John Company’s bloody lesson: on Vellore Fort mutiny of 1806

A little over 200 years ago, soldiers at Vellore Fort staged India’s very first uprising against the British

July 20, 2019 04:02 pm | Updated July 21, 2019 10:47 am IST

A view of Vellore Fort.

A view of Vellore Fort.

The fort in Vellore dwarfs everything else in the city like a massive man o’ war in a small bay. I spent two days exploring it, and marvelled at its vastness, the solidity of its construction and the durability of some of the buildings within, such as the surprisingly well-preserved ammunition dump and jail.

Built by chieftains of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1566, Vellore’s fort was designed to hold out indefinitely, as a British garrison did for two years against Hyder Ali before the latter gave up and lifted his siege. Following Tipu Sultan’s defeat and death at the battle of Srirangapatna in 1799, his large family and their massive retinue were relocated there.

Vellore Fort is best known for the brief but violent mutiny there in 1806 by the East India Company’s sepoys. It was no freedom struggle. Rather, as three inquiries revealed, it was a violently emotional reaction to a move that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindu and Muslim sepoys in British pay.

If Sir John Cradock, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, had not insisted that the sepoys exchange their turbans for round hats, compelled them to shave off their moustaches and beards, and barred them from wearing caste marks and ornaments, the mutiny would never have happened. It was a direct result of Cradock’s obduracy and the pusillanimity of the Governor of Madras, Lord William Bentinck, who, against better advice, supported him.

The entrance to the ammunition dump.

The entrance to the ammunition dump.

Cassandra truth

The Auditor-General of the British army at Madras, Colonel Brunton, had sent a letter well before the mutiny, warning Cradock that “many things of serious moment have originated in trifles,” and advising him to redress the grievances of the sepoys, considering that “native troops” were “absolutely and indispensably necessary”. His warning went unheeded.

The mutiny was savage and brief. Starting in the wee hours of July 10, 1806, it went on until just past 2 p.m. of the same day. The mutineers killed over 100 unsuspecting British soldiers and their families, most of them in their sleep. This included Colonel Fancourt, the commander of the fort, who had actually stood by the sepoys in their opposition to Cradock’s orders.

Writer and Tamil scholar Theodore Baskaran showed me around the cemetery at Vellore’s Central Church where, unknown to most, Colonel Fancourt is buried along with two lieutenants, four corporals, a drummer and 70 privates, all of whom were killed by the mutineers. Of the Indian dead I could find no trace.

Early in their uprising, the sepoys cleaned out the paymaster’s treasury, and soon after raided the munitions depot, leaving them in control of the formidable fort. The rebels could have held out much longer had they not gone on a looting spree and got drunk on a large cache of arrack they happened upon, while failing to firmly secure the fort’s entrances or man its ramparts. All this enabled the few surviving British soldiers to regroup and position themselves strategically, enabling a relief force from nearby Arcot led by Rollo Gillespie to easily break into the fort and regain control.

A bloody reprisal followed, with Gillespie and his men killing over 600 of the mutineers, including 100 who were lined up and summarily shot against one of the walls of the fort. A subsequent court martial resulted in the execution of 19 ringleaders of the mutiny, five or six of whom were blown from the mouths of cannons. Although the mutineers raised the flag of Mysore in the fort, investigations failed to establish any involvement of Tipu’s family in the bloody event.

The flagstone where the mutineers hoisted the Mysore flag.

The flagstone where the mutineers hoisted the Mysore flag.

As an uprising, the mutiny was brief and confined to Vellore Fort. However, it had far-reaching administrative and military implications reaching into our times. Cradock and Bentinck were sacked and recalled. The British began to reorganise their largely Indian army on more humane lines, while bringing in a degree of professionalism and regimental pride in the soldiers.

Imperial academies

At the time, the British were in the early stages of appreciating that administering an India with a rich and complex civilisation and culture of its own required a depth of understanding beyond what they then possessed. A few months before the Vellore mutiny, the East India Company College had been established in Haileybury to train administrators for India, drawing its faculty from the best that Oxford and Cambridge had to offer. Indian languages like Hindustani, Telugu, Bengali and Marathi were taught there in addition to Persian. Three years after the mutiny the East India Company Military Seminary was opened in Addiscombe to train military officers for service in India. Clearly, patronage was giving way to merit in selecting administrators and soldiers for their prized domain.

Strangely, the British did not heed the warning of the Vellore revolt, repeating their mistake half a century later to devastating effect, sparking the first war of independence in 1857.

India’s first major armed uprising against the British deserves to be commemorated by something more substantial than that slight and absurd memorial set in the middle of a small traffic island facing the fort, one that fast receded in my wing mirror as I headed back to Bengaluru.

The memorial in a traffic island.

The memorial in a traffic island.

The writer teaches at IISc, Bengaluru.

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