The untold story of Vizagapatam’s 1780 mutiny

Occurring 77 years prior to the First War of Indian Independence (1857), the ‘forgotten rebellion’ sheds light on a fascinating chapter of the region’s colonial history and deserves its just place in the annals of history

April 29, 2023 08:47 am | Updated 05:40 pm IST - VISAKHAPATNAM

A view of the Old Lighthouse, where the Sepoy Mutiny of 1780 is supposed to have taken place in Visakhapatnam

A view of the Old Lighthouse, where the Sepoy Mutiny of 1780 is supposed to have taken place in Visakhapatnam | Photo Credit: V. RAJU

In an era where numerous national and regional political parties prioritise renaming historical sites and monuments, often disregarding the rich history and cultural heritage they possess, a significant event that occurred approximately 243 years ago in Visakhapatnam goes entirely unnoticed. This event fails to secure a spot in history books, lacks a commemorative monument, and, most significantly, remains unknown to many, including local leaders and politicians.

The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which began on May 10, 1857 in the garrison town of Meerut, is widely regarded as the First War of Indian Independence. This was the first major rebellion of local sepoys against the oppressive rule of the East India Company or the British Crown.

However, according to the district gazetteer of Vizagapatam, as Visakhapatnam was known then, the first revolt by the local sepoys against the English forces of East India Company, was on October 3, 1780, in the inconspicuous, nondescript town of Vizagapatam.

Remarkably, this mutiny, known in historian circles as the ‘forgotten rebellion’, predates the widely-known Sepoy Mutiny of Meerut by 77 years. In fact, if we consider major sepoy rebellions that transpired during British rule prior to 1857, the revolt in Vizagapatam can be regarded as the earliest instance in which native sepoys rose up against the British Raj, as stated by Professor (Retd.) Kolluri Suryanarayana, former Head of the Department of History at Andhra University.

This was not the only uprising prior to 1857 that has been lost to history. There have been others, such as the 1806 rebellion in Vellore, Tamil Nadu and the 1824 revolt at Gorakhpur in 1824, Prof. Satyanarayana adds.

It is worth noting that the Santhal Rebellion, a significant uprising where tribal communities rebelled against the British Crown, took place in 1855 within the forested regions of what is now the State of Jharkhand. This rebellion also serves as a prominent example of indigenous resistance against British rule, as emphasised by Professor Suryanarayana.

The grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner who was killed in the first sepoy mutiny against East India Company that took place on October 03, 1780 in Visakhapatnam.

The grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner who was killed in the first sepoy mutiny against East India Company that took place on October 03, 1780 in Visakhapatnam. | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

In addition to being referenced in a few paragraphs within the district Gazetteer, the Sepoy Rebellion of 1780 in Vizagapatam also received coverage in Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. Notably, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette holds the distinction of being the first English newspaper printed in India during colonial rule. The inclusion of this rebellion in such a publication provides further historical documentation and recognition of the event.

How it started

During that particular era, officers of the East India Company would enlist natives predominantly from the Muslim community who had ancestral links to the sepoys and fauzdars (officers) of the Mughal kings in the region. These recruits were primarily tasked with revenue collection in the district. However, a pervasive sense of discontentment prevailed among the local sepoys due to unfulfilled wage promises and a perceived lack of respect from their British superiors. This discontentment eventually reached a breaking point when they were instructed to board a frigate located near the old Lighthouse in the Old Town area, with the intention of joining other English forces in the Carnatic war against Hyder Ali.

The leader of the local forces during that time was a man named Shaikh Mohammed, and the majority of the sepoys belonged to his community. However, just before boarding the frigate, they refused to go and fight against Hyder Ali, as he was regarded as a hero who shared their religious faith.

This decision by the sepoys was influenced by their admiration for Hyder Ali and their reluctance to fight against someone they revered. The refusal to participate in the Carnatic War was a significant act of defiance against the British orders.

The letter dated September 14, 1780, from Governor John Whitehall of the Madras Presidency to James Henry Casamajor, the local chief of the Company in Vizagapatam and Masulipatnam, indeed instructed Casamajor to prepare the local forces for deployment in the Carnatic War. This order was given due to the considerable weakening of the British forces in the ongoing conflict

Following the order, Casamajor instructed the embarkation of the local sepoys. While the sepoys in Masulipatnam agreed and complied, those in Vizagapatam rebelled against the order.

