The ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857, was in fact, a ferocious rebellion led against the British in various parts of India. Although the revolt was subdued by the British forces, it came to be known as the first major revolt in British occupied India.
However, what many people do not know is that about half a century before the revolt of 1857, Vellore witnessed a violent albeit brief, mutiny against the British empire.
This attack that came to be known as the Vellore Mutiny was carried out on the midnight of 10 July 1806. What is the story of this rebellion that lasted just one day but cost over 400 lives? Why was it carried out and how was it subdued in under a day?
Having conquered various parts of India, the British had been changing the rules that Indians were considerably at peace with.
Therefore, the Vellore Mutiny, not unlike the revolt of 1857, was a result of the hurt and anger that was gradually building up against the British and the rules that they had imposed upon Indians.
In November 1805, General Sir John Craddock, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army ordered a change in the uniform of the army that would cause sentimental hurt to Hindu as well as Muslim soldiers. The religious marks that Hindus are known to put on their forehead were henceforth prohibited. They were even forced to wear a round hat that had a cow leather cockade instead of their turbans—a hat usually associated with Europeans and with Indians who converted to Christianity.
Muslim soldiers who had grown beards and moustaches for religious purposes were also forced to trim them. Even though a military board had warned the British that any changes in the uniform must be “given every consideration which a subject of that delicate and important nature required,” the British enforced these alterations.
When some soldiers (sepoys) protested against this, they were punished with 90 lashes and kicked out from the army.
This was one trigger. In addition to this, the disrespect shown to the sons of Tipu Sultan, who was defeated in 1799, led to an outpouring of rage which eventually boiled over and led to the revolt on 10 July 1806.
Tipu Sultan’s wives, children and their entourage of servants were all confined to the city of Vellore which was much different—politically and otherwise—from their Kingdom of Mysore.
In his book, Tiger of Mysore: The Life and Death of Tipu Sultan, Denys Forrest writes, “Eventually, the ancient palace of the Nawabs of Arcot in Vellore Fort housed all Tipu’s children—and not them only. The survivors of Haider Ali’s and Tipu’s zenanas; the older princes’ own wives, concubines and children… their innumerable servants; hangers-on of every degree; all these formed part of a community of ‘Mysoreans in exile’ which numbered up to 3000 souls and split over a considerable area around Vellore.”
Tipu’s two sons—Shahzada Abdul Khaliq Sultan Sahib and Shahzada Muiz ud-din Mohammed Sultan Sahib (who was reportedly Tipu’s favourite son and his intended heir) had been surrendered to Lord Cornwallis in 1792.
The hostages—aged 10 and 9, respectively—had grown as captives of the British and had naturally developed a sense of contempt against them.
According to a report by The Hindu, the garrison of the Vellore Fort housed four companies of the British infantry and three battalions of the Madras infantry. The plan was to attack this fort exactly on 10 July 1806. It was the wedding day of one of Tipu Sultan’s daughters, and this event would provide the perfect cover for the plan.
A couple of hours after midnight, about 500 Indian soldiers broke into the Vellore fort where the unsuspecting British and Madras infantry were stationed. They murdered 115 men from the British infantry who were sleeping in their barracks and 14 from the Madras infantry. Among those who were killed in the attack were the commander of the fort, Colonel St John Fancourt, Colonel Me Kerras and Major Armstrong.
Since the British were caught by surprise and were severely outnumbered, they were unable to defend themselves, or retaliate, and the ones who managed to survive immediately fled the scene.
The rebels, upon finding the opportunity, pulled down the Union Jack waving on the Vellore Fort and its place, unfurled the Royal Tiger Flag of Tipu Sultan—perhaps the most royal manifestation of their violent revolt against the disrespect shown by the British to the Indian sepoys and royals.
Jamaidar Shaik Cossim, one of the key persons who planned the attack hoisted this flag while Fateh Hyder Bahadur, Tipu Sultan’s second son was declared the king.
However, these celebrations lasted only a few hours since there was no one to lead the attackers hereon. None of Tipu’s sons was ready to lead the brigade in the phase after the attack. Without proper leadership, the soldiers went astray, looting houses owned by the Europeans and creating a rift between those who did not actively participate in the rebellion.
In the whole confusion, Major Coops, who, like many other British officials, had escaped, approached the garrison at Arcot—just 16 miles away from the Vellore Fort. From here, he got a relief force to the fort. Here, they found about 60 European soldiers holding parts of the rampart, but out of ammunition.
Sir Rollo Gillespie, who led the defence, climbed up a wall of the fort with the help of a rope and led the European soldiers along the ramparts. The relief team was still on its way.
When the team finally arrived, they were instructed to blow open the doors of the fort, and kill every Indian sepoy they came across. This way, 100 sepoys who were still inside the fort were brought out, placed against the wall and shot dead.
John Blakiston, the engineer who blew up the gates, recalls, “Even this appalling sight I could look upon, I may almost say, with composure. It was an act of summary justice, and in every respect a most proper one; yet, at this distance of time, I find it a difficult matter to approve the deed, or to account for the feeling under which I then viewed it.”
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A total of 350 Indian rebels were killed and another 350 injured in this counter-attack. The revolt that lasted just a day was still quite a humiliating attack against the British. Threatened by the violence inflicted by the rebels, the British transported the royals to Calcutta. But the attack was successful in sending across an important message. The governor of Madras, post the Vellore Mutiny said regretfully that, “Greater care and caution had not been exercised in examining into the real sentiments and dispositions of the sepoys before measures of severity were adopted to enforce the order respecting the use of the new turban.”
One positive outcome of the mutiny was that the controversial uniform elements as well as flogging within the Indian sepoy regiments were abolished.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)