Most know of the Rebellion of 1857 as the First War of Independence or The Mutiny as may be referred to by different people. Very few are aware that at least two incidents predate the events of 1857-8, namely the 1806 Vellore Mutiny and the Barrackpore Mutiny of 1824. Though both were on a far smaller scale as compared to 1857, the two set the ball rolling for what was to happen about three decades later.
Historians tend to brush aside the Vellore and Barrackpore incidents as localised affairs, but then, neither was the 1857 uprising a pan-Indian subcontinent event (Pan-Indian subcontinent as there was no India at that time, just a bunch of small and large kingdoms scattered over a landmass). It was localised to parts of the Bengal Presidency alone. The other two presidencies, Madras and Bombay, were far away from any related events, the only reference to the two being when units of the Madras and the Bombay Native Infantry and Cavalry were moved to assist their brethren in the Bengal Native Infantry and the British Army units involved in quelling the mutiny up north.
As in the case of 1857, the foundation of the other two mutinies was primarily a religious one. In the Vellore incident, the sepoy dress code was changed in 1805 under which Hindu soldiers were forbidden to wear religious marks and no facial hair allowed for Muslims.
Also, General Sir John Craddock, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, changed the headgear from the traditional turban to the round hat, largely associated with Europeans and Christians, infuriating both Hindus and Muslims, because it went against the recommendations of the Military Board which stated that all uniform changes should be given due consideration. This led to rumours of conversion of troops to Christianity.
Furthermore, the native troops were made to feel inferior by the British officers and men and their issues were handled in an insensitive manner. One reason unique to the 1824 Barrackpore mutiny was that orders were passed for the units based in the cantonment (26th, 47th and 62nd BNI (Bengal Native Infantry)) to move to Chittagong on foot to board ships to Rangoon for the First Anglo Burmese War in October 1824.
As per the religious beliefs at that time, sailing the high seas by the higher caste Indian sepoys was unthinkable and doing so would lead to being ostracised. To compound the issue, there was no transportation made available to the units and they were ordered to move on foot with all equipment. The troops, already incensed by the movement order, which was taken without consultation with their Indian officers, refused to move, leading to strong handedness by the officers in punishing those who spoke up, ultimately leading to the troops taking to arms and laying siege to the cantonment for two days.
The Vellore mutiny, as in Barrackpore, was short lived and lasted only one day, it was violent and bloody when the mutineers stormed the Vellore Fort and captured it, killing many British soldiers. This rebellion was further instigated by the deceased Tipu Sultan’s sons, imprisoned there who promised all support to the men. This sudden outbreak was suppressed by the British with a number of mutineers being executed and others court-martialed.
Even though the two events of 1806 and 1924 were small and limited to just one venue each, they were signs for the bigger events to come, shaking the confidence of the East India Company and the crown. At that point of time, Calcutta was the British Capital after the Battle of Plassey. Madras and Calcutta were sea-ports with huge commercial interests at stake for the British. Bengal Presidency was home to indigo in addition, providing the British a huge area rich in resources.
The Madras Presidency was home to spices and teak, the latter was sent to Britain to build ships while the presence here was to monopolise the lucrative trade in spices — the primary reason for the Europeans travelling around the globe to fight their battles on the Indian sub-continent. This highlights the importance of the Vellore Mutiny of July 10, 1806 as the 1st Indian Mutiny. A chapter of Indian history neither chronicled in Tamil Nadu’s history, nor in the pages of the rich Indian history....