In 1853, the new P53 was a revolutionary rifle-musket.
It had an innovation that changed all firearms: the cartridge.
Before this, muskets had to be loaded slowly and awkwardly.
First gunpowder – poured in, then a wad – rammed in, then a ball – dropped in, then another wad – rammed in.
Imagine doing that while the enemy was charging at you.
You wouldn’t get many shots loaded.
Worse, it wasn’t accurate.
Because each time you poured in a different amount of powder.
But the new P53 had the powder and ball pre-wrapped in little paper packets, called cartridges.
You didn’t have to work out the amount.
You just bit the end off the cartridge, tipped everything into the barrel, rammed it once, and fired.
It was three times faster than ordinary muskets.
It was so successful it was issued to the British Army in India.
Which is where it all went wrong.
The Indians resented the British, they felt disrespected.
This was bad news because the army consisted of 50,000 British troops and 300,000 Indian troops.
Ringleaders aroused and inflamed the Indian majority.
It’s a familiar dynamic: the ringleaders (opinion formers) lead and direct the mass (opinion followers).
They needed a spark to set a full-blown rebellion off.
Which is where the British helped.
The British army introduced the new P53 rifle-musket.
The pre-packed cartridges had been greased with a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax.
But the ringleaders (opinion formers) spread the rumour that the cartridges had been greased with a mixture of tallow and lard.
Tallow is made from beef fat, and for Hindus the cow is a sacred creature.
Lard is made from pork fat, and for Muslims the pig is a filthy creature.
Even touching pork or beef fat was unacceptable to either religion.
And Muslims and Hindus made up 85% of the British army.
That was the spark that ignited the rebellion.
The British realised what had happened but it was too late.
The British said they would send the cartridges ungreased, to allow the locals to use whatever they wanted: ghee or vegetable oil.
The ringleaders (opinion formers) told the mass (opinion followers) this proved that the British knew what they’d done.
The cartridge-grease was the incident that sparked the rebellion that became known as the Indian Mutiny.
By the time it was over, untold numbers had died on both sides: men, women, and children.
It was the beginning of the end for the British in India.
The Indian Mutiny was also a lesson in the way a minority of opinion-formers can spread an idea a across a majority of opinion-followers.
And how a simple, believable lie can be more powerful than a dull, complicated truth.
A lesson in what we’d call, going viral.