Calcutta, 1847-1849

The month of May began quietly in Calcutta. Lord Canning, the Governor-General, was waiting and watching – his advisors were quietly confident that disaffection had stayed with Hearsey’s actions in Barrackpore, and the regiments there were not showing any obvious signs of rebellion. At the rifle depot in Dum Dum, the new drill was continuing and this far, no one had raised any further objections to the ball cartridges. Reports from the Punjab were equally encouraging – from Sialkot, John Lawrence wrote to Lord Canning that from what he had observed, at the new School of Musketry, “the feeling among the Sepoys…(are) highly pleased with the new musket, and quite ready to adopt it. They already perceive how great an advantage it will give them in mountain warfare…could perceive no hesitation or reluctance on the part of any of the Sepoys.”

In Ambala, although General Bernard had had to impose a strict night picket to counteract the continuous incendiary fires that were nightly lighting up the sky in the town he too remained confident.
“I have no reason to accuse the Sepoy of causing these fires,” he wrote, “ no overt act has been elicited, and no instance of insubordination has occurred. The musket practice has been resumed with apparent goodwill and zeal. I have frequently attended it myself, and I will answer for it that no ill-feeling exists in these detachments.”
In Meerut, the men of the were being tried by Court Martial for their insubordinate behavior and the 34th Regiment at Barrackpur were slated for disbandment. However, Lord Canning and his councilors did not see that any of these actions could possibly have any far-reaching outcome.

The news from Oudh was less encouraging – the Nana Sahib had paid a fleeting visit to Lucknow for no apparent reason – an incident which worried Martin Gubbins so much he wasted no time in warning Hugh Wheeler in Cawnpore to watch his back; shortly after the first signs of mutiny appeared in Lucknow.
Henry Lawrence had sanctioned Lord Canning as early as April to allow him to disband the 48th Regiment at Lucknow, a regiment that was so obviously tainted with disaffection, he initially wanted to march them as far out of Lucknow as possible. His obvious choice was to send them to Meerut- the strong force of Europeans there would be able to hold the 48th in check. Canning agreed.
“Let the Commander-in-Chief know,” wrote the Governor-General, “if you find it necessary to send it away, but do not wait for any further authority If you have regiments that are really untrustworthy, there must be no delicacy in the matter.”
On the 1st of May, he wrote to Lord Canning, saying “Unquestionably we should feel better without the 48th, but I do not feel confident that the feeling in the other regiments is materially better; and there is little doubt that the 48th would not be improved by a move, which is an important point of consideration in the present general condition of the Army.” Henry Lawrence was undoubtedly right – even without the 48th Oudh would not be any safer, and there was no reason to believe they would behave better anywhere else. Fortunately for Meerut, would not have to contend with the 48th as well.
On the 3rd of May, Henry Lawrence received unsettling news that his problems were not confined to a disgruntled 48th.
The 7th Regiment of the Oudh Irregulars had openly refused to use the cartridges should they be supplied to Lucknow – and on the 7th of May with disaffection past simmering point and the men openly talking of murdering their officers, Henry Lawrence was forced to take measures. With the 48th in tow since he could not trust to leave them in Lucknow, Lawrence rode to the lines of the 7th and that very night with the object of disbanding the regiment.

“The moon had risen, bright in an unclouded sky, on that Sabbath evening, when Henry Lawrence, accompanied by his Staff, appeared with the Brigade before the lines of the 7th. The regiment was drawn up on parade, in a state of vague uncertainty and bewilderment, not knowing what would come of this strange nocturnal assembly. But when they saw the Europeans, the Cavalry, and the guns, taking ground in their front and on their flanks, the Native regiments being so placed as to destroy all hope of their aiding their comrades, the mutineers knew that their game was up, and that there would be death in further re-sistance. What might then have happened if the course of events had not been determined by an accident, cannot be distinctly declared. The mutinous regiment had obeyed the word of command, and some of the men had expressed contrition; but it happened that, by some mistake, an artilleryman lighted a port-fire.
The guns were pointed towards the mutineers, and though Lawrence and his Staff were posted between them and the Artillery, and would probably have been swept away by the first round, the Sipahis of the guilty regiment believed that the battery was about to open upon them.
A panic then seized the 7th. First one man, then another, broke away from his comrades and fled, throwing down his arms as he went in the overwhelming consternation of the moment; and presently great gaps appeared in the line, and only a remnant of the regiment was left to obey the orders of the English officer. To these men, whilst the Cavalry went in pursuit of the fugitives, Henry Lawrence rode up; and as they broke into exclamations of “Jai Kampani Bahadurko!” – “Victory to the great Lord Company!” – ordered them to lay down their arms, and to strip off their accoutrements. They obeyed without hesitation; and, an hour after midnight, the Brigade had returned to Lakhnao, carrying with it all the arms of the 7th, and escorting, under guards of the same force, the men who had so lately borne them. In the critical state of the other Native regiments, it was not thought wise to divide the Europeans.”
That same night, the lines of the 48th were burned to the ground.

