The “Rani”1858 – A New Rebellion

Governor-General of British territories in India Charles Canning’s next decision meant that, instead of a series of mopping-up operations, conducted in the next campaigning season when Campbell had originally intended to take Lucknow, the British were suddenly faced by a whole new rebellion, requiring them once more to fight on through the hot weather and the monsoon. As a collective punishment for the support that so many taluqdars of Awadh had given to the cause of their deposed king, Canning issued a proclamation that all except for six named individuals would have their land-holdings resumed. Other than a promise of life and liberty to those who were not personally implicated in murder, the only concession offered was that dispossessed taluqdars should depend on the justice and mercy of the British government. In view of its previous dealings with Awadh, he might as well have said they should depend on the mildness of the summer sun or the gentleness of the monsoon rain. The result, as Outram and John Lawrence warned him would be the case, was to drive those who had previously been in arms to a more determined resistance. Those who had been neutral, or had helped British fugitives, took up arms themselves rather than suffer the loss of their place in the world. The insurgents who had been driven from Lucknow, instead of quietly dispersing to their homes, remained in the field with renewed hope.

Canning had prepared this proclamation long in advance and only waited for the recovery of Lucknow before issuing it, on the grounds that such leniency as it contained would otherwise be regarded as evidence of British weakness. He sent it to London for approval, unaware that Palmerston’s administration had fallen on 12 February 1858 and the Conservatives had returned to office after a generation in opposition. The new President of the Board of Control, Lord Ellenborough, a former Governor-General of India, wrote to Canning on 24 March saying that, once Lucknow was taken, Awadh should be treated with the conventions appropriate to a country conquered after defending itself to the last in a desperate war, rather than those applicable to the suppression of mutiny and rebellion. He was appalled when he received on 12 April the terms of the Awadh declaration, sent long before Canning knew of the change of ministry. It was especially unexpected given that Canning had previously insisted that no one be punished without due process, if only to avoid alienating the many respectable Indians who supported the maintenance of British rule (a policy pilloried in The Times and Punch as `The Clemency of Canning’). In a minute denouncing Dalhousie’s annexation of Awadh as based on fraud and deception, Ellenborough said that hostilities there `had rather the character of legitimate war than of rebellion’. Canning was told that the ministers wished to see British rule in India rest upon the willing obedience of a contented people. `There cannot be contentment where there is general confiscation.’

Due to an error on parliamentary procedure, the draft of this despatch was circulated among MPs for several weeks before it reached the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors. The subsequent scandal threatened to bring down the minority `Derby-Dizzy’ government. To save his colleagues Ellenborough resigned, though the Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, supported his judgement by telegraphing to Canning that a clear distinction had to be made between the taluqdari militias and sepoys previously in the British service. Canning considered resigning, especially as the news of these proceedings soon reached India and thus prolonged the resistance in Awadh. After a few days, however, he decided, as senior officers in wellpaid appointments generally do, that it would be in the public interest for him to remain in post. The Times suggested that the ministers had tried to provoke his resignation so that they could lay their hands on a valuable piece of patronage.

While Campbell marched to Lucknow, the second front was opened according to plan. Major General Sir Hugh Rose, then aged fifty-six and more practised as a military diplomat than a field commander, had arrived in India for the first time on 19 September, to command of the Bombay Army’s Poona Division. He was resented by those who saw him as an inexperienced interloper, and at first the inevitable consequences of the friction of war on any plan was taken as evidence of his mismanagement. On 17 December he took over the newly formed Central India Field Force, consisting of the 14th Light Dragoons (who had returned to Bombay from the Persian Gulf in May 1857), the 86th Foot, the 3rd Bombay Europeans, the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry and 25th Bombay NI, elements of the Hyderabad Contingent, a siege train and four horse or field batteries, with sappers and miners from Madras and Bombay, totalling some 6,000 combatants organized in two brigades.

Rose, with the 2nd Brigade, left his base at Mhow, 10 miles south-west of Indore, on 6 January 1858. His first task was to relieve Sagar (Saugor), 200 miles away to the northeast, a mud fort held by seventy European gunners and the 31st Bengal NI since the mutiny of two other sepoy regiments in the original garrison eight months earlier, and containing 150 European women and children. On the way, he demolished the insurgent stronghold at Rahatgarh, despite a surprise attack by Mardan Singh, Raja of Banpur. This prince had previously supported the British, hoping that they would return his ancestral district of Chanderi, seized from the previous raja by Sindhia and then administered by the British to fund the Gwalior Contingent. When they did not, Mardan Singh decided to recover it irrespective of their approval and did so with the aid of the local nobles. After the fall of Rahatgarh he retreated to Barodia, but was again defeated by Rose’s column and was himself wounded. Sagar was relieved on 3 February and Rose was later joined there by a Madras brigade from Jabalpur, 80 miles to the southeast. While he waited, he collected supplies, bullocks and baggage-elephants, and augmented his siege train with heavy guns from the Sagar arsenal.

On 27 February he advanced northwards. Mardan Singh, with his ally the Raja of Shahgarh, tried to hold the hill passes between Sagar and Bundelkhand, but was outmanoeuvred at the cost of some British casualties, including Rose’s horse shot under him. Mardan Singh fell back, adopting a scorched-earth policy, and the British reached his capital only to find it deserted. Meanwhile the 1st Brigade (previously the Malwa Field Force), advancing on a separate axis, recaptured Chanderi for Sindhia. After marching 120 miles in twenty days, Rose’s main force had almost reached Jhansi when, on 20 March, urgent messages arrived from both Canning and Campbell. After his defeat at Kanpur on 6 December, Tatya Tope had rallied with the Gwalior Contingent at Kalpi and now suddenly struck southwards against Charkhari, a small Bundela state whose raja supported the British. The raja, holding out in Charkhari fort, 80 miles east of Jhansi, appealed for help and Rose was ordered to his relief.

Rose, supported by Sir Robert Hamilton, the Governor-General’s Agent in Central India, who accompanied his march, decided to maintain his aim. He reasoned that to leave a strong fortress and garrison in his rear would boost insurgent morale by giving the impression he feared to attack it. If the British laid siege to Jhansi, Tatya Tope would leave Charkhari and come to its assistance, whereas even if they headed for Charkhari, it might fall before they arrived. Accordingly, operations against Jhansi began on 21 March, the same day that Campbell completed his capture of Lucknow. The first siege batteries opened fire on 25 March and the remainder the next day, when the 1st Brigade joined Rose’s camp. The fort, built on a granite outcrop within a walled city 4½ miles in circumference, was one of the strongest in Central India, and had a garrison of about 12,000 troops, with over thirty guns. Many were regular soldiers from Jhansi’s former army, disbanded at the time of the British annexation. All trees and buildings around the city had been levelled to deny the besiegers their raw materials and to give clear fields of fire.

The Rani, since the massacre of the previous June, had been in correspondence with the British authorities, denying any responsibility for what had occurred and claiming that such support as she had given the sepoy mutineers was in response to force majeure. This was, however, much the same story as that told by the King of Delhi and Nana Sahib. Lurid tales of sexual assault had no more foundation here than elsewhere. The widely believed story (the subject of a touching poem by Christina Georgina Rosetti) that, after a spirited defence, Captain Skene, the British political agent, finding further resistance useless, shot first his wife and then himself, was quite false. Nevertheless, sixty people had been very cruelly killed and the British were not prepared to take the Rani’s words at face value. She was instructed to assume the government of Jhansi state pending the restoration of British rule, when they would investigate what had occurred. In the meanwhile, she had to face incursions from her neighbours, the rajas of Datia and Orchha, who had their own claims on Jhansi territory. In a spirited response, she made alliances with the rajas of Banpur and Shahgarh, reassembled her late husband’s army and called on the local land-holders to join her with their militias. They had driven out the invaders and now, with the apparent return of the good old days, stood ready to treat the Central India Field Force in the same way. As the British showed no sign of allowing the Rani to retain possession of Jhansi, she decided to defy them in arms rather than tamely submitting to their return.

As Rose expected, Tatya Tope left Charkhari and marched to relieve Jhansi. He arrived late on 31 March with some 20,000 men, including Mardan Singh’s troops, and over twenty guns. After crossing the River Betwa, they lit a huge beacon to signal their presence to the defenders, who acknowledged it with shouts and gunfire. During the night, leaving his siege works held by a third of his force and a contingent of Orchha troops, Rose redeployed the remainder, about 1,900 strong, to meet the anticipated attack. The next morning the insurgents’ first line advanced and began a firefight. Rose, meeting them with his 2nd Brigade, pinned them with his field artillery and ordered his infantry to lie down while his cavalry and horse artillery attacked on both flanks. Rose himself led a charge by a troop of the 14th Light Dragoons. The insurgent firing line crumpled and fell back to its reserve, 2 miles in the rear, where Tatya Tope had his command post. With the British closely following, the retreat become a rout before the second line was reached. Tatya Tope’s artillery opened fire, but was countered by the advancing British guns. The 1st Brigade, marching towards the sound of gunfire, drove a force of about 3,000 insurgents from a village with a bayonet charge, but in the heat of the day the men were too exhausted to pursue them and they withdrew in good order. Elsewhere, the British cavalry pressed Tatya Tope’s retreating men hard, and captured their guns before they escaped back across the river, covered by smoke and flames from forest fires burning behind them. British casualties totalled less than 100, against an estimated 1,500 among their opponents.

