Meerut in April and May 1857
Signs of discontentment had been brewing in India since the early part of 1857. The disbandment of regiments in Bengal, Mangal Pandey’s lone attack on officers in Barrackpore and finally the stream of arsons in Amballa all pointed to a rising wind. The circulation of chapatis from station to station was still ongoing, though no one neither then (or even now) could satisfactorily explain the significance. The Commissioner of Meerut, Hervey H. Greathed, with 20 years of service in India, saw a widening gulf between the British the people they ruled over, and an army that was becoming increasingly
“…contemptible; their martial spirit as waned, as might be expected, from our treading all warlike propensities out of the people; and they have no longer the virtues of militiamen, and are neither formidable to foes nor useful as watchmen.”
The local postmaster did “hear a good deal of seditious language used by the orderlies of the different native regiments, who used to meet at the post-office two or three times a day when they came to fetch their officers’ and regimental letters, “ but when he reported it, he wasn’t taken seriously, In fact, except Greathed, it seems, thought anything was at all the matter despite the signs around them. The British felt secure in their power, the army appeared peaceful and, with the hot weather upon them, no one would consider starting a campaign at that time of the year. In other words, no one was paying attention.
REGIMENTS AT MEERUT
Before we can look at what happened next, it is necessary to understand who was in Meerut in 1857.
At the start of 1857, there was a regiment of British infantry, a regiment of British cavalry, two regiments of native infantry and one regiment of native light cavalry. Meerut had recently gained the position of headquarters of the Bengal Artillery and as a result, a troop of horse artillery with 6 guns, a company of foot artillery, a light field battery manning 6 guns plus a number of recruits were stationed here. The Bengal Artillery was manned by European and Indian gunners alike, the latter were support staff, known as Golandaz.
The troops present were:
1st Battalion of the 60th Queen’s Royal Rifles (known later as the King’s Royal Rifles)
comprising 901 officers and men and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Jones.
The 6th Dragoon Guards (the Carabiniers) who had arrived in Meerut on the 11th of March. They had previously seen service in Crimea, had been unhorsed and sent home, took on 408 recruits in England and set sail for India in 1856. The 316 horses from Bengal light cavalry regiments and 305 from the government stud which were not yet fully broken in. Their strength in Meerut was 652 officers and men but their actual fighting force was only 350 as the majority consisted of recruits who had not passed drill and horses that were not ready for riding. They had also never seen service in India before so were unused to the heat.
The Artillery Regiment consisted of 225 men of horse and foot.
The 3rd Light Cavalry had been stationed in Meerut before the First Sikh War and had returned to the cantonment in 1854. It comprised 504 officers and men.
The 20th Native Infantry had seen service in Peshawar in 1853 and mustered 950 officers and men, by large the biggest infantry regiment present in Meerut.
The 11th Native Infantry had only arrived in Meerut on the 1st of May having come up from Allahabad to replace the departing 15th N.I. which was relocating to Nasirabad. The 11th mustered 780 officers and men.
The Military Officers
The Major General commanding the Meerut Division was Major General William Henry Hewitt, who, although he had the sobriquet of “Bloody Bill Hewitt”, had not seen an actual battle since the First Burmese War in 1824. His last command had been in Peshawar, where he had gained the rank of Major-General simply by climbing the ladder of seniority, and in January 1855, he was moved (or removed) to Meerut. In 1857, Hewitt was 67 years old, and although known to be a kindly officer, his main interest appears to have been a fondness for fine food rather than spirited soldiering. His girth had reached rather alarming proportions and he could no longer ride a horse, viewing parades from a specially built carriage, though he did mount a tour of inspection in his division, visiting Moradabad just before the outbreak, and had even intended to visit Delhi. Meerut would prove to be his undoing.
The senior regimental commanding officer, and station commander was Brigadier Archdale Wilson of the Bengal Artillery. At 53 years of age, Wilson had served in the army since 1821. His experience with actual war was somewhat limited, having been involved in the siege of Bharatpur in 1826 and a few skirmishes in the Jullundur Doab in the Second Sikh War. Called by Lord Roberts “a soldier of moderate capacity”, the mutiny would be Wilson’s rise to fame and glory when he took over command in Delhi.
