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Vellore – ‘Fierce and Fain’

The summer sun shone on the pains of Vellore. Dust clouds rose up to the commands of the fickle breeze. Grass and shurbs  dried to hay in the heat. The Fortress of Vellore gleamed like a pearl in the barren plain. The reflected sunlight from the moat gave it a sparkling silver outline. A stray goat wandered about and decided to quench its thirst in the murky waters of the moat. An arrow shot from the ramparts put an end to its hydrophilic dreams. Mutton was on the day’s menu.

There was silent but constant buzz around the fort. Whispers were passed about. The sepoys looked at their new uniforms with disgust. Leather tops and round hats. They looked were against their tradition. The sepoys were ordered to wear the new uniform and shave their beards.

Inconcievable. The sepoys thought the new uniforms and laws were made to insult them and their religion. The sepoys complained about the uniforms and refused to shave their beards. Their protests fell on deaf ears. Every soldier with a beard and without an uniform was tied to a post and given 90 lashes.

This new law was the final snowflake on the mountain-top. It fell on the suppressed anger of the sepoys. Something rumbled and something gave way. It was an avalanche of rage. The sepoys decided to sink their theeth in the heels of the East India company.

After Tipu Sultan had died. His sons and daughters were brought from Srirangapatanam and imprisoned in the garrisoned Fortress of Vellore. The wedding of Tipu Sultan’s daughter, in 1806,  gave the sepoys a perfect excuse to get together and plan the mutiny.

On the night of the wedding, under the cover of chaos and celebration, the cry of revolution rose from the ramparts of the fort. A bonfire was lit from the highest towers of the Fort. A signal for the mutineers. It was a bonfire of the new uniforms. The 1500 strong garrison rebelled against their British overlords.

Fire and gunpowder rained upon the British officers, dunk in the festivities of the wedding. The fireworks in the sky were overshadowed by the gunshots on the ground. Blood stained fort walls. More than a hundred British soldiers were killed in mutiny. In the chaos of the mutiny, Gillespie, one of the British officers, slipped away. he jumped into the moat, swam across the muddy water and escaped to the British garrison at Arcot.

Unaware of this, the sepoys were celebrating their victory. Wine flowed freely. Cheers and Chants made round. The guardsmen at the Fort door had a little too much of the wine and they forgot to lock the Fort gates down.

Once informed of the mutiny at Vellore, the British cavalry rode forth swiftly to Vellore. They covered the 35 km distance in two hours. They rode down the unlocked gate of the Fort and unleashed Hades on the celebrating sepoys. Within a couple of hours, all the mutineers were either dead or in chains. Canons and firing squads sounded the entire day. Retribution was swift and certain. The Fortress of Vellore was back in the hands of the East India Company.

Thus ended the first ever Indian mutiny against the East India Company.

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The hot and barren town of Vellore is still dominated by the Fort and its serene moat. The wide ramparts and the tall walls provide a daunting obstacle to any attacker. The fort was used by the British to imprison Tipu Sultan’s sons and daughters.

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The Sepoy Mutiny at Vellore was a prelude to the greater and more famous Revolt of 1857. The controversial dress codes were revoked after the mutiny.

In the poem ‘Gillespie’ by Sir. Henry Norton, depicts the escape of Gillespie and the muster of the cavalry of Arcot. The link for which is provided below.

http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sir-henry-newbolt/gillespie/

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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Tamil Nadu

 

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The Battle of Sadras

The French admiral watched the horizon from the deck of his ship, the Héros. Nine. Nine British ships between him and glory. A large wave broke at the hull and spattered his face with spray. He wiped his face with a silk napkin. He sent word to the captains of his fleet to meet him in his war-cabin.

It was 1782. The French supported the Americans in their struggle for Independence, much to the chagrin of the British. The Dutch also allied with the French inspite of British threats. The echoes of the dispute found their way to India where the British forces were capturing French and Dutch outposts along the Coromandel coast. The French dispatched Admiral Balli de Suffren, with his fleet to keep the British forces at bay.

French Admiral – Bailli de Suffren

The Admiral’s fleet had eleven ships of the line, seven transport ships filled with troops, and a corvette to escort the transports They set sail from Brest and had planned to siege the British stronghold at Madras. The Admiral had found the British fleet, under the command of Sir Edward Hughes anchored at Madras and had turned south. He wanted to land his troops at the Dutch colony at Sadras and attack the British troops from the land. The British raised their anchors and set sail after Suffren. Both the navies faced each other at Sadras.

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Suffren put his napkin away and peered at the map. The cannons in the sea fort at Sadras would prevent the British from landing. It seemed like the battle would be easy. The French had the wind on their side and had the numerical advantage. But he knew that the British Navy was force not to be taken lightly. They were the masters at sea-battles.

Suffren realized that he was hampered by the need to protect the transport ships containing the troops. He had to safely get them away from the conflict. He detached his corvette to protect the transport ships and decided to draw Hughes away from them. Suffren thought the British would chase his fleet while leaving the transport ships to land the troops safely. The troops would then wreck havoc from land.

The plan was going perfectly. The British fleet had turned their attention towards Suffren and his ships while the transport ships were making way towards the coast.  The wind was against the British and they were unable to engage in a battle with the French. The sun was setting across the Indian coast. The sea shimmered in orange. He made sure that the watch-outs were in their post and went to sleep in his cabin with a smile on his face.

The French Admiral woke up next day to chaos. His crew was running amok on the deck. The British fleet was nowhere to be seen. Under the cover of the night, they had changed direction and were now pursuing the transport ships. Suffren yelled in frustration. He gave the order to set sail and give the chase.

By late afternoon, he caught up with the British ships. The battle lines were drawn and the canons were readied. Suffern lead the charge in his ship, Héros. The tide was high and waves made manoeuvrability difficult. Héros caught up with a British ship. It rained cannonballs and hell on it. The British ship was no match for the French speed and could not outmanoeuvre. The sailors jumped off the deck as the burning ship sank to his watery grave.

Satisfied with his attack, Suffren looked around to see how the rest of the battle was going. His eyes widened with horror. He wiped the salt out of his eyes to see if his eyes were deceiving him. They were not.

Only five of his ships had followed him in the battle. The other six had moved back and were watching the battle from the sidelines. He made his messenger to signal the other ships to join the battle. Two out of the six ships reluctantly joined the battle. The other four disobeyed the order and remained at the sidelines. The French Admiral threw his sword down in fury. If he got out alive out of this, he would make them pay. Dearly.

The angry Admiral, turned his attention towards the battle. Sir Hughes ship, the Superb, was making way towards him. He yelled at his crew to charge at the British ship. If he was going down, he would go down all guns blazing.

The Admiral stood tall among the smoke, salt and screams. The two ships passed each other by with their canons tearing wood and flesh apart. Once the smoke cleared, Suffren surveyed the damage. He was surprised to see his ship still standing. The hull and the mast were still intact. A creaking noise caught his attention and he looked back. It was the mast of the British ship crashing. They were not so lucky. The canon-ridden British ship raised the white flag of surrender.

That night Suffren sat silently on the ramparts of the Sadras fort and looked across at the silent sea. There were no more canons and smoke. Only the sound of waves caressing the shore. The broken British fleet had set sail to Triconamalee for repairs. His fleet also had suffered damages and undergoing repairs at the Dutch port.

His thoughts were broken by the sounds of footsteps. He turned around. He saw the captains of the ships who had refused to join in the battle, brought in chains.

“Tie them to the canons and fire”, he said as he stood up and walked to his cabin.

 

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After the Battle of Sadras, the Frech troops who were escorted by Admiral Suffrens, joined forces with the Dutch and Hyder Ali against the British spawning the Second Anglo-Mysore war.

Sadras, once a busy Dutch sea-fort and a naval colony, is now a tiny fishing hamlet, a stones throw away from Kalpakkam nuclear power-plant. The ruins of the sea fort still stand towering high along the sea shore, though much of its glory lost. It is easy to lose track of time waking along the ramparts watching the tall grass that now covers the fort, bend and twist in the sea breeze.

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The entrance to the sea-fort at Sadras

 

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The ramparts and the sea beyond it.

 

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Remains of a staircase which now lead to nowhere.

