Sahib, p.10Richard Holmes
Dalhousie formally annexed the Punjab that very month, and Gough proudly told his men: ‘That which Alexander attempted, the British army have accomplished.’91
‘THE DEVIL’S WIND’
IT IS IRONIC that within less than ten years of the triumph at Gujrat, the Company would be fighting for its very life. The causes of the great Mutiny of 1857 are complex, but a significant role was played by the ‘doctrine of lapse’, the policy devised by Dalhousie which said that any princely state or territory dominated by the British and without a natural heir to the throne would automatically be annexed. In 1848 the Raja of Satara, in western India, died without an heir. Dalhousie refused to recognise his recently adopted heir, declaring that his state had ‘lapsed’ to the paramount power. Two experienced political officers, Colonel William Sleeman and Colonel John Low, protested that this policy caused great concern. Low warned Dalhousie that Indians asked him: ‘What crime did the Rajah commit that his country should be seized by the Company?’ When the state of Nagpore was also annexed, he admitted: ‘After a very careful perusal of the Governor-General’s minute on this important subject – it is with feelings of sincere regret that I found it is quite out of my power to come to the same conclusions as his Lordship.’92
What happened to the large state of Oudh was even more serious. There was no question that the conduct of its ruler, Nasir-ud-din Hyder, the seventh nawab of his line, left a good deal to be desired. Henry Lawrence described him as being:
engaged in every species of debauchery and surrounded by wretches, English, Eurasian and Native, of the lowest description. Bred in a palace, nurtured by women and eunuchs, he added the natural fruits of a vicious education to those resulting from his protected position.
His Majesty might one hour be seen in a state of drunken nudity, at another he would parade the streets of Lucknow driving one of his own elephants. In his time all decency … was banished from the Court. Such was more than once his conduct that the Resident, Colonel Low, refused to see him or transact business with him.93
His successor seemed little better, alternating excursions to ‘the uttermost abysses of enfeebling debauchery’ with the ‘delights of dancing, and drumming, and drawing, and manufacturing small rhymes’.94 Dalhousie decided to annex Oudh, but first offered a compromise: the nawab could retain his royal title, have full jurisdiction (apart from the death penalty) in two royal parks, and receive a pension of 12 lakhs of rupees. There was some doubt as to whether this sum, enormous though it was, was actually ‘adequate to one of his prodigal inclinations’ who had just spent £5,000 on a pair of vultures. The nawab declined to sign a crucial document, and his state was duly annexed.
Another disgruntled nobleman was Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, better known as the Nana Sahib, adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Maratha Peshwa, now living in well-pensioned opulence at Bithur. When Baji Rao died in 1851 the Nana Sahib was told that he would inherit neither pension nor title: he mounted a legal counter-attack which failed. After the Mutiny it would be easy for Englishmen to detect a conspiracy between the Nana Sahib and other noblemen such as the Oudh taluqdars who had lost land as a result of the 1856 revenue settlement, and to make a firm connection between growing civil dissatisfaction and incipient military mutiny.
The annexation of Oudh and insistence on the doctrine of lapse did not simply make some Indian rulers uneasy. It affronted the sepoys of the Bengal army, perhaps three-quarters of whom came from Oudh. They also had other grounds for complaint. Traditionally, most of them were high-caste Hindus, but changes in recruitment policy in 1834 and after the Sikh Wars had widened the recruiting base: new units, containing Sikhs, Hindus, Moslems and
Pathans, were raised to defend the Punjab and the new North-West Frontier. The General Service Enlistment Order of 1856 made all recruits liable for overseas service, which was believed, by high-caste Hindus, to be damaging to their status. All these measures seemed to make good sense from the government’s point of view, but they dismayed the high-caste sepoys who were still a majority in most native regiments when the Mutiny broke out. Tampering with allowances, particularly batta, often caused disaffection among British and Indian soldiers alike, and there had been a mutiny in 1849 when foreign service batta for the Punjab was cancelled because it was now part of British India; the most mutinous regiment, 66th BNI (Bengal Native Infantry), was disbanded, and the Gurkha Naisiri Battalion was given its place as 66th (Gurkha) Native Infantry.
