Agra in 1857
The headquarters of the North-Western Provinces were at Agra. The city, situated on the right bank of the Yamuna, one hundred and thirty miles from Delhi but the province itself, extended over an area of more than one hundred and twenty-five thousand miles, stretching along the valley of the Upper Ganges from the Kurumnassa on the South-East to the Sub-Himalayas and the borders of Punjab in the North West. In no part of India was the population as dense as in this province; in 1857 it was the home of over 33 million inhabitants.
The general adminstration was under the rule of the Lieutenant Governor – the “Civilian of Civillians” but unlike the Governor-General or the Governors of Madras and Bombay, he was not assisted in his endeavors by council nor did he have his own army. However, the most important divisions of the army were located here, with Meerut, Cawmpore and Saugor all falling under the North Western Provinces.
The Meerut Division included Delhi, Rohilkhand and Agra, the Cawnpore Division comprised of the districts of Allahabad and Benares and at the time, included Oudh, with the Saugor Division consisted of both Jabalapur and Jhansi. Into this fray came the civil divisions but the organisation at least was consistant. The administration was handled by a number of EICo administrators, headed by the commissioner, under whom served judges, magistrates and revenue collectors. The principal Commissionerships were those “of Delhi, Meerut, Rohlikhund, Agra, Allahabad, Benares, Jubbulpoor and Jhansi.” (Kaye, Vol. III p.195) but the headquarters of the civil government remained at Agra.
It was from here that Calcutta would first learn of events in Meerut and where the government would turn for news of the mutiny in the North-Western Provinces.
Agra would not play a prominent part in the events of 1857 unless it was to bring together the strangest set of individuals the EICo had to offer and to cover itself in some ingloriousness. Men of action would redefine boredom, stuffy officials as dusty in their personalities as their ledgers, ladies with attitudes and those without anything, fleeing civilians and a long list of harassed judges, collectors and magistrates, military men – some with little wisdom and others with too much and everything wrapped up in a veil of respectability and preservation of status and rank. The siege of Agra was not like Lucknow and would not produce heroes; it was not doomed like Cawnpore and it lacked Delhi’s daring do. There are very few accounts of the siege, probably because there wasn’t much to write about. It was however marked with “divided counsels and constant bickerings between those in authority, resulting in an appearance of weakness and indecision, together with a partial failure to grasp the true situation, combined to render the annals of Agra..an inglorious record.” (H.R Nevill, Agra, A Gazetteer, 1905, Allahabad Government Press).
A more apt description of the siege of Agra would be hard to find.
“Amidst the civilization of the nineteenth century, among libraries, printing presses, colleges, and cathedrals, we found ourselves on the verge of barbarism.” (Charles Raikes, Judge of Agra Court of Appeals, 1857)
May broke upon India like a thunderbolt – up and down the country, from Meerut to Delhi to Simla and to Calcutta, telegrams flashed their ominous messages but curiously enough, the first station to hear anything was amiss, was Agra. On the 10th of May, a young girl, the sister of the postmaster sent a telegram to her family at Agra, it read:
“‘The cavalry have risen, setting fire to their own houses and several officers’ houses besides having killed and wounded all European soldiers and officers they could find near their lines: if aunt intends starting tomorrow please detain her from doing so as the van has been prevented from leaving this station.”
The telegram was received late – around 9 pm but as the lines to Agra had already been cut by then, the message must have been delayed at Agra itself. Another message, albeit incomplete simply said,
“‘The 3rd Cavalry have broken out in mutiny, and are killing all Europeans they meet. We are…”
On the 11th of May, the Lieutenant-Governor at Agra, Mr. John Colvin sent the first news from Meerut to Lord Canning at Calcutta – the worries of a postmaster’s sister became the pivotal message that flashed throughout India. A letter, received in Agra on the 12th was similarly conveyed to Calcutta, but it had no more information. The Fort and treasury at Agra were safe, and the troops were ready for any attack. However, the trades-people, servants and parties returning on horseback, were coming to “scour the neighbourhood. The only name given of all officers killed is Mr Tregear, of the Education Department.” If only that had been true.
