There was hardly to be found a more charming station in Oudh than Secrora. Close to the Nepal Terai, it was considered a sportsman’s dream – tigers and wild elephants abounded, and the jheels teemed with waterbirds. The jungles boasted a healthy population of antelopes and deer, while on the banks of the river Gogra, pig-sticking was the past time of the day. For an energetic young officer like Lieutenant John Bonham and his equally sports-happy companion, Captain John Stewart Tulloh, there was no better place to be.
They had served together in the Lahore where Tulloh had taken the newly arrived Bonham under his wing – and with his influence secured him one of the most coveted berths to be had, an appointment to the fledgling Oudh Irregulars.
Tulloh and Bonham arrived in Secrora in early 1857 at the head of a battery of Oudh Irregular Artillery. Secrora already had a compliment of Irregulars – Daly’s Horse (1st Oudh Irregular Cavalry) and 2nd Oudh Irregular Infantry. By the time Bonham arrived in Secrora however, Daly was well on his way to the Punjab. Taking his place was Captain Hamilton Forbes, while Captain G.W.Boileau commanded the infantry. An officer of considerable standing, Boileau commanded all the troops at the station, by virtue of seniority.
Several ladies had accompanied their husbands to Secrora and they were busy making this new station a happy community. On the 30th of January, 1857, Mrs. Daly wrote,
“Mr Jackson, (Colville Jackson) the acting Chief Commissioner, is coming- here in a few days with his two pretty nieces; there are five ladies in this station and two at Gonda,
15 miles off; it is decided that there are enough to get up a dance, and we are all highly busy now planning- how it shall be.” Two years later, after her return to England, she noted: —” I remember well how gay and merry we were preparing for that party! The kutcherry, or court-room, which was to be the ball-room, being whitewashed and decorated; the stands of arms, banners, and garlands of flowers that adorned the walls, the tents to be pitched, and the supper devised and cooked…But then we knew nothing of coming horrors. All was gay and everyone cheerful, and the little ball, got up in a rude outstation, gave more pleasure than many a grand entertainment.”
The coming horrors Mrs. Daly speaks of are of the deaths of Georgina Jackson, Mr. Loungueville Clarke, Mr. Bax and Mr. Charles Boileau – all who attended the ball that night, dancing so gaily. Mr. Boileau was the “favoured lover” of poor Georgina and his death would be the first shock the little station would receive. That came shortly after the ball.
Dacoits and Mr. Charles Boileau, March 1857
Dacoity was a serious problem in India, so much so that the EICo established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1830 and then went even further to implement the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts of 1836-1848.
Dacoits were (and still are) bands of armed robbers or bandits and were even defined as “A member of a class of robbers in India and Burma who plunder in armed bands.” This extended to include pirates who plied their trade on the Ganges, robbing and plundering boats. What pushed people to take up arms in such a manner is disputed, however, feudal exploitation which left people with little choice but to resort to banditry has been suggested as one factor, though as some of the gangs were also made up of high caste and wealthy people there are links in dacoity to tradition.
Thuggee is not the same as dacoity. Though the end goal was the same – robbery – thuggee was a practice from North and Central India involving not just robbery but ritualized murder and mutilation and could be more correctly defined as a cult. Colonel William Sleeman was very energetic in stamping out thuggee but the department which he worked for would continue in existence until 1904.
Below is an idea of how dacoity affected just Bengal in the years 1852-1853. The various acts used to deal with it did not appear to be making much of a dent in the numbers. However, the punishment awaiting dacoits if caught might have caused many of them to raise their levels of violence as clemency could not be expected under the suppression acts.
In the vicinity of Secrora shortly before Bonham’s arrival a band of dacoits, headed by one Fazl Ali, had started plying their trade in the district. Previously he had confined his depredations to the Lucknow area in defiance of the King of Oudh but following the annexation of the province, “His headquarters for years has been along the Tulsipur and Nandparah forest, and when pressed he has taken to Nepal. The Rani of Nandparah was constantly at war with the Raja of Tulsipur. Fazl Ali was occasionally on one side, occasionally on the other; but, wherever he was, that side had the prestige of success. After the annexation, he went into Nepal, but of late has returned to our territory, and some horridly bloody murders have been committed by him…”
Besides murder Fazl Ali had been plundering police posts and villages; his very presence was causing havoc in the district, and orders were sent out from Lucknow to apprehend the man.
Two men took it on themselves to put an end to Fazl Ali. Having been sighted close to Gonda or thereabouts, Mr. Lounguville Clarke took to the field with a company of the 10th Irregular Infantry stationed to find Fazl Ali. As his band was constantly on the move and the local population much disinclined to give any information as to their whereabouts, it took some time to locate the elusive dacoits. In the meantime, quite of his own volition, Mr. Charles Elliot Boileau, the Deputy Commissioner of Gonda, acting on his own intelligence, took some mounted police with him and set off in pursuit. He had written Henry Daly, first, however, informing him he was taking with him an escort of six men and one jemadar- Ram Singh – to find Fazl Ali – hardly enough men to engage a gang of violent dacoits. It would almost appear that Boileau was not confident he would actually find them, after all, no one else had until then.
Arriving at the village of Tulsipur, Boileau posted a few men sentry at the different outlets although Jemadar Ram Singh entreated Boileau to make a rush at the village – a surprise attack – but Boileau declined and entered the village with only Jemadar Ram Singh by his side. Much to their surprise in the village, they actually found Fazl Ali. What happened next is not clear- it would appear the 2 men tried to convince the dacoit they were a sizable force and he should surrender, while Fazl Singh himself made a show of asking for mercy, but pleasantries were short.
Fazl Ali suddenly shot Boileau in the chest and then in the ensuing panic, he took the opportunity to cut off Boileau’s head and hang it from a tree. The killing of Boileau was described as such:
“Ram Singh…alone remained with him. Whether he meant to wait till Lieutenant Clarke, known to be near, came up with his party, or what, none knew…suddenly a volley was fired …Mr Boileau fell from his mare exclaiming, ‘ Oh Ram Singh! I am killed.’ Another Sikh, Bhugwan Singh, came up; together they lifted the Sahib’s body onto his horse; it fell off. Bhugwan Singh appears to have gone away. Ram Singh went in search of the other sowars to endeavour to persuade them to bring off poor Boileau’s body; he could not induce them to venture. The firing was close and heavy, the Sahib dead, and they had but their swords. Still Henry is angry, and says they shall leave the regiment for deserting the body. Ram Singh returned alone and stood by the Sahib’s body till he had four bullets in himself and his clothes; one in the wrist disabled him, but he made his escape. He went to Ghulam Mohi-ud-din, a resaldar who was at a village with a detachment not far off; they returned, but could not find the body, and Fazl Ali had gone off. Afterwards the body was found and sent into Lucknow for burial.”
Henry Daly was not having it. He immediately called together 60 sowars of the 1st Oudh Irregulars and went off after Fazl Ali, joining up with Longueville Clarke.
“On our arrival at the scene of his depredations scarcely a word of information could we procure. However, with some sixty sowars I made a forced march to the end of the first ridge of hills where the Raptee jerks round the Valley of Nepal to flow into our territory. Here the hills sink into the plain, which is a dense forest. Goolerie, marked in the map, is a small space cut in the woods where the cow-herds bring their cattle to graze ; here we found clear and recent traces of the fugitive, but the same silence amongst the people; not from disaffection to me, but from the awe of him and the fear of his revenge. This was his old haunt; here there was no food for man or beast, but what we had brought with us. I attempted to cut him off. I dismounted thirty Sikhs and Hillmen, and sent them up the pass which leads us into Nepal. These men took with them their swords and carbines, and a little flour; their trip was vain. We marched to the Nepal border, and had a communication with their posts, very friendly. We have since this captured one of his followers, who tells us that, at Goolerie, we were within bowshot of Fazl Ali, who, until our arrival, did not know of the pursuit…”
After a “long and exciting chase”, Fazl Ali and his band were run down but they did not go quietly. After an intense fight in which three sepoys were killed, Clarke and 5 of his men were wounded. Fazl Ali and most of his band were killed.
This was the work the Oudh Irregulars were meant for and they had shown themselves a hardy force. Daly could leave Secrora, confident his troops were worthy.
Unfortunately for Charles Boileau, although recognised in official reports as a young and promising civil servant full of dash and daring, he had lost his life due to a “misguided sense of duty” and “fell victim to his own unheeding gallantry.” It was after all the duty the Oudh Irregulars were supposed to do and not a civilian, no matter how well-intentioned.
It was a lesson perhaps one civilian took to heart a little too earnestly, as we shall see.
Should a Mutiny Break Out – June 8th-10th, 1857
Up until the end of May, Secrora remained quiet. There was little to report; Tulloh had been sent to the hills on sick leave, so Bonham now commanded the artillery. The problems started when the first outbreak took place in Lucknow and was particularly noticeable among the men of G.W.Boileau’s regiment, the 2nd Oudh Irregular Infantry.
Dissension took the familiar pattern – random acts of unaccountable incendiarism which was confined to the burning down of huts belonging to a regiment absent on detachment duty and the not-so-secretive, late-night meetings.
News of other uprisings continued to come in – but the horrifying news of the killings of Mr. Christian at Sitapore finally convinced the men it was time to send off the ladies and children to Lucknow. A message was dispatched to Sir Henry Lawrence of the intention.
Captain Forbes, who at the time was away at Lucknow on patrol duty was ordered to return to Secrora by Sir Henry and bring to Lucknow all the ladies and children in the Division. Another 4 civilians volunteered for the task of escorting the party. The officer’s families were hastily summoned from nearby Gonda and on the 7th of June, seven women, four officers and 12 children along with the four volunteers left Secrora. They arrived in Lucknow safely on the 9th of June only to soon find themselves shut in at the Lucknow Residency during the siege.
With the women and children out of the way, Lieutenant Bonham and the others had to decide how best to protect themselves. “There was, indeed, very little to be done, but we determined to hold together as much as possible, and keeping a close watch on Boileau’s men, to be prepared for flight should the necessity arise.” There were however only 5 European officers left in Secrora now – the Commissioner Mr. Wingfield, Captain Boileau and his adjutant Lieutenant Hale, Assistant-Surgeon Kendell and Lieutenant Bonham. Boileau and Bonham, in order to be close their the lines opted to reside in Mr. Wingfield’s house. Two staff sergeants from Bonham’s regiment, and Bewsey and Miller and Sergeant Major Court from Boileau’s were tasked with keeping watch during the night, to give the others timely notice should a disturbance occur. Hale and Kendell remained across the road in their own house.
Around midnight on the 8th of June Boileau and the others were awakened by the Sergeant on sentry duty, “rushing into the house, shouting that the Infantry had risen and were advancing on the bungalow…” With no time to lose, Boileau, Bonham and the Sergeant repaired with haste to the veranda – the Sergeant said he had seen sepoys sneaking up under cover of the low mud wall that surrounded Wingfield’s house. Although they could not see anything, they could hear shouting in the Infantry Lines, convincing Bonham that his place was with his own men. Telling Boileau of his intentions, Bonham went with all speed down to the Battery, joined moments later by Boileau, Wingfield and the three sergeants. Bonham found the artillery at least were still manageable.
“My men behaved splendidly. They turned out at once, and taking the guns from the gun park, and running them out by hand, soon had them in position, bearing upon the Infantry lines. It was a bright moonlit night, and after some time, the disturbance having quieted down, I sent a mounted man down to reconnoitre, and when he returned and told us it was all quiet in that direction, we parked the guns and returned to the bungalow, thinking it must have been a false alarm.”
Whatever the case may have been, it brought matters to a head.
The following morning, a few infantry sepoys came up to Wingfield’s bungalow, demanding to see their commander, Captain Boileau,
“…and after taking him to task for going to the Artillery lines when he ought to have gone to his own men for protection, said that the guns had been brought out against them and that they had only escaped being murdered in their sleep by the refusal of the gunners to fire upon them.”
In other words, the infantry believed wholeheartedly their own European officers had been plotting to murder them in their beds. Boileau had betrayed their confidence and as such, they no longer saw any reason to give loyalty when they were so clearly mistrusted by their own commander. It was a severe reprimand for Boileau – he tried to explain matters to the men but soon found his authority was lost. Finally, the sepoys dictated their own terms, demanding Boileau call a parade and hand out the contents of the magazine. It was a brash request and it worked. Boileau, perhaps hoping to save a little face and seeing it would be dangerous at this point to argue further, agreed.
A parade was ordered for that very evening, with Boileau and Hale in attendance but when they reached the lines they found the magazine had already been broken open and the men had taken possession of the ammunition.
After seeing to stable duties in his lines which had remained quiet, Bonham joined the others for dinner at Mr. Wingfield’s house. Finding Boileau, Hale and Kendell sitting outside, he noticed suddenly that their host, Mr. Wingfield was missing. He had gone out for his evening ride and thinking him delayed, the men waited for him to return. Finally, they went in to dinner sans Wingfield and had barely started eating when a note arrived. “It was merely a few lines in pencil, to the effect that he did not like the state of affairs at Secrora, and seeing that Boileau’s regiment was on the verge of mutiny, had gone out for his usual evening ride, and was on his way to Gonda….” Mr. Wingfield had left, without a word of warning to anyone, leaving everything standing as it was in his house.
Wingfield’s own explanation, or rather excuse was no less shamefaced.
“Some old servants who had been with me ever since I had been in India, had that day and the previous one told me that some of them had been warned to quit me, or they might lose their lives; and now Captain Boileau came and told me he no longer commanded the troops, and that he was going on parade in compliance with the intention he had expressed to that effect, but did not expect to leave it alive.” Frightened by the night’s events, and by Boileau’s statement, Wingfield turns to justification.
“So evident was it for some time past that the troops were fast hurrying into revolt, that I would have left Secrora, which was not a civil station, or my legitimate place or residence, for Gonda before, had not Captain Boileau urged me to remain, alledging my departure would shew want of confidence in them..” Mr. Wingfield should have been residing in Bayretch but a problem with housing had sent him to Secrora, so as he said, it was not his legitimate station, but that was hardly a good enough excuse.
“I now say that my remaining any longer would be imperilling my own life, and therefore taking the advantage of the habit of an evening ride mounted my horse, and rode over to Gonda…Sir Henry Lawrence had previously written to Captain Boileau and myself in these words – ‘Should a mutiny break out or appear inevitable, you are liberty to consult your own safety..” In Wingfield’s mind at least, the troops had thrown off their loyalty and the question was really, how long it would be before they murdered their officers. Wingfield for one was not going to wait and find out.
As it was Hale and Boileau had both returned from the parade. The men had finally refused to turn in and after grossly insulting their officers, finished helping themselves to the contents of the magazine but besides behaving badly, left their officers standing, scared but alive. With this last act, the 2nd Oudh Irregular Infantry ceased to exist.
Demoralised, Hale and Boileau returned to Wingfield’s house, to find the Commissioner had bolted.
Captain Boileau wasted no time in making his own feelings clear. With Wingfield gone, there was little point in them staying. He produced the letter from Sir Henry (already alluded to in Wingfield’s excuse) and he considered it was time to take advantage of the permission the letter gave. Bonham, however, baulked. His men had behaved well and until now he could see no reason to abandon them and more importantly, the guns. He would stay in Secrora intending the next morning to march the battery to Lucknow.
While the discussions were going on, the Havildar Major of the Infantry came to the bungalow, wishing to see Boileau. Boileau stepped outside to meet him.
The Havildar informed Boileau that it had become known abroad in the lines that the officers were planning their escape; the infantry had no intention of letting them go. He then told Boileau to send a company of the infantry to Byram Ghat to prevent the officers from crossing, should there be any attempt made to get to Lucknow. Boileau conceded and ordered the company to march to Byram Ghat, assuring the Havildar that he would join them there.
Captain Boileau had already made up his mind though to follow Wingfield to Gonda, the opposite direction to Lucknow and then make his way to Bulrampore where the raja had promised him shelter. Arrangments were quickly made and that night, Boileau, Kendell and Hale left Secrora leaving Bonham and the three sergeants behind.
Bonham had already arranged to spend the night in the lines with his men. From the very beginning, he had seen the only way to keep any hold over them was quite simply, to trust them and as such, he spent his time now mixing with his men as much as possible and doing all he could to prevent them from communicating with the Infantry and Cavalry. Subadar Sheik Murdan Ali helped Bonham in this regard, a man Bonham had implicit confidence in. “He gave me the most trustworthy information of what was going on, not only in the Battery but also in the other regiments. I always had the highest opinion of him, and he remained perfectly faithful and true to the end.”
In the artillery lines, Bonham found “a good spirit still prevailed.” The guns were taken out and placed to cover the flanks of the stables and to command the road from the Infantry lines. Thus reassured, Bonham went to bed in his tent, telling the Subadar to call him if there was any trouble during the night.
In the morning Bonham awoke and to his surprise, the first thing he saw was the guns had been withdrawn and returned to the gun park. Upon asking what was the meaning of this, the Subadar informed the lieutenant that during the night the Artillery and Infantry soldiers had met and decided that “they would all act together – whatever one did, the other would do – which meant of course, that they were going to mutiny.”
His hopes of saving his regiment and indeed the guns were at least for now, dashed. Hardly knowing what to do next, Bonham decided the best thing to do was carry on as usual. He went to the stables and found the stable duties were being carried on as usual. As he walked up and down the lines thinking of what he should do next, Bonham saw a group of men approaching. He sent the Subadar to find out who they were, and above all, what they wanted. They turned out to be men of Boileau’s regiment and they wished an audience with Bonham.
“They were quite respectful in their manner, and after saluting me, began a tale of the manner in which they had been treated. They seemed very despondent and complained bitterly of having been deserted by their officers. The misbehaviour of the men, they said, was confined to a few budmashes (scoundrels), who, for their own purposes, wished to lead the others astray. They assured me that the majority of the regiment was perfectly loyal, and as they had now only me to look to, begged me to take command of the regiment.”
Thinking perhaps that there was some truth to what they were saying, considering Boileau and Hale’s behaviour, Bonham decided to try his luck. He told the men he was planning to take the guns to Lucknow; if any of the infantry wanted to prove their loyalty, that was their chance.
“They seemed greatly pleased at this, and assuring me they would do anything I ordered them, they asked me to go with them to their lines and tell the men, myself, I had taken command of them.
This was indeed coming to the point, but it seemed reasonable enough, and little as I liked the job, I at once consented. I had no sooner said the words than with wild shouts, of “Chulye, Sahib!” (Come on, Sahib!) they carried me off to their lines.“
“A large crowd soon gathered round me. I told them I had at the request of the native officers to take command of the regiment, that I was going to march the battery to Lucknow at twelve o’clock, and was asking any of those who wished to go with me to come forward. They cried, “We’ll all go! We’ll all go!” They would go they said, to Delhi and fight the budmashes of mutineers, and wherever I went they would be with me, ar as they put it, they would be ‘a full pace in front of me.'”
Confident now that if the Infantry marched, he would have no problems with his own men, Bonham prepared to march.
Or so he thought.
