book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Kaye's and Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, v.3

John Kaye and George Bruce Malleson (ed.)

Kaye, John; George Bruce Malleson (ed.);

Kaye's and Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, v.3 fulltext

Cambridge University Press, 1888, 482 pages

ISBN 1108023231, 9781108023238

topics: |  history | india | mutiny | british

This "magisterial" history of the mutiny is the official version of events,
with a host of well-backed up facts and analyses, and it remains among the
most consulted works on the mutiny.

Did the cartridges use beef tallow?

[Most texts on the mutiny talk of the rumours about the paper cartridges.
e.g. here is a typical narrative from Barbara and Thomas Metcalf,
A concise history of modern India, 2006:

	soldiers [were required] to bite off the end of each cartridge –
	widely reputed to have been greased with pig or cow fat, polluting to
	both Hindus and Muslims.

even postcolonial historians, such as Biswamoy Pati in his introduction to
The 1857 Rebellion: Debates in Indian History, writing a century and
half later, follow the well-trodden ambiguity:
    [the bullet] required to be bitten before loading.  Rumours that the
    grease used on the bullets was from the fat of cattle or pigs... created
    strong animosities.

But were these rumours founded on fact?  What surprises me is that despite
strong moral incentives to prove the story false, generations of British
historians dithered on the matter, and left the rumours without delving
into it further.  Even Rudrangshu Mukherjee in an appendix to Mangal
Pandey, admits that while the cartridges were greased with tallow, the
composition of this tallow was never clearly specified.

Thus the mainline story is that the bullets with animal grease had not been
deployed yet; thus the animosity was based on "rumours" which has a ring of
possibly being untrue.  Yet, no colonial text directly refutes the rumour
as being "false".  This makes the reader suspect that there may have been
considerable truth behind the rumours.  Indeed, looking up Kaye and
Malleson, we find the narrative quite clear, that animal grease bullets
were being manufactured in India with the intent of being supplied to the
troops.  Had they been actually supplied?  Not in Bengal, but they may have
been given to native troops in the enfield training at the Meerut musketry
station, but again this is neither quite verified, but certainly not
strongly denied.

Excerpts : Book 3, Chapter V

In 1853, the authorities in England sent out to India some boxes of greased
cartridges. The lubricating material was of different kinds; but tallow
entered largely into the composition of it all. It was sent out, not for
service, but for experiment, in order that the effect of the climate upon the
cartridges thus greased might be ascertained. But it did not wholly escape
our high military functionaries in India, that these greased cartridges, if
care were not taken to exclude all obnoxious materials from their
composition, could not be served out to Native troops without risk of serious

In December 1853, Colonel Henry Tucker, Adjutant-General of the Bengal
Army, addressed a letter to the Secretary to the Military Board on the
subject of these experiments, adding,
	I am at the same time to communicate the Commander-in-Chief’s
	opinion, that, unless it be known that the grease employed in these
	cartridges is not of a nature to offend or interfere with the
	prejudices of caste, it will be expedient not to issue them for test
	to Native corps, but to European soldiers only to be carried in

But this letter did not result in any orders for any change from
the Military Board. [215]

[FN 215. Colonel Tucker afterwards said in a public journal, "I do not
   presume to say with whom specifically the blame of this most culpable
   neglect may rest. Only investigation can settle that point; but I conceive
   that either the Military Secretary, or the officer presiding in chief over
   the Ordnance Department in Calcutta, is, one or both, the party
   implicated."  Investigation proves that both officers were blameless. The
   routine in those days was for the Commander-in-Chief to address the
   Military Board, and for the Military Board to address the
   Governor-General. In this case, however, the correspondence never went
   further than the Military Board; and it was not until after the Mutiny had
   broken out, and Colonel (then Major-General) Tucker had publicly referred
   to his neglected warnings, that the Military Secretary had any knowledge
   of the correspondence of 1853.

The mixture of wax and oil, though it answered the purpose of lubrication at
the time of use, was not applicable to bundled cartridges, because its
greasing properties soon disappeared. So the cartridges manufactured for the
Enfield rifles were to be smeared with a mixture of stearine and tallow. The
Ordnance Department then indented for tallow, without any specification of
the nature of the animal fat composing it [216]; and, although no hog’s-lard
was supplied, there is no question that some beef-fat was used in the
composition of the tallow.

[FN 216] It was a part of a contract for "Petty Stores," to be supplied to
   the Arsenal of Fort William for two years, from the 15th of August,
   1856, entered into by Gangadarh Banerji and Co. The article is described
   in the contract as "Grease, Tallow;" and it was to be supplied at the
   rate of two annas (or threepence) a pound. From the Records of the
   Inspector-General’s office, it appears that after the contract, dated
   1611- of August, 1856, was concluded, Grease and Tallow were indented
   for separately at various times. In an indent on the Contractor, dated
   September, 1856, the following entries appear:

	Grease – For ammunition purposes.
	Tallow of the purest kind – For greasing composition for Minié rifle

In subsequent indents the article is sometimes called "Grease," and
sometimes "Tallow" – "Required for Arsenal purposes." A circular was issued
to the Department, dated January 29th, 1857, directing that, when applying
tallow to articles which Native soldiers are required to handle, only the
tallow of sheep or goats is to be employed, that of swine or cows being
most carefully excluded.  However, the stores received since August 1856,
were clearly of unspecified tallow, which would imply that pork and beef
lard, which was what was used in England, and which was presumably far
cheaper than goat lard, would be used.

