The London Gazette, December 25th 1857
“At Rohnee, in the Sonthal Pergunnahs.
Sir Norman Leslie, Adjutant, 5th Irregular Cavalry, killed; Major J. M’Donald, and Assistant-Surgeon N. J. Grant, attached to Irregular Cavalry, wounded:—while sitting together in front of the mess bungalow, a sudden rush was made at them by three men of the regiment, with naked swords; Sir Norman Leslie was disabled by the first blow ; Major M’Donald had two cuts on his head, and Dr. Grant received a severe wound in the arm, and another in the leg ; they both defended themselves with chairs, and succeeded in driving off their assailants. Sir Norman was fearfully wounded, and died shortly after.“
All was quiet in Rohini on the 12th of June, the headquarters of the 5th Irregular Cavalry. News of Meerut and the fall of Delhi had come and gone; it was hoped perhaps, being so far away from the centre of mutiny, it would pass them over. The 5th Irregular Cavalry showed no outward signs of dissatisfaction and as far as their officers could ascertain everything was as it should be. Nor was there any news to the contrary from Bhagalpur with its detachment of the 5th Irregulars or from Bausi, headquarters of the 32nd BNI or from Deoghar with its detachment of the 32nd.
With Deoghar the closest station, and Calcutta slightly over 200 miles away, society in Rohini was small. The three officers – Major John Macdonald, Lieutenant and Adjutant Sir Norman Robert Leslie and Doctor Nathaniel James Grant would have been used to keeping each other company.
The adjutant, Lieutenant Sir Norman Leslie, 6th Baronet Leslie of Wardis, was 34 years old. He had, in 1846 when an ensign, married Jessie Elizabeth Wood Smith, daughter of the late Major Robert W. Smith of the 6th Light Cavalry, at Ferozepore. In this short time, they already had 6 children. Major John Macdonald, originally of 66th BNI was a widower, his wife Helena Constantia had died at Sealkote in 1855.
Leslie’s regiment, the 19th BNI had mutinied in Berhampore on the 25th of February. After their disbandment on the 31st of March in Barrackpore, Leslie took up duties with the 5th Irregular Cavalry. His wife and children had not accompanied him. Doctor Nathaniel James Grant was himself young man having entered the service and passed his language examinations in 1853. Together with Major John Macdonald, they were all that represented and protected the EICo in far-flung Rohini.
At half past eight in the evening, after another unremarkable day in Rohini, the three men had retired to Major Macdonald’s house. As they sat over their evening drinks on the veranda, Dr. Grant suddenly spied a shadow moving through the darkeness of Macdonald’s compound. Neither of them could say for sure what they saw – it was men for sure, but in the dim light, they could not see who it was. Suddenly three men burst onto the verandah, swords in hand, attacked the officers.
Macdonald and Grant were instantly set upon. Macdonald received three blows to the head before he even realised he was being attacked. In a daze, he managed to scramble to his feet, blood pouring into his eyes. Grabbing a chair by the arms he dueled with his attackers – as they lunged at him with their swords, Macdonald used the chair to guard and strike as best he could – Grant likewise armed, rallied next to Macdonald, and together they managed to push the attackers off the verandah and drive them out of the compound.
Leslie, who had been sitting closest to the door when the attack started, had rushed into the house, presumably to get his sword. Unfortunately, he slipped and fell – in an instant, one of the attackers was upon him, slashing wildly at the adjutant, who threw his arms up to cover his head – his arms were repeatedly hacked both nearly detached from the shoulders, his body cruelly slashed open all the way down to the waist. When Macdonald and Grant found him, he was still alive, but died within a half hour. Mr. Grant was the least wounded of all with gashes on his arms and one stab to the leg.
Macdonald lost consciousness – four hours after the attack he was able to write a quick message to Captain Watson, second in command of the 5th Irregulars at Bhagulpore.
The very next day however, he managed to write Watson a letter.
“This is against my poor head, writing; but you will be anxious to know how matters really were; I expect to be in high fever to-morrow, as I have got a bad gash into the skull besides being scalped.’ Three days later the major wrote: ‘My dear fellow, I have had a sad time of it, and am but little able to go through such scenes, for I am very badly wounded; but, thank God, my spirits and pluck never left me for a moment. When you see my poor old head, you will wonder I could hold it up at all. I have preserved my scalp in spirits of wine — such a jolly specimen!’
Scalping notwithstanding, Macdonald, did not let his injuries interfere with his duties. Grant reportedthe attackers had been wearing dhotis – but the dim light had prevented him from seeing their faces. Both officers hoped the attack had not perpetrated by men of the 5th but Macdonald was not as sure as the doctor. The major knew if the attackers had indeed belonged to the 5th he needed to act quickly.
His first action, the very next morning, was to call the regiment out on parade and have the wordie-major inspect their swords.
They turned out to man, respectfully shocked at the sight of their major with what appeared to be a bloodied turban tied loosely around his head. One by one, they were ordered to present their swords to the woordie-major (native adjutant of an irregular cavalry regiment)- not a mark was on them and the swords were clean. Macdonald however was not convinced. Calling the wordie-major aside, Macdonald confided in him his suspicions – the adjutant relayed the message to the regiment.
“All indeed, appear to trace the culprits with the greatest eagerness. Yesterday evening (two days after the attack) two were found with bloody clothes, and the third, who lived with a sick sowar, confessed he had done for Leslie, and this was evidence enough…” In Macdonald’s estimation, the regiment was “all right.” Despite his injuries he refused to be replaced – “Certainly not! any strange officer with the men. I’d rather stay and die first. There will be no more scenes, depend upon it.”
Although the attack had come from within the 5th, Macdonald was quick to point out it was not done in consultation with the whole regiment. Two of the attackers had been recent recruits, the third a man known to have disciplinary problems – for three wrong doers, he was not going to spoil the entire regiment. He even refused to blame the guard, stating,
“The guard had come and gone away, as they generally do after placing the sentry, it not being 9 o’clock; the sentry was on the north as usual, and we away at the east, so he could not have seen it..” the attackers had stolen quietly around some stables adjoining Macdonald’s house and then entered the compound surpetitiously through the dark at an angle where no one else could see them, Macdonald and his companions included, until it was too late.
All that was left, in Macdonald’s estimation was to stay true to his word now, and ensure this never happened again, for his sake. As for the regiment, they would receive a lesson in military discipline.
Two days following the attack, the three culprits in hand, Macdonald had them immediately clapped in irons. Without waiting for permission or indeed, requesting orders, Macdonald held a drumhead court martial – unsurprisingly, the three were convicted and immediately sentenced to death by hanging the very next morning.
“I took on my own shoulders the responsibility of hanging them first, and asking leave to do so afterwards. That day was an one of suspense and anxiety. One of the prisoners was of very high caste and influence and this man I determined to treat with the greatest ignominy, by getting the lowest caste man to hang him. To tell you the truth, I never for a moment expected to leave the hanging scene alive, but I was determined to do my duty, and well knew the effect that pluck and decision had on the natives.
The regiment was drawn out; wounded cruelly as I was, I had to see to everything done myself, even to the adjusting of the ropes, and saw them looped to run easily. Two of the culprits were paralysed with fear and astonishment, never dreaming I should dare to hang them without an order from the government. The third said he would not be hanged and called on the Prophet and on his comrades to rescue him. This was an awful moment; an instant’s hesitation on my part, and probably I should have had a dozen of balls through me; so I seized a pistol, clapped it to the man’s ear, and said, with a look there was no mistake about; “Another word out of your mouth, and your brains shall be scattered on the ground.” He trembled and held his tongue.
The elephant came up, he was put on his back, the rope adjusted, the elephant moved, and he was left dangling. I then had the others up, and off in the same way. After some time, when I had dismissed the men of the regiment to their lines, and still found my head on my shoulders, I really could scarcely believe it.”
The service of three cavalry officers, Woordie-Major Ennus Khan, Duffadar Kareem Sher Khan and Nishamburdar Gamda Khan who had all bee instrumental in convincing the regiment to give up the three attackers, were not forgotten by Macdonald. They all recived a step in rank and sizeable rewards – as for the 5th regiment at Rohini, they would return to their duty and Rohini would remain in unsettled peace, until August 1857. The rising would come, but it would not start at his station, Macdonald in his way, had made sure of that.
Lieutenant Norman Leslie was buried with military honours in Rohini. His grave is all but forgotten, laying in a field alongside the Calcutta-Mughalserai railways lines.
As for the men, Macdonald hanged – Amanat Ali, Salamat Ali and Seikh Haroon – every year on the 16th of June, Rohini commemorates them and remembers them as martyrs – for attacking three unarmed men on a dark verandah 165 years ago and a mutiny which ultimately failed at Rohini.
The Lamp [ed. by T.E. Bradley]., Volume 8, 1855
Further Papers Relative to the Mutinies in the East Indies, Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, 1857, Vol II
The history of the Indian revolt and of the expeditions to Persia, China, and Japan, 1856-7-8 Charles Dodd, 1859
The Story of an Indian Upland – F.B. Bradley-Birt, B.A., I.C.S., 1905
Bengal District Gazetteers, Santal Parganas -L.S.S. O’Malley, 1910
The Resurgence of a Marginalized Society: 1857 Rebellion and the Santal Psychology – Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 76, 2015, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44156610