Saturday, August 8, 2015



            The mutiny at Barrackpore in 1824 is important for many reasons, not the least being the ferocity with which it was suppressed. In a misplaced desire to punish indiscipline, fire was opened on Indian troops without warning or provocation, resulting in several deaths and injuries.  The incident elicited universal condemnation from all quarters, especially those who had spent long years with Indian troops. As an example of brutality the bloodshed at Barrackpore was matched only by the massacre at Jallianwala that was to occur almost a hundred years later. The tragic episode continued to haunt Britons and Indians for many years, and many felt that it provided Indian soldiers the rationale to kill British officers in 1857. Like the revolt at Vellore, ignorance and arrogance of senior British officers were the major factors responsible for the Barrackpore mutiny.

            From modest beginnings in the middle of the 18th Century, British presence in India continued to expand rapidly, and by 1820 almost half the Indian sub-continent was under British rule. These territorial gains had been obtained by force of arms, with the assistance of Indian troops serving in the three Presidency armies.  During this period they conducted successful military campaigns against the French in South India, Siraj-ud-daula and Mir Kasim in Bengal; Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan in Mysore; the Marathas in Central India and the Gurkhas in Nepal. By the time Lord Hastings left India in 1922 after having spent ten years as Governor General, the United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies, commonly known as the East India Company, was the Paramount Power in India. In 1923, Lord Amherst came to India as Governor General. Soon afterwards, the British were confronted with a new enemy – Burma.

            Like the British in India, from the middle of the eighteenth century the Burmese dynasty based at Ava had embarked on a career of conquest. After gaining control of the Irrawaddy delta and the Tenasserim coast, they invaded the then independent state of Arakan in 1784 and made it part of their kingdom. This brought them in direct contact with the eastern frontier of Bengal, which was under British control. In 1913 they seized the kingdom of Manipur, forcing the ruler to seek refuge in the neighbouring                                    state of Cachar. In 1818, they took control of Assam, installing a ruler who agreed to accept Burmese suzerainty. The conflict between the Burmese and the British started over the refugees from Arakan who had been permitted by the latter to occupy the waste tracts in the Chittagong district. The Burmese demand for the refugees to be returned was refused after it was found that the few who had been sent back were starved to death. Buoyed by their success, the Burmese laid claim to Dacca and Chittagong and threatened to attack and capture Bengal if their demands were not met. In September 1823 the Burmese occupied the small island of Shahpuri at the mouth of the river that divided Chittagong and the Arakan, overpowering the small British guard that was stationed there. This led to a declaration of war with Burma, though the Directors hoped that war could still be averted.  However, this was not to be and the incident marked the beginning of the First Burmese War.

The British plan for operations against Burma consisted of a sea-borne expedition to Rangoon from where a force would be transported up the Irrawaddy to attack the Burmese capital of Ava. The expedition left Port Cornawallis in April 1824 with a force of 11,000 soldiers, of which half were European and the rest Indian troops from the Madras Army, who had no compunction regarding crossing the sea. Rangoon was captured without difficulty, the town having been evacuated under orders of the government. As a result, the British could not find any provisions, boats or boatmen, which they had counted on for the subsequent expedition to Ava. The rains started soon afterwards, and the force had no option but to wait at Rangoon until the monsoons ended and supplies arrived from Madras. Meanwhile, in May 1824 a Burmese force of 8,000 under the command of Maha Bandula advanced towards Chittagong, routing a detachment of 300-400 Indian sepoys and some local levies at Ramu. Most of the British officers were killed and the captured sepoys sent as prisoners to the Burmese capital. This caused a panic in Calcutta, it being reported that the Burmese had captured Chittagong and were pushing up in war-boats to capture Calcutta. There were many rumours, each more outlandish than the other: Bhandula was carrying a set of golden fetters for the Governor General; the Commander-in-Chief had been killed; the Governor General had committed suicide, swallowing pounded diamonds and so on. Indeed, Bhandula might well have captured Chittagong, which was virtually undefended, had he not been recalled from the Arakan to deal with the sea-borne invasion of Rangoon. 1

Dismayed by the failure of the sea-borne expedition to Rangoon, the British authorities decided on an overland advance into Burma. Two expeditions were planned, one from Cachar via Manipur to northern Burma and the other from Chittagong across the Arakan into the Irrawaddy valley, where it could link up with the Rangoon force. The expedition from Cachar was to comprise 7,000 soldiers, while the Arakan force was larger, with 11,000 troops with naval support. Three regiments of the Bengal Army stationed at Barrackpore, the 26th, 47th and 62nd, were earmarked for the Arakan campaign. Barrackpore was the headquarters of the Presidency Division, under the command of Major General Dalzell. The Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal Army was General Sir George Paget, a veteran of the Peninsular war, who had never served with Indian troops earlier.

            The three regiments at Barrackpore received orders to march to Chittagong in October 1824. The decision to march was taken because most of the soldiers in the Bengal Army were high caste Brahmins, who were averse to a sea voyage. The three regiments had just marched almost 1,000 miles from Muttra (now Mathura). For some regiments, frequent moves on foot seemed to be the norm. For instance, the 47th had moved no less than four times in as many years between 1807 and 1811: in 1814 it marched 500 miles from Barrackpore to Benares; in 1816, it moved to Dinapur, 300 miles away; and in 1818, it marched 500 miles to Agra. The men were reluctant to undertake another long march, this time against an unknown enemy. Stories about the Burmese success at Ramu could not have left the sepoys unaffected. Some of these stories extolled the military prowess of the Burmese troops and credited them with magical powers. They were also rumoured to torture prisoners and mutilate the dead.

Apart from fear and fatigue, another reason for the reluctance of the men was the great financial hardship they faced during each move. Each high caste soldier customarily carried his own brass utensils for cooking and drinking water, wrapped in a bundle that also included his bedding. Because of their weight, these bundles could not be carried by the soldiers in addition to their knapsacks, muskets and ammunition, and were usually transported on bullocks, which they hired at their own expense. For the march to Chittagong, no bullocks could be found, since all the available animals had already been purchased for the sea-borne expedition to Rangoon.  The few bullocks that were available were of inferior quality and quoted exorbitant rates that were beyond the means of the sepoys, who requested that the government should provide the bullocks or pay them an additional allowance.  The commanding officer of the 47th Regiment forwarded the representation of the men to the Commander-in-Chief, but received an unsympathetic response. The situation was not improved by threats by the Muslim Subedar Major that if they did not stop complaining about the bullocks, they would be sent by sea.2

             On 1 November 1824, the day they were to commence their march, the men of the 47th Regiment assembled on the parade ground but refused to fall in, complaining that their knapsacks were old and torn. Though a deduction had been levied two months earlier, new knapsacks had not yet been provided and the men’s grievance was genuine. Their officers tried to reason with them but the men were adamant, making it clear that they would not march unless their pay was increased or bullocks provided to them. This information was conveyed to the Commander-in-Chief, General Paget, who immediately ordered two British battalions, a company of artillery, a troop of the Governor General’s bodyguard and one native regiment to proceed to Barrackpore, and reached there himself that night.

            News of the happenings in 47th Regiment reached the other two affected units, the 26th and 62nd Regiments that were located nearby. The commanding officer of the 26th, Lieutenant Colonel D’Aguiliare, had deployed his unit in accordance with instructions received from Major General Dalzell. The Right Company and Regimental Colours were detailed as an honorary guard to the Commander-in-Chief while the Left Company was detailed for a similar duty for the Governor General. Two companies were detailed to cover the guns under Captain Hodgson, and the remainder of the officers and men stayed in the lines, with their arms. These measures were probably taken with a view to disperse the unit, so that the disaffection of the 47th does not spread to the other units.3

At about 8 p.m. the commanding officer of the 62nd Regiment, Major B. Roope, came to know that some men from the Left Half had made a rush on the quarter guard and forcibly taken away the Colours. Roope rushed to the parade ground where he found the whole battalion in a disorderly mass. They were all carrying their rifles, many of which were loaded. Other officers also reached the parade ground and asked the men to fall in. Some of them obeyed immediately, while others dallied, forming up slowly in small groups. However, the men who had snatched the Colours refused to fall in. Major Roope, who was mounted, started moving slowly through the ranks towards the Colours around which he concluded the ‘bad characters’ had collected. When he was within a few paces of the Colours his horse’s head was forcibly turned and he was struck in the back with muskets. According to Major Roope, ‘A man who carried one of the Colours and is supposed to be one of the principal instigators was upto that night considered one of the best men in the Corps, so difficult is it to find out the character of the Natives.’4

In the 26th Regiment, a report reached Lieutenant Colonel D’Aguiliare at about midnight that the Left Half of 62nd had joined the 47th Regiment with their Colours. He also heard the bugle salute of the 47th Regiment, which confirmed this report. Hearing a noise from the direction of his own quarter guard, D’Aguiliare rushed towards it, where he was informed that some of his grenadiers had snatched the King’s Colours from the guard room and gone towards the 47th Regiment. Sending Lieutenant Robe to report to Major General Dalzell, D’Aguiliare ordered a roll call of his unit, which at that time consisted of 202 men in addition to 192 Benares Provincials.  About ten men of the Left Company were found absent, in addition to the Subedar Major, who was later found to have gone to General Dalzell. Soon after this Lieutenant Robe returned and intimated the orders of General Dalzell, which was to move the men to the Regiment’s other Colour at the residence of the Commander-in-Chief. This was done without any protest or misgiving from the men.5

 Early the next morning the powerful force of mainly British troops took up their position on the parade ground of the 47th Regiment, whose sepoys, joined by some men from the 26th and the 62nd, stood with their arms in front of their lines. They presented a petition to the Commander-in-Chief expressing their fear that they were going to be sent by ship to Rangoon which would make them lose caste; they begged to be discharged and allowed to go home. Paget replied that there was no intention of sending them by sea without their consent, but refused to listen any further to what they had to say until they had ground their arms. To this the men paid no heed. Three officers, who were thought to have some influence over them were sent to warn them that they must either ground their arms or agree to march immediately to Chittagong; but the men did not comply, standing ‘with ordered arms in a state of stupid desperation, resolved not to yield, but making no preparation to resist’.

Paget galloped off the parade ground and ordered the guns to open fire. The men were not aware of the presence of the guns, and were not given any warning before artillery fire was opened. The men instantly broke and fled, flinging down their muskets and running off in all directions. At least 60 were killed by the artillery, a few sabred by the cavalry and 20-30 were drowned trying to swim across the Ganges. Many were wounded and taken prisoner. After the firing had ceased the 26th Regiment, which had been kept in the house appropriated for the Commander-in-Chief, was ordered to scour the lines of the 47th, and then move towards the burial ground. Two men who were found hiding in a tank were placed under arrest. A court martial, held the same day, sentenced 41 men to death, 12 of whom were hanged next morning. The sentences of the others were commuted to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour and many more convicted later were given similar sentences. All the Indian officers were dismissed, even though they had taken no part in the mutiny, it being argued that they must have known about the conspiracy. The 47th Regiment was disbanded and its number effaced from the army list. 6

Paget’s handling of the situation came in for severe criticism at that time and for ever afterwards. He was reputed to be a hard disciplinarian with no knowledge of Indian troops. What was worse, he had a bitter prejudice against native troops, forgetting that they had been largely responsible for winning for Britain her territories in India. He later told the House of Commons that there prevailed in the native army, both among officers and men, ‘a great spirit of insubordination’. Many felt that if a senior India service officer of strong personality like Thomas Munro, John Malcolm or David Ochterlony had been present, the bloodshed would not have occurred. The Directors were also unhappy with the role of the Governor-General, Lord Amherst, who treated the whole episode as a purely military matter, leaving it entirely to Paget to handle.  He made no comment on the inquiry proceedings that were sent to London, prompting the Directors to contemplate his recall for his lack of interest.

            Unknown to the British officers, the men of the 47th who died on 2 November 1824 became martyrs in the Bengal Army. After the outbreaks at Meerut and Delhi, the Calcutta Englishman of 30 May 1857 recorded: ‘A circumstance has come to our knowledge which, unless it has been fully authenticated, we could scarcely have believed to be possible, much less true. When the mutiny at Barrackpore broke out in 1824, the ringleader, a Brahmin of the 47th Native Infantry, was hanged on the edge of the tank where a large tree now stands, and which was planted on the spot to commemorate the fact. This tree, a sacred banyan, is pointed out by the Brahmins and others to this day, as the spot where an unholy deed was performed, a Brahmin hanged. This man was, at that time, considered in the light of a martyr, and his brass “pootah” or worshipping utensils, consisting of small trays, incense-holders, and other brass articles used by Brahmins during their prayers, were carefully preserved and lodged in the quarter-guard of the (Barrackpore) regiments, where they remain to this day, they being at this moment in the quarter-guard of the 43rd Light Infantry at Barrackpore. These relics, worshipped by the sepoys, have been, for thirty-two years, in the safe keeping of the regiments, having, by the operation of the daily relief of the quarter-guard, passed through the hands of 233,600 men and have served to keep alive, in the breasts of many, the recollection of a period of trouble, the scene of a mutiny and its accompanying swift and terrible punishment, which, had these utensils not been present to their sight as confirmation, would probably have been looked upon as fables, or, at the most, as very doubtful stories.’ 7

            The memory of the massacre in Barrackpore was an important factor in the bloodshed that occurred in 1857-58. Philip Mason has quoted an old Indian officer as saying, ‘They are your men whom you have been destroying.’ He added: ‘He could not trust himself to say more …(Paget) could surely have avoided that sudden and brutal act which, like Dyer’s at Amritsar a hundred years later, suggests a man using power to vent a deep dislike which had perhaps grown stronger for being long suppressed. These two cases, Vellore and Barrackpore, set the pattern of the mutiny. They were a warning to which few paid attention.’8

            The mutiny at Barrackpore in 1824 occurred due to seemingly trivial reasons - the availability of bullocks and knapsacks and increase in pay. The misplaced fear of being sent by sea may also have played a part. However, what shocked everyone was not the mutiny itself but the brutal manner in which it was quelled. The bloodshed could have been avoided if the situation had been handled with tact and understanding by the officers, particularly General Paget. Though the mutiny was quickly suppressed - it lasted for less than a day – its long term effects were far reaching and had a bearing on the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.


This chapter is largely based on Sir Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, 1989); Lt Gen. S.L. Menezes’ Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993); and Military Department Records in the National Archives of India.   Specific references are given below:-

1.         Penderel Moon, The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, 1989), pp. 433-5.

2.         Lt Gen. S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), pp.107-8.

3.         Statement of Lieutenant Colonel D’Aguiliare, commanding 26th Native Infantry, Military Department, National Archives of India (NAI), 3 November 1824.

4.         Statement of Major B. Roope, commanding 62nd Native Infantry, Military Department, NAI, 6 November 1824.

5.         Statement of Lieutenant Colonel D’Aguiliare, NAI, 3 November 1824      

6.         Moon, pp. 438-9

7.         Menezes, pp.109-10

8.                  Philip Mason, A Matter of Honour, (London, 1974), p. 246.

No comments: