MADRAS MISCELLANY History & Culture

Madras and the 1857 Revolt

Some time ago, P.R. Mohun referred to the passing mention I had made about some incidents that had occurred in Madras during the 1857 Revolt (Miscellany, April 25) and wondered whether I could spell them out. I sought the help of Dr. M. Sundara Raj, formerly of the Tamil Nadu Archives, the only person that I know of who has done some work on this and I give below a summary of what he tells me.

The first stirrings in the South were when the Hyderabad palace sent a messenger called Syed Mohamed Aurzurzah Hussain to the southern zamindaris of Nagari, Kalahasti and Venkatagiri amongst others in January 1857, urging them to revolt against the British. Hussain was later found instigating revolt in the North Arcot and Chittoor Districts. After the revolt broke out in Barrackpore on May 31, 1857, Muslim crowds took to the streets in Triplicane and gathered opposite the Prince of Arcot's then residence, Shahdi Mahal on Triplicane High Road, urging him to join the Nizam of Hyderabad in a holy war against the British. The police soon dispersed these crowds with a liberal use of lathis.

Syed Hameed Jellah, believed to be a resident of Triplicane, was, however, not to be silenced. He collected reports of what was happening in the North and disseminated them regularly among the Indian troops stationed in the Madras and Chingleput Districts. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. The Indian troops in these areas were, apparently, constantly under the guns of British regiments during much of this period. The only case of Indian troops revolting in the South was when the 8th Cavalry of the Madras Brigade refused to march from Bangalore to Madras in June 1857 to sail for Calcutta. From all reports it would appear the situation was handled tactfully with their firearms being removed and locked up and their horses led away. A few dismissals of NCOs and sepoys followed.

Gatherings of Muslim crowds in Coimbatore, Salem and Malabar were also reported. But their calls for revolt were little heeded and they themselves were quickly dispersed with little trouble.

To protect the British residents of Madras — who at no time seemed to be in any danger — the Corps of Madras Volunteer Guards was raised in July 2, 1857 by J.C. Boulderson, the first Commissioner of Police. The Corps was suggested at a meeting that had been called by Governor Lord Harris on June 30th at the Banqueting Hall. The hundreds of Europeans who turned up for the meeting were unanimous in agreeing to Boulderson's suggestion put to them by the Governor. It was decided to raise a unit of 700 infantrymen and 100 cavalrymen commanded by Col. M. Carthew. Personnel of the Corps patrolled the city day and night during the entire period of the revolt and gained so much appreciation that it was decided not to disband the unit and it continued as a part of policing in the city for many years after 1858, being called out from time to time during festivals and other occasions when large crowds gathered in public places. Over the years the Guards contributed handsomely to maintaining law and order in Madras.

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The M.V.G. and Madras sport

As I typed the brief tale of the Madras Volunteer Guards, a thought kept nagging me and I kept wondering where I had heard of them before. A break for a walk and a natter with the verandah mafia later, it came back to me. It was as the M.V.G. that I knew of them in their significant contribution to Madras sports history; seldom were the Guards referred to as anything but M.V.G. in all that was written about them in the early 20th Century.

I first came across those initials when writing a brief history of hockey in Madras and the Madras Cricket Club's contribution to the sport. I discovered them in a copy of The Madras Mail of 1906 when the writer was discussing the prospects of the teams taking part in that year's Madras Hockey Tournament. The only hockey tournament in Madras, at that time, was organised by the MCC for the first time in 1901. In course of time, the M.V.G. that was originally an ‘Europeans only' unit, comprising mainly of assistants in trading establishments, Spencer's contributing significantly to it, included Domiciled Europeans and, still later, Anglo-Indians. By 1906, the M.V.G. had played in a couple of championships, but the assessment I read stated that they were generally handicapped by the MCC choosing some of their best players: “The M.V.G. virtually cannot play their full strength,” rued the writer. He, however, advised, “Select the team at once and keep them in constant practice together, as nothing is so detrimental to success in Hockey, Football etc. as want of combination.”

In less than five years the team learnt that lesson well and became championship contenders. In 1910/11 they won the title for the first time. To celebrate, they launched Madras's second hockey tournament, the M.V.G. Tournament for a challenge shield presented by James Short, a director of Spencer's. The tournament was for schools' teams, in effect Anglo-Indian schools because they were the schools that concentrated on the game at the time. This tournament more than anything else contributed to the development of Anglo-Indian Hockey and its dominance in the game in Madras between the two World Wars.

The M.V.G. team won the Madras Hockey title for the second time in 1913. In the team was Gordon Fraser who could well have set a record of some sort. Was he the first knight to play in a competitive match in India? In the team also was the young Robert D. Denniston, who was to be knighted in 1942. Long after he was knighted, he umpired first class Hockey matches and played in Cricket friendlies.

After the Great War (1918), there doesn't seem to be any trace of the M.V.G. in the records and the Guards could well have been disbanded or taken a new name. Would be glad to hear from readers who may know more about them.

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When the postman knocked…

*Referring to the mention I had made of women in nine-yard sarees playing tennis and badminton at the Lady Willingdon Ladies' Recreation Club (Miscellany, April 4), V. Vijayraghavan sends me a picture of his late great-grand-aunt, Pankajam Venkatachari, who won several trophies in badminton tournaments in the districts in the 1940s and 1950s playing in a nine-yard saree. A sister of S. Ranganathan ICS who retired as Comptroller and Auditor-General of India and niece on her maternal side of N. Gopalaswami Iyengar, Dewan of Kashmir and later Minister of Railways and Transport in Nehru's Cabinet, she was married to a lawyer in Vellore. There, she was associated with the Christian Medical College's growing years and with the Central Social Welfare Board, responsible for rural educational and welfare projects for women in the North Arcot District. She trained with the St. John's Ambulance in first aid and her training included mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Imagine a married Iyengar woman of 60 years ago practising this life-saving method! But use it she did on several people, including her husband!

*M. Ramanathan tells me that it was not only coral and gemstones that were imported into Madras; gold was too. Citing S. Jeyaseelan Stephen's Portuguese in the Tamil Coast: Historical explorations in commerce and culture, he says gold was regularly imported from Southeast Asia in huge quantities to San Thomé in the early 17th Century and it was moved from there to the State Mint in Goa. The gold was mainly exported from Melaka by Chetty merchants, according to Stephen. The Malacca Chetties, like the Colombo Chetties, were the earliest Vaisyas to be taken by the Portuguese to both territories where they made good as both traders as well as government servants. Both communities still exist with distinct identities in Malacca as well as on Sri Lanka's west coast, but where they came from in Tamizhagam is still not identified with any certainty, though Nagapattinam and its hinterland is generally stated. But what Chetties were they originally, given that there are in Tamil Nadu today several different Chetty communities?

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