Muttra, or as it is called today, Mathura, was a north-western district of Agra Division, bounded to the north-west by Gurgaon District; on the north-east and east by Aligarh, to the south by Agra and on the west by the independent state of Bharatpur (or alternately, Bhurtpore and on the map, Bhartpur). It was in 1857, a chiefly agricultural district, with very few towns boasting a population of over 5000 inhabitants. The town of Muttra is situated on the banks of the Yamuna, 34 miles from Agra, on the main road which linked it to Delhi. It is considered one of the seven holiest cities in India, being the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
For the sake of this narrative, I will keep the old spelling of Mathura – Muttra – in keeping with previous posts.
Muttra had for some time been a military station and in 1832 it became the civil headquarters of the district. It is here we find Mark Bensley Thornhill, one of the four Thornhill brothers in India in 1857.
Mr. Thornhil, for all appearances, seemed to enjoy his life in Muttra. He had been magistrate for four years; with him were his wife and two young children. He found his position a “very fine one.” He had a large income and great authority and he could afford to live in style. Their house was large and well furnished, his stable boasted of good horses and he had “a chest full of silver plate which stood in the hall…Anna (his wife) a great store of Cashmere shawls, pearls and diamonds.” Muttra was no longer a great station, civilian or otherwise for the EICo- as such, visitors were few and there was little to do. Thornhill’s duties were not particularly cumbersome. He enjoyed his life – the station was sociable enough and the quiet peacefulness could hardly be seen as a hardship. Every November, as soon as the cool weather started, Thornhill, with his family in tow, undertook the yearly district tour of inspection. The rest of the winter months were spent in tents; the mornings in long rides and the days under groves of trees. He found his life “a perpetual picnic and very enjoyable.”
In January 1857, upon returning to Muttra from the tour, Thornhill found four little chappatis on his office table. They were made of the coarsest flour and no bigger than biscuits. On inquiring what this meant, he found a watchman from a nearby village had been given the chapattis the night before by a stranger, with the injunction to bake four more and send them on to the adjacent villages and desire them to do the same. The watchman obeyed but at the same time, he informed the police. The police took the chapattis and sent a report to Thornhill, the bread attached. The next day, similar reports from other parts of the district flooded in – eventually, it was clear this phenomenon was occurring all over Upper India. Inquiries were made, not just by Thornhill but by magistrates in other districts, even the government in Calcutta was interested and the newspapers speculated. The Chapatti Affair stopped as strangely as it had started and no one was the wiser. Although a similar incident had occurred shortly before the Vellore Mutiny in Madras this, argued the papers, wasn’t Madras. After nine days it was all but forgotten and the circulation of chapattis ceased, at least in Muttra.
Illness forced Mark Thornhill to search for a change of air and in May he found himself in Agra, in the care of his brother, Cudbert who was secretary to the government. They were sitting together early on the morning of the 12th of May when Cudbert was apprised of the telegram from Meerut. He immediately left for Government House while Mark remained at home, entertaining it would appear, a small avalanche of visitors. Everyone wanted to talk about the telegram; some speculated it was a lie; others believed if there had been a mutiny, the government would have been the first to know. When Cudbert returned late in the afternoon, his was so discomposed, as if he “heard of or expected some calamity,” that Mark, so impressed by his behaviour, determined to return to Muttra at once. If the news was true, then it was also possible some mutineers might wander into his district and create a fuss. He did not contemplate anything more serious than that but as magistrate, it was his duty to go. Cutting his leave short by two days, Mark left Agra that night after dinner and travelled through the night. His wife and children followed the next day.
“It was our custom,” he writes, ” in the hot season to dine early, and when the sun had set to take a drive; that evening we drove round the old parade ground. At the further end was a slight rise, just sufficient to afford a view of the river Jumna. The water was then low, and the river rolled in several branches; a herd of cattle were lazily crossing the one nearest us. By the roadside was a grove of trees, a little temple, and a well. A party of travellers were resting by it, and their camels browsing. The was simple…In the times that followed it often recurred to my memory….”
As soon as he had returned from Agra, Mark Thornhill sent off messengers in all directions to obtain any news of possible mutineers – none had arrived in the district, and except vague rumours regarding Meerut, nothing was out of the ordinary. He was about to write the whole thing off as a simple scare when stepping from his carriage following the ride a letter was handed to him. It had been left by a servant with the message it was important – by the light of a lamp in the hallway of his house, Thornhill saw the envelope had on it, scrawled in large letters, the word URGENT. Tearing it open he found a letter from a railway engineer, forty miles away from Muttra. It was to inform him that a party of mutineers had attacked and burned his house. As he had been away, he had escaped but he sent Thornhill this letter to inform that the main body of mutineers was marching to Muttra. As soon as he finished reading the letter, Thornhill sent word to the other Europeans in the town – after a brief council, they agreed to send the women and children to Agra without delay.