Rose resumed the siege, where a masking bombardment had prevented the defenders from sallying out to support their intended rescuers. The engineers had already reported a practicable breach and efforts to close it with wooden palisades had been defeated by red-hot shot. Women as well as men, inspired by the Rani’s proclamation that, even if defeated, they would earn eternal glory, laboured on the walls and the Rani herself was observed encouraging them. Accurate shooting by the British siege gunners had dismounted most of her guns, but nevertheless, when Rose launched a moonlight assault at 3.00 a. m. on 3 April there were still enough left, with other improvised explosive devices, rockets and missiles of various kinds, to bring it to a momentary halt. The engineers led the way to the city wall and while one column entered the breach, two others scaled the ramparts. The first two officers were killed as they led the way over the walls, but their men followed and fought their way through fiercely defended streets and houses to reach the palace, designated by Rose as the point where all three columns were to meet. A group of fifty Afghans of the Rani’s bodyguard held the palace stable yard until flames drove them out.

Fighting in the city continued into the following day. The 86th and the Bombay Europeans, fighting to avenge their massacred compatriots, gave no quarter to any male of military age, and their comrades of the Bombay Native Infantry followed their example. The estimated number of those killed varied from three to five thousand, with many others subsequently executed. British casualties amounted to about 40 killed and 200 wounded, including 2 killed and one wounded out of the 7 Engineer officers, always among those most at risk in siege warfare. The 86th lost men to suicide bombers who blew up buildings inside the palace as the British entered.

During the day the Rani was persuaded by her advisers that the battle was lost and that she could do more for her cause by escaping to carry on the fight elsewhere. Wearing a breastplate, sword and pistols, she rode in the midst of her Afghan cavalry with the infant maharaja on her saddlebow, and escaped with members of her household and a baggage elephant through the sector held by the Orchha troops. Rose seems deliberately to have left an opening there, with a view to allowing the Rani to leave rather than hold out in the citadel, which could only be stormed with heavy losses. They encountered an outlying picquet, but rode on for 21 miles towards Kalpi before halting. The Rani’s father and her finance minister became separated from the main party and sought refuge with the Raja of Datia, who sent them back to his British friends at Jhansi, where they were later hanged.

Rose had given strict orders against looting, but much destruction of valuable cultural property went on nevertheless. Everyone knew the story of how Mahmud the Iconoclast, the first great Muslim invader of India, had refused to accept an offer of ransom for the holy Shivalingam of Somnath, saying he would not stand forth on Judgement Day as one who took money to spare an idol, but then found it full of precious stones when he destroyed it. In the temples of Jhansi, images of Hindu deities were broken up, and the gold and jewels adorning them carried off by the victorious troops. Despite Rose’s orders to spare women and children, many were killed by collateral damage and others by their own husbands and fathers, as some of the British at Lucknow had planned to do, for fear of the usual consequences when a city was stormed. There were, however, other cases in which British soldiers, finding widows and orphans without food, gave them their own rations. The Rani’s scorched-earth policy had had little effect on the British, who received supplies from Sindhia and Orchha, but the ordinary people of Jhansi starved and Rose subsequently fed them with government grain seized as lawful contraband.

The next morning, 4 April, when the Rani’s escape was discovered, a squadron of light dragoons and Bombay light cavalry was sent in pursuit. They found the Rani at breakfast and one officer almost reached her before a bullet wounded him. Forty of her Afghan troopers sacrificed themselves to protect her flight and the British, with their own horses failing, could not overtake the rested mounts on which the rest of her party escaped. Late on 5 April, escorted by a party of Tatya Tope’s cavalry, she reached the headquarters of the Peshwa’s army in Bundelkhand, commanded by Nana Sahib’s nephew Panduranga Sadashiv, Rao Sahib, at Kalpi, 85 miles north-east of Jhansi.