The effects of the workings of the conspirators on the minds of the population of the North-west Provinces soon made themselves manifest by the change of their usually respectful demeanour. Major Orfeur Cavenagh, an officer of great shrewdness and perspicacity, who filled the important office of Town-Major of Fort William in Calcutta, visited, October and November 1856, the districts just beyond Agra. He had been struck everywhere by the altered demeanour of the sipáhís, and loyal natives had reported to him the great change which had taken place in the feelings of the natives generally towards the English. Disaffection, he was assured, was now the rule in all classes. To the clear vision of this able officer it was evident that, unless precautions were taken, some great disaster would ensue. Feelings so evidenced as to become the common talk of the community could not longer be repressed. In the middle of January occurred that incident regarding the greasing of the cartridges to which I have referred in the first chapter. It happened in this wise. A lascar engaged in the factory at Dam-Dam asked a Brahman sipáhí to let him have a drink of water from his lotah, or brass pot. The sipáhí indignantly refused, on the ground that his caste would not permit him to use the lotah afterwards if it should be defiled by the drinking of a man of a lowe4r position in the Hindu hierarchy.
The First Mutterings of the Storm.
The lascar, in reply laughed at him for talking of defilement, when he said, 'You will all soon be biting cartridges smeared with the fat of the cow and the pig.' He then told the sipáhí the method of the new cartridges. The incident occurred when the minds of the sipáhís had been inflamed, in the manner already recounted, to a high state of tension. The story spread like wildfire. Thenceforward the sipáhís were as soft clay in the hands of the chief conspirators.
Some of these, it cannot be doubted, were to be found amongst the numerous followers of the King of Oudh. The Government of India had permitted that prince, on his removal from the province of which he was still the titular king, to take up his residence in a suburb of Calcutta. He had arrived there in April 1856 with a numerous following. His quarters had already become notorious as the Alsatia of Calcutta. If, as is probable, he was no party to the intrigues carried on his name, or on his behalf, there were yet many of those who adhered to him who were less scrupulous. These men were the fellow-countrymen of the majority of th emu who served the British, and entirely sympathised with them. Subsequent events proved that communications between the sipáhís in Fort William and at Barrackpur and some of the King's adherents had been frequent. It was unfortunate that, at such a period, at a crisis so momentous, so large a number of exiles from Oudh, sharing the indignation generally felt among the natives at the annexation of that province, should have been located close to a populous city, dependent for its safety on one weak European regiment.
Important consequences speedily followed the discovery of the fact regarding the greased cartridges. On the 26th of January the telegraph house at Barrackpur
was fired. The same day one of the sergeants attached to Fort William reported to Cavenagh a remarkable conversation, between two sipáhís, which he had overheard. It was to the effect that the Europeans forming the garrison were entirely in the power of the sipáh´s; that it would be easy to master the arsenal and the magazines, to slay the Europeans as they slept, then to possess themselves of the fort. They added that the firing of the telegraph house was the first incident in the far-reaching plot.
Cavenagh, who, as Town-Major, was responsible to the Governor-General for the safety of Fort William, took at once measures to baffle the designs of which he had been informed, and then drove straight to Lord Canning to report the circumstance to him. Lord Canning listened to Cavenagh with the deepest interest, and sanctioned the measures he proposed. These were to transfer from Dam-Dam, where one wing of the regiment which was responsible for the safety of the Presidency, the 53d Foot, was located, one company to Fort William. For the moment the outbreak was deferred.
Many little circumstances came at this period to intimate to the few who preferred not to live in a fool's paradise that something strange was impending. At Barrackpur, on the left bank of the river Huglí fifteen miles above Calcutta, were stationed four native regiments--the 2d Grenadiers, the 34th N.I., the 43d Light Infantry, and the 70th N.I. At Barhámpur, 120 miles above Calcutta and five below Murshídábád, the capital of the Nuwáb-Názims of Bengal, was one native regiment, the 19th N.I. Between Calcutta nd Dánápur, in Bihár, 344 miles from the capital, there was but one English regiment, the 53d, already referred to, and that was, as I have said, distributed between Dam-Dam and Calcutta. The space
of 344 miles was thus without European guardianship. For, though there was one regiment, the 10th Foot, at Dánápur, there were also stationed there three regiments of native infantry, the 7th, the 8th, and the 40th.
