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Mutiny at Vellore

The following material has been quoted from Philip J. Haythornthwaite's The Colonial Wars Source Book (1996).

During the decade of 1805 to 1815, serious military operations in India were few, as potential friction between the growing power of the Sikhs and the British was averted by the Treaty of Amritsar (15 April 1809), which defined the River Sutlej as the boundary between the two. In 1806, however, there occurred one of the most serious outbreaks of mutiny among the Company forces, from which the native regiments had never been immune. Their discipline was not always immaculate; for example, in July 1802 the escort for the Persian ambassador, provided by the Bengal Volunteers, recently returned from Egypt, got into a row with his retinue, and in the ensuing fight killed the dignitary they were supposed to be protecting. Also significant was the consequence of under-estimating the religious and cultural sensitivities of the sepoys, not always understood by British officers but ignored at their peril.

In November 1805 the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, Sir John Cradock, ordered a change in head-dress from turban to 'round hat', and the removal of beards, face-painting and 'joys' (jewellery). Caste-marks ornaments and beards often had religious significance, and 'round hats' were regarded as synonymous with Christians in the eyes of the sepoys; thus the new regulations were seen as an attack upon the troops' religion. These objections, and rumours circulated by fakirs that the government was mixing pigs' blood into the salt sold in public, as a deliberate attempt to defile the religious, were used as excuses by the sons and retainers of Tipu, who lived in their palace at Vellore on East India Company pensions, to raise a revolt.

These factors conspired to cause a mutiny at Vellore, which was garrisoned by three Madras battalions (1st/1st, 2nd/lst and 2nd/23rd), and four companies of the 69th Foot. The Indian regiments rose on the night of 10 July 1806, massacred the 69th's sick in their hospital, murdered officers and fired into the European barracks. By delaying to pillage the fort, they allowed the surviving British to congregate on the ramparts; and an officer who was outside the fort when the rising began went for help to the nearest military post, Arcot, the station of the l9th Light Dragoons and some Madras Native Cavalry, who were unaffected by the unrest. Providentially the l9th was commanded by Sir Rollo Gillespie, one of the most capable and energetic officers in India, and he set out with a relief force within a quarter of an hour of the alarm being raised.

Gillespie dashed ahead with about twenty men, and arriving at Vellore found the surviving Europeans, about sixty men of the 69th, commanded by NCOs and two assistant surgeons, still clinging to the ramparts but out of ammunition. Unable to gain entry through the defended gate, Gillespie climbed the wall with the aid of a rope and a sergeant's sash which was lowered to him; and to gain time led the 69th in a bayonet-charge along the ramparts. When the rest of the l9th arrived, Gillespie had them blow in the gates with their galloper guns, and made a second charge with the 69th to clear a space inside the gate to permit the cavalry to deploy. The l9th and Madras Cavalry then charged and slaughtered any sepoy who stood in their way. The massacre of the helpless European sick so aroused the British that no mercy was shown; about 100 sepoys who had sought refuge in the palace were dragged out, placed against a wall and blasted with canister shot until all were dead. John Blakiston, the engineer who had blown in the gates, recalled that although such punishment was revolting to all civilised beliefs, 'this appalling sight I could look upon, I may almost say, with composure. It was an act of summary justice, and in every respect a most proper one.' Such was the nature of combat in India where the `civilised' conventions of European warfare did not apply. This snuffed out the unrest at a stroke, and provided the history of the British in India with one of its true epics; for as Gillespie admitted, with a delay of even five minutes, all would have been lost.

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