History

The other revolt

Print edition : October 14, 2016

The Vellore fort surrounded by the moat which had crocodiles in it until 1822. The rajagopuram of the Jalagandeswarar temple can be seen inside the fort. Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

Depiction by an unknown artist of the three hill forts, Suzarow, Guzarow and Mortaz Agur, surrounding Vellore, from the Saraswathi Mahal Library collection. Photo: Photo: R. SIvaji

St. John's Church, located inside the fort. Photo: S. Thanthoni

Tipu Mahal, where the wives, children and relatives of Tipu Sultan where interned after his fall. Photo: S.S. Kumar

An oil portrait of Tipu Sultan, attributed to G.F. Cherry who was Persian Secretary to Lord Cornwallis during 1791-92.

It looks af if constructed for a thousand years and as if the whole population had been employed upon it under the prevailing rule of forced labour in the service of the sovereign.

--Charles F. Kirby on Vellore Fort 1

SITUATED in 135 acres of land in the heart of Vellore town, the fort of Vellore today stands as a living testimony to the marvel of indigenous military architecture. Scholars differ on when the fort and the Jalagandeswarar temple inside it were built. According to local tradition, the temple was built in A.D. 1274 and the fort in A.D. 1295. But, the view of the medieval historian Robert Sewell, based on an inscription in the temple in Malayampattu village in Gudiyatham taluk, is that Bommi Nayaka 2, the local ruler who built the fort, could not have built the temple earlier than the middle of the 14th century 3. Similarly, citing yet another source which claimed that the fort was built only 25 years before it was conquered by Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar, Sewell opines that “this would make its [fort] date as late as A.D. 1485 or thereabouts” 4.

The descendants of Krishnadeva Raya managed to retain the fort until 1677, when it passed into the hands of the Marathas, who held sway over it until 1686. Thereafter, a Mughal army led by Aurangzeb’s envoy Zulfikar Khan captured the fort. After devastating and plundering the region, he left behind his general, Daud Khan, as the Nawab of Carnatic 5. Sadatulla Khan, who became the Nawab in 1710, gave the Vellore jaghir to his brother Murtaza Ali. Murtaza Ali managed to retain the fort against the continuous onslaughts of the English East India Company’s army until 1756. That year, the Nawab of Arcot, Mohammed Ali, in view of his personal animosity with the jaghirdar, Murtaza Ali’s son, stormed the fort with the backing of Robert Clive and took possession of it along with three other forts in the hills. An English garrison, with the consent of the Nawab, occupied the main and the hill forts in 1761 6.

II

Colonel John Caillaud, who commanded the Madras Army in 1761, wrote a detailed description of Vellore fort, the pettahs (townships) and the hills. He mentions the good road from Arcot to Vellore and the road “studded with avenue of trees” 7 halfway from Vellore to Arcot. At that time, there were two pettahs situated adjacent to each other to the east and north-east of the Vellore fort. The furthest point of the old pettah was encircled by a chain of hills and on the summits of these were built three forts, detached from each other, called Suzarow, Guzarow and Mortaz Agur. Suzarow enclosed the top of a hill and was the largest and the most inaccessible of the three. Mortaz Agur, built by Murtaza Ali Khan, was “little more than a house on a rock; but would be difficult to gain possession by force” 8. The colonel highlights the strategic significance of the hill forts thus:

As the hills on which these forts stand shut up the East and North East parts of the pettahs; so the forts defend and flank the north and south sides, in a very powerful manner, and if well supplied with canon, are capable of annoying any enemy that might attempt to attack the north, east or south sides of Vellore Fort. Besides the defence which the pettahs derive on the north and south from the flanking fire of the forts of Suzarow, Guzarow, Mortaz Agur, and Vellore, they are also fortified by a good rampart and towers of each with a tolerable ditch and an almost impenetrable hedge on berm; so that with canon and troops to defend the pettahs in proportion to their size or the number of assailants, the enterprise would not be easy to gain possession of them.

III

The Vellore fort, with which we are mainly concerned here, has a fortification wall about nine metres high, with small protruding watch towers at regular intervals. The space between this wall and a second line of bastions served as a wide defensive space. The wall is made up of cyclopean stones, with each stone having three holes facing three different directions. The holes have been made in such a way that the person firing a gun from within can target the enemy on the glacis without the latter noticing him 9. The fort wall is approximately 1.5 kilometre in circumference, made entirely of stone and cemented with chunam (limestone).

The width of the walking space behind the fortification wall is 6.30 metres at the ground level and this is maintained all round the fort. About 34 sentry rooms, not noticeable from outside, are part of the defence mechanism of the fort 10. A moat, 191 feet (57.3 m) wide and 29 feet (8.7 m) deep and about three km long protects the fort. Across the moat, on the southern part, is the exit point for the passage of troops to make surprise attacks on the surrounding enemy. This is called a sally port. A stone pathway serves as the approach road to its gate. Crocodiles, some said to be 18 feet (5.4 m) long, were reared in the moat to form the first line of defence. The ditch was impassable in those days, except on a raft or by the causeways. A drawbridge led to the main entrance of the fort 11. There were four massive gates for entry. Initially, the entrance was through a winding road. Later, a straight road was cut through the ramparts 12.

