Etah, Aligarh, May 1857
The month of May was proving to be a trying one for the Europeans. Scattered as they were over a large area, many of the smaller stations were left to their own devices to manage as best as they could. General Anson was planning to move on Delhi, but not yet; John Lawrence had his hands full with the Punjab, while in Meerut where the next largest group of British soldiers was stationed, their commanders were still unsure what exactly they were going to do. Delhi had fallen and in Calcutta, the government was wringing its hands at every fresh report of outbreaks. Not that there were doing nothing; but for stations like Etah, Aligarh, Mynpoorie and Balundshahr there was really nothing Calcutta could do.
Etah and aligarh
“I was suddenly cured of my state of nervous depression, and restored to perfect health, by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.” – A.L.M. Phillips
Since January 1856, Mr. Phillips had been overseeing the Etah district, midway between Aligarh and Etawah as Magistrate and Collector – it was his first independent posting and he was on his own. He was in charge of “the whole administration of the district, in all the different departments, including police, criminal, revenue, rent, roads, bridges, public buildings, jail, prisoners..” The workload was not unusual for civil officers at the time, and it was expected that they should manage their districts competently, quietly and above all, economically. His office hours were “fixed by a very simple rule, being just as many hours as I was not in bed.” Though gruelling, the work was interesting, and Phillips meant to make the best of it. He lived in solitude and his life was his work. He had an assistant, Mr. Hall, but Mr. Phillips was not very keen on his company.
Even in a place as lonely as Etah, Phillips had heard of the outbreaks at Barrackpore and he was aware that if the regiments in the North-Western Provinces were to follow their example, he and the other civil officers would have no means of stopping them. Between March and May, they did put on a brave face and worked as if nothing at all had happened. Phillips had one bit of luck – there were no regiments stationed at Etah, and the nearest infantry regiment, the 9th BNI was at Aligarh, some forty miles away to the west, with another one at Etawah to the east, and at Mynpoorie to the north. However, Phillips knew if mutiny broke out at Aligarh and Etawah, his district would certainly go up in flames. For now, all he could do was double the patrols along the roads, arrest anyone who behaved suspiciously and keep up steady communication with the other stations nearby.
What the telegraph was for the larger stations like Delhi and Meerut, the post did for Mr. Phillips. Every day he received messages from Aligarh. Mainpuri, Agra and Fatehpore via express service and answered in return by the same. On the 20th of May, however, the express did not arrive from Aligarh and he knew the game was up. A sergeant from one of the patrols returned and informed Mr. Phillips he had met a body of sepoys of the 9th BNI and they were on their way to Etah.
Aligarh commanded the road from Agra and Meerut and was thus a communication link between Simla and Lahore – with the fall of Delhi, this small station had suddenly become vitally important.
Generally, it was not considered a thrilling post. Surrounded on all sides by marshes and pools, it was almost cut off from the rest of the area during the monsoon, whereas the rest of the year it was baked relentlessly in stifling heat. It had the usual accoutrements of any military station – a military cantonment, civil lines and a bazar. An added feature was the fort.
The original structure dated back to 1524 but it had been greatly improved becoming a veritable fortress under Madhavrao I Scindia in 1759 who used it to great effect as a depot for drilling and organising his battalions with the help of Benoit de Boigne a very successful French soldier of fortune. http://ranjitpawar.com/benoit-de-boigne-the-maratha-general-from-savoy/
By 1803, Aligarh Fort had been captured by the British with the help of another Frenchman, Pierre Cuillier-Perron. Perron had started out serving the Maharata forces – but after the battle of Ujjain in 1801 when had refused to send his troops to assist Scindia against Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar, Perron’s position was precarious. When the British under Lord Lake decided to take on Scindia, Perron absconded to the British side. (To read a complete account I refer you to: A Particular Account of the European Military Adventurers of Hindustan from 1784 to 1803, Herbert Compton: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?d=coo.31924088940121&view=1up&seq=21 )
The fort was vastly improved by Boigne and Perron, and boasted steep ravines some 30 feet high on all sides and bastions at every angle along the walls.
Stationed at Aligarh were four companies of the 9th BNI, with the remainder of the regiment in detachments at Mynpoorie, Etawah and Bolundshahr.
