India’s First War of Independence in 1780 (not 1857)

AP sepoys fought British first War for Independence on Oct 3 1780…

The first War for Independence occurred not at Meerut in 1857, but in Visakhapatnam way back in 1780. In those days, it was known as Vizagpatam. The sepoys of the East India Company army stationed here rose in rebellion protesting against the oppressive attitude of the English officers.

Noted Historian Dr Kolluru Suryanarayana said that there were actually three sepoy mutinies prior to the famous revolt of 1857. “The first occurred in Vizagpatam on October 3, 1780, the second at Vellore in Tamil Nadu in 1806 and the third at Gorakhpur in 1824,” he said. Shaik Mohammed, subedar of the brigadiers, was the chief mutineer and hero of the first sepoy mutiny in Vizagpatam. “Unfortunately people know only about Mangal Pandey,” said Dr Suryanarayana, who heads the history department of Andhra University.

It was oppression and maltreatment which triggered the revolt. Native sepoys enlisted for local duty were sent all over the State for revenue collection. But they were given no extra pay and were treated like dirt by Englishmen. This caused much discontent. What triggered the revolt was the order given to the sepoys to embark a frigate to Madras to meet the impending threat from Hyder Ali of Mysore.

This order exasperated the native sepoys in general. Muslim soldiers in particular were angry at being asked to take up arms against a fellow Muslim.

But the East India Company officials were hell bent on implementing the order since war with Hyder Ali in the Carnatic had weakened them and they needed to reinforce the army urgently. The then Governor of Madras, John Whitehall, addressed a letter on September 14, 1780, to the then chief of Vizagapatam and Masulipatam settlements, James Henry Casamajor, asking him to keep sepoy grenadiers ready for embarkation.
The sepoys of Masulipatam obeyed the order without a murmur, but at Vizagapatam the English were in for a shock. The Sartine frigate had arrived and the sepoys had given no indication of the impending revolt. They were armed and even conducted a parade on October 3. However, just before 3 pm they all refused to go on board the Sartine. When the officers insisted that their order should be obeyed, the sepoys took up their guns and fired at them indiscriminately. Lt Crisps, Kingsford Venner, a cadet, and Robert Rutherford, the paymaster, died on the spot. Seeing the fury of the rebels the British panicked and ran helter skelter.

A few like Lt. Brown, Ellis and Collins swum the backwaters to reach the Sartine. Others hid themselves in different parts of the town. It did not end there. The rebels were determined to join the forces of Hyder Ali and liberate the district from the East India Company. They took several officers into custody and freed a French spy who had been imprisoned.

Shaik Mohammed assumed control of the rebels. He questioned Casamajor and learnt details of the company’s property.

The mutineers then went on a looting spree and took away cash amounting to Rs 21,999. The revolt had left the English in shambles in the area. They were without men or money and did not even get the support of local zamindars.

On the morning of October 4, the mutineers marched out of the town with Casamajor and the other captured men to join the forces of Hyder Ali. But a local zamindar Gajapathi Narain Deo intervened and the officers were freed. This proved to be a costly error. Casamajor returned quickly to the frigate and ordered Captain Ensign Butler to gather loyal sepoys and go after the rebels.

He also instructed neigbouring zamindars not to support the rebels. Zamindars obeyed this and did not allow the rebels to pass through their territories. The mutineers were then ambushed and mercilessly slaughtered by Butler’s men in the gorge of

Gudderallywanka on the night of October 8. A few, including Mohammed, escaped, but were caught and executed a few months later. Though the revolt was a short-lived one, it was certainly the first major shock to the British.

“The revolt of the grenadiers was in all respects an event that might have led to dangerous consequences,” wrote Casamajor in his testimony. “It annihilated our power and influence in a great measure”. Though the incident is not as well known as the 1857 revolt, it was referred to in the ‘History of the Madras Army’ by W.J. Wilson and in several letters between John White Hall-Casamajor- Brown. It was also reported in Hickey’s “Bengal Gazette”, India’s first newspaper, couple of days later.

Mohammed Faisuddin, founder president of the Shahide Watan Ashfaqullah Khan Memorial Trust, said it was unfortunate that no ceremony is held to mark the anniversary of the revolt. “Tamil Nadu government had celebrated the centenary of the Sepoy Revolt at Vellore, but the AP government has done no such thing,” he said.

“These are the incidents of national importance. The State should construct a memorial monument and commemorate the incident every year”. There are no remnants of this mutiny in the area except for the grave of Kingsford Venner in the Old Town cemetery.


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