“Of the rest of the night, I retain but a dreamy recollection. I remember that till near midnight the other families came hurrying in, that there was much confusion, some terror, and that till the palanquin bearers arrived from the city, we sat awaiting them in my drawing room. It was a beautiful room, brightly lighted, gay with flowers. It was the last time I thus saw it, and so it remained impressed in my memory.”
It was nearly dawn when the party was ready to leave. Thornhill sent with them an escort of horsemen and for further protection, all the Englishmen whose duties did not require their presence in Muttra. Although the news came during the day that no mutineers had as yet entered from the north of the district, a heavy cannonade could be heard from the direction of Delhi. At midnight he received a letter my messenger from the Lieutenant-Governor, John Colvin, at Agra. As he sat down to write a reply, he heard the tramp of horses in his courtyard and a servant informed him an Englishman was dismounting at the entrance. Almost immediately, a young man walked into the room.
“He was quite a young man, he was armed with sword and revolver, and wore twisted round his hat a large native turban – he looked very tired and exhausted. He informed me he was the assistant to the magistrate of Goorgaon; the district that lay between mine and Delhi. The mutineers, he added, had entered the district, and the country had risen in insurrection, and he was on his way to Agra to convey the information to Government…” What he needed now was a fresh horse as his was knocked up and could Thornhill loan him one?
“I sent for horses and also for refreshment for my guest. While it was getting ready, he informed me of the particulars of the mutiny of the regiment at Meerut, and some of the events that had followed their arrival at Delhi…how they had marched down to the palace, placed the king on the throne and massacred all the English and Christians they could lay their hands on. While narrating the story, he had been much agitated. When I inquired the names of the victims he broke down altogether, for among them was his only sister, a young girl of eighteen, who had but a few months previously arrived in India.” The young man was 23-year-old Wigram Clifford of the Civil Service.
Thornhill persuaded Clifford to stay the night as he was too tired to ride on. He further convinced Clifford to entrust his letters to a messenger instead. By dawn, the troubled young man was gone – but in his place came the magistrate of Gurgaon and his clerk, followed, at short intervals by “all the English and Christians residing along the road to Delhi.” Some were accompanied by their families who Thornhill quickly sent under escort to Agra but the rest, some 35 in number sat down with him for breakfast.
Leaving his guests Thornhill decided it was time to inform his staff of what had happened. He had kept the news to himself until now – for fear if it was false, he might appear foolish – but with this influx of fugitives, there was no longer any point in keeping silent. His employees appeared suitably astonished when he told them but to his surprise, he found they had “heard it all before, and indeed as regarding what had occurred in Delhi, that they were much better informed than I was.” After signing a few papers and necessary orders issued, Thornhill took the time to talk to the men. They soon became so engrossed in the subject of Delhi, they appeared to forget he was there and “…their talk was all about the ceremonial of the palace, and how it would be revived. They speculated who would be Grand Chamberlain, which of the chiefs of Rajpootana would guard the different gates, and who were the 52 Rajahs who would assemble to place the Emperor on the throne.” Thornhill suddenly realised the deep impression the splendour of the Mughal court was in their imaginations; how they revelled in the traditions and how faithfully they had, “unknown to us…preserved them.” It was as if the Mughal Empire was waking from a long slumber to assume, as Thornhill notes, a phantom life.
Towards evening, a messenger arrived to inform Thornhill he was to expect another visitor. Captain Nixon was approaching Muttra with the Bharatpur army. With him came several officers, all anticipating dinner and a place to sleep. Thornhill threw open his house a little further, not just the verandah, the terrace but the garden became impromptu bedrooms. Shortly after nine, when most of the party was asleep, Thornhill found himself sitting up with a few of his more restless guests, watching the moonlight.
The Bharatpur Army
Bharatpur was a small independent state that adjoined Muttra to the west. Upon the death of the raja in 1853, the throne passed to his son, a mere infant, aged 2. The EICo assumed charge of the territory until the boy came of age and administration effectively was conducted by Major Morrison, Political Agent who had been nominated to the position in 1853 by Sir Henry Lawrence. Morrison had several assistants, chiefly among them was Captain John Nixon.
Captain Nixon had received early intelligence of the outbreak at Delhi and had immediately proposed to the government they should make use of the Bharatpur troops, some 3000 strong, to suppress the mutiny. He was subsequently authorised to march not only against the mutineers but to continue to Delhi, via Muttra. Unfortunately for Mark Thornhill, he only learned of the plan when Nixon and his army were on his doorstep.
As the information received had led Nixon to believe the mutineers were approaching Muttra, he first resolved to remain encamped in the town and prepare a warm reception for the rebels. The city it was “very capable of defence” consisting of a perfect hive of narrow lanes and solid stone houses. Nixon proposed erecting barricades at the principal entrances which was duly done and Thornhill then set about adopting “various measures to enable the inhabitants to cooperate with the soldiers…”
The following morning after Nixon’s arrival – the 17th of May -Thornhill received even more visitors. This time it was from the Seths – two brothers who were not just wealthy bankers but persons of the highest influence in Muttra. Their errand appeared to be to deliver a letter from the agent at Delhi but their real object was to warn Thornhill the sepoy guard – a company of the 67th BNI – was not to be trusted. The Seths said the sepoys had planned to plunder the treasury and make off for Delhi the night before, but Nixon’s arrival had put a stop to their plans. The treasure at Muttra was no paltry sum – over half a million silver rupees, then thousand pounds worth of copper coins and a considerable amount which was destined for the Calcutta mint as it was no longer current. Thornhill had already considered the fidelity of the sepoys when he had first returned to Muttra – he had already written to Agra requesting the treasure be sent there without delay; anticipating a positive answer, he had already caused the rupees to be packed in boxes and the had assembled carts for their transportation. As soon as the Seths left, he sent a further message to Agra, reiterating his suspicions regarding the guard and asking again, when he could send the treasure.
Meanwhile, the fortification of Muttra, at least for now was pointless. News arrived on the 19th, that the mutineers had decided to stay in Delhi and had no intention of leaving it. After some deliberation, Nixon decided to recommence his march and issued orders to the troops to be ready to move at dawn. Thornhill would accompany them to the border of his district.
The next morning, while it was still dark, Thornhill and the other officers were waiting on the verandah of Thornhill’s house for Nixon. Just as the sun was beginning to rise, a hassled and irritated Nixon alighted the steps – the troops, he said, had refused to march as their pay was in arrears. The State treasurer had been sent for from Bharatpur and he was shortly expected to arrive. As such, the morning was lost – the State treasurer arrived; the chiefs were summoned and a consultation followed which was concluded with difficulty after which Nixon announced the army would now march.
A gun fired signalling the start – this was followed by ” a babel of sound, neighing of horses, shouts of men, the jingling of bells, and at intervals the unpleasant bubbling noise that vicious camels emit when being laden. The sounds presently grew fainter, there was a tramp of men and horses, and in a cloud of dust the army filed past the garden wall.” When they had passed, Captain Nixon and another officer took their seats next to Thornhill in his carriage, while the other officers proceeded on horseback. The station was left in the charge of Mr. Clifford under whose charge fell the detachment of Bharatpur troops who remained to guard the city.
Whatever possessed Nixon, as they passed through the gates of Muttra to suddenly want to inspect the guard before leaving the station, no one can rightly explain. However, Thornhill ordered the coachman to make for the office. A troop of Bharatpur horse and two chiefs accompanied them.
The office was a large, one-storied building that consisted of a few immense rooms, all of which connected to a wide verandah that ran around the house. It stood amid extensive grounds, which resembled an English garden – the house had once been the home of a general when Muttra had been a much larger cantonment. If legend was to be believed, even Lord Lake had lived for a short time in the house. As it was, in 1857, it was an office, albeit a rather palatial one.
As they drove up the avenue Thornhill noticed the sentry on guard was “lolling carelessly” against one of the verandah pillars. As soon as he caught sight of the magistrate, he bolted to attention, turned and fled through an open door into one of the rooms. He reappeared almost immediately, followed by the whole guard. They sprang from the verandah, formed in a double line across the road, levelled their muskets and threatened to fire if Thornhill or anyone else moved forward.
Swords were drawn and the Bharatpur cavalry galloped round to take the sepoys in the rear. Nixon called for them to come back and he, with Thornhill, alighted from the carriage. After a “good deal of coaxing and persuasion,” they managed to convince the native officer of the guard to come forward. Thornhill gravely explained they were coming to inspect the guard, and they should not be afraid – it seemed the sepoys believed the Bharatpur troops were under orders to kill the guard. Finally, the officer ordered his men to ground their arms and permitted Thornhill and Nixon to enter the office. They rushed through the inspection and left – Nixon to follow his troops and Thornhill to his home.
He was shortly after approached by the native officer of the 67th. He called to offer his apologies and repeatedly sought to assure Thornhill the men were loyal: they had misunderstood the situation, he claimed, the sepoys had only raised their guns to protect themselves, being convinced, upon seeing the Bharatpur cavalry, they were about to be destroyed. Thornhill listened to his entreaties but prudently decided not to ask why the guard was in the office and in uniform, instead of in undress and in their huts as they should have been. Instead, he treated the man with all politeness and accepted unquestioningly his apologies. As soon as he was gone, Thornhill once again wrote to Agra, reporting what had happened and demanding a decision about the treasure.
Once he had finished his arrangements, Thornhill drove out the Nixon’s camp. The army had marched 2 miles out of Muttra and was settled on a large open plain on the other side of the city. Here they would stay nearly three days – waiting for cannons that had been inexplicably delayed, then delayed by the absence of the head chief, without whom, the army would not stir. On the third day, he finally turned up and Nixon order the marc for the next morning.
The next day, Thornhill finally had a chance to observe the Bharatpur Army.
“The army marched in several divisions, the spaces filled with carts and animals and…a mob of camp followers. At the head of the force came regiment of cavalry. It had originally belonged to our army… but had been presented to the late Rajah. Neither men nor horses seemed to have benefitted by the change of masters, the horses looked uncared for, the men very untidy; still they wore uniforms, rode in column and maintained some vestiges of the former discipline.
After them, but separated by a long interval of carts and camp followers, followed the regular infantry.
It consisted of no more than a single regiment of Sepoys. They were armed and clothed after the English fashion, but both weapons and uniforms were of a very antiquated style. The muskets had flint locks, and the dresses were of the pattern in use in our army about the commencement of the century. It consisted of a swallow-tail coat, shoes like slippers, and the wonderful caps of black leather, very much resembling the foot of an elephant. If the men had trousers they did not wear them but in their place the native dhoty, which is a voluminous roll of cotton cloth twisted around the waist and loins. They marched badly – straggling and lounging; and were altogether – themselves and their uniforms – dirty and slovenly to the last degree.
Their appearance was quite in harmony with that of the artillery, which after another interval of mob and animals, next succeeded. No two guns were of the same size, and their carriages were as dilapidated as they could be to hold together. The wheels of two of them were falling to pieces and were only prevented from dons by bands of rope coiled round the tyres. Some of the carriages were of bare wood; the others had once been painted but so long ago that the traces of paint were fast disappearing. The only respectable cannons were two nine-pounders belonging to the Seths. The eldest Seth had a few years previously been permitted to purchase these from our government…very reluctantly his younger brothers had permitted the guns to accompany our expedition.
After the artillery came what was considered the irregular portion of the army… the soldiers were so mixed up with the camp followers and differed so little from them in appearance that it was difficult to form any but the roughest estimate of their numbers. Some were armed with swords, some with matchlocks, others carried spears of solid steel very like kitchen spits.”
The irregular portion of the army, numbering some 1000 men of horse and foot, were each under the command of a different chief and was thus composed of several divisions, but in the chaos of the march, it was impossible to tell who belonged to whom. The chiefs themselves were not particularly bothered: some rode on in carriages, others on elephants while still others preferred to be carried on palanquins. Very few rode horses and those that did did not ride with their men. Nor were the chiefs by any means a united front. Although they were nearly all related to the Rajah in varying degrees and received their salaries from his treasury, some possessed hereditary estates of their own or held civil appointments besides commanding the army. Among the was the Chief Architect of Bharatpur, the Head of Revenue and the Prime Minister. Their pay, like their positions, depended on the whims of the Rajah and the army, although it belonged to the State was mainly composed of personal followers of the chiefs. Captain Nixon, in his turn, could do nothing without the approval of the head chiefs, who took their time making decisions as each point needed to be discussed and deferred to every chief, regardless of his status. Outside of the daily darbars, they were openly hostile to one another, divided and given to squabbling amongst each other. Their behaviour was encouraged by Major Morrison who, doubtful of the success of the expedition and as the days went by, opposed Nixon openly, taking every opportunity to oppose him, much to the glee of the chiefs. With the situation spiralling out of control, Morrison, not Nixon, was temporarily dismissed from the Bharatpur Agency. Instead of making matters better, it only helped make them worse.
When they reached their next camp, the army pitched their tents in the same disorder as their march, a disorderly, haphazard jumble of men and animals. For Thornhill, it was becoming clear that this army had no intention of going to Delhi. They were merely biding their time, but for what he could not guess.
Thus far, they had made it to Chaumuhan. Here, Nixon was summoned to Agra to discuss the campaign Colvin – and the chiefs, hearing of his imminent departure, refused to continue the march. Using all his persuasive powers, he finally managed to convince him to at least proceed to the next halting-place and wait there for his return. Thornhill heard from his own men the chiefs had no intention of keeping their promise. As soon as Nixon’s back was turned they would break it. Fortunately, he was not gone long enough for it to matter.
Following on his heels, was George Harvey, commissioner of Agra. He had been chosen by Colvin to ensure the lines of communication were open with Delhi and proceed there to take over the Delhi Agency. Harvey did not bring with him an army; his entire force consisted of 12 young men, mainly engineers and railway men who preferred to join the expedition rather than twiddle their thumbs in Agra and a small party of native troopers. The Bharatpur chiefs,who had been expecting to see a regiment of English soldiers were so disappointed Nixon once again found himself negotiating for their continued commitment to the expedition. He was saved, at least temporarily, by the arrival of the advanced guard of the army of the Raja of Ulwar. Like Bharatpur, Ulwar was under the control of the EICo as long as their ruler was underaged and had been ordered by their English officer to march to Delhi.
In the course of the day, the rest of the Ulwar Army arrived – 4000 men, chiefly cavalry and a mass of camp followers. The Ulwar Army was likewise controlled by chiefs but Thornhill would not witness what happened when both armies came together. After the customary darbar, he returned to Muttra – his objective had been to see the army to Kosi, the limit of his district, use them to suppress any disturbances they came across, and ensure they were properly provisioned. His tour through the district had not been encouraging. A zamindar, Kunwae Dildar Ali Khan was murdered by his tenants, Umrao Bahadur, a relative of his who had barely escaped with his life. Everywhere they had gone, murder and anarchy were showing their ugly heads.
The army marched on the next morning and Thornhill headed back to Muttra. He had with him 2 Custom officers who had elected to stay behind, and a party of 350 Bharatpur infantry under the command of a young chief, Sirdar Raghunath Singh. He also took back the Seths guns. After ensuring the lines of communication, at least as far as Kosi were secure, he turned for home. Instead of taking Raghunath Singh back to Muttra, Thornhill left him encamped close to Kosi, with orders to maintain order. Back in Mattura, Thornhill had his own horsemen who he could trust.
As for Captain Nixon, he would get as far as Hodul, the next stage on the march, and the chiefs, although never openly saying they were refusing to march, daily found another excuse not to. We will return to them shortly.
The New Guard Arrives
Thornhill had repeatedly warned the government at Agra the guard at his station – a company of the 67th BNI -who had begun misbehaving. He daily expected them to mutiny but Agra continued to see him as an alarmist. However, in their magnanimity, they sent a young officer, Lieutenant Burlton of the 67th to take charge of the guard. The first time Thornhill saw him was at his own house, where Burlton had taken up residence in Thornhill’s absence. The replacement guard was due to arrive from Agra which consisted of a detachment of men from the 44th and 67th – they would replace the current company and then escort the treasure to Agra.
The day the new guard was due to arrive, Thornhill found himself out of the station. He had decided to inspect the “magnificent caravanserai” at Chattah which contained at the time the Government records and treasure of that division of the district, besides some of his own property. The caravanserai was a leftover from Mughal times and is both secure and dry, Thornhill found it an admirable place to use as storage. Following the inspection, he put up at a bungalow and intended to return to Muttra in the morning. However, just as he was preparing the turn-in, a servant ran into the room. He breathlessly announced some English gentlemen were approaching – barely had he finished his sentence when Thornhill heard the tramp of horses and moments later, Thornhill’s two assistants entered one of whom was Mr. Eliot Colvin (the son of the Lieutenant Governor) the other, Mr. Daswood and Mr. Joyce, Thornhill’s head clerk. Another young man stood behind them, bareheaded with one hand swathed in a bandage. He was introduced as Mr. Gibbon.
Colvin hurriedly explained what had happened.
The new guard had marched into Muttra under the command of Mr. Gibbon and the old guard was to march as soon as the treasure was ready. As the making over the treasure was a long and tedious process, the assistants had gone to the office early and only took a short respite for breakfast, of which they partook in the company of Mr. Gibbon and Lieutenant Burlton. They then returned to the Treasury. No one thought to take the guns which were left piled up in the corner of the breakfast room. In all, including Lieutenant Burlton, 7 men had sat down at table. Of these, one was Mr. Dashwood, who was assistant to Mr. Colvin and two under clerks named Hashman.
The money had been counted and packed, the paperwork examined and approved by one o’clock in the afternoon. Lieutenant Burlton was informed the carts were laden – he wished the others goodbye and went to join his men.
He was not gone a moment, when a shot rang out which was followed by a rush of sepoys into the office. From here, the narrative becomes somewhat confused as no one could remember exactly what happened next.
The men ran back to the breakfast room for the guns but found them gone. As the room opened into another larger one, they fled into it, the sepoys close on their heels and firing at them. They missed and the bullets smacked into the walls. By some good fortune, the windows were open – the men rushed through onto the verandah and ran for their lives across the office grounds to a nearby copse of trees. The sepoys followed them part of the way firing all along but their shots went wide. Only Mr. Gibbon had been injured by a bayonet thrust to his left hand. With the garden situated on the river it made sense to descend the bank and by following the shore, make their way to the city.
Arriving there, they rushed through the streets to the main police station, only to find the head policeman fast asleep.
After a prolonged effort to not only wake the man but to convince him they were not telling tales, they convinced him to procure them horses -having heard Thornhill was in Chattah, they set their course. The party was also diminished – the two under clerks had disappeared somewhere along the river bank.
Thornhill took some time to understand what the men were saying but he finally realised the Muttra was most likely lost, he immediately set off a horseman to Agra to inform the Government. He sent scouts along the road to ascertain if there were any sepoys in the area and sent word to Captain Nixon to warn him. Thornhill then ordered his carriage and riding horses to be made ready. He left the property in the caravanserai to the care of the villagers of Chhata and then waited for the messengers to return. When the scouts returned the news was disheartening – the mutineers were advancing in Thornhill’s direction and were no more than 5 miles away.
Just as they were starting the head of Thornhill’s horsemen asked if they were going to find the Bharatpur Army. When Thornhill nodded, the sowar tried to dissuade him – everyone knew that the chiefs were in league with the sepoys, and if they were not, was it likely the mutineers would come this way? The mutineers were no more than 200 and unless they had a previous understanding with the Bharatpur chiefs it made no sense they would try to meet them in open field. Thornhill answered he was honour bound to inform Nixon of the situation and stand by him, if necessary. As they passed through Kosi, Thornhill presumed to call on Captain Raghunath Singh who was still encamped where Thornhill had left him – however, the chief refused to see him, would not admit him into camp and positively refused to give up the Seths’guns. After a fruitless hour of parley, Thornhill decided to let him be.
As for Nixon, he had not moved. His chiefs were still making excuses.
When Thornhill apprised him of the mutiny in Muttra, Nixon was alarmed but hardly surprised. After consulting with the chiefs, it was decided a party of troopers would be sent out along the road to ascertain the movements of the mutineers – an English officer accompanied them and one of the chiefs. While they waited for news, Thornhill and his party decided they could not place their trust in the Bharatpur army and made plans accordingly should they need to flee. Over breakfast, they presented this to Captain Nixon. He, however, refused to hear a word said against the chiefs or for that matter the army – the discussion was becoming heated when a servant entered carrying a note. He handed it to Captain Nixon.
It was from the officer who had gone to gather intelligence – Captain Rughanth Singh and his men were in open mutiny. Nixon hurried to consult the chiefs while Thornhill and the rest of the Englishmen in camp repaired to a small bungalow nearby, followed closely by their servants. As they closed the door behind time, Thornhill was aware a mob was gathering outside – mostly camp followers and badmashes from Hodul and for over an hour, the crowd continued to increase. They pressed against the windows and doors, shouting and yelling as they surrounded the bungalow. With great difficulty, Nixon managed to push his way through the crowd and into the bungalow.
The news was not encouraging – the army had mutinied and they must leave it without delay. While they had been expecting the news it still appeared to take everyone by surprise. The men rushed outside, shouting for their syces and their horses, and for a few moments, it appeared they had all gone mad. The crowd gave way as a rumour rushed through their lines that the Ulwar cavalry was on their way to cut up the British. They fled precipitately leaving enough space for Thornhill and the others to make good their escape.
It was in hindsight a ludicrous proposition. The party numbered 75 people including their escorts and a sizeable number of unarmed servants. The army facing them was 5000-strong – there would not be much of a fight and no point entertaining the idea of victory. As such, Nixon went to try his luck with the chiefs again, leaving the rest saddled and waiting for his return. In the meantime, Thornhill sent away his servants and his little dog who he reasoned were safer without him. He placed them in his carriage and with final instructions, they rode away.
Captain Nixon finally returned, grim and worried. The chiefs had refused to listen to reason and the Ulwar troops, as if to drive the point home, were in earnestness, preparing to charge. Their artillery now aimed their guns at the back of the retreating Nixon and a message soon came that if they were not off at a moment’s notice, they would open fire.
On this, they moved, a short distance but far enough from the guns, and again halted.
It was a parting of ways. Captain Nixon and Mr. Harvey were determined to meet the army before Delhi, they would ride by the direct route if they could, otherwise, they would cross the Yamuna and get around by Meerut. Thornhill disagreed, feeling quite certain they would not reach Delhi and certainly not Meerut – he proposed returning to Muttra, where he intended to resume his duties as magistrate.
“However, they held their determination and we wished goodbye. Mr. Joyce and I turned our horses and accompanied by our escort, cantered off to the house. Mr. Harvey and the rest of the party moved away in the other directions, their troopers following them, and also, towering high above the horse, two elephants.”
Flight to Agra
The journey back to Muttra proved to be something of a challenge. Eager to escape notice, Thornhill, Joyce and the 23 horsemen who formed their escort decided it would be prudent to avoid the main road as much as possible and take to the countryside. While they knew the track would be difficult to follow and the chance of getting lost was certainly a challenge, it was their encounters with the villagers that posed the biggest threat.
As they approached the villages,
“Before them, mobs of men were collected, as we rode they shouted and brandished the weapons. At the third village, they ran after us, and at the fourth, they fired at us. The firing was answered from a village in advance – a further replied to that. In a few minutes, the whole country resounded with the noise of firearms…” They had to leave the lanes and avoid the villages and cut across the fields. It was dark before they reached the town of Sahar.
They had intended to strike off to the east and when possible get back on the main road – but a warning from a friendly traveller caused a change of heart. A troop of cavalry were patrolling the road and they were looking for the magistrate. So they stayed on the lanes, making their way as best they could in the dark, pushing their horses on through deep sand and alternately through tracks full of ruts. The firing too had not ceased and as the night darkened it appeared one village after another was awoken – “the entire country was before long resounding with the reports of matchlocks mingled with the deeper boom of the “gingals” and the “ramjunnies” as those large wall piees are termed. It suggested the idea that we were surrounded on all sides by unseen enemy.”
As the road led through the town of Raal, they decided to chance it – fortunately, a festival was in progress and no one paid them too much attention – as soon as they could, they turned off down a dark lane and returned to the countryside. At their next stop, in a grove of trees by a pond, two of the horses took objection to each other and commenced a pitched battle, knocking off their saddles and leaving the pads strewn over the road. If it was not enough to have bad-tempered animals, the rest of the party was not feeling any better. The night was hot and oppressive, not a breeze stirred in the darkness. “The atmosphere was full of dust, so full that the dust formed a canopy in the sky above through which only the largest stars could faintly shine.” Just when they felt they could ride no longer, the horses suddenly perked up. Gone were the ruts and sand of the lanes – they had hit firm ground for the first time in hours and were finally on the road leading through the outskirts of Muttra.
Their first sign of life was a watchman who briskly called out in the dark, demanding to know who they were. While Joyce and Thornhill hung back, the escort rode forward, explaining they were troops of the Rajah of Bharatpur and was now returning home after bathing in the Ganges. What news was there of Muttra, they asked?
The watchman answered everything was perfectly quiet. The sepoys had left without doing much damage except a few fires, all the police were in their places and nothing was out of the ordinary. The news filled Thornhill and Joyce with a little cheer – in half an hour they would be home, discussing their adventures over a cup of tea and they would sleep in their own beds.
As they rode on, Joyce remarked it seemed much lighter on the left side of the road than on the right. As they puzzled over what the cause was, they came to the track which would lead them over some fields, through the parade ground and back into the station. As they passed through the avenue bordering the road, it suddenly became clear what they saw was a fire. It stretched for miles, in some places still burning brightly, in others only a few embers remained.
