India’s Boudica

28 Sep

Taken from Military Times – September 2011

First of all the meaning of Boudica, She was the queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60 or AD 61.

The Indian Mutiny was an especially grim chapter in British military history. Yet it did produce an extraordinary Indian warrior queen, who stands compare with the Britain’s Boudica. Military historian Patrick Mercer tells the story

There is not much glamour and, some would say, not much honour to be found in the events of the Indian Mutiny from 1857 to 1859. It is sometimes hard to see it as anything more than a series of bloody pitched battles and skirmishes that left tens of thousands butchered after some initial acts of terrible betrayal and brutality by the mutineers. The entrancing story of the Mutiny’s only warrior queen, Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, stands out as an exception.

The background to the Mutiny is not straightforward. British India was not really “British” at all in the mid 1850s. Certainly, Queen Victoria maintained imperial power over the sub-continent, but the country was administered and had its profits absorbed by a private company, the Honourable East India Company, and was divided into three presidencies, Madras, Bombay and Bengal.

All three presidencies had their own native troops commanded by white officers, but none of these was part of the British establishment. They were private forces owned by a commercial concern. However, a number of Queen’s regiments were permanently based in India, and when campaigns needed to be fought, British and Company regiments would take the field as joint forces.

Mounting tension
The division of India shaped the Mutiny, and the crisis engulfed the whole of the subcontinent, It raged across Bengal, but the majority of the troops who put it down were Indian, principally Bombay regiment, Sikhs and Gurkhas. Confusingly, there were also some white regiments raised by and belonging to the Company. Despite the latter, and the additional Queen’s regiment that were rushed to India, the great Mutiny – which was, after all, the most serious challenge to Victoria’s writ during her reign – had more the character of a civil war than a war between nations.

The importance of the ‘greased cartridges’ issue in the outbreak of the Mutiny is often exaggerated. Certainly, the cartridges of the newly issued Pattern 53 Enfield rifle had to be more heavily lubricated than those for a smooth-bored predecessor, and malcontent suggested to the Indian troops, or ‘sepoys’, that the grease was deliberately made up of beef and pork fat in order to defile the castes of both Hindus and Muslims. That undoubtedly caused anger, but it was only one factor amongst a number of others.

It seems that the mainly high-caste sepoys in the Bengal establishment were handled with much greater latitude than the troops of the other two presidencies. There had been mutinies before and the British establishment was sensitive to the problem, which is probably why the Bengal regiments’ discipline had been allowed to slide. The absence of many European officers on staff and political appointments elsewhere, arguments over pay, and uncertainty over whether caste laws permitted high-cast Brahmins (of whom there were many in the Bengal Army) to server overseas did not help.

But behind all this was a deliberate attempt to undermine British rule. This was fed by critical reports on the conduct of British troops in the Crimea, and by a local legend that British rule in India was destined to last for only a century after the Battle of Palassey in 1757

This potent mix was thoroughly stirred, causing the first mutinies to erupt at Meerut in May 1857, where sepoy Munghal Pandy and others of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry attempted to kill their officers. The mutineers were dubbed ‘Pandies’ from then on.

This is not the place to recount the major battles that followed the sieges and reliefs of Delhi and Lucknow, and the ghastliness of Wheeler’s Entrenchment at Cawnpore – nor the acts of gallantry and infamy by both sides. It is enough to say that, by mid 1858, the great centres of rebellion had been quashed, and Britain was daring to hope that the whole, horrid affair was coming to an end. But it was not yet so. Amidst the chaos, the mutineers were to should one last, bloody hurray.

Across what is now known as Uttar Pradesh, a patchwork of states existed in the 1850s that was only loosely under British control. It was referred to collectively as the ‘Central India Agency’. Typical of these fiefdoms was Jhansi. Its maharajah had dies, childless, in 1854, and the British had then annexed Jhansi as a ‘lapsed’ state, despite the fact that there was an heir, the five-year-old Damadar Rao.

