The Post Office, the Telegraph and 1857

“We must leave office; all the bungalows are being burnt down by the sepoys of Meerut. They came in today morning. Mr. Todd, we think, is dead. We are off.” – This short message sent on a telegraph line from Delhi into the Punjab in 1857 probably changed the course of India’s First War of Independence. It was actually sent by two young boys, William Brendish and J.W Pilkington who worked as signalers at the newly formed Delhi Telegraph Office. Clerks, sending and receiving messages as ordered to.
The first telegraph line was tested in 1837 between Calcutta and the nearby Diamond Harbour. Nothing much came of the experiment, till Lord Dalhousie put his influence to work for a telegraph network for India after which funds and materials starting flowing for it from 1850 onwards. By the beginning of 1857, telegraph lines connected Calcutta to Peshawar via Agra, Delhi, Ambala and Lahore. A line connected Mumbai to Madras and Mumbai to Delhi. Another connected Calcutta to Mumbai forming a network that stretched thousands of miles and covered over forty towns. The telegraph wire revolutionized communications. Thus far, sending messages had always meant physically delivering a piece of paper. Speed was dependent on good roads and good horses, which no matter how good required days for getting a message from Delhi to Calcutta. Now the same could be done in few hours! 1857 actually was not the first time that the telegraph was used in battle in India – the honour goes to the Anglo Burmese Wars, when news of the British victory was relayed to Calcutta in advance of messengers reaching there with letters. A few months delay in the Delhi – Frontier telegraph line might well have changed the course of history! The leaders of the sepoys in 1857 were fully aware of the importance of the telegraph system. One of their first acts was to destroy the telegraph office at Barrackpore, effectively cutting the Agra – Kanpur – Calcutta line. It still worked in bits and pieces, and by sending messages via Mumbai but the potency of sending a message directly from Calcutta to Delhi had finished. Then the Meerut – Delhi line was cut on the 11th of May. But the lines from Delhi onwards were still active. Seeing that the chatter from Meerut had stopped abruptly, Mr. Todd, who was in-charge of the Delhi Office, left to check the lines suspecting some damage near the Yamuna only to be killed by sepoys who had already entered Delhi. With the city burning around them, the young signallers managed to send a message to Ambala and Lahore in the nick of time. The capture of Delhi was known the day it fell. Thanks to the telegraph, the British came to know about the events at Delhi and Meerut before the sepoys in the Punjab did. The fire that had started in Awadh could be nipped by the EIC before it engulfed the entire Grand Trunk Road. General Anson, the C in C quickly moved to have complete control over the munitions depots in the Punjab. He further took the various Punjab chiefs, such as Patiala and Nabha, into confidence. The result being that almost no help could come from the Punjab to the succor of the rebels at Delhi. Reasons were various, but swift action by the EIC following the messages received from Delhi had played its role. In fact, remarked Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner of Lahore, – “The Telegraph saved India” (for the East India Company that is). A freedom fighter remarked that it was the rope that had strangled them!
The Post Office also played a crucial role. It had roots going back to 1774 and by 1857, the Indian Post Office was already a robust country wide network. During the war, it performed two duties for the EIC that of intelligence and transport. It had, apart from two legged postmen, entire trains of bullock carts and horse drawn carriages. It also ran a palanquin service over its large network and had rest houses or Dak Bungalows. The present avtaar of the Post Office dates to 1837 , when it was standardized by a Government Act. Coincidentally, the first telegraph wire was tested the same year !
General Havelock, who took command of the troops at Allahabad and would later fight at the siege of Lucknow, ordered the entire Bullock Train of the Post Office to be put at the army’s disposal for transporting stores and ammunitions. Yes, the East India Company utilized bullock carts on the war front! The other two services of India Post – the Horse Train and the Dak Palkhi or palanquin service were also fully utilized for various purposes. The Dak Palkhis being used like some sort of ambulance service and later on for transporting civilians to safety. With the doab in chaos, letters were routed from Delhi to Calcutta via Mumbai! The Post Office filled in where the telegraph did not exist or had been destroyed, providing crucial communication and transport links. The freedom fighters themselves were not averse to the importance of Post Offices viz communications and hence, many postmen were attacked and killed and bags of letters looted. Dak Bungalows were set afire in few places and generally the lines of communication disrupted. Not just the epicenters of the revolt, but Post Offices were burnt as far afield as Indore and Kolhapur! In view of the ongoing warfare, Field Post Offices were developed , which were Post Offices operating out of a tent and moving with the camp of Gen Havelock or the Malwa Field Force. Thus, forming a communication channel, that along with the telegraph had helped the East India Company greatly in winning the war in 1857.
A stone monument – the “Delhi Telegraph Memorial” still stands at the spot where the famous “we are off” message was sent. It commemorates the services rendered by the two signalers and the office in-charge, Charles Todd.

Purandar Fort – A post 1818 history.

Originally published in DNA on 8 Sept 2019.

When things had reached the breaking point between the East India Company and the Peshwa Baji Rao II in 1818, the British set out on a campaign to capture the forts in the Sahyadris. Purandar, along with Sinhagad, Raigad and Trimbak, commanded a status of importance even at the turn of the 19th century, as is evident from various letters of the day. These four forts were demanded from the Peshwa by the East India Company in connection with the Trimbakji Dengale case. Various sources also mention how Purandar and Sinhagad were regarded as watch towers of the city, meant to defend it and/or to provide a safe haven in case of an attack on Pune city. The campaign to capture the Maratha forts began in February 1818, with Sinhagad the first to fall on March 3 to General Plitzer. Save for a small fight given by a Sindhi contingent at the house of Aba Purandare at Saswad, Plitzer made it to Purandar on the 11th of the month. The guns were laboriously pulled up a spur and fire opened on Vajragadh. Curiously, an almost ditto tactic was used by Diler Khan when he took the fort many decades earlier. The neighbouring fort of Vajragadh was the first to fall on the morning of the 15th and Purandar later that evening. The East India Company brought under its control over a hundred hill forts spread across the Sahyadris by July of that year. But, unlike in previous times, the forts did not merely change masters. Mountstuart Elphinstone ensured that their lives as forts were finished forever. The garrisons were disbanded and their fortifications destroyed. The deserted forts were then left to the elements. Purandar, however, was treated slightly differently. It retained a military presence, albeit in a modified form. Instead, a convalescent centre was set up on the fort. Its aim was to provide the sick British soldiers from Pune and Ahmednagar cantonments, a change of climate to help recover. The cool, fresh mountain air acted as a medicine! If you go to the fort of Purandar, you will see an old gothic style abandoned church on it, quite out of place with all the Maratha history surrounding it. This church was built in the memory of Col Frederick Fitz Clarence of the 36th Regiment, Commander in Chief of the Bombay Army who died whilst recovering on Purandar fort in 1854. The convalescence centre was built from buildings and parts of the erstwhile fort itself, and was said to accommodate around a hundred persons. ‘The Good Words and Sunday Magazine’ of 1878 tells us how a 400-year-old former warehouse for storing grain had been converted into living quarters! Little much happened on that fort after that, save for the attached garrison rotating itself like any other army barracks. For example, at the turn of the century, the Royal Scots regiment took up residence there. Curiously enough, the fort served as a detention centre for German prisoners of war during the Second World War. These were essentially German citizens, and a few from other nationalities such as Italy, detained at Purandar so as to nip any pro-Nazi attempts in the bud. It was a kind of house arrest, with some of the ‘inmates’ even being allowed to cycle to Pune on the condition that they return before sunset. Called the ‘Purandhar Parole Settlement’, it was a home to over a hundred people from 1940 through to 1946. A certain Hermann Von Goethe wrote an account about the fort during his stay there, while others busied themselves in various pursuits. Another German, Paul Von Tucher has also described life at the parole camp in a small book. Mention is of one Eva Mayer who composed poems about their stay at Purandar. Her husband, a qualified doctor — started a free clinic for the local people.Some were attached to various German missions. They got together and established a Theological faculty on the fort in 1943. Surprisingly, nearly 20 of the 100 or so Germans were qualified doctors. One Dr Walter Fabisch was appointed as the Medical Superintendent of the camp. With couples staying on the fort, some children were born on the fort during the war years. It would be interesting to see which Germans today calls Purandhar their birthplace, a status they would coincidentally share with Chhatrapati Sambhaji and Madhavrao Peshwa. There was constant influx into the camp of new refugees or prisoners, so much so that the place had to accommodate twice the number by the end of the war. A Red Cross visit right at the close of the Second World War (Aug 1945) lists over a hundred Germans, around twenty Italians and over fifty detainees of other nationalities. The Parole Camp was not emptied as soon as war ended, because Britain was too busy picking up itself and exiting India. The last people on the fort left as late as mid-1946. Post independence, the hospital barracks gave way to a NCC Training Centre which continues to this day.a

The ghost of 1857 forever haunted the British Empire

The backbone of the British Empire was the army it created in India. It had one of the best cavalry and armed soldiers amongst all its colonies comprising of Indian and British soldiers. The British Army ensured that the subjects and the slaves lived in constant fear and retribution. Hence, the 1857 ‘War of Independence’ and the 1946 naval ratings  uprisings gave a jolt and rattled the empire to the core ….

 

Read the full article written by me on Indic Today >>   How the ghost of 1857 rattled the British    

 

  • Purchase my book on Lachit Barphukan for Rs 250 only at Amazon India.  [ Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan]

 

 

 

 

Durga Malla – Gorkha in INA

The role of the INA is often under rated when we discuss India’s freedom struggle. It singularly threatened to achieve what the British Empire was mortally scared of — a repeat of the events of 1857, with the added advantage of a highly-trained and modernised army. It is with relation to this INA that we find the name of Durga Malla, a Gorkha soldier from Dehradun, who fought against the British armies in World War II.

Article originally published in Creative India : 

Durga Malla – INA

Read all of Aneesh Gokhale’s articles in Creative India :

Creative India – Aneesh Gokhale

From NCERT Jokebook : British became all India power in 1765

In this article, originally published in IndiaFacts website, I take a look at the laughable nonsense in a NCERT textbook passing off as “facts” . Photos of relevant pages have been added and a fact based refutal follows.

This article details how the British could gain supremacy only after fighting many battles against the Marathas over a period of fifty years and not just couple of battles against the Mughals (who by 1765 were in any case non entities)

Read the full article : NCERT Jokebook : British became supreme power in 1765

Marathas v/s British , Haji Malang (Shri Malanggad) 1780 .

A long drawn battle took place between the British East India Company and the Marathas under Nana Phadnavis in the monsoon of 1780 for the control of Malanggad , also known as Haji Malang – famous for an old dargah of that name which is situated on the hill . It is a prominent landmark near Kalyan , where an ’urs ‘ for the dargah takes place annually .

Reasons for conflict :

As of 1780 , the primary concern of the British was to secure and fortify the Island of Mumbai , their base in this part of India . Hence , apart from forts in South Mumbai and what are today its suburbs – Sion , Mahim etc , they also wanted to secure the routes leading into the city . Bor Ghat and Kasur Ghat to name a couple . The whole aim was to cut off all routes to Mumbai from Pune , where Nana Phadnavis resided with considerable forces at his disposal . But by blocking the ghats and capturing the heights , the British wanted to neutralise any future Maratha plans of retaking Mumbai . The town of Kalyan was situated at a most opportune location . Having been a town right from Chhatrapati Shivaji’s times , it had major routes from both Pune – Khopoli as well as the north ( Kasara Ghat ) passing through it . The fort of Malanggad was situated right next to Kalyan , and commanded an excellent view of the region . The British aimed to capture this fort and then turn their attention to Vasai . With the routes leading to Mumbai from Pune blockaded and watched over , and little help expected from Gujarat , the capture of Vasai would make the ‘ring ‘ around Mumbai complete .

British moves :

Capt. Campbell captured Parsik hill the 12th of April , 1780 . The next day , that is on 13th April 1780 , the town and fort of Panvel was taken by Capt Lendrum . This being an important Maratha outpost , the British wanted to nip any help which may reach Kalyan by the Panvel- Taloja – Kalyan road in the bud itself . The fort of Belapur also fell to the British on the same day . From here , Capt Lendrum moved to Taloja and forced the Maratha chowkie established at the place to retreat to Kalyan . Kalyan was beseiged towards the end of April by Capt Campbell . Continuous bombarding for over five hours finally caused the fort to crumble . The arrival of another senior officer , Capt Hartley , aided in the British capture of Kalyan . With Panvel and Kalyan taken and the roads secured , the British turned their attention to Malanggad .

 

Belapur – Taloja – Malanggad

The Malanggad Fort :

This fort , situated near Kalyan consists of two machis and a balekilla . The hill stands rather isolated , and one can see for miles upon miles for end from its summit . I have myself trekked to it’s summit and have spotted the Mumbai – Pune Expressway from there . Without any binoculars . On the other side , the whole of the Ambernath and Ulhasnagar area can be seen . On the third side are Tavli and other such hills which were never full fledged forts . Infact , the summits of these nearby hills are nearly impossible to reach . Thus , the strategic value as well as natural defenses of the fort become readily evident .

Old British painting ( 1800 ) showing Malanggad

Old British painting ( 1800 ) showing Malanggad

The Marathas and British :

When Kalyan fell , Malanggad was under the control of one Pandurang Sambhaji Ketkar . The British did not immediately move towards the fort in the hot months of May and June , but instead decided on August to attack . Since the time of Shivaji , the monsoons had been taken as a time when warfare came to a stalemate in the hills and forests of the Sahyadris . What with the torrential rain making moving on the slushy ground extremely difficult and the dense fog making it impossible to sight anything . So , even in 1780 , not expecting much action , some of the garrison from Malanggad had been granted leave . On the 4th of August 1780 , Abbington attacked the fort and although Pandurang Ketkar fought bravely , managed to capture Pir Machi . This is the Machi on which the dargah is situated . Ketkar retreated to the other machi – Sone machi and decided to make a stand over there . Since the machi was not stocked with enough grain for all three hundred , upto 175 soldiers left the fort and made their way to Gangadhar Karlekar , the mamlatdar of Kalyan . Pandurang Ketkar continued to fight Abbington with his hundred odd troops and a few months of food supply .

Pune reacts :

Nana Phadnavis , realising the gravity of the situation , decided to send Gangadhar Karlekar , Kashipant and Anandrao Dhulap to aid Pandurang Ketkar .They reached Neral , near today’s hill station of Matheran . From here unfortunately , the next fortnight was spent in indecision , with the result that it was as late as 28th of August that they finally managed to reach a village called Kharawai near the fort . Abbington now tried to capture Sone machi and the bale killa by one spectacular attack on it , but failed in doing so . Pandurang Ketkar and his gardi musketeers were equal to the task . Not only did they manage to beat back the British assault , but even forced their cannons to retreat from Pir machi .The British grip on the lower ranges of the fort weakened , and Gangadhar Karlekar was able to send some much needed supplies and provisions to Ketkar . Nana Phadnavis , sensing that Gangadhar Karlekar was making little headway , now sent Balaji Phatak and Ragho Godbole to lift the siege . The two reached Shiravali in the first week of September and were joined by the others – i.e Karlekar , Dhulap and Kashipant . Turn by turn , the contingents of Anandrao Dhulap , Karlekar and Godbole attacked the British on Pir Machi , while Phatak supported them from their camp below and Pandurang Ketkar from the machi above . The Marathas managed to bring their cannon to Pir Machi and bombard the British positions . Considerable damage was caused to Abbington , but in the absence of a concentrated Maratha attack , they managed to hold fort . Finally , the 18th of September was chosen as the day when a combined attack would be mounted on the British . And in all probability , this would have meant the end of the British siege , but nature had other plans in mind .

A reprieve for the British &  a British counter attack :

On the 18th , it rained cats and dogs at Malanggad , making any warfare impossible . The entire region was shrouded in dense fog which made even the fort itself appear just like a ghostly blur . The planned attack had to be put off for obvious reasons . Abbington had not been sitting idle on Malanggad . He sent messages to Major Westphal at Kalyan , asking for help . Westphal responded by sending troops from Bhivandi around the 17th , which cut off the supply routes of the Marathas . Colonel Hartley started from Mumbai proper and taking the Belapur – Taloja route , reached Shiravali , the Maratha camp . Here , a fight ensued between the Marathas and Hartley and the former were driven back to the village of Vavanje . At Vavanje , the Marathas faced a two pronged attack from both Hartley and Jameson , causing them to first retreat to Panvel and then to Khopoli . Meanwhile at Malanggad : Pandurang Sambhaji Ketkar was once again left alone to fend off his attackers . The British had been weakened but not evicted . A Col Carpenter was now sent to aid the British assault on Sone machi and the bale killa . Pandurang Ketkar and his two Gardi musketeers Aziz Khan Jamadar and Abu Sheikh Jamadar held off wave after wave of British attacks in the early days of October . Even concentrated attacks were repulsed with clever use of muskets and swords . The Gardis ofcourse were expert in using the musket . All this , when their supposed reinforcement was fighting a battle in far away Khopoli . But the point being that Pandurang Ketkar held the fort .Failure to do so would have meant a direct threat to Pune in 1780 itself .

The siege lifts :

Nana Phadnavis now decided to step in himself . Free from troubles elsewhere , he moved to Khandala with Yashwantrao Panse , Bhavani Shivram and Haripant Phadke . Their plan was to take the Rajmachi route and reach Kalyan . He immediately instructed Panse and Shivram to proceed to Malanggad . Another officer was sent in the direction of Vasai . Col Hartley , with his troops fighting in various places at the same time , was had pressed to find an answer to this 10,000 strong army led by Phadnavis himself . Plus , even after two months of fighting , the citadel of Malanggad was still in Maratha hands . Hence , around November 1780 , the British lifted the siege of Malanggad .

Conclusion :

1. The British troop movements were better planned .

2. The Marathas managed their supply lines poorly .

3. The bravery displayed by Pandurang Ketkar and his Gardi musketeers is what kept the fort from falling . It fell eventually in 1897 . 4. The Ketkar family , which attributes the 1780 success to the dargah , continues to be its caretaker .

 

Ref : The First Anglo Maratha War – M.R . Kantak

Battles of Honourable East India Company .

© Aneesh Gokhale .

* Maps created via Google

Aneesh Gokhale is the author of two books on Maratha & Assamese history. His books can be purchased on Amazon India