Just then the Subadar came up to Bonham to report that a large quantity of Government treasure had just arrived in Secrora. Bonham followed the usual procedure, escorting the treasure to the Infantry lines and handed it over in the normal way to the jemadar of the guard. Yet something happened and all of a sudden the mood changed and the very men who had but moments before professed their loyalty now crowded around the officer and began to abuse and threaten him.
Bonham quickly retreated back to the Battery and told the Subadar what had happened. Alarmed, the Subadar told Bonham he would go and see what the commotion was, and if nothing else, “his life would be taken before mine…”
His next shock came from the Quartermaster Sergeant of the 2nd Oudh Irregular Infantry. Hearing that the man was still in his house in the infantry lines, Bonham sent word that he had better repair to the Battery. The obstinant man came up to the line but refused to heed Bonham’s arguments; his wife, the man said, was a local and besides he had a large quantity of property in his house that he refused to leave behind. In any case, seeing as he was married to an Indian woman, he had nothing to fear. He left Bonham to consult with his wife and was never seen again, killed by his own men, becoming the only British victim of the mutiny at Secrora.
Too hot to sit any longer in the tents, Bonham, Court, Bewsey and Miller found a little refuge under a large tree close to the battery quarter guard. As fate would have it on duty that day was Havildar Jehangir Bux, a man who had come over from the regular army and one in whom Bonham had no faith at all, “an ill-conditioned fellow…one of the worst men in Battery.” While keeping an eye on the Havildar, the four men heard “the rattle of arms…and the ring of the ramrods as they drove home the bullets…told us they were loading their carabines…”With the Subadar still missing, Bonham decided to go down to the lines himself to find out what was going on.
There was no one there. In the stillness, Bonham guessed the men were in their huts but the whole place was deadly silent as if everyone was waiting for something to happen. He hurried back to the Battery.
He had barely arrived when the Assembly was sounded and the sepoys suddenly hurried down from their lines, collecting in excited groups between the stables and gun park. The guard marched in file to guns and stood at the ready. Bonham ran out amongst them, asking what had happened and why had they all turned out, to which the reply came, “We cannot tell, the bugle has sounded.”
“Almost immediately a shout arose; “Tulungar ata hai! Tulungar ata hai!” (The Infantry are coming); and true enough we saw Boileau’s regiment coming up in formation towards the Battery.”
Determined to see the business through, no matter transpired, Bonham and the sergeants mounted their horses – which Bonham had had the sense to keep at the ready – and the four men rode out to meet the Infantry, shouting at them to not approach the Battery. Although it was rapidly becoming clear no one was listening to Bonham anymore, he still hoped at least some of his men would stay true.
Carrying spikes with which Bonham and the sergeants had intended to use to disable at least some of the guns and if nothing else to defend themselves with, Bonham returned to his guns. The guard turned on their lieutenant, threatening him with their carbines to stay away. A few men circled around Bonham and the sergeants, begging them to go. Seeing there was nothing for it, they left, the same men escorting them through the Battery.
As Bonham left, the Infantry came up and took possession of the guns he had tried so hard to save. The Subadar remained “true to the last” but as they were leaving the men from the Battery shouted for him to come back; Bonham ordered him to return to avoid any further trouble. He told him to escape when the opportunity presented itself and come to Lucknow. Sorrowful, the Subadar had some last words for Bonham, “Don’t go to Bayram Ghat.”
“We went off with what little dignity remained to us at a foot’s pace, and had gone scarcely more than half a mile when we were overtaken by four of my men, who came with us and proved most useful on the way.”
The question, however, was where to go?
Selections from the Records of the Bengal Government N° XVIII, Correspondence Relating to the Suppression of Dacoity in Bengal – Thos.Jones, Calcutta Gazette Office (1854)
Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick (1859)
Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 Vol III Cabinet Edition, edited by Col. G.B.Malleson (1889)
Memoirs of General Sir Henry Dermot Daly – Major H. Daly, (1905)
Oudh in 1857. Some Memories of the Indian Mutiny – Colonel John Bonham (1924)