To specific causes of grievance were added a wider sense of – well, the right word might even be apartheid. British officers, as we shall see later, were increasingly discouraged from long-term relationships with Indian women, and the offspring of such unions were denied official employment. European women arrived in India in ever-increasing numbers and this seems to have had an effect on the attitudes of the Company’s officers. One contemporary scathingly attributed the decline in relations between British and Indians directly to the impact of the memsahibs:
Every youth, who is able to maintain a wife, marries. The conjugal pair become a bundle of English prejudices and hate the country, the natives and everything belonging to them. If the man has, by chance, a share of philosophy and reflection, the woman is sure to have none. The ‘odious blacks’ the ‘nasty heathen wretches’ the ‘filthy creatures’ are the shrill echoes of the ‘black brutes’ the ‘black vermin’ of the husband. The children catch up the strain. I have heard one, five years old, call the man who was taking care of him a ‘black brute’. Not that the English generally behave with cruelty, but they make no scruple of expressing their anger and contempt by the most opprobrious epithets that the language affords.95
Christian missionaries, too, appeared in growing quantities, and although they were generally unsuccessful in achieving mass conversions, it was easy for Indians to suspect that the Company hoped to deprive them of their religion, as we shall see later. ‘Everyone believed that they were secretly employed by the Government,’ wrote Sita Ram. ‘Why else would they take such trouble?’96 There seemed good reason for this suspicion, as the Chairman of the East India Company had declared that: ‘Providence has entrusted the empire of Hindustan to England in order that the banner of Christ should wave from one end of India to the other.’ Finally, once Oudh was administered by British officials there were complaints that many were ‘totally ignorant of the language, manners and customs of the people, and the same was true of all the sahibs who came from Bengal and from the college’.97
By early 1857 there was ample evidence of the fact that the Bengal army was close to mutiny, had the authorities only been prepared to take it seriously. The proximate cause of the outbreak was the introduction of a new weapon which replaced muzzle-loading percussion muskets like those carried by HM’s 50th at Sobraon. The new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle had a barrel which spun the conical bullet to give greater accuracy; to enable the bullet to expand to grip the shallow rifling its base was hollow and was forced into the rifling by the explosion of the charge; and around this hollow base were grease-filled flanges.98 Although a senior officer warned that there would be problems unless it was widely known that ‘the grease employed in these cartridges is not of a nature to offend or interfere with the prejudices of caste’, soon there were rumours that the grease was made either from cows (sacred to Hindus) or from pigs (unclean to Moslems). The authorities responded by declaring that sepoys could grease their own bullets with whatever material they chose to procure from the bazaar. But the damage was done.
In January 1857 there was an abortive mutiny around Calcutta, with the new cartridge, dissatisfaction of pay, and resentment about the annexation of Oudh amongst its causes. At much the same time local officials reported that chapatties (discs of unleavened bread) were being sent from village to village; there were rumours of imminent upheaval, and stories that British rule over India, begun at Plassey a century before, would soon be over. On 29 March, Sepoy Mungal Pandy of the 34th BNI at Barrackpore wounded his adjutant and serge
The best evidence suggests that even if the King of Delhi was not aware of the incipient mutiny, members of his household – described as ‘this inflammable mass of competing interests’ – certainly were.99 When the mutineers reached Delhi they made for the palace, killing Europeans en route. The native infantry regiments in the garrison promptly mutinied, murdering some of their officers. The eight British officers, warrant officers and NCOs in the Delhi arsenal defended the place as long as they could, and then fired the magazine, destroying large quantities of arms and gunpowder: miraculously, five of the men survived. The unlucky Bahadur Shah found himself the titular head of the revolt, but neither he nor anyone else exercised real control over the ‘Devil’s Wind’ that now blew so fiercely across northern India.