On October 3, 1780, initially, everything appeared to be going according to plan under the command of a figure named Lysaught. The arms and other necessary items were partially loaded onto the frigate. However, around 3 p.m., the sepoys, led by Mohammed, refused to board the ship.

Tensions were already high between the English officers and the sepoys due to the officers’ perceived high-handedness. With the refusal to embark, the situation quickly escalated to a flashpoint. Shaikh Mohammed and his sepoys, armed with loaded muskets, unleashed indiscriminate gunfire at the English officers. This sudden outbreak of violence resulted in the immediate deaths of Lieutenant Crisps, Kingsford Venner (a cadet), and Robert Rutherford (the paymaster). Another officer, Charles Maxtone, and a frigate officer named Lane were gravely injured but managed to be rescued and swim back to the frigate. A few other officers, including Lt. Brown, Ellis, and Collins, also made it back to the frigate.

The Old English Cemetery, located in the Old Town area of the city, is where the grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner can still be found. This cemetery serves as a reminder of the historical events that unfolded during that time.

Not content with the killings of a few English officers, the rebels seized control of the town and captured Casamajor along with several other English officers and civil servants. According to Edward Paul, a history enthusiast and chronicler of Visakhapatnam’s history, the rebels also released a Frenchman who was held captive by the British on suspicions of being a spy for the French forces. The French had fought alongside Hyder Ali in the Carnatic War.

Within a span of a few hours, nearly all of the native sepoys had joined the rebellion, resulting in the liberation of the town from the rule of the East India Company. The mutineers then went on a rampage, extracting information about the Company’s wealth storage locations and proceeding to loot those places.

According to the available records and Casamajor’s statement later, the rebels went beyond looting the goods, arms, and ammunition stored in the arsenal or armoury. They also seized control of the Company’s cash, which amounted to approximately ₹21,999.

With the surviving Englishmen in a state of disarray, they sought refuge in the homes of local Zamindars or kings, who were their allies. The entire garrison fell under the control of Mohammed and his followers, further consolidating their hold on the situation.

Mutineers’ mistake

While leading his forces to join Hyder Ali on October 4, Mohammed was persuaded by Gajapathi Narain Deo, a local Zamindar, to release the captive English officers. This turn of events proved to be a strategic blunder on Mohammed’s part. Seizing the opportunity, Casamajor swiftly returned to the town and issued orders to Captain Ensign Butler, the commander of the Grenadiers regiment, to regroup with the surviving English soldiers, officers, and a few loyal local sepoys. Their mission was to pursue the mutineers and bring them to justice.

Casamajor also instructed the local Zamindars, who were in the employ of the East India Company, not to provide support to the rebels as they passed through their territories. This directive aimed to limit the rebels’ ability to find refuge or receive assistance along their route.

On October 8, the rebels found themselves surrounded and ambushed at a gorge near Gudderallywanka, close to Payakaraopeta. The majority of the rebels were killed in the confrontation, while Mohammed and a small group managed to escape. However, they were eventually captured and executed several months later.

According to Mr. Edward Paul, the mutiny, although short-lived, had a significant impact on the rule of the East India Company. As a result, the Company swiftly implemented a series of changes in administration, military fortifications, and regulations.

Mr. Paul further reveals that Casamajor himself acknowledged the gravity of the revolt in a preserved testimony found in the British Library in London. In his statement, Casamajor admitted, “The revolt of the grenadiers was in all respects an event that might have led to dangerous consequences. It had annihilated our power and influence in a great measure. At any rate, we received such a shock that we felt ourselves degraded as a Government.”

This incident is referenced in various historical sources, including the “History of the Madras Army” by W.J. Wilson and the letters exchanged between John Whitehall, Casamajor, and Brown on October 4 and 9, 1780, as noted by Mr. Paul.

Lost history

Except for the grave and the tombstone of Cadet Kingsford Venner, which states that he was killed in the mutiny of 1780 in Vizagapatam, there are few remaining physical remnants of that historical event.

Many history enthusiasts and heritage activists believe that it is important for the Central or State Government, as well as the local administration, to take the initiative in building a monument to honor the unsung heroes of the 1780 mutiny in Vizagapatam.

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