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Was the 1857 Indian Revolt Caused by Economic Issues?

Info: 2008 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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“The most important cause of the Indian Revolt in 1857 was economic” How far do you agree with the statement?

In 1857, Indian soldiers shocked the British Empire by rising against the British commanders after a long period of abuse from the British to India. The India rebellion was recognized as “an extraordinary violent conflict during which both sides committed horrific atrocities”[1]. The reasons for this was due to Britain’s excessive involvement in every aspect of Indian affairs. It can be said that the most important reason for the Indian revolt in 1857 was due to economic reasons as Britain’s economic actions towards Indian society had more of a widespread impact on society. However political factors such as Britain’s territorial annexations and social factors such as the removal of Indian traditions also contributed to the Indian Revolt which shows it was not solely economic factors. This essay examines all the factors presented and explores how it led to the Indian Revolt in 1857. This essay explores why Britain’s economic interventions was the main cause of the rebellion and why the political and social actions by the British Empire were only contributing factors.

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The economic interventions made by the British Empire was the most significant factor which led to the Indian Revolt in 1857 as it caused popular discontent in all sections of Indian society. Due to the grant of Diwani given to the British in 1765, land revenue became a huge struggle for the Indian society. In 1793, Lord Cornwallis introduced the process of permanent settlement. This meant that the right of land that peasants previously had was taken away and given straight to landlords meaning they were immediately the owner of the land and peasants were now considered as just tenants.  This gave the peasants little control and gave them little to live off as they made a living out of having land, however, due to the Permanent Settlement System the money they received was limited. Also, the excessive taxes that was introduced by the British meant that the peasant had become progressively in debt. This led to peasants taking loans from moneylenders with large increasing rates who if they did not pay the loan on time they were evicted from the land. This demonstrates that British economic policies ruined life in India as it led to extreme poverty and huge amounts of debt among the peasants. In addition the British Empire’s introduction of Steel rail showed more signs of turning  India towards capitalism as Buchanan puts it, “The armor of the isolated, self-sufficient village was pierced by the steel rail, and its life blood ebbed away”[2]. This shows the increasing discontent from the Indians as once they were a self-sufficient village which they were happy with but now the introduction of steel rail changed the way things were in India which greatly dissatisfied the India society. This also demonstrates that the British Empire only had interests in expansion and changing customs and traditions in India rather than protecting their rights. However, Washbrook sees British work in India as not even close to exploitation of India rather it was more focused to support the wider political colonial political ends and also be focused on wider imperial developments rather than deteriorate relations with India.[3] The economic policies introduced by the British were most of the time exploitative and led to a severe negative impact on the Indian economy. The British Empire’s excessive rule had affected all sections of society and severely impacted the way they lived their lives in India. Due to this, there was large dissatisfaction and hatred against British economic policies which mainly led to the Indian revolt in 1857. This was seen as the most significant cause of the Indian Revolt as compared to the other factors it was a matter of life and death for the majority of people in India and large amounts of people revolting against the British Empire were peasants as they wanted to get out of poverty and debt.

The social reforms introduced by the British was a contributing factor to the Indian Revolt in 1857 due to the lack of consideration from the British of Indian traditions and customs. Tharoor mentions, “The gap between liberal principles of universalism and the actual colonial practice of justice and governance was vast”[4] In Tharoor’s view Britain did not govern India in the interest to protect India rather the British Empire wanted to strengthen their own position in the world and even in India.  This shown by Britain abolishing Sati which was an Indian tradition where widows will kill themselves as a sacrifice which shows that to the Indian people Britain was taking their rights around. In contrast to Tharoor, according to Fisch, there have seen many people and politicians that have described the abolition of Sati as one of the few successful achievements of British colonial rule.[5] This could show that there was no selfish motive behind Britain’s actions as they wanted to protect the Indian people, however to the Indian people it was seen as insulting their own tradition which made them dissatisfied. The social discrimination shown by the British Empire led to widespread resentment as Britain was heavily interfering in the lives of the Indian people. Also, educated Indians were limited as they were denied promotions to the high office. All of these actions from the British led to the Indian Revolt of 1857 because the Indian people knew Britain was trying to forcibly change their ideas and traditions which made them turn against the British. On the other hand, it can be said the abolition of Sati was seen as in the best interests of the women in Indian society as the abolition of Sati was aimed to improve the position of women. Also, the Widow Remarriage was made a law which was passed in 1856 which would give women more freedom. In addition, Indian historians believe that Sati was already in decline before the British abolished it. Many Hindus believed it was not a good tradition.[6] Even though both economic and social factors had a widespread impact on society and caused a widespread revolt in 1857, Britain’s economic actions by the British meant people in society could not even survive whereas the social reforms introduced by the British Empire meant people had more of a chance of surviving.

