The Chapati Motion of 1857

The 12 months was 1857. A storm was brewing in British-occupied India. There was rising resentment among the many Indians in opposition to the rule of the East India Firm, and the social reforms the British have been making an attempt to push onto the indigenous individuals. The taxes angered them, the lack of lands incensed them. The sepoys or Indian troopers have been rising stressed over the social divide amongst their ranks on the idea of caste. There was additionally concern that the Firm was making an attempt to impose Christianity on the inhabitants.

“The Marketing campaign in India 1857-58” by William Simpson, E Walker. Photograph: Nationwide Military Museum

Within the midst of those rising tensions, a mysterious motion started within the inside of the subcontinent, one which spooked British rulers and puzzled Indians as a lot because it baffled their white-skinned overlords. In line with stories pouring from the villages of North India, 1000’s of chapatis—unleavened flatbread that’s the staple of each Indian’s weight-reduction plan—have been being handed from one hand to a different, from village to village. No person knew the place the breads got here from, or what message they carried.

“There’s a most mysterious affair happening all through the entire of India at current,” wrote Dr. Gilbert Hadow, a military surgeon of the East India Firm in a letter to his sister in Britain. “Nobody appears to know the which means of it. It isn’t recognized the place it originated, by whom or for what function, whether or not it’s imagined to be related to any non secular ceremony or whether or not it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are stuffed with surmises as to what it means. It’s known as the chapati motion.”


Chapati, the Indian flatbread. Photograph: Gaurav Masand/

The chapati motion concerned baking 4 (or some other quantity) items of flatbread and delivering them to the closest village, often within the fingers of the village chowkidar, or watchman, with directions to make 4 extra and taking them to the subsequent village. Many chowkidars dutifully adopted the directions, travelling for miles by the jungles to distribute chapatis to close by villages. Few requested the place the chapatis got here from, or questioned the motive of this weird errand.

The chapati motion first got here to the discover of the British by Mark Thornhill, Justice of the Peace of the city of Mathura, close to Agra, in early 1857, when a bundle of stale bread arrived at his workplace. Upon questioning, Thornhill was knowledgeable that they’d been introduced in by one in all his Indian cops, who had obtained them from a puzzled village watchman, who himself obtained it from one other equally clueless chapati runner. Thornhill tried to hint the supply of the breads however couldn’t as a result of they have been extraordinary chapatis cooked in each Indian dwelling, and none of them carried any hidden messages in them. What he did uncover was that the phenomenon had a large presence. Hundreds of chapatis have been passing by a number of elements of India, from the Narmada river within the south to the border with Nepal a number of hundred miles to the north. These chain of chapatis may have originated wherever—from the east, close to Calcutta, or from the north, within the province of Avadh, or from Indore, within the heart of the nation. A few of these chapatis have been advancing throughout the land at a price of 200 miles an evening.

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Two sepoy officers and a personal sepoy, circa 1820s. Handcoloured engravings by Frederic Shoberl

The mysterious distribution of such a benign merchandise anxious British officers due to their lack of ability to behave. Had the Indians been passing seditious letters, they may have been stopped, however what may very well be extra innocent than just a few chapatis? How may one cease or arrest an individual for distributing meals, particularly when the runners themselves have been usually police chowkidars?

But, many British officers felt that the passing of chapatis was a sign, an ominous signal of an imminent calamity. “The British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any kind of communication in India which they may not perceive,” says historian Kim Wagner. Each time a bundle of chapatis arrived at a police station, it drove the officers into panic.

There was one widespread rumor that the British themselves have been behind this. It was advised that the British have been making an attempt mass conversion of Indians to Christianity by adulterating their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Muslims, respectively, and distributing bread made out of this befouled flour within the nation. As soon as a person consumed the forbidden meal, he could be ostracized by his co-religionists which might make it simpler to convey him into the Christian fold. It was such a rumor, that finally introduced down the East India Firm a 12 months later.

paper cartridge

Enfield Sample 1853 Percussion Rifle Musket cartridges. Photograph: Nationwide Military Museum

A rumor started spreading like wildfire among the many sepoys that the British had contrived one other diabolical plan for breaking their beliefs and defiling their faith. The British had launched a brand new Enfield rifle that got here with greased paper cartridges. To load the gun, the cartridges needed to torn aside by enamel, as a result of the soldier’s fingers have been full, in order that the powder it contained may very well be poured down the barrel of the gun. The paper cartridges, the place the gunpowder and the bullet got here full of, have been greased with tallow or lard. Tallow comes from the fats of cows, a sacred animal for Hindus, whereas lard was fats from pigs, an animal that Muslims don’t eat. Though the East India Firm ordered that every one cartridges issued to the Indian sepoys be free from grease, the troops have been satisfied the Firm was plotting to defile them.

The Sepoy Mutiny that adopted was in some ways India’s First Struggle of Independence, and it was some of the defining occasion in British imperial historical past. It led to the dissolution of a 250-year-old firm, and introduced India instantly beneath management of the British Crown.

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Indian sepoys assault the boats of fleeing British officers and their households in the course of the Siege of Cawnpore in 1857.

Latest research appear to recommend that the chapati motion might need been an try and ship meals to individuals bothered with cholera, however someplace alongside the road the true which means of the transmission was misplaced, and the chain continued by the nation as a “clean” message.

Kim Wagner, who made the newest research of the phenomenon, mentioned:

Though the unique particular which means of the chapattis had been misplaced early within the distribution, the dire penalties of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their profitable circulation over an immense space. Within the occasion, the chapattis weren’t ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They have been what individuals made them into, and the importance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive mistrust and common consternation amongst the Indian inhabitants in the course of the early months of 1857.

# Mike Sprint, Go it on: The Secret that Preceded the Indian Revolt of 1857, Smithsonian Mag
# Sanchari Pal, Chapati Motion: How the Ubiquitous and Innocent Chapati Had Terrified the British in 1857, The Better India

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