India’s Mysterious, Rebellious Bread Deliveries Of 1857

“All sorrows are less with bread.” —Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

In A Nutshell

In 1857, rebellion was boiling in India among a native population that was sick of the British imposing their rule and culture. When the British government discovered men were mysteriously appearing with bread, passing it along to others the next town or village over, and leaving only instructions to bake more bread and pass it along, they were convinced there was some sort of message being sent via pastry. What it was, no one seemed to know . . . because it was all a big coincidence. Now, historians think that it was simply begun as a way to alleviate the symptoms of cholera, but in the 19th century, the mysterious messages spreading across the country were the stuff of top secret terror.

The Whole Bushel

First, a quick history lesson. Tensions in British-occupied India were at an all-time high in 1857. The British were well aware of the fact that they only had about 100,000 representatives in the country, with less than half of that number being trained military personnel. There was, on the other hand, a native population of about 250 million, and the vast majority of that native population was sick and tired of having British rule and culture imposed on them. For the early part of the century, the British and the East India Company had been striving to create a nation of British-minded citizens, but it just wasn’t working.

Rebellion would finally come in 1857, and it would be a turning point in the history of British colonial rule.

In 1857, though, strange things were afoot. It started with a bizarre discovery by Mark Thornhill, the magistrate of the town of Mathura.

One of Thornhill’s watchmen had come to his office and dropped off four little biscuit-like cakes. He said that someone had emerged from the forests with them, and when he’d handed them over, he’d also passed along instructions. The watchman was to make four more cakes and pass them along to the watchmen in the next village over.

Why? No one knew, not even the watchmen.

Thornhill did some investigating, and he found that the little cakes were making their rounds throughout the district at a rate that was enough to terrify even the most stalwart British agent. Cakes were traveling up to 300 kilometers (200 mi) every night, and while there were plenty of suggestions as to what it meant, there were no concrete theories.

It seemed to be some sort of message, but it was widely denied that there was any sort of cake-giving custom that it might have been related to. Certainly, there was nothing in the history books about it. But there was something going on.

On the other side, too, there were plenty of conspiracy theories. Many believed that the British government was trying to ensure they were shunned by their respective religions and that they were tainting salt with pig and chicken blood to force the faithful to violate their religious beliefs against eating certain types of animals. Once they were shunned, it was said, it would be easier to convert people to Christianity.

With the introduction of a new type of ammunition—a grease-coated cartridge that was torn open with the teeth—many saw it as yet another attempt to get people to break with their religious beliefs. Even though the British were well-aware of the taboo and therefore never issued the forbidden, fat-greased cartridges in India, it didn’t stop the rumor mill. British representatives knew all this and knew that trouble was brewing. That made the appearance of the weird bread-messages even more unsettling.

When rebellion broke out that year, it was believed that the circulation of the bread was done with the planning of an underground movement that had perhaps had this bread distribution in motion for decades. Revolts popped up even as the bread spread, and it seemed clear that it was some sort of message.

Now, though, historians have taken another look at the mysterious bread deliveries in a new attempt to determine whether or not they were actually secret messages or warnings of impending revolt.

They weren’t.

It’s believed that the bread was delivered throughout areas stricken by cholera, and that it began as a sort of chain letter cure for the disease. There was never any revolutionary meaning attached to them, and the coincidental spread alongside rebellion made the biscuity breads something of a 19th-century urban legend.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Pass it on: The Secret that Preceded the Indian Rebellion of 1857
BBC History: British India and the ‘Great Rebellion’