The Deputy Assistant Adjutant Major at Meerut was Major John Waterfield of the 38th NI, who had seen service in the Afghan War, commanded a local force in Bundelkhand and had now been in Meerut on staff duties since 1855. Deputy Judge Advocate-General was a cavalry officer, Major J.F. Harriott, who had seen no active service at all, having been with the legal department since 1844, and in Meerut since 1852. The Brigade-Major, Captain G. Palmer Whish of the 60th N.I. had been in Meerut since 1855. His father was General Sr William Sampson Whish who had commanded troops at the siege of Multan and Bharatpur and had fought alongside Lord Gough at the battle of Gujrat.
The most complicated officer in Meerut in 1857 was Lieutenant Colonel George Munro Carmichael-Smyth. His entire career had been spent in the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, having joined them in 1820. Like Wilson, he had been present at the siege of Bharatpur but unlike Wilson, Carmichael-Smyth would then see service during the First Afghan War (his regiment had been sent back to India in 1839 so he missed the retreat), then he went with the 3rd to the First Sikh War where they saw battle at Aliwal, and then took part in the battle of Sobraon. It was his interest in Sikh affairs that would bring him to the notice of his fellow officers and particularly his associations with a rather shady person of the name of Alexander Houghton Gardiner. Carmichael-Smyth edited a book and wrote the introduction for “A History of the Reigning Family of Lahore, with some Accounts of the Jummoo Rajahs, the Seik Soldiers and their Sirdars (A History Of The Reigning Family Of Lahore : Smyth Carmichael G. Major : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive). Carmichael-Smyth did not exactly endear himself to the Lawrences with this book nor was his association with Gardiner considered tasteful. As Palmer states
“The figure which emerges from this darkened canvas is complex and any judgement of him must be take that into account. His good record of varied active service proves his courage….He was not merely a stupid martinet as he is sometimes represented. He may have had too good a conceit of himself…he may not have been too popular but a strong unpopularity is not proved against him. The impression which one has about him is that of a possibly disappointed and difficult character, a man shadowed by promise not fulfilled and certainly deficient in judgement; a deficiency which often ruins all.”
Meerut had of course its accompaniment civilian officials, the first of whom was the Commissioner of the Meerut Division, Hervey Greathed, followed by the Judge, George Blunt (who may or nor may not have been in Meerut at the time, since he had retired on the 11th of April, 1857); The Collector and Magistrate R.H.W. Dunlop, then on leave in the hills. The Deputy Collector Alexander Johnston completes the summary. Greathed would die in Delhi in September of disease, Johnston would be killed on the 27th of May while engaged in an attack on a Gujar village – though not through a gunshot but by his horse falling and dislodging his rider. Johnston died of a fractured skull. Dunlop wrote a book “Service and adventure with the Khakee Ressalah : or, Meerut volunteer horse, during the mutinies of 1857-58” though his account of Meerut was by no means first-hand, as he was rather far away at the time. It does nevertheless make an interesting read for other aspects of the mutiny.
And so it begins
On the 13th of April 5 huts were burned down in Meerut, including that of the native orderly, Brijmohan. His house would be fired a second time, but for now, the incident was not considered of particular importance. Incendiarism had preceded events in many stations – but Meerut, with so many British troops, what could possibly happen?
It took a Lieutenant Colonel George Munro Carmichael-Smyth, on the 24th of April in Meerut to put a slow match to a long train of disaffection which would have consequences for stations near and far over the months to come. Having just returned from leave, he was perfectly aware that the army was unhappy. While in Mussoorie he had overheard some sepoys talking and the gist of their conversation was, simply put, “the whole army will Mutiny.” When he returned to Meerut, Carmichael-Smyth reported this to Colonel Curzon, the Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief. It worried him enough to have reported it but not enough to stop what he did next.
Arriving back at his station, Carmichael-Smyth found that instructions for a new platoon drill had been issued which looked, on the surface, like the solution to all of his problems. Until now, the chief problem had been that the new cartridges for the Enfield rifle were greased – however, the army had been using greased patches with unballed cartridges already, and this with no problems. The army wanted to have unity in their armaments, and switch everything over to the new, balled cartridges. This would eliminate the use of the patch and the cartridge itself could be greased on the tip instead. The change from unballed to balled cartridges had been an ongoing process in the Bengal Army for the past 10 years. The Enfield rifle itself was new in Meerut – the 1st Battalion of the 60th Queens had been issued it in January 1857 – only ten rounds of ammunition per man were issued at the time and this had been made up at the arsenal in Dum-Dum, close to Calcutta. It was, however, not the ammunition served out on parade.
Whether rightly or not, the sepoys believed the grease used was pig and cow fat abhorrent to Muslims and Hindus – a rumour which had been in circulation for some months already. According to the drill, they had to tear open the cartridges with their teeth, thus coming into contact with the suspect fat and as a result leading to a loss of caste for the Hindus and a massive insult to Islam. (It is interesting to note here a particular difference in the cartridges used in India, which I will write of in another post). What is for certain, however, is that the cartridges handed out on parade in Meerut in 1857 were blanks, ergo, unballed and therefore ungreased. The problem seems to have arisen because the paper used looked different. Assurances that the British were not using underhanded means to turn the army Christian had fallen on deaf ears until now – even when presented with ungreased cartridges or given the option to grease it themselves with any fat of their choosing, the problem persisted. The cartridges may not have caused the mutiny singlehandedly, but the way the issue was dealt with from the very beginning was foolish and certainly watered the growing seed of sedition.
The new drill was designed for all weapons and not just for the new Enfield, which at the time, had not been distributed to any Indian regiments. The drill cartridges were ungreased, thus solving the problem of the fat, and they could tear them open with their fingers. But the troops no longer believed in their officers. Rumours regarding the new drill circulated as soon as it was announced and all the men of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, 6 troops in all, swore oaths not to receive the cartridges the next day. When the men of the 4th Troop asked their commanding officer, Captain H.C. Craigie to stop the scheduled drill, he explained to them there weren’t any of the new cartridges circulating in Meerut but they explained, ” if they fire any kind of cartridge at present they lay themselves open to the imputation from their comrades and from other regiments of having fired the objectional ones.” In other words, it didn’t matter what cartridges were used, the outcome would be the same. It didn’t stop there – sowars from several other troops asked their officers to stop the parade. Craigie himself beseeched Carmichael-Smyth to put an end to it. But the Lieutenant-Colonel was having none of it. As soon as the men saw the new drill, the very idea of mutiny would go up in smoke, or so thought Carmichael-Smyth. The Haviladar Major and Brijmohan both concurred that the new drill would please the men.
So why did Carmichael-Smyth bother writing to Colonel Curzon in the first place? It would appear that Carmichael-Smyth was not necessarily acting out of vanity but he was weighing his options. He had warned the military leadership, and provided them with information for which he could be given credit. And by going ahead with the drill he was showing his ability to follow orders. Though neither idea was wrong, they both became disastrous.
Brijmohan too played a part in the upcoming events. Returning from his meeting with Carmichael-Smyth, he boasted to the men in his lines he had used the new cartridge and the skirmishers would have to use them the next day. The Muslim corporals of the troop then told their comrades about the objectional fat. It was by concession that all of the men now swore they would not touch the cartridges the next day unless every regiment did so too. What the men did not know, is that Brijmohan had never touched the new cartridges and had probably lied.
The parade was scheduled for the 24th of April and they went ahead with it. It did not occur to Carmichael- Smyth when his tent was burned down the night before, along with the hut of Brijmohan Singh for a second time, that perhaps he should reconsider.
On the 24th of April, the ninety skirmishers of the 3rd LC were lined up on the Meerut parade ground. When Carmichael-Smyth arrived, none of the men had taken the cartridges. It should be noted here that Archdale Wilson was absent from Meerut at the time, and there were no officers above the rank of captain of the 20th NI in the cantonment either. Colonel Jones of the Carbineers was standing in for Wilson but his India experience amounted to very little. With the exception of Hewitt, there was no one Carmichael-Smyth could defer to.
The Havildar Major Buksh Ally loaded and fired his carabine following the new drill, tearing the cartridge by hand and not with his teeth. Then blanks were served out to the men – to the growing surprise of Carmichael- Smyth, only 5 could be induced to take them. When asked why, the men, one after another replied, “If all the regiments will take cartridges, I will.” Pointing out the cartridges weren’t even greased did not even make an impression on the 85 men and any amount of remonstrance from the 5 NCO’s changed nothing. Carmichael-Smyth was forced to dismiss the parade and the 85 men were taken off duty and confined to their lines.
Smyth now reported the incident to the Brigadier Major Whish who then passed it on to the station commander, Colonel H.R. Jones who reported it to Hewitt.
General Hewitt was not a man made for confrontation. Sent away from Peshawar for being “too inactive;”
“He had drowsed and nodded his way through some fifty years of routine service, rising by mere seniority. He was now old, obese, indolent and notoriously incapable. He had agreeable manners and a soothing habit of ignoring the disagreeable. Lord Melbourne’s favourite question, “Why can’t you leave it alone?” represented General Hewitt’s intellect…In General Hewitt’s case, the familiar fable of an army of lions commanded by an ass, was translated into history once more.” When Carmichael- Smyth came to report, Hewitt was less than pleased, responding,
“Why did you have this parade? My division has kept quiet all this time, and in a few weeks this cartridge affair would have blown over!” Even Cornet John Campbell McNabb, 19 years old and new to Meerut wrote,
“…because there was no necessity to have the parade at all, or not make any fuss of the sort just now, no other Colonel of Cavalry thought of doing such a thing, as they knew at this unsettled time their men would refuse to be the first to touch these cartridges, but that by not asking they would not give their men the chance of refusing, and that next parade season when the row had blown over they would begin firing as a matter of course, and think nothing of it.” McNabb further believed, “the real case is they hate Smyth, and if almost any other officer had gone down they would have fired them off.” Greathed called the whole fiasco “pitiably senseless.”
Hewitt ordered an initial Court of Inquiry comprising of seven native commissioned officers, four from the 20th NI, three from the 3rd LC, with Captain Macdonald and Captain Earle acting as Superintending Officer and Interpreter respectively, with Judge Major Harriott presiding – they assembled the next day. He also wrote to the Adjutant General Colonel Chester, then in Simla. The reply from the Commander-in-Chief, General Anson was fairly simple – the whole affair was an outrage, and the summary dismissal for the 85 was certainly deserved.
Hewitt now commenced his part in the upcoming disaster. After an initial court of inquiry found the men had no legitimate reason to refuse the cartridges but several men stated there “was a general rumour” against the cartridges but acknowledged that they were the same ones they had always used. In fact, the inquiry could prove the ones handed out on the 24th of April had been made up under the supervision of Havildar Pursad Singh, one of the men who had himself accepted them on the parade. But even though these ones were “apparently alright” they were tainted by rumour. One of the men went so far as to say, “I know of no objection to them, but yet I have a doubt in my heart.” What it came down to finally, was even though these cartridges were not a problem per se, in the wider context they were the problem anyway. Even though no one in the army had been ordered to bite off the tip of the cartridges it was clear this was an excuse rather than a cause. By very virtue of the fact they were distributed by the British was enough to taint them beyond repair. At Meerut, the British had very clearly failed to understand what ostracism meant to the men of the army, be it loss of caste or pollution and they completely refused to understand that the fear of being taunted by other regiments if they had taken them, was a bigger disgrace in the minds of their men than they were willing to handle. The pattern had already shown itself in Berhampore and in Ambala where, like Meerut, no greased cartridges were distributed, but the stigma of taking them had taken hold.
What the initial inquiry found was that as the men had had no legitimate reason to refuse the cartridges, then the conclusion must be insubordination. The findings were sent to Simla for approval and the Judge Advocate General Colonel Keith Young recommended a court-martial which was then approved by the Commander-in-Chief.
15 Indian officers were mustered and others even summoned from Delhi but it was by no means a fair trial. The superintending officer was British who undoubtedly held more than a little influence on the outcome of their judgment. After three days, on the 8th of May, the 85 men were found guilty, and sentenced, by fourteen votes to one, to ten years of hard labour. Only 11, on account of their youth, were sentenced to 5 years. The judges were themselves clearly not pleased and requested Hewitt to show some leniency taking into consideration the general good character of the men and the very fact that they had acted the way they did because they had been misled. But stubborn to a point, Hewitt declared, “There has been no acknowledgement of error, no expression of regret, no pleading for mercy.” Basically, no one had said sorry.
The 85 men were taken back to their impromptu prison – the old hospital building – and as their jailors, their comrades from the 20th NI were given the onerous duty.
The details of the sentence were telegraphed to Major General Anson in Simla for approval – who grudgingly gave it though he would say he found the procedure of shackling in public “unusual,” and on the 9th of May, the 85 condemned men were marched out, for the last time to the parade ground at dawn to meet their fate.
In front of the eyes of the entire garrison with Major General Hewitt and Brigadier General Wilson and their staff making up the rest of the onlookers, the 85 men were stripped of their uniforms and fetters were hammered in around their ankles. By noon, they were marched off stumbling to the New Jail, some two miles away, under an escort of the 60th Rifles. Some of the men threw their boots at Carmichael-Smyth as they walked past him- he paid them no notice. Others swore at him in Hindustani. From somewhere in the ranks a call came up, ” For the Faith!” repeated over and over again – a cry that would resonate throughout India many times in the coming months. “Remember us! Remember us!” shouted the prisoners to their comrades, but the troops could not help them. The guns of the assembled British regiments were pointed directly at them, port fires at the ready. At the first sign of disaffection, it would have been nothing short of a massacre. After the whole disgraceful affair was over, Hewitt possibly touched by the sun, wrote, “The remainder of the Native troops are behaving steadily and soldier like. “
That Hewitt was alone responsible for the shackling of the 85 men is highly unlikely – most probably his decision was influenced by someone from his staff or even by the Deputy Judge Advocate-General Harriott, himself. However, it was Hewitt, influenced or not, who approved it.
The Fate of the 85
Lieutenant Hugh Gough, serving with the 3rd Light Cavalry since 1853, had been immensely proud of his regiment.
“The 3rd Light Cavalry was then considered one of the best of the ten regiments of regular cavalry in the East India Company’s Service…In the 3rd Light Cavalry, we used to pride ourselves on being steadier on parade than the British cavalry regiment then station in Meerut..” A kind-hearted young officer, he was rightly horrified by his commander and more so, the scenes he then witnessed at the jail as he went to give them their last pay,
“made the strongest impression on me…Old soldiers, with many medals.. wept bitterly, lamenting their sad fate and implored their officers to save them from their future… “
In the Company’s army, a soldier’s career passed from father to son, they were respected and held in high esteem in their village, and a good reputation and an honourable life- now all of this were gone. Their pensions were forfeit and their honour was hopelessly destroyed. Cornet McNabb wrote,
“They could not have hit upon a more severe punishment as it is much worse to them than death. It is in fact 10 years of living death. They will never see their wives and families, they are degraded, and one poor old man who has been 40 years in the regiment, and would have got his pension, is now thrown back the whole of his service.”
Many refused their pay, telling Gough they had no use for it now, why take pay when they had nothing left to live for? Some begged him to give it to their wives whom they would never see again. “It came with the deepest effect, and I believe I was weak enough almost to share their sorrow.”
Young officers like Gough and McNabb had a genuine affection for their men and they felt their loss keenly. It was the end of a brotherhood, and for the older sepoys, an end to everything they had been proud of. Unfortunately, the army was not run by Gough or by McNabb. It had Carmichael Smyth, Hewitt, Wilson and many others whose long service, obstinance, vanity and apparent senility had made them both blind and deaf to the very army they commanded.
