The British formally arrived in Meerut in 1803, through a treaty with the Marathas. The cantonment of Meerut was established in 1806 with specific strategic interests including its proximity to Delhi and its location within the fertile Ganges – Yamuna doab. With time Meerut evolved into one of the largest and most important military stations of India.
In 1857, Meerut cantonment had three Native (Indian) Regiments and three British Regiments stationed within it, which together formed the Meerut Garrison operating under the East India Company. These two wings of the Garrison lived in two separate parts of the cantonment, the northern part being for the European regiments and the southern half for the Native regiments. These two sections were separated by about a kilometre of open land through which flowed the Abu Nala, a canal designed to carry fresh water to the city which with time started carrying sewage due to the rise of population around it.
The three Native regiments stationed in Meerut in 1857 were two infantry – the 11th and the 20th NI and one cavalry – the 3rd Native Light Cavalry Regiment. The native part of Meerut Cantt also had within it the main bazaar of the cantonment, the Sadar Bazaar.
In the European section of Meerut Cantt there was one cavalry regiment, one infantry regiment as well as the Artillery School of instruction that had been recently shifted here from Calcutta (Kalikota). The Mall Road was the main road running East – West within this part of Meerut Cantt, with some important establishments as well officer’s bungalows along it.
It should be noted that the ratio of the European to Native sepoys in Meerut Cantt was nearly fifty – fifty percent, 1778 European soldiers to 2234 Indian sepoys, the highest ratio of European soldiers to sepoys in any cantonment at that time.
Meerut Cantonment and 1857
Recorded activities related to the Great Upsurge in Meerut begin with the arrival of a fakir (a sadhu) in April, 1857. He established his camp at the Suraj Kund, and had been seen travelling to Ambala about two months prior to having arrived in Meerut. His sermons to the civil population of the station as well as the sepoys who flocked to his discourses unnerved the civil British authorities and they ordered him to vacate his place of residence. He then went and started living within the lines of the 20th Native Infantry.
The commandant of the 3rd Native Cavalry Regiment, Col Carmychael Smyth ordered the holding of a parade to be held on the 24th of April, 1857, to teach the sepoys (sowars) of his regiment a new drill for using the cartridges of the Enfield Rifle which had been recently issued to them. On the night of 23rd April, 1857, the sepoys (sowars) of his regiment had taken an oath in the name of the Holy Ganges and the Koran that they will refuse to use the cartridges at the parade to be held the next day.
At the parade held on the 24th of April, out of 90 carabineers of the 3rd Cavalry present, 85 refused to touch the disputed cartridges. A court of inquiry was instituted on the 25th of April and subsequently these 85 sepoys (sowars) were tried at a special court-martial held on the 6th, 7th and 8th of May, 1857. These sepoys (sowars) were awarded a punishment of 10 years rigorous imprisonment, the term of punishment for five from among them having been later reduced to five years in consideration of their age.
Between 24th April and 9th May, 1857, many incendiary fires were noted within Meerut Cantt which were lit by firing burning arrows at buildings having thatched roofs. One such building was the Barrack Master’s Godown which was burnt on the 6th of May. The Company authorities mistook these to having been the caused by the extreme summer heat.
On the 9th of May, 1857, a special parade of the whole Meerut Garrison was called out at the British Infantry Parade Ground situated in the heart of the European segment of Meerut Cantt. The parade was called to teach the sepoys a lesson and instill a sense of fear within their minds for British authority so that they, in future, did not have the gumption to disobey European orders.
At the parade the garrison stood along three sides of a square with the condemned soldiers in the centre. The Indian soldiers came in without issue of ammunition and dismounted. The European regiments came in fully armed, mounted and the artillery came with its guns. The sepoys were made to stand in such a way that if they tried to commit even a single act in support of their condemned comrades, they would be immediately brought down by the European soldiers around them.
After the order of punishment was read out, the uniforms of the 85 condemned native soldiers were publicly torn and blacksmiths hammered shackles on them in front of the whole garrison. These native soldiers were shouting at their comrades for help and also against their commander as well as others present for having been converted from uniformed soldiers into common criminals. The sepoys of the three Native regiments stood through those two hours or so, with their heads bowed and shame writ large on their faces.
After the parade was over, the British authorities thought that the spirit of the sepoys had been chained, but the public humiliation of their comrades made unbearable the seething anger lying buried within the hearts of the sepoys as well as the rest of the population of Meerut.
Meerut, 10th May 1857
The next day, the 10th of May, was a Sunday. It was a hot day and many Indian servants did not report for work in British houses. Being a holiday many British soldiers and officers had come down to Sadar Bazaar from the European part of the cantonment for recreation.
At about 5.30 in the evening a rumour went through Sadar Bazaar that British regiments were coming to take away the arms of Native Regiments. This was the proverbial spark that lit the haystack and ignited the latent fire of anger lying within the hearts of the residents of Meerut as well as the sepoys.
Any European found within Sadar Bazaar was immediately attacked, the residents of the bazaar being led in many cases by police of Sadar Kotwali, who came out with unsheathed swords, as well as cantonment peons in uniform. The sepoys present in the bazaar ran to their lines, broke the locks on the bells of arms and after arming themselves collecting on the parade grounds.
British officers of the Native regiments reached the lines and parade grounds to control their men. At the Native Cavalry parade ground they were firmly told to go away as ` the Company Raj is over forever’. At the Native Infantry parade ground the commandant of the 11th Native Infantry, Col. John Finnis, was shot and killed by a sepoy of the 20th Native Infantry. With this shooting the sepoys started shooting at their officers who started fleeing for their lives.
In the meanwhile, some soldiers of the 3rd Native Cavalry Regiment, armed and on horseback, rode from their lines straight to the New Jail. They passed through the city exhorting its residents to rise against British rule. After reaching the jail, they broke open the barracks in which their imprisoned comrades resided, released them and got their shackles cut by blacksmiths. They then rode together straight to a village on the outskirts of Meerut, on the main Delhi Road, called Rithani. Here there was a meeting of all the sepoys of the three native regiments who had decided to take up arms against British Rule. Everyone present was informed that they had to reach Delhi and take over the imperial city. This was done the next day, 11th of May, and thus began the War of Independence, 1857.
The bungalows of British residents in the native part of Meerut Cantt were attacked by mobs from the Sadar Bazaar and the city. Only one incidence of shooting is reported from the European half of Meerut Cantt. All Europeans who had died on the 10th were buried at the St. John’s Cemetery. The unidentified bodies were put up for identification at the theatre on the Mall Road before being buried. The British authorities created an artificial fortification to protect themselves against attacks by Indian revolutionaries and stayed confined to Meerut Cantt for most part till the fall of Delhi.
The British retaliation was swift and severe. The number of Indian deaths in retaliatory attacks on villages can never be calculated as no list exist giving details of the total number of villages destroyed in retaliatory strikes by British authorities, with no records of deaths through hangings in Meerut city having ever been kept. They were random trials through kangaroo courts, a part of the legacy of 1857 forever buried in the mists of history.
Disgusting people killing a pregnant women. No wonder people hate Indians.
How about the mass-rapes and murders that the British forces committed, killing men, women, children, the young as well as the elderly? I’d say that colonizers and their apologists are far more disgusting and vile.
White supremacist trash should look into the mirror first before lecturing others.
i am a research scholar and working “A study on factors affecting in historical tourism development in Meerut district.” IT IS HELPFUL FOR ME .
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Very good article by a fellow physician! Meerut is such a historical town and I am luck to be born and live in the Cantonment of this city!
Extremely well written article Dr. Amit. Even though I have been a student history and read several descriptions about the First War of Independence or the Mutiny depending on how you look at it, I am deeply touched by your inclination to look at the issue in an objective and unbiased manner. Not many writers have taken the pains to talk about the unaccounted deaths of the natives in retaliatory firing by the British troops.
Thank you for your excellent article and in particular the photos.
Currently undertaking research into men of 6 Dragoon Guards and 3/ Bengal Artillery present at Meerut.
Your article has been most useful
Dear Dr. Amit Pathak,
Good job in recounting a most complex piece of important Indian and English history that has been so intensely accounted through numerous books authored by both witnesses and historians.
I am in the throes of writing a small book that records the lives around certain members of my own family that spans a few generations. While indeed there have been two generations of my family on both sides that lived in India, the period of interest involves my G/G grandparents who were the earliest casualties on May 10th, 1857 in Meerut, and are buried together at St. John’s Cemetery. Brief accounts have been recorded in several publications about the separate deaths of Capt. Donald Macdonald and his wife, Louisa Macdonald. The book’s interest will be beyond the tragedy, and focused more around the accounts of their children who escaped through the kind loyalties of their ayahs.
I am seeking to know a bit more about these kind people (ayahs) if that is possible. The eldest Macdonald child, Emily Alice, was my G/ grandmother, so these acts of loyalty and kindness live on to this day. Should you chose, I would appreciate that you reply via email.
Kind regards, DRH
I am so sorry for the delay of so many months in this reply. But I will try and see if some members of those servants families who saved the children of Mrs. McDonald can be found. In the meantime I would love to have an interaction with you by email. Please do mail me back. It is really so wonderful to have met someone so closely linked to Meerut. I can send you photographs of their graves too. Regards.
Dear Dr. Amit Pathak. Thank you kindly for your expressed willingness to correspond (per January 9, 2017). I never cease to be amazed how overlapping histories, both large and/or small, inevitably have the power to create bonds among people across great distances. I have sent you an SMS. Hopefully it gets through and/or let me know how to connect otherwise. Kind Regards, DRH.
Thank you kindly for your expressed willingness to correspond (per January 9, 2017). I never cease to be amazed how overlapping histories, both large and/or small, inevitably have the power to create bonds among people across great distances. I have sent you an SMS. Hopefully it gets through and/or let me know how to connect otherwise. Kind Regards, DRH.
When you finish your book kindly send me the details and price…will be the first one to buy
Captain Donald Macdonald, and his wife Louisa are my 2x great grand uncle and aunt; one day I will visit Meerut cemetery to remember them, and all the victims of those terrible times. Their three infant children were rescued by servants, and miraculously returned to the care of their grandmother and uncle in England.
If one of your correspondents, D Roger Hay is able to read this, I send my good wishes,,,,,we are distantly related. I too would wish to express my thanks and respect to the brave souls who rescued those orphaned infants, Emily, Ranald and Donald, and returned them to their family.
The passing of time has hopefully healed some of the scars, and we live in more enlightened times. May the memory of all who suffered in this conflict be honoured by us all.
Sadly Dr. Pathak’s version of events is a very Indianised revisionist version. I would have thought by now a more mature middle of the road history would have been appropriate. Somewhere in between the British and Indian versions. The Mutiny, for that is what it was, was not a War of Independence for many reasons, some being:
1. There was no sense of Indian nationalism in 1857, that was to come later after the rise of nationalistic fervor in Europe planted its seeds in India.
2. While some civilians joined the rebels the vast majority did not want to get involved and many actively supported the British.
3. Only some disaffected rulers supported the rebels, many disaffected sat on the sidelines while many others actively supported the British. The Moghul Emperor in Delhi was very reluctant to join the mutineers. He would have preferred to have stuck with his poetry.
4. The British could not have maintained control in India without loyal Company troops, the other volunteers who flocked to help the British, the loyalty of the Bombay and Madras Armies and the States troops some of whom fought but the majority of whom did an equally important job in keeping open the lines of communication.
5. Religion did not play a significant part as all the major Indian religions were represented on both sides.
6. Calling it a War of Independence does a disservice to the bravery and tenacity shown by Sepoys on both sides, irrespective of their reasons for being there.
7. That there were faults on the British side to push the Sepoys to mutiny is not disputed nor is the fact that the Sepoys were equally wrong in their actions.
8. Treatment of Some Indians after the event was harsh, no doubt, but treatment of innocent British women and children was no less severe. Had they followed the Afghan example and treated the non combatants without cruelty the out come would have been different.
It is time to record an unfortunate event with balance.
I am a retired veteran living in Paanchkula. Am an avid reader with a special interest in 1857. Found your article really interesting . Am visiting Meerut on 19 & 20 Nov 15 just to see the various landmarks connected with the mutiny. Would be staying at the Whelers Club. May I meet you for a short time ? I’ve read Lt. Craig’s account of the mutiny in ‘ MUTINY MEMOIRS ‘by Col. Mackenzie but could not find any connect with any Bridge….so why the name ‘Craigie’s Bridge’? Am a senior Citizen 70 yrs of age. Would like it if you reply to me by email. Thanks!
Dear Col Claire,
I will be visiting Meerut at the end of January as I am also interested in the Indian Mutiny, in particular the 6 Dragoon Guards who were stationed there in May 1857.
Having visited the town can you recommend the most interesting sites as I have only a half day to spend there and also did you see any records there of individuals or their Regiments in particular the 6 DG ?
Major (Retd) Mick Stanley. Scots DG
Very very imp info ,I think all students should b aware of this especially the ones who r born nd bought up in Meerut.
Hello Amit read your article very interesting, you appear to be well versed on this subject, However may I with all due respect Sir ask you, are there any old pictures or possible post cards of the Meerut Barracks, As I have discovered my G/G/Dad a James Charles King was the BANDMASTER to the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars from 1883-1888 being the year he died He is buried in the Meerut Cantoment Cemetery, He also married in Meerut 1884, I have searched High & Low on many web-sites in Meerut for any info concerning my G/G/Dads time in Meerut, but alas I have hit a brick wall, Is it possible Amit you could point me in the right direction I would be most grateful for any advise or comments, that you may have, perhaps you know of a Local archivist who could help me, fingers crossed Thank You
Hello Sir. It was really interesting to know about your great great grand father. I will try and locate his burial if possible at the St. Johns Cemetery. I have been recently able to collect nearly all post cards of old barracks etc of Meerut cantonment. I have been working on the compilation of the history of Meerut and its surround region and the story of your ancestor should be part of this compilation I feel with your due permission, specially because he was also married in Meerut. Regards.
Hi Doc, my wife is from Meerut, i haven’t spent much time there as i live elsewhere but this was a brilliant post, i have driven around seen some of these places and its great to get a context. be great if you write some more !
Hi Gaurav. Its a fascinating place. Do send me any queries if you have. Regards.