Typically the 1857 Revolt, is often seen as the first large scale armed revolt against the British rule, and is often the most discussed one too. But around 50 years before this, there was an equally bloody revolt on July 10, 1806 by Indian sepoys in Vellore.
Vellore, a small city located in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, close to Andhra Pradesh border, so gets it’s name from the Velan trees surrounding it. Now known for it’s leather industry and the CMC Hospital, one of India’s leading healthcare providers. And the famous Vellore Fort where the mutiny broke out.
Built during the Vijayanagara Era in 1566 AD, it gained strategic importance, after Chandragiri became the capital, following the demise of Hampi, post Tallikota. The fort was later ruled by the Bijapur Sultans, the Marathas and Mughals, before the British finally took over it. Around 1806 two infantty regiments of Madras Regiment was stationed in the Fort.
The immediate cause of the Mutiny was the forcible dress code imposed on the Indian soldiers. Hindu soldiers were prohibited from wearing vibhuti or tilak, while Muslim soldiers were asked to shave their beards. Soldiers were asked to wear a round hat, and cockade in place of a turban, which offended the sensibilities of both Hindus and Muslims. The cockade is a round hat, associated with Christianity around that time, and the order was passed General Sir John Craddock, the Commander in Chief of the Madras Army. This triggered a lot of resentment among the sepoys, and the changes were forcibly imposed in spite of an order to keep in mind the sensitive and delicate nature of the proposal.
In May 1806, some of the protesting sepoys were sent to Fort St.George, Chennai, and two of them, were given 90 lashes in public and dismissed from service. Around 19 sepoys were lashed around 50 times, asked to seek pardon from the East India Company then. There also was the angle of Tipu Sultan’s sons, who had been confined at the Fort, since 1799 as pensioners, following their father’s defeat. Though their intention seemed to have been to stoke an uprising in the Mysore Province, once the actual Mutiny started, they were reluctant.
The garrison at Vellore Fort was comprised of 4 companies of British infantry, 3 batallions of Madras infantry. The sepoys typically lived outside the Fort walls, with their families in the huts. However just one day before on July 9, 1806, the sepoys had to be assembled in the fort, as there was a parade scheduled the next day, and they had to be ready for it. This was the right opportunity they were looking for.
July 10, 1806- In the wee hours of the morning, just past midnight, the mutiny broke out. The sepoys went on a rampage, killing 14 officers of their own Madras Regiment, and 115 men of the 69th Regiment, while they were sleeping, which included Colonel St. John Fancourt, the commander of the Fort. By dawn, the rebels had seized control of the fort, raised the Mysore flag over it and declared Fateh Hyder, Tipu Sultan’s second son as the ruler.
However a British officer Major Coopes, escaped the carnage and alerted the garrison in Arcot. And 9 hours later, a relief force comprising the British 19th Light Dragoons, galloper guns, and a squadron of Madras Cavalry rode from Arcot to Vellore, covering a distance of 26 km in 2 hours. Led by one of the most capable officers, Sir Rollo Gillespie, he dashed ahead of the main force with a single troop of around 20 men.
At the Fort, Gillespie found around 60 European officers of the 69th, who had survived the carnage, still holding out, but having no stock of ammunition. With the gates barred, Gillespie clambered up the Fort walls, using a rope, and led them in a bayonet charge. As the 19th Light and Madras Cavalry neared the Fort, he made them blow open the gates using the galloper guns. Both the 19th Light and Madras Cavalry charged inside the fort, killing any sepoy who stood in their way. 100 sepoys who took refuge in the fort, were bought out, lined against a wall and shot dead. It was one of the bloodiest encounters ever, resulting in around 350 sepoys killed, and more wounded. The unrest was snuffed out in a stroke, and the British were safe.
If the massacre was ghastly enough, the reprisals for the surviving mutineers, were equally terrible. After a hastily conducted trial, 6 mutineers were blown away from guns, 5 shot dead by the firing squad, 8 hanged and 5 transported for life. The 3 Madras Regiment battalions were disbanded, while Captain John Craddock whose orders led to the mutiny was recalled in disgrace at his own cost, along with other senior officers. The Mysore royal family in the fort was transferred to Kolkata, while the then Governor William Bentick too was recalled. The Vellore Mutiny was over and crushed, but it’s repercussions would be felt in the form of numerous smaller revolts and outbreaks against British rule, resulting in the 1857 Revolt.