There is reason to suppose that communications had passed at least as early as February between the men of these several regiments, and even of those stationed further north-westward. Small commands, treasure parties, and the post afforded ample opportunities for such exchange of ideas. One of these communications gave to the Government the first intimation of the general feeling. On the 18th and 25th of February two small detachments of one of the regiments stationed at Barrackpur, the 34th, a regiment peculiarly tainted, arrived at Barhámpur. The men of the 19th N.I., there located, received their comrades of the 34th with effusion. The evening after the arrival of the second detachment, the talk between the two parties was a talk of more than ordinary significance. The men of the 34th poured into the willing ears of their hosts all their grievances. They related the antecedent causes, of which I have spoken, which had led them to distrust their foreign masters. They then dwelt on the story of the cartridges, of the alleged mission of Lord Canning to force Christianity upon them, and added their determination, and that of their brethren at Barrackpur and elsewhere, to take the first opportunity to rise in revolt.
This tale, told with all the fervour of sincerity--for it cannot be too strongly insisted upon that throughout these proceedings, and those which followed, the sipáhís were but the dupes of the able men who had planned the conspiracy--produced a remarkable effect on the minds of the men of the 19th N.I. They brooded over the information all the day following. They had not received
the new rifle, and the cartridges in their magazine were innocent of the slightest stain of grease. They were the common paper cartridges to which they had been accustomed for years, the only change being that the paper in which they were wrapped was of a different colour. Yet when, in the course of the day, their commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, ordered a parade with blank cartridges for the following morning, a great perturbation was visible in the lines. The men seriously believed that they were about to be juggled out of their religion by means of cartridges. How, they could not at the moment say. But the suspicion which had fallen on their minds had bred a great fear. Their non-commissioned officers first refused to receive the cartridges. The threat that those who should continue to refuse would be brought to a court-martial had the effect of inducing them to take them. But that night the whole regiment sat in deliberation. They dreaded lest by the use of the cartridges they should commit themselves to an act which might deprive them of their caste. The reader may ask how that was possible, considering that the cartridges were similar to those they had used for a century. The answer is that fanaticism never reasons. The Hindus are fanatics for caste. They had been told that their religion was to be attempted by means of the cartridges, and their minds being, for the reasons already given, in an excited and suspicious condition, they accepted the tale without inquiry. They therefore rose in a tumult, resolved to defy their officers. That same evening the information that the sipáhís of his regiment were in a state of great excitement and perturbation, on account of the cartridges, was conveyed to Colonel Mitchell. The officers of the Bengal army, as a body, were distinguished by the trust they reposed in their men. In estimating their conduct,
it should be remembered that most of them had been associated with the spiáhís all their lives; that they had done their duty by them; that in Afghánistán, in the Panjáb, in the wars in Central India, these men had followed wherever they had led; that they knew that in the matter of proselytism the sipáhís had no real reason for their fears. Oudh had been annexed but little more than a year, and the effect of that annexation on the minds of the sipáhís had not then been disclosed to them. Colonel Mitchell was an officer with a good reputation; he understood the sipáh7iacute;s as the sipáhís had been up to 1857. But he was not more discerning than his fellows; not more prescient than the Government he served. The news that the sipáhís were in a state bordering on mutiny was a revelation to him. He could not comprehend why they should rise, or why they should even be excited. The cartridges, which he was told formed the pretext for the sudden ebullition, were, he well knew, the cartridges which had been used without a murmur throughout the period of his service. But what was he to do? His men--the men of the regiment for the good conduct of which he was responsible to the Commander-in-Chief and the Government--were gesticulating in front of the lines, and were in a state of incipient mutiny. Mitchell did his duty like the good soldier that he was; he rode down to the lines, accompanied by his adjutant, and sending for the native officers to the quarterquard, there addressed them. He told them that there was no reason for the fears expressed by the men; that the cartridges were similar to those which had been served out and used from time immemorial; that there was no question of asking the sipáhís to bit them or to use them in any other way but in that to which they were accustomed. Having thus explained the groundlessness of the
fears of the sipáhís, he added that they were by their conduct placing themselves in a position which they Government could not tolerate; that the men who, after his explanation, should persist in refusing to obey his orders would be brought to a court-martial, and suffer the consequences. He concluded by urging the native officers so to influence the men that the name of the regiment should not be blackened.
Colonel Mitchell might as well have spoken to the winds. He told his native officers what Sir John Hearsey at Barrackpur, and what commanding officers all over the country subsequently told theirs, but he told it in vain. There is no terror like a religious terror; and there can be no doubt that the astute fomentors of the revolt--the men of Oudh, of the North-west Provinces, and of the Bundelkhand--had so saturated the minds of the sipáhís at Barrackpur and elsewhere with a real terror, that not all the words of the most gifted men on earth would have sufficed to expel it. The Barrackpur sipáhís had in a moment communicated their fears to those of Barhámpur. The native officers listened silently, and promised to do all they could to calm the excitement. Mitchell returned to his quarters confident that he had done all he was capable of, but that 'all' was little indeed.
However, there was the parade to be held the following morning. To countermand that now would be an act of weakness of which Mitchell was incapable. But the thought never occurred to him. Scarcely had he reached his home when information reached him that the men had risen and were in open revolt.
It was too true. Whether the native officers had correctly interpreted Mitchell's words to their men; or wehther, as is more probable, their minds were under the
influence which swayed them cannot be certainly known. The fact remains that before midnight the regiment rose as one man, the sipáhí loading their muskets, and shouting violently.
There were at Barhámpur a detachment of native cavalry and a battery of native artillery. It was presumable, at that early stage of the great revolt, that to these the contagion had not extended. Mitchell then, as soon as he reached his quarters, ordered these to turn out. The order had been given but a few moments, when information reached him that his men had risen. Resolved to stop the mischief, he gathered his officers around him, and proceeded, accompanied by the guns, to the parade ground. The cavalry had preceded him thither.
There he met his men, excited but not violent, and there he harangued them. He spoke well and to the point, and finally wrung from them a promise that they would return to their duty, provided the artillery and cavalry were first ordered back to their lines. Mitchell's hands were tied. With the 200 men behind him he could not, even if they had been loyal, have coerced his 800 sipaacute;hís. After events proved that, had he resorted to force, the men behind him would have joined the revolted regiments, and catastrophe would have been precipitated which might, for the moment, have reduced the English in India to the greatest extremities. With admirable prudence, then, Mitchell sent back the cavalry and artillery. The men of the 19th then submitted, and returned to their lines.
The following morning the excitement was apparently forgotten by the spiáhís. They fell in for parade, and obeyed the orders given as in the palmiest days. But their suspicions were not lulled. Every night they slept
round the bells of arms1 in which their muskets were lodged instead of in the huts which formed their lines. Mitchell meanwhile, reported the matter to his superior authorities. A Court of Inquiry was ordered, and after an investigation which, under the circumstances, may be styled prolonged, the Government, missing the point, choosing to shut their eyes to the fact that the conduct of the 19th was a premature movement of a plot which had its roots all over the country, determined to treat it as a local incident, which had attained undue proportions owing to the violent measures taken by Colonel Mitchell.2 The Governor-General in Council, therefore, resolved to disband the 19th, and to make a scapegoat of Colonel Mitchell. Meanwhile events were occuring under the very eyes of the members of the Government which should have convinced them that the Mutiny they were about to punish was not confined to the 19th.
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1 The brick buildings in which the muskets of the sipáhís were stored after parade were called "bells of arms," they being built in the form or a bell.
2 Mitchell had committed no violence, nor had he used violent language. But his words were misquoted in order to support the then fashionable theory that there was no general feeling of mistrust among the sipáhís.