On his return to Peshawur Roberts had looked forward to hard work and a long spell of routine, but the outbreak of the great Indian Mutiny was to provide him with a more exciting field of activity.
The year 1857 broke with the threatenings of coming trouble. The Sepoys were restless, and seemed to obey their orders sulkily. During the months of February, March, and April, mysterious "chupatties," or cakes, were sent about the country, passed from hand to hand, and this was thought to be a means of telling the natives to rise, and a secret signal for them to get ready.
We must remember that, for the first few years of British rule in India, Hindus and Mohammedans had been happy to dwell peacefully side by side. They were thankful for the change from bloodshed and strife to law and order, under just rulers. They could no longer be tortured and robbed by their native kings, for the country was quiet and prosperous, and the poor man could live and labour without fearing the tyranny of the rich.
By-and-by, however, the people began to forget how poor and ill-treated they had been in the past. The Mohammedans looked back with regret on their days of power and splendour, when they had ruled India; while the Hindus thought of how they had got rid of the Mohammedan yoke.
Neither people liked to be ruled and to be under the power of a strange white people, who had come from across "the great water," and conquered their country with a mere handful of men. At this stage, the enemies of our rule spread a report that the English had made up their minds to destroy the religions of the two great races in India, and force them all to become Christians.
To a Hindu a cow is a sacred animal; on the other hand, the pig the Mohammedan holds in abomination, and he will sooner starve than even touch the flesh of what to him is an unclean beast. A report arose, and was busily spread about the country, that the new cartridges issued to the Sepoys, or native soldiers, had been greased with a mixture of cows' fat and lard. To touch one of these cartridges was to a native of either race a sin, and a great and unpardonable sin, against his religion. As explaining this feeling, Lord Roberts tells a story of a Sepoy, on his way to cook his food, with his "Iota," or tin drinking-vessel, full of water. He was met by a low-caste man employed in the Enfield Cartridge Factory, who begged him for a drink from his Iota. This Sepoy, a Brahmin—one of the highest caste—refused, saying, "I have scoured my Iota; you will defile it by your touch."
"Oh," sneered the low-caste native, "you think much of your caste, but wait a little; the Sahib-log "(that is, European officers) "will make you bite cartridges soaked in cows' fat, and then where will your caste be?"
The Sepoy, no doubt, believed the man, and told his comrades what was going to happen. No wonder, then, that the soldiers believed the reports, and feared that by means of the new cartridges they were to be forced to change their religion.
At the time we speak of the British force in India numbered only 36,000 men, while there were some 257,000 native soldiers. The old belief that the British soldier was invincible, a belief which arose from the way in which mere handfuls of our men had broken and beaten large armies, met with a rude shock during the Afghan War, 1841—42. What the Afghans had shown to be possible the Sepoys might also accomplish. At all events, they had made up their minds to try.
Over the whole land there blew "a devil's wind," as the Hindus called it. The aged King of Delhi, when asked afterwards to explain the cause of the outbreak, answered, "I do not know. I suppose my people gave themselves up to the devil."
A mysterious prophecy was revived, and was repeated all over the country, from mouth to mouth.
In 1757, the Battle of Massy, Clive's victory which gave us India, had been fought and won. The English "raj," or rule, would run exactly one hundred years—so ran the prophecy; and lo! here was 1857—the hundred years had run their course.
The British forces were scattered in small detachments over Bengal, and most of the artillery was in native hands. Indeed, perhaps among the various causes of the Mutiny, it was the natives' sense of power—they had fought our battles and conquered for us, they argued—which urged them to rebel.
On the 11th of May, while Roberts and the other officers were sitting at mess in Peshawur, the bolt fell from the blue. In breathless haste a telegraphic signaler rushed in, and gasped out the startling news that an outbreak had occurred at Meerut, that Delhi had joined the rebels, and that many residents and officers at both stations had been murdered.
To fully understand the situation we must leave Lord Roberts for a little, and go back to relate the events which gave rise to the outbreak of the Mutiny, during which the whole power of British rule seemed at one moment to be tottering on its throne: a power which was only afterwards to be more firmly established, thanks to the heroic devotion and bravery of our men and their dusky allies who remained steadfast and true to their salt, while their comrades-in-arms on all sides rose in revolt.