Palmer on Cartridges

J. A. B. Palmer, in his  The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut in 1857 (1966)
is not happy with the Kaye/Malleson analysis:

	The reader of Kaye can see that even he, with all the facilities at
	his disposal, was compelled to fashion an account out of ...
	unsatisfactory material, supplemented by some personal enquiries from
	officers who should have known what they were talking about. We are
	in no better case today.

Palmer gives some details on the early deployment of the cartridges in India:

    A consignment of this ammunition was sent out to India in 1853 to test
    its keeping qualities (not for firing purposes): the grease made at
    Enfield was composed of tallow from beef and pork fat. Cartridges from
    this consignment were handled by sepoys, by keeping them in pouch in the
    course of the test, its composition did not become known to them. The
    grease was found to stand up to the Indian climate and the consignment
    was returned to England in 1855 with a report that it had survived the
    test. p.11

the phrase "the composition did not become known to them", seems to me, is
unlikely to be based on native primary evidence.  Later, it would seem likely
that the troops at Meerut had indeed experienced the cartridge:

    The Indian military authorities obtained enough [Enfield rifles] for use
    in training at the Musketry Depots at DumDum, Ambala and Sialkot. From
    the latter part of 1856 or early in 1857, detachments of five men at a
    time from native infantry regiments began to pass through these depots
    for training in the new weapon.  ... The parties under instruction at
    that stage only learnt the mechanism and care of the weapon covered by
    the Manual Exercise: they did not proceed to the firing motions in the
    Platoon Exercise and so, at first, they did not handle, and still less
    were they called on to fire,the cartridges. The cartridges were used at
    Ambala for the first time on 17 April; they were issued greased and the
    men greased them with a composition of clarified butter. p.14

This last data is from the testimony of one Captain Martineau's at the Trial
of the Bahadur Shah.  It is contradicted by the objection of Adjutant
General Colonel Chester, who was at Meerut, and claimed that mutton fat was
already in use:

    Eventually on 27 January Government gave orders that the men at all the
    instruction depots were to be allowed to grease their own cartridges. ...
    Colonel Chester, at Meerut, telegraphed back on the 28th, referring
    to the previous use of cartridges greased with mutton fat and questioning
    the expediency of the new order because it might throw suspicion on the
    fat in use for some years past. Government replied on the 29th that the
    existing practice might continue, if the materials were mutton fat and
    wax. p. 16

A modern view: Heather Streets on the grease

Heather Streets, in an otherwise balanced narrative, discusses the how
British officers would often take other more remunative jobs, and how the
European-Indian divide led to a complete break in communications, so that the
British were completely out of touch with their troops.  She has this to say
about the cartridges:

	The final straw came in late 1856 when it was rumored that the
	cartridges for the new Enfield muzzle-loading rifles being issued to
	the East India Company Army were greased with the fat of pork and
	beef.  ... it seemed to many that the British were deliberately and
	openly trying to make both Hindu and Muslim soldiers lose their

	Upon investigation, Company administrators discovered that tallow or
	lard had in fact been used to lubricate the cartridges, and it was
	suspected that animal fat from pigs or cows had been included in the

	The mistake was inadvertent, but was an illustration of just how out
	of touch were the rulers from the ruled. The British military
	administration moved quickly to correct the blunder by allowing the
	cartridge to be torn with the hands, and by allowing the men to
	grease their own cartridges with ghee, but in Bengal it was of little
	use. Many regiments refused the cartridges, and when eighty-five men
	from the 3rd Native Cavalry in Mirath (Meerut) were publicly degraded
	and imprisoned for refusing orders to use them, the next day— May 10,
	1857—the whole regiment mutinied in protest and killed their British
	      - H. Streets, The Rebellion of 1857: Origins, Consequences, and Themes


The discourse is presented with many equivocations.  In "Lard had in
fact been used", it seems quite clear that beef/pork fat grease had been
used.  But in the next sentence we find that animal fat use was only
"suspected".  This weasels out of the culpability of the "fact" presented
earlier.  I am not sure why the word "suspected" is used; perhaps it
appears in some official communique.  But as a historian, on what basis
would Streets expect the reader to "suspect" it?

In the subasequent sentence, we learn that the "mistake was inadvertent".
Why does this have to be explicated?  Next we learn that the "administration
moved quickly to correct the blunder".  But did it really, given that it had
been sitting on the letter from its own Adjutant General, Colonel Henry
Tucker, written in 1853?

In general, I respect Streets and her writings - in fact, a good deal of
American writing on the mutiny takes a rather balanced view of the events.
So I was rather astonished when I encountered the unnecessarily apologist
tone in the passage above.  Had Muslim rulers in a country imposed such
rules on a Christian population, would the language have been less kind?