Britain’s political policies was a contributing cause to the Indian Revolt in 1857 due to the negative impact it had on the ruling sections of Indian society. The British policy of territorial annexations meant the removal of rulers and chiefs in India. The Doctrine of lapse was a policy were under the British East India Company when an Indian Ruler dies and there is no male heir the land is officially taken away and under the control of the British Empire. This greatly dissatisfied Indians as they saw the policy as illegitimate that they could not just take the land of Indian people of higher class. Lord Dalhousie used the Doctrine of Lapse more intensively as most of the land that belonged to former Indian rulers was constantly taken away decreasing the number of Indian chiefs and rulers in India.  John William Kaye does not agree with the Doctrine of lapse policy as he also sees it as causing major discontent in the Indian Society and severely damaging the relationship between Britain and India. Kaye sees that the British Empire should have allowed Indian rulers to adopt a son so he could be the heir to the throne. Kaye mentions that “the right of adoption is, therefore, one of the most cherished doctrines of Hinduism”[7] showing that the adopted son would have the rights and privileges as a biological son. However, Britain did not see that as an acceptable heir and did not understand why it was important to have adopted an heir. Kaye expresses his views about Britain’s doctrine of lapse as he says, “lapse is a dreadful and an appalling word; for it pursues the victim beyond the grave. Its significance in his eyes is nothing short of eternal condemnation”[8] The fact that Kaye calls the Doctrine of Lapse “eternal condemnation” emphasizes how serious this policy oppressed higher class members in society and that the Doctrine of Lapse only served the needs for territorial expansion in Britain. This shows that Britain’s political policies were a contributing factor to the Indian Revolt in 1857 because if the elites in the Indian Society are dissatisfied and wanting change, they would be able to persuade other people in the society to rebel against Britain if they wanted change.  However, it was not as significant as Britain’s economic policies affecting Indian society as the British Empires policies only affected the people in higher classes whereas economic policies affected the majority of people in India leading to more widespread dissatisfaction.

To conclude, the most important factor of the 1857 Indian Revolt was due to economic factors because it affected the whole of the Indian society as they were unable to make a profit from their crops due to Britain’s restriction policies. This gave the people more of an incentive to rebel as everyone was dissatisfied with Britain and wanted change. However, Britain’s political actions also contribute to the Revolt as Britain taking control of territory that previously belonged to Indian rulers gave them less control and to the Indian people, Britain was excessively intervening in Indian activities aiming for territorial expansion. Also, Britain’s social reforms such as the abolition of Sati angered Indian society as they were not free to practice their tradition. Overall, compared to the political and social factors leading to the revolt, Britain’s economic policies caused more of a widespread unhappiness amongst the people of India and as mentioned earlier most of the people revolting were peasants fighting to get their old life back.


  1. Bender, Jill C, 1857 Indian Uprising And The British Empire Cambridge Univ Pr, 2017)
  2. Tharoor, Shashi, Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India, 2018
  3. Jorg Fisch, Journal of Asian History Vol34, No. 2, 2000, p110
  4. “Source 1 | Useful Notes”, Nationalarchives.Gov.Uk, 2018 <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/empire/usefulnotes/g2cs4s1u.htm> [Accessed 14 December 2018]
  5. Kaye, John William, A History Of The Sepoy War In India, 1857-58 (London: W.H. Allen, 1878)
  6. Daniel Buchanan, Development of Capitalistic Enterprise in India, p189

[1] Jill C Bender, 1857 Indian Uprising And The British Empire ([Place of publication not identified]: Cambridge Univ Pr, 2017).

[2] Daniel Buchanan, Development of Capitalistic Enterprise in India, p189

[3] Douglas M. Peers, Nandini Gooptu, India and the British Empire p7

[4] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India, 2018

[5] Jorg Fisch, Journal of Asian History Vol34, No. 2, 2000, p110

[6] “Source 1 | Useful Notes”, Nationalarchives.Gov.Uk, 2018 <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/empire/usefulnotes/g2cs4s1u.htm> [Accessed 14 December 2018].

[7] John William Kaye, History of the Sepoy War, Volume I, p70

[8] John William Kaye, History of the Sepoy War, Volume I, p69


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