Behind the scenes: colonial violence and resistance in the Gwillim archive

The Tomb of Ali Hossain 1803, Mary Symonds (watercolour, pencil, paper, 230 x 180 mm, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC106.30

Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds’ letters often paint an idyllic picture of Madras under the East India Company. However, a closer reading reveals strong undercurrents of colonial violence and dissent.

On 31 July 1801, soon after the sister’s arrival in Madras, Azim ud Doula was enthroned as the Nawab of the Carnatic. The Nawabs had formerly reigned at Arcot, sixty miles to the west of Madras. But by the late eighteenth century the court had been moved to Triplicane, a suburb of Madras. Maps from this period show large areas of land belonging to the Nawabs, and when the East India Company laid claim to San Thomé in 1749, they did so in the name of the Nawab. Even after the move to Triplicane, the court of Arcot remained an important cultural centre, providing patronage for scholars and poets.[1] Nonetheless, the real power of the dynasty had waned and by 1801, the Governor of Madras, Lord Edward Clive, was putting pressure on the Nawab, Umdat ul Umara, to formally transfer the administration of the Carnatic to the EIC. Umdat ul Umara died in July 1801, having nominated as successor his son, Ali Hussain, who refused to acquiesce to the annexation. The Company recognized his relative Azim ud Doula in his place. Shortly afterwards, Ali Hussain died, raising suspicions that he had been poisoned by the EIC.

Mary referred only in passing to Azim ud Doula’s coronation, describing the garlands presented to dignitaries during the ceremony.[2] However, she painted the tomb of Ali Hussain (above) surrounded by men, some in attitudes of prayer. As Elizabeth wrote to her mother, “The Moor men consider him as a saint. – I fear he fell a Martyr.”[3] As Elizabeth also notes, the British press reported on these events, with some commentators condemning the “usurpation” of the Carnatic and the treatment of the Nawab.[4] Mary’s paintings and the accompanying notes are valuable because they suggest that the tomb of the assassinated Prince had become a focal point for dissent against the East India Company. As Susan Bayly writes, the tombs (dargahs) of warrior-saints (pirs) had become central to Sufi worship in Tamil Nadu since the eighteenth century. The Nawabs of Arcot had previously acted as patrons to the network of Sufi holy men (described as ‘fakirs’ by the British) who led these cults and brokered their relations with the rulers of Mysore, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan.[5]

The British used evidence of Umdat ul Umara’s correspondence with Tipu Sultan to accuse him of ‘treason’ and justify their replacement of his son with Azim ud Doula.[6] Unsurprisingly, after Tipu Sultan’s own death in the battle of Srirangapatam (Seringapatam) in May 1799, there are suggestions that he was regarded as a warrior saint. An oblique reference to this appears in Elizabeth’s correspondence, where she writes that shawls from Tipu Sultan’s place were “were served out to the merchants as from a Warehouse – & all so kept are worn by the great moor men in turn – when they sell out therefore they seldom part with the new ones they wear a different pair one on the waist or as a cloak & one on the head every day.”[7] There are some other contemporary references to this practice. Notably, Arthur Wellesley believed that the use of Tipu’s clothing as “relics” was connected to discontent with East India Company rule, and he tried to prevent the clothing from being sold locally.[8]

“Processional scene with Amar Singh, ruler of Thanjavur (Tanjore), and Sarabhoji”, ca. 1797, V&A, IM.10-1938

In 1798, the East India Company deposed the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur (Tanjore), Ramaswami Amarsimha Bhonsle (also known as Amar Singh or Ameer Sing), replacing him with his former ward, Serfoji II (also known as Sambhoji). Amar Sing was described in the East India Company records as a usurper and condemned for his neglect of his ward, whom he apparently denied access to basic education and this impression of him has survived in the historical literature, which tends to focus on Serfoji’s interests in literature, collecting, and natural philosophy.[9] This can obscure the fact that the replacement of Amar Singh with Serfoji ended the independent authority of the Tanjore Maratha dynasty. Though it caused less controversy for the Company than the death of Ali Hussain, this was nonetheless another coup by the Company. Amar Sing died in April 1802. According to a letter translated from Marathi by Elizabeth’s dubash Sami, two of Amar Singh’s wives committed sati following his death. Their names are given in the letter as Parvati and Savithri Bhonsle. A third wife, Bhavani Bonsle, survived and committed Amar Sing’s young son to the care of the Company’s Resident in Tanjore, Captain Blackburn. As well as revealing details of the otherwise unknown death of Amar Singh’s wives, the letter implies that Pratap Singh, Amar Singh’s son, who is described in the letter as the “young Rajah” maintained a claim to the Tanjore crown. A letter addressed to him by Edward Clive promises financial support from the East India Company, presumably on the condition that he set aside these claims.[10]

Sati, Tanjore (Thanjavur), c. 1800, V&A, AL.8805

The EIC adopted a similar approach with the sons of Tipu Sultan, to whom they paid lavish stipends while confining them with their families in a “fortress prison” in Vellore.[11] Vellore was the site of the most serious revolt against British authority that took place before 1857. On 10 July 1806, Indian sepoys (soldiers) killed several European officers and took over Vellore Fort and raised the flag of the Mysore Sultanate. The rebellion was repressed the following day by troops led by Captain Robert Rollo Gillespie, who killed all but around seventy-five of the sepoys within the fort.[12] The Vellore Mutiny was prompted by the introduction of a new dress code that included hat-like turbans and prohibited the wearing of caste marks on the forehead and the wearing of rings and ear ornaments. Although Tipu Sultan’s son Muiz-ud-Din was designated Sultan by the sepoys, he came to know about the plot relatively late and hesitated to join the rebels.[13] Although the suspicions of the Madras government that the plot originated with the princes were not confirmed, they and their families were moved to Bengal. This strategy of exiling deposed rulers would be repeated over the course of the nineteenth century. James Hoover’s recent study also failed to find any direct links between the annexation of Thanjavur, the Carnatic, and much of Mysore and the revolt. However, some of the sepoys who led the revolt had experience fighting in the armies of Tipu Sultan or the Nawabs of the Carnatic. A contemporary petition sent from Hyderabad and probably authored by Indian commissioning officers there linked the revolt to a general dissatisfaction with service in the British army, including poor pay and conditions and a lack of respect for Indian officers.[14] As Susan Bayly notes, British concerns that the uprising was fomented by itinerant Sufis (described by the British as “fakirs”) may not have been entirely unfounded.[15] The conspirators used the tomb (dargah) of a Sufi saint Amin Pir as a meeting point and the ideal of the warrior saint was probably an inspiration to those who opposed Company rule.[16] 

Crocodilus palustris (Crocodylus palustris) Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-2-30.

Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds had contacts with the European community at Vellore, including with Amelia Fancourt whose father was a lawyer acquaintance of the Gwillim’s in London.[17] At some stage, one sister (probably Elizabeth, whose handwriting appeared on the image) painted a ten-foot ‘marsh crocodile’ from the moat at Vellore. Charlotte Clive, who visited Vellore in 1800, also described the alligators in the moat surrounding the fort. [18] After the uprising at Vellore, Mary and Elizabeth collected various testimonies relating to it. One of the these was by Amelia Fancourt, whose husband was killed in the conflict and who was herself helped by a sepoy, who hid her and her children in a chicken coop until the fighting had passed. Although this document no longer remains among the Gwillim letters at the British Library, it was published in 1906 by William Frederick Blunt, a descent of Elizabeth and Mary’s sister, Hester James, along with an extract from Elizabeth’s letter on the subject.[19] Another testimony that was not published and remains in the British Library volume was from an unnamed officer also present at Vellore. This document includes a table of the European soldiers killed and wounded in the conflict, coming to a total of 183.[20] In her letter, Elizabeth estimates that 600 sepoys were killed as the fort was retaken, writing that ‘It was a dreadful slaughter & none were spared.’[21] These estimates are close to those of modern scholars and demonstrate that Elizabeth and Mary were able to access reasonably accurate information about the uprising.

Another despatch enclosed with Mary and Elizabeth’s correspondence is attributed to Captain Smithies, a young officer at Hyderabad contains an account of a planned revolt at Hyderabad at around the same time as the Vellore uprising. This account relates that an uprising was planned on the night of the 12 July and that the alarm was raised by the sepoys’ wives who, fearing reprisals from the British should the rebellion fail, began “the most dreadful howling” while trying to drag their husbands back into their houses.[22] The “disturbances” at Hyderabad were also reported by other sources, some of which connected them to the court of the Nizam Sikander Jah.[23] Elizabeth was certain that the events at Vellore and Hyderabad were connected, writing that “the plan was formed with a design to murder the Europeans here & in every settlement station hereabout.”[24] Amelia Fancourt’s narrative of the Vellore Mutiny was published several times during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,[25] revealing the ongoing colonial concern over the fragility of British rule in the subcontinent.

Mary and Elizabeth’s letters about the Vellore mutiny demonstrate their intimate knowledge of the political situation in and around Madras. The Gwillim family were drawn into the politics of the settlement as Henry Gwillim’s efforts to dispense justice in line with British law conflicted with the policies of the EIC Governor and Council in Madras.[26] These tensions culminated in a major confrontation in 1807, when the Governor, Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, introduced a new local police force under military authority. Henry denounced this force as a despotic act of government. Finally, Henry’s invoking of habeas corpus to defend an Indian man who had been accused of conspiracy to overthrow the Madras government led to Henry’s unwarranted reputation as a “revolutionary”. As a result of the combined complaints of Bentinck and his fellow judge Thomas Strange and subsequent lobbying by the EIC, he was eventually ordered to return to England. As Haruki Inagaki has shown, Henry’s struggles were part of a wider conflict between the British judiciary in India and the EIC, eventually resolved in the charter of 1834 which granted the EIC control over the judiciary, effectively rendering the law an “instrument of despotism.”[27]

The early nineteenth century was a critical point in the East India Company’s transition from holding small areas of land based on a network of grants from Indian rulers towards ruling large areas of land in militarized and bureaucratic way. The removal or replacement of local rulers who interfered with its ambitions was a key strategy which was developing around the time that the Gwillims were in Madras. The references in the letters to political events are often fleeting, but they supply some interesting details about the ways in which resistance to Company rule in Madras was expressed. 

[1] Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 223.

[2] Mary Symonds to Esther Symonds, 14 October 1801, Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 4r-11v, f. 7v.

[3] Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, 16 August 1803, Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 140r-141v, f.

[4] For example, letter to the editor from Asiaticus, “Nabobs of Arcot,” Morning Chronicle, London, 3 February 1802. 

[5] Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings, p. 222.

[6] Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings, p. 222.

[7] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, 15 February 1803, Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 111r-114v.  

[8] Nicole M Hartwell, Framing colonial war loot: The ‘captured’ spolia opima of Kunwar Singh, Journal of the History of Collections, 42 (2021).

[9] Savithri Preetha Nair, Raja Serfoji Ii : Science, Medicine and Enlightenment in Tanjore. Routledge, 2012.

[10] Records of Fort St George, Country Correspondence, 1802 (Madras: Government Press, 1909) no. 37, p. 29.

[11] James W. Hoover, Men Without Hats: Dialogue, Discipline, and Discontent in the Madras Army 1806-1807. (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 2007), 72-95.

[12] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 99-120.

[13] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 100-101, 133.

[14] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 25-41.

[15] Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 222-226.

[16] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 137.

[17] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, September/October 1806, Letter-068-EG-09-1806, 20 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 329r-343v, f. 341v)).

[18] Henrietta Clive and Nancy K Shields. Birds of Passage: Henrietta Clive’s Travels in South India 1798-1801 (Eland Publishing, 2012), 150. 

[19] W. F. Blunt, “The Mutiny at Vellore (July 1906),” The Monthly Review, XXIV, no,. 72 (Sept 1906).

[20] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 119 gives a total of 195 British killed or wounded. He estimates that between 600-700 sepoys were killed.  

[21] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, September/October 1806, Letter-068-EG-09-1806, 15 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 329r-343v, f. 338v)).

[22] ” (16)          Copy of a letter from Captain [Smythies]” enclosed with a letter from Mary Symonds to Hester Symonds [undated, but c. November 1806] Letter_070_MS_11_1806 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, f. 356r).

[23] Hoover, Men Without Hats, 147-169.

[24] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, September/October 1806, Letter-068-EG-09-1806, 15 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 329r-343v, f. 338v)).

[25] “An Account Of the Mutiny at Vellore, by the Lady of Sir John Fancourt, the Commandant, who was killed there July 9th, 1806,” in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (14 June 1842), 2; “Insurrection at Vellore,” The Plain Englishman, 2 (1821), 437-441.

[26] Raymond Cocks, “Social Rules and Legal Rights: Three Women in Early Nineteenth-Century India,” Journal of Legal History 23, no. 77 (2002): 77-106. 

[27] Inagaki, The Rule of Law and Emergency in Colonial India, quote from p. 6.

By Anna Winterbottom