The troops at Agra consisted of one battery of Captain D’Oyley’s European Artillery (one horse and field battery) the 3rd Regiment of European Infantry under Colonel Riddel, and the 44th and 67th BNI. The whole was commanded by Brigadier Polwhele. The danger that presented itself at Agra was two-fold: the obvious threat from the city where it was surmised the civilian population might rise and the threat from the outlying districts in which sepoy regiments or detachments were posted without any European troops to hold them in check. As for the native troops in Agra, these could quickly be overwhelmed by the European infantry and artillery, or so it was supposed. The area in which the Europeans lived was spread out in a semi-circle, following the river behind the city and the fort. On the side of the Taj Mahal were the British Cantonments with the barracks for the European troops and the lines of the native regiments, the bungalows of the officers and the Protestant Church. Beyond the city, lay the civil station with the Government House, Government offices, the jail, the College, the Roman Catholic Church and Convent, and the homes of all the chief civilians. In all, it was an area of some 6 miles with the Government offices at one end and the Sepoy lines at the other. Between the Fort and the City was a bridge which cross the Yamuna that lead to the main roads to Cawnpore and Aligarh.
John Russell Colvin and the Agra Council of War
Born in Calcutta in 1807, John Russell Colvin had the career of a company man, rising slowly but steadily up the promotional ladder from the time of his entrance into the EICo service in 1826. After 9 years, he was appointed the private secretary to Lord Auckland during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Colvin was held to be a clever but somewhat unsound and “erratic” statesman and his reputation had suffered after the disastrous results of the Afghan War -it was supposed he had exerted considerable influence over Lord Auckland. Colvin was marked as “one of the prime movers, one of the most earnest supporters” of Auckland, something which for a time clouded Colvin’s reputation. What followed was an appointment to Tenassrim Province as Commissioner in Lower Burma from 1846 to 1849 where there would be little opportunity for him to distinguish himself, in other words, where he could do the least damage.
Regardless, Colvin must have proved himself of some ability for, in 1853, Dalhousie conveyed upon him the appointment Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces. He was a competent administrator, of “considerable ability; conscientious, painstaking, courteous, and amiable. He was animated by a thorough sense of duty, gave all his energies to the public service, and never spared himself. It is not too much to affirm that had his lot been cast in ordinary times his reputation as Lieutenant-Governor would have rivalled that of the most eminent of those who, before and subsequently, have held that office. But with all his ability, his experience of affairs, and his devotion to duty, Mr. Colvin lacked that one quality, the possession of which is absolutely necessary to enable a man to buffet successfully against the storms of fortune. Mr. Colvin wanted, in a word, that iron firmness—that rare self-confidence—which enables a man to impress his will upon others.” What Malleson is trying to say, in not so many words, Mr. Colvin was not a man for a crisis.
Unfortunately, Colvin was of the same mindset as many of his contemporaries, particularly those in Calcutta. He (and they) should have been alarmed by the events at Berhampore and Barrackpore early in the year and should have taken at least some precautions. As it was, the two events were considered simply a passing bother – when the news hit Agra on the 10th of May of the rising at Meerut, Colvin, like so many others, was taken completely by surprise. Further information on the 11th led him to believe the mutineers had sacked Delhi and were now making a bee-line for Agra and on the 13th, he summoned a Council of War, Adding to his worries was the news of the massacre at Delhi.
His council consisted of a variety of members of the Board of Revenue, judges from the appeals court, a brigadier, and a smattering of colonels, majors and officers. He also had the council of the scientific corps, commissioners, magistrates and a bevvy of civil servants both covenanted and uncovenanted, a Roman Catholic Bishop and two Protestant chaplains. As can be imagined, such a large body of men was hardly likely to agree and probably
“…in the whole annals of the mutiny there never assembled a body of men whose opinions were so discordant, so distracted, so void of any fixed principle action…” (Kaye&Malleson, Vol, II, pp 98)
One man declared the entire European population should take refuge without delay in the Fort; another was worried about the jail, the third expressed his concerns regarding provisions while a fourth was troubled about the native regiments in the cantonment. Everyone was eager to do their part but they all wanted to do it their way.
There were in Kaye’s estimation many “stout hearts and clear heads” in Agra. His main councillors consisted of men with many years of experience in India who had in been successful as civilian officers, to greater or less degrees.
