Ahead of the curve Tamil Nadu

A forerunner to the Great Rebellion of 1857

The Vellore Fort lit up in the colours of the national flag to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence.

The Vellore Fort lit up in the colours of the national flag to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence. | Photo Credit: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

Tamil Nadu, which played an important role in the country’s freedom struggle and produced a number of sterling leaders during the national movement, had to its credit recorded an event, the Vellore Revolt of 1806, regarded as a forerunner to the 1857 Great Rebellion.

As in the case of the 1857 uprising, the perceived harm to religious practices was the trigger for the Vellore Revolt, which broke out in the early hours of July 10, 1806. Another similarity between the events of 1806 and 1857 was that Hindus and Muslims were on the same page while fighting the British. Again, as in the case of 1857, wherein a Muslim — the titular Mughal emperor Bahādur Shah Zafar — was proclaimed as the leader, the Vellore Revolt saw its participants declaring Tipu Sultan’s second son Fateh Hyder as their king. But the 1857 uprising lasted much longer than the 1806 Revolt and its coverage was more widespread. So was its impact.

In the early part of the 19 th Century, just as many other parts of Tamil Nadu, Vellore too was under the control of the East India Company. Its famous fort, built during 1526-1595 CE, was ‘home’ to members of Tipu Sultan’s family — 12 sons and six daughters — who were held there by the British after the fall of Srirangapattinam and Tipu’s death in 1799. It also housed the English garrison, which consisted of over 10 companies of soldiers, of whom Europeans accounted for nearly 370. As many as 1,700 soldiers were Indians.

In March 1806, the introduction of a code of military regulations and dress generated resentment among the Indian soldiers as Hindus were prohibited from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and Muslims were required to shave their beard and trim their moustache. As historian K.A. Manikumar mentioned in an article published by Frontline on July 30, 2021, the most offensive part, from the Indian perspective, was the leather cockade in the new turban. Usually, the turban was made of an iron frame and blue braid cloth and a plume or cotton tuft.

Sent to Fort St. George

The revolting soldiers were sent to Fort St. George. Two soldiers — a Hindu and a Muslim — were given 900 lashes each and their services terminated. Nineteen soldiers were given 500 lashes each and forced to seek pardon for their action.

But this was not enough to suppress the sentiments of the Indian members of the Army. Around 2 a.m. on July 10, the Indians began their Revolt, killing nearly 15 British officers and 100 English soldiers. John Fancourt, Commander of the fort and garrison, was the first to be shot (He died hours after the Revolt was crushed). For some hours of the day, the Fort had Tipu’s Royal Tiger Flag flying over it.

But the Revolt was crushed in a matter of hours — by about 2 p.m. the same day — essentially due to weaknesses on the part of those who had planned and executed it. Reinforcements came from a nearby military post and Col. Rollo Gillespie led a counter-attack. Over 800 soldiers were killed inside the fort and 17 Indian officers hanged outside. Numerous persons were imprisoned at the Vellore and Tiruchi prisons. Tipu’s sons were shifted to Kolkata. The event, however, alarmed the British. William Bentinck, Governor of Madras, was recalled.

The fort, apart from serving as a testimony to the historic events, accommodates a site museum, which is being maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Letters from 1806

A storehouse of knowledge, the museum, functioning at the Badhusha Mahal and Begum Mahal, provides a glimpse of the events that preceded and followed the Revolt. A collection of letters from 1806 is one of the prized collections of the museum. It took more than 190 years for a structure to come up in Vellore in memory of the Indian soldiers killed in the Revolt.

On December 20, 1998, the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi unveiled the memorial at the junction of Bengaluru Road and Officers’ Line. Again, in July 2006, it was left to him to release a postal stamp in Vellore during the bicentenary celebration of the Revolt.

The memorial pillar at Makkan signal in Vellore.

The memorial pillar at Makkan signal in Vellore. | Photo Credit: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

Karunanidhi had even announced that his government would consider installing another memorial for the martyrs. There has been little progress in this regard.

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Printable version | Aug 26, 2022 2:15:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/a-forerunner-to-the-great-rebellion-of-1857/article65757975.ece