At Agra, John Colvin, Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Provinces, heard the news on 14 May and – for he was not a man of action – was persuaded to show a firm front. Lord Canning, the Governor-General, who had first been told of the Mutiny on the 12th, needed no such persuasion. He realised that the Mutiny could only be suppressed by force, and set about assembling the European regiments at his disposal, aided by the fact that troops were on their way back from an expedition to Persia and a force on its way to China could be recalled. He issued a proclamation affirming the government’s commitment to religious tolerance and urging all subjects not to listen to firebrands.
The Commander in Chief, General the Hon. George Anson, was at the government’s hot-weather retreat at Simla when he was told of the Mutiny. He sent orders to secure the great arsenals at Ferozepore, Jullundur and Philur, and by 15 May he had a strong brigade of Europeans at Ambala. But he was reluctant to move on Delhi until his preparations were complete, and although both Canning and Sir John Lawrence, chief commissioner of the Punjab, urged immediate action, he did not leave Ambala until 23 May. In the meantime there had been outbreaks of mutiny elsewhere, although in Peshawar, where Herbert Edwardes was chief commissioner, potentially mutinous units were swiftly disarmed. A strong ‘moveable column’ was quickly assembled under Brigadier Neville Chamberlain, while Edwardes’s deputy, John Nicholson, hustled about quashing mutinies and inflicting punishment on those he judged guilty: forty were blown from cannon in Peshawar.
On 26 May, Anson died of cholera on his way to Delhi, and was succeeded in command by Major General Sir Henry Barnard, who reached Alipore, eleven miles north of the city, by 5 June, having left the trees along their route heavy with the bodies of villagers who had, allegedly, mistreated fugitives. Another force, under Brigadier Archdale Wilson, left Meerut on 27 May and on 7 June the two columns met at Alipore, bringing the strength of the Delhi Field Force to just over 3,000 men. On 8 June the little army forced a strong position at Badli ke Serai, and camped that night on the ridge overlooking Delhi. But its senior officers reluctantly agreed that they were not strong enough to risk an assault on the city, and so, for the moment, they remained stuck fast, themselves under attack, while rebellion flared up elsewhere.
On hearing of the outbreak at Meerut, Sir Henry Lawrence, chief commissioner of Oudh, quickly prepared the area of his Residency at Lucknow for defence, and it became a place of refuge for survivors as revolt spread across the whole of Oudh. At Cawnpore, not far to the south, Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler threw up an entrenchment around the barracks, and he too prepared to meet an attack. The fate of these two little garrisons set the tone for much of what followed. Lucknow held out (although Lawrence himself was killed early on in the siege) until partial relief by Major General Sir James Outram and Major General Sir Henry Havelock in September, and final relief by Lieutenant General Sir Colin Campbell in November.
