After the fall of Tipu Sultan (1799), the East India Company government restored the Mysore kingdom to the Wodeyar dynasty. It decided to pay a stipend to Tipu’s sons and intern them in two palaces, Hyder Mahal and Tipu Mahal, specially constructed for them in the Vellore Fort. Along with the family of Tipu Sultan, about 3,000 Mysoreans settled in Pettai, a habitat around the fort. For about five years there was calm. Then suddenly erupted an armed insurgency in the Fort.
The English garrison of Vellore at the time of the uprising consisted of four companies of His Majesty’s 69th Regiment, six companies of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Native Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment.
The Europeans were about 370 in number, the natives 1,700. Colonel John Fancourt was the garrison’s commandant. The 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment comprised Mysore Muslims, many of whom had been in the service of Tipu.
Its Commandant was Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Forbes. The 23rd Regiment had been raised in the district of Tirunelveli and contained in its ranks a number of followers of the Palayakkarars of southern Tamil Nadu. John McKerras commanded this regiment.
Soon after Sir John Cradock assumed office as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army (1805), he obtained the Governor’s permission to codify the regulations of the military department. The newly compiled code of military regulations and dress, notified to the Army by the Commander-in-Chief on March 13, 1806, insisted that an Indian soldier should not denote his caste on his forehead or wear earrings when dressed in his uniform and should have his chin clean-shaven at all parades.
This caused resentment in the Indian infantry as it was viewed as an attempt to coerce natives into Christianity. 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. This time the cockade was made of animal skin. Pig’s skin was anathema to Muslims, while upper-caste Hindus shunned anything to do with cowhide.
The first incident of protest occurred in May. The men in the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Regiment at Vellore refused to wear the new turban. On the evening of May 6, the Adjutant reported that the men refused to put on their side arms. The following day, the commandant Lt.-Col. Darley paraded the corps.
When the men were about to be dispersed, someone from the sepoy crowd jeered “dhoot, dhoot”, meaning “get lost”. The matter was reported to the Commander-in-Chief, who ordered that the ringleaders be arrested and sent to Madras for trial.
The court martial, after investigations, tried 21 privates (10 Muslims and 11 Hindus) for defiance. Governor William Bentinck communicated the result of the trial to the Adjutant General for action.
Two soldiers, Sheik Abdul Rymen and Anantaraman, refused to apologise and hence were sentenced to receive 900 lashes each and were discharged from service. The remaining 19, who complied with the orders of the court and apologised, were sentenced to 500 lashes each but pardoned. The Company government heaved a sigh of relief that a great disaster had been averted. But in two months a major uprising broke out in Vellore Fort.
At 2 a.m. in the morning on July 10, the guns boomed in Vellore Fort. Col. Fancourt, alerted by the firing at the main guard, which was close to his house, rushed out in his dressing gown. He was shot on his own doorstep and died a few hours later.
The second victim was Lt.-Col. Kerras, the Commanding Officer of the 23rd Regiment. Sergeant John Eley of the 69th regiment, who was wounded and had a handkerchief tied round his head, was brought from the ramparts. He begged the sepoys for mercy. But he was chased into the guard room and slain.
Major Armstrong of the 16th Native Infantry was outside the Fort when he heard the sound of firing. He alighted from the palanquin he was travelling in, advanced to the glacis and asked what the firing meant. He was answered by a volley from the ramparts, which killed him instantly.
Scores of native soldiers surrounded the barracks, stormed the houses of the Europeans and put to death, with unsparing ferocity, all those they could locate. Totally 15 European officers and 119 European soldiers were killed on that day. The victorious Indian soldiers then hoisted the Mysore Sultan’s Tiger standard in the Fort.
A Jamedar on the late evening of July 9 in a drunken mood disclosed the plan of revolt, and as a consequence the sepoys were constrained to launch the revolt that day itself. Therefore, the information of the revolt did not reach Pettai. Contrary to expectation, armed forces from Kunrathur and Arcot also did not arrive to join the rebels.
Adjutant Ewing, who could slip out of the Fort, managed to assemble several Europeans and join Col. Nathaniel Forbes, who lived outside the Fort. Accompanied by a number of unarmed men belonging to the 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment, these two officers took possession of the hill fort and waited there until British authority was re-established in the main Fort.
The native troops made the tactical blunder of not checking how many European privates were hiding in the fort and how many had left it and rallied under their surviving masters. As a result, Sergeant Jones of the 1st Regiment and Sergeant Dean of the 23rd Regiment could collect all those who survived the firing of native troops and succeeded in bringing them under their control.
Suppression of revolt
The Indian troops remained unchallenged until Colonel Gillespie, stationed at Arcot, 25 kilometres away, arrived at 9 a.m. with a squadron of the 19th Dragoons and the 7th Madras Cavalry. The Dragoons, supported by the Madras Cavalry, then charged into the Fort and wreaked vengeance on the mutineers.