Henry Byng Harrington of the Revenue Board had just been replaced by E.A.Reade – but disturbances on the road had prevented Harrington from leaving Agra for Calcutta where he should have taken his seat on the Legislative Council of India; other leading civilians included
Mr. George Harvey, Commissioner of the Agra Division
Mr. William Muir , Chief Secretary
Mr. Charles Raikes – Judge of the Court of Appeal
Honourable Richard Drummond – Magistrate and Collector of Agra
Colonel Hugh Fraser – Engineers
and Mr. Cudbert Thornhill, Secretary to Government. Unfortunately the Right Honourable Robert Drummond, Magistrate of Agra – who besides being energetic and resolute was also stubborn, unpopular and overbearing. The Military was amply represented by Captain Norman Mcleod as Military Secretary and Brigadier Polwhele as Station Commander.
As it was Colvin expressed his opinion that he intended to abandon Agra altogether and move the entire European population into the Fort and even intimated he had already issued an order for the native regiments to leave, without delay the said, Fort. The loudest protests did not come from the military men but from Harrington and Drummond. It was to Drummond’s opinions that Colvin fell sway to when the magistrate argued the population of Agra could simply be overawed if the British went about their business as if nothing had happened but scurrying to the Fort or showing any outward signs of fear would defeat the purpose. The meeting itself was not a “decorous one. Men who had been summoned to the Council expressed their opinions with much warmth; and others, who had not been summoned, came unbidden with notes of alarm or warning; whilst letters from outsiders came pouring in, further to embarrass and perplex the Lieutenant-Governor.” One of the missives, solemnly declared His Honour should beware of the knife of an assassin – and this from a public officer who had “great opportunities to know what was going on the in the city.”
Eventually, the decisions reached by the council were all of a pacifying nature. Colvin would, the next day address the troops. A detachment of the European troops would be sent into the Fort to keep a wary eye on the native regiment stationed there, while a volunteer corps of infantry and cavalry would be raised -this was, they considered, as bold a front as they could show to the enemy. As such any Europeans who had repaired to the Fort after the first news of the Meerut uprising would be ordered to leave it and return home. Several houses in Agra would be nominated as rendezvous points in the case of an uprising where the Europeans could gather in an orderly manner for safety. In all, it was decided what was needed in Agra was a show of confidence and a much stiff upper lip.
Mr. Reade was entrusted with the care of the civil station and he implemented a series of defensive posts around the rendezvous points – ten had been formed around the houses to act as a cordon around them, while beyond this line, were a further 15 outposts, 5 of which were manned by horsemen, who could, ride out and bring in the first news of any impending danger. Mr. Drummond in the meantime devoted his attention to strengthening the police, but his efforts would prove to be somewhat misguided when the force he placed such confidence in turned out to be menacing at best. Muskets and side arms were distributed freely to Drummond’s men and everyone pretended not to notice the dark looks they were giving their current employers. He further raised a levy of 400 Karauli matchlock men and 200 Bharatpur horse and placed them under the deputy collector, Saifullah Khan to maintain order in the district. Reade however noted, the defences were hampered by a “…want of purpose, by the wilfulness of some who devised defensive measures of their own, and the neglect and carelessness of others.”
Drummond continued to assert the troubles were not only partial but superficial and that the only policy to follow would indicate the “greatest confidence in the loyalty of the people.” However, when news reached him of treason, sedition and conspiracy in the city, to the point where the Indian officials in his own office were part of the plot, Drummond soundly refused to hear a word said against them. He dismissed everything as lies and refused to investigate a single report. It was an interesting stance for a magistrate to take.
The Engineers, on the other hand, rallied against Drummond’s policy of over-confidence. They too were men of experience, many of them had served in a variety of areas in India, more often than not, alone, working on a desolate tract of road or inhospitable canal. In their duties, they had “enjoyed particular opportunities, when employed in the districts, of ascertaining the feelings of the people. ” Drummond knew some people, the engineers however had lived and worked with many of them. If anyone understood the odds of Agra holding its own against such a large district, it was the engineers – they knew the vastness of the country and they had witnessed, many of them first-hand, the EICo was not always welcome. They did not view a mutiny as a minor skirmish or a conflict of opinions – it was, in their estimation, a very serious affair which demanded prompt action, not speeches. Colonel Hugh Fraser, a man whose reputation for courage and energy preceded him, had only one fault – he was unable to express himself with any conviction. He left that to his comrade-in-arms, Major Weller. Fraser however, was not idle. On hearing of the mutiny at Meerut, he immediately set about writing a series of notes or recommendations of policy to follow. He started his first missive with “If the news from Meerut is bad, or none arrives from that place by 10 am, distrust everybody, and recognise the emergency.” Colvin however was not ready to distrust anyone, and Drummond was happy to trust everyone.
