The Vellore mutiny on 10 July 1806 was the first instance of a large-scale and violent mutiny by Indian sepoys against the East India Company, predating the Indian Rebellion of 1857 by half a century. The revolt, which took place in the South Indian city of Vellore, was brief, lasting only one full day, but brutal as mutineers seized the Vellore Fort and killed or wounded 200 British troops. The mutiny was subdued by cavalry and artillery from Arcot. Summary executions of about 100 mutineers took place during the suppression of the outbreak, followed by the formal court-martial of smaller numbers.
The immediate causes of the mutiny revolved mainly around resentment felt towards changes in the sepoy dress code, introduced in November 1805. Hindus were prohibited from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and Muslims were required to shave their beards and trim their moustaches. In addition General Sir John Craddock, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, ordered the wearing of a round hat resembling that associated at the time with both Europeans in general and with Indian converts to Christianity. The new headdress included a leather cockade and was intended to replace the existing turban. These measures offended the sensibilities of both Hindu and Muslim sepoys and went contrary to an earlier warning by a military board that sepoy uniform changes should be "given every consideration which a subject of that delicate and important nature required".
These changes, intended to improve the "soldierly appearance" of the men, created strong resentment among the Indian soldiers. In May 1806 some sepoys who protested the new rules were sent to Fort Saint George (Madras then, now Chennai). Two of them – a Hindu and a Muslim – were given 90 lashes each and dismissed from the army. Nineteen sepoys were punished with 50 lashes each and forced to seek pardon from the East India Company.
In addition to the military grievances listed above, the rebellion was also instigated by the sons of the defeated Tipu Sultan, confined at Vellore since 1799. Tipu's wives and sons, together with numerous retainers, were pensioners of the East India Company and lived in a palace within the large complex comprising the Vellore Fort. One of Tipu Sultan's daughters was to be married on 9 July 1806, and the plotters of the uprising gathered at the fort under the pretext of attending the wedding. The objectives of the civilian conspirators remain obscure but by seizing and holding the fort they may have hoped to encourage a general rising through the territory of the former Mysore Sultanate. However, Tippu's sons were reluctant to take charge after the mutiny arose.
The garrison of the Vellore Fort in July 1806 comprised four companies of British infantry from H.M. 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot and three battalions of Madras infantry: the 1st/1st Madras Native Infantry, the 2nd/1st MNI and the 2nd/23rd MNI.
Two hours after midnight on 10 July, the sepoys in the fort shot down the British sentries and killed fourteen of their own officers and 115 men of the 69th Regiment, most of the latter as they slept in their barracks. Among those killed was Colonel St. John Fancourt, the commander of the fort. The rebels seized control by dawn, and raised the flag of the Mysore Sultanate over the fort. Tipu's second son Fateh Hyder was declared king.
However, a British officer escaped and alerted the garrison in Arcot. Nine hours after the outbreak of the mutiny, a relief force comprising the British 19th Light Dragoons, galloper guns and a squadron of Madras cavalry, rode from Arcot to Vellore, covering sixteen miles in about two hours. It was led by Sir Rollo Gillespie (one of the most capable and energetic officers in India at that time), who reportedly left Arcot within a quarter of an hour of the alarm being raised. Gillespie dashed ahead of the main force with a single troop of about twenty men.
Arriving at Vellore, Gillespie found the surviving Europeans, about sixty men of the 69th, commanded by NCOs and two assistant surgeons, still holding part of the ramparts but out of ammunition. Unable to gain entry through the defended gate, Gillespie climbed the wall with the aid of a rope and a sergeant's sash which was lowered to him; and, to gain time, led the 69th in a bayonet-charge along the ramparts. When the rest of the 19th arrived, Gillespie had them blow open the gates with their galloper guns, and made a second charge with the 69th to clear a space inside the entrance to permit the cavalry to deploy. The 19th and the Madras Cavalry then charged and sabred any sepoy who stood in their way. About 100 sepoys who had sought refuge inside the palace were brought out, and by Gillespie's order, placed against a wall and shot dead. John Blakiston, the engineer who had blown in the gates, recalled: "Even this appalling sight I could look upon, I may almost say, with composure. It was an act of summary justice, and in every respect a most proper one; yet, at this distance of time, I find it a difficult matter to approve the deed, or to account for the feeling under which I then viewed it".
The harsh retribution meted out to the sepoys snuffed out the unrest at a stroke and provided the history of the British in India with one of its true epics; for, as Gillespie admitted, with a delay of even five minutes, all would have been lost for the British. In all, nearly 350 of the rebels were killed, and another 350 wounded before the fighting had finished.
After formal trial six mutineers were blown away from guns, five shot by firing squad, eight hanged and five transported. The three Madras battalions involved in the mutiny were all disbanded. The senior British officers responsible for the offensive dress regulations were recalled to England and their orders were cancelled.
After the incident the incarcerated royals were transferred to Calcutta. The Governor of Madras, William Bentinck, was recalled, and the controversial interference with the social and religious customs of the sepoys was abolished, as was flogging within the Indian regiments.
There are some parallels between the Vellore Mutiny and that of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, although the latter was on a much larger scale. In 1857 the sepoys proclaimed the return of Mughal rule by re-installing Bahadur Shah as Emperor of India; in the same way mutineers of Vellore, nearly 50 years before, had attempted to restore power to Tipu Sultan's sons. Perceived insensitivity to sepoy religious and cultural practices (in the form of leather headdresses and greased cartridges) was a factor in both uprisings. The events of 1857 (which involved the Bengal Army and did not affect the Madras Army) caused the British crown to take over company property and functions within India through the Government of India Act 1858 which saw the total dissolution of the East India Company.
The only surviving eyewitness account of the actual outbreak of the mutiny is that of Amelia Farrer, Lady Fancourt (the wife of St. John Fancourt, the commander of the fort). Her manuscript account, written two weeks after the massacre, describes how she and her children survived as her husband perished.
English poet Sir Henry Newbolt's poem "Gillespie" is an account of the events of the Vellore mutiny.
- Philip Mason, page 239, "A Matter of Honour - an Account of the Indian Army", ISBN 0-333-41837-9
- Philip Mason, page 238, "A Matter of Honour - an Account of the Indian Army", ISBN 0-333-41837-9
- TheHindu August-2006
- TheHindu July-2007
- Philip Mason, page 239, "A Matter of Honour - an Account of the Indian Army", ISBN 978-0-333-41837-6
- Subramanian, Archana (9 July 2015). "Mutinous firsts". The Hindu.
- Philip Mason, pages 240-241, "A Matter of Honour - an Account of the Indian Army", ISBN 0-333-41837-9
- Memoirs of an Officer by John Blakiston
- Outlook 2006
- TheHindu march-2007
- "Official, India". World Digital Library. 1890–1923. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
- Fancourt, Amelia Farrer, Lady (1842-06-14). "An Account Of the Mutiny at Vellore, by the Lady of Sir John Fancourt, the Commandant, who was killed there July 9th, 1806". The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
- Fancourt, Amelia Farrer, Lady (1842-06-14). "An Account Of the Mutiny at Vellore, by the Lady of Sir John Fancourt, the Commandant, who was killed there July 9th, 1806". The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. Retrieved 4 November 2013. at A Celebration of Women Writers
- More about Madras Army and Vellore mutiny
- Memorial to H. M. 69th Regiment, who defended Vellore Fort during the uprising, at Church of South India Cemetery, Vellore
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