern exaggerations. Unsubstantiated and probably false reports of rape of white women and young girls by sepoys inflamed public opinion both in Britain where bloody retribution was generally supported and among the soldiers who sought to avenge them.
Edward Vibart, a 19-year-old officer whose parents, younger brothers, and two of his sisters had died in the Cawnpore massacre, recorded his experience:
‘The orders went out to shoot every soul…. It was literally murder… I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful… Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference’ (Wikipedia)
The Enfield Cartridge
Unlike modern self-contained or ‘fixed’ brass ammunition, cartridges in the 1850s were made of paper tubes containing a bullet and a measured powder charge but they lacked any means of ignition. The rifle was loaded by ripping off the end of the cartridge, pouring the powder down the barrel and then ramming the lubricated part containing the bullet down on top of the powder, the remaining part of the now redundant powder tube having been torn off at the muzzle and discarded. A percussion cap was placed on the rifle’s nipple and it was then ready to be cocked and fired at a rate of around three aimed shots per minute.
First Pattern 1853-1856
This simple cartridge was made from three pieces of paper, a rectangle of strong ‘cartridge paper’ that together with a ‘little trapezium’ of very thin but strong paper was rolled on a mandrel to form the powder tube followed by a third ‘trapezium envelope’ that was rolled around the powder tube and the .568 in. bullet. The bullet was secured in place by twisting and pressing the end of the outer tube into its hollow base. After being filled with the service charge of 2 ½ drams (68 grains) of ‘fine rifle powder,’ the top of the tube was twisted to seal it. All that then remained to be done was to lubricate the cartridge from its base to the shoulder level of the bullet. Although these cartridges were hand-rolled by the million in armament factories, they were also designed to be made in the field in an emergency and groups of five infantrymen were provided with bullet mould, supplies of paper, cutting templates, forming tools, funnel and knife and given training in cartridge making.
Second Pattern 1856-1859
Due to varying manufacturing tolerances at the factories producing rifle barrels together with wear in service, rifle bores were found to vary by up to .003 in. in diameter causing undersized bullets to fly erratically. To overcome this, bullets with a larger base cavity were reintroduced that incorporated an iron cup that slammed forward into the base of the bullet on the explosion of the gunpowder forcing its skirt outward so as to engage the rifling.
Making this cartridge is more difficult and time-consuming as the outer wrapping has three cuts in it to encourage paper-bullet separation on firing and its base must be tied with thread in order to retain the bullet and its expansion plug.
Third Pattern 1860s
In 1859, in order to ease loading, the diameter of the Enfield bullet was reduced to .550 in. Problems had arisen with iron cups being shot through the bullet leaving difficult to remove rings of lead in the bore. In the heat of battle some soldiers continued to load bullets progressively nearer to the muzzle due to these rings of lead and to fire their rifles until their barrels burst. This problem was obviated when the iron cup was replaced by a turned boxwood plug in the form of a truncated cone and later, when boxwood became difficult to source, by baked clay plugs.
This cartridge albeit using a significantly smaller diameter bullet proved to be just as accurate as the earlier versions but was much easier to load down a fouled barrel. Outwardly it differs from the second pattern only in that it has a paper band glued around its circumference at the point where the papers overlap making it easier to tear open.
Making Enfield Cartridges
When I started to research making these cartridges, I had an enormous stroke of good fortune when I found a beautifully illustrated article online entitled ‘British 1853 Pattern Enfield Rifle Cartridges’ by an unknown New Zealander. This brilliant paper gives detailed instructions for making the cartridges together with full-sized plans for the paper templates to make the three different types of cartridge supplied between 1853 and the 1860s.
Forming the powder tube
Inserting the bullet and its expansion plug
Tying off the cartridge base
Filling the cartridges with powder
The original government specification stated that the completed cartridges should be ‘dipped up to the shoulder of the bullet in a pot of grease consisting of six parts of tallow and one part of beeswax.’
Chambers Dictionary defines tallow as: fat, grease; rendered fat esp of cattle and sheep, used eg for making soap and candles. ‘Render’ means: to melt; to extract, treat or clarify by melting.
Tallow is made by cutting up the hard fat such as suet from around the internal organs of sheep and cattle and boiling it in steam jacketed vessels. Once cooled the fat remains stable over long periods without going rancid making it suitable for a whole range of industrial and pharmaceutical applications including bullet lubrication.
The problem with the 6:1 tallow-beeswax lube was that in very hot climates it would melt and run off the cartridge causing the paper around the bullet to dry out. In such circumstances musketry books recommended that ‘Whenever the grease around the bullet appears to be melted away, or otherwise removed from the cartridge, the sides of the bullet should be wetted in the mouth before putting it into the barrel; the saliva will serve the purpose of grease for the time being.’
To overcome drying out, the government changed the specified lubricant to pure beeswax but this had the disadvantage of becoming hard and flaking off in cold climates. The problem was finally solved in 1859 when the smaller diameter .550 in. bullet was introduced allowing lubricant comprising one part of tallow to five parts of beeswax to be used but these only appeared after the mutiny had been quelled.
After filling the tubes with fine powder and twisting their ends, I lubricated the outer wrappings of my cartridges to the level of the bullet shoulders by dipping them in my standard muzzle-loading lube made from ‘Trex’ (a vegetable lard substitute), beeswax and a little fully-synthetic motor oil melted in a water bath.
When the lube cools it forms a thin, soft coating on the paper and I was very pleased with the results.
Using the CartridgesMy objective here was to load my rifle with the paper cartridges with a view to replicating the experience of an infantryman of the 1850s as closely as possible.
The 1854 Infantry Manual specified that to load his rifle, the soldier should ‘bite the end off the cartridge to expose the powder’. This makes sense because the soldier has to hold his rifle vertically while performing this task and I found this to be more easily accomplished by keeping a firm grip on the end of the barrel with the left hand, putting the cartridge to the mouth with the right hand, gripping the twisted section firmly with the teeth, ripping it off and spitting the paper away. I found it more difficult to hold the rifle under my left armpit while using both hands to tear the paper. Biting was certainly faster and more reliable and also, according to Sergeant William Forbes-Mitchell of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, ‘tearing the cartridge was considered effeminate.’
After pouring the powder down the barrel the cartridge was inverted and the paper-wrapped bullet pressed into the muzzle with the thumb. After ripping off the now empty powder tube, the bullet together with its greased paper jacket was easily rammed home and this could be repeated for shot after shot without cleaning the barrel as fouling was significantly reduced.
One thing I did notice was that no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to prevent my hands and my rifle from becoming coated with grease from the cartridges. In the field, with limited opportunities for washing, contamination of food with grease and gunpowder residues would have been unavoidable.
To my surprise, my first six shots were all in the target with none having tumbled. This was better than I had expected.
Personal Learning Points
- I had previously thought that tallow was exclusively a by-product of mutton so I was somewhat surprised to learn that the term can be applied to any animal fat and that mutton and beef tallow certainly and quite probably pork tallow as well were used in the manufacture of Victorian bullet lubricant.
- The most efficient method of opening the cartridges proved to be by biting them and contamination of one’s hands and clothing with cartridge grease is unavoidable. In circumstances where the lubricant had dried from the cartridges (as might be expected in hot climates like India,) infantrymen were required to put the cartridges in their mouths so as to use their saliva as an emergency lubricant.
- The Sepoy Mutiny attracted both Muslim and Hindu soldiers and civilians but was largely confined to Northern India and to Bengal in particular. There was no general Indian uprising.
- Concerns about religion and the increasing number of Christian missionaries active in India were apparent prior to the mutiny, particularly among East India Company employees and sepoys whose officers were unsubtle regarding their encouragement of evangelicals. These concerns pre-dated the introduction of the Enfield cartridge which first appeared in India in August 1856 when they began to be made at Fort William, Calcutta using tallow (of unknown animal origin) supplied by a local Indian company.
- The first report of concern about the cartridges came in January 1857 when a low-caste labourer at Dum Dum mocked a high-caste sepoy saying that he had lost caste by biting a cartridge. At that time, however, the new cartridges had only been issued in Meerut and certainly not at Dum Dum so the cartridge in question could only have been for the earlier smoothbore musket and these were most definitely not lubricated.
- On 27 January 1857, Colonel Richard Birch the Military Secretary ordered that so as not to cause unnecessary religious offence, all cartridges supplied from depots were to be free from grease and that sepoys could grease them themselves using ‘whatever material they may prefer’ such as the ghee (clarified butter) that they used for cooking. Unfortunately, this move came too late and served only to confirm to the sepoys that the original rumours had been true. The sepoys also became convinced that as the new cartridges were made from a stiffer type of paper than that used for the previous smoothbore musket cartridges which ‘looked greasy,’ then the new paper must have been made using unclean animal fats.
- Religious unrest was only partly the reason for the mutiny as there was also civil unrest regarding East India Company interference in the law relating to the inheritance of land. Taluqdars or rural landlords who had been dispossessed of land due to land reforms following the annexation of Oudh were particularly resentful of interference by foreigners.
So, did the Enfield cartridge cause the Sepoy Mutiny or didn’t it? I don’t think it did but it does appear to have been the catalyst or even the excuse for a sequence of events that rapidly spiralled out of control. Once the rumours regarding religious defilement had taken hold, nothing could have stopped them and even though the cartridges were by then being supplied unlubricated to assuage the sepoys’ fears, a new theory that the paper from which they were made was in itself unclean was rapidly seized upon. They were clearly spoiling for a fight. Interestingly though, during the mutiny the sepoys did not hesitate to use lubricated cartridges looted from British arsenals against the British soldiers, so how devout were they?
What surprised me most about this topic, however, was the sheer barbarity of what took place particularly in Cawnpore. One of my sources was ‘Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-59’ written in 1893 by William Forbes-Mitchell, a former sergeant in the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders whose account of visiting what he called ‘The Slaughterhouse’ in the Cawnpore Bibighar shortly after the murder of the women and children makes very harrowing reading indeed. Forbes-Mitchell’s Memoirs
© Tom Pudding 2019
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