THE BHEEL REBELLION, INDIA, 1824-40
Captain Henry Bowden-Smith, 37th Regiment, Bengal Native Infantry
St. Nicholas, Brockenhurst, Hampshire
Who on Earth are the Bheels, and where is Neemuch? Most people would have no idea, but in 1833 they were important enough for Captain Henry Bowden-Smith of the 37th Regiment, Bengal Native Infantry, to fight the former and die at the latter.
The Bheels are a tribe of central India, mainly in Rajastan and Mahayal Pradesh, who traditionally had a reputation as warriors and effective guerrilla-style fighters. Under the Moghul Emperors they were apparently relatively peaceful hunter-gatherers, but facing persecution under the Mahrattas they took to the jungles and became less acquiescent to authority. When in 1818 the British organised the princely states of Central India into the Central India Agency, centred on the town of Neemuch (now in north-west Madhayal Pradesh, close to the border with Rajastan), they attempted to bring the Bheels to heel, but without success. Therefore in 1825 a Bheel Agency was created, specifically to deal with the tribe, and a Bheel Corps was formed, in an attempt to quell the less co-operative tribesmen. Their success can be judged from the fact that when Captain Henry Bowden-Smith died at Neemuch in 1831 it was of “wounds received in action against the Bheels”. These were nomadic hunters operating in thick jungle, and the regimented British forces clearly found them difficult to overcome. The operations of the British in India focus on the large conflicts, so that we know about Hastings and Tippoo Sultan, Wellesley and the Sikh wars, and Afghanistan and the Mutiny, but all the time, behind the headline-grabbing campaigns, was the continual attrition of the little wars, like that against the Bheels.
The Bheels' main objection was similar to that of nomadic hunter-gatherers anywhere in the colonised world, whether it be Apache or Sioux in America, Bushmen in South Africa, aborigines in Australia, lost tribes in contemporary Amazon; how can their lifestyle be compatible with a Western model of land ownership, which says they can no longer hunt or gather as they did formerly. The British wanted them to come out of the jungles and settle down as pastoral farmers; many of the Bheel did not want to do this, and so adopted a guerrilla war which lasted for over twenty years.
Henry Bowden-Smith was a Captain in the 37th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry. This was a regiment of the East Indian Company’s Bengal Army, which had only become a separate regiment in 1824, and was later to become one of the regiments which mutinied at Benares in 1857. Bowden-Smith was destined not to be around to witness that. He died of his wounds on 14th November 1833, at Neemuch.
Henry is not the only military man in the Brockenhurst branch of his family, nor is he the only one to have been killed in an obscure conflict and then commemorated at St. Nicholas’ Church in that town: his near-namesake, Lieutenant Charles Henry Bowden-Smith, was a member of the Somali Frontier Force, and died in action at Jidballi in Somaliland in 1904; Engineer-Lieutenant Charles Bowden-Smith was mentioned in dispatches in 1917 for his bravery when serving in the Destroyer and Torpedo Boat Flotilla; and Nathaniel Bowden-Smith, born five years after Henry’s death, became Admiral in charge of the Australian Station and The Nore (responsible for the East Coast of England).
As for the Bheels, they eventually settled down, though not before rebelling again in the 1870s and 1913. Now they are one of India’s Scheduled Tribes, and are mostly (and Bowden-Smith and his contemporaries would be happy) small farmers or landless agricultural labourers – though hunting and gathering are apparently common secondary pursuits, so they have still not capitulated altogether.
IN MEMORY OF CAPT. HENRY BOWDEN-SMITH OF THE 37TH REGT BENGAL NATIVE INFANTRY WHO DIED AT NEEMUCH ON THE 14TH NOVEMBER OF WOUNDS RECEIVED IN ACTION WITH THE BHEELS ON THE 29TH OCTOBER 1833 AGED 34
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