Clearly, between August 1856 and end January 1857, all enfield cartridges
made by military stores in India were greased with beef or pork tallow.
But had the native troops been issued such bullets?  On this question the
answer is more qualified, but still affirmative.  Here, we hear a lot about
the 1853 pouch usage, where it was not used, hence not bitten.  Regarding
the numerous infantry who were being trained on the Enfield by the end of
1856, we hear far less.

What we have are officers such as Colonel Chester who says that he believed
it was "mutton fat" in the cartridges that the soldiers were issued in
Meerut.  In the texts that report this claim, we find no further scrutiny
of this belief.  Again, it is unbelievable that no one attempted
to establish this claim.  Hence one can only conclude that the claim was
investigated, and no substantive evidence was found, and hence it is
everywhere simply reported verbatim.

More than anything else, given the great incentive any british official
would have had to show an alternative - e.g. that sheep/ goat tallow was
being used, say, or that the soldiers were lubricating it themselves with
ghee - it is quite unbelievable that such practices actually existed but no
one spoke of it.

At the same time, the order that sepoys could use their preferred
lubricant was not issued on 27 January 1857.  However, most likely it was not
implemented, for on March 5, we have Major Bontein of Dum-Dum suggesting a
change in the drill exercise in which the bullets would be torn by the hand,
and there was no need to bite it.

While this suggestion was being considered, the Commander-in-Chief George
Anson issued an order on March 23 that firing practice be suspended
temporarily.  Clearly even at this point, the matter of the grease had not
been settled.  Eventually, in early April (Palmer can't find the exact date
of the order), we find in the Government's report to the Court of Directors,
No. 115, dt. 8 April 1857 (the day Mangal Pandey was hanged), that
Brontein's suggestion has been accepted by the Government.  The Platoon
exercise was revised as follows:

old instructions:
    1st—Bring the cartridge to the mouth, holding it between the forefinger
    and the thumb with the ball in the hand, and bite off the top; elbow
    close to the body.

    1st—Bring the cartridge to the left hand, bullet resting on the palm of
    the right, right elbow slightly raised, tear off the top of the cartridge
    by the action of dropping the elbow. [p.16]

Thus, we find no evidence of any mechanism whereby the cartridges at the time
of the training could have been made from anything but beef or pork tallow.
Prima facie, therefore, we must conclude that the several hundred native
soldiers trained at Meerut from late 1856 were almost certainly issued
bullets with beef or pork grease.

The unlikeliness of the claim of tallow made from mutton was apparent to
fiction authors as well.  The historical novel The Temple of Ill Omens by
James R. Baehler (2007) has a British officer saying:
	I have been assured that the grease is sheep tallow but I have some
	reservations about that.

However, history texts, riding on the colonial historiography, continue to
use the word "rumours".  But I see no reason for modern historians to
keep repeating the language of "rumours" which equivocates and makes it
appear untrue.  Why not say up front that "the news that cartridges with
beef were to be issued started to spread".

Bias among witnesses

From a historiographic viewpoint, the interlocutors who gave evidence on
this matter would clearly have considerable hesitancy to admit of beef
grease being actually used.  This would have admitted an administrative lapse
(although as Malleson puts it in a footnote above, it is more systemic than
individual).  This would certainly justify thinking of a tallow of unknown
provenance as mutton fat rather than beef.  The commanding officer at
Meerut, Colonel Carmichael-Smyth, was warned of the coming storm - but it
was late at night and after the orders for the skirmish had already been
issued.  What is interesting is how the wording of these warnings, which
are very urgent, are watered down in later testimony; clearly there were
reasons for the primary interlocutors in this process to try to assuage
their complicity in this entire act.

Thus, given the evidence we have from Kaye and Palmer, it seems clear than
Indian soldiers had actually been issued greased cartridges.  Their
officers may have believed these to be mutton fat, but that is neither here
nor there - given the composition of the infantry with Oudh and Bihari
brahmins, under a deliberate casteist induction policy, mutton is almost as
problematic.  But the evidence, further, is that there were no mutton fat
cartridges being manufactured - the only tallow documented as being
supplied was beef.

However, even modern histories, continue to dish out the ambiguous "rumour"
tale.  the facts presented above have been widely known for 150 years now
(ever since Kaye).  it is time to end the language of "rumours" - clearly,
it would be justified to take a position such as:

    The bullets, which had heretofore been made with beef or pork fat,
    required to be bitten before loading.  Between August 1856 and until
    March 1857, all bullets manufactured in Calcutta
    as well as those imported from England were greased with pork/beef
    fat. Some of these bullets were most probably used in rifle training
    facilities in Meerut and Ambala.  Certainly, the sepoys were not
    misguided in believing that the cartridges for the Enfield that they
    were to be issued contained beef or pork fat.  As this became more
    widely known, it resulted in their widespread refusal to handle the

    Given this justified belief, undercurrents of religious animosity -
    that the British were aiming to undermine the brahmin sepoys social
    standing and thereby ultimately convert them to Christianity, were also
    very quick to spread.  Now, this was clearly a "rumour", but there is
    little evidence to suggest that the greased cartridge was one too.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2012 Apr 20