As early as the 6th of February, an officer of the 34th Native Regiment had been warned by a Sepoy that his men, fearing that they were going to be forced to become Christians, meant to rise in revolt. We have already told the story of the Brahmin and the low-caste man at Dum-Dum.
The air was full of warnings had the authorities but been alive to the fact. Already General Hearsay had written to the Government, "We are on a mine ready for explosion," and his words and warning were but too true. At Barrackpore, March 29th, on a Sunday afternoon, the match that was to explode the whole mine may be said to have been lighted.
The 34th were drawn up on parade, or rather the quarter-guard of the regiment—tall, fine, soldierly men—were drawn up in regular order. The rest of the regiment were in a wild state of excitement and disorder, chattering and gesticulating as only natives can.
In front of them a drug-maddened, excited Sepoy, named Mungal Pandy, stalked up and down. He shouted to his comrades to leave their ranks.
"Through biting these cartridges we shall all be made infidels! Be true to your faith, if you are not dogs! Show yourselves men; come out, and let the cursed Sahibs see that we are not afraid!"
Thus he marched to and fro, taunting the men with their cowardice; they were giving up their religion; they were accursed in this world, and with no hope of being saved in the next.
His words acted like magic, and struck home to his eager listeners; murmurs were heard, and the ranks swayed backwards and forwards. At this moment Lieutenant Baugh, the adjutant, roused from his afternoon's sleep by the news of a revolt, galloped upon the scene. Straight at Mungal Pandy he rode; there was a flash from the Sepoy's musket, and the horse went down. The gallant Englishman gets up, bruised and half-stunned as he is, and dashes in at the rebel. He misses his aim, and the first victim of the Indian Mutiny falls under Mungal Pandy's sword.
Hardly had Baugh fallen than the English serjeant-major ran up, hastily buttoning his tunic, hot and blown with his dash across the parade-ground. All breathless as he was, he launches himself straight at the Sepoy's face: the latter is a skilled swordsman, and the brave Englishman, taken at a disadvantage, is cut down. Two of the Sahibs are killed, no startling retribution has followed, and the hitherto loyal quarter-guard refuse to seize the mutineer, though they run forward to do so in a half-hearted manner.
Just then General Hearsay rides up, to quote Mr. Fitchett, "a red-faced, wrathful, hard-fighting, iron-nerved veteran, with two sons, of blood as warlike as their father's, riding behind him as aides."
"Have a care, his musket is loaded!" somebody sang out.
"D—n his loaded musket! If I fall, John, rush in and put him to death somehow," shouted the general to his son.
The native officer, with Hearsay's pistol at his head, fell in with his men, and advanced to seize the mutineer, but Mungal Pandy has done his work. His excitement has left him, the knowledge of his crime remains. He is a brave man, however, though a rebel, and will take his fate in his own hands. Putting the muzzle of his rifle to his own body, he pulls the trigger with his naked toe and falls shot through the breast.
Discipline had for the moment again asserted itself, and the absolute fearlessness of Hearsay had for the time being won the day.
Not long after, at Meerut, the flames of mutiny thus promptly quenched broke out in earnest. Towards the end of April a feeling of restlessness and discontent began to show itself: the Sepoys became less respectful towards their officers, and almost insolent in their bearing. Fires also broke out in the lines at night, and some troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry actually refused to take the new cartridges. Eighty-five men of the 3rd were tried, accordingly, by a court-martial consisting of six Mohammedan and nine Hindu officers. They were found guilty, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment with hard labour.
On the 9th of May there was a parade of the whole Meerut garrison: before their comrades the eighty-five troopers were brought forth, sentence read, and the fetters slowly and laboriously fastened on them. Each man in turn called for his comrades to rescue him, but as yet each man called in vain. Under the pitiless scorching sun the work of degradation went on; occupying as it did several hours, the ceremony ceased to impress, and inspired anger rather than fear in the hearts of the Sepoys.
The next day was a Sunday. Outwardly, things seemed peaceful and calm; the lesson read to the mutineers, it was hoped, had taken effect, but in the bazaars and elsewhere there was a spirit of unrest. Still the British officers were confident in the loyalty of their men, and their suspicions, which ought to have been awakened, were strangely lulled into a feeling of false security.
