azamgarh and benares
We have reached the end of May. Meerut is now but a page in history, Delhi is firmly in the hands of the rebels, at Cawnpore General Sir Henry Wheeler has put his faith in the Nana Sahib, while at Lucknow, Henry Lawrence is slowly breaking down under the strain of his impossible tasks. In the Punjab, his brother John is gathering his forces and sending off his men in the direction of Delhi. General Anson has died of cholera and he has been replaced by General Barnard.
All over the northern parts of India, mutiny repeatedly erupts sending Europeans on mad flights in every conceivable direction, scenes that will continue to repeat themselves well into June and even July.
So it is not that inconceivable that in the midst of this chaos, Lieutenant Palliser is sent, with men of the 13th Cavalry of Irregular Horse from Gorackpur to Benares, to escort 10 lakhs of treasure. (NB – in the Indian monetary system, 1 lakh = 100’000 rupees, while 1 crore=10 million rupees). As Benares had a regiment of the HM’s 10th it was considered wise to collect the treasure under a European guard. However, no European guard could be spared to either collect it or escort it. This duty fell upon Lieutenant Palliser and his men.
It would be somewhat unfair to say that the district was run by madmen. At Gorakpur, Mr. William Wynyard was judge, magistrate and collector Mr. Paterson and the joint magistrate was Mr. Bird. Benares had its contingent of the wise as well – Frederick Gubbins, Mr. Tucker and Mr. Lind. At Azamgarh, Mr. Horne was the district officer. They were not ignorant men, nor were they known to be foolhardy – however, they appeared to lack current intelligence. Although the mutiny at Meerut and the fall of Delhi were known even to them, their first intent was to send the treasury monies as far away from the outlying stations as possible, by doing so, they inadvertently set off the 17th NI in Azamgarh on a course of destruction.
Also known as the Barker Battalion after Colonel Sir Robert Barker who had raised the regiment in Bankipur in 1765, the 17th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry did not have an illustrious career and do not appear to have garnered any battle honours even after 92 years in existence. In all, when Noah Alfred Chick calls them a “most indifferent regiment” it is not without some truth. Some 500 strong, the 17th had for a time been brigaded with the 19th and 34th Regiments at Lucknow and were known to have entertained men of the 19th in their lines. That their loyalty was questionable should have been anyone’s guess, but not so Major Burroughs.
Their commander himself did not appear to rise to the occasion. Like so many officers before (and after him) Major Burroughs had been warned that his regiment was far from satisfied. He should have seen something was up when on the 24th of May, some of the men refused the extra cartridges when these were served out and proceeded to violently attack their Native Officer – an incident Burroughs failed to punish. He was, like many men of his time, enamoured by his regiment and convinced beyond a doubt they were faithful. He could scarcely believe, that when they did mutiny, they had gone back on all their solemn oaths of fidelity.
The treasure and money from Gorakhpur arrived in Azamgarh on the 3rd of June. It was resolved, that as soon as the same from Azamgarh had been collected, to send it at once on to Benares. The temptation proved a little too much for some men of the 17th and some of them protested loudly that the treasury of their station should stay where it was. Ignoring their very obvious dissatisfaction, Palliser and his men marched out of Azimgarh that very evening, leaving the station to its fate. Not that his lot was any better, besides the treasure, the lieutenant had to take along with him 2 companies of the 17th NI.
The Last Parade of the 17th
That very evening, a parade had been ordered for the remaining men of the 17th. The sepoys, not surlier than usual, turned out in proper fashion, falling in by companies, and taking up their positions in line, orderly and silent, only to find that with the exception of the quartermaster sergeant Lewis, not a single European officer had come down to the parade ground. They were in the mess house with the ladies, enjoying what was soon to be their last civilised supper.
Only Quartermaster Sergeant Lewis stood with the men on parade.
Finally, after close to an hour, the subedar-major stepped forward and saluting Lewis, asked if the officers were coming. Lewis replied he supposed they would and proceeded to break the line in columns of companies “at quarter distance.” There was still no murmur from the regiment and the manoeuvre was completed with the expected precision. Once again, the subedar-major stepped forward and repeated his question. Lewis replied he expected the officers must have been delayed. The subedar-major now suggested to Lewis to sound “the officers’ call,” something which Lewis declined to do. The request was repeated again, and once more, Lewis refused.
After this last request, Lewis drew his sword, and as the only officer present, proceeded to assume command of the regiment. This did not impress the sepoys.
Some of them started to leave the ranks though when ordered, returned to their places.
“Sergeant Lewis then spoke to them, or rather to the company in front of the column, about the enormity of mutiny; telling them that they had better dismiss such thoughts from their heads, as the result of the mutiny would eventually be, that they would all be hanged or transported.” It was not perhaps his wisest speech.
Upon completing his last sentence, the sepoys raised a furious yell, answering the Quarter-master sergeant with, “Well, if we are to be hanged, we’ll have the satisfaction of shooting you first” or words to that effect, and some of them now closed in around the hapless Lewis. Two men fired at the same time, and one shot went straight into Lewis’ side. As he lay bleeding on the ground, the first course of action would have been to dispatch him without any delay; but an old native officer threw himself over the sergeant and begged for his life. The mutineers had only treasure on their minds and not murder; leaving Lewis on the ground where he lay, they set off after Palliser.
It begs to question now, where were the other officers and civilians of the station?
Seeing all was lost, the magistrate Mr. Horne and the joint-magistrate Mr. Simpson who happened to be in the lines at the time, mounted on their horses, galloped with all speed back to the civil station. Leaving orders with the head of the police to do what he could to “check the advance of the sepoys” they fled to the cutcherry (collector’s courthouse). Not that the police chief could or would do anything. The jail guard would not listen to reason and immediately released the prisoners, who went off to join the mutineers themselves. At the treasury, Lieutenant Hutchinson was shot trying to harangue his men to their duty.
The officers of the 17th who were at Mess with the ladies ignored their first instinct to go to the lines to reason with their men but chose instead to flee in a body to the cutcherry – the only place in the station that had been deemed defensible and had previously been fortified by the magistrate. Joined by other civilians from the station, they waited. The fortifications of the cutcherry were simplistic and would have been barely ample even for a short siege. The verandahs had been closed up with loop-holed walls, the parapets mounted with sandbags, the entrance gate “commanded by 2 small guns and covered by a trench” with men of the 17th selected as gun guards. Fortunately, they too were not intent on murder.
“The soldiers came up with such an outcry that you could not hear your own voice. In this instance, they behaved with romantic courtesy. They formed a square around their officers and said they not only would not touch but would protect them, only that they were some mutineers who had sworn the death of particular officers, and therefore they begged the whole party to take to their carriages and be off at once. “But how are we to get our carriages,” said they, ” seeing that they are scattered all through the station?” “Ah! we will fetch them,” said the sepoys; and so they did…”
Leading the party in his carriage was Mr. Astell, the judge and everyone else followed on as best they could; the sepoys remained true to their word and escorted Europeans ten miles out of the station, on the road to Ghazipur. It was only when they reached the station that it was realised that the indigo planters and “poorer class of Christians” had been left behind. As for Quartermaster Sergeant Lewis – according to one account, he did survive although injured, was taken prisoner and eventually freed by one Mr. Venables. However, I have not found anything to corroborate this and remain undecided as to his fate.
While the officers and civilians were on their way to Ghazipur, some of the mutineers – those not engaged in plundering and pillaging the station – hurried on the road to find Lieutenant Palliser.
He had intended initially to disarm the 17th NI – there had been some attempt to tamper with the men of the 13th Irregulars he had brought with him during their short stay in Azamgarh, however, on bended knee, the sepoys swore their loyalty to Palliser.
They were barely three hours down the road from Azamgarh when they were approached by a crowd from the direction of the town they had just left. The Irregulars wavered but stood by Lieutenant Palliser and the other officers, Lieutenant Simpson and Mr. Turner. However, they would not open fire on the mutineers or on the men of the 17th that Palliser had chosen not to disarm.
The 17th on the other hand was not pleased with the 13th. Although they themselves had not injured or killed their officers at Azamgarh -Lewis and Hutchinson being the exceptions – they could see no reason to spare the lives of Palliser, Turner and Simpson, but they were not going to be the ones to do it. For a regiment to implicate itself in the mutiny, it often only needed to kill its own officers, so the men of the 17th now attempted to persuade the 13th to join their ranks. When the 13th refused, they appealed to religion, nationality and camaraderie but finally resorted to bribery, offering them Rs. 5000.- for each officer’s head. Still, the 13th refused.
Unable to withstand the temptation any longer, the 17th finally decided to be off; they plundered the treasure and took it back to Azamgarh, leaving the officers unharmed.
As for the men of the 13th, they remained “negatively faithful” in so far as they protected their officers and saw them safely back to Benares. The very next day, they deserted having accomplished at least, it can be said, half their duty.
Located 420 miles northeast of Calcutta and 80 miles east of Allahabad, Benares is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism, with the great city located on the left bank of the Ganges River. Called Varanasi today, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and one of the first urban settlements in the middle Ganges valley. By the 2nd Millenium BC, the city was already a seat of Vedic religion and a major commercial and industrial centre, famous for its fine muslin and silks, perfumes and sculptures. It is mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as the capital of the Kashi Kingdom. At Sarnath, not far from Varanasi, the Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon.
The Muslim occupation, starting in 1194 was not particularly kind to Varanasi. Many of the Hindu temples were destroyed and its scholars fled the city. It would not be until the 16th century, under the rule of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, that Varanasi could regain some of its fortunes as a centre of learning and religion.
In 1740, a local zamindar, Raja Balwant Singh took on the title of “Raja of Benares” – the Mughal Empire was in decline and the time was opportune to form an independent kingdom.
Benares was ceded to British control in 1775 by Asaf-ud-duala the Emperor of Delhi under very suspicious circumstances with the direct involvement of one of the EICos most unscrupulous gentlemen, Warren Hastings. I take this from the Benares Gazetteer:
“In 1770 Baja Balwant Singh died, and a dispute at once arose on the question of succession. His only legitimate issue was a daughter by his wife, Rani Gulab Kunwar, whose father was Bariar Singh of Pindra. He had, however, a son named Chet Singh by a Rajput woman, and this man’s claims were successfully urged by Ausan Singh, the confidential agent of the late Raja, to the exclusion of Mahip Narayan, the infant son of Balsvant Singh’s daughter, who had been married to Thakur Drigbijai Singh, a zamindar of Hajipur. Chet Singh forthwith made his peace with the Nawab, mainly by a bribe of 22 lakhs, and Shuja-ud-daula visited Benares and Ramnagar to greet the new ruler. His position was confirmed at a conference held in Benares between the Nawab and Warren Hastings in 1772, when a samad was given to the Raja making over the province to him and his heirs for an annual revenue of Rs. 22,48,449.
