While the sepoy uprising of 1857 remains the best-known mutiny in the history of British Raj in India, there have been several others, notable being the mutiny by Naval ratings in Mumbai in 1946. However, one of the earliest ones, and one about which very little has been written, was the ‘White Mutiny’ of 1776. As evident from the label, it was the British officers and men who were up in arms against the authority, which was wielded at this time, as in 1857, by the East India Company rather than the crown. The mutiny was centered around the garrison town of ‘Monghyr’ – now known as Munger, a district in the state of Bihar, also famous for a fictional television character hailing from here with a proclivity for daydreaming – ‘Mungeri Lal ke Haseen Sapne’.
The Fort at Monghyr
The root of discontent among the British troops of the East India Company that led to this mutiny was the curtailment of the ‘bhatta’ (allowance) that they had been receiving up unto this time. This allowance was paid in addition to their regular salary when they were ‘on the march’ or in field i.e away from their permanent location. After the battle of Plassey (1757), the victorious Company under Lord Clive had installed Mir Jaffar as the Nawab of Bengal in place of Siraj ud-Daula as a reward for betraying the dethroned Nawab in the battle. In return, Mir Jaffar agreed to pay the cost of the Company’s army, even doubling the ‘bhatta’ to ingratiate himself with his benefactors. But shortly thereafter the Company outmaneuvered Jaffar himself by signing the ‘Treaty of Allahabad’ with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II in 1756, under which the Company received the ‘Diwani’, or direct rights to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor for Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The flip side of this was that henceforth the Company would have to pay for its own army in the presidency. It promptly decided to withdraw the largess of double ‘bhatta’ now that it was footing the bill. The sudden loss of income caused resentment amongst those affected.
The Company’s forces at the time consisted of three brigades, one each at Bankipore (in modern Patna), Allahabad and ‘Monghyr’. The officers of the Monghyr Brigade, under Lt Col Sir Robert Fletcher, decided to resign en masse on 1st July 1776 unless the allowances were restored. They were in correspondence with the officers of the other two brigades, who were also supposedly in agreement with this plan. The officers of the First (Monghyr) Brigade wrote a letter to Captains Fred Smith and Thomas Pearson who were serving on the staff of General Carnac, urging them to join their cause. The letter read as follows –
We are not to inform you, that all the officers here, and those at Patna and Allahabad, (except a few, and those pimps to power too) have resolved to resign their service the first day of May next, unless the batta is restored to what it was in July and August 1763; and request that you will concur with us in refusing to serve but upon those terms. This is no hasty ill-conducted scheme, but the settled resolution of the THREE BRIGADES, who are, to a man, resolved to send every officer to everlasting Coventry, who refuse to join in a cause so just and honourable. We therefore beg that you will, immediately upon receipt of this, transmit your sentiments to some of your friends here, who may communicate them to us. We further beg, that you will consider maturely on this subject before you come to any resolution; for depend upon it, we are determined to go through with it, at the risque (sic) of life, fortune, friends, and ever thing that is dear and sacred. The gentlemen at Moradbaug may be able to inform you of material circumstances. Till we have your answers, we are truly and sincerely
The First Brigade
27 April 1766
News of the brewing mutiny reached Clive before it could actually be set into motion, and he set off to Monghyr himself to quell the revolt before it could begin. He sent forward some of his trusted officers including Captain Smith, to prevent the situation from getting out of hand before he reached.
Smith reached Monghyr on 12th May at night and found the British officers in a rebellious mood – drinking, singing and beating drums. He managed to requisition reinforcements in the form of two ‘native’ battalions from Kharagpur just in time as the European battalion broke into open rebellion on 14th May. Smith pre-empted them by getting the reinforcing native battalions to take possession of the artillery guns of the ‘saluting battery’ located on a dominating hillock from which they dominated the barracks of the European battalion. The rebellious troops, who had taken up arms and were preparing to join their officers when they found themselves face to face with bayonet wielding sepoys of the native battalions. Smith threatened the potential rebels with dire consequences unless they returned to their barracks. Their commander, Lt Col Robert Fletcher, who’s stance and loyalties had been somewhat ambiguous so far, also urged them likewise. There was some discussion between him and his officers, who had been heartened at the news of their troops coming out in their support. But the commanding officer refused their entreaties to join them in their protest, and ordered all the officers to leave the garrison immediately.
Lord Clive arrived at Monghyr the next day, but by now the mutiny was already over. He addressed the troops and announced that those guilty of mutiny would face the consequences under law. The exiled mutinous officers were ordered to report to Calcutta to await trial. The officers and sepoys of the two Indian battalions who were instrumental in suppressing the mutiny were awarded with a special commemorative medal for the action. Subsequent investigations revealed that Lt Col Sir Robert Fletcher was actually the chief instigator. Despite threats, no legal action was taken against the rebel officers, most of whom including Fletcher were re-admitted into the Company’s army.
Medal Awarded to Indian Troops who Quelled the Mutiny
As for Monghyr / Munger, it soon ceased to be an important garrison town, but by virtue of its location and purity of its air, was used as a sanatorium for the British troops.