Since the Court of Inquiry, Meerut had been in a state of unrest. The signs and portents of worse to come were rife around the station, with nightly incidents of arson – the empty bungalow of the Quarter-Master Sergeant of the 3rd LC and the old hospital had been burnt, and the next to follow was the Barrack Master’s godown. Rumours continued to circulate but no one seems to have been too concerned. After all, this was Meerut, the strongest station in this part of India.
His last duty to his men done, Gough returned to his quarters. That night, a native officer of his troop came to him, under the pretence of “making up the accounts.” After a moment he reported to Gough that a mutiny of the native troops was imminent and would happen no later than the very next day. The Native Infantry was going to rise and with them whatever was left of the 3rd. They were going to free the prisoners.
Gough reported immediately to his colonel who scoffed at the very notion of an uprising. He then approached the brigadier whose reaction was the same. With a sense of foreboding, Gough returned to his bungalow, unable to shake off the dread he now felt.
In the Sudder Bazaar, where many of the Indian troops went after the fettering parade, they had been jeered at by the civilians and then no less by the bazaar prostitutes, who called them cowards. Instead of finding sympathy for their sorrow, they found dirty looks and insults.
Hervey Greathed had been out of Meerut at the time of the sentencing – hearing of the outcome, he rushed back to be with his wife Elisa and arrived back on the 9th. At a dinner later that evening with Colonel Custance of the Carabineers, Elisa mentioned hearing about placards in the city, that called upon Muslims to rise up and slaughter the English. It was a passing remark and no one paid much attention, meeting it with “indignant disbelief.”
On the morning of Sunday, the 10th of May, the ayah of the Reverend Rotton implored him to cancel services as an uprising was imminent. He paid her no mind and continued as usual. The morning service was well attended with Gough and McNabb included in the assembly. It was a hot and stifling day, and the men were in the summer uniforms. Gough could not help chaffing McNabb for wearing the wrong type of lace on his alpaca frock coat, something undoubtedly Hewitt would never stand for. The service passed quietly and afterwards everyone returned to their homes, except McNabb who went to spend the day with some friends of the artillery. Even though Elisa Greathed remarked the day had “dawned in peace and happiness,” not all was well in Meerut. The native troops of the station were morose and some were even weeping, the shock of seeing their comrades humiliated in such a fashion was not something they could forget. It was a double-edged sword – on one hand, sympathy for the 85 men was heavy in the hearts of the native troops but at the same time, while the 85 had stood their ground, the others “had become stooges for the Christian sahibs.” It was further proof of what fate awaited them when their turn came to take the cartridges. They could no longer trust their British officers.
Many servants remained absent from their places of work while others continued trying to warn their employers of things to come. Rumours from the bazaar continued to circulate freely throughout the day. By the afternoon of the 10th, events were coming to a head.
Fuelled by untrue stories of further fetters -some 2000 in number supposedly being prepared for the rest of the troop – and that the British were coming to wrest control of the magazine from the 20th Bengal Native Infantry, the sepoys were finally pushed out of control and by evening, hysteria broke out. In the bazaar, a cry came up that the Europeans were coming – whether to destroy the bazaar or destroy the troops themselves no longer matter. The fear that now infected the troops spread over to the civilian population. In fact, the Europeans weren’t coming but the very idea was enough to set the disaster in motion. The Europeans who were in the bazaar became easy targets for the first signs of rage.
The subsequent disaster at Meerut will be described in the next chapter.
“The Great Fear of 1857” Kim A. Wagner,2010
Old Memories” Hugh Gough, 1897
“Letters Written During the Siege of Delhi” H.H. Greathed, 1858
“The Chaplains Narrative of the Siege of Delhi from the Outbreak at Meerut to the Capture of Delhi” J.E.W. Rotton, 1858
“The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut in 1857,”J.A.B. Palmer, 1966