Henry Lawrence was not blind to the times. He understood that neither the 48th nor the 7th had become disgruntled over cartridges. The fear had been growing in their minds for some time – a culmination of poor judgement, poor pay, interference with recruiting rights and last but not least the veil had been broken; in the eyes of the sepoys after the last disasterous advent into Afghanistan, the John Company was no longer invincible. The cartridges were but a symbol of their discontent. Lawrence’s letter to Lord Canning on the 9th of May offer the best explaination.

“I had a conversation with a Jamadar of the Oudh Artillery for more than an hour, and was startled by the dogged persistence of the man, a Brahman of about forty years of age, of excellent character, in the belief that for ten years past Government has been engaged in measures for the forcible, or rather fraudulent, conversion of all the Natives.
His argument was, that as such was the case, and that as we had made our way through India, won Bharatpur, Lahor, &c., by fraud, so might it be possible that we mixed bone-dust with the grain sold to the Hindus. When I told him of our power in Europe, how the Russian war had quadrupled our Army in a year, and in another it could, if necessary, have been interminably increased, and that in the same way, in six mouths, any required number of Europeans could be brought to India, and that, therefore, we are not at the mercy of the Sipahis, he replied that he knew that we had plenty of men and money, but that Europeans are expensive, and that, therefore, we wished to take Hindus to sea to conquer the world for us.
On my remarking that the Sipahi, though a good soldier on shore, is a bad one at sea, by reason of his poor food, ‘That is just it,’ was the rejoinder. ‘You want us all to eat what you like that we may be stronger, and go everywhere.’ He often repeated, ‘I tell you what everybody says.’ But when I replied, ‘Fools and traitors may say so, but honest and sensible men cannot think so,’ he would not say that he himself did or did not believe, but said, ‘I tell you they are like sheep; the leading one tumbles down, and all the rest roll over him.’
Such a man is very dangerous. He has his full faculties, is a Brahman, has served us twenty years, knows our strength and our weakness, and hates us thoroughly. It may be that he is only more honest than his neighbours, but he is not the less dangerous. On one only point did he give us credit. I told him that in the year 1846, I had rescued a hundred and fifty Native children, left by our army in Kabul, and that instead of making them Christians, I had restored them to their relations and friends.
Yes,’ he replied, ‘I remember well. I was at Lahor.’ On the other hand, he told me of our making Christians of children purchased during famines. I have spoken to many others, of all ranks, during the last fortnight; most give us credit for good intentions; but here is a soldier of our own, selected for promotion over the heads of others, holding opinions that must make him at heart a traitor.

On the 10th of May, Lord Canning and Mr. Dorin recorded minutes on the subject of disbanding the 7th Regiment in Oudh. What they thought of Henry Lawrence’s foreshadowing of the coming storm is not recorded, if they thought about it all.

The Government at Calcutta

Council House at Calcutta

Charles Canning, 1st Earl Canning was not a man supremely gifted in mastering a crisis. As the successor of Lord Dalhousie who had left his mark on India in more ways than just annexation of territory – he had established the Public Works Department, introduced passenger trains on the budding Indian railway network, had promoted the use and installation of the electric telegraph and uniform postage. By his supporters, Dalhousie was hailed as visionary and consolidator of a growing empire; his critics condemned him for not realising his overbearing attitude and boorish behaviour of annexation had caused him to lose sight of the the problems he was actually sowing – the sounds of mutiny were already rumbling under Dalhousie’s rule but he had, in his arrogance, chosen to ignore them, leave Lord Canning a hornet’s nest of discontent to deal with.
Leaving India in 1856 in what Dalhousie felt was a better place than he had found it in in 1848, he sailed off into retirement. What no one could believe however, was why Lord Canning had been chosen to replace him.
Canning had already refused India once before, having been offered the position of private secretary to Lord Ellenborough – a position that could have given him the much needed experience he would find lacking in 1857. Instead he had chosen to remain in England where he reluctantly persued a quiet and unremarkable career in politics. When Lord Palmerston appointed Canning to the position of Governor General of India in 1856, Canning was serving as Postmaster General since 1853. He had shown himself a hardworking, capable administrator but the position still left him underqualified to take on India. The appointment to Governor-General was made not on Canning’s own abilities finally, but rather based on the reputation of his father’s remarkable services.