Hundreds of fleeing soldiers were caught and butchered, while many were taken prisoner in different parts of the country within the next few days. There is no consensus among historians on the death toll. However, W.J. Wilson’s number of 879 out of 1,700 in the Fort is acceptable.
General Harcourt’s official figures tell us the number of prisoners. There were 466 prisoners in Vellore, while 321 were still at large. Apart from these 787 prisoners, there were also persons kept in confinement in different parts of the country.
Court of Inquiry
Immediately after the suppression of the rebellion, Colonel Gillespie constituted a court of inquiry,presided over by Lt.-Col. Kennedy of His Majesty’s 19th Dragoons. However, a Special Commission was appointed by the Company government on July 12, 1806, with Major General Pater as President.
Many officials, realising that the safety of the Empire depended on the bonding between the native troops and their British officers, pressed for admonition and not “barbarous punishment”. General pardon was given to 516 mutineers, who were allowed to continue in service without any restraint. At the same time, on the basis of depositions before the court of inquiry, the Native General Court Martial awarded death punishment and banishment to select individuals.
Even before the commission of inquiry presented its findings, the Mysore princes were ordered to be sent to Calcutta. Moiz-Ud-Din, against whom there was still suspicion, was kept for some time in confinement but was eventually liberated.
Eight of the retainers of the Mysore princes were tried before a Special Commission at Chittoor in April 1807, and the proceedings were confirmed by the government in May. One was sentenced to death, two to transportation for life, one to imprisonment for life, one to imprisonment for 10 years, and three were acquitted.
The officers and men engaged in the suppression of the mutiny were thanked for their services. Sergeant Brady of the 69th Regiment was promoted as Conductor of Ordnance, Colonel Gillespie was presented 7,000 pagodas (Rs. 24,500), and Sergeant Brady 800 pagodas (Rs.2,800) in acknowledgement of their services.
The native cavalry detachment that consisted of 107 men of the 7th Regiment under Captain Doveton, and of 305 men drawn from all ranks of the other seven regiments, under Captain Mason of the 5th Regiment, was rewarded with enhanced pay.
The Special Commission presided over by J. Pater, which commenced its inquiry on July 21, presented its findings to the government on August 9. According to the commission, the decisive factor for the revolt was the residence of Tipu’s family at Vellore. The confessional statements extorted from the sepoys were mostly on a promise of pardon or enticement. As a result, many of them turned approver.
The higher tribunals of the Home Government held the Governor of Madras, the Commander-in-Chief, and the Adjutant General responsible for the bungling and ordered their recall. The Adjutant General P.A. Agnew was subsequently restored to his post. The Deputy Adjutant General Major Pierce was made a scapegoat and ordered to return to England.
The obnoxious regulations to which the soldiers objected were withdrawn. A government order issued on July 17, and reissued on September 24, prohibited all unauthorised alterations in dress and interference with the native soldiers’ national customs.
It was further directed that the turban sanctioned by the government on March 15, 1797, should continue to be the pattern for the army. The new regulation about the turban was repealed on September 24, 1806. The government dissolved the 1st and 23rd Regiments from December 31, 1806, and in their places stationed two regiments of two battalions each, numbered the 24th and the 25th Regiments.
Causes of the Revolt
The military historian John William Kaye and the historian S.S. Furnell attributed the trouble to the estranged relationship between European and native officers, caused by the racial arrogance of the former and their lack of acquaintance with native languages.
The refusal of the erstwhile Palayakkarars and rajas to reconcile themselves to Company rule, French instigation stoking their hopes of regaining their regimes, and the contact of Fateh Ali, Tipu’s nephew, with the Marathas and the French in Pondicherry were thought to be contributory factors by the historian Dodwell.
Some military officials attributed the mutiny to the activity of Christian missionaries. According to historians James Mill and H.H. Wilson, the interference of the government in matters of religious faith was disastrous. The role of Fakirs in inciting the people and the army against the government was emphasised by Furnell.
The exploitative land revenue policy of the British resulting in successive droughts, and increasing incidence of poverty, the loss of power and authority suffered by south Indian potentates, and the Palayakkarars, who were looking for an opportunity to be rid of the British, and the apprehension of the Indian armed personnel that the controversial military regulations, dress and hat were aimed at forcing them into Christianity were the factors that contributed to the outbreak of the revolt.
Sinking their regional, religious, linguistic and caste differences, Indian soldiers decided to rally behind Tipu’s family to forge a united front against the common adversary, the British. Albeit confined to cantonments, in its origin and in terms of causes, the 1806 Vellore Revolt is certainly a forerunner to the more widespread Great Rebellion of 1857.