The fact that Damodar was adopted had caused Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General, to disinherit the boy. This gave his mother, the Rani, her first opportunity to show her mettle in public when she declared, ‘Mera Jhansi nahin denge!’ (‘I will not give up my Jhansi’)

A British superintendent, Captain Skene, moved into the imposing Jhansi Fort. The Rani, on the other hand, having been granted a pension of 5,000 rupees a month (about 6,000 Pounds p.a.), shifted herself and her son to a smaller palace in the tow, where for the time being, she lived quietly.

The main events of the Mutiny swirled about Jhansi leaving it largely untouched. However, the lands of the Agency were left to fend for themselves when the slender British garrisons headed off to the battlefronts, and the states very soon fell to fighting amongst themselves. When the conflict was compounded by the mutiny of local Company troops, the situation became chaotic and murderous.

In Jhansi, the tiny British garrison concentrated themselves in the town fort and was soon under siege from mutineers. The Rani promised her protection, but she was very distracted by having to fend off her aggressive neighbours, so it has never been clear exactly where her involvement was in the events that followed.

The Rani’s revolt
On 8 June 1857, Captain Skene agreed to let the rebels have the fort after they promised to give him, his wife, 17 men, 18 women and 19 children an escort to safety. No sooner, however, had they reached the Jokhan Bagh, lar large orchard just beyond the city walls, than the mutineers fell upon them. Some of the most famous illustrations of the time show Margaret Skene firing a pistol as the sepoys closed in; but the truth is much nastier.

Skene seems to have shot his own wife to stop her falling into the enemy’s hands. Then the mutineers tethered the women and children, and made them watch as they hacked the men to pieces. Next, it was the women’s and children’s turn, the body parts being thrown down a well.

How much the Rani knew about these events is still argued about today, but it was enough to persuade the British that she was no longer loyal, and it was agreet that eventually she would have to be dealt with.

By March 1858, Tatya Tope, a man of comparatively humble birth who had risen up the ranks of the mutineers and eventually being defeated at Cawnpore, was being pursued by Sir Hugh Rose and the 3,500 men of the Central Indian Field Force. Tope and the remains of the mutinous but hard fighting Gwalior Contingent were preparing the fortress of Kalpi on the River Jumna for seige. Before Rose could get to them, he had to quell Jhansi, which lay astride his lines of communication.

Inside Jhansi, the Rani faced domestic rebellion if she did not resist the British, So, her decision made.

[she] enlisted in her army as many men as volunteered to join … The bastions and turrets were now manned day and night… Hundreds of tons of rice and fain were roasted and stored ready for distribution to the poor … Messages were sent to Tatya Tope asking for help. In this way, the brave woman, undaunted by the coming storm and with great calmness, went about organising the defence of the city.

With her spirited conduct, the legend of the Rani began to grow.

Flight from Jhansi
On 21 March, Rose’s troops were seen to the south of Jhansi and the seige soon began. Even today, the louring fort is formidable, but then it had been well-prepared for defence with guns emplaced, fresh earthworks raised, and ammunition and food prepared. By 25 March, Rose’s guns were battering as hard as they could, but on 31 March, tatya Tope marched to the Rani’s rescue. In a neat little action, Rose kept half his force before Jhansi whilst the others met Tope on the River Betwa, inflicting 1,500 casualties, capturing 18 guns, and losing less than a hundred men himself.

With a fresh heart, the British stormed Jhansi on 2 April. Despite a counter-attack let personally by the Rani, it was clear the fortress would fall. Folklore has it she excaped by jumping the salls of the fortress at dead of night with Damodar tied to her saddle behind her; but no rider could have survived such a jump. The probable truth is more mundane: Lakshmi Bai and her followers rode out of a gate in the town walls and through the surrounding pickets in the dark, with the Rani claiming, at their head, to be a British column.

News of her ride of more then 100 miles in under a day to reach Kalpi soon spread. By then, the British, amid much hanging and bayoneting of the garrison, had found the possessions of Skene and of the other Europeans in the Rani’s quarters in Jhansi. This, as far as the British were concerned, demonstrated that she ‘had not only participated in their murder but had positively shared in the plunder’.

Now there was no turning back for Lakhsmi Bai. She swore to serve under Tatya Tope saying, ‘give me men and I will go and fight the enemy … Nothing will give me greater happiness than to die on the battlefield.’

On 20 April, she and Tope took 10,000 soldiers and 12 guns to Kunch, 23 miles south-west of Kalpi, to block the troops advancing under Rose’s command. But on 7 May, the rebels were attacked from the rear and put to flight. Rose commented favourably, however upon the Rani’s troops, describing them ‘facing about, kneeling and firing with great coolness’.

The rebels, however, were not content to sit and wait for the British to lay seige to Kalpi, and so, on 24 May, another force set out to intercept them. When Rose met their assault and drove them back, the Rani herself dashed to the front of her forces, controlling her horse with the reins attached to her toes, and a sword held in either hand, Mahratta-style.

Her charge cause the British to stall, Rose telling how his brigadier was so hard-pressed that ‘he was ordering the artillerymen to draw their swords and defend the guns …’. Such was the intensity of the fighting that three of Rose’s staff had their horses killed or wounded at the same time. He eventually ordered the Rifles to charge the sepoys with the bayonet, and the rebels fall back to towards their fortress, which they soon abandoned, before marching towards Gwalior.

On arrival, they were opposed by the Maharaja of Scindia’s troops, but the Rani brushed them aside. On 31 May, the rebel host entered Gwalior and raised the Mahratta flag to great celebration. Typically the Rani refused to join the ceremonies, telling the overall Mahratta commander, Rao Sahib, that he should be preparing his troops and the fortress for the next battle.

That battle – indeed, the denouement of the entire campaign – was not very long in coming. The ancient walls of the fortress of Gwalior had to be prepared to resist modern guns, and the mutineers’ plans were

effected mainly under the direction and personal supervision of the Rani who, clad in military attire and attended by a picked and well-armed escort, was constantly in the saddle, ubiquitous and untiring.


One the morning of 17 June, the Rani was about four miles south-east of the city visiting a line of entrenchments of Kotah-ki-Serai, where it was planned to delay an approaching column under Brigadier Smith’s command. A fight soon developed. The British took the trenches, lost them, and then captured them a second time.

In the scrimmage, the 8th Hussars surprised a mall of rebel cavalry led by the Rani herself. She gallantly ‘attacked one of the 8th in their advance [and] was unhorsed and wounded’. A little later, lying by the road, she recognised the man who had knocked her from her saddle and fired at him with a pistol. The pain of her wound, though, caused her to miss the soldier, who then ‘dispatched the young lady with his carbine’, not realising that he ‘had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny’.

Whe her death disappeared the last inspiration of the rebels to fight on, the garrison of Gwalior streaming away in front of the British and dispersing into the jungles. Irregular fighting continued for some time, but the capture of Gwalior was the last major action of the Mutiny.

The Rani’s body was burned with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior. There were some who delighted in her death, but there is a grace in Captain John Latimer’s words:

the last stand was made, she disdained further flight, and dies with the herosim worthy of a better cause. Her courage shines pre-eminent and can only be equalled but not eclipsed by that of Joan of Arc.

British troops
The troops who pursued and ultimately killed the Rani of Jhansi were a mixed force of British regulars, Loyal Bombay troops, and very irregular irregulars.

To start with those who were in at the death, we should look at the debate over who actually slew her. According to the history of 95th (The Derbyshire) Regiment, in the skirmish around Kotah-ki-Serai, Lance Corporal Timothy Abbott show the Rani with his Enfield rifle while she was closely engaged with a cavalry force. The 95th, old Crimean hands, had chased the Rani as part of Rose’s Central India Field Force up to the assault on Gwalior and, whilst probing the outer defenses, came upon her.

On the other hand, it was almost certainly the 8th Hussars who finished the job. An experienced and battle-hardened regiment, the 8th had been part of the original Light Cavalry Brigade in the Crimea, charging at Balaclava and seeing much arduous service in that campaign. During the Mutiny, they had not been present at any of the major battles around Delhi, Cawnpore, or Lucknow, instead being involved in a messy series of mounted actions as they harried and snapped at Tatya Tope’s heels.

It seems very likely that the men of the 8th Hussars had no idea that they had come across the Rani or, indeed, that she was even a woman, as she was dressed from head to toe in a suit of mail, a steel helmet, and a nose-piece covering her face. But whether she was killed by a thrust, a shot, or being crushed by horses’ hooves is unimportant, for the 8th Hussars – without knowing it – destroyed the last great leader of the Indian Mutiny.

