Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Mutiny of Vellore

Now suddenly there came an end to Wellesley's "forward policy" as it was called.

At first both the directors of the Company and the Parliament of Britain had been dazzled by the way in which he had brought prince after prince under the rule of the British. But the directors soon began to be annoyed and anxious too. It was trade and money that they wanted and not Empire. And instead of bringing in money, Lord Wellesley's wars swallowed it up. Then when the news that a bandit chieftain had destroyed a troop of British soldiers reached home, their patience gave out and their fears increased. They thought that the whole of the Maráthás would again rise. The idea, too, that India could only be ruled and kept in peace by forcing the native princes to bow to British law, was new to them. They did not see the need or the use of all Lord Wellesley's alliances with native rulers. They were tired of wars, so Lord Wellesley was recalled, and Lord Cornwallis sent out again as Governor-General.

Lord Wellesley returned home a sorely disappointed man. But he left his mark on Indian history. He founded the first college for officers of the Company at Calcutta, and he may be said to be the founder of the Indian Civil Service as it is to-day.

Lord Cornwallis came to India the second time with orders to free the princes from their treaties, and not to interfere any more in their quarrels with each other or with their subjects. But Cornwallis was now an old man, and he had not been more than ten weeks in India when he died. So the orders of the directors were not fully carried out, neither were the plans of Wellesley followed, and for two years, India was full of unrest. Holkar, on the eve of being conquered, was not conquered. All his lands were given back to him, and although he was made to promise not to disturb British possessions, he burned, plundered, and slaughtered in Rajputana, which was not under British protection. Holkar became more and more haughty and wild. He fought and drank until he made himself mad, and was at length shut up as a madman, until he died.

Yet within the borders of British India there had been peace for a time. Now suddenly it was broken.

The army officers at Madras began to think that the sepoys would look much better if they were all dressed alike. So the commander forbade them to wear earrings or "caste" marks. They were also ordered to shave their beards and trim their moustaches all alike, and worst of all they were made to give up wearing turbans, and told to wear a round black hat very much like what Europeans wore.

The Madras sepoys hated all these new orders, and to make matters worse, the other natives taunted them and laughed at them. They said that this was only a beginning, and that soon their white masters would force them to give up both caste and religion, and become Christian.

Stories of their discontent and anger were brought to the officers. But they did not believe them, or did not care, and they insisted that the new orders should be obeyed.

At the fortress of Vellore there lived the sons and relatives of Tippoo Sultan who had died, you remember, fighting against the British.

Here there was a garrison of less than four hundred British, and about fifteen thousand sepoys. And it was here that the anger of the sepoys broke out, encouraged, it is thought, by these Indian princes.

In the early dawn of a July morning, the sepoys silently and stealthily surrounded the barracks and the houses of the officers. All was still and quiet, when suddenly the hush of the morning was broken by the loud crack of guns. Through the windows of the barracks the sepoys poured volley after volley upon the sleeping men. Some of the officers, awakened by the noise, ran out of their houses to see what the matter was. They were shot down upon their doorsteps. Others were slaughtered in their beds. Before they could arm or defend themselves, every officer and half of the men were killed. But at last those who remained drove the mutineers back and took refuge in a jutting out part of the fortifications near the gateway. Here they awaited help, for they managed in some way to send news of the mutiny to Arcot.

In the meantime the flag of Tippoo was planted upon the walls, and the rebel sepoys were feasted by the native princes.

Help was not long in coming. Arcot was only eight miles away, and there was a brave and eager officer called Colonel Gillespie. As soon as he heard the news he gathered his men and galloped to Vellore as fast as he could. So eager was he that he outstripped his men and arrived first at the gates. He found them fast shut, and guarded by the mutineers. Alone thus against the enemy he was in great danger. But the British soldiers on the rampart, when they saw him, buckled their sword belts together into a long rope, and, letting it down over the wall, drew the gallant colonel up into safety.

Soon the troopers and two cannon arrived. They burst the gate open, rushed in and charged the mutineers. Everywhere the rebel sepoys gave way. They could not stand before British bayonets. Some fled, others were taken prisoner, and four hundred lay dead among the narrow streets of Vellore.

Colonel Gillespie with his quick action had broken the spirit of the mutiny. There were other riots both near and far, which showed how widespread had been the discontent. But the British were now on their guard, and the worst of the danger was over.

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