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Tamil Nadu

 

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‘Arcot’ – The Reason We Speak English

The soldiers looked at their young captain with awe. They had not expected twenty-six year old Clive to capture the fortress of Arcot, but he had defied all odds and managed it. He was now standing on top of the ramparts, surveying the fort’s defenses.

Robert Clive was a scribe, a writing clerk who kept records. He had been kicked out of the house for being ‘naughty’ as a child. He joined the East India Company and was sent to the British Fort St. George at Madras to copy texts and tally accounts. But then, destiny had other plans for him.

Muhammad Ali, the Nawab of Arcot and an English ally, was hiding in Trichy. His capital city, Arcot, was captured by Chand Sahib, a French ally. The French army marched out of Pondicherry, to lay seige to the Rock Fortress of Trichy and dispose off the Nawab for good. The Nawab begged the British governor at Madras for help. Trichy was far away. Help would not reach there in time to counter the French army.

Clive, the governor’s scribe, suggested that they attack Arcot and distract the French, instead of sending the British army to Trichy. The governor appointed the young scribe as a captain and sent him to Arcot, with a mere 100 soldiers, 120 sepoys and 3 guns.

The small troop and the lack of heavy artillery meant that Clive’s company could move quickly. He made his troops do forced marches. The garrison at Arcot scattered when the Clive made a surprise attack at night. Clive captured Arcot without losing a single man.

The Arcot fortress was weak. The walls were low, the towers crumbling and the moat dry at places. The mile long wall was too large to be defended by the feeble British force. The governor of Madras promised two artillary guns, but they would take time to arrive. Clive sent most of his force to escort the artillary guns.

Seeing the troop movement, Chand Sahib’s 2000 men attacked the fortress to claim it back. With a mere 70 men and darkness for cover, Clive managed to repulse the attack and hold on to the fort. Chand Sahib’s men fled the next day when the artillary guns arrived.

Clive’s ploy worked in distracting the French from Trichy. The French army turned towards Arcot. Chand Sahib’s men joined the advancing army. Chand Sahib’s son, Raza Sahib lead the army. Clive and his 300 men set to task, strengthening the Fort.

A 4000 men strong French-Indian army lay siege to the Fort. In the night, Clive made a daring move. He attacked the siege force and tried to steal their French guns. The plan almost backfired. Clive barely escaped with his life and lost 15 men in the misadventure.

Clive made no mistakes thereafter. Small British company successfully repulsed the siege for 50 days. A Maratha captain, Morari Rao, was impressed with the British bravery and promised to send them help in return for payment. The payment got delayed in the English bureaucracy. When Raza Sahib heard about the Maratha captain’s offer, he offered Clive terms and promised him a gift if he surrendered. Clive declined. The attackers fell upon the fortress with renewed frenzy, but the British held strong. Raza Sahib’s men fell by tens and dozens at the hands of the British. Chand Sahib’s elephants ran amok in the gunfire, trampling down his own men. The attackers gave up and retreated. They had lost hundreds of men while Clive lost only four. Cheer rang though the British contingent

The French defeat at Arcot signaled the decline of the French presence on India and the rise of the British. The British reinstated Muhammad Ali as the Nawab of Carnatic. The Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Battle of Arcot gave the British right to most of the Indian territories.

The siege of Arcot made Clive famous throughout Europe. A British scribe with a handful of men had repulsed an attack by the French army. Clive was presented a sword by the British Prime Minister. His military career took off from that point.

Ten years later, Clive returned back to India and lead the British to victory in the battle of Plassey. That established the military supremacy of the East India company in India.

Arcot is now a small town on the Chennai-Banglore highway. Quiet and rustic, scattered with mosques and minarets. People stop over here on the highway for its famous Arcot biryani. The Fortress of Arcot is all but disappeared except for it gates.

(The Delhi Gate, Arcot)

Known as Delhi gate, the broad gate stands at the outskirts of the town. The dry bed of the river Palar lies across it. A forgotten stone plate mentions that it was once a part of Clive’s fortifications.The ground around it is scattered with fallen structures, paying tribute to the fact, that they were the reason we speak English today, and not French. Whether that is a good thing or not, I leave that for you to decide.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Tamil Nadu

 

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