How Vizagapatam uprising in 1780 became a precursor to the 1857 mutiny
The first revolt by the local sepoys against the British forces of East India Company was on October 3, 1780, in the inconspicuous, nondescript town of Vizagapatam, as Visakhapatnam was known then
The 1780 Mutiny of Vizagapatam (now Visakhapatnam) was said to be the first revolt against the British empire, long before the 1857 War of Independence, wrongly hailed by biased historians as the first mutiny. In fact, most historians of India have blacked out the mutinies of the South, particularly the 1806 Vellore Mutiny, which took place before the 1857 event.
Similarly, there are very few articles about the freedom struggle in South India, in sharp contrast to the volumes written by these historians about freedom fighters in Northern and Western India. A common thread in both the Vizagapatam and Vellore mutinies was that they were largely led by the Muslims (in a notable contradiction to the image being projected by today’s Hindutva extremists as part of their hate campaign against Muslims).
According to the district gazetteer of Vizagapatam, the first revolt by the local sepoys against the British forces of East India Company was on October 3, 1780, in the inconspicuous, nondescript town of Vizagapatam. The Sepoy Rebellion of 1780 in Vizagapatam was widely covered in Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, which holds the distinction of being the first English newspaper printed in India during the colonial rule.
1780 Mutiny of Vizagapatam, the first sepoy mutiny in India
The Vizagapatam mutiny was the first sepoy mutiny in India, as coined and recorded in the Gazetteer in the London Archives, according to Professor Emeritus of the Department of History and Archaeology of Andhra University, Kolluru Suryanarayana.
In those days, officers of the East India Company would enlist natives predominantly from the Muslim community who had ancestral links to the sepoys and fauzdars (officers) of the Mughal kings in the region. These recruits were primarily employed for revenue collection in the district. However, there was a sense of discontentment prevailing among the local sepoys due to unfulfilled wage promises. They were also treated with disrespect by the British superiors. Added to this was the unpleasant task given to them — of boarding a frigate located near the old Lighthouse in the Old Town area, to join other English forces in the Carnatic war against Hyder Ali.
On September 14, 1780, Governor John Whitehall of the Madras Presidency wrote to James Henry Casamajor, the local chief of the Company in Vizagapatam and Masulipatnam, instructing Casamajor to prepare the local forces for deployment in the Carnatic War, apparently due to weakening of the British forces in the ongoing conflict against Hyder Ali.
Casamajor instructed the embarkation of the local sepoys. While the sepoys in Masulipatnam agreed and complied, those in Vizagapatam rebelled against the order. On October 3, 1780, initially, things seemed to be going according to plan under the command of Captain Lysaught. The arms and other necessary items were partially loaded onto the frigate. However, around 3 pm, the sepoys, led by Mohammed, refused to board the ship.
The revolt by Shaikh Mohammed and his sepoys
The leader of the local forces during that time was a man named Shaikh Mohammed, and the majority of the sepoys belonged to his community. The sepoys refused to go and fight against Hyder Ali, whom they regarded as a hero.
The British officers entered into an altercation with the sepoys. Shaikh Mohammed and his sepoys, armed with loaded muskets, then unleashed gunfire at the British officers, killing Lieutenant Crisps, Kingsford Venner (a cadet), and Robert Rutherford (the paymaster). Another officer, Charles Maxtone, and a frigate officer named Lane were gravely injured but managed to be rescued and swim back to the frigate. A few other officers, including Lt. Brown, Ellis, and Collins, also made good their escape.
The grave of Cadet Kingsford Venner can still be found at Old English Cemetery located in the Old Town area of the city.
The rebels went on to seize control of the town and captured Casamajor, along with several other English officers and civil servants. Edward Paul, a history enthusiast and chronicler of Visakhapatnam’s history, stated that the rebels also freed a Frenchman who was held captive by the British as he was suspected to be a spy of the French forces. The French had fought alongside Hyder Ali in the Carnatic War.
Soon, almost all the native sepoys had joined the revolt, resulting in the liberation of the town from the rule of the East India Company. The mutineers then went on a rampage, finding information about the places where the Company had stored its wealth and then went on to loot them.
Casamajor himself stated later that the rebels went beyond looting the goods, arms, and ammunition stored in the arsenal or armoury, and also took over the Company’s cash, amounting to ₹21,999, a princely sum in those days.
The desperate Englishmen who survived rushed to the houses of local Zamindars to seek refuge, while the rebels took control of the entire garrison.
It was then that the Mutineers made a costly mistake. While leading his forces to join Hyder Ali on October 4, Mohammed, on the advice of a local Zamindar, Gajapathi Narain Deo, freed the captive British officers. Casamajor returned to the town and issued orders to Captain Ensign Butler, the commander of the Grenadiers regiment, to regroup with the surviving English soldiers, officers, and a few loyal local sepoys. He also instructed the local Zamindars, who were in the employ of the East India Company, not to provide support to the rebels as they passed through their territories. This directive aimed to limit the rebels’ ability to find refuge or receive assistance along their route.
On October 8, the rebels found themselves surrounded and ambushed at a gorge near Gudderallywanka, close to Payakaraopeta. Most of the rebels were killed in the conflict, though Mohammed and a small group managed to escape. They were finally captured and executed a few months later, thus bringing to an end the mutiny.
According to Edward Paul, a history enthusiast and chronicler of Visakhapatnam’s history, the mutiny, although short-lived, had a significant impact on the rule of the East India Company. As a result, the Company swiftly implemented a series of changes in administration, military fortifications, and regulations.
Edward Paul recorded that Casamajor himself acknowledged the gravity of the revolt in a preserved testimony found in the British Library in London. In his statement, Casamajor admitted, “The revolt of the grenadiers was, in all respects, an event that might have led to dangerous consequences. It had annihilated our power and influence in a great measure. At any rate, we received such a shock that we felt ourselves degraded as a Government.”
Paul also records that the revolt has been referred to in various historical sources, including the History of the Madras Army by W.J. Wilson and the letters exchanged among John Whitehall, Casamajor, and Brown on October 4 and 9, 1780.