The chaplain of Meerut was about to start for church accompanied by his wife, when their faithful native nurse fell on her knees before them and begged them to stay at home. "There was going to be a fight with the Sepoys," she kept on saying. The clergyman pooh-poohed her fears, but his wife believed the woman, and at her request he took his children with him instead of leaving them alone with their ayah.
He soon saw that the native woman had spoken the truth. Before the church was reached the rattle of musketry was heard. On arrival at the door the buglers of the both were sounding the "alarm" and the "assembly"; the parade was hastily dismissed, and the British soldiers rushed to the barracks for their arms and ammunition.
Fortune to a certain extent favoured our men. The mutineers had expected to find the both in church, unarmed save for their bayonets. By a lucky chance, however, church on this particular Sunday had been put off for half-an-hour, and as the rebels galloped down the lines of the both they found the men fully armed and in the act of falling in.
Without a moment's delay the 3rd Native Cavalry dashed to the gaol, broke into the cells, set free their eighty-five comrades, and all other prisoners as well. While this was going on the two Native Infantry regiments, in a wild state of excitement, set fire to their tents, and began firing their muskets at random.
In vain the British officers tried to restore order. The Sepoys would not actually attack their own officers, but telling them that the Company's raj was over, begged them to get away while they could in safety; officers of other regiments they did not spare, and showed no feelings about shooting them down. While exhorting his own men of the 11th to remain true to their salt, Colonel Finnis, who had served with Sepoys for forty years, and fully trusted in their loyalty, fell riddled with bullets from the muskets of the l0th.
The fall of Colonel Finnis was the signal for a general rising. Seven officers, the wives of three officers, two children, and every stray European found—man, woman, and child—were ruthlessly massacred. The work of murder went on apace; the streets were in a blaze; by the light from the flames the Sahibs were discovered; every hated white man was chased and cut to pieces.
"When day broke Meerut showed streets of ruins, blackened with fire and splashed red with the blood of murdered Englishmen and Englishwomen."
And now the die had been cast: the Sepoys had betrayed their salt; they were murderers and traitors, and could look for no mercy if caught. In Delhi, they learnt from the native officers of the court-martial sent to try them, the troops were all ready to join them and revive the old Mogul rule.
"To Delhi! To Delhi!" was their cry, as the murderers galloped off, leaving behind them nothing but smouldering fires and the dead and mutilated bodies of their officers and victims.
Amid this tale of treachery and crime there is one bright incident of native loyalty worth telling. A Hindu native officer had warned Lieutenant Gough, of the 9th Light Cavalry, that there was going to be serious trouble. Gough had repeated the tale to his colonel, and also to the brigadier, General Wilson, but both had thought lightly of the news.
The following day, that fateful Sunday, the same native officer, attended by two troopers, galloped to Gough's house, shouting that the "hala" had begun, and that the Native Infantry were firing on their officers. Saddling his horse, the Englishman set off at full gallop for the parade ground, attended by the three natives. The Sepoys called to the troopers to get out of the way, as they meant to shoot the Sahib. No notice being taken of this, they fired, but missed the whole party.
The lieutenant with his trusty escort then turned and galloped to the lines of the 9th Cavalry. Here the men were saddling up and helping themselves to ammunition. A recruit or two fired at him, but the old soldiers were loyal; and the native officers flocked round him and implored him to go away, telling him that they could not answer for his safety.
Darkness was coming on as Gough rode towards the European lines and charged through the crowded bazaars. In sight of the Artillery mess the faithful natives left him. They had seen their Sahib safe, had protected him at the risk of their lives, but they could not leave their relations and friends, with whom they had determined to throw in their lot. With a respectful "salaam" they bade farewell to the officer whose life they had saved, and galloped off to join their rebel comrades, nor could any trace of them afterwards be found.
General Hewitt has been much blamed for not starting in pursuit of the mutineers on their way to Delhi. The officers of the Carabineers begged hard to be allowed to avenge their fallen comrades. The Rifles, 1000 strong, were ready and eager for the fray. Lord Roberts himself, however, considers that pursuit would have been useless.
"The Carabineers," he says, "were but lately arrived from England, and were composed largely of recruits still in the riding-school, while their horses were, for the most part, quite unbroken. No action, however prompt, on the part of the Meerut authorities could have arrested the Mutiny. The Sepoys," he continues, "had determined to throw off their allegiance to the British Government, and the 'when' and the 'how' were merely questions of time and opportunity."