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Chapter 21: 1857

Infatuation of the authorities at Agra--A series of Mishaps --Result of indecision and incapacity

During our three days' halt at Agra we were told the story of all that had happened before we came, and a sad story it was of incapacity and neglected opportunity. The Lieutenant-Governor, an able, intelligent man under ordinary circumstances, had, unfortunately, no firmness of character, no self-reliance. Instead of acting on his own convictions, he allowed himself to be entirely led by men about him, who had not sufficient knowledge of Natives to enable them to grasp how completely the latter's attitude towards us had been changed by the loss of our military hold over the country.[1]

Deaf to warnings from those who did understand the magnitude of the danger, the Lieutenant-Governor refused to listen to the Maharaja Scindia, who, influenced by the wise counsels of his astute and enlightened minister, Dinkar Rao, told him that the whole Native army was disloyal, and that the men of his own (the Gwalior) Contingent[2] were as bad as the rest. The authorities refused to allow the ladies and children at Gwalior to be sent into Agra for safety; they objected to arrangements being made for accommodating the non-combatants inside the walls of the fort, because, forsooth, such precautions would show a want of confidence in the Natives! and the sanction for supplies being stored in the fort was tardily and hesitatingly accorded. It was not, indeed, until the mutinous sepoys from Nimach and Nasirabad were within sixty miles of Agra that orders were given to put the fort in a state of defence and provision it, and it was not until they had reached Futtehpore Sikri, twenty-three miles from Agra, that the women and children were permitted to seek safety within the stronghold.[3]

Fortunately, however, notwithstanding the intermittent manner in which instructions were issued, there was no scarcity of supplies, for, owing to the foresight and energy of Lieutenant Henry Chalmers, the executive Commissariat officer, assisted by that prince of contractors, Lalla Joti Persâd, and ably supported by Mr. Reade, the civilian next in rank to the Lieutenant-Governor, food was stored in sufficient quantities, not only for the garrison, but for all the refugees from the surrounding districts.[4]

Mr. Drummond, the magistrate of the district, who had from the first been the chief opponent of precautionary measures for the security of the residents, had the audacity to set the Lieutenant-Governor's order for victualling the fort at defiance. He forbad grain or provisions being sold to the Commissariat contractor, whose duty it was to collect supplies, and positively imprisoned one man for responding to the contractor's demands. It was at this official's instigation that the Native police force was largely increased, instead of being done away with altogether, as would have been the sensible course; and as there was an insufficiency of weapons wherewith to arm the augmentation, a volunteer corps of Christians, lately raised, was disbanded, and their arms distributed amongst the Mahomedan police. So far was this infatuated belief in the loyalty of the Natives carried that it was proposed to disarm the entire Christian population, on the pretext that their carrying weapons gave offence to the Mahomedans! It was only on the urgent remonstrance of some of the military officers that this preposterous scheme was abandoned.[5] The two Native regiments stationed at Agra were not disarmed until one of the British officers with them had been killed and another wounded. The gaol, containing 5,000 prisoners, was left in charge of a Native guard, although the superintendent, having reliable information that the sepoys intended to mutiny, begged that it might be replaced by European soldiers. The Lieutenant-Governor gave his consent to this wise precaution, but afterwards not only allowed himself to be persuaded to let the Native guard remain, but authorized the removal of the European superintendent, on the plea of his being an alarmist.[6]

On the 4th July Mr. Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor, whose health had been very indifferent for some time, was induced, much against his will, to retire to the fort, and for the time being the management of affairs passed into the hands of Brigadier Polwhele. There was little improvement--indecision reigned supreme. Notwithstanding that the gradual approach of the mutineers from Gwalior and Nasirabad was well known, no preparations were made, no plan of action decided upon. Polwhele, who was a brave old soldier, and had seen a great deal of service, had, indeed, wisely come to the conclusion that the rebels would never venture to attack a fort like Agra, and that, if left alone, they would in all probability continue their march towards Delhi. The available troops numbered less than 1,000 effective men, and Polwhele felt that, by going out to attack the enemy, there would be a grave risk of the seat of government falling into the hands of the disaffected police and city people.

Unfortunately, however, the Brigadier allowed himself to be overruled, and when the mutineers were reported to have arrived at Shahganj, four miles from Agra, he gave way to the cry to 'Go out and do something!' and issued orders for the troops to fall in.

A series of mishaps then occurred. It was one o'clock in the afternoon of the 5th July before the column[7] was ready to start; the men in their thick red uniform suffered greatly from the heat and thirst; the enemy, 9,000 strong, with twelve guns, instead of being at Shahganj, were found to be strongly entrenched at Sarsia, some distance farther off. A protracted engagement then took place, and our troops, having expended all their ammunition, were obliged to retreat, leaving many dead and a gun on the field.

Meanwhile the city and cantonment were in a state of uproar. The first gun was the signal for the guard at the gaol to release the 5,000 prisoners, who, as they appeared in the streets, still wearing their fetters, caused a perfect panic amongst the respectable inhabitants; while the evil-disposed made for the cantonment, to plunder, burn, and murder. Some of the residents who had not sought shelter in the fort, confident that our troops would gain an easy victory, on hearing of their defeat hurried with all speed to that place of refuge, and for the most part succeeded in reaching it; but a few were overtaken and killed by the mob, aided by the trusted police, who had early in the day broken into open mutiny.[8]

With one or two exceptions the officials, military and civil alike, were utterly demoralized by all these disastrous occurrences, the result of their own imbecility. For two days no one was allowed to leave the fort or approach from the outside. Within was dire confusion; without, the mob had it all their own way.

Early in August a despatch was received from the Governor-General acknowledging the receipt of the report on the fight of the 5th July, and directing that Brigadier Polwhele should be removed from the command of his brigade. On the 9th September Mr. Colvin died; he never recovered the shock of the Mutiny. As a Lieutenant-Governor in peace-time he was considered to have shown great ability in the management of his province, and he was highly respected for his uprightness of character. One cannot but feel that it was in a great measure due to his failing health that, when the time of trial came, he was unable to accept the responsibility of directing affairs himself, or to act with the promptitude and decision which were demanded from all those occupying prominent positions in 1857.

Mr. Reade, the next senior civilian, assumed charge of the government on Mr. Colvin's death, until orders were received from the Government of India vesting the supreme authority in a military officer, and appointing Colonel Hugh Fraser, of the Bengal Engineers, to be Mr. Colvin's successor with the rank and position of a Chief Commissioner. Lord Canning was doubtless induced to make this selection in consequence of the courage and ability Colonel Fraser had displayed during the Burmese War, and also on account of the sound advice he had given to the Lieutenant-Governor in the early days of the outbreak--advice which unfortunately was ignored. Mr. Reade, who had proved himself worthy of his high position, gave Colonel Fraser his cordial and unqualified support, but that officer, like his predecessor, was in bad health, and found it difficult to exercise the much-needed control. A constant state of panic continued to exist, and no reliable information could be obtained of what was going on even in the immediate neighbourhood. The relief afforded by the news of the fall of Delhi was great, but short-lived, for it was quickly followed by a report that the whole rebel army had fled from Delhi and was hastening towards Agra, and that the mutineers from Gwalior and Central India were advancing to attack the fort. Again all was confusion. Reports as to the movements of the enemy were never the same for two days together; at last what appeared to be authentic intelligence was received: the Gwalior troops were said to be close at hand, and those urgent appeals for assistance which were sent to Greathed caused us to turn our steps towards Agra.

Our object having been attained, we were all anxious to depart. The Chief Commissioner, however, was quite as anxious that we should remain; firmly believing that the Gwalior troops would reappear, he suggested that we should follow them up at least as far as Dholpur; but this proposal Greathed firmly refused to accede to. The orders he had received were to open up the country[9] between the Jumna and the Ganges, and he had not forgotten the little note from Havelock discovered in the fakir's platter.

At last the column was allowed to leave. The evening before our departure Norman and I called on the Chief Commissioner to say good-bye. We found Colonel Fraser greatly depressed, and inclined to take a most gloomy view of the situation, evidently thinking the restoration of our rule extremely doubtful. His last words to us were, 'We shall never meet again.'[10] He looked extremely ill, and his state of health probably accounted for his gloomy forebodings. We, on the contrary, were full of health and hope. Having assisted at the capture of Delhi, the dispersion of the enemy who had attempted to oppose us on our way through the Doab, and the troops we were serving with having recently achieved a decisive victory at Agra over a foe four times their number, we never doubted that success would attend us in the future as in the past, and we were now only anxious to join hands with Havelock, and assist in the relief of the sufferers besieged in Lucknow.

[Footnote 1: 'They regarded the Mutiny as a military revolt; the rural disturbances as the work of the mobs. The mass of the people they considered as thoroughly loyal, attached to our rule as well from gratitude as from self-interest, being thoroughly conscious of the benefits it had conferred upon them. Holding these opinions, they did not comprehend either the nature or the magnitude of the crisis. To their inability to do so, many lives and much treasure were needlessly sacrificed.'--'The Indian Mutiny,' Thornhill.]

[Footnote 2: The Gwalior Contingent was raised in 1844, after the battles of Punniar and Maharajpore, to replace the troops of Maharaja Scindia ordered to be reduced. It consisted of five batteries of Artillery, two regiments of Cavalry, and seven regiments of Infantry, officered by British officers belonging to the Indian Army, and paid for out of the revenues of districts transferred to British management.]

[Footnote 3: 'The Indian Mutiny,' Thornhill.]

[Footnote 4: Throughout the campaign the Commissariat Department never failed: the troops were invariably well supplied, and, even during the longest marches, fresh bread was issued almost daily.]

[Footnote 5: 'The Indian Mutiny,' Thornhill.]

[Footnote 6: 'The Indian Mutiny,' Thornhill.]

[Footnote 7: It consisted of the 3rd European Regiment, 568 strong, a battery of Field Artillery, with Native drivers and a few European Artillerymen, and about 100 mounted Militia and Volunteers, composed of officers, civilians and others who had taken refuge in Agra.]

[Footnote 8: The police were suspected of having invited the insurgents who defeated Polwhele to Agra.]

[Footnote 9: Known as the Doab.]

[Footnote 10: Colonel Fraser died within nine months of our leaving Agra.]