East India Company troops
The Bombay troops are fascinating. One of the hardest-fighting regiments was the 10th Bombay Native Infantry, who distinguished themselves time and again alongside their British counterparts. Yet, only a few months before, they had been thought likely to mutiny. Indeed, one of the 95th’s first tasks upon landing in Bombay in September 1857 had been to blow two men of the 10th from the muzzles of field guns. Despite this difficult start, the 10th didn’t swerve when it came to dealing with ‘the Pandies’.

Alongside them rode regiments like the Scinde Horse, whom the British thought too lightly mounted until they saw them on reconnaissance and skirmishing Batteries of the Bombay Horse Artillery – officered and manned entirely by Europeans on the basis that guns should not be entrusted to native troops – were invaluable, but the local, auxiliary corps was a mixed blessing. Recruited on the line of march and often armed with bows, spears and swords, they looked medieval alongside the regular units.

Scratch bands of civilians and officers from mutinous regiments could be highly useful – two civilians wont the VC during the Mutiny – but there were difficult to command.

Along with the .577″ Enfield rifle, with which the European and most of the Bombay troops were armed, the deadliest asset of the British was their wrath. All seem to have fought with righteous anger and little mercy.

The Pandies
If the British forces were a mixed bunch, the Rani’s troops were even more disparate. The red coated sepoy units who fought in much the same manner as their former officers had taught them at places like Cawnpore were hard to find in this late stage of the uprising. The 12th Bengal Native Infantry had murdered its officers and their families in Jhansi a year before the Rani’s death, and in the intervening time they had been scattered among the maharajahs’ private troops and local levies.

The Gwalior Contingent, on the other hand, remained largely cohesive. This excellently trained, local corps had been one of the first to mutiny in June 1857, but the men had retained their discipline and were ‘… the finest men, [the] best drilled and organised native troops of all arms in India’. Although there were mauled at the Betwa below Jhansi on 31 March, the continued to give Rose and his men a stiff fight, even in the final stage of the Battle for Gwalior.

It is difficult to generalise about the Pandies’ weapons and equipment. Most of the infantry were armed with firearms, including Enfields and many older flintlocks, but matchlocks and jezails were also common. Otherwise, spears and shields were widely used, and every man carried a long knife.

The artillery was similarly ill-assorted Guns were numerous, but the British policy of discouraging all training with ordinance, even amongst private forces, meant that they were not well-handled.

The one rebel art that the British care to respect above all others, through, was the cavalry. Light horses bread for hunting over rough ground well-known to their masters made for formidable scouting and raiding parties. Captain Heneage of the 8th Hussars talks of the rebel cavalry’s ability to ‘… appear like a dust storm out of nowhere’, and to ‘… cut up the flanks and then disappear as quick as they came’. Certainly, the swordsmanship of the mutinous horsemen was much admired by their enemies.

It is known that the Rani had some female soldiers who could ride and fight as well as any man, but their numbers are hard to discover. When they were encountered, they were always remarked upon in letters and diaries, but there were probably no more than a handful of them.

The rebels’ fighting spirit was typical of such forces in warfare generally. When they were succeeding, they could be very good indeed, and even when beaten, they sometimes fought well. For instance, Tope’s men at the Battle of the Betwa in March 1858 ‘… resisted to the last and asked for no quarter’. Once in retreat, though, a lack of discipline usually turned the rebels into a feeling mob. Such was the care after the Rani’s death, during the rout at Gwalior, when it was noted that the mutineers would run until they could go no further and then ship up the closest tree in the hope they would not be noticed. Knocking the fugitives down from the branches was thought to be great fun by their pursuers, who referred to it as ‘crow shooting’.

सिंहासन हिल उठे राजवंशों ने भृकुटी तानी थी,
बूढ़े भारत में आई फिर से नयी जवानी थी,
गुमी हुई आज़ादी की कीमत सबने पहचानी थी,
दूर फिरंगी को करने की सबने मन में ठानी थी।
चमक उठी सन सत्तावन में, वह तलवार पुरानी थी,

बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वह तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।।

Comments Off on India’s Boudica

Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Indian History


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: