Fifty-one years before the outbreak of the year-long ‘Indian Mutiny’, took place another act of defiance against British rule in India. Lasting but a few hours, the Vellore Mutiny of 10 July 1806 was a mere foretaste of 1857. But the grievances that led to the brief uprising were very much the same as the ones half a century later.
Much of India, at the time, was governed by the East India Company. The monolithic, monopolising commercial company with its own army had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government. The town of Vellore, in south-east India, contained a large fort garrisoned by some 380 British soldiers and 1,500 sepoys. Incarcerated within the fort of Vellore, although in considerable comfort, were the sons, families and servants of Tipu Sultan, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who had been killed by the British in battle in 1799. (Pictured the Vellore Fort today)
In 1806, as in 1857, the Indian soldiers, sepoys, feared the British were attempting to undermine their religions in order to convert them to Christianity. A new dress code, introduced in 1805 by the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, General Sir John Craddock, forbade Hindu soldiers from sporting any caste marks on their foreheads, banned the wearing of earrings and proposed that turbans be replaced by a round hat. Muslim soldiers were to shave off their beards and trim their moustaches. Craddock, in issuing his directive, was going against advice from his Military Board who warned that local religious sensibilities be respected.
United by their grievances, Hindu and Muslim sepoys decided to act. An initial protest resulted in a number of sepoys being lashed.
But in the early hours of 10 July 1806, the rebel sepoys launched their main attack on the fort. The rebels looted and killed, and barged into the garrison’s hospital where they slaughtered men in their hospital beds. 200 British soldiers were killed or wounded. The sepoys declared the eldest son of Tipu Sultan their new leader, hoisting Tipu’s flag atop the fort.
The British took refuge on the fort’s ramparts. One soldier escaped, took to his horse and galloped the sixteen miles to the garrison based at Arcot to call for help. A small relieving force of about twenty men, led by Sir Rollo Gillespie, quickly made their appearance at Vellore. (Born in Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, a statue of Gillespie standing upon a 55-foot high column today dominates the town square, pictured).
Climbing up the ramparts to aid the stricken British still clinging on, Gillespie led a bayonet charge to keep the sepoys at bay. More reinforcements arrived in larger numbers, blowing down the garrison gates and setting upon the rebellious sepoys. By 2 pm, the rebellion had been quashed. Retribution was swift and merciless; executions plentiful. The Vellore Mutiny was over.
Tipu Sultan’s sons and their retinues were resettled in Calcutta. The British certainly did not want to risk them becoming a rallying point again.
Rupert’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling drama set during World War One, is now available.