Saturday, August 8, 2015




            The mutiny at Vellore in 1806 has been termed by some historians as ‘The First War of Indian Independence’. It was the first major uprising by Indian troops during the British Raj in India, resulting in the death of over a hundred Europeans, including over a dozen British officers. The mutiny was quelled as quickly as it flared up, thanks to the prompt response and resolute leadership by the commanding officer of a British battalion at Arcot, 16 miles away. Several hundred Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting, the rest being put under arrest. Justice was swift and severe, with several mutineers being executed or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The disaffected units were disbanded and both the Governor the Madras Presidency as well as the Commander-in-Chief were recalled.  The mutiny brought home to the British authorities the dangers of hurting the religious susceptibilities of Indian troops and disregarding the significance of caste. Unfortunately, these warnings were not heeded, leading to an even greater conflagration that almost ended British rule in India half a century later in 1857.

            In 1799 the British attacked and captured Seringapatnam, the stronghold of Tipu Sultan, who died in the battle.  Tipu’s family, including his four sons and their retinue, was interned in the fort at Vellore, where a large complement of the Madras Army was maintained. The garrison comprised two Indian battalions and a detachment of a British Crown regiment, having about 1500 Indian and 370 European soldiers respectively. On 13 March 1806, Sir John Craddock, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, issued a new set of dress regulations, with a view to smarten up the soldiers. According the new regulations, Indian soldiers of the Madras Army could no longer display caste marks on their foreheads or wear earrings. Beards were forbidden and moustaches had to be in accordance with a regulation pattern. They were also required to wear a new type of headgear. The orders were issued with the approval of the Madras Government and the Governor, Lord William Bentinck, who was then 32 years of age.

The wearing of caste marks by Hindus was de rigueur for Hindus, while most Muslims wore the ear-ring as a charm, given to them at birth and dedicated to some patron pir (saint). While beards were common in both communities, there was considerable difference in their shape and size. Muslims wore the beard but not the moustache, which was popular among Hindus. Another controversial regulation concerned the new head gear that troops were required to wear – a stiff round hat with a flat top, a leather cockade, and a standing feather. Resembling the tope worn by Europeans and Eurasians, it was no longer called a turban, but a topi. In the phraseology of the natives, a topi-wallah or hat-wearer was synonymous with a feringhee (white man) or Christian.1

            The new dress regulations caused considerable resentment when they were promulgated, among both Hindus and Muslims, who felt it was a direct attack on their religions. British officers who had been in India for long and realised the grave consequences of the new orders did not communicate them to their troops and made representations to the authorities in Madras. One of them was the commanding officer of the subsidiary force at Hyderabad, Lieutenant Colonel Montresor, who decided in consultation with the Resident, to suspend the execution of the orders. Montresor’s foresight prevented any untoward incident such as the one that occurred at Vellore, and he was later commended for his judicious measure.2

            The garrison at Vellore comprised two Indian battalions, the 1st/1st and the 2nd/4th Madras Infantry. The orders regarding the new dress were received in Vellore in late April or early May. Here too the commanding officer of the 1st/1st, Lieutenant Colonel M. Kerras (he was later killed in the mutiny) decided not to communicate to his men the paragraph that he considered offensive, which ordered: ...‘a native soldier shall not mark his face to denote his caste, or wear earrings, when dressed in his uniform; and it is further directed that at all parades, and on all duties, every soldier of the battalion shall be clean shaved on the chin. It is directed also that uniformity shall as far as is practicable, be preserved in regard to the quantity and shape of the hair upon the upper lip’. 3

However, it was not the orders concerning caste marks, earrings, beards and moustaches that caused the trouble, but the new headgear. On 7 May 1806 a company of the 2nd/4th Madras Infantry, respectfully but firmly declined to wear the new headgear. The news was immediately conveyed to Madras, and shortly afterwards, Sir John Cradock visited Vellore. In the meantime, a Court if Inquiry had been held and 19 men arrested by the commanding officer. Cradock ordered the guilty men sent to Madras for a court martial, which sentenced two of the arrested men to 900 lashes each while the rest were awarded 500 each. The sentence of 900 lashes was carried out on the first two, but the rest were pardoned after they apologised.

The 2nd/4th was moved from Vellore to Madras and the unrest appeared to have been subdued. However, reports of objections to the new headgear came in from several other stations, and in June Craddock wanted to rescind the orders. But the Governor and his Council did not agree, since a Brahmin and a Syed had been consulted before issuing the new dress regulations. On 17 June 1806 a Muslim sepoy at Vellore, Mustafa Beg informed his commanding officer that a mutiny was in the offing. His report was referred to a committee of Indian officers who declared it as false. This was only to be expected, since most of the Indian officers were themselves part of the conspiracy. However, the European officers at Vellore were out of touch with their men and failed to read the signs. Mustafa Beg was declared insane and imprisoned. (When the mutiny broke out, he escaped, but later returned and was given a reward of 2,000 pagodas and a subedar’s pension).4

The favour shown to Mustafa Beg caused bitter resentment among the sepoys. ‘The disposition of the gentlemen of the Company’s service,’ they said, ‘and the nature of their government, make a thief happy, and an honest man afflicted’. According to a paper transmitted to Adjutant General   Agnew from the Hyderabad Subsidiary Force: ‘In the affair at Vellore, when the mutiny first commenced, it was on account of Mustapha Beg; and the gentlemen of the Company’s Government have bestowed upon him a reward of two thousand pagodas, with the rank of Soubahdar. The same Mustapha Beg, Sepoy, was the man who gave the signal for the revolt to the people at Vellore, and this is the man whom the Company have distinguished by their favour.’ 5


            The mutiny at Vellore broke out on the night of 9 July 1806. At about 3 a.m. the sepoys attacked the barracks of the European soldiers of the 69th Regiment, killing over 100 and wounding many more. Over a dozen officers were shot down as they emerged form their houses to find out what was going on. The survivors managed to barricade themselves in a bastion above the main gateway where they held out, the mutineers soon dispersing in search of plunder. After looting the houses of the officers many of them left the fort. A British officer, Major Coats, who was outside the fort rushed to Arcot, 16 miles distant, where a British cavalry regiment and some Madras cavalry was located. Within 15 minutes of getting the news Lieutenant Colonel Rollo Gillespie, commanding the 19th Dragoons, galloped off to Vellore with one squadron; the rest, with the Madras cavalry squadron and some galloper guns (horse artillery) followed shortly afterwards.  

            Gillespie reached Vellore shortly after 8 a.m. Fortunately, the outer gates of the fort had been left open and only the inner gate was shut. Gillespie had himself hauled up to the ramparts by a rope let down by the beleaguered survivors and immediately assumed command. At about 10 a.m. the galloper guns arrived, the inner gate was blown in and the cavalry poured into the fort. The mutineers offered little resistance and in ten minutes the fort was again in British hands. Between 300 to 400 mutineers were killed on the spot, with several others being made prisoner. Many of the mutineers who escaped by jumping down from the walls were rounded up later. A few of them were tried and executed, six being blown from guns, five shot, eight hanged and five transported. Most of the remainder were discharged, and the units were disbanded.6

            Other than Vellore, there was some unrest at Hyderabad, Nundydroog, and Pallamcottah. In Hyderabad, Lieutenant Colonel Montresor had recently taken over command of the Hyderabad Subsidiary Force. He had imposed several local restrictions, such as banning the use of drums and tom-toms in the bazaar, which were commonly used in marriage and religious processions. Immediately after the outbreak of the mutiny at Vellore, he decided to revoke the orders regarding the new dress, in anticipation of instructions from the Madras Government. The new dress regulations were cancelled on 17 July 1806 and this seemed to remove the immediate source of anger. However, the troops in Hyderabad were not satisfied and reiterated their old grievance of the leather stock, which some of them threw on the ground during a parade. On 14 August 1806 the troops were paraded under arms, with a British regiment – the 33rd – along with some artillery and cavalry drawn up on both flanks. Four Subedars who were believed to be the ring leaders were called to the front, arrested and marched off under a guard to Masulipatam. This nipped the problem in the bud, and there was no further sign of trouble.7

The native troops at Nundydroog planned to rise against and massacre their British officers at midnight on 18 October 1806 and quietly sent their families out of the Fort. At about eight in the evening of the fateful day, A British officer galloped to the house of the Commandant, Colonel Cuppage and told him about the planned mutiny. Shortly afterwards, an old and distinguished native officer came with the same intelligence. Cuppage immediately despatched a messenger with an urgent appeal for reinforcements to Colonel Davis commanding the 22nd Regiment of Dragoons in Bangalore. One of the officers’ houses that was considered suitable fro defence was selected, into which all officers congregated and took post. Davis received the news soon after daybreak and by three o’clock his troopers were clattering into Nundydroog.8

Pallamcottah was located in the southernmost part of the peninsula. Major Welsh, with six European officers, commanded a native battalion that had many sepoys whose relatives had been killed at Vellore. In the third week of November 1806, intelligence was received that the Muslim soldiers had met in the mosque and planned to rise and kill all the Europeans. Welsh immediately arrested and confined 13 native officers, and turned about 500 Muslim sepoys out of the Fort. He also sent a letter by country boat to Ceylon, calling for European troops. Two days later Colonel Dyce, who commanded the Tinnivelly District, arrived in Pallamcottah and addressed the Hindu troops, who were asked if they wanted to serve the Company or leave. All the men went up to the Colours, presented arms and took the oath, following it up with three unbidden cheers. Major Welsh was later severely condemned as an alarmist and had to face a court martial, but was honourably acquitted. 9

            The large number of Europeans killed in Vellore set alarm bells ringing throughout British India and in London. The Governor, Lord William Bentinck quickly ordered a Commission of Inquiry to investigate into the circumstances connected with the mutiny. The President of the Commission was Major General J. Pater, the other members being Lieutenant Colonel G. Dodsworth; Nathaniel Webb, Senior Judge of the Appeal Court; J.H.D. Oglivie, Second Judge of Circuit; Major W. Douse and J. Leith, the Judge Advocate General, who also functioned as the Secretary. The Commission assembled at Vellore on 21 July and submitted its report on 9 August 1806. The Commission found two major reasons for the outbreak of the mutiny – the changes in dress and the presence of the family of Tipu Sultan at Vellore.

            The officers of the two units who were examined confessed that they had no inkling of the resentment felt by the men because none of them had expressed any dissatisfaction against the issue of the new headgear. However, examination of other witnesses confirmed that they found it highly offensive. Though the turban was made of broadcloth covering an iron frame, it also had a cotton tuft resembling a father and a leather cockade. It was the last item that the sepoys disliked, other than the shape which resembled a tope or European hat. The Commission felt that the ‘sepoys appear to feel that the wearing of the new turban would make them come to be considered as Europeans, and would have removed them from the society and intercourse of their own castes.’ Though such prejudices may appear unreasonable, the Commission judiciously commented, ‘Prejudices would cease to be so, could they be regulated by reason.’

            Continuing on the subject of the strong religious feelings and prejudices prevalent in India, the Commission remarked:

In this country the prejudices of the conquered have always triumphed over the arms of the conqueror, and have subsisted amidst all the revolutions and shocks to which the empire has been subjected. Any innovation, therefore, in that respect, must be calculated to call forth their feelings, and the more trivial the object required to be sacrificed, the stronger, in our opinion, would be the reluctance to make it. Nothing could appear more trivial to the public interests than the length of hair on the upper lip of a sepoy, yet to the individual himself the shape and fashion of the whisker is a badge of his caste, and an article of his religion. And the sanctity in which this article is held has occasioned revolutions in different eastern nations, rather than suffer it to be violated. 10

            The Commission went at great lengths to investigate the involvement of the sons of Tipu Sultan, especially the youngest, Prince Moizuddin. While the family of Tipu was interned in the palace in the fort, under the care of Colonel Mariott, a large number of followers had settled down in the vicinity at Pettah. The residents of the Pettah intermingled with the Muslim sepoys of the regiments in the fort, and were suspected to have conspired with them in the mutiny. On the night of the 9 July the wedding of one of Tipu’s daughters, Princess Noor-ul-Nissum was being celebrated in the palace, and a large crowd had assembled to watch the proceedings. It was reported that many of the followers from the palace helped the mutineers as soon as the firing started. The flag of Tipu Sultan was also brought out and hoisted on the garrison flagstaff by the sepoys and the followers. Though the Commission could not find any concrete evidence of the direct involvement of any of Tipu’s sons in the mutiny, it relied on the statements of Colonel Mariott, who suspected Prince Moizuddin, due to certain events that occurred in the days preceding the mutiny, such as his request to purchase a horse, and to permit one of his cousins to spend the night with him in the palace. Though Mariott refused both requests, he thought they were enough evidence of the evil intentions of Prince Moizuddin.