Fraser recommended all the treasure should be brought to the Fort and all the women and children should take up immediate residence behind the walls, while Colvin, his staff and all the important records should likewise be moved there. Had he had his way, Fraser would also have garrisoned one-half of the Artillery in the fort and “all the writers, pensioners and Eurasians should be armed and sent tither with magazine establishment complete.”
If Fraser had been minded, the 9th BNI at Aligarh, deemed to be faithful, would have been brought to Agra to guard the treasury, he also wanted General Hugh MasseyWheeler, considered one of the best sepoy officers in India to be summoned to Agra, while the Cawnpore Brigade, under Brigadier Jack, should be ordered to Aligarh to fill in the place of the 9th BNI. They would there be joined by troops from Gwalior, if permitted by Scindia, and marched henceforth to reinforce Meerut. It must be kept in mind, Fraser’s notes were written before any further intelligence had been received from Meerut – all they knew was the troops had mutinied; they did not realise the extent of the calamity. As it was, Colvin only half-listened to Fraser. Perhaps, had his will not been denied, Cawnpore might have turned out differently.
Attitudes towards the 44th and 67th varied wildly. While some civilians would have gladly seen them disarmed, their officers and commanders refused – at this point, they had done nothing to warrant punishment. When a young engineer suggested the 44th be disarmed, the commanding officer threatened to have him arrested for his insolence. While the officers hoped their regiments would remain staunch, the Europeans armed themselves with swords and revolvers, in hope above hope, they would never have to use them.
On the morning of the 14th of May, the troops were brigaded, not as first instructed at Colvin’s residence, Government House, but in cantonments. The salute fired at the commencement of proceedings so terrified the ladies in the civil lines they were convinced the mutiny had commenced and shrieked in terror, believing their husbands dead. It was far from the truth. In fact, the parade was going well.
Standing on his carriage, the senior civilians in attendance, Colvin first addressed the troops of the 3rd Europeans. He begged the men not to distrust their Indian comrades but see them as brothers-in-arms but in the same breath and with unhappy impulsiveness, added, “The rascals at Delhi have killed a clergyman’s daughter and if you meet them in the field, you will not forget this.” Charles Raikes noted in his diary, – “our honest fellows looked as they would nevertheless like to have a shot at their brothers…”
The he turned to the Native troops. Addressing them in Hindustani, Colvin said he fully trusted them and asked them to come forward on the spot if they had any complaints to make – he also offered a discharge to any man who wished to leave his colours, without dishonour. Not a single man stepped forward. When prompted by their officers to cheer, they set up such a yell it made the civilians wince at its ferocity – although they cheered, it was noted they scowled like so many fiends. The parade was deemed a success and the 2 native regiments continued to retain their arms. Satisfied he had done what he could, Colvin now turned his mind to matters of empire.
It was his opinion, as that of John Lawrence, the recovery of Delhi was tantamount to securing the EICo in India and wasted little time in urging Anson to march on the city. He then ascertained that to show the districts Agra was indeed, not paralysed, he would call out his forces to march on any rebel force that happened to come within his quarter. He also believed reopening the roads between Agran and Delhi was essential as it would reassure the other districts there was calm. Someone, however, had to be sent out to perform the task, and Colvin chose the commissioner, George Harvey for the mission. In his official report, Harvey writes,
“Mr. Colvin intimated to me a wish that escorted by two hundred of the Gwalior Contingent and two guns daily expected, I should proceed towards Delhi by the right bank of the river, via Muttra. It was, he said, very desirable that the Governments of the North- Western Provinces should give some sign of life in this emergency; that the communication between Delhi and, through it, of Meerut, should be reopened; and that the actual truth of rumours causing dangerous excitement should be ascertained – whilst it was of essential importance that the movements and wishes of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief should be known to Government. I was, on arrival, to take charge of the Delhi Agency, and to remain permanently in the appointment should I desire it.”
Scindia of Gwalior rose to the occasion – he had sent a battery under Captain Pearson and a cavalry regiment of the Gwalior Contingent to Agra, supplemented by a 2nd regiment and 300 troops from his own bodyguard. That he was not insulted by Colvin’s reply says much for Scindia. He accepted his offer as “a personal compliment for a short time…though we do not require more troops.” The Bharatpur Darbar sent a detachment of troops in response to the call, and these were marched to Muttra on the 15th of May, under Captain Nixon. By the 16th, the first troops from Gwalior arrived in Agra. The Rajah of Bharatpur’s minister further allowed the use of his house, called Kandaharee Bagh as a stronghold in the civil lines. The occupant, Mr. Morgan would shortly find himself playing host to many concerned and anxious civilians.
Colvin sent a series of telegrams to Lord Canning, reassuring him that the worst would soon be over. In his turn, Canning gave Colvin full authority to act as he thought fit. However, on the 15th of May, all telegraphic communication with Calcutta stopped – the wires had been cut. At least for now, the mail continued to arrive. The telegraph to Meerut too was suspended but it choked back to life albeit briefly, on the 17th.
Meanwhile, at Agra, life continued as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Public offices remained open for business, and every officer, civil and military, went about his accustomed duties, only Raikes remarks, “We had to grant injunctions which nobody attended to, and to pass decrees which no one could execute.” The facade of normalcy had to prevail. Precautions, however, were being taken, albeit surreptitiously. Among these was the formation of a volunteer force to “assure the minds of the people if loyal, or to overawe them if they brooded on mischief.” Those who were without families enlisted in the cavalry to scour the surrounding countryside while those with responsibilities remained on town patrol. William Muir gladly joined the town patrol, mounted on his brown mare, if else nothing to encourage others. He fondly recalls his son, Charlie, a boy of seven, “following us in a play with boyish delight, clad in his little uniform, with red kummerbund and turban around his sola topee, on his small white pony.”
However, there were disputes among the civilians. Drummond wanted the volunteer corps disbanded as their presence could offend his Mahomedan police force. Then he wanted the entire civilian European population disarmed as their carrying weapons showed a distinct mark of mistrust in the native population. At that last suggetion, the military officers interceded and over-ruled the magistrate. The gaol, containing at this time some 5000 prisoners was left in charge of a native guard but the European superintendent pleaded to have them replaced by European soldiers as he had information the guard meant to mutiny. Although Colvin consented, he then allowed Drummond to persuade him to let the native guard remain but remove the European superintendent instead, on the charge of being an alarmist.
Colvin then d Raikes to raise a troop of cavalry.
Fearful it would cause panic in the city if the judge was seen leaving Agra, Drummond requested Colvin to reconsider and as such, Cudbert Thornhill was sent to stop Raikes from leaving – Colvin thanked him “handsomely for his offer” but he should remain in Agra.
The Gwalior bodyguard was similarly deployed to protect Agra – while Muir had no misgivings of them and Colvin thought them a fine body of men, Raikes was a little more cautious, not of the bodyguard but the detachment of the Gwalior Contingent. He notes in his diary, the contingent explicitly asked if the flour they were provided with was from Government Stores. If so, they would refuse it. They had bought into the bone dust story and Raikes feared the worst.
While Raikes had been requested to remain in Agra, the commissioner, Mr. Harvey, on the 20th of May, with 14 sowars, some officers of the Customs Department and a few employees of the East India Railway set out. While a missing judge was bound to cause panic, a missing commissioner would elicit little excitement.
It also happened to be same day the Aligarh fell to the mutineers.
For a detailed account, of what transpired in Aligarh, we can turn to and follow the steps of the magistrate and collector, Mr. Philips. https://mutinyreflections.wordpress.com/2022/01/16/the-north-west-province/
However, for those who do not want to pursue a longer article, the facts are as follows:
Located 50 miles from Agra, Aligarh was garrisoned by a few companies and served as the headquarters of the 9th BNI under Major Percy Eld. Although they were aware of the mutiny at Meerut and the events unfolding the Delhi, the regiment showed no signs of disaffection. When the crash came, it was sudden.
A few days previously, a party of the 9th had been sent out to suppress alleged disturbances in the district – Francis Outram, the son of the brigadier, had volunteered, with a small party of sowars to join the party. When they reached their destination, they found the story had been exaggerated; so grossly in fact, Outram believed they had been sent out to divert their attention from Aligarh. The march had been anything but a peaceful one. The people who they crossed along the way, repeatedly tried to incite the 9th to rebellion, to kill their officers. They were even told the story of the Sappers and Miners at Meerut who had been, according to the rumours, basely murdered by their officers. The 9th did not waver, they refused to rise.
On returning to Aligarh, they encouraged their officers’ trust further by handing in a man, a Brahmin, who was caught spreading seditious stories around the lines of the 9th. He was arrested, tried in a court comprising entirely of native officers, and summarily sentenced to death.
The sentence was carried out on the 20th of May in front of the assembled regiment and should have gone over quietly enough, if not a sepoy, possibly voicing what others thought, “Behold, a martyr to our religion!”
It was enough to throw the 9th BNI into a mutinous frenzy but interestingly enough, they did not kill the officers or civilians. The native officers who had presided over the trial simply turned to their officers and dismissed them, telling them to go where ever they liked. They then took complete control of the 9th BNI, marched to the Treasury, plundered it, opened the jail and marched off towards Delhi. It was left to Lieutenant Cockburn, who was in Aligarh with a detachment of the Gwalior irregulars to decide whether to follow them or escort the ladies and children to Agra. He chose Agra. Aligarh was left to plunderers, every bungalow was looted and burned and the civilians retreated with the clothes on their backs. The line of communication between Agra and Meerut was now cut.
Shortly after, detachments of the 9th BNI mutinied at Bulundshahr, Etawah and Mynpoorie.
On the 21st of May, the news of the mutiny reached Agra and the effect was electric.
“Carts loaded with women, children, furniture, beds and bedding were seen to be rattling into the fort; carriages and foot passengers swarming along the roads to a large building which had been appointed as a place of refuge; timid citizens running for their lives to their houses, screaming, as they went, the mutineers had crossed the bridge.” (Holmes, p129)
On civilian, “as pale as his own liver,” went into his own offices and told his “crannies to save their lives as they best could.”
For ten-year-old Edith Sharpley and her two sisters, it was a frightfully exciting day.
The girls, daughters of an army officer, had been sent to live in Agra with their older brother and cousin to attend school. They were in their classroom, Edith standing on a bench pointing out places on a map when suddenly, there came the sound of “rapid footsteps and several gentlemen, all armed, burst into the room.” Her cousin was amongst them. Picking Edith up, he ordered her sisters to follow him closely and then ran out of the room.
On the way home,
“…we encountered a native who appeared to be a Hindu priest running towards us. His long flowing hair was covered in ashes and flying loose all over his body. He was shouting curses on the Europeans and brandishing a naked sword. As soon as my cousin saw him he put me down on the ground and told us three sisters to get behind him. He then drew his own sword and we all walked forward. The priest walked by, pretending not to see us.”
By evening, all the buildings appointed as rendezvous points were full – besides Kandhari Bagh, Government House, the Post Office, the Agra Bank, the Customs’ House, the Medical College and the Convent had been thus determined, including a few strongly built civilian houses. Mrs. Muir and her children retreated to Lloyd’s Kothi on the top of a hill while her husband considered sending her and the children to Calcutta to escape the danger “louring upon Agra.” He got as far as ordering the carriage but at the last minute changed his mind. His family stayed with him – their route would have crossed through Cawnpore, in hindsight, Muir realised it would have been their last journey.
Although the panic subsided, it was deemed advisable for every woman to learn how to load muskets – the children were taught, recalled Edith Sharpley, to “get the caps, powder and bullets to take to the women when they wanted them.” Except for the young officers who continued to bathe in the river, ride and play billiards as merrily as ever, everyone else was suddenly feeling less confident. Even Fraser and his optimistic outlook regarding the 9th BNI had been shattered. It was becoming increasingly clear, as station after station fell, Agra would soon stand alone.
Agra had managed thus far without any serious incidents. There had been some fires in the lines – the 44th blamed the 67th who in turn blamed the 44th, but besides surliness, no one had been threatened in Agra. The sight of the fugitives from Aligarh presented a sad sight, but worse was to come.
Mr. Colvin, decided, in a last-ditch effort to restore peace and confidence, to issue a proclamation. Although he had, until now managed to set an example through dignified courage he was still not convinced the crisis at hand was serious. There is some conjecture as to whether the senior officials at Agra were consulted before Colvin issued his proclamation – Mr. Reade says Colvin issued two between the 15th and the 25th of May and holds that the first of these, dated the 14th was sent not just to him, but Mr. Harington and others. The one on the 15th had their “hearty concurrence, both for the tone it assumed and the line of policy indicated.” However, the subsequent proclamation was issued without concerning anyone in Agra. So much more was Reade’s surprise when it was stated in the Blue Book that it was sent “everywhere as being thought by all here likely to have the best effect on the public mind,” when in fact, Reade had never seen this proclamation and could not find anyone who had. Yet Colvin would insist it had been “universally accepted.”
The proclamation when issued caused an uproar that echoed throughout India read as follows:
“Soldiers, engaged in the latest disturbances, who are desirous of going to their own homes, and who give up their arms at the nearest Government civil or military post, and retire quietly, shall be permitted to do so unmolested.
Many faithful soldiers have been driven into resistance to Government only because they were in the ranks and could not escape from the them and because they really thought their feelings of religion and honour injured by the measures of the Government. This feeling was wholly a mistake, but it acted on the men’s minds. A prcolamation of the Governor-General now issued is perfectly explicit, and will remove all doubts on these points. Every evil-minded instigator in the disturbance, and those guilty of heinous crimes against private persons, shall be punished. All those who appear in arms against the Government after this notification is known shall be treated as open enemies.”
The English translation which so infuriated Agra and worse of all, Lord Canning, was “unfortunately and inaccurately worded,” and gave the wrong impression by stating that all, save the ringleaders would be pardoned if they laid down their arms. While Sir Henry Lawrence, in Oudh too, had issued a proclamation and his was more lenient than Colvin’s, Lawrence was commended and Colvin was humiliated.
Writing privately to Colvin on the 28th, Canning expressed his deepest displeasure.
“I never did an act that gave me more distress than that of superseding the proclamation on of the 25th. I would have escaped, if I thought escape possible, and would have made any sacrifice to support the one which had come from you. But I am strongly of opinoin it would not have been safe to leave that proclamation unaltered. The terms of the first paragraph opened escape to every man, an I cannot see that the door was closed to the most heinous offenders by the third paragraph. The soldiers who murdered their officers are not mentioned or indicated. There is no term which imcludes them among the most guilty. With that proclaimation in their hands, every man of the Twentieth and the Thirty-eigth Regiments, might, so far as we know, have presented himself to you or the Commander-in-Chief and have claimed to go home. I use no exaggeration when I saw that had any of these men availed themselves of it, the Government could never have held up its head again…. I can guess, and in deed fully understand the difficulties which beset you…but I don not gather they are such as to compel us to offer free pardon to the murderes of our officers…The proclamation now sent has less even of menace than your own. It gives even more distinctly free and unconditional pardon to one section of mutineers, it marks a difference between regiments, which strictly accords with justice and our duty towards our officers, whilst it may e expected to sow disunion in Delhi.” With that flea in his ear, Colvin could now read:
“Every soldier of a regiment which, although it has deserted its post, has not committed outrages, will receive a free pardon and permission to proceed to his home, if he immediately delivers up his arms to the civil or military authority, and if no heinous crime is shown to have been perpetrated by himself personally. This offer of free and unconditional pardon cannot be extended to those regiments which have killed or wounded their officers or other persons, or which have been concerned in the commission of cruel outrages. The men of such regiments must submit themselves unconditionally to the authority and justice of the Government of India. Any proclamations offering pardon to soldiers engaged in the late disturbances, which may have been issued by local authorities previously to the promulgation of the present proclamation, will thereupon cease to have effect. But all persons who may have availed themselves of the offer made in such proclamations shall enjoy the benefit thereof.“
All Colvin had wanted to do was prevent mischief from spreading, he had desired to be just and offer a “means of retreat to those not already desperately committed…to the rebel ranks.” Even after Canning’s rebuke, he believed he was essentially right – by trying to appeal to the regiments who had not yet mutined and separating the “comparatively innocent” he had hoped to diffuse the situation. Unfortunately, at this stage, Colvin still did not realise the danger the mutiny posed.
Mr. Vansittart, who was one of the civilians in Agra, believed the rebellion was worse than Colvin imagined, he also held the opinion that of the senior officials were “nincompoops.” Although he did not express his views publically for fear of being called an alarmist, his attitude was not far from what the rest of Agra seemed to think. Colonel Fraser, once optimistic, appeared at meetings looking “gloomy, stupid and cross,” Brigadier Polwhele, the dear, was a “silly, scatterbrained old man,” and as for Colvin, it was perhaps better he didn’t know people thought him “silly, frightened and panic-stricken, ” “ridiculed by the natives and not respected by the Europeans.” While he languished in safety in Government House, everyone else felt they were in imminent danger. Soon, even the Right Honourable Robert Drummond was going to have a change of heart.
On the 30th of May, 2 companies of the 44th and the 67th BNI were sent to Muttra to bring in the treasure from that station to Agra. It was no mean sum and amounted to six lakhs (600’000 – 1 lakh = 100’000. But in 1852 1 rupee was worth approximately 23.9 rupees of today’s money) – on their arrival at the station, they mutined, seized the treasure and departed for Delhi. Although the mutiny in Muttra will be looked at more closely in the following chapter, it only remains now to see the consequences the news had at Agra.
disarming the regiments
As we have seen, Mr. Robert Drummond believed in everything but stern action. Until the 30th of May, he had seemed to sincerely believe this storm could be conquered with diplomacy and gestures. However, Muttra, at 35 miles from Agra, was too close to be ignored. Colvin, who happened to be staying at Drummond’s house, was immediately woken from his slumber by the magistrate himself. Before Colvin could rightly understand what Drummond was about, he found himself agreeing to disarm the troops at Agra without delay, the coming morning at daybreak. In the still of the night, the adjutant of the 3rd European regiment galloped around the houses of all the officers warning them to repair without delay to the barracks. Meanwhile, Mr. Muir along with Mr. Farquhar volunteered to carry the “warning of danger” – from the Convent to the Mission House they warned everyone to make haste – by dawn they would all have to be in their rendezvous points.
Shortly before dawn, on Sunday, the 31st of May, the 3rd Europeans were brought to the parade ground, and Captain D’Oyley’s troop of European Artillery was drawn up in case the sepoys decided to offer any resistance. Amid this scene, the artillery ready to fire and the 3rd Europeans chaffing for a fight, two regiments – the 44th and 67th were drawn up in close columns by company.
Brigadier Polwhele, seated on his white charger, briefly addressed the men and gave the word of command. “Silent and sullen” the sepoys obeyed the order to “Pile Arms” and then, without a murmur, were marched back to their lines. Some requested leave to return to their homes, and others simply left after the parade without asking anyone’s permission and would soon swell the ranks at Delhi.
Thus, two regiments were effaced from the Bengal Army List. The 44th had been raised in 1803 as the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Regiment and became the 44th in 1824 under Major E.C. Browne. The 67th had been raised as the 1st Battalion 34th Regiment in 1823 and became the 67th in 1824 under Major T. Barrow. Whatever illustrious deeds their officers had hoped for were over and not a moment too soon.
As it transpired, the sepoys had simply been biding their time. They had planned on that very day, to attack the European regiment when in church, then rush the guns and sack the city.
Notes on the Revolt in the North-Western Provinces of India – Charles Raikes (1858)
The History of the Indian Revolt and the Expeditions to Persia, China and Japan – George Dodd ( 1859)
A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858 Vol III – John William Kaye (1876)
Anecdotes and Reminiscences of Service in Bengal – A.L.M. Phillips (1878)
Indian Reminiscences – Colonel S. Dewé White (1880)
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T.R.E. Holmes (4th edition, 1891)
Agra in the Mutiny and the Life of W.&E.H. Muir in the Fort, 1857. A Sketch for the Children – William Muir (1896)
Forty-One Years in India Vol I – Field Marshal Lord Roberts (1897)
Agra, a Gazeteer, Vol VIII of the District Gazetters of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh – H.R. Nevill (1901)
The Great Mutiny – Christopher Hibbert (1978)
4 thoughts on “Deliberate Inaction”
Another good long read.
It brought to mind The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell that I remember reading with great enjoyment many years ago.
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Thank you! There will be another installment this week. The research is taking a little longer than I thought, I am getting it all in a row.
Another well-written account, thank you!
It is noteworthy how some of the same surnames keep popping up across these histories but, given the times, I suppose not!
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There were 4 or 5 Thornhills, three for sure were brothers, 2 Gubbins, 3 Tuckers – Mr Philips was married to the daughter of H. Harrington who was at Agra and Philips in turn was the cousin of Mr Edwards, who was working in Budaon. Charles Raikes’ daughter married Mr Christian, they were killed at Sitapur. He had a neice in Gwalior and a brother not too far off. And this is just a few of them! It was one big family..
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