“The spectacle was so beautiful and so singular that with one accord we pulled up to admire it. Our admiration was mingled with other feelings not so agreeable. The line of fire we conjectured to be the burning Customs hedge, which was a bank of thorny bushes, lately erected by the Government along the Customs frontier to prevent the smuggling of salt and opium…These misgivings were increased when we reached the station. We came into it near the gaol. From the gardens, opposite came the same sort of glow as had proceeded from the duller parts of the burning hedge, and from among the trees appeared patches of sparkes that suggested the idea of burning rafters.”
It appeared things were not quite as the watchman had said. Before they proceeded any further, two horsemen were sent forward to reconnoitre. When they returned, they reported that Thornhill’s house had not been burned but the plundering had been absolute – the very doors and windows had been torn from their hinges and the garden was covered with remnants of clothing and broken furniture. There was also no one there – the servants had fled. The men proposed they could take refuge in the city and decide in the morning what to do – Thornhill remembered Nixon had left one of his Bharatpur regiments in Muttra to protect the city. it seemed pointless to come so far only to have their throats cut now. They would proceed to Agra instead.
The horses however were too tired to go any further and the men were hungry. The party managed to ride a little way up the road to the small village of Aunugabad where they were assisted by the three remaining policemen. While the horses were being watered and fed, Thornhill took the chance to talk to one of the policemen. Although not everything he said turned out to be true, it was clear that the whole country was in confusion – riding to Agra would not be as simple as they had hoped. Intelligence from Agra was not encouraging – the two Sepoy regiments had mutinied, released the prisoners, burned down the city and were now marching to Muttra. Interestingly, they were not moving as regiments, but in small parties and not in uniform. It would therefore be harder to avoid them – however as they had only been seen on the main road, it was once again necessary to take a different route – this time the old Agra road. It was in disrepair and full of holes, presenting bad and dangerous riding, but it seemed like the only way to escape observation.
At the request of their escort, Joyce and Thornhill disguised themselves – they put on horseman’s boots and vests while wrapping singularly large turbans around their heads. At a distance at least, no one would be able to tell they were Englishmen. By daybreak, they were ready to move on.
Thornhill was struck suddenly by just how many people were moving through the countryside. Whereas the night before they had come across no one, now, “…in every direction the fields were dotted with parties of men, all were armed, all went in single file, and all appeared to be making for some point in the distance before us. The sight excited our curiosity as it did that of our men. I heard them discussing it, they agreed it portended some mischief.”
Leaving the river bank they proceeded for several miles through a plain”broken with ravines” at the end of which was a village. They passed through it without eliciting any excitement until they came to the other end. Here stood a “mob of men, they were armed and had collected on the road as if to bar our passage. Our men shouted and they moved aside, saluting us with jeers as we passed. One of them…stepped into the road and took a steady ail at Mr Joyce, but before he could pull the trigger his matchlock was jerked up by an older man who was standing beside him..” They had not gone far when they realised the mob was running after them, waving their weapons and screaming threats and abuse. These shouts caught the attention of another mob of armed men from another village. Putting their horses to a gallop, they managed to pass the second mob before they could close the road.
Although they stayed on the road, as soon as a village came in sight, the party turned off into the countryside, giving all habitation a wide berth. They completely skirted past the next town, Farah; as they approached a grove of trees that marked the beginning of the town, they saw a column of smoke rising” in a tall straight column, high in the air it spread far and wide, presenting the appearance of a giant umbrella.” The houses were on fire and Thornhill could hear the “confused murmur as of a great multitude.”
They returned to the river, where horses at least could quench their thirst, after which Thornhill, Joyce and the rest of the party led them once again through deep sand, “the sun poured down his rays nearly vertically above our heads, the burning wind moaned around, sweeping, as it went, clouds of dust that obscured the sky and formed a lurid bank above the horizon.” What they didn’t realise was they were nearly in Agra.
They reached the metalled road that ran past Akbar’s tomb
After a ride of nearly 100 miles and 28 hours in the saddle, with little to eat and no sleep, it is hard to imagine that Mark Bensley Thornhill after scarcely three days in Agra would be returning, once again to Muttra.
As for Agra, the city was not in flames but it was finally becoming clear, as June approached, the mutiny was more serious than the wise men of the council could ever have imagined.
The Personal Adventures of a Magistrate during the Rise, Progress and Suppression of the Indian Mutiny – Mark Bensley Thornhill (1884)
A Gazetteer of Eastern Rajputana Comprising the Native States of Bharatpur, Dholpur and Karauli – Major H.E. Drake-Brockman
Agra, a Gazeteer, Vol VIII of the District Gazetters of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh – H.R. Nevill (1901)