In the Other Stations
Of course it wasn’t enough that Sagar and Lalitpur were in the grip of mutiny.
Other stations did not fair any better.
We will start this chapter in the town of Damoh.
With 2 companies of the 42nd BNI who had until now, proved themselves unperturbed by mutiny, there appeared to be no reason for alarm.
However, the mutiny of Sagar set off not the 42nd, but the English officers at the station. Like Brigadier Sage, they quickly decided to barricaded themselves in the only defensible position in the station – the jail fort, accompanied by the 42nd. It was the 3rd of July.
With munitions and the treasure, they grimly determined to hold out. However, the native officers, led by the gallant Subadar-Major of the 42nd and Havildar Ranjit Singh, warned the English officers that not only was their position faulty, it would be unlikely in the event of an attack by the Sagar mutineers or indeed the rest of the countryside, that the remaining men of the 42nd would be able to hold out. Accordingly, the British fled Damoh, under cover of darkness, riding seventy miles through the night to Narsinghpur, leaving Damoh completely in the hands of the 42nd.
The next morning, the rebels from Sagar arrived. Havildar Ranjit Singh met them at the closed gate of the fort jail and refused them entry. They demanded the treasure; the detachment of the 42nd not only attacked them but sent the rebels fleeing into the countryside.
Ranjit Singh held Damoh with his men – he ensured the detachment continued their duties as usual, he set guards and he commanded the town with the help of a loyal munsif (an Indian judge) he had taken into the fort with him. Together, they managed to carry on duty not just in Damoh but for a few miles around it. The prisoners were kept in jail and the police remained at their posts.
On the 25th of July, the European officers returned to Damoh, followed shortly after by Captain Pinkney from Sagar who took charge of the jail fort and the treasure.
The 42nd then went on the offensive. A detachment was sent to attack Hindoria, some 12 miles from Damoh, the seat of the rebel leader Kishor Singh (who we will meet later in more detail) – he had been very active, instigating the Shahgarh Raja to attack Damoh. The rebels were thrashed, the battle leaving many dead, and the detachment marched back to Damoh.
“The two companies of the 31st, with two guns which they manned, and some eighty of the 3rd Irregular Cavalry, as well as the two companies of the 42nd, remained at Damoh, and had several engagements with the rebels, killing some fifty men in one fight. On the 28th July Damoh was attacked, but the rebels were driven off with loss. The whole of the Damoh District was now swarming with rebels, who plundered in every direction, and the Shahgarh insurgents were joined by nearly every man of the Lodi caste in Damoh, with the exception of the petty Raja of Hatri, who remained faithful throughout.“
Jabalpur, some 111 miles south-east of Sagar, is our next stop.
It was the headquarters of not only the 52nd BNI under Lieutenant-Colonel Jamieson but the of Major W.C. Erskine the chief political officer of the Sagar and Narbada Territories.
For a few weeks following the new of the mutiny at Meerut, nothing appeared different in Jabalpur. The men of the 52nd, with the exception of treating their officers with a “patronising familiarity” and the attempted murder of the adjutant, nothing untoward happened at Jabalpur. The men of the 52nd declared, most openly, they would only mutiny if an English regiment was sent to disarm them.
It was pointed out to Major Erskine, that now, in June, was the time to send away the women and children. Erskine refused on the grounds it might excite the men to mutiny – it would be an open sign that their officers distrusted them. Jamieson could not disobey Erskine and many of the women themselves refused to leave – if they had had Ruth Coopland’s hindsight, they might have changed their minds.
However, determined not be caught off guard, Erskine ordered the Europeans of the station, some 148 in number to assemble at his house. However Erskine was still wary of the provoking the 52nd.
Erskine is Busy
“The Commissioner therefore gave out that some native chiefs near Jubulpore were threatening us, and he wished to protect the ladies, &c .; so, on the 4th of July, arrangements were hastily made: all the civil and military officers, ladies, women , and children were called into the Residency and out-offices, and that night all ( 68 men , 31 women , and 49 children ) slept there, the officers and ladies dining together, guards of sepoys protecting us. This was a critical night, no doubt, but the measure was unavoidable, and the European officers and civil clerks were formed into a company. All were well armed with rifles, double -barrelled guns,&c. , and all in turn stood sentry round the house, watching the sepoys more than the imaginary rebel army. The ruse succeeded, and the farce was kept up for some days. At dawn of day every one was busily engaged in fortifying and provisioning the house, and in an incredibly short time the house became a really safe residence, unless it had been attacked by artillery of which there was none for or against us within some hundred miles.
Officers were selected by the Commissioner for every kind of duty, engineers, commissariat, &c . &c . The sepoys worked hard for us, bringing us in a very large supply of musket ammunition and many stands of spare arms ; others worked at the intrenchments; and daily some of the sepoys, for a long time, came and cleaned the muskets. Indeed they heard of and dug up two old small cannon : these they brought to us and placed them in position ! For these we made ammunition, and the ladies made powder- bags ; but the guns were honeycombed, and I should have been sorry to fire them often. I believe we did prove them after a fashion with slow matches once, keeping a good wall between them and us, but they looked well. As soon as we were fortified and provisioned, the Commissioner pronounced danger from the rebels over, and the sepoys were marched off to their barracks.
The civil officers, and some of the military ones, with their wives, occupied their own houses generally during the day, and work went on as usual ; but all took shelter in the “ garrison at nights.
The Commissioner brought the post -office clerk into the garrison, and appointed an officer to be postmaster. Many were the native letters opened and read, but no treason or information was gained in this way.
The Commissioner again ordered new levies of matchlock -men and cavalry to be raised in each district, and increased the wages of the police. Nearly all of these men remained loyal to the last; but plundering and much bloodshed was going on in all the districts north of the Nurbudda.”
To induce the 52nd to remain faithful he ordered extra marching allowance (batta) to be issued to every man in any likelihood of being called into the field – it was a good idea but Erskine first had to come up with the money. Very few of the farmers in the district were paying their dues and only one banker had continued to give the Goverment any loans at all, the rest claiming they were broke.
Erskine consequently called for an assessment of the bankers, and as the Deputy-Commissioner Western was very well aware of how each banker was situated, he called on each one to lend a certain sum to the Government at 6% per annum – any refusal on their part would lead Erskine to take their money by force. It is little surprise that within a few days, Erskine had the money he needed, at least to tide him over for the moment. Of course this sum would not hold for long – as such, Erskine issued Government notes in denominations of 5 to 50 rupees. At first no one would touch them but they very soon came into general use and when they were finally called in and paid off, hardly any had been lost. It was an unscrupulous move but it ensured a source of money – it wouldn’t be until March 1858 that any money could be got from the Nagpur treasury.
We will return to Jabalpur in a moment. For now, we need to turn our attention to the events at Nagpur.
This turbulent and rather historically bewildering district had been annexed in 1854 by that rather infamous tool, the Doctrine of Lapse – prior to the annexation, Nagpur had already been under semi-British control, as during the reign of the last king, Raghuji III which lasted until 1853, a Resident had been appointed to administer Nagpur. We will not dwell on the past history but plow onwards to 1857.
1857 started in Nagpur as elsewhere in India. March saw the circulation of chapattis through the district – interestingly enough, 1 paisa was charged per chapatti and quickly rumour spread the money was being collected for the purpose of converting Indians to Christianity. There was no proof of this and as much of the district was ignorant regarding the meaning of the chapattis, the British chose to ignore it.
Nagpur had quite early on been attached to the telegraphic lines when then Calcutta- Bombay lines were laid in 1854-55 so the news of the Meerut mutiny arrived in Nagpur almost with days of the event. However, the attitude in Nagpur was one of anxious watch and wait.
Bakabai, the widow of the Raghuji II and mother of the late adopted son Raghuji III was not opposed to British rule and she used her influence to gain the favour of many local families in their support. She also, rather boldly, informed the citizens of Nagpur that anyone contemplating mutiny would summarily handed over to the EICo officers.
Of course not everyone was willing to remain loyal. Some of the local Muslims had been open contact with the mullahs and maulavis of Lucknow, and many secret meetings took place at the house of Nawab Kadar Khan, Another, Nawab Wilayat Mia who had been a minor official Raghuji III’s court and married to one of his Muslim concubines even went so far as to promise “one rupee per hour for every person who who fight against the British on the night of the 13th of June.” (Hemant Sane, Nagur and the Mutiny of 1857)
On the 17th of May a rumour circulated through Nagpur that that very night, the station was to be burned to the ground – nothing happened. This was put down to the old methods of some very unscrupulous charcoal dealers who had previously used the hot summer months as an excuse to practice a little arson, thus acquiring by these means cheap charcoal. At the start of the British administration, the Resident had taken the situation in hand – he simply imprisoned the charcoal dealers until the rains set in, thus putting an end to their endeavours.
As for the military presence in Nagpur it was pretty much filled to the brim. They were divided between Takali at Nagpur and Sitabuldi Fort and consisted of a variet of units, as described below.
The Nagpur Irregular Cavalry had mainly been recruited from the local Muslim population of Nagpur and its surroundings, and they had been in the employ of Raghuji III. For many it was not so much a profession as a birth right, with sons following their fathers into the regiment. The Nagpur Irregular Infantry however had been mainly recruited from northern Indian and Bihar and constituted mostly of Brahmins, thakurs and Rajputs. As for the local police – they had been completely reorganised following the annexation, with much of the duty being given over to the irregular cavalry, called by some the Mulki Police or mounted police.
Military Units at Nagpur in 1857
At Takali, Nagpur, Nagpur Irregular Force.
1. One Regiment of Nagpur Irregular Cavalry, about 500 horses (mounted troopers) Major Henry Shakespear (on leave), Capt. Edmund Wood.
2. First Regiment of Nagpur Irregular Infantry, consisting of 3 battalions, Capt.Holland,
3. One Company of Horse Artillery, Lt. Playfair.
Total Nagpur Irregular Force consisted of 1 Regiment of Irregular Cavalry, 500 men; 3 Regimentsof Infantry, 2,400 men; and 1 Horse Field Battery, 96 men; in all 2,996 men. The remaining units were posted at different places in Nagpur district.
At Sitabuldi Fort
1. One Company of the 26th Madras Native Infantry, Lt. Laurence Johnston.
One guard of 8 men on sentry duty, others billeted at Residency (total 100)
Major Bell was Commissary of Ordnance at Sitabuldi fort.
At Kamptee (old Nagpur Subsidiary Force)
Brigadier Henry Prior Commandant Nagpur Subsidiary Force
1. 17thRegiment of Madras Native Infantry
2. 26th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry,
3. 32nd Regiment of Madras Native Infantry, Col. Boileau, Major Baker, Capt. Manley.
4. 33rd Regiment of Madras Native Infantry, Col. Miller, Adj. Benwell, Surgeon Hunter Adam
5. 4th Madras Light Native Cavalry, Col. Cumberledge, Lt. Morris
6. One Company of European Artillery.Major Gomm, Major Arrow
As if this was not enough, there were further military units near Nagpur.
Military units near Nagpur
1.Chandrapur – eighty-five miles south of Nagpur, the 2nd Regiment Irregular Infantry,and a detachment of the 1st Regiment;
2. Bhandara – forty miles to the east of Nagpur, another detachment of the 1st Regiment;
3. Raipur – hundred and thirty-seven miles east 3rd Regiment of Nagpur Irregular Infantry
4.Bilaspur – A detachment of 3rd Regiment.
(Hemant Sane, Nagpur and the Mutiny of 1857)
The Commissioner of Nagpur was one very interesting individual, Mr George Plowden. He was strong-headed and clever but would be much maligned in the future – he suffered from “constitutional laziness” – his refusal to send in reports to the Government in Calcutta was well nigh legendary. Moreover, in his entire tennancy of Commissioner at Nagpur, Calcutta never received “an annual report on the moral and material progress of the country.” He held little of office work in general. When he finally left Nagpur his successor, Colonel E.K. Elliot was left with a mass of arrears from the rather petulant Plowden. However what the administration in Calcutta might have thought of Plowden
(and he of them) he was still not a failure as an administrator. He had Assistant Commissioner Robert Stanton Ellis keeping an eye on the district with him and between them, they would have much more work to do. However, history has not been particularly kind to Mr Plowden and he remains mostly forgotten.
The Sitabuldi Fort was something of a headache. Old and delapidated in 1857 there were plans to either demolish or abandon it. Built by the EICo in 1822 when Richard Jenkins was resident to Nagpur, the construction had been overseen by Colonel Adnane who used black stone from the Katol area and employed a variety of bewildering styles, both Indian and colonial. Its location on the Sitabuldi Hill was considered most advantageous, giving ample views of the surrounding countryside and Nagpur itself.
So, what gave the EICo the right to build a fort in the first place, one may ask? For this, we go back to the war the British fought against the Pindaris in 1817. In November of that year, a battle was fought – the Battle of Sitabuldi when the British forces at Nagpur were attacked by Raja Mudhoji, the nephew of the recently deceased ruler, Raghuji II Bhosale. He had decided to attack the British with the help of the Peshwa, thinking rather wrongly, with the British so busy repelling the Pindaris, he had a chance to drive them out of Nagpur.
Unfortunately, Mudhoji was wrong. He lost the battle and the subsequent one, the Battle of Sakkardara on the 16th of December 1817, he was not only attacked by the British but forced to surrender. Nagpur fell under British control on the 6th of January 1818 – the treaty stipulated the EICo, now that they controlled not only the Sitabudli hills, the village and the area around it, but they could also use the hills to build fortifications on them. Raja Mudhojifurtherfurthered ceded his territories north of the Narbada as well as those on the south banks of the Gawligarh River, all his territories in Berar, Sirgohah, and Jashpur and all the affairs of Government, both Civil and Military, would be
“settled and conducted by ministers in the confidence of the British Government according to the advice of the Resident and His Highness with his family will reside in his palace in the city of Nagpur under the protection of the British troops.”
He further had to give up any forts in his possession should the Government require them for their use and
“The two hills of Seetabuldee with the bazaars and land adjoining to a distance to be hereafter specified shall be henceforth included in the British Boundary and such military works erected as may be deemed necessary.”
As Nagpur itself was a weak position a strong fort was considered a good idea – it was a defensive position the British could retreat to where they could hold out until help arrived. And a fort on a hill is of course a symbol of dominance, a fact that was not overlooked when it was built.
Taking up some 11 acres, divided in two nearly equal parts into outer and inner parts it also boasted of large adjoining grounds, though most of these have disappeared now and barely 120 acres remain.
Mudhoji II continued to rule in Nagpur as the British built their fort. They abandoned the original cantonment area and established a new one at Takali and at Sitabuldi itself. A large flat area on the north side of the hills was levelled to make way for the arsenal and other areas were marked out for tent lines, the parade ground, a bazaar, hospital and cavalry stables. In short, Sitabuldi was not just a fort – it was a complete, self-contained cantonment. As such, any villages that existed on the east side of the hill were burnt to the ground and construction of any new ones was prohibited. Only Reverend Stephen Hislop was allowed to build his house on the hill as a personal favour.
However, as forts go, in its entire history, Sitabuldi was rather underutilised. It would be prepared for defence three times – the first time following the annexation of Nagpur, the second time during the mutiny and the third time in 1861:
“The province of Nagpur was joined with Narbada and Sagar Territories to form Central Provinces. As a part of new administrative changes, the Nagpur Irregular Force was disbanded and many persons were absorbed into the new police force. But many persons had to be discharged. Many of them were from families whose profession was army service. These were unhappy about being discharged and expressed their discontent. Despite the recent example of ruthless suppression of the 1857 revolt, they showed signs of an impending rebellion. Resistance to disbandment was tried as they thought this might induce the government to absorb all persons into the Nagpur police or some other force. The new commissioner Richard Temple asked the Kamathi force to show their might in Nagpur and the Sitaburdi fort was once again prepared with guns. This had the effect of overawing the NIF. And the N. I. Force was disbanded peacefully without any untoward incidence.” (Hemant Sane, The Sitaburdi Fort, Nagpur)
Let us now return to 1857.
George Plowden had submitted a report to dismantle Sitabuldi Fort as, according to him, there was no imminent threat to Nagpur and the fort was frankly very expensive to maintain, besides having a poor water supply. Lieutenant L. Johnston, who was posted to the fort on garrison duty submitted his report after barely a week’s residence there in May 1857 that it was so dilapidated, that it needed to be repaired, or torn down. Recommendations were forwarded to Calcutta and just before the mutiny began in earnest, the renovation plans were approved.
The Nagpur Plot
There was a popular prophesy circulating in the Bengal Army that the rule of the EICo was destined to last 100 years – and on the anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, June 16th, a series of events would bring it to an end. So with this in mind, it was determined that Nagpur would rise on the 16th of June – however, the British in Nagpur had been vigilant, and a series of events forced the conspirators to change their plans to the 13th of June.
The main unit to revolt was to be the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry and in their turn, they were to incite the native infantry units posted in Nagpur and Takali. The local population would by force of events take their part and if all went well, Nagpur would be free of the British by midnight.
As plots go, it was very elaborate.
The first person to be killed was to be Lieutenant Johnston. His habit of visiting Reverend Hislop in the evenings was very well known and accordingly, a set of assassins was deployed to waylay Johnston, kidnap and then murder him. At the same time, a cavalry officer would approach the infantry lines and provoke them into mutiny, by any means at their disposal. The ringleaders would simultaneously let loose three fire balloons (what we call now Chinese lanterns) as a signal for the local population to rise, not just in Nagpur but in the surrounding areas.
Arrangements were made to block the road from Sitaburdi to the Kamptee cantonment and they had even organised a relay of messengers on the road between Hydrabad and Mirzapur to inform the other stations of the revolt in Nagpur.
All the British – civilians and military were to be killed without exception on the night of the 13th. The townspeople were charged with dispatching those who lived on the east side of the Sitabuldi Hills while the cavalry and infantry would take care of those on the west and at the same time, attack Plowden in his residency. The cavalry would then ride to Kamathi, and on the morning of the 14th of June, would attack the British while they were in church. “The news of the attacks and its success was to be sent to Hyderabad and Jabalpur by express riders and army units in these places were to join the revolt.”
If the plot had succeeded, the history of 1857 in Central India might have been very different.
On the 10th of June, Lieutenant Johnston was sent to Sitabuldi Fort to take command. He had much to worry him – there were twenty tonnes of gunpowder in the two magazines, and the arsenal was full of all sorts of equipment, some dating back to the time of the Pindari War. He also had a rather full treasury to look after. He didn’t have too many men at his disposal – there was only a guard of 8 men in the fort, one sentry over the treasure and the rest of the men were 150 yards away from the fort itself, in their barracks. He had also been sanctioned to repair the fort and along with Major Bell, Commissary of Ordnance, Johnston was busy drawing up plans to fix it all up.
Although Nagpur remained outwardly calm, the British were suspicious. Not wanting to be caught unawares, a camel post was established between the Adjutant-General at Kamptee and Johnston at the fort, with a twice-daily exchange of news. Johnston sent thirty men to guard the arsenal at the foot of the hill and told off another 70 to sleep in the fort itself. He then shifted the treasury into the fort itself, thus ensuring it would be inaccessible to anyone outside his immediate command. He then ordered all the cannons to be cleaned and weather boxes adjoining each cannon to be likewise cleaned and stocked up with powder shots and shells. He requested a company of British gunners from the Kamptee Artillery Unit, but he was turned down. So Johnston turned his attention to the infantrymen he had at his disposal and tried to train them as gunners instead.
Now of course we cannot forget Jabalpur, where seemingly nothing was happening.
Jamieson and Erskine, realising how precarious their position was in their hastily boarded-up residency building, requested reinforcements from Kamptee – this would lead to the formation of the Nagpur Moveable Column, to which we shall come later. Commanded by Colonel J. Millar, it would consist of the 32nd regiment of Madras infantry; one squadron of 4th light cavalry, and three guns from the field artillery, two 9-pounders, and one 24-pounder howitzer. Naturally, the Indian officers of the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry jumped at the opportunity to join the column – the perfect ruse to convince the British of their fidelity once and for all. George Plowden thought this was all in good form. On the morning of the 13th of June, he rode into Takali to compliment the cavalry himself for the willingness to march against the rebels and he wholeheartedly sanctioned their leaving Nagpur. As such, he ordered a squadron of them to leave that very night.
Caught off guard, the officers of the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry backtracked their original offer, saying they would need one more day to make preparations – after all, as a mounted unit, catching up to Millar would not be difficult. With ease, Plowden agreed – unknowingly, he had pushed the day of the planned mutiny from the 16th to that very night. Hastily, messages were sent to the conspirators of Nagpur.
The conspirators had failed to consider a few things in their otherwise well-thought-out plan. Firstly, the widow of Raghuji II, Bakabai was not in favour and she had her network of spies watching them. Disgruntled as much of the population was, not all of them were in favour of wholesale slaughter and in consequence, the conspirators forgot the British had friends too.
For one, Reverend Stephen Hislop, even though he was suspected of converting people to Christianity, had good relations with many people in Nagpur, in particular with those whose children attended his school. Late on the night of the 12th of June, one Faiz Baksh arrived at Hislop’s house and entreated him in all earnestness to send his family away and the reverend should without delay leave Nagpur – an uprising was in the works within the next three days all the Europeans would be dead. Alarmed, Hislop sent a message to Rober Ellis, the Assistant Commissioner. Ellis accordingly sent for Faiz Baksh and the three men met at Hislop’s house the following morning. It was not the only message Ellis had received. Puran Singh, the jail daroga, had spoken to Ellis barely hours before, telling him rumours were rife of an impending revolt.
Plowden was not deaf: he had been hearing rumours for some days but realising the Residency was most probably being watched, put off fortifying the area around the building and laying in stocks and supplies until the morning of the 13th. He then went and told the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry they were free to join the moveable column who had just been told off to march to Seoni.
Nothing else happened until evening. Reverend Hislop, as usual, saddled up his horse and set off for Kamptee, ten miles away- he usually read service there on Saturday evening and took the Church service on Sunday, so there was nothing unusual in his departure. To keep up appearances, he left his family behind.
At the same time, Deputy Commissioner Ellis and Mr. Ross (Assistant Commissioner) went over to the house of Captain Wood (acting commander of the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry, in lieu of Major Henry Shakespear who was on leave in England, writing his book “Wild Sports of India.”). Here they were apprised of the fact, that for some unknown reason, the cavalry were saddling their horses. Wood immediately called on men of other units to surround the cavalry lines to prevent their leaving.
To Johnston’s surprise, Mrs. McGrath, accompanied by her sick husband and her children, appeared at his door and told him she had been informed that the whole irregular force were about to attack the fort. As she was speaking to him, a spark went up in the air – an outhouse at Plowden’s residency had been set on fire.
The whole of the European establishment was slowly coming to the realisation that Nagpur was about to mutiny. Plowden called for his carriage but the driver was not to be found, having been previously detained by would-be mutineers, so the quick thinking commissioner piled his wife and four children into a buggy and drove with all haste out of Nagpur, not stopping until he had reached Kamptee with the news that Nagpur was in the grips of mutiny.
Brigadier Prior, who, after something a struggle managed to get a coherent story out of the excited Plowden, acted immediately. He sent a detachment of the 4th Bengal Native Cavalry and a company of Horse Artillery to Nagpur – the plucky Reverend Hislop requesting to accompany them – he did, riding the whole way on the limber of a horse-drawn gun.
At Sitabuldi cantonment and elsewhere in Nagpur, the European families were given ample warning by officers, their servants and friends and told in no uncertain terms to make haste and go to the Residency. There, many still in their bedclothes, were told of the events happening around them, and subsequently, no time was wasted in bundling the women and children off to Kamptee. under an escort of civilian volunteers and men of the Madras Infantry.
The conspirators luck, in the meantime, went from bad to worse.
As planned they sent a man from the irregular cavalry, Dafadar Daud Khan to the lines of the Irregular Infantry to tell them plans had changed and the rising would be tonight and not on the 16th. Unfortunately, for him, the units non-commissioned officer, a man from Madras, had not only recently joined but was not aware of any plot. As a result of him being on duty that very night, he ordered Daud arrested. He then informed the European officers.
A man of the mulki police, Dildar Khan tried to incite riots on his own – he went to the Motibagh area of Nagpur where some 500 people had gathered, armed and waiting for command to begin, but nothing happened. The Irregular Cavalry had already sent word that the plan had been abandoned. As for the fire balloons, well the weather can be blamed for their downfall – there was no wind and the balloons failed to rise to the occasion, thus no signal was ever sent from Nagpur.
Surrounding the cavalry in their lines proved a little trickier.
The officers were unsure who they could trust and thus were quite convinced they would not return from this duty alive. However, personal loyalty played in their favour. Lieutenant Cumberlege, who had worked with the Irregular Infantry was personally known to many of the men and he volunteered to command it (its current commander, Captain Holland, had had a disagreement with a tiger some days previously, and was hors de combat). Together with the second in command, they approached the infantry.
To their surprise, instead of having their throat cuts, they found the Indian NCOs had already assembled the men on the parade ground, where they stood quietly, in anticipation of orders. Further along, Lieutenant Playfair – who had raised the horse artillery unit himself in 1854 and had commanded them ever since – ordered the men to surround the cavalry lines. They did so without a single murmur of dissent.
The Nagpur Irregular Cavalry who had by now realised that mutiny was indeed futile, quietly unsaddled their horses and retired to their lines without a fight. When ordered to present themselves on the parade ground, they did so, leaving their arms behind. The artillery was positioned flanking the cavalry on two sides, making it quite clear if they thought of disobeying orders now.
However the sowars refused, when questioned, to give up the ringleaders of the failed mutiny in their ranks.
A company of the Madras Native Infantry was told off for duty in the city, and acting along side the native police, held peace through the night – the next day, a strenuous curfew was put in place, forbidding not just gatherings but anyone from leaving their homes between night fall and sunrise. From the fort a gun loaded with a blank charge, let the townspeople know when curfew started and when it ended. The police were detailed to extra duty on all the main roads in and out of Nagpur, ably assisted by units from the military.
The next day, Ellis ordered all weapons belonging to the residents of Nagpur and Kamptee were to be handed in voluntarily and deposited with the police. In consequence, nearly 5000 weapons of all makes and kinds were duly deposited, the citizens probably frightened by the swiftness of events, did not put up any resistance.
Over at Kamptee, the British gathered together in what can only be called a war conference. They reviewed and argued over the various reports coming in from Nagpur and other stations – the column which had started off for Seoni was recalled, and it was decided, despite its rather dilapidated state, the Sitabuldi Fort should be provisioned for siege, amply to accommodate a 10’000 people if needs be – they were not worried about the Nagpur rebels anymore, but Gwalior was still uncertain and there had been mutterings from Indore, that not all was well. Should Scindia and Holkar band together, those provisions could decide if they survived a siege at all.
Johnston was ordered to make haste with his renovation plans – his first duty was to ensure the water supply and he ordered the construction of new tanks, which were then rapidly filled with clean water.
On the 15th of June, the trial and execution of the ringleaders of the failed Nagpur mutiny started in earnest. Though not all were caught, 4 were betrayed by the very men they had promised to lead in mutiny.
Daud Khan, the unfortunate cavalry dafadar arrested by the officer from Madras, was the first to be hanged. The gibbet which soon held his lifeless body had been erected the night before on the east wall on the fort where it was clearly visible to all, whether they were on the hill or down in the city.
Soon after, four men, ringleaders all – two of the Irregular Cavalry, were handed over to Lieutenane Johnston by Risaldar Tafazzul Husain Khan of the same said unit. Over zealous in carrying out his duty, Johnston ordered the men shackled thus changing their status from suspects to merely accused of mutiny – and had to be, under the law of the day, tried by Court Martial. Plowden was furious – he had been hoping to avoid any such displays, which could further upset the cavalry. The lesson of Meerut was at least not lost on Plowden. For his cooperation and further services during the mutiny, Risaldar Khan would be raised in rank to Kamindar, given a reward of Rs 1500 and a jagir of land in Farrukhnagar – but that was all in the future of the Rissaldar.
Disarming the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry
Nagpore, June 23rd, 1857, 12 p.m.
“The irregular cavalry were disarmed this morning. . . . . . . The 1st irregular infantry took part in the proceedings. The trials of the native officers commence at ten tomorrow morning. Our great anxiety has, of course, been concerning the other native troops, regular and irregular; for although none but the cavalry have shown the slightest symptoms of disloyalty, it is impossible not to feel that the native troops may turn against us at any moment. For this reason, we have been unceasingly occupied in strengthening and providing for the defence of the hill at Seetabuldee, as the last refuge for the handful of Europeans; for, isolated as we are, and in the monsoon season, possibly no succour from abroad could reach us for weeks.”
Plowden had decided to disarm the cavalry, without any opposition from any of its officers. True, there had been no mutiny per se, but the 4 ringleaders had all been cavalrymen and as such, the entire regiment had laid itself open to suspicion.
