IMMIGRANTS FROM BOMBAY: The runaway or sent away rebels of the Indian Mutiny of 1857?

This article, on the eve of the Maharashtra Day and Shivaji Day, aims at prompