The Vellore Mutiny, 1806
Colonel St. John Fancourt, 34th Foot
Christ Church, Cheltenham
The church of St. Mary the Virgin in the village of Woodford, Northamptonshire, is a Grade 1 Listed twelfth century building separated from the River Nene by a field often occupied by grazing cattle. In 1770, when St. John Fancourt was born, his father was vicar of Woodford, and the church, despite some elements being remodelled by the Victorians, still looks much as it would have done when St. John knew it. The same applies to the sixteenth-century granite-built fort at Vellore, which is a city of half a million people lying one hundred kilometres west of Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A water-filled moat surrounds the fort now, but otherwise it looks much as it did in 1806, when St. John Fancourt, Lieutenant-Colonel of the 34th Regiment, took command, taking with him his wife of five years, Amelia (née Farrer) and their two young children.
Fancourt's new post took him away from his regiment. Instead, under his command at Vellore were three battalions of the Madras Native Infantry [MNI] and four companies of the 69th Regiment, the South Lincolnshires. A number of men from other regiments were also present, under treatment in the hospital. As well as the troops, and all the ancillary staff, the fort housed, in a central palace complex, the sons and daughters of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore killed at the Battle of Seringaptam (now Shiringapattana) in 1799. Moved two hundred miles east from Mysore, to prevent them becoming a focus of unrest there, the royal princes and princesses lived a life of idle luxury, tended by a court which totalled nearly three thousand people. However, many of the Vellore sepoys were recruited from Tipu Sultan's army; distance from Mysore did not mean the princes could not be used as totems for insurrection, and a spark for that was lit in late 1805.
In November of that year all Madras Native regiments received a letter from Adjutant-General Patrick Agnew which informed them that Sir John Cradock, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, had decreed changes to dress regulations. With a stroke of brilliance Cradock managed to upset both Hindu and Muslim troops of all ranks by banning the display of all caste marks and ornaments (such as ear-rings and bangles), insisting that all beards and moustaches be shaved off, and revealing that traditional sepoy turbans were to be replaced by round hats, hats which the sepoys associated with European, and therefore, Christian, troops. In that one letter Cradock and Agnew had managed to disrespect the sepoys' cultural traditions, insult their religions, and instil apprehension of creeping Christian conversion. Brilliant.
Protests everywhere. Under pressure from commanding officers like Fancourt, who feared trouble, Cradock attempted to rescind the changes. Now entered into the ranks of the arrogantly foolish the Governor of Madras, Lord William Bentinck; he refused to sanction the reversal of the orders, and insisted that protesters be dealt with severely. When twenty-nine sepoys of the 4th Regiment of the MNI protested at Wallajhabad in May, 1806 they were arrested, sentenced to be lashed, and then either removed from the army or forced to apologise. The harsh response created festering resentment, and in June Mustapha Beg, a sepoy of the 1st Regiment MNI in Vellore, warned his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Forbes, of a plot to rebel against the British in Vellore. His warning was disregarded, and life in the fort carried on as normal; the 69th sweating in their barracks, the married officers fretting about the effect the heat was having on their families, Tipu Sultan's children preparing a wedding for one of the daughters, and the Vellore sepoys growing increasingly restless.
The tension burst at two in the morning on July 10th. The native troops initially targeted their officers, killing fourteen, before moving on to the hospital and the European barracks. Both places suffered heavy casualties, with survivors either barricading themselves behind makeshift defences or scattering for safety. Lieutenant-Colonel Mackarras, of the 23rd MNI, and St. John Fancourt, still dressed in his nightshirt, were shot as they attempted to rally opposition. Mackarras was killed, while Fancourt, wounded, but not dead, collapsed on the sand and grit of the parade ground.
There was no proof that the Mysore princes were involved in the revolt, although suspicion lingered over two of the younger sons, Abdul Khaliq and Muiz Ud-din. Whatever, the mutineers hauled down the Union Flag and raised in its place the tiger-striped banner of Mysore, hailing as their new king the eldest prince, Fateh Hyder.
The chaotic nature of the mutiny did not work to the mutineers' advantage, as not all the British remained holed up inside houses and storerooms. Fancourt's wife, Amelia, escaped with her son and daughter, exiting with an ayah through a postern gate, and hidden in a shed by friendly mutineers until the relief force arrived, for arrive they did, and quickly. One officer, Major Cootes, escaped on horseback to ride the twelve miles to Arcot, where Major-General Rollo Gillespie, a renowned fighting soldier, was in charge. Ordering the rest of his regiment to follow as soon as possible, he set off immediately with a force of twenty 19th Light Dragoons.
Meanwhile fighting was continuing in the fort. Groups of survivors merged, escaped from the vulnerable barracks to the more defensible ramparts and advanced to a position over the main gateway. They were running out of ammunition, but found a use for the rupees spilled from the paymaster's money chests that had been looted by the mutineers - the coins made effective bullet-substitutes. From their new position a counter-attack was launched, and the British took the bastion on which the flagstaff stood. The significance of the flag became apparent when, despite being exposed to open fire, a number of soldiers attempted to lower the Mysore banner. Two were killed, but two others, Sergeant Angus McManus and Private Philip Bottom, succeeded. The situation, however, was still desperate, with most officers dead or wounded, and ammunition, despite the rupees, running short.
Then, quite literally, the cavalry, Gillespie and his Light Dragoons, arrived. Gillespie and a Captain Wilson were hauled up onto the ramparts by rope, and Gillespie led a counter-charge of three groups along the ramparts (one led by Gillespie, one by Sergeant Brady, and one by Assistant-Surgeon Dean, indicating how few of the fort's officers were left). The charge distracted the mutineers' attention away from the further reinforcements of Madras Cavalry and dragoons that had arrived from Arcot and were gathering before the fort, waiting for Lieutenant John Blakiston, of the Madras Engineers, to blow up the gates. Once he did, in they stormed. By two in the afternoon, twelve hours after it had started, the mutiny was over, and the search for the survivors, the wounded and the dead began. The rebel sepoys were rounded up for retribution.
As the body count increased (Captain David Wilson, 23rd Reg. MNI, from Edinburgh found dead before his quarters; the wife and children of Lieutenant John Elley, 69th Regiment, killed; Lieutenant John Tichborne, 1st Reg. MNI, from the eponymous Tichborne in Hampshire; and on it went). Over two hundred British troops and civilians had been killed, and Gillespie wanted to take revenge, sending a message to all potential mutineers. He ordered the random selection of one hundred sepoys, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. In his memoirs Lieutenant Blakiston was to describe the act as brutal and cruel - but he admitted that at the time, and in the place, he fully approved. In all the sepoys suffered greater losses than the British, with between six hundred and eight hundred killed or executed. Of the British one of the last to die was St. John Fancourt. Still alive when found on the parade ground he died at four in the afternoon, but his family, thanks to an Indian nurse and some mutineers, survived. We do not know whether the men who helped Amelia were among the one hundred selected to die against the fort's wall.
In some ways the mutiny could be called a success. The new dress regulations were abandoned, and flogging was forbidden in the Madras Army, and subsequently in all Indian Army regiments. The two men primarily responsible for the regulations, Bentinck and Cradock, were recalled to England. Mustapha Beg, the sepoy who had warned of the revolt, was given a cash reward, although it did not turn out too well for some of his fellows.
In addition to the one hundred executed without trial by Gillespie, a court martial of the ringleaders resulted in six being blown from the mouths of cannons, five shot by firing squad, eight hung, and five transported. Tipu Sultan's family were removed to Calcutta, although Abdul Khaliq died on board ship before even reaching it. Muiz Ud-din was jailed until 1813, eventually dying of cholera in 1818.
Amelia Fancourt survived her husband by over forty years, dying at 21, Lansdowne Parade, Cheltenham, in January, 1852, aged 75. Her elder son, Charles St. John Fancourt, was briefly M.P. for Barnstaple before becoming Superintendent of the British Honduras from 1843 to 1851.
Of the other major characters those more responsible for the mutiny appear to have prospered more. William Bentinck, despite being recalled, went on to become influential in the government of Sicily (from where he was again recalled, for planning to establish a liberal constitution in Italy, once he'd driven out the French) and was then Governor of Bengal between 1828 and 1835, where he was a leading opponent of the more barbaric caste rituals such as suti. He died in Paris in 1839, aged sixty-five. Sir John Cradock commanded the British Army in Portugal before Wellington, became Governor of Gibraltar and The Cape Colony, and was made Baron Howden in 1819. He died at Grimston, East Yorkshire in 1839, a month after Bentinck, aged seventy-nine. Patrick Agnew was also recalled, but was exonerated and so returned to India, serving as Adjutant-General with the expedition to Java, and dying in 1813, aged forty-nine.
The man who led the cavalry, Rollo Gillespie, was to die at the other end of India, fighting the Nepalese, in 1814. The man who blew the gates, John Blakiston, fought in Java and the Peninsular War, and died at The New Hall, Mobberley, Cheshire, in 1867, aged eighty-two. Assistant-Surgeon John Dean, who led one of Gillespie's counter-charges along the ramparts, survived to return home and raise a family. In 1851 he was living in White Hall, Chingford, aged 69, with his wife, twenty years younger than himself, and three children. Some folk have happy endings.
'View of moat at Vellore Fort' by Bhaskaranaidu © CC BY-SA 3.0
'St Mary the Virgin Church at Woodford, Northamptonshire seen from the River Nene' by Christopher French © CC BY-SA 4.0
www.ancestry.co.uk - with thanks to Bill Love for his clarification.
ditto /Charles _St_John_Fancourt
'An Account of the Mutiny at Vellore, by the lady of St John Fancourt, who was killed there July 9th 1806" - from The Sydney Gazette, 14th June, 1842
Tiger of Mysore: Life and Death of Tipu Sultan (Denys Forrest, Chatto & Windus, London, 1970)
A Tale of Two Mutinies: Vellore, 1806 and Madras, 1809 (paper given by Devadas Moodley at Edinburgh Conference 'New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857', 2007 - viewable on www.csas.ed.ac.uk
The Hindu, August 14th, 2016 - article by Serena Josephine M.
The United Services Magazine, 1841 - page 24, 'The Mutiny at vellore, as described by an Eye-Witness', letter sent by John Dean, Chingford, Essex, 1841
The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Library Miscellany (Sands, Brymer, Murray and Cochran, Edinburgh, 1807)
'List of Inscriptions on Tombs and Monuments in Madras possessing Historical or Archaeological Interest (Julian James Cotton, Govt Press, Madras, 1946)
'Campaigners Grave and Gay' (L.H. Thornton, Cambridge University Press, 2014 - originally published 1925
'Twelve Years Military Adventures in Three-Quarters of the Globe (John Blakiston, Forgotten Books, London, 2017 - originally published 1829)
© Jonathan Dewhirst 2017
© Jonathan Dewhirst 2017