On July 10, 1806, exactly two hundred years ago, as the
moon shone over the ramparts of the Vellore fort, at 2 a.m., Indian sepoys rose
in a bloody revolt against the East India Company's garrison. As shrieks and
gunfire pierced the quiet, the sepoys shot at English officers, fired into the
European barracks and massacred the sick in their hospital, leaving 14 British
officers and 100 soldiers dead. In the counterattack unleashed at 9 a.m. by
Colonel Robert Rollo Gillespie's men, who rushed from Arcot 14 miles away, 350
Indians sepoys were put to death. Some British accounts place the figure at 800.
This little documented event was the first major rebellion against the emerging
British Empire in colonial India. It cost the governor of Madras, Lord William
Bentinck, his job.
At the time of the revolt, the fort -- a late 14th
century Vijayanagara construction of European design encased by a
crocodiles-infested moat, captured by Sivaji in 1677, and garrisoned by the East
India Company in 1768 -- comprised four companies of His Majesty's 69th
Regiment, six companies of the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, and the whole of the
2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment, accounting for 1500 Indian sepoys and 370
Though discontent had been brewing among the Indian soldiers drawn from
various parts of the Deccan over poor treatment, loss of erstwhile status, and
poor pay, the immediate provocation for the unbridled outburst of aggression was
apparently the introduction of a controversial new turban, viewed by Indians as
a firangi topi (hat), and the implementation of new regulations over the
sporting of caste marks on foreheads, earrings and facial hair. This Code of
Military Regulations was given approbation on 13 March 1806 by Sir John Cradock,
commander-in-chief of the Madras Army.
Lending political and historical weight to the cause of the rebels was the
presence of a huge contingent of Tipu Sultan's family -- twelve sons and eight
daughters -- stationed in various mahals within the fort precincts since the
fall of Srirangapatnam in 1799. The entire retinue, with servants and followers
numbering a few hundreds, lived in privacy and palatial comfort though stripped
of their former princely glory. According to S.S. Furnell, the first historian
to document the mutiny in his The Mutiny of Vellore, whose fragments
survive in the Madras Archives, more than 3,000 Mysoreans (mostly 'Mohammedans')
had settled in Vellore and its vicinity after it became the abode of the
princes. After the English drubbed the French in the Carnatic wars, several 'native
soldiers' were employed by the East India Company. Of these, a sizeable number
were Tipu's former soldiers, especially of officer rank. They had reason to
make common cause with their former masters -- Tipu's legatees stationed in
the Vellore fort.
the controversial turban (sported by the man in the middle)
A few months prior to the mutiny, Mohammedan fakirs
from Mysore were spotted roaming the streets and bazaars of Vellore raising
slogans against the firangis. The nomadic fakirs have had a historical
association with various Indian armies-the Holkars, the Scindias, the kings of
Jaipur -- since the 18th century, sometimes acting as mercenaries, joining
forces with whoever hired them.
According to Maya Gupta's research based largely on sources in the India
Office library, London, on 6 May 1806, 29 sepoys of the second battalion of the
4th Regiment who were ordered to wear the new turban refused. Continuing their
defiance the following day, placing handkerchiefs on their bare heads, they
abused the English officers as 'dogs'. The insubordinate sepoys were
confined to Madras and court-martialed. While punishment was spared to sepoys
who regretted and relented, two defiant havildars -- one Muslim, one Hindu --
were subjected to 900 lashes. In June, a similar anti-turban agitation rocked
Wallajhabad in the vicinity of Vellore.
On 17 June, Mustafa Beg, a sepoy of the 1st Regiment, leaked news of the
brewing conspiracy to his commanding officer Lt. Col. Forbes. The officer sought
the opinion of the native officers who dismissed the plot and declared Beg to be
insane. Beg was transferred and placed in confinement only to be later rewarded
with 7,000 rupees and a subedar's pension. Volumes of Secret Sundries
(British military records), believed, in hindsight, that the mutineers,
especially those of officer rank, seeking to reinstate the rule of Mysore, were
in touch with the Poligars (feudal chieftains in the Deccan), the Holkars, the
Marathas, the deposed rulers of Hyderabad and even the French in Pondicherry.
They had set July 14 as the common date for mutiny, but Beg's treachery had
Fatteh Hyder, Tipu's first son, was perceived to be
of one of the key architects of the rebellion, besides Mohiuddin and Moizuddin,
the third and fourth sons. Soon after the rebels took control of the Vellore
fort on 10 July, they hoisted the flag of Tipu Sultan on the fort and Moizuddin
promised to double the salary of the sepoys when the rebellion was completed.
While Colonel Fancourt, commanding officer of the Vellore garrison, and
Lieutenant Kerras, commanding officer of the 23rd Regiment, were shot at
pointblank range, several officers escaped and hid themselves and passed word to
the nearest British military station at Arcot. Once the massacre ended and the
fort was taken, the sepoys indulged in plunder -- ransacking the English
quarters and paymaster's office -- losing focus of their larger goal. By 7
a.m., several civilians had also entered the fort. According to one British
estimate, 5,48,429 pagodas were plundered in the mutiny. As the sepoys and
civilians pillaged, Col. Gillespie from Arcot led the 19th Dragoons and the 7th
cavalry quite easily since three of the four outer gates of the fort were left
unattended. With Col. Kennedy arriving with more reinforcements and the Indian
sepoys running out of ammunition, the fort was as easily taken back as had been
won by the mutineers. In under eight hours, the entire drama was over. Gillespie
and his men spared the princes and others of Tipu's family; the entire
princely retinue was shifted to faraway Calcutta by January 1807.
British military records say that 787 soldiers escaped and 446 were
recaptured largely from areas such as Salem, Madurai and Tirunelveli. According
to Secret Despatches, Vol 33, "Six convicted mutineers were blown away
from guns [canons], five were shot with musketry, eight were hung." These
executions took place in the western part of the fort. In the Manual of the
North Arcot District (1898) magistrate Arthur C. Fox notes with unrestrained
glee that the execution by blowing away from the guns "produced the
profoundest impression. A spectator describes how numbers of kites accompanied
the party to the place of execution, flapping their wings and screeching as if
in anticipation of the bloody feast, till the fatal flash which scattered their
fragments of bodies in air, when, pouncing on their prey, they caught in their
talons many pieces of quivering flesh before they could reach the ground. At
sight of this the native troops employed on duty, together with the crowd
assembled to witness the execution, set up a yell of horror." Such horrors
perhaps left a devastating impression on the south for it to bypass 1857.
According to K.A. Manikumar, professor of history at
Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, who is compiling a volume on the mutiny for
the unofficial Vellore Bicentennial Commemoration Committee: "The Vellore
mutiny can be understood in terms of what historian Eric Hobsbawm characterises
as 'proto-nationalism', where resistance arises from differences in
language, race, customs, dress etc."
On why this incident has remained on the fringes of the national imagination,
A.R. Venkatachalapthy, associate professor with the Madras Institute of
Development Studies, says: "Tamil Nadu has always been on the margins of
nationalist historiography, dominated as it has been by the north and Bengal.
The 'anti-nationalist' trajectory that TN took even by the late 1920s under
Periyar and subsequent phenomena like the anti-Hindi agitation and the rise of
the DMK, seemed to justify such marginalisation. The silence over Vellore must
be understood in this background." He reckons that Vellore was a mutiny in the
strict sense of the word. "It started in the barracks and lay confined to it,
whereas 1857 began as a mutiny and spread over large parts of north India as a
Today, Tipu Mahal in Vellore fort, the seat of conspiracy, is under
unsupervised renovation. It is now part of a Police Training College where
sub-inspectors of the TN Police used to train -- bathing and defecating where
royalty once lived. The sub-inspectors made way for the mahal to be rendered a
high-security prison for LTTE cadre. Another day, another rebellion. On 15
August 1995, 43 LTTE cadres lodged in Tipu Mahal escaped after digging a
153-foot tunnel through the moat. Shamefaced, the TN police has since barred
access to the mahal. As a muted commemoration of the historic rising begins, the
Tamil public may well be denied a peek into the place where history was made.
A slightly shorter, edited version of this appears in print.
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