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Edward Gilliat

Before the Mutiny:

Mutterings of the Storm

Before we begin to record some of the brave or patient deeds performed by heroes of the Indian Mutiny, it will make matters more clear if we dwell briefly on the history of our Indian Empire, and on the causes which led to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Soon after Vasco da Gama had found the shores of Hindostan on May 17, 1498, Indian goods and curios began to enter Europe through the agency of the Portuguese and Venetians: but it was not until September 1599 that the merchants of London formed a trading association, and received a charter, which gave them exclusive trade with the countries east of the Cape of Good Hope.

The first vessels returned laden with cargoes of pepper, cloves and cinnamon, on which enormous profits were made, to the natural jealousy of the Portuguese and Dutch, the prior traders in that region.

In 1612, Captain Best was attacked by a strong Portuguese fleet, and beat off his assailants with great gallantry in the roadstead of Surat. He landed his cargo and obtained a commercial treaty from the Mogul emperor: in 1634, the Great Mogul gave the British a firman, enabling them to trade in Bengal: this year the Portuguese retired from that province, and left the trade to their rivals.

In 1639, Fort St. George, or Madras, our earliest possession in India, was founded by Francis Day, and in 1661 Bombay was given to the British Crown as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, and was shortly afterwards transferred by King Charles II. to the East India Company.

After fighting for this trade with the Portuguese and Dutch, we found ourselves in 1744 at war with the French, who also had established themselves in Pondicherry: Dupleix, the French governor, had the ambition of founding a French Empire in India, but the British, under Clive and Sir Eyre Coote, succeeded in expelling the French in 1760. We cannot follow the details of the many wars which followed the attempt to push trade into the interior of India.

The Mahrattas, who had been used to raid and ravage up to the walls of Calcutta, had to be quelled: Oude was reduced by Major Munro in 1764: Hyder Ali of Mysore gave trouble in the Carnatic and ravaged the country up to Madras, but was defeated by Coote.

A second Mysore War gave half the dominions of Tippoo, Hyder's son, to the British: Tippoo himself was finally defeated and killed at Seringapatam in 1799. In the second Mahratta War, Sir Arthur Wellesley and Lord Lake won great victories, and Orissa fell under our rule. The Gurkhas were defeated in 1814, and Nepal sued for peace.

In 1823 the first Burmese War took place, and we lost many men from disease.

In 1828, Lord William Bentinck became Governor General of India, and made many social reforms: some of these are said to have led to the Mutiny, as they touched on the religion of the natives. He abolished suttee, or the burning of widows upon the bier of their husbands: he put down thugs, or the hereditary assassins of India: he forbade the flogging of native soldiers by English officers, of which we will write more anon. Under Lord Auckland the disastrous Afghan War took place and at the same time Sir Charles Napier conquered the Ameers of Scinde: in 1845, Sir Hugh Gough defeated in four battles the brave fighting race of the Sikhs, and a British Resident was sent to the Punjab. Under Lord Dalhousie fresh territory was annexed in the Punjab, Burma, Nagpore and Oude: at the end of the second Sikh War the Punjab became a British Province, and under John Lawrence was so prosperous and contented that it effected much toward stemming the tide of mutiny. In 1852 the second Burmese War gave Britain the valley of the Irrawaddy, and since then that province has advanced amazingly in all material development.

This brief resume serves to show us how to the Indian mind war after war, and annexation after defeat, must have excited patriotic feelings and alarmed the ruling powers of native states and the high-caste priesthood with regard to what might follow. But the causes of the Mutiny were so numerous that it is worth while to unravel them in some detail.

One influence which weighed heavily with the superstitious native was caused by a rumour circulating through all the bazaars that fate limited the English rule in India to one hundred years from the date of Clive's great victory at Plassey (1757). The sepoy troops, too, had learnt on many a battlefield to win great victories, and thought the time had come for them to recognise their own valour and secure a great destiny. Being most of them the younger sons of zemindars, or small landholders, the sepoys were full of pride and ambition: they believed that the treasures of India belonged by right to them; they were looking forward to founding a great military despotism, under which they were to be the spoilt children of fortune. It is true a sepoy's pay was only seven rupees a month, less than fourteen shillings at that period: but as a Brahmin his faith restrained him from wasting his money on gross appetite, and his simple mode of life left him a surplus from which he could help his needy relations: so that he felt himself a man of some importance. For the Hindoo possesses a strong sense of clanship, and is extremely generous in his dealings with poor kinsmen. But the Indian dustoor, or etiquette of the family, sometimes compels him to launch out into enormous expenses through which he falls deeply into debt and becomes the slave of a grasping, pitiless usurer. For instance, a private soldier has often been known to celebrate a marriage feast in such style as to necessitate the spending of three or four hundred rupees. By this means he achieves a temporary consideration amongst the native populace, while he loses permanently all peace of mind, grows discontented and infects his regiment with his own sense of wrong. For an Indian regiment was not composed of separate units like a British regiment: the soubandar-major, or native colonel, allowed his havildar, or sergeant, to recruit as many natives as he liked from his own village: so that a sepoy regiment partook of the nature of a clan in which near relations stood shoulder to shoulder, and any grievance which hurt one sepoy affected all together: this made them strong as a fighting machine, but in time of mutiny proved to be fraught with danger to our Empire, for family ties held them together against us. Some historians give the annexation of Oude as a cause for the mutiny, on the ground that the sepoy lost land by the change. Others attribute it to Russian intrigue, or Persian interference, or Mahommedan conspiracy, things difficult to prove.

Officers who served in sepoy regiments give more probable causes of the discontent: they say frankly that the sepoy had been taught to believe that he was the mainstay of our power in India: he had been indulged and petted by successive governors-general and commanding officers, who could not believe that the sepoy was at heart unfaithful, and who shut their eyes to any evidence of his disaffection. The bonds of discipline had gradually been relaxed since Lord William Bentinck had put down flogging: then the Brahmin priests grew alarmed for their influence and prestige, as infanticide was stopped, suttee abolished, and the privilege of dying under the car of Juggernaut was forbidden. Besides all this, Lord Dalhousie made all sepoys pay postage for their letters, instead of letting them go free, as before, under the signature of their commanding officer. The ferries too were no longer free to them; but now, unless on duty, they had to pay toll. An officer, who had been away from his regiment for ten years, and had been home on sick leave, on returning to his old regiment as colonel noticed a marked change for the worse in the conduct of the sepoys towards their European officers.

The other officers, who had been with the same men continually, did not notice any difference. But the colonel remarked at once on the want of cordial respect towards officers which had formerly been the rule: he saw with dismay a swaggering, free and easy kind of air about the sepoys, and that they were quite careless about showing respect to officers of other regiments.

"Riding in uniform past the guards of other regiments, I constantly observed that the sepoys would stand with their arms folded, their legs straddled, their noses in the air; and that they would salute with mock respect, or purposely with the left hand, an Indian way of offering an affront. I never passed over such acts of disrespect, and in the course of a few weeks, as I became known, their conduct altered towards myself."

However, the colonel had a striking illustration of the increasing insolence of the native soldiers in his own regiment. For a man named Toofanee having a quarrel with a comrade lodged a complaint against him before the captain of his company. The captain gave his decision, but Toofanee appealed to the colonel. On proceeding to the mess-house after morning parade to hear the case, the colonel met the adjutant and began conversing with him: at this moment Toofanee was brought up by the orderly havildar, or sergeant of his company, and without waiting to be addressed, or until the colonel had done speaking to the adjutant, he saluted in an insolent manner and shouted out, "I shall get no justice here: I shall bring my captain before the supreme court in Calcutta." The native officers who heard this were highly indignant at the man's insubordination.

Toofanee was instantly ordered into confinement, tried and punished: but his case was no exceptional one. The discipline of the sepoys had fallen from its high standard.

Another officer accuses Lord William Bentinck of having given the Indian army the first and most serious push down the incline from discipline to anarchy. In the first place, that governor-general made a change which lowered the white officer in the eyes of his men. There had been an allowance made to each officer, called "batta"; Lord William, out of motives of economy, passed "the half batta retrenchment": thus a few thousand pounds were screwed out of the pockets of needy officers, who had left home and friends to serve in an Indian climate.

The sepoys immediately said, "Ah! the English dare not touch our pay," and they twirled their moustaches with overweening pride and insolence. For, as a rule, the two things which the natives of India value most are money and power.

