Visakhapatnam

‘First Sepoy Mutiny took place in Vizag’

The grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner who was killed in the first sepoy mutiny, in Visakhapatnam.— Photo: K.R. Deepak

The grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner who was killed in the first sepoy mutiny, in Visakhapatnam.— Photo: K.R. Deepak  

It is recorded in the Gazetteer in the London Archives, says AU Professor Suryanarayana

The guns of the native sepoys first boomed against the East India Company in an obscure fishing village along the Coromandel Coast that was then called Vizagapatam, which is now known as Visakhapatnam.

It was 77 years before the Meerut Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which is called as the First War of Independence, and much ahead of the Vellore mutiny of 1806 and the Barrackpore one of 1824.

The Vizagapatam mutiny took place on October 3, 1780, and this was the first sepoy mutiny in India, as coined and recorded in the Gazetteer in the London Archives, said Professor Emeritus of the Department of History and Archaeology of Andhra University, Kolluru Suryanarayana. But this is not known to many as it finds a small mention in the Gazetteer.

Flashpoint

This rebellion was led by Shaik Mohammad Khan, a subedar of the Grenadiers Regiment that was posted in Vizagapatam.

During that period, two regiments of the Grenadiers comprising Indian sepoys and led by British officers were posted in Vizagapatam and Masulipatam (now Machilipatnam). A majority of the Indian sepoys were Muslims and it was during that period the Anglo-Mysore war between Hyder Ali and East India Company was at its peak.

The war with Hyder Ali and the Carnatic war had weakened the British in the south and to reinforce its strength the then Governor of Madras, John Whitehall, addressed a letter on September 14, 1780, to the then chief of Vizagapatam and Masulipatam settlements, James Henry Casamajor, to send troops for reinforcement.

As per the Gazetteer and Prof. Suryanarayana, the sepoys of Vizagapatam and Masulipatam were by then a disgruntled lot as they were not paid any commission for the tax collection duty, which they felt was an additional work to their normal sepoy duty. This apart, being Muslims they were averse to the idea of fighting a fellow Muslim like Hyder Ali.

The sepoys in Vizagapatam were supposed to board the Sartine frigate under the command of Capt. Lysaught on October 3, 1780.After the inspection of guards, at around 3 p.m. the sepoys refused to board the ship. And it reached a flashpoint when a few British officers tried to use force.

Led by Sheikh Mohammed Khan, a few of the Sepoys levelled their muskets and fired a volley, instantly killing Lt. Crisps, Cadets Kingsford Venner and Robert Rutherford, the paymaster.

Capt. Maxtone and Capt. Lane were seriously injured and the rebels took hold of the town, took Casamajor and several other civil servants into captivity and freed a French spy who was confined in the prison for some time.The mutineers looted the Company’s property that included cash kept in the treasury amounting to Rs.21,999. On the morning of October 4, the mutineers marched out of the town with the chief Casamajor and the other officials as captive, to join the forces of Hyder Ali. But at the behest of Gajapathi Narain Deo, a local zamindar, they freed the captives, and that turned to be their faux pas.

Casamajor returned directly to the Sartine and ordered Capt. Ensign Butler to gather the sepoys loyal to the Company and with the help of the crew and weapons on board, to go after the rebels. He also instructed the neighbouring zamindars, to support them. “It is learnt that the rebels were cornered near a gorge in Gudderallywanka at Payakraopeta, now a border town in Visakhapatnam district. There is no clear understanding or record of what happened to them. But it is believed that some of them were killed in the ambush and the others, including Shaikh Mohammed, were executed mercilessly by the Company’s men,” said Prof. Suryanarayana.

What remains

There are no remnants of this mutiny except for the grave of Kingsford Venner in the now dilapidated Old Town cemetery, and the tombstone states that he was killed in the Sepoy Mutiny of October 3, 1780. There is no record of the graves of the other English men who died, and historians believe that they were also buried in that cemetery, but would have been destroyed due to neglect. And apart from a brief mention in the Gazetteer, the mutiny was reported in Hickey's Gazette , the first English newspaper in India, a couple of days later.

Though the mutiny was small in scale, it did send shock waves till London. But there is hardly anything done to remember its happening. The Tamil Nadu government had erected a pylon and released a stamp in 2006 to commemorate the 200 years of Vellore Mutiny. “It is time the A.P. government did something to recognise the First Sepoy Mutiny, as we enter the 236th year,” said Mr. Edward Paul of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.



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