The crocodiles in the garrison were protected by the orders of the government until 1822. That year, the son of a subedar of the Native Corps, while playing with a dog on the causeway across the ditch, ran backwards, slipped into the ditch, and was instantly caught by a large crocodile which carried him under water. What happened then is described by James Welsh in his Military Reminiscences: “A hue and cry brought crowds to the spot and amongst the rest, came the father of the ill-fated child, who arrived in time to see the monster rise and swim about with his son’s body across his mouth. No human power could have effected anything to save the victim, who was already a corpse.” 13 In view of the strong public pressure mounted against the presence of crocodiles in the moat, the government promptly issued orders to destroy the amphibians whenever they could be found. Lieutenant Colonel Sale, who was stationed there at that time, is said to have killed a large number of them in a few months. Welsh, for his part, killed six to eight during his subsequent stay in Vellore 14.

IV

The centrally located government house, which was occupied then by the Commanding Officer, is a large building with a flat-terraced roof which afforded a panoramic view of the scenery. The other officers and soldiers of the garrison lived in barracks and in public quarters within and outside the fort 15. There were also a few garden houses of officers, besides the line houses of sepoys, outside the fort 16.

The parade ground, which was made by levelling the pond opposite the temple, is encircled by five palaces named Basha Mahal, Rani Mahal, Hyder Mahal, Tipu Mahal and Kandy Mahal. The first two were built for the Nawab of Carnatic. Hyder Mahal and Tipu Mahal were built to accommodate the families of the Mysore Sultans and their servants. The palace in which the ex-ruler of Kandy (Ceylon), Vikrama Rajasinha, was in confinement for about 17 years (1815-1832) is known as Kandy Mahal.

The mosque (Jumma Masjid) in the fort is believed to have been built between A.D. 1687 and 1700. It is not known when it was closed for prayer, probably after the Revolt of 1806. The Jalagandeswarar temple was turned into an arsenal after the British occupation of the fort. The Government of Madras established a church in 1846 with a capacity to seat 280 people 17. Major C.G. Ottley, the Adjutant of the Vellore fort at the time, designed and built it 18.

V

Vellore remained an impregnable fortress during the invasion of the Marathas. Hyder Ali attempted to capture the fort from the English (in 1768), but did not succeed 19. Therefore, after the fall of Tipu Sultan, the Vellore fort was considered the safest place to keep his children, wives, relatives, servants and “adherents” in internment. The men for night duty on July 9, 1806, were taken from the 69th Regiment, commanded by Lieutenants Eley and Popham, and from six companies of the 1st (1st Battalion), and the 23rd 2nd Battalion) Regiments. Captain Miller of the 1st Regiment was the captain of the day. There were about 370 Europeans and 1,500 Indians in the fort 20. The 1st Regiment was commanded by Lieutenant O’Reilly. Nearly the whole of the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment, commanded by McKerras, had received permission to sleep in the fort on the night of July 9 in order to be in readiness for an early parade the next morning 21. The 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment comprised Mysore Muslims, many of whom had been in the service of Tipu. The 23rd Regiment had been raised in the districts of Madurai and Tirunelveli, and comprised a number of disbanded army men of the palayakkarars (warrior chieftains) of southern Tamil Nadu, whose palayams (chiefdoms) had been confiscated after the 1801 rebellion of the Marudhu brothers of Sivagangai 22.

VI

At 3 a.m. on July 10, 1806, the Indian soldiers at the Vellore fort raised the standard of revolt. About 500 of them stormed the European quarters, shot down the white officers and soldiers, hoisted Tipu’s Tiger standard and held the garrison. Those who were killed included the Fort Commandant, Colonel Fancourt; Lt Colonels McKerras, Winchip, and Jolly; and Captain Willison of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment of Native Infantry; Lieutenants O’ Keilly, Sonart, and Tichburne of 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment of Native Infantry; Captain Millier of 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment of Native Infantry; Lieutenants Eley and Popham of His Majesty’s 19th Regiment; and Major Armstrong of 1st Battalion, 16th Regiment of Native Infantry 23. Under Colonel Gillespie’s command, the Dragoons, supported by the Madras Cavalry, arrived from Arcot and charged into the fort. Later, they were joined by those who had survived the revolt and they assembled at a hill fort so that they could catch all the fleeing Indian soldiers and butcher them 24. The fort fell back into the hands of the British after just two days of resistance by the “insurgents”.

