Friday, August 22, 2014

The Raworth episode

The Mutiny of 1857 was not the first sepoy mutiny in British India, nor was the older, more spontaneous irruption that took place in Vellore in 1807. Strange though it might seem, the first-ever mutiny in the British Indian army took place more than three hundred years ago  (though the white, European soldiers in the Company’s army of the time were not “sepoys” in the real sense of the word).   The rebellion took place in the nascent British colony of Fort St David near Cuddalore and the leader of the rebellion was a decorated soldier  and former member of the Fort St George council named Robert Raworth who had successfully defended the fort from an invasion of Swaroop Singh the faujdar of Gingee in 1711-12.

Fort St David was, first, obtained by the British East India Company in 1691. Right from its beginnings, the colony had to endure the hostility of the formidable Swaroop Singh whom, the early British authorities were thoughtless enough to provoke. Swaroop Singh invaded Fort St David which was only saved in the nick of time through the exertions of Robert Raworth, then member of the Fort St George council who repulsed the attack and thus bought the English some breathing space. As a reward, Raworth was promoted to the Deputy Governorship of Fort St David. This made him the number two man in the Madras Presidency.

However, Raworth’s military successes seem to have “gotten over his head” and within a few months of taking charge, he tried to break off his allegiance to Fort St George. A dispatch dated 5 October 1713 appears to give us the first signs of the situation in Fort St David. The dispatch protests that orders and proclamations issued by the Madras government were being ignored in Fort St David and out-of-the-way promotions were being given to army officers of Raworth’s choice. Further, the dispatch also pinpoints the various financial irregularities committed by Raworth and his administration.   Though these accusations coming from a non-neutral source, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, they do make one thing clear – all was not well between Fort St George and its daughter colony.

From J. Tallboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time we get to know that as a consequence of the 5th October despatch, Raworth was immediately dismissed from service and. Henry Davenport appointed in his place. However, Raworth stuck to his office in defiance of Fort St George’s orders and when Davenport rode to Fort St David to take charge,  he was prevented from entering the fort by troops loyal to Raworth.   Davenport retired to Monapa’s choultry at a distance of five kilometers from Fort St David from where he planned an assault on the fort. During his sojourn at the choultry, the deputy governor-designate was offered, by the Madras government, a “party of sixty chosen men” for his safety.

Davenport’s “attack” on Fort St David began on 19 October 1713. Davenport tried his best to avoid armed confrontation as he was confident that he could persuade Raworth loyalists to join him. However, the tactic failed miserably. Davenport was able to proceed upto Cuddalore bypassing  Raworth’s forces on the way. But on 21 October, they were ambushed by a band of horsemen at Condapah’s choultry within sight of the fort and though Davenport’s men were able to beat back the attackers, they chose to retreat to Cuddalore “dreading a dangerous attack in the night”.  The Madras government then tried to starve out the rebels by cutting off supplies.But,  the French colony of Pondicherry came to their aid and ensured an uninterrupted flow of food and provisions to Fort St David despite vehement protests from the Madras government. With the situation thus reaching a stalemate, Davenport sent a Mr. Warre and Mr. Lewis to negotiate with Raworth.

The rebellion eventually fizzled out as Raworth agreed to relinquish office on favourable terms of surrender.  However, he kept insisting that he would surrender to none but the Governor, Edward Harrison, himself. After some initial hesitation, Raworth’s demands were accepted by the Madras government. Harrison met Raworth at Fort St David on 7 December 1713, more than a month after the events at Condapah’s choultry. In the intervening period, Raworth’s influence had begun to wane and mass desertions have been recorded in the Fort St George archives. Also, unknown to the Madras government, Raworth had applied to France for asylum. Permission arrived from Louis XIV of France just as the authorities at Fort St George were beginning to get wind of Raworth’s treachery. They could not, however, prevent Raworth’s escape to France. Raworth died in Paris shortly afterwards, just as the directors of the British East India Company were preparing to prosecute him in absentia.

Why did the Fort St David garrison support Raworth and rebel against the Madras government in the first place? True, the soldiers of the garrison might have had little choice but to obey their immediate superiors. However, the Fort St George archives claim that Raworth ensured the fidelity of his troops by bestowing generous rewards and increasing wages.  In doing so, Raworth had built a powerful support base for himself. But the mass desertions towards the end remain unexplained to this day.   Raworth’s rebellion differs from the later ones  in two important aspects (other than the ethnic angle) – firstly, the uprising did not witness any of the hard-fought battles or vengeful executions that were characteristic of the later ones. Secondly, I feel that the mutiny was motivated by less noble causes than the 1807 Vellore mutiny or the Indian Rebellion of 1857.   While I do agree that Raworth’s rebellion was too small an incident to be remembered, nevertheless, the diligence and resolve shown by Company’s authorities in handling those early sieges and mutinies was instrumental in Britain maintaining a foothold in India without which the legendary Indian Empire would have never become a reality.

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