Mar 292019
 

In the afternoon on this date in 1857, lieutenant Baugh, adjutant of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI), then stationed at Barrackpore was informed that several men of his regiment were in an excited state. Further, it was reported to him that one of them, Mangal Pandey, was pacing in front of the regiment’s guard room by the parade ground, armed with a loaded musket, calling upon the men to rebel and threatening to shoot the first European that he set eyes on. Testimony at a subsequent enquiry recorded that Pandey, unsettled by unrest amongst the sepoys and intoxicated by bhang (cannabis infusion), had seized weapons and run to the quarter-guard building upon learning that a detachment of British soldiers was disembarking from a steamer near the cantonment.

Baugh immediately armed himself and galloped on his horse to the lines. Pandey took position behind the station gun, which was in front of the quarter-guard of the 34th, took aim at Baugh and fired. He missed Baugh, but the bullet struck his horse in the flank bringing both the horse and its rider down. Baugh quickly disentangled himself and, seizing one of his pistols, advanced towards Pandey and fired. He missed. Before Baugh could draw his sword, Pandey attacked him with a talwar (a heavy Indian sword) and closing with the adjutant, slashed Baugh on the shoulder and neck and brought him to the ground. Then another sepoy, Shaikh Paltu, intervened and tried to restrain Pandey as he tried to reload his musket.

English sergeant-major Hewson, had arrived on the parade ground, summoned by an Indian officer, before Baugh. He had ordered jemadar (junior officer) Ishwari Prasad, the Indian officer in command of the quarter-guard, to arrest Pandey. Prasad replied that his NCOs had gone for help and that he could not take Pandey by himself. In response Hewson ordered Prasad to fall in the guard with loaded weapons. In the meantime, Baugh had arrived on the field shouting ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ Hewson in reply called out to Baugh, ‘Ride to the right, sir, for your life. The sepoy will fire at you!’ At that point Pandey fired.

Hewson had charged towards Pandey as he was fighting with lieutenant Baugh. While confronting Pandey, Hewson was knocked to the ground from behind by a blow from Pandey’s musket. The sound of the firing had brought other sepoys from the barracks; they remained mute spectators. At this juncture, Shaikh Paltu, while trying to defend the two Englishmen called upon the other sepoys to assist him, but they threw stones and shoes at his back. He called on the guard to help him hold Pandey, but they threatened to shoot him if he did not let go of the mutineer.

Some of the sepoys of the quarter-guard then advanced and struck at the two officers. They then threatened Shaikh Paltu and ordered him to release Pandey, whom he had been vainly trying to hold back. However, Paltu continued to hold Pandey until Baugh and the sergeant-major were able to get up. Himself wounded by now, Paltu was obliged to loosen his grip. He backed away in one direction and Baugh and Hewson in another, while being struck with the butt ends of the guards’ muskets.

In the meantime, a report of the incident had been carried to the commanding officer general Hearsey, who then galloped to the ground with his two officer sons. Taking in the scene, he rode up to the guard, drew his pistol and ordered them to do their duty by seizing Mangal Pandey. The general threatened to shoot the first man who disobeyed. The men of the quarter-guard fell in and followed Hearsey towards Pandey. Pandey then put the muzzle of the musket to his chest and discharged it by pressing the trigger with his foot. He collapsed bleeding, with his regimental jacket on fire, but not mortally wounded.

Pandey recovered and was brought to trial less than a week later. When asked whether he had been under the influence of any substances, he stated steadfastly that he had mutinied on his own accord and that no other person had played any part in encouraging him. He was sentenced to death by hanging, along with jemadar Ishwari Prasad, after three Sikh members of the quarter-guard testified that the latter had ordered them not to arrest Pandey. Mangal Pandey’s execution was scheduled for 18th April, but was carried out ten days before that date. Jemadar Ishwari Prasad was executed by hanging on 21st April.

The 34th BNI regiment was disbanded “with disgrace” on 6th May as a collective punishment, after an investigation by the government, for failing to perform their duty in restraining a mutinous soldier and their officer. That came after a period of six weeks while petitions for leniency were examined in Calcutta. Sepoy Shaikh Paltu was promoted to havildar (sergeant) for his behavior on 29th March, but he was murdered in an isolated part of the Barrackpore cantonment shortly before the regiment was disbanded.

The Indian historian Surendra Nath Sen notes that the 34th B.N.I. had a good recent record and that the Court of Enquiry had not found any evidence of a connection with unrest at Berhampore involving the 19th B.N.I. four weeks before. However, Mangal Pandey’s actions and the failure of the armed and on-duty sepoys of the quarter-guard to take action convinced the British military authorities that the whole regiment was unreliable. It appeared that Pandey had acted without first taking other sepoys into his confidence but that antipathy towards their British officers within the regiment had led most of those present to act as spectators, rather than obey orders.

The personal motivation behind Pandey’s behavior remains confused. During the incident itself he shouted to other sepoys: “come out – the Europeans are here”; “from biting these cartridges we shall become infidels” and “you sent me out here, why don’t you follow me”. At his court-martial he stated that he had been taking bhang and opium, and was not conscious of his actions on 29th March. There were a wide range of factors causing apprehension and mistrust in the Bengal Army immediately prior to the Barrackpore event. Pandey’s reference to cartridges is usually attributed to a new type of bullet cartridge used in the Enfield P-53 rifle which was to be introduced in the Bengal Army that year. The cartridge was thought to be greased with animal fat, primarily from cows and pigs, which could not be consumed by Hindus and Muslims respectively (the former a holy animal of the Hindus and the latter being abhorrent to Muslims). The cartridges had to be bitten at one end before use. The Indian troops in some regiments were of the opinion that this was an intentional act of the British, with the aim of defiling their religions.

The 19th BNI is important because it was the regiment charged with testing the new cartridges on 26 February 1857. However, right up to the mutiny the new rifles had not been issued to them, and the cartridges in the magazine of the regiment were as free of grease as they had been through the preceding half century. The paper used in wrapping the cartridges was of a different color, arousing suspicions. The non-commissioned officers of the regiment refused to accept the cartridges on 26th February. This information was conveyed to the commanding officer, colonel William Mitchell. He took it upon himself to try to convince the sepoys that the cartridges were no different from those they had been accustomed to and that they need not bite them. He concluded his exhortation with an appeal to the native officers to uphold the honor of the regiment and a threat to court-martial such sepoys as refused to accept the cartridge. However, the next morning the sepoys of the regiment seized their bell of arms (weapons store). The subsequent conciliatory behavior of Mitchell convinced the sepoys to return to their barracks.

A Court of Enquiry was ordered which, after an investigation lasting nearly a month, recommended the disbanding of the 19th BNI. The 19th were allowed to retain items of uniform and were provided by the government with allowances to return to their homes. Both colonel Mitchell of the 19th and (subsequent to the incident of 29th March) colonel Wheeler of Pandey’s 34th were declared unsuited to take charge of any new regiments raised to replace the disbanded units.

The attack by and punishment of Pandey is widely seen as the opening scene of what came to be known as the Indian Rebellion or Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Knowledge of his action was widespread amongst his fellow sepoys and is assumed to have been one of the factors leading to the general series of mutinies that broke out during the following months. Mangal Pandey would prove to be influential for later figures in the Indian Nationalist Movement such as V.D. Savarkar, who viewed his motive as one of the earliest manifestations of Indian Nationalism. Modern Indian nationalists portray Pandey as the mastermind behind a conspiracy to revolt against the British, although there is little historical evidence to back up such an interpretation.

Bengali cuisine is complex with many regional variations not represented in your typical “Indian” restaurant in the West. A regular home-cooked meal in Bengal can consist of 7 courses because Bengalis like to keep flavors and textures distinct. Here is a video of village cooking which probably represents what many sepoys in the Bengal regiments grew up with. It’s a vegetarian dish featuring pods from the drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera) which is cultivated for its edible seed pods and leaves.

 

 

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