Until the fateful day, the 9th BNI had shown no signs of disaffection; they had even handed in a man – an Aligarh resident and Brahmin of some influence who was caught loitering in their lines. (All the accounts of his capture are tinged with melodrama; the one here is from Annals of the Indian Rebellion and purports to be written by Lieut. Cockburn in a private letter).
“A native non-commissioned officer concealed several sepoys, and induced the Brahmin to accompany him to where the sepoys lay hidden; under the pretence of its being a secluded spot where they might safely concert matters. The Brahmin then made overtures to the soldier and told him that if he could persuade the men of the regiment to mutiny, he would furnish two thousand men to assist in murdering the Europeans and plundering the treasury. At a preconcerted signal, the sepoys jumped up and secured the ruffian.”
The men handed him over to their commanding officer.
The Brahmin was court-martialled by a court composed entirely of native officers who summarily sentenced him to death. Why a civilian would be tried thus is not explained as he was not a military man; it would appear this was a way perhaps for the British to devolve responsibility onto the Indians as any sentence they would pass would have given the wrong impression. By allowing the men who captured him to be his jury it could at least look like it was an Indian decision and not a British one.
The sentence was carried out on the 20th of May in front of the assembled regiment. It was a quiet affair and there was not a murmur from the men until one of their own broke from the lines and burst out,
“Behold, a martyr to our religion!”
These words, or ones to the same effect, were enough to suddenly throw the 9th into a mutinous frenzy. The only explanation I have here is the man was a Brahmin and as such would have been revered. Basically, what the British had sought to avoid by having the native officers try and execute him, ultimately backfired as simply by virtue of his being a Brahmin it was reason enough for the men to find a reason to mutiny.
The same native officers who had passed the sentence and those who had assisted in the execution turned on the British officers but the scenario was bizarre to behold. Instead of murdering them, the native officers simply dismissed their British officers and bid them to go where ever they like.
Then the native officers took complete control of the 9th, who they marched in a body to the Treasury which they successfully plundered They then opened the doors of the jail and swiftly made off towards Delhi.
Not a single European officer or civilian was killed. Lieutenant Cockburn and his detachment of Gwalior irregulars who had been sent from Agra to assist Aligarh in case of an uprising, could not decide whether to follow the 9th or save the ladies and children. Ultimately, he decided to act on the latter.
“While they were being put into carriages, we shewed a front to the mutineers and hindered their advance. An occasional bullet whistled by our heads, but it was too dark for taking aim. We then heard the inhabitants were rising so we determined on retreating.”
Cockburn escorted the ladies, children and civilians to Hathras though James Outram, his wife, son Francis of the Civil Service, and Mr. Watson, all of the Civil Service, among others, made their way to Agra instead.
Aligarh was left to its fate; through the night the sky glowed a garish red as bungalow after bungalow was torched. The civilians and the officers of the 9th lost everything they possessed except their horses and their lives. The worst had happened – with Aligarhout of British hands, the line of communication was now cut with Meerut and Agra.
Under Cockburn’s escort, the fugitives arrived safely in Hathras. However, things did not go so well for the Lieutenant. He had 233 irregular cavalrymen under his charge of the Gwalior contingent ( we will hear much more about them later and their interesting history) and he trusted his men. Unfortunately, he did not know them as well as he thought. At Hatras 100 of his men rebelled. While Cockburn could only look on,
“The rebels formed and rode around the camp, they entreated those that who remained faithful to join them, they represented otherwise they remain poor men for life, they adjured them by their religion, but still the men stood firm. Finding that promises were of no avail they had recourse to menaces and went off to stir off the villagers.“
Now with a reduced force of 123 men, Cockburn still decided he trusted them enough to put them to work. Mutineers were certainly stirring up the country; reports were coming into Hathrass of villages on fire, rampant plundering by all and sundry, and murder. In the midst of chaos, he saw it as his duty to do something.
“Accordingly he procured a curtained bullock cart, such as women travel in upcountry, and having let down the curtains, he persuaded four of his troopers with loaded carabines to enter and impersonate ladies. The cart he sent on in front, and he himself with about forty troopers followed at a distance, screening his party under the shade of some trees. No sooner did the plunderers see the cart, than they rushed forward to plunder the fair damsels they imagined to be concealed inside. But they were woefully mistaken, for the foremost of them so soon as he had neared the cart was shot dead, and Lieutenant Cockburn’s party in the rear hearing the signal were upon the marauders in an instant. They broke and fled in all directions…”
Mr. Phillips proceeds to Rohilkand
Still at his post in Etah, Mr. Phillips waited for news from Aligarh. He was no longer alone having recently been sent an assistant, a nervous man named Hall. They had been warned already the mutineers were on their way to Etah and late in the evening on the 21st of May, a native officer of the 9th BNI paid a visit to Mr. Phillips at his home.
“He was civil enough. He told me the regiment had risen, but they had not hurt their officers. He and his company were on the way Mynpooree, and then, when all were united, he would march to Delhi. He, he said, had to report himself on the way. I was not sorry to see him and his company depart.”
Realising the precarious nature of his position, Phillips used the next 2 days to organise himself. He entrusted his books, horses and valuables to the care of Raja Dilsukh Rai and he sent the terrified Mr. Hall with his possessions. The patrol came back on the 24th and informed Phillips the mutineers were no longer keen to talk – finding it safer to put some distance between himself and them Phillips gathered his small force together and left Etah, firstly only three miles away where they then waited for further intelligence.
When it came it was as he had feared. The mutineers had first searched the station for him; finding him gone, they plundered what was left of his household and set the building on fire. Then they opened the jail and released the prisoners before resuming their flight to Delhi.
Phillips with his escort of 18 magistrate’s police sowars – “quasi-military cavalry, armed but only partly disciplined” and their commanding jemadar moved on to the village of Bilraon, a mere two miles from the next large town of Kasgunj, where Dilsukh Raj was still hiding Mr. Hill. In Bilraon, Phillips intended to rest and make plans, but an urgent message reached him from Kasgunj – “the people…entreating me to come to their relief, for that the men of the surrounding villages, headed by their zemindar and aided by numerous sepoys, had collected their forces and were preparing to plunder the town.”
Of course, Mr. Phillips could have turned and run as would have been sensible. Instead, the next morning he would do something extraordinary.
“I got my sowars together as soon as possible, and speedily reached the town. I had arrived at the centre of the town, where four cross roads meet, and was waiting for further intelligence when I saw a singular sight. This was a compact body of men , marching in my direction up one of the main streets of the town. The front ranks (for they marched in a kind of military formation) were armed with muskets, and wore uniform belts. I suppose there could not be altogether less than 300 of them. They were a considerable distance off when I first saw them.
I asked the jemadar, “ Who are these? ” “These?” said he, “ these are the ‘bulwah,’ the levy, who have come to loot the town! ”
Still they advanced, till, when they caught sight of us, I thought I saw some hesitation in their front ranks. Calling on the sowars to follow, we made a headlong charge down the street. The levy (so to call them ) fired divers guns at us as we came on, but without any injury. The sowars and the jemadar behaved like trumps. A good many of the mob were killed, and among them two of their leaders, and the remainder entirely dispersed.”
Mr. Phillips stayed for three days in Kasgunj. He then crossed the Ganges to Budaon, the district under the control of his cousin Mr. Edwards – his intention was to get help from the next largest station, Bareilly, with the hope of procuring a detachment of irregular cavalry and returning to Etah. Reaching Budaon on the 27th of May, Edwards disabused Phillips of his last hope; Edwards himself had been writing to Bareilly but had been repeatedly rebuffed – Bareilly had no troops to spare.
Elsewhere in the North-West Province things were looking grim. In the next chapter, we will examine the exploits of the singular Lieutenant de Kantzow in Mynpoorie. We will proceed to Mr. Hume in Etawah, and visit the mutiny in Bolundshar before returning to Rohilkhand following the trail of Mr. Phillips.
Anecdotes and Reminiscences of Service in Bengal – A.L.M. Phillips (1859)
Narrative of the Indian Mutinies of 1857: Compiled for the Compiled for the Madras Military Male Orphan Asylum (1858)
Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick (1859)
History of the Indian Mutiny, 1857-1858 – Colonel Malleson (1880)
A History of the Indian Mutiny, reviewed and illustrated from original documents, Vol. III – G.W. Forrest (1904-1912)
Etah: A Gazetteer, Vol XII by E.R. Neaves I.C.S. (1901)