As disarmings go, it was a solemn affair.
At 11 pm on the 22nd of June, it was decided there was no point in delaying the inevitable. At 2 in the morning, on the 23rd, the cavalry was ordered to assemble on the parade ground, mounted and with their arms. Colonel Cumberledge had been given orders, that at the first sign of trouble, he was to attack the cavalry, and in a show of force, he deployed the 1st Battalion of the Nagpur Irregular Infantry, the Horse Artillery and heavy guns, the gunners standing by, port fires lit.
Plowden then spoke to the regiment. He told the regiment why they had been assembled and that according to the proceedings, they would be disarmed. The officers then gave the order to pile arms.
Wordlessly they obeyed. Then, on command, they gave up their saddles. All their private arms were likewise collected. Then, picketing their horses, they handed over the bridles. As their arms and accoutrements were loaded into carts and taken to the fort, 650 men of the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry Regiment were left standing holding only the leading ropes of their horses. The disarming was over and the men returned to their lines.
Roll call was ordered at four-hour intervals for the rest of the night – any man not answering would be treated as a deserter. Nor was Plowden finished with them yet.
The 4 men, 3 standing trial by court-martial were summarily found guilty by a court consisting of their peers, on the 29th of June. Three were sentenced to death by hanging and one was imprisoned for lack of sufficient evidence.
On the morning of the 30th of June, Plowden turned out all the military units in Nagpur to bear witness to the hangings. He had wanted to make a point and it succeeded. Not a single word was uttered, no threatening gestures made; the men watched the proceedings in absolute silence.
Wilayat Mia, a minor nawab and son-in-law of Raghuji III was the first hanged, his promise to pay a rupee by the hour to any all mutineer was too well known as were his secret meetings; Inyatulla Khan of the Irregular Cavalry soon joined him, charged with mutiny. Dildar Khan, sowar of the mulki police who had alone endeavoured to incite the people of Nagpur to rise, was charged with incitement of mutiny.
Over the next few days and weeks, another 10 were arrested and likewise hanged while a further 6 were dismissed from the army, and discharged with dishonour. With one Syed Ibrahim, Plowden went a step further – charged with inciting the Kamptee troops to mutiny, Syed Ibrahim was banished from Nagpur province altogether, and sent to Warangal.
Another 2 were released from prison for lack of proof.
As for the Nagpur Irregular Cavalry, they were kept in the lines under close watch for some months and when it was finally decided that dissent had evaporated in the regiment, it was decided safe to rearm the men and send them off to fight, but far away from Nagpur. As a result, they were sent off to Chattisgarh and Sambalpur, to do their duty.
As for George Plowden, sufficiently irritated by a rather large amount of nasty, threatening and altogether anonymous posts he was receiving following the failed mutiny, (the Nagpur citizens having found a way to vent their frustration and anger at the man who had thwarted the uprising), had all eight post boxes removed from Nagpur proper, forcing the people to walk four miles to the civil lines to drop off their missives. As such, anyone sending a letter to Plowden could have been arrested. It was an interesting plan, but the deputy postmaster J.J. Macbride, (who had to deal with the complaints from the people who were not interested in harassing Plowden but were finding conducting business rather difficult), demanded Plowden put the post-boxes back which he duly did.
Sitabuldi Fort has withstood the test of time and remains, to this day, protected and maintained by the Indian Army. It is one of the only forts that has never been abandoned since its construction.
We have now established events in Damoh. Jabalpur and Nagpur – we can now turn our attention back to the 52nd BNI and the march of Colonel Miller and his Nagpur Moveable Column. The tale continues in Part III.
Central India During the Rebellion of 1857 and 1858 – Thomas Lowe M.R.S.C.E., L.A.C. (1860)
Stephen Hislop – Pioneer Missionary and Naturalist in Central India – George Smith C.I.E., L.L.D. (1888)
Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, edited by Colonel Malleson, C.S.I, Vol V. (1907)
The Revolt in Central India 1857-58, compiled in the Intelligence Branch (1908)
The Sitaburdi Fort, Nagpur – Dr. Hemant Sane and Mrs Shobha Phansikar
Nagpur and the Mutiny of 1857 – Dr. Hemant Sane