Mangal Pandey – the Indian Infantryman who fired the first shot of the Indian Rebellion of 1857
In the years after the horrific Indian Revolt of 1857, the British came out with the derogatory name “Pandee” or “Pandey” to describe a mutinous sepoy (i.e. an Indian infantryman). But to mutinous sepoys during the Rebellion, Indian infantryman Mangal Pandey was seen as a hero: the first sepoy to fire a loaded gun at a British officer in the lead up to the Indian Revolt. But what motivated Pandey to take such a drastic move, and just how did he feel about that action later during his court martial?
Below, everything you ever wanted to know about the 29-year-old infantryman and his famed action of March 29, 1857.
The 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry
Typical of many sepoys of the Bengal Army, Pandey hailed from a Hindu Brahmin family. He is said to have joined the Bengal Army in 1849. He served in the 5th Company of the 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI).
The Bengal Native Infantry was part of the larger Bengal Army, which in turn was one of three armies of the British East India Company (BEIC). Beginning around 1757, the behemoth of trading company had began ruling the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Southeast Asia. Known as the army of the Bengal Presidency, the Bengal Army was undoubtedly the largest of the three armies of the BEIC. The army could boast of having more than 70 regiments as at 1857. The other two were the Bombay Army and Madras Army, which had 24 and 52 regiments, respectively.
March 29, 1857: “come out – the Europeans are here”
On the day of the incident, March 29, Pandey stormed out of his room in a very erratic manner, almost like someone who was in a religious frenzy. He appeared very out of control and started dishing out threats to British officers of the Bengal Army, accusing them of trying to defile his religion and culture. The young Indian infantryman was obviously referring to the animal fat smeared cartridges of the weapon that the BEIC had recently introduced.
Pandey called out his colleagues to join him and resist the British officers, stating, “come out – the Europeans are here”. After issuing out a number of threats, he then proceeded to stalk a British officer by the name of Lieutenant Baugh, an Adjutant of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry. Luckily for Baugh, Pandey missed his shot as the bullet struck Baugh’s horse. Baugh picked himself up and returned fire, but he too missed. Pandey then charged at Baugh with a heavy Indian sword called talwar. The assailant struck the British officer with such ferocity, delivering heavy slices on the shoulder and neck.
Just as Pandey was about to deliver what could most likely have been the lethal strike, one of his colleagues, Shaikh Paltu, intervened and restrained the irate Indian soldier. Other sepoys simply stood there and watched the event unfold; some of them even threatened to shoot Paltu if he did not let go of Pandey.
As the ruckus got even louder, British Sergeant-Major Hewson arrived on the scene. Hewson quickly ordered a quarter guard by the name of Jemadar Ishwari Prasad to arrest Pandey. Prasad refused to comply with Hewson’s orders. It was only when General John Hearsey, the commanding officer, arrived on the scene that calm finally prevailed. Hearsey ordered the men to stand down and arrest Pandey. The general threatened to shoot anyone who refused to comply with his orders. It was in that moment that Pandey directed his weapon at himself and fired. It appeared Pandey was trying to commit suicide. He was only mortally wounded.
Court Martial and Death Sentence
After recovering about a week later, Pandey was court-martialled, found guilty, and slapped with a death sentence. During his trial, he maintained that no one else was in on his mutinous action. He also told the panel that on the day of the incident he had taking copious amounts of the narcotic substance bhang.
Pandey’s death sentence was carried out on April 6. He was hanged.
And as for the Prasad – the officer who refused to arrest Pandey – the court found him guilty of mutiny. Prasad was executed on April 21.
Paltu, the only officer that tried to restrain Pandey, was rewarded with a promotion to sergeant (havildar). Fuming over the disbandment of their regiment, some sepoys saw Paltu as a traitor. Less than a week later, Paltu was killed by his former colleagues.
The 34th Regiment gets disbanded
Following the incident and subsequent investigations, the BIEC disbanded the 34th regiment “with disgrace” on 6th May. The reasons for collective punishment of the regiment was that the officers on the scene failed to restrain a mutinous soldier. The regiment was therefore seen as unreliable.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back
Many sepoys at the time considered the punishment meted out to the 34th Regiment too harsh. This explains why the event in many ways served as the catalyst for the nationwide rebellion (i.e. the Indian Rebellion of 1857) that broke out a few months later.
Other interesting facts
- During his court martial, Pandey claimed that he was high on bhang (a narcotic substance) and opium. He said that he was not conscious of his actions on March 29.
- It is said that many members of the later Indian Nationalist Movement took some bit of inspiration from Pandey’s mutinous action.
- On October 5, 1984, the Indian government issued a postage stamp, which was designed by Indian artist C.R. Pakrashi, to commemorate Mangal Pandey and his action on that faithful day.
- Park at the Barrakpore Cantonment in West Bengal was built to honor Pandey. It’s said that the location of the park is where Pandey mutinied.