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This day in history: The violent saga of Vellore Mutiny, when hundreds of Indian soldiers rebelled against the East India Company

These are some of the horrifying stories that could make it to us, a vast infinity is still to be recollected from the epoch of Indian history. One African proverb aptly covers the gist of historical records, "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."

The struggle for independence from the Imperial British Empire was not a journey of intermittent events, armed revolts, or non-violent political struggle alone. Instead, there were continued efforts to free the motherland from the bondage of colonial rule. Every event had a bearing and a domino effect on the larger canvas of the freedom struggle.

Amongst the stories of the long fight for freedom, the ‘First War of Independence’ in 1857 is often hailed as the first major armed revolt against the British. It is described as the first major instance of a sizable and severe mutiny by Indian soldiers against the East India Company.

However, this description largely ignores the fact that the Vellore Mutiny predates the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857 by more than half a century. The Vellore Mutiny took place nearly 51 years prior to the Great Revolt of 1857. Although its scale and size differed greatly, the Vellore Mutiny was a significant incident that impacted subsequent events.

The timeline

Vellore is a small city located in the northern part of Tamil Nadu. It derives its name from the Velan trees surrounding it. At the time of the Vellore Mutiny in 1806, the region of Vellore and surrounding areas were under the control of the British East India Company. Though it claimed to be a trading company, it gradually expanded its administrative influence and territories in India through military conquests, alliances, and treaties.

In 1799, the EIC defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in the Battle of Srirangapatna. Following the death of Tipu Sultan, his wife, and kids were held as prisoners in the Vellore Fort which played its role in infuriating the locals. Afterward, the company annexed his kingdom which controlled a significant portion of southern India, including parts of present-day Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.

Vellore itself was part of the Madras Presidency, which was one of the administrative divisions of British India. The EIC exercised direct control over the region through its appointed officials and military presence. The Vellore Fort where the actual revolt took place, was a stronghold of the British and it served as a military garrison.

Vellore Fort, the site where the actual revolt unfolded.
The Vellore Fort, Tamil Nadu. (Image Source – The Hindu)

Reportedly, the forces stationed at the Vellore Fort included four companies of His Majesty’s 69th Regiment, three battalions of Madras infantry, and the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment. According to some accounts, around six companies of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Native Infantry were also present at the fort. These companies comprised Mysore Muslims who had earlier served Tipu Sultan. As per Historical estimates, around 370 British or Europeans and around 1,700 Indian sepoys were present in the Vellore Fort when the Mutiny took place.

Usually, these sepoys were camped outside the Fort walls. They lived outside the walls with their families in the huts. However, according to historical accounts, it was on that day when one of the daughters of Tipu Sultan was getting married. So, the sepoys had to be assembled in the fort. The mutineers found this opportune moment and started their revolt in the early hours of the 10th of July, 1806.

The local sepoys of the 1st and 23rd regiments attacked the Vellore fort in the early hours of the day, sparking the Vellore mutiny.

Cause of resentment

Earlier, in 1805, General Sir John Craddock, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army passed a controversial order to change the military uniform. As per the new order, the Hindu soldiers were prohibited from applying religious marks like vibhuti or tilak on their forehead while Muslim soldiers were asked to shave their moustaches and beards.

Additionally, the Indian soldiers were also prohibited from wearing turban or customary headwear. It was replaced by a round hat and cockade which created apprehensions among the Indian soldiers that they were being converted to Christianity. It is important to note that back then, the cockade was associated with Christianity. Further, historical records suggest that the troops had received information about the arrival of missionaries in Madras, and the Indian soldiers knew the real motives of the missionaries.

This controversial decision of changing the military uniform created discontent among Hindus and Muslims alike as the new guidelines targeted their religious belief.

According to historians, British officer Craddock completely disregarded the military board’s advice and didn’t take the sensibilities of Indian sepoys into consideration. This hurt the sentiments of both Hindu as well as Muslim soldiers.

General Sir John Craddock
General Sir John Craddock. (Image Source – The Great Karoo)

To quel the increasing protest, the EIC administration adopted coercive methods which worsened the situation. Evidently, in May 1806, a few of the protesting sepoys were taken to Fort St.George, Chennai. Two of the protesting sepoys were brutally punished and were whip-lashed 90 times in public. Later, they were also dismissed from the service.

Further, around 19 sepoys were beaten and whipped-lashed around 50 times in public. Additionally, they were asked to seek a pardon from the EIC.

The ill-treatment and imprisonment of Tipu’s family members were additional factors that angered the locals. Sensing the brewing mutiny, Tipu’s sons also extended their support. However, according to some historical records, their initial intention was to incite an uprising in the Mysore Province. But when the actual mutiny started, they were reluctant to fully engage.

Course of Events

In the early hours of the 10th of July 1806, around 500 Indian soldiers broke into the fort. They killed 14 British officers of their own Madras Regiment and moved ahead to slay 115 British soldiers of the 69th command. Colonel St. John Fancourt who was the commander of the Fort was amongst the British officers that were killed by the Indian sepoys. By the time of Sunrise, the Indian soldiers had taken control of the fort.