At Cawnpore, however, Wheeler held out until it became clear that his flimsy lines, packed with women and children, could no longer sustain the bombardment. The Nana Sahib had thrown in his lot with the rebels early on, and an emissary of Wheeler’s concluded an agreement with him which would give the garrison safe conduct to the River Ganges, where boats would be ready to take them downstream to safety. On 27 June, Wheeler’s little party hadjust embarked when the sepoys opened fire, and then waded into the river to finish off the surviving men. The remaining women and children were herded into a compound called the Bibighar and, when a relief column under Havelock neared Cawnpore, they were murdered on the Nana’s orders. Even the mutinous sepoys could not steel themselves to the task, and eventually five men, two of them butchers from the bazaar, hacked them to death: their bodies were thrown down a well.100
The massacre at Cawnpore inspired shocking retribution. Brigadier James Neill, second in command of the relief column, had already hanged men indiscriminately on the advance, and now he declared:
Whenever a rebel is caught he is immediately tried, and unless he can prove a defence he is hanged at once; but the chief rebels or ringleaders I first make clean up a certain portion of the pool of blood, still two inches deep, in the shed where the fearful murder and mutilation of women and children took place. To touch blood is most abhorrent to high-class natives, they think that by doing so they doom their souls to perdition. Let them think so …
The first I caught was a subadhar, a native officer, a high-caste Brahmin, who tried to resist my order to clean up the very blood he had helped to shed; but I made the Provost-Marshal do his duty, and a few lashes soon made the miscreant accomplish his task. Which done, he was taken out and immediately hanged, and after death buried in a ditch by the roadside.101
Major Octavius Anson of HM’s 9th Lancers was at the Bibighar in October, and wrote that:
The blood, hair and garments of poor unfortunate women and children are still to be seen in the assembly-room and about the compound. Ouvry brought away the frock of a baby that could hardly have been more than a month old, and in Wheeler’s entrenchment he laid his hands on what must have been a Church Bible … It contained part of the sermon on the mount …
We saw lots of remnants of gowns, shoes and garments dyed in blood, and blood upon the walls in different places. Outside in the compound there was the skull of a woman, and hair about in the bushes. Oh, what pain … 102
Lieutenant Arthur Lang of the Bengal Engineers was furious:
Every man across the river whom I shall meet shall suffer for my visit to Cawnpore. I will never again, as I used to at Delhi, let off men who I catch in houses or elsewhere. I thought when I had killed twelve men outright and wounded or knocked over as many more at the battle of Agra, that I had done enough. I think now I shall never stop, if I get the chance again.103
At Delhi, meanwhile, there was little progress. General Barnard, like his predecessor, died of cholera, and his successor, Major General Reed, was so ill that he soon resigned command to Archdale Wilson and set off for the Punjab to regain his health. There were repeated attacks on the British position on the ridge, and its garrison felt that they were as much besieged as besiegers. The moveable column, now under the command of John Nicholson, a temporary brigadier general aged thirty-four, arrived on 14 August, but the sepoys, too, had been reinforced, and an assault was again postponed. A siege train of sorts had at last reached the ridge, and the first battery was ready on 8 September. By nightfall on the 13th there were two practicable breaches, and Wilson agreed to launch the assault at dawn the next day. Although the attack went in late, the attackers poured in, some through the breaches and others through the Kashmir Gate, blown in by a party of engineers. There was fierce fighting, in the course of which Nicholson was mortally wounded, and Delhi was sec
The fall of Delhi marked a turning point in the campaign. Before it, the British might well have lost, but after the fall their damaged iqbal was somewhat restored, and rulers who might have sided with the rebels were now persuaded to remain loyal. But it was still vital to relieve Lucknow, and Major General Sir James Outram, now chief commissioner of Oudh, and just back from commanding the Persian expedition, arrived at Cawnpore to take over the relief force, although he generously allowed Havelock to retain military command for the moment. The relieving force got into the Residency compound on 25 September, and although it could not fight its way out again, the place was in less danger than it had been before. It took the newly arrived Lieutenant General Sir Colin Campbell, with the regiments diverted from China, to break the garrison out on 16 November. (One of Campbell’s staff produced the second great Latin joke of British India. ‘Nunc fortunatus sum,’ he quipped, amidst gusts of cheroot smoke: ‘I am in luck now.’) Havelock, old and promoted so very slowly, confirmed in death that iconic status which had come to him too late. Sick and worn out, he died before he could be evacuated.
With Campbell busy at Lucknow, the rebels struck at Cawnpore, and Campbell swung back to deal with them, administering, on 6 December, a defeat which ranked alongside the capture of Delhi as evidence that the tide had turned. He then took Fategarh, scene of another massacre and, after consultation with Canning, who had now moved up to Allahabad, he reorganised his force and then set about dousing the rebellion in Oudh. Lucknow was finally taken, though Campbell, probably because of reluctance to cut off ‘desperate soldiery whose only wish was to escape’, did not use his cavalry to intercept fleeing rebels, and so the revolt there smouldered on for another year.
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