Shuja-ud-daula died in 1775, and one of the first acts of his successor, Asaf-ud-daula, was to cede to the Company the province of Benares, including “all the districts dependent on the Raja Chet Singh. ” As a result of this act, the province was allowed to remain in the charge of the Raja, to whom a samad of confirmation was given in the following year subject to the control of a Resident at Benares. The latter official was Mr. Francis Fowke, a creature of Philip Francis, and a man of little character or ability.”
Chet Singh was not a fool, and although perhaps not as shrewd as his late father, he succeeded in strengthening his position considerably throughout the country, successfully playing off the divisions that existed between the EICo and the local zamindars. It was however Warren Hastings who would force his hand. Called upon by Hastings in 1780 to send support to the British in one of the squabbles in South India against the French, the Raja responded – but not with the promptness Hastings had expected. The following year, a demand was made for a contingent of 1000 horses – this time, the Raja refused. In response, Hastings fined him £50,000 and, in order to realize this unreasonable sum, Hastings himself proceeded to Benares. On the 16th of August, three companies of sepoys commanded by three English lieutenants were sent to the Raja’s palace to arrest him. Although the Raja submitted to this humiliation, his followers were less so. Soon, the fort in which he was confined was surrounded by a very angry and increasingly turbulent mob. By some unhappy chance, the poor sepoys had not been provided with any ammunition – unable to defend themselves and much less their untenable position, the sepoys were left at the mercy of the Raja’s followers. The mob broke into the fort and massacred the entire sepoy contingent of 250 men and their officers.
Thus rescued, Chet Singh remained in Benares, on the other side of the river at Ramnagar. They could have made short work of Hastings and his significantly reduced escort but they allowed Hastings – in their inaction – to retreat, though greatly impeded by “an incredible tumult of servants, palanquins and baggage of every description, which for a time threatened a total destruction of our march.” He successfully made it to Chunar and into the fort. A month later Hastings returned to Benares – this time, he came with retribution in mind. Chet Singh was forced to flee to Gwalior and with him went any further chances of being Raja of Benares. In his place, the British installed his nephew Mahip Singh from whom Maharaja Bahadur Sri Sir Iswari Prasad Narayan Singh descended, ruler of Benares Kingdom in 1857.
As for Hastings, it can only be said, that as the first Governor-General of Bengal, he raised more than a few eyebrows in England for his greed and obvious corruption. He would eventually be charged with impeachment by Sir Philip Francis, a member of the Court of Directors of the EICo in Calcutta who Hastings had nearly murdered in a duel. Hastings would be charged with abuse of power as not only the Governor-General of Bengal but as the de facto Governor-General of the EICo in India. Hastings had amassed an incredible fortune in India, some £6.5 million (in today’s coinage) – an amount that even Hastings could not readily explain but it can be surmised that much of it was the collection of fines such as those he had levied against the Raja of Benares, among other obvious “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (For a quick summary of just some of Warren Hastings wickedly criminal behaviour, I refer you to: https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/14/20161/jaldi-bhago-warren-hastings)
Benares and Mr. Frederick Gubbins
For the sake of clarity, I will continue using the name Benares for the purpose of this narrative. Although it is considered obsolete today, during 1857, it was still called by its old nomenclature and as it is thus named in the narratives, I shall only revert to using Varanasi when it is contextually accurate to do so.
Up to 1851, the city had managed to resist most attempts at any European imposed improvements. Many ideas came and went -such as clearing the streets of detritus or installing any form of light in the streets – and others were quickly decried as a slight against the ancient customs the people of Benares held dear. The magistrates generally threw up their hands and let things be. Not so Mr. Frederick Gubbins.
The youngest brother of Martin Richard Gubbins (who we have already met in considerable detail at Lucknow), Frederick was no less uncompromising than Martin Gubbins was himself. Frederick had set himself a task – improve Benares, whether the citizens liked it or not.
“His first attempt had been unpromising: the inhabitants, according to custom, resisted his innovations, and, finding that he did not succumb, the very next time he came into the city, they pelted him out of it. He had in fact to fly for his life.”
Where another magistrate might have simply given up, Frederick Gubbins refused to relent. Seeing that he was uncompromising,
“The bourgeoisie, not to be beaten, resolved to starve him out; they shut all their shops and sent to stop their supplies of grain from all quarters. As the troops were dependent upon their regimental bazars, and these again dependent on the city of Benares for grain, it was supposed that, on the failure of the three or four days’ supply laid up in the bazars, the magistrate would be glad to give in. But Mr. Gubbins resolved to fight them with their own weapons: he sent to Mirzapore and other places for grain; and finally, hearing that the leading members of the insurrection were about to hold a meeting to concoct a further scheme of opposition, he sent down two companies of Sepoys, caught them in the act, and lodged them in jail.”
The next morning, Mr. Gubbins rode through the city and personally opened up all the shops. From then on, it was as if he was “lord of Benares” – “He had inspired a conviction of his power, his earnestness, his energy, such as if a native once imbibes he exaggerates,—he never loses the feeling. From that time forth, the idea reigned supreme in the minds of the people of Benares that it was impossible to organise a successful opposition against Mr. Gubbins.”
The Civilians, The Military and Hell-Fire Jack,
Not that Mr. Gubbins was alone in 1857, far from it. Promoted to judge, Frederick Gubbins had been replaced by Mr. F.M. Lind as Magistrate, who was further supported by 2 young assistants – Messrs. Archibald Pollock and Edward George Jenkinson. The Commissioner was Henry Carre Tucker. As we have seen before, the mutiny would have profound effects on many families throughout India and the Tuckers would be no exception. Henry’s brother, Robert Tudor as Commissioner of Fatehpur would very shortly be facing his own mutiny but with a very different outcome to that of Benares.
The military force at Benares was, like elsewhere in upper India, woefully inadequate, consisting half of a company of European Artillery (some 30 men) and three native regiments – the 37th BNI, the Sikh Regiment of Ludhiana, and the 13th Regiment of Irregular Cavalry. The force was commanded by Brigadier George Ponsonby. As Captain Ponsonby 15 years earlier of the Native Cavalry, he had gained a name for himself in Afghanistan when he was severely wounded alongside Captain Fraser in a mad battle with the horsemen of Dost Mohammed at Parwandarah. Whatever the past might have been, George Ponsonby had but lately arrived to take over command of the station from Colonel Gordon. He was 67 years old and he was no longer the man who had charged horsemen in Afghanistan.
In charge of the engineers was Captain Watson but the man for a certain crisis was Hell Fire Jack – Captain William Olpherts commanded the Artillery – he had but recently served in the Crimean auxiliary operations under Sir William Fenwick Williams, 1st Baronet of Kars.
As “Hell Fire Jack” William Olpherts would make a name for himself during the mutiny as a tough, uncompromising and above all one who appeared to enjoy danger. His career was marked liberally with active service – entering the Bengal Artillery in 1839, he would campaign throughout the 1840s in Burma, Saugor, Gwalior and the First Sikh War. After a brief respite, he would then join the campaign on the North-West Frontier Province in 1851 before joining the Crimean War in 1854 under General Sir Fenwick Williams at the defence of Kars and Erzeroum. Not that that was enough – Olpherts would continue in the Crimea itself, commanding a brigade of bashi-bazouks in the Turkish contingent. Benares was just his first stop in the mutiny – Hell Fire Jack would join Henry Havelock at Allahabad on his march to the first relief of Lucknow There is a description of Olpherts by a contemporary of his, Garnet Wolseley who served in the 90th:
“His battery was a sort of military curiosity in every way. His gun carriages were old, and always on the verge of absolute dissolution; and as for his harness, it seemed to be tied together with pieces of string. First came dear old Billy himself, clad in garments he had used in the Crimean War, a fez cap and a Turkish grego (a rough jacket), the latter tied round his waist with a piece of rope. About 50 yards behind him came his well-known battery sergeant-major, in a sort of shooting coat made from the green baize of a billiard table; then a gun, every driver flogging as hard as he could; then another, a long distance in the rear….Some of the spokes had gone; they all rattled.”
His action on the 25th of September in Lucknow did not go without notice and earned him a VC, nominated by the regiment. “For highly distinguished conduct…when the troops penetrated int the city of Lucknow, in having charged on horseback, with Her Majesty’s 90th Regiment, when gallantly headed by Colonel Campbell it captured two guns in the face of heavy fire of grape, and having afterwards returned, under a severe fire of musketry, to bring up limbers and horses to carry off the captured ordinance, which he accomplished. ” – (Extract from Field Force Orders of the late Major General Havelock, dated 17th October 1857).
This is just an example of the risks Olpherts was willing to run.
Once in the Residency itself he took on the position of brigadier of artillery and after the arrival of Colin Campbell, was put in charge of the Alambagh. His regiment would nominate for the Victoria Cross.
Stay or Retreat?
Gubbins and Lind had been aware that in the event of an uprising, Benares would probably not be spared. They had been using their time wisely – in May they had set up a network of spies to keep them abreast of what the sepoys were doing, they had organised patrols of sowars in the city to keep the peace and even persuaded the shopkeepers to lower the price of grain to instil a sense of confidence in the local population. The usual signs of disaffection had occurred in Benares as at other stations, with random incendiary fires to which no one could be assigned the blame.
It had been unanimously agreed by both the civil and military authorities that the 37th would need to be disbanded. They had been showing signs of increasing restlessness since March – to counteract their spirit, the 13th Irregulars had been called to Benares from Sultanpur, both to keep an eye on the 37th and to be the reinforcements if the 37th decided to mutiny. The spies had been bringing back disconcerting information for some weeks, and true or not, it appeared that some elements in the 37th Regiment were plotting “with the ruffians of the city.” It was hoped that with the help of the few Europeans, the Sikhs and the Irregulars it would be possible to disband the 37th.
So far the military aspect had been discussed but what to do if the mutiny actually happened? This, unfortunately, was not so clear.
Already in May, Captains Watson and Olpherts had proposed that they should all retire, in a body to Chunar Fort, some way out of Benares itself. It was a strong position and well away from Benares; it also had enough room to accommodate the civilian population. Besides that, a company of European invalids were already in Chunar, so they could be used as an additional fighting force. Commissioner Tucker partially agreed, Gubbins and Lind did not. Gordon and Ponsonby both denied they had ever agreed to go to Chunar, Gordon going as far as to say he had been persuaded in that course of action against his will.
Had they moved to Chunar, the outcome at Benares would most likely have been an immediate uprising – by staying put they had at least waylaid the inevitable for a month. Instead, the Benares Mint was chosen as the point of retreat.
Reinforcements had been moving from Calcutta into the provinces as quickly as Canning could send them, stopping but briefly at Benares; as the demands for aid from Oudh were particularly loud and most urgent, Tucker and Ponsonby decided to send them along without delay. Neither the men of HM’s 84th nor the detachment from Danapur was detained – they were shunted on with haste towards Kanpur. Gubbins convinced Tucker, to make up for the loss, they should arm the European civilians instead, an impromptu volunteer force made up of anyone who wanted to shoulder a gun. Tucker needed a little convincing but eventually agreed. He himself continued to ride through the streets of Benares, armed only with a stick and horsewhip. Tucker had never had the mind to use a gun himself.
The news of the mutiny at Azamgarh reached Benares on the 4th of June. Shocking as it was, it could hardly have been surprising and Benares should have been at least a little comforted that the 17th NI had been more interested in plunder than in cutting throats. All the reinforcements were gone and all that Benares had to protect itself with was the shaky Irregulars, 30 Europeans and the Ludhiana Sikhs. They didn’t think even for a minute the 37th might still be loyal.
The 37th BNI Meet Colonel James Neill
This proud regiment, raised in 1799 and one that had seen good office in the Punjab and in Afghanistan were about to meet their downfall. It was not brought on by their own officers per sé but by one Colonel James Neill. Of this officer, some word must be given.
The history of 1857 would be incomplete without Neill or the atrocities he failed to prevent, much less those he himself ordered. For now, we will only look at Benares – however, as he is going to be an integral part of the narrative from here on out, some background is necessary.
Born in 1810 in Scotland as the eldest son of Colonel Neill of Burnwell and Swendridge Muir, Ayrshire, Neill was educated in Ayr and at Glasgow University. He then obtained his cadetship in the EICo- and on the 1st of June 1827, he set sail for Madras. Thanks to Sir Thomas Munro, who besides being governor of the Madras presidency was married to a relative of Neill’s (Jane Campbell before she became Lady Munro), and he used his considerable influence to place Neill in the 1st Madras European Regiment.
Neill would remain with his regiment, rising through the ranks. In 1841, when appointed the staff as deputy assistant adjutant-general, Neill would write “Historical Record of the Madras European Regiment”, published in 1843. Although he kept his staff appointment, by 1850, he was Major Neill.
Having missed out on the Afghanistan campaign, Neill refused to be denied a chance to go to Burma and in 1852 with the commencement of the 2nd Burmese War, he tossed up his staff appointment and quickly joined his regiment which had been ordered to Burma. Although appointed to a staff position again as deputy assistant adjutant-general under Sri Scudamore Steele, Neill would remain in Burma throughout the campaign, eventually commanded the Madras troops in Rangoon. His reward, besides ill-health that required his removal to England on sick leave, Neill was promoted to brevet-lieutenant colonel in 1853.
In 1854, still in England, Neill found the opportunity to join the adjutant general of the Madras Army, General Robert Vivian who had been selected to command the Turkish Contingent in the Crimean War. Interestingly enough, while attached to the Turkish Contingent, Neill was part of a military commission raised to investigate the “outrages” committed by the Bashi-Bazouks under General Beatson. Under the commission, Neill had the authority to punish anyone involved in plundering, amongst other excesses and it was Neill who recommended that the problem lay less with the men themselves but the laxness of their discipline forcing Beatson to either accept Neill’s proposal for reform or resign. Beatson decided on the latter and Neill took over.
Under Neill, a further 12 officers were relieved from duty, including the brigadier-general, three lieutenant colonels and three majors since he was determined no one who was unfit for duty would be allowed to serve. His considerable talent in this type of organisation would serve him well in India. He returned to India in 1857, arriving in Madras in March. His own regiment was on away duty in the Persian Gulf with Outram’s expedition; Neill would not have the chance to join them: the expedition ended and his regiment returned to Madras in April. With their commander, Colonel Stevenson on sick leave in England, Neill stepped into the now vacant position.
On the 16th of May, when news arrived from Calcutta regarding Meerut and Delhi, Neill wasted no time in mobilising his men. Completely kitted out and instructions received, they arrived on the 23rd of May in Calcutta ready for duty. By the 3rd of June, they were in Benares.
It is well to note here, that Neill had never served in the Bengal Army, much less with an Indian regiment. He was thoroughly a Madras man and his disdain for sepoys and their officers was something he could hardly hide. Known as Neill’s “Blue Caps” the men of the 1st Madras Europeans would wage a very murderous war all across the mutiny landscape. Neill might have shown his abhorrence for bad soldiers in Crimea, and blamed it all on poor discipline – but now he was at the head of a well-trained force that killed on command. And they had Lord Canning’s approval to do so. Unfortunately for all the native troops in Benares, the first problem they faced was Neill.
General Neill with a detachment of 1st Madras Fusiliers (60 men and three officers) arrived in Benares on the 4th of June. The idea had been to push on with all haste to Kanpur together with the men of the 10th Foot (150 men and three officers) from Danapur. Little did they know that even their best efforts at this point would be in vain but no one on that day no one knew how things really stood in that doomed station. Before Neill could leave, it was determined the 37th should be disarmed.
Initially, it was first thought to parade the regiment the following morning and after the intentions were thoroughly explained to the several companies, they would be called to lay down their arms. The command of the regiment and indeed the station lay in the hands of Brigadier Ponsonby. What happened next is unexplainable and looks as if no one wanted to be blamed for the ensuing fiasco.
Investigating the disarming, Mr. Taylor, would report: ” It appears that as Brigadier Ponsonby was returning home after the Council, he met Colonel Neill, who recommended him to disarm the corps at once. Disregarding all other consideration he hurried to the parade-ground.” But in a letter before me, written by Brigadier Ponsonby in July, that officer states that, ” On the 4th of June Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, commanding the regiment of Lodiana, called and informed me that he had reason to believe the men of the 37th Native Infantry were entering into a conspiracy with some of the bad characters of the city, in view to the subversion of the British power in Banaras. After some conversation on the subject, in which I ascertained from the Lieutenant-Colonel that he considered that he could rely on the fidelity of his own regiment we agreed to go together to the Commissioner, Mr. Tucker, and to acquaint him with what had been communicated. We proceeded to Mr. Tucker, and on breaching the subject of our visit, he proposed that we should go to Mr. F. Gubbins, who lived close at hand, and we did so. Mr. Gubbins, it appeared, had heard from his spies that which not only confirmed Colonel Gordon’s report, but gave much more detailed information as to the secret proceedings of the men of the 37th Native Infantry. Colonel Neill came in while Mr. Gubbins was speaking, and soon afterwards the Brigade-Major, Captain Dodgson, entered to report that the treasure, which was on its way from Azamgarh to Banaras under a guard of fifty men of the Irregular Cavalry, had been plundered by the 17th Native Infantry—the guard of the Irregulars having connived at the deed.
It was immediately felt that this circumstance, occurring in such close proximity to Banaras, rendered the adoption at once of some strong measures imperative, and Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon proposed the disarming of the 37th Native Infantry, to which I acceded. There was some discussion as to whether this should be attempted at once, or at ten a.m. on the following day. Mr, Gubbins having expressed his opinion that emissaries from the 17th Native Infantry would soon be in Banares it was settled to disarm the 37th at five o’clock, and it being now past four, it was also arranged to keep the measure as quiet as possible in order that the regiment might not be on its guard.”
Neill on the other hand would declare in his report that Ponsonby and Gordon called on him in his quarters and after considering their arguments, Neill ordered the afternoon parade. Brigadier Ponsonby however did not agree with full disarmament, recommending the 37th be allowed to retain their side-arms and he wanted to wait until the morning. Neill then states, that Ponsonby left his quarters and went off to make the necessary arrangements.
As for Ponsonby himself, he would claim, in his journal “The Brigadier called on me at three p.m. with Colonel Gordon of the Sikhs, informing me of the mutiny of the 17th at Azamgarh . . . very undecided . . . would put off everything until tomorrow. I speak out, and urge him to act at once, which he unwillingly agrees to „ . . the Europeans to parade at five p.m. . . . the 37th to be disarmed. . . the Irregulars and Sikhs said to be staunch to act with us.”
No one could agree who was where and doing what – Ponsonby and Gordon called on Gubbins who had with him Major Barrett of the 37th. This poor man “solemnly protested against the measure, as one which would break their hearts.” Ponsonby remained firm and ordered Barrett to warn the officers of the upcoming parade at 5pm. He then rode off with Gordon to the parade ground.
Blaming his horse for its unequal gait as it had not been ridden in a month and the “slant rays of the afternoon sun,” Ponsonby found himself “most anxious and uneasy in body and mind” and as Gordon mustered the Sikhs, Neills gathered the Europeans and Olpherts organised his guns. It might have been better, as events will show if Ponsonby had left altogether.
Colonel Spottiswoode (his unfortunate relative, Colonel Henry Spottiswoode had committed suicide in the Punjab when his regiment, the 55th BNI mutinied on the 21st of May) and his officers turned out the regiment and ordered them to place their muskets in the bell of arms. With only 400 men to contend with as the rest were on detached duty elsewhere in the station, it appeared to Spottiswoode at first that the men were “generally well-disposed.” The Grenadier company and then others up to No. 6, all peaceably deposited their arms as ordered. What happened next is uncertain for in the distance, they could see the Europeans advancing.
A rumour suddenly spread through the lines – the Europeans were going to kill them all as soon as they were disarmed. Spottiswoode immediately tried to appease his men, shouting out it was false, he then turned his horse and rode towards the European guns to stop their advance. As he returned to his men, the pay-havildar of No.2 company fired off a few shots and the rest of the men rushed forward to grab their weapons from the bell of arms.
Panic, as we have seen before is contagious. Ponsonby had commanded the Europeans and Olphert’s guns to move forward towards the sepoy lines. When they reached the quarter-guard, he then ordered the force to “wheel into line” and halt. He then spoke to the men on guard, reassuring them they had done no wrong but if they obeyed orders and gave up their arms, as they were told, they would come to no harm. Then pleading the effects of the sun, Ponsonby handed everything over to Neill.
It took barely a moment for the cry that so terrified the sepoys – the Europeans were coming to murder them all – and their own European officers suddenly seemed to hesitate.
“They called out that their officers were betraying them, and immediately shot at them, and poured a volley on the Europeans. This of course was instantly returned, and followed by a discharge of grape from the three guns. The 37th fled to their lines. The Sikhs, who had hitherto been considered faithful, had been told nothing of what was going on, were also panic-stricken and fired at the English.”
Neill had ordered the Sikhs and the Europeans to charge the 37th. In the ensuing confusion, sowars of the 13th took the opportunity to shoot at the Sikhs. The Sikhs turned face and returned fire – one of them then fired at their own commander, Colonel Gordon who was saved by a faithful havildar who took the shot for him. “The rest of them, not knowing apparently what to make of the position, began shouting and firing indiscriminately, their muskets levelled in the direction in which the guns were posted.”
The Europeans themselves did not know what they were doing. Seeing Gordon fall, Crump of the Madras Artillery cried out that the Sikhs had mutinied.
“At this time they were shouting and yelling frantically, and firing in all directions—their bullets passing over and through the English battery. They were only eighty or a hundred yards from us on an open parade ground…So Olpherts, having ascertained that the officers of the Sikh corps had taken refuge in his rear, brought round his guns and poured a shower of grape into the regiment. Upon this they made a rush upon the guns—a second and a third—but were driven back by the deadly showers from our field-pieces, and were soon in confused flight. And with them went the mutineers of the Irregular Cavalry…”
No one had had the presence of mind to ascertain if the Sikhs had actually mutinied. It was presumed, so it was deemed to be true.
Pursued by the European infantry, the 37th looked for shelter in their lines but they had little hope of success. The cannons were brought about and showered the sepoys with grapeshot, which set fire to their huts, causing the sepoys to flee.
Meanwhile, Captain Guise, commanding the 13th Irregulars, called on his men to charge and went off, confident they were behind him – the calvary did not stir. They watched as the commander was shot down by men of the 37th. Brigadier-Major Dodgson then rode up to the men and taking command, ordered them to advance – one trooper pulled out his pistol and shot at the Brigadier-Major. The trooper was immediately shot down by the others. Major Barrett, on the other hand, was escorted off the field by men of the 37th. Three other officers of the 37th – 2 of them barely out of their teens at 16 and 18 respectively, were all desperately wounded, 1 of them fatally. Of the sepoys, Sikhs and the 13th, 100 were killed and 200 wounded.
Neill withdrew his men back to the barracks. Benares fell into silence and the sepoys fled towards Oudh, reluctant mutineers.
In the Cantonments
It had previously been decided that in case of mutiny, the civilians should gather at the building thought by far to be the strongest, called the Mint Upon hearing the “rattle of musketry and the roar of the guns,” many of the civilians made their mad rush to this post – though oddly enough most of the missionaries preferred to leave Benares altogether and set their sights on the fort at Chunar. Mr. Leuptholt of the Christian Missionary Society did neither – he stayed at the mission premises with the Indian Christians. How he planned to protect them had the city risen is anyone’s guess. The American missionary, Mr. Kennedy stayed behind but joined the other civilians at the Mint.
As the sepoys retreated from the city, they took random shots at any European they saw, without killing anyone, not that this was any comfort. With the horrors of Meerut and Delhi looming large in their minds, the Europeans did what they could for their safety. In the first instance, several hid in outhouses and stables, others climbed up to their roofs and hid behind the parapets while Mr. Tucker took the ladies and children into his house and hid them on the roof under straw. A few families, in possession of boats, rowed them out into the middle of the Ganges and stayed there until the danger had passed. As soon silence descended on the city and the firing stopped, they all made their way without delay to the Mint.
A young officer, who happened to find himself there, threw his light on the whole scene.
“I found everybody at the mint, which several had only reached after many adventures. We bivouacked in the large rooms, and slept on the roof – ladies, children, ayahs and punkah-coolies; officers lying down dressed, and their wives sitting up fanning them. In the compound below there was a little handful of Europeans, perhaps a hundred and fifty in all,; others where in the barracks half a mile off. There was picnicking, gypsifying look about the whole affair, which prevented one from realising that the small congregation were there making a stand for a huge empire, and that their lives were upon the toss up of the next events.”
Mr. Gubbins and Mr. Lind on the other hand took their position on the roof of the treasury building – and not a single shot was fired at them. Perhaps the memory of 1852 and the apparent status Mr. Gubbins enjoyed in Benares was enough to make even the most erstwhile plunderer think twice. But Gubbins and Lind had some help.
“When the Sikh guard hears of the fate of their comrades, their agitation and rage was extreme, and they would certainly have mutinied, seized the treasure, and attacked the Europeans, had not Sardar Surat Singh gone in among them and, by his personal influence and expostulations, kept them to a sense of their duty. Through that long June night, the Sardar, ably seconded by Pandit Gokal Chand, argued and entreated till, towards morning, the little party were escorted to the mint by a European force.” (from “Chiefs and Families of Note in Punjab” (Volume I) written by Sir Lepen Griffins). Eventually, after depositing the contents of the treasury in a barracks building surrounded by European troops, the party made their way to the Mint during the night. The Raja of Benares himself proved to be one of their most valuable supporters – his neutrality in this instance saved the city from destruction by inciting no one and offering support to neither the mutineers nor any of the turbulent elements in the city. Consequently, he would then throw his full support behind the British.
In the cantonment, it did not seem that even pillage was on anyone’s minds. The bungalows of the civilians left deserted with every door wide open were neither ransacked nor burned down. The only plundering that went on was by the 37th who looted their own regiment’s treasure. Although Mr. Tucker was shot at his buggy was only briefly chased through the streets. Not a single European civilian was killed at Benares.
That is not to say they were safe. Mr. Brown, the Pensioned Paymaster and his family had not managed to leave their house and they required saving; one private and two non-commissioned men volunteered to bring them in and for their exertions were awarded the VC. The wife of Major Barrett was left behind in the confusion and owed her life to the bravery of a sepoy from No. 1 company, who prevented the major from going to fetch her, he “ran back, and tucked her under his arm, and midst grape and balls, he succeeded in saving her life.”
By morning, the only noise in the city was in the Mint itself.
“Officers and ladies, masters and servants, huddled together, for the most part on the rook, without so much respect of persons or regard for proprieties of costume. The Europeans who had been sent for their protection bivouacked in the lower rooms, many of them utterly worn out with the exhausting labours of the day; whilst outside in the compound, or enclosure was a strange collection of carriages, buggies, palanquins, horses, bullocks, sheep, goats and packages of all sizes and all kinds brought in for the provisioning of the garrison…The town is quiet, in the midst of the utmost noises and confusion of this crowded building..such a Pandemonium, it was impossible to think, write or do anything in it.”
Although they could return to their homes, it would be weeks before they stopped spending the night at the Mint.
It cannot be disputed that the disarming of the 37th at Benares had been thoroughly mismanaged. It was a rushed affair, which, had it been handled with some tact and by men who had their heads about them, instead of Ponsonby who obviously had lost his head and Neill who had no understanding of the men he was facing off against, it might not have ended the way it did. That there were those in the 37th who were bent on mutiny is not disputed but those who were on detached duty at Chunar Fort never mutinied, nor did those who were doing duty in the city and cantonments. The Sikhs had been thrown into the fray against their will and although there had been an attack on their commander, it was thwarted by one of their own men, and the next day, many of the Sikhs even returned to their duty. As for the 13th Irregular Cavalry – those that did not desert remained faithful despite being disdained and suspected by all. The Sikhs at the treasury could have started a mutiny of their own but they didn’t for which they were rewarded financially by the commissioner.
In the end, Benares is not so much remembered for a mutiny but for the events brought about by fear, distrust and terrible misunderstandings with grave consequences. It is however more remembered for the brutality of Neill and the Benares civilians. Having succeeded in chasing the soldiers out of Benares, Neill took it on himself the next morning to restore order. He did so with unnecessary barbarity. The rows of gallows were quickly filled up with boys and men, some who had only been caught doing nothing worse than waving a rebellious flag or beating on drums.
“One of the officers composing the court, a man unsparing before an enemy underarms, but compassionate, as all brave men are, towards the weak and helpless, went with tears in his eyes to the commanding officer, imploring him to remit the sentence passed against these juvenile offenders, but with little effect on the side of mercy. And what was done with some show of formality, either of military or of criminal’ law, was as nothing, I fear, weighed against what was done without any formality at all. Volunteer hanging parties went out into the districts, and amateur executioners were not wanting to the occasion. One gentleman boasted of the numbers he had finished off quite “in an artistic manner,” with mango-trees for gibbets and elephants for drops, the victims of this wild justice being strung up, as though for pastime, in ” the form of a figure of eight.”
After Neill left on the 9th of June, the hangings were far from over, and Act XIV had given the civilians the right to execute any Indian, regardless if he was an actual rebel or someone who entertained even the vaguest sympathies. Although Neill has been blamed for this brutal and bloody chapter of Benares’ history, a fair share of this horror must be given to the civilians. The mutiny was turning into a war of retribution.
Nominal Roll of Killed and Wounded
Killed: Captain Guise, commanding the 13th Irregular Cavalry
One apothecary of HM’s 10th
Two men of her HM’s 10th, shot on parade
Wounded: shot on parade –
Ensign Chapman, 37th BNI
Ensign Hayter, 25th BNI doing duty with the 37th
Ensign Tweedie, 4th BNI, doing duty with the 37th
8 privates of HM’s 10th
Quartermaster Sergeant Maidman, 25th BNI, doing duty with the Sikh regiment
Wounded: Captain and Brigade Major D.S.Dodgson, gunshot grazed right elbow, slight
2d Company, 3d Batallion, Royal Artillery
Wounded: Gunner John Lindsay 2d company, gunshot wound in right thigh, severe
Her Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot
Private William Conway, 2d company, gunshot wound in left lung
Private Joseph Gill, 7th company, gunshot wound of head
Hospital Apprentice Edwin Courtenay Jackson, gunshot wounds, head, hip and thigh; killed while proceeding with hospital supplies to the scene of the action.
Private John Conolly, 2nd company, gunshot compound fracture of left thigh.
Private Joe Dowell, 2nd company, gunshot wound in left shoulder.
Private Patrick Dunn, 2nd company, gunshot wound in right cheek.
Private John Ferguson, 2nd company, gunshot wound deep in right hip, ball lodged.
Private Thomas Kilsonye, 2nd company, gunshot wound left hip.
Private Robert Sherlock, 2nd company, gunshot deep in left thigh.
Private Owen Surewan, 7th company, gunshot, left thigh fractured, left hand severe.
Private John Ferris, 7th company, gunshot two bones of left foot fractured.
37th Regiment Native Infantry
Ensign Chapman, gunshot through upper jaw
Ensign Hayter, gunshot in right groin, right foot (amputated), left thigh fractured
Ensign Tweedie, gunshot through right shoulder
Havildar Bulwant Singh, gunshot through knee
Sepoy Laljee Lookul, gunshot left thigh
Sepoy Bundee Chow Opudiah, gunshot right thigh fractured
Sepoy Lall Singh, gunshot left thigh fractured
13th Regiment of Irregular Cavalry
Captain Henry John Guise, gunshot wounds in head, chest, abdomen and both arms, two very deep sabre cuts on left side of the head.
We will follow Neill onwards to Allahabad and that most indifferent regiment, the 17th. Their part in this history is far from over.
Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick (1859)
History of the Indian Revolt and the Expedition to Persia, China and Japan – George Dodd (1859)
Fifty-Seven: Some Accounts of the Administration of Indian Districts During the Revolt of the Bengal Army – Henry George Keene (1883)
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T.R.E. Holmes (1891)
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 – Colonel G.B. Malleson (1891)
Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 Vol II, Vol VI (Cabinet Edition), 1892
The History of the Indian Mutiny Vol I, Vol II – Charles Ball (1912)
The Great Mutiny, India 1857 – Christopher Hibbert (Penguin Edition, 1980)
The Indian Mutiny – Saul David (2003)