            The Madras government initially advanced the theory that the Vellore mutiny was part of a widespread plot to expel the British and restore Muslim authority. Bentinck supported this view in his first report to the Governor General at Fort William. Based on Bentinck’s report the council at Fort William wrote to London on 30 July 1806, clearly stating: ‘We deem it highly probable that the insurrection was instigated by one more of the sons of Tippoo sultan confined in the Fort’.11 However, Bentinck modified his views after the Commission of Inquiry was unable to find any evidence to support this theory. The next report to London dated 26 August 1806 stated: ‘no attempts appear to have been made by the sons of Tippoo Sultan to excite revolt in Mysore and that no appearance on commotion exists or has existed in that Country’.12

            In spite of finding no direct evidence of the involvement of Tipu’s sons, the British authorities could not seem to get it out of their heads. A subsequent report to London dated 1 October 1806 stated: ‘With regard to the second point we have decidedly formed the following conclusions – That the strongest assumption and even positive evidence exists in proof that Sultan Moozoodeen the fourth son of the late Tippoo Sultan was actively concerned in the insurrection. That scarcely any ground of suspicion is established against the Prince Mohieudeen, the third and only legitimate son and that the rest of the sons and relatives of the family are entirely free from guilt’. The report also indicated the measures intended to be taken with regard to the future treatment of the sons of Tipu, who were all to be ‘detained’ permanently in Bengal, with Prince Moizuddeen kept in a state of  ‘strict confinement’, separately from the others.13

            There was a divergence of views between Fort William and Fort St. with regard to the treatment of the sepoys. The former wanted all ‘men who did not side with the British or were absent’ to be sent to other regiments and the two units disbanded, the men sent to Cape Prince of Wales Island Battalion and Malacca. The Madras council did not agree with this view, arguing that discharging all men will aggravate the situation and was dangerous, as it may spread disaffection. However, the Governor General’s Council at Calcutta insisted on exemplary punishment to the majority of men and banishment from India for the rest.14

            Apart from the family of Tipu Sultan and the sepoys, action was also taken against the Governor of Madras, Lord William Bentinck and his Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Craddock. Both were considered responsible for the outbreak and were recalled. A year later, Lord Minto came out to India as Governor-General. He was struck by the mutual ignorance of each other’s motives, intentions and actions in which Europeans and natives seemed content to live in India. ‘I do not believe that either Lord William or Sir John Craddock had the slightest idea of the aversion their measures would excite. I fully believe that their intentions were totally misapprehended buy the natives’.15

The controversial dress regulations were cancelled on 17 July 1806. This was followed by a general order on 24 September 1806 according to which, ‘interference with the native soldiery in regard to their national observances was strictly prohibited’. Another measure taken by the Court Of Directors in London was downgrading the position and authority of the Commander-in-Chief. Craddock’s successor, Lieutenant General Hay McDowell was not included in the Governor’s Council, as his predecessors had been. The Directors’ reason for doing this was Craddock’s errors of judgment that caused the Vellore mutiny. However, the measure caused considerable resentment in the Madras Army, and was partly responsible for the serious unrest among officers in 1809. 16

            The mutiny at Vellore was the first major mutiny by Indian troops after the establishment of British rule in India, in which a large number of Europeans were killed in an attempt to overthrow the British and re- establish Muslim rule in Mysore. It was a warning to the British that Indian soldiers could rise if their religious sensibilities or caste prejudices were hurt. Unfortunately, the British authorities in India could not read these signs, and had to face their greatest challenge fifty years later, when the greased cartridges were issued to Indian troops, leading to the holocaust of 1857.


This chapter is largely based on J.W Kaye’s A History of the Sepoy War in India, (London, 1877); Sir Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, 1989); and Military Department Records in the National Archives of India.    Specific references are given below:-

1.         J.W Kaye, A History of the Sepoy War in India, (London, 1877), Vol. I, p. 218.

2          General letter from the Council to the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors, The East India Company; Foreign Department – Secret Letters to Court 1806, National Archives of India (NAI), 26 August 1806.

3.         Report of the Commission of Inquiry Assembled on 9 August 1806, for the Investigation of the Circumstances connected with the Mutiny at Vellore; NAI, House of Commons papers, 1861 (HC 284), p.2 

4.         Penderel Moon, The Brtitsh Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, 1989), p. 351.

5.         Kaye, p. 227.

6.         Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p.100.

7.         Kaye, p. 237.

8.         Kaye, p. 239.

9.         Kaye, p. 241.

10.       Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 5

11.       Secret Letters to Court 1806, (NAI), 30 July 1806.


12.       Secret Letters to Court 1806, (NAI), 26 August 1806.


13.       Secret Letters to Court 1806, (NAI), 1 October 1806.

14.       Secret Letters to Court 1806, (NAI), 20 December 1806.

15.       Moon, p.352, quoting Countess Minto (ed), Lord Minto in India, p. 309

16.       Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, p.102

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