The Role of Madras Army in the Revolt of 1857

We all know that the Revolt of 1857 – or the First War of Independence, as it is called – was largely confined to the Gangetic Plains and the Central India. Though it was the Bengal Army which spearheaded the revolt, I may not be wrong if I say that it hardly had any Bengalis. The Punjabi Muslims and the Pathans of the North West Frontier Province and the Sikhs were all with the British. The Bombay Army also remained largely peaceful – excepting the the 21st and the 27th Infantry Regiments which joined the Mutineers.

What about the Madras Army?

It is not that the South was entirely silent. There were a few ruffles that, fortunately for the British, didn’t turn into violent storms.

An article written in People’s Democracy claims that as many as 1044 sepoys of the Madras Army were court- martialled for being sympathetic to the struggle and gives several instances when minor eruptions took place in various towns of Tamilnadu. A book published in 1859 (The History of the Indian Revolt and expeditions to Persia, China and Japan written by George Todd) narrates this incident : The 8th Cavalry was ordered to march from Bangalore to Madras and then embark for Calcutta. On arriving at a place about 25 miles from Madras on the 17th August, the men put forward a claim for the rates of pay, batta and pension, which existed before 1837 …Such a claim put forward at such a moment was perplexing to the officers. They…obtained the consent of the Government to make conciliatory offers to the men. After a further march of thirteen miles…the troopers again stopped and declared that they would not go forth to fight a ‘war against their countrymen’. This being an act of insubordination two guns and some artillerymen were promptly brought forward; the 8th Cavalry was unhorsed and disarmed…The affair caused great excitement in Madras.

However , that the Madras Army played an active role in suppressing the revolt is a well known fact. Speaking about the regiments arrayed against the Bengal Army, George Todd in his book on the Mutiny says: Some of these regiments were native Madras troops on whom reliance was placed to fight manfully against the Bengal sepoys. The reliance placed on them was not belied.

In a despatch dated the 19th August 1859, the Secretary of State of India says, ‘The commander-in-chiefs Minute contains only a slight sketch of the important services rendered by the Madras army during the great contest in the North of India. The great fact has been the perfect fidelity of that army and the perfect loyalty of the 23 millions of persons who inhabit this Presidency, which enabled the resources of the South of India to be freely put forth in support of our hard-pressed country men in North.”

Lieut-General Sir Patrick Grant says,

“The services in the field of the Troops of this Presidency employed in the suppression or the Rebellion and the Mutiny are now a matter of history, and the glowing terms in which they have been recognized must endure for ever, an unperishable record of this noble soldiers. It can never be forgotten that, to their immortal honour, the native troop of the Madras army have been, in the words of the Earl of Ellenborough, faithful found among the faithless.”

The Pioneers of the Madras army were justly famous for their endurance and, of course, faithfulness. A report submitted to the British Parliament by a select committee on East India Company in the year 1833 says this: The Pioneers of the Madras army are particularly good, and essentially useful, and have been very deservedly been considered the best of the three presidencies.

The sepoy of the Madras Army is a light active man and equal in appearance to the Sepoy of Bengal but certainly like to endure much more fatigue. They never desert because the corps generally consists of Assemblage of families.

The key words here are the assemblage of families.

A letter written in the year 1858 from Nagpur, talking of the Madras sepoys stationed at Kampti, says: The sympathies of the Madras sepoys were entirely with the insurrectionary movement, and if they had got a tempting opportunity they would have joined it. They only want a beginning to be made, and a rallying point of some sort,…for them to take their part against the Firingees… We must never…suppose that the Madras men are of a different clay from those of Bengal.

One of the reasons why one of the many fuses of the rebellion was not lit in the South is given in the above letter. There was no rallying point. They felt no loyalty towards the tottering emperor in Delhi. But there is one more, weightier, reason for this sullen inaction.

The Quarterly Review of (volume 103) 1858 says this in a tone that typifies the unsurpassed arrogance – and the ignorance that usually accompanies it – of the Victorians: That the sepoys of the Madras army have not revolted is simply because the Tamul (sic) races to which they belong have no literature, no traditions, or none worthy of the name, no pride of ancestry, no country in fact and no caste. This monstrous statement is so exactly untrue that what is true is the opposite of it. The principal reason why the Madras Army and the Tamils in it didn’t revolt is the Caste.

While the Muslims in the cavalry of the Madras Army outnumbered the Hindus (or the Dalits) at a ratio of 7:1, the infantry had considerably more Hindus. For any revolt to succeed, the infantry’s support was needed.

What was the caste composition of the infantry man of the Madras Army?

In the 18th Century the caste composition of the Madras Army was evenly distributed with the Muslims predominating it. Colonel Welsh in his memoirs written in 1830 says that the army comprised the Muslims, the Rajputs, The Telingas, The Tamouls, and the so called Pariahs. He chooses to shower special praise on the Dalit soldiers. After the Vellore Mutiny, the East India company probably started recruiting more Dalits into the Madras Army. A book written by a Madras officer in the year 1833 says that the induction of the lower castes in the army had significantly increased. This increase must have disconcerted the upper castes in the army. It appears that sometime in the 1830s the Madras and the Bombay Armies started reducing the recruitment of the Dalits . This was roundly criticized by some writers:

The measure of shutting our ranks against the outcast Hindoos, as has been done in the Madras and Bombay armies, where they have hitherto formed the great bulk of these armies, and when their fidelity to our cause, and competency for the performance of all the duties required of them has not been questioned, is of very doubtful policy, and ought surely to cease. Their fidelity may be the more relied on, as they certainly hold a higher place in our service than they would in any other. The Mahommedans have been brought too prominently forward in the army of Madras : for they are the people from whom we have most to fear.

I didn’t have either time or resources to find out the exact caste composition of Madras Army, but while the proportion of Muslims in the Madras Army was larger than that of them in the Bengal Army, it is clear that Madras Army had a larger share of lower castes – especially the Dalits. They in fact peopled the pioneers.

This is what a book of travel written in the year of 1845 ( Travels in India – Leopold von Orlich) says: The Hindoo sepoy of the Madras Army is still more alien to the great body of the Hindoo people than the sepoys of Bengal; he is generally of a low caste born and brought up in the field.

The operative words are ‘born and brought up in the field’. This statement brings to the fore the horrendous reality of the rural Tamilnadu in the 19th Century. These are explained succinctly by another author, Henry Mead, in his book, The Sepoy Revolt: Its causes and consequences, written in 1857: In the Southern Presidency the families of the men always accompanies them, a custom which, however inconvenient in general,…affords an almost certain guarantee for the fidelity of men. Their sons, when they grow up hang about the lines and officer’s quarters, pick up a modicum of English… and by the time they arrive at manhood, or the age at which they are permitted to be taken on the strength of the corps, they have been thoroughly identified with it.

The book does not speak of the women of the families. But it is clear that only those men, who had absolutely nothing to hold on to at the place where their ancestors once lived, would even contemplate allowing their women and children to follow them wherever they went. They must have been abysmally poor, without land, without hope. The Madras Army provided succour to them. They had no reason to revolt. The historians, especially the historians of the 1857 revolt should delve into the land holding patterns of the 19th Century Madras Presidency. That may give more material as to why the revolt was confined only the North.

I was doing My Long Defence Management in Secunderabad in the early eighties. In our officer mess all our bearers spoke a sort of Tamil. They were all Dalits. They were all remnants of the harsh reality of the Nineteenth Century Tamil country. Their forefathers must have migrated to Secunderabad with the Madras Army.

The Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine of 1860 carries an article entitled Our Only Danger in India highlights, rather poignantly, the plight of the Madras Sepoy:

Now there are several palpable reasons which render a high-caste less likely than a low-caste man to be content as a sepoy, and more susceptible of being worked on by seditious intriguers. The one receives no additional consideration by becoming a sepoy ; on the contrary, he is constantly liable to have some impure thing come between the wind and his nobility. He finds matter of offence to his religion if ordered to go on board ship for service in Burmah, or to cross the Indus for service in Afghanistan — if an officer passes within a few feet of his cooking pots, or a camp-follower draws water from his well. But the low- caste sepoy cares for none of these things. His caste renders him of small consideration in the eyes of his countrymen, but interposes no barrier to his promotion m the British service. A Brahmin subehdar may hope, by a revolution, to fill his colonel’s place — the low-caste man will probably lose what rank he had acquired. But the principal tie which binds the low-caste sepoy to our service is his wife and family. The high-caste Hindoo leaves these at his village. He considers it derogatory for him to bring them to camp, and can only see them by obtaining furlough from time to time. He is as much separated from his wife and family as the European officer from his relations in England ; indeed, if the two were to start on furlough at the same time, it would often be uncertain who would first reach his home. The Madras sepoy is followed to camp by hosts of relations. The charge of these nowise interferes with his duties to Government, but would prove a very serious encumbrance to himself in the case of a mutiny. ” We cannot mutiny,” said the Madras sepoys to their officers in 1857 “for if we wished to do so our wives would not let us.”

P A Krishnan

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