Lord Canning, 1860

Known better as elegant scholar rather than an inspirational statesman, his arrival in Calcutta in 1856 was not met with universal approval but as long as the country was at peace, Canning could administer in his self assured, concientious style. The problem Canning faced in 1857 were compounded not just by his own natural reluctance for swift decisions but by the workings of the Supreme Council at Calcutta.
Of the 5 only General Low had ever had any contact with sepoys but he was long past his prime as a soldier or a statesman. The others, Joseph “John” Dorin, John Peter Grant, Barnes Peacock and George Anson – the Commander-in-Chief, were not the men for a crisis. We will take a look at these men in a little more detail.

Joseph Alexander Dorin

Joseph Alexander “John” Dorin was the son of Joseph Dorin, a retired merchant and resident of Bolougne, France, who had previously been not only a merchant in the firm Begbie, Dorin and Thomson of London, but also Captain Dorin of the East Indiaman, Duke of Montrose.
In his entire 30 year career in India which had started in the 1820s, Joseph Alexander Dorin had never been further than 16 miles outside of Calcutta, nor had he ever had any employment out of it, leaving the city only the visit the Governor-General at his Barrackpore residence. His knowledge of India and all things Indian was confined to the environs of one city. According to Sir John Kaye in his “History of the Indian Mutiny, Vol I” he describes Dorin as

“not a man of great parts; he was not a man of high character. If he had any official reputation, it was in the capacity of a financier; and finance was at that time the weakest point of our Government. He had limited aquaintance with the country, and but small knowledge of the people. He had no earnestness; no enthusiasm; no energy. He had a genius for making himself comfortable; and he had no superflous activities of head or heart to mar his success in that particular direction.

In 1829, Dorin was appointed Secretary to the Bank of Bengal. In his position he uncovered what was a very unsavory case of fraud but he handled it with much tact and efficiency. It secured his reputation as a financial man – and gained him an appointment in 1842 by the then Governor-General Lord Ellenborough as Deputy Accountant General. It was left in Dorin’s charge to reorganise not just the taxation system of Bengal but of all the EICo’s territories in India. In 1843, he was appointed First Financial Secretary.
An ardent support of Lord Dalhousie in all his deeds, Dorin went out of his way to make himself agreeable to Canning. Although there are unkinder terms one could use to describe Mr. Dorin, a “yes man” does justice. He spent his career writing emphatic minutes supporting what ever the Governor-General said, be it Dalhousie or Canning. He had taken his seat on the Supreme Council in May 1853, a position he would covet to the end of his career.
Although Joseph may never have left Calcutta, one of his sons would be killed during the mutiny, and his daughter-in-law would die in the Lucknow Residency. His other son had been serving in Peshawar during the mutiny but died of “dropsy” in Muree in May 1858.
We will delve a little deeper into the unsavoury post Mutiny life of Mr. Dorin in a different chapter – when this obviously hospitable, career climbing civil servant makes his long suffering wife Anne, the pensioner of his mistress!

General Low
General John Low did not lack India experience. He had afterall, spent his entire adult life in the country – starting as a lieutenant with the 1st Madras Native Infantry in 1805 at the age of 17. His early career was mecurial; he served with the quarter-master general’s office in 1810, was attached to the 59th Regiment for their Java expedition in 1811, served as Persian interpreter and head of intelligence to Colonel Dowse from 1812-1813. It would be Low, after the defeat of the Mahrattas at the Battle of Mahidpur in 1817 who would be instrumental as politial assistant to Sir John Malcolm in convincing the Maharata Baji Rao to accept British protection and retire to Bithur. Low would then serve as Resident to Bithur for 6 years. The Battle of Mahidpur however, would be his last military action. From 1817 onwards, his career was more or less purely political in nature. Elected to the council in 1853, Low would sternly oppose Dalhousie in the question of annexation of not only Nagpur but Oudh, though his opinions in this and many other subjects were generally ignored.
In all fairness, Low was still quick on the uptake in 1857. Initially advocating leniancy for mutinied regiments, it would not be long before he too was calling for calling for sterner measures and the swift recovery of Delhi.
His son, Robert Cunliffe Low serving in 1857 with the 4th Bengal Cavalry would join the Delhi Field Force when his regiment mutinied. One of John Low’s daughters, Charlotte Herbert Low was married to Sir Theophilus Metcalfe but she died in Simla in 1853, at the age of 20. Her widowed husband would be in Delhi at the start of the mutiny – his adventures and subsequent descent into what could be called vengeful lunacy will be described in a different chapter.
The book, “Tears of the Raja” by Ferdinand Mount explores the exploits and fortunes of the remarkable Low (and Thackerays and Metcalfes) family in India from 1805 to 1905 and is a fantastic read.

John Peter Grant
One of the only officials who seems to have found any universal support in this mare’s nest is John Peter Grant.

Sir John Peter Grant,  GCMG, KCB, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal (1859–1862) and Governor of Jamaica.

In Grant, Canning could have found “a serviceable colleague” – and was everything Dorin was not. A quiet, hardworking civil servant with an “indolent sleepy manner” but an “extraordinary activity of mind”, Grant would spent his entire career in India following is graduation from Haileybury in 1828 (upto his appointment as Governor of Jamaica in 1866) in Calcutta with a brief stint in Bareilly.
It was during his time in Bareilly that Grant was given a unique insight into village life in India and a deeper understanding of the land revenue and assessment systems. In 1832, he was appointed assistant to the board of revenue in Calcutta – the experience of his previous posting would serve him well. His career too would continue to climb – as secretary to the Indian law commission, and then an appointment to inquire into the debts of the Maharaja of Mysore. Subsequently, Grant found himself involved in the suppression of human sacrifice practiced by the Khand peoples of the Ganjam Hill Tracts. Lord Dalhousie recognised Grant’s talents and appointed him the secretary to the government of Bengal. From here it was but a step up to foreign secretary, then permanent secretary in the home department of the Indian government. In 1854, with the appointment of Frederick Halliday to the position of Lieutenant Governor, Grant took his empty seat on the supreme council.
What set Grant apart however was his lineage. His family was long established in India; his own father had served as puisne judge at the Calcutta Supreme Court, while other relations had made their names as civilians, merchants and lawyers. Although he lacked practical India experience, Grant was a gifted analyst and “if-Government were perplexed by any difficult questions, involving; a tangled mass of disordered financial accounts, or a great conflict of authority mystifying the truth, he was the man of all others to unravel the intricate or to elucidate the obscure.” Although he suffered for official reserve, John Peter Grant was the man for a crisis – on the whole a man who understood government when government did not understand itself. Lord Canning saw that – he appointed Grant lieutenant-governor of the Allahabad Benares area during the mutiny in lieu of John Russell Colvin who was shut in the Agra Fort; it was due to Grant’s efforts in this tedious position that communications along the Grandt Trunk Road remained open and the supplies for troops proceeding through Bengal. He remained on good terms with the military administration and when needed, he directed and bolstered the efforts of beleagured civilians throughout the district.
Grant would take over as Lieutenant- Governor of Bengal after Halliday’s retirement in 1859 and after an exceptionally successful term of office, he was chosen as the extraordinary civillian to deal with the 1865 uprising in Jamaica.

Barnes Peacock

Sir Barnes Peacock

Of all of Canning’s advisors, Barnes Peacock was the supremely ill-equipped to deal with the coming calamity. He had been called to the bar in 1836, had made something a reputation for himself in the case of Daniel O’Connell and his fellow defendants in 1844 when he pointed out a flaw that led to the invalidation of their conviction. In 1852 he went to India as the legal member of the Governor-General’s council.
Shortly after his arrival, the legislative council was established and Peacock proved himself such an eloquent speaker that legislation soon enjoined councilors to deliver their speeches sitting down to restain Peacock from persuing over long soliloquies. This somewhat tedious man was supposed to represent the popular element in the council; but he often favoured Europeans and Anglo Indians views over those of Indians, found it difficult to mask his contempt for the EICo and had very little tolerance for its servants.
He actively supported Dalhousie’s annexation of Oudh and although
“assiduous to the work of law-making, he was the very soul of the Legislative Council; and had he confined his efforts to the work of moulding into draft-acts the ideas of other men, he would have been an invaluable public servant. But he sometimes went beyond this; and, when he did so, he commonly went wrong. For knowing little of the people of India, and having only thoroughly English notions of philanthropic reforms and legislative beneficences, he would have taught the people better manners with a rapidity for which they were not prepared, if he had unrestrainedly followed out his own ideas of social improvement... There were times when his legal penetration was of service in the disentanglement of knotty questions of executive government, and he sometimes recorded minutes distinguished by no common powers of special pleading.” It was not long before Peacock was an embarrassment to the Ministry and Canning was found his conscientious excesses irritating.
In 1859, Peacock would be the last chief justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William and would be appointed the first Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court in 1862.

Calcutta High Court in the 1860’s, picture by Samuel Bourne.

Honourable George Anson

We have already met the erstwhile Commander-in-Chief of India’s army; in May 1857 he was enjoying a break from the dust and heat of Calcutta in the pleasing climes of Simla.
His appointment to this most difficult of posts was nothing short of a shock for the English communities in all the Presidencies. They all knew who Anson was but it was not for his military might; it was for his regular appearance in the Racing Calendar!
Not that he wasn’t a soldier – he had after all served as an ensign during the Napoleonic Wars and under Wellington at Waterloo in 1814. After that, he placed his military career on hold as he pursued loftier callings – as member of parliament for Greater Yarmouth and then for Stoke-upon- Trent and even later for Staffordshire South. Lord Melbourne appointed him Storekeeper of the Ordnance in 1835, a position he kept until his promotion to Clerk of the Ordnance in 1841, which he maintained until 1852. It must be noted here that Anson did serve as ADC to Wellington when he was Commander-in-Chief in 1842, a position he also kept until his own promotion to Major General in 1851. In 1853, he joined the staff of the army in India and commanded the Meerut division but scarcely a year later in 1854 he was given command of the Madras Army and by 1856 he was Commander-in-Chief of all India and for some reason, Colonel of the 55th Westmoreland Regiment of Foot.
It is no surprise this caused plenty of raised eyebrows and no lack of disgruntlement as Anson superseded men who had actually been active soldiers their whole lives. For a man who had spent 10 years on home service in London while working actively in parliament, and a further 26 years on half-pay the shock to the Madras Establishment initially and then to India led many to comment that Anson’s appointment was nothing more than a case of patronage at it’s worst. London and the world knew Anson as a beautiful whist player with fine manners, an owner of prize-winning racehorses – he won The Derby with Attila in 1842 and The Oaks in 1844 with The Princess – and for his remarkably beautiful wife, the society belle, the Honorable Isabella Forester.

Lord Canning at the onset, was not impressed by Anson but would later admit that although Anson was “rather a disappointment – but it would be very difficult to quarrel with anyone so so imperturbably good-tempered, and so thoroughly a gentleman.”
Unfortunately what plagued the army in India was not the lack of men to serve in higher positions, it was their obvious inability to do so.

 “..there was one thing at least to be said in his favour: he was not an old man. It was not in the nature of things, after a long European peace, that good service should be found in the officers of the Queen’s Army unaccompanied by the weight of years. But the scandal of imbecility had risen to such a height, the military world had grown so sick of infirmity in high places – of the blind, the lame, the deaf, the obesely plethoric that they were prepared to welcome almost anyone who could sit a horse, who could see from one end to the other of a regiment in line, and hear the report of a nine-pounder at a distance of a hundred yards. There was nothing to be said against George Anson on this score. He could hear and see; he could ride and walk. He was of a light spare figure, well framed for active exercise; and his aspect was that of a man who could “stand the climate.

Although at 59, he was young for an Indian army commander, Anson proved himself thoroughly unpopular with the officers of the East India Company; unable to mask his contempt for their service and their men, he famously stated he could never see a sepoy sentry “without turning away in disgust at his unsoldierlike appearance.” He displayed obvious favoritism to soldiers of the Queen’s Army and routinely appointed them as his ADCs.
Although he did show some promise in 1857, postponing target practice at the various depots and calling on officers to assure their men that the government had no nefarious plan of conversion up their sleeves. He ordered an analysis of the paper used for the cartridges and actively pursued the reports. Unfortunately, he fell short of his duties – finding it irksome to actually wait for the results of his inquiry, he left the musketry depot in Ambala amid a perfect wave of discontent among the sepoys and made his way with his entire staff to Simla.
Not that he stayed there long.
On the 12th of May, Anson was informed in no uncertain terms that mutiny really was underway, that Meerut was in turmoil and Delhi had fallen. After some initial prodding from the ever-persistent John Lawrence, Anson quickly ordered for European troops to take control of all the arsenals in the Punjab. His good start would grind to a halt – refusing to move without supplies and then adamant that his men should not have to walk to Delhi, it is no surprise that what looked like dithering while Delhi burned was enough to make John Lawrence frantic to the point of distraction – yet Anson was beset by real problems; not least his health. Whatever good intentions he might have had, no one would ever know. On the eve of what should have been his march to Delhi, Anson died in Ambala of cholera.

Colonel Richard James Howell Birch
There many questionable appointments made in Calcutta and one of these was of Colonel R.J.H. Birch.
No one could doubt the Colonel’s pedigree – he was the son of Richard Comyns Birch of the Bengal Civil Service who was grandson of John Zephaniah Howell who had been imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta in the 1700s.The Birchs were were well establishing India family and Richard James Howell carried on the tradition. He joined the Bengal Army in 1821 at the age of 18, and it is no surprise that his wide circle of relatives ensured he climbed the ranks at an astonishing pace and placed him in some of the most coveted staff appointments. After a quick moment as the judge-advocate-general at Meerut, Birch quickly became assistant secretary in the military department in Calcutta and then just as rapidly, judge-advocate-general to the forces in Bengal in 1841. He accompanied the army through the First Sikh War of 1845-1846, gaining his mention in dispatches and promotion to lieutenant-colonel. In 1849 he took temporary command of a brigade at the Battle of Chillianwallah and was made Companion of the Order of Bath in 1849 after the Battle of Gujrat.
Distinguished as his service might have been, by 1850, Birch was settled in Calcutta as secretary in the military department. Defacto the head of the army in India, a position that could be equated to that of a Minister of War, Birch dug himself in behind his desk and proceeded to prove himself an unbearable sycophant. What had worked under Dalhousie unfortunately for Birch did not work with Canning, who was shrewder judge of men that Dalhousie was; and when Canning needed him the most, all he received from Birch were opinions intended to flatter him – Birch had lost touch with the army and their wants, he had not spoken to a sepoy in years and all he was capable of writing lengthy, mostly unintelligible orders. Desk work had spoiled a good and noble soldier.

Not that Birch was on his own. There was of course Sir Cecil Beadon.

Sir Cecil Beadon
Arriving in India in 1836, Beadon spent his early career as most junior civil officers would do, in various stations, holding assistant posts. In 1843 he was the magistrate of Murshidabad and then appointed undersecretary to the Bengal Government. His mercurial rise through the ranks was furthered by Dalhousie when he was appointed to the commission of inquiry into the Indian postal service. He would then serve as secretary to the home department. Although it has later been refuted that Beadon underestimated the gravity of the mutiny, that can be said with hindsight only. In 1857, Beadon was stirring up mischief of his own.
There were very few people it seems that Beadon did not dislike.
He believed India was for the Civil Service, and the Civil Service alone, treating it as the property of the EICo and its servants. Indigo planters, merchants of all nations, castes, and creeds he scorned, he did not like independent Englishmen and hated pressmen even more. In fact, Mr. Beadon could not stand anyone who opposed his views, which was mostly everyone. For him, India should have remained an underdeveloped cash cow serving on to pay the salaries of the chosen civil servants.
His only redeeming feature was that it was “narrow-minded and unscrupulous, he was honest: he could not smile and smile and be a villain.” He never hid his contempt and as a result, people could not help respecting him.

Sir Cecil Beadon

This in 1857 was Lord Canning’s Council. A selection of men who in ordinary times would have been well suited to carry out the normal routine of government – what they lacked, was military knowledge and they had no way of getting it. What they had to rely on was their own limited experiences of India and the advice of Colonel R.J.H. Birch – Secretary to the Government of India for the Military Department, a man who had forgotten what an army was.

it is to hoped that the news from meerut is not true

So wrote Mr. Dorin on the 12th of May – Calcutta was apprised of the uprising at Meerut by way of telegram from Mr. Colvin in Agra, who had had the news from the unassuming little telegram sent by a worried teenage girl in Meerut to her father in Agra.
 ‘Cavalry have risen setting fire to houses having killed or wounded all Europeans they could find. If aunt intends starting tomorrow please detain her.’
The surprised postmaster at Agra wasted no time in showing the message to Mr. Colvin who in his turn conveyed the information to Lord Canning in Calcutta. What followed was a flurry of telegrams. All of sudden, the quiet heart of a sweltering Calcutta in May when everyone was just waiting for a chance to escape to the hills for some respite was stirred up into a blazing nightmare. In the center of confusion sat poor Mr. Dorin, stating that the mutiny must be suppressed as quickly as possible.
From all corners of the Bengal Presidency, Canning was beset with telegrams. He received news he could not verify as the rebels had already severed the telegraph at Meerut and then at Delhi. There was Brendish and Pilkington’s last message from Delhi sent just before they fled for their lives. It would not be until the 14th that Canning would receive a reliable report – again from Agra – that Delhi had fallen. The information came from a letter sent by the King of Delhi – confirmation that the insurgents had taken hold of the fort and the city.
At the first instant, Canning took his advice from the men around him, contrary perhaps to his own instincts. It must be noted that even though he was timid by nature, Canning was neither a fool nor incompetent. But in the first days of the mutiny, it can be surmised that he did not know what to do. He lacked firmness and self-reliance and had to support himself with the opinions of others. Had a Lawrence or an Outram or even a Nicholson been in Calcutta instead of his worthy councilmen, the mutiny might have been stemmed at the start.
By the 14th it was clear that Delhi had gone over to the rebels, and it seemed nothing less than incredible that the only European regiments that were anywhere near the beleaguered city were sitting quietly in Meerut.
The 1000 miles of Grand Trunk Road that separated Delhi and Calcutta was dotted with numerous stations – Barrackpore, Dinapore, Benares, Allahabad, and Cawnpore to mention a few but all that was left to hold back the tide of mutiny were 5 British regiments. The 53rd and 84th of Foot were based close to Calcutta, but the 10th Foot was in Dinapore, the 32nd Foot at Lucknow and the 3rd Bengal Europeans were in Agra.
Fortunately for Canning, he did have some recourse.
The Persia Campaign had only just ended and Sir James Outram was on his way back to India with part of his force. Canning telegraphed to Lord Elphinstone in Bombay to send at least 2 British regiments and an accompaniment of artillery to Calcutta as soon as they returned from Persia. He then telegraphed to Lord Harris in Madras to prepare the 43rd Foot and the 1st Madras Fusiliers for deployment and send a steamer post-haste to Pego to retrieve the 35th Foot. Canning then turned his attentions to Anson in Simla and Lawrence in Punjab – Anson was to prepare the forces of Meerut and the surrounding hill stations for an immediate march to Delhi, while Lawrence was to send every man he could spare from the Punjab to join Anson’s forces. Knowing he could not completely empty the Punjab, Canning then ordered the 2nd Bombay European Fusiliers to proceed upriver to Ferozepore.

On the 16th of May, Canning issued a proclamation, denying vehemently that the Indian government had any devious plans in mind to meddle with the religion or caste of the Indian people. His tome ended with a plea to the persons of “habitual loyalty and orderly conduct” to close their ears to “false guides and traitors who would lead them into danger and disgrace.” Although Canning would regret not having issued the proclamation earlier, it probably would not have made any difference to the outcome. For the soldiery, it looked like a shamefaced admission of guilt and assured them only that their initial fears were probably not without some foundation.

On the face of it, business in Calcutta continued as usual. But it would not remain so – and while the government waited and hoped for better news, a different group of civilians was very much awake to the disaster that was unfolding.

Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick, 1859
The History of the Indian Revolt and the Expedition to Persia, China and Japan – Charles Dodson, 1859
Kaye’s and Mallesons History of the Indian Mutiny, Vol. I, III and VI, 1878
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T.R.E. Holmes, 4th Edition, 1891
The Revolt in Hindustan – Sir Evelyn Wood, 1908
The Indian Mutiny- Saul David, 2003
The Tears of the Raja – Ferdinand Mount, 2015

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