In 1806, more than 50 years before the great Revolt of 1857, there was another soldiers’ led mutiny in the south. The Vellore Sepoy mutiny, though short-lived, was bloody and violent. For one long day, soldiers stationed at the historic fort of Vellore took up arms. Though this mutiny seems to have faded from our collective memory, it was indicative of the simmering dissent in the British barracks.
The Vellore Sepoy Mutiny is considered to be the first large-scale mutiny against the British which resulted in over 100 British officers getting wounded or dying. The trigger for this mutiny was also British highhandedness and the fear that at their heart, the British were trying to convert the soldiers they commanded.
In 1805, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army of the British East India Company, General Sir John Cradock, embarked on an ambitious reform of the army’s disciplinary system. As a result of this, the Military Board approved a new, standardized regulation for the Madras army which dictated how sepoys should wear their uniforms and appear on duty. While this included generic rules like the need to have their beards and moustaches trimmed, it also required sepoys to ensure they had no ‘caste marks’ and wear a new kind of turban with leather embellishments. The last created a furore as leather was taboo for upper-caste sepoys of the Madras army. Many sepoys now believed that the Company was conspiring to convert them to Christianity.
In May 1806, a few soldiers who protested against this change in uniform were sent to Chennai’s Fort St. George where they were given public lashings and sacked from the army. Already angry, this ‘soldier’s rebellion’ was further instigated by the sons of the deceased Tipu Sultan, who nursed grudges against the British and helped the sepoys in their uprising.
The fort of Vellore was built around 1566 CE by the chieftains of Sadashiv Raya of the Vijayanagara Empire. In the mid-17th century, the fort passed through many hands. First, the Aravidus, the last dynasty that ruled Vijayanagara lost Vellore to the Bijapur Sultan then in 1676 CE, it was captured by the Marathas after a siege that lasted four and a half months. Eventually, the fort came under the charge of Dost Ali, the Nawab of Carnatic, before passing on to the British in 1760 CE. From this time, the fort would be linked with the fate of Tipu Sultan's family. Vellore fort withstood Hyder Ali’s siege for two years from 1780-82 CE, and would later become the base for Lord Cornwallis’ march on Bangalore to defeat Tipu Sultan.
When Tipu Sultan was killed at Sringapatam during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1798-79 CE) and his kingdom handed back to the Hindu Wodeyar kings of Mysore, the British exiled Tipu’s surviving 13 sons, several daughters, their respective families and their entire entourage to the Vellore fort. They stayed in the palaces in Vellore fort and so played an important role in the Mutiny of 1806.
The Day of the Mutiny
On 9th July 1806 CE, one of the daughters’ of Tipu Sultan was getting married. The sepoys used this as an excuse to enter the fort. As a sign of the revolt, they pulled down the British flag and hoisted the Royal Tiger Flag of Tipu. They also announced Tipu’s son Fateh Hyder as the new ruler.
In the early hours of July 10, the Indian sepoys attacked the European barracks within the fort, and by late morning they had killed over 100 British soldiers and ransacked their houses.
On receiving the news, the British commander, Colonel Robert Rollo Gillespie rushed with the Madras Cavalry, based 20 km away in Arcot, and charged through the gates attacking the Indian sepoys. The revolt was suppressed by noon resulting in the execution and court-martial of most of the mutineers.
As a result of the uprising, a court of inquiry was set up by the British, who decided to shift Tipu Sultan's family to Calcutta, in isolation, so that they could be as far away from Vellore as possible. Meanwhile, the objectionable orders related to the dress code, that triggered the mutiny were also retracted. The news of the uprising shook up England so much that the then governor, William Bentick, and the Commander-in-chief of the Madras army, John Cradock, were both dismissed from their positions.
Sadly, the British didn't quite learn from the Vellore mutiny about the need to be sensitive to Indian ways. Decades later, reports that the British were lining cartridges of the newly introduced rifles in animal fat would send soldiers across Meerut, Lucknow and the North up in arms!