On June 17th, 1806, Mustafa Beg, a sepoy with the Madras Infantry in Vellore Fort in Tamil Nadu told his commanders that a revolt was being planned. This allegation was investigated by his superiors, but they did not find any truth to it and he was imprisoned. What Mustafa Beg was betraying was a military revolt against the British in India which happened half a century before the more famous 1857 mutiny.
The Madras Army of the British East India Company came into existence to protect the Company’s commercial interests. They were mostly untrained guards with only some bearing arms. They were combined into battalions with Indian officers commanding local troops and the Madras Army had made a name for itself in the battle of Wandiwash in 1760 and under Clive in the battle of Plassey.
In 1799, in the Battle of Seringapattanam, led by Arthur Wellesley, who later defeated Napolean in the Battle of Waterloo, Tipu Sultan was killed. Tipu Sultan’s two sons were held in British Custody in Vellore Fort, the same fort which was captured by Shivaji in the 17th century during his attacks on the Bijapur possessions.
In November 1805, the British ordered a change in the head dress of the sepoys from the turban to a round hat. Besides this, the British also ordered the removal of beards which had religious significance, face-paintings, and jewelery which had caste significance. Even though the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Craddock advised the Governor of Madras, Bentick, to cancel the order, he refused. The round hats were synonymous with Christians and the sepoys saw this as an affront to their religion. The sons and retainers of Tipu used this reason to raise the revolt.
On July 10th at 3 a.m, the 1500 strong Indian garrison at Vellore broke in revolt. The sepoys massacred officers, the sick in hospitals and fired into European barracks. About a hundred of the three hundred and fifty British on garrison duty were killed and by 10 am, the fort was under Indian control. In the confusion Mustafa Beg escaped from prison. An officer who was outside the fort went to the nearest military post in Arcot for help and the I9th Light Dragoons, commanded by Sir Rollo Gillespie rushed with a relief force.
They blew a hole in the gates with their galloper guns and deployed the cavalry. The massacre of the sick had made the British mad with anger that they spared no one. About 100 sepoys who took refuge in the palace were placed against a wall and blasted with canister shot. John Blakiston, an engineer in the army recalled that he could watch the scene with composure since it was an act of summary justice. According to him, due to the nature of combat in India, civilized conventions of European warfare did not apply. The revolt was quelled and the fort came back under British control.
Following this incident, the British started recruiting sepoys from Bengal, Bihar and the United Provinces. The flogging of soldiers which was common was also abolished. Governor Bentick was recalled and new rules prohibiting the tampering of customs and traditions of the sepoys were issued. Still it led to the incident of 1857, in which the Madras Army did not revolt. Mustafa Beg later reported for duty and was given a monetary reward and a subedar’s pension.
In fact this was not the first revolt. On the eve of Baksar, the Company’s Indian Sepoys refused order and were horribly executed by Hector Munro. Also during the Burmese, Sindh and Punjab wars, sepoys staged mutinies when denied compensation for the loss of caste while serving ‘overseas’.. Still the 1857 mutiny is more famous as the fire set by it, spread to other Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Jhansi, Delhi, Bareilly, Arrah and Jadishpur, while the other mutinies were very localized.