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THE VELLORE UPRISING

Long before 1857, Indians rose against the British in a now-forgotten mutiny

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AP photo
Forgotten heroes.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A fierce but short-lived mutiny occurred (in 1806) in Vellore Fort, to which Tipu’s sons and household had been exiled, and where British and Indian units of the Company’s Madras army were garrisoned.

Hindus “formed the bulk of the native troops” but Muslim numbers too were significant. Before the British took over this supposedly secure fort in the 1760s, it had belonged to the ruler of Arcot, which lay 14 miles east of Vellore, and prior to that to the Marathas. When its Indian sepoys revolted in the pre-dawn hours of 10 July 1806, massacring up to 200 British soldiers and inviting a swift repression, they were venting resentment nursed since Tipu’s fall.

They were also anticipating, by half a century, north India’s Great Revolt of 1857. Apparent provocations for these far-apart rebellions were eerily similar, including a belief that British rulers desired the conversion of Indians, and rudeness from callow Britons commanding long-serving natives.

In Vellore, it was rumoured that a turn-screw issued to the sepoys, meant to be suspended from the neck and therefore capable of contacting the wearer’s heart, was actually a cross in disguise. Coming on top of two hugely unpopular orders, one banning sepoys from displaying ash on the forehead or a beard on the chin (thereby offending Hindus and Muslims both), and another requiring them to replace the customary turban with a round hat topped by a cockade, similar to what some Europeans and Indian Christians were using, the rumour contributed to a mutiny apparently urged by wandering fakirs unreconciled to Tipu’s fall.

Residing within the fort, Tipu’s son Fateh Haidar was declared king and Tipu’s flag was raised over the fort.

Instigation may have also come from supporters of the dispossessed Nawab of Arcot. After the new hat was lampooned by fakirs in streetcorners in Vellore, some of the fort’s sepoys and their Indian seniors refused to wear it, whereupon two havildars, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, were punished with 900 lashes. Mutiny was planned in response, but a sepoy leaked the plot to an English officer. That officer consulted senior native sepoys, who pronounced the informer insane, but the leak forced the mutineers’ hand. They struck at 2 am on 10 July, killing many Britons while they slept and also shooting down others dragged out of the fort’s sickrooms. Among those gunned down was the fort’s commander, Colonel John Fancourt, though his wife and young children hid themselves and survived. Residing within the fort, Tipu’s son Fateh Haidar was declared king and Tipu’s flag was raised over the fort.

An escapee, however, alerted the British garrison in Arcot, from where, accompanied by horse-pulled “galloper” guns, a cavalry squadron led by Colonel Rollo Gillespie rode off at once to Vellore and suppressed the mutiny. The mutineers and their supporters from Vellore town could have blocked Gillespie’s cavalry and the galloper guns at the fort’s gates but many of them chose instead to loot its coffers. These guns demolished rebel defences and the cavalry stormed in, cutting down every sepoy in its way. Also, as John Blakiston, an engineer in Gillespie’s force who had helped bring down one of the gates, would write,

Upwards of a hundred sepoys, who had sought refuge in the palace, were brought out…placed under a wall, and fired at… until they were all dispatched.

If about 200 Europeans were slain during the half-day mutiny, nearly 800 sepoys were probably killed in the reprisal, in which Indians among the Company’s troops joined. Many of the hundreds who fled from the fort were apprehended in different parts of the peninsula. After a military trial, 19 “ring-leaders” were executed in Vellore Fort, some being hanged, some shot, and a few blown from a cannon’s mouth. In a book published in 1829 in London, Blakiston would claim as “a curious fact…well attested by many persons present,” that vultures accompanied the condemned men

to the place of execution, and then kept hovering over the guns till the final flash, which scattered the fragments of bodies in the air, when…they caught in their talons many pieces of the quivering flesh before they could reach the ground.

We do not know if stories of this kind discredited the mutiny option, which would not be tried again by southern sepoys. Though not charged with a role in the mutiny, Fateh Haidar and his brothers were sent to Calcutta. Blakiston would write that:

This was a politic measure in more respects than one; for it not only removed them out of reach of former friends and adherents of their family, but it appeared to throw the odium of the conspiracy upon them, instead of permitting it to rest on the native army, whose loyalty and attachment it would not have been prudent to question.

Discovering the identities of the Indians in the British force that retook Vellore Fort, or in other British forces of this period, is not easy. Asking why Indians fought “with such skill and ferocity in the British interest,” and also probing their identities, the scholar Vithal Rajan seems to find that recruits were often marked down as “Telingas,” “Gentoos” or “Malabars.” While these labels do not take us very far, many Indian soldiers appeared to bear, according to Rajan, the caste names of “untouchables” and a goodly proportion of every regiment seems to have been made up of “Mussalmans…” Adds Rajan:

It makes perfect sense…that the men, discriminated against by a caste-ridden society, gravitated to a service that treated them honourably. If they experienced any dishonourable treatment from any British officer, they [again] fearlessly rebelled even at the cost of their lives.

We may end our glimpse of the Vellore Mutiny by noting that it resulted in the recall of the orders regarding hats, beards, and facial ash, as also the recall from India of the Madras governor, William Bentinck. In 1828, however, Bentinck would return to Calcutta and preside over the legal abolition of sati, with the aid of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

Excerpted from Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Modern South India published by Aleph. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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