A change in military regulations, which had been enforced, necessitated the removal of caste marks on the forehead, the removal of whiskers, and wearing a round hat instead of a turban by the Indian Sepoys. The hat had a feather and a leather cockade on it. The cockade of the new hat was made of animal skin, either pig or cow. The pig is anathema to Muslims and the cow is sacred to Hindus. Hence, the revolt was attributed to the caste-breaking military regulations 25. But, as K. Rajayyan argues in his South Indian Rebellion, 1800-1801, the rebellion was the culmination of revolutionary activities sustained by men discharged from the troops of native rulers and chieftains. They had formed a network and were in touch with the aggrieved erstwhile rulers and chieftains. They also managed to infiltrate the native infantry of the British to a great extent.

This 1806 event, variously described as the Vellore massacre, the Vellore mutiny or the Vellore insurgency, had its echo in many British cantonments such as Wallajabad, Nandi Durg, Bellary, Bangalore, Palayamkottai and Hyderabad. Though all of them were put down with an iron hand, the obnoxious orders regarding dress and turban were rescinded and both the Governor, William Bentinck, and the Commander-in-Chief with his Adjutant General were removed from their respective offices by orders of the Court of Directors. The 1st and 23rd Regiments were struck off the rolls of the army and their places were substituted by two new regiments numbered 24th and 25th 26. The inquiry commission, constituted in the wake of the revolt, in its report of August, 9, 1806, stated that “the orders respecting the turban and the distinguishing marks of cast (caste) had excited much alarm and disaffection; and that the emissaries of the Princes (Tipu’s sons) at Vellore had taken advantage of the temporary ferment to practice on the minds of the soldiery, and seduced them from their allegiance” 27.

A cursory glance at the figures provided by the inquiry commission nails the lie that it was a “mutiny of Mohammedans”. The records relating to prisoners kept in the Vellore and St. George forts suggest that the proportion of Muslims in the two regiments was barely 40 per cent. Hindus constituted 60 per cent. In the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment, there was a strong presence of persons from the landowning Balija Naidu and Vellalar (Pillai) communities, along with an equal number of labourer caste groups such as Pallar, Parayar and Thevar 28. Thus, the Vellore Revolt was a united revolt of Indian soldiers against the common adversary, the British. The soldiers did not act on impulse and emotion. They hated the imperial policy and, cutting across religious and caste barriers, planned to overthrow British rule. In this, they went by the words of an English poet: “It is better to have fought and lost, Than never to have fought at all.”

K.A. Manikumar is Professor of History (Retd), Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, and author of Vellore Revolt, 1806 , published by V.I.T. University. He gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance provided by the ICHR, New Delhi, for consulting the records at the British Library, London, and the National Library, Scotland.

End notes:

1. Charles F. Kirby was a Major in the Madras Army and author of The Adventures of an Arcot Rupee, Saunders, Otley & Co., London, page 152.

2. In some sources the chieftain who caused the fort to be built is referred to as Bommi Reddy.

3. T.S. Kumaraswami Aiyar, Velapuri or A Peep into the Past of Vellore, V.N. Press, Vellore, 1900, pages 11-13.

4. The Madras Journal (XX 274), cited in Velapuri or A Peep into the Past of Vellore, pages 13-15.

5. Ibid.

6. W. Francis, Gazetteer of South India, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 1988, page 37.

7. Description of Vellore Fort, the Pettahs, the Hills and the Attack Carried on by Madras Army under the Command of Colonel John Caillaud, 1761 (accessed at India Office Library, London).

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., page 51.

10. Ibid., page 50.

11. R. Mani, History of Vellore Fort, Poongavanam Ramasamy Illam, Vellore, 2004.

12. P. Chinnayan, The Vellore Mutiny, 1806, Madras, 1983, page 2.

13. James Welsh, Military Reminiscences, Volume II, Elder Smith & Cornhill Co., London, 1830, pages 180-182.

14. Ibid., pages 182-84.

15. Charles F. Kirby, The Adventures of an Arcot Rupee, pages 154-56.

16. Ibid.

17. While the temple has been in worship since 1981 and prayer is held in the church regularly, only the mosque is not thrown open to the public.

18. Eugene P. Heideman, From Mission to Church: The Reformed Church in American Mission to India, Wim. B. Eerdman Publishing Company, Michigan, 2001, page 74.

19. Ibid.

20. Secret Department Sundries, Volume 2A, page 822.

21. W.J. Wilson, History of the Madras Army, Volume III, page 177.

22. Mill & H.H. Wilson, The History of British India, Volume VII, page 84; Secret Department Sundries, Volume 2A, page 822.

23. Secret Department Sundries, Volume 1A, pages 204-205.

24. See my book Vellore Revolt, 1806 for further details.

25. Secret Department Sundries, Volume 2A, pages 850-51.

26. Phythian Adams, Madras Infantry, 1748-1943, Government Press, Madras, 1943, pages 48-49.

27. Memorial Addressed to the Honourable Court of Directors by Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, John Booth, London, 1810.

28. Secret Department Sundries, Volume 11, pages 1,628-1,705; Volume 10B, pages 1,448-52.

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