Lord William Bentinck mulcted the British officer in both. When he wished to abolish corporal punishment in the native army, Lord William sent a circular letter to every commanding officer in the service, asking his opinion on the subject. As a rule the native officers were consulted, and very freely they expressed their opinions. Said one, "We hope the Hazoor will not abolish flogging: we don't care about it: only the badmashes (scoundrels) are flogged, if they deserve it: flog them and turn them out: you will find plenty of good men. But if you abolish flogging, the army will no longer fear, and there will quickly be a mutiny."

This prophecy came to pass, but how much influence the abolition of flogging had in causing a mutiny, it is difficult for us in England to say. Flogging seems a degrading punishment, and only the degraded should suffer it. But there is little doubt that when flogging is permitted, too many are forced to submit to it, and the punishment is far too severe. A young officer had just joined his regiment—it was in 1823—in the days of tights and hessians: on his first morning there was a parade for punishment, and he saw a sepoy get 800 lashes for some offence. He says, "The sight of such fearful punishment made me shudder, and I went home so saddened and sickened by the appalling sight I had seen, that my new uniform did not appear so bright that day as it had done when I first put it on. My dislike to corporal punishment has since increased with years, but at the same time I am compelled to avow the sad conviction that the power to inflict it, and its actual infliction in certain eases, are at times absolutely and imperatively necessary."

We must remember that the Indian sepoy does not drink; he can avoid committing many crimes for which drink is responsible. Most of the sepoys came from Oude and were of high caste and the sons of land-owners: they were not likely to offend in a way to deserve flogging: they knew that a certain number of badmashes could only be kept in order by flogging; hence they gave their opinion in favour of the lash, and as there was never any difficulty in obtaining recruits, we must infer that flogging had no terrors for the ordinary native. Corporal punishment was felt to be a powerful aid in the maintenance of discipline: orders were obeyed in those days with an alacrity and cheerfulness unknown to more recent times: then there was no inattention or talking in the ranks, for a man could be ordered out of the ranks to receive two or three cuts with a cane. He preferred this to being confined for hours in barracks.

It was from a proper feeling of humanity, suggested perhaps at Exeter Hall, that flogging was prohibited under Bentinck; and it was from a feeling of its absolute necessity that a certain amount of flogging in serious cases was re-established by Lord Dalhousie. But commanding officers never had the full powers restored to them, and discipline suffered: Sir Thomas Seaton has left on record his opinion about flogging, and he was both a merciful man and a real friend of the natives.

He wrote in his book From Cadet to Colonel: "In these latter days all useful power to control, punish or reward has been taken away. . . . As for captains commanding companies, they were mere nonentities, and were treated by the sepoys accordingly. . . . By order of Sir William Gomm, any man to whom punishment had been awarded by his commanding officer might appeal against it to a court-martial, a measure which put the finishing stroke to all semblance of power in regimental officers. . . . The weapon that kept the wild beast in awe was taken out of their hands: the beast rose up against them, and they were weaponless, prostrate and helpless." Humanitarians ignored the fact that in the composition of respect a very necessary ingredient is a certain amount of fear. Here is a case which illustrates the change in the method of dealing with the sepoy.

A native soldier, convicted of disreputable conduct, had his good-conduct pay stopped for a year. The colonel sent a report to headquarters, stating the sepoy's offences, and in the margin he wrote, "Furlough and all indulgence to this sepoy to be stopped for a period of twelve months."

By return of post back came the papers from the adjutant's office, calling upon the colonel to state by what authority he had stopped the sepoy's furlough.

Thus the colonel's authority was over-ridden by a man who was not face to face with the facts; the sepoy was leniently treated, and the discipline of the regiment was undermined.

When for many months the sepoys had been petted and spoilt and taught to feel that they were the real conquerors of Britain's foes, and their officers only the servants of men who wrote in offices, a simple act of carelessness on the part of an official in Calcutta supplied the spark which lit the flame of revolt.

It had been decided to introduce the Enfield rifle into the Indian Army. Now the cartridge for this rifle required a lubricating medium which was made up as follows: five parts tallow, five stearine, one part wax. In other words, the Hindoo sepoy was ordered to bite and handle a cartridge smeared with the fat of the cow, an animal which his religion bade him hold in great veneration.

The Mahommedans, so it was said, believed that the mixture contained hog's lard: thus we had touched on the tenderest spot of both races. The "greased cartridge" became known first to one of the guards in the arsenal at Fort William; and this man ran horror-stricken and told his comrades there was a plot to destroy caste.

The rumour flew on wings of fear: the news spread like fire among stubble from bazaar to bazaar: the authorities (lid not trouble to explain matters, and suspicion soon grew to conviction.

The Fakirs, those filthy, sensual hedge-priests of the East, clad in yellow or orange-tawny, but for the most part naked, slid snake-like through the lines and shook their matted locks as they hissed the venomous tale in listening ears. Indignation stirred the innermost heart of the sepoys: they met in council and concocted schemes of red revenge: bungalows were burnt and ugly faces breathing hate confronted the still unsuspecting Briton. The insolence of the soldier, his disrespect for his officers, his lust of power made him only too ready to catch fire when his religion and his cast were, as he believed, the object of our attack.

He knew on what slender supports our Empire in India was based: only twenty thousand white troops held him in check, and these were scattered at large over the continent of India: he knew that all the field-batteries in Oude were manned by native gunners and drivers: he knew that the roads were boggy and the rivers choked with sandbanks: help could not easily be dispatched from garrison or fort. But he also was led to believe that nearly all the white soldiers that England possessed were on duty in India.

One ruler, the Mayor of the Palace of Nepal, had gone over to England on purpose to find out the true state of affairs: he returned with the assurance that Britain's millions of money and thousands of men were not lightly to be attacked.

Yet, though colonels believed that their own men were staunch and faithful, the governor-general received warning after warning that deep disaffection prevailed throughout the continent.

"My Lord," wrote a Hindoo, "this is the most critical time ever reached in the administration of British India. Almost all the independent native princes and rajahs have been so much offended at the late annexation policy, that they have begun to entertain deadly enmity to the British Empire in India. Moreover, as for the internal defences of the Empire, the cartridge question has created a strenuous movement in some portions of the Hindoo sepoys, and will spread it through all their ranks over the whole country to the great insecurity of British rule."

What no officer suspected soon came to pass.

On the 24th of January 1857 the telegraph office at Barrackpur was burnt down: this was the first act of open insubordination. On the 25th of February a guard of the 34th Native Infantry arrived at Bahanipur and talked with the men of the 19th Native Infantry who were stationed there. The greased cartridge question was discussed; next day at parade, when ordered to exercise with blank cartridge, the men all refused to touch the unclean thing! Next night they rose and seized their arms, drumming and shouting defiance. The Indian Mutiny had begun! Thus the circulation of the chupatties or Indian cakes, which seemed so mysterious months ago, had been explained. The sepoys looked upon the chupatty as the symbol of food: they believed that the Company meant to deprive them of their food as well as of their land. The chupatty was to remind them that the hundred years were up, and the power of the white man was tottering to its fall.

A short resume of the events of the mutiny will make the sketches which follow more distinct.

On 10th May incendiary fires began at Meerut: then the sepoys massacred their officers and marched away to Delhi.

The people of Delhi rose, with the connivance of their king, and butchered the Europeans in the city: other regiments revolted and joined the rebels at Delhi.

In May, risings were attempted at Ferozepore, Lahore and Peshawur, but by the quick initiative of Montgomery and Sir John Lawrence the sepoys were disarmed and the Punjab was saved. Thus Lawrence was able to send a strong force of Sikhs to aid in the siege of Delhi: this practically enabled us to crush the mutiny.

Meanwhile, risings and massacres occurred throughout Oude and the Doab. In Rajputana the native princes were faithful, but the widowed Rani of Jhansi headed a rising against us.

At Cawnpur, Nana Sahib ordered a massacre of men, women and children after promising safe passage; while at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence was, with wise forethought, preparing for a long siege. Lucknow was at length relieved by Havelock, Outram, and finally by Sir Colin Campbell. Delhi was not retaken until 20th September, after hard fighting.

General Windham was driven into his entrenchments at Cawnpur by Tantia Topee, and only saved by Sir Colin making a forced march from Lucknow.

The Bombay division under Sir Hugh Rose fought their way to Jhansi and defeated Tantia Topee in April 1858. On 17th June, Sir Hugh Rose captured Gwalior, and Napier ended the campaign by the victory of Alipore. The mutiny was over, and the East India Company gave way to the British Crown.