(Image Source – India Today)

The Indian soldiers climbed the top of the fort and removed the Union Jack (British flag). In place of it, they hoisted the flag of the Mysore Sultanate. Subsequently, they declared Fateh Hyder, Tipu Sultan’s second son as the ruler.

In a blitzkrieg, the Indian soldiers had defeated the EIC officials and the mutiny which only started at midnight was a great triumph killing or injuring around 200 British soldiers. However, the rebellion lacked clear leadership. They did not anticipate and prepare for the eventuality that the British officers will seek revenge and respond with their oppressive pattern. 

The Indian soldiers were fighting against the remaining British or European soldiers. In the meantime, one British officer Major Coopes escaped the carnage. He fled from the Vellore Fort and informed the British garrison stationed at Arcot.

The reinforcement troops comprised the British 19th Light Dragoons, galloper guns, and a squadron of Madras Cavalry. They were led by Sir Rollo Gillespie and they marched from Arcot to Vellore. Despite the large reinforcement, they moved at a swift pace and covered 26 km in 2 hours.

When the reinforcement reached the Vellore Fort, they found that around 60 officers of the 69th command had survived the attack of Indian soldiers. They were hiding back and had no stock of ammunition. 

Since the Fort gates were barricaded, Gillespie climbed the Fort walls using a rope and he led the bayonet charge against the Indian soldiers who started the mutiny.

Bayonet Charge. (Image Source – Military History Now)

Subsequently, the 19th Light and Madras Cavalry advanced towards the Fort and they blew the Fort gates by using the galloper guns. Once inside the fort, they killed Indian soldiers mercilessly resulting in the deaths of approximately 350 sepoys and numerous injuries. 

(Image Source – Dakshinapatha)

Historical records claim that around 100 Indian sepoys who had taken refuge in the fort were arrested and they were lined up against a wall and were shot indiscriminately. Historians claim that the British sought revenge and it was swift. They claim that it was done in a hurried manner like giving ‘vigilante justice.’ The mutiny was crushed and it only lasted one full day. However, the number of casualties during and after the Mutiny speaks for itself about the discontent against colonial rule.

Impact of the Mutiny

The act of vigilante justice and massacre of more than 100 Indian soldiers didn’t suffice for the EIC officials. After hurriedly conducting a farce of a trial, they served the punishment for surviving Indian sepoys which was nothing short of acts of vengeance. In a horrifying act, they ordered 6 Indian soldiers to be blown away by guns, and 5 Indian soldiers were killed by the firing squad. 8 Indian soldiers were hanged and 5 were transported for life. The 3 Madras Regiment battalions which were part of the mutiny were disbanded.  

(Image Source – Twitter handle pragyata)

Historians differ on the actual death count. However, WJ Wilson claimed that 879 out of 1,700 Indian soldiers stationed at the Fort died in this one-day revolt. This number is considered the most acceptable among historians. 

Similarly, General Harcourt pointed out the actual number of prisoners taken after the 10th of July Mutiny. According to him, there were 466 prisoners in Vellore alone. Additionally, there were many more Indian Soldiers who were taken as prisoners and incarcerated in Tiruchirapalli and in other Indian prisons.

Although, the mutiny ended swiftly and lasted only one full day. It forced the colonizers to make many changes. After the loss of 200 British soldiers, they abandoned the revised military uniform and abolished the punishment system of beating soldiers with whip lashes. 

Similarly, John Craddock whose controversial order to change military uniform became the igniting reason for the Mutiny was disgracefully recalled back along with other senior officials. Additionally, the then Governor William Bentick too was recalled.

The royal family of Tipu Sultan was taken away from the Vellore Fort and relocated to Calcutta. 

However, the most significant outcome was that the British Empire assumed control shortly after the Vellore Mutiny. In 1807, Lord Minto arrived in India as the Governor-General as a result of this. 

According to some claims, the severe and brutal punishments inflicted upon Indian soldiers played a significant role in the southern sepoys’ decision to refrain from participating in the 1857 Indian Revolt.

Despite the fact that the Vellore Mutiny was brutally crushed by British officials, its repercussions were felt in the form of numerous smaller revolts and armed conflicts against colonial rule, which later culminated in the Great Revolt of 1857.

Amelia Farrer who was the wife of St. John Fancourt (slain commander of Vellore Fort) was the only remaining eyewitness to the genuine horror of the mutiny. She wrote manuscripts about this two weeks after the rebellion.

These are some of the horrifying stories that could make it to us, a vast infinity is still to be recollected from the epoch of Indian history. One African proverb aptly covers the gist of historical records, “Until the lions tell their own story, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Stamp issued by the Government of India to mark its 200th anniversary. (Image Source – istampgallery)
Memorial In Vellore

In 2006, the government of India issued a postal stamp to mark the 200th anniversary of the Vellore Mutiny. Similarly, a memorial is also built in Vellore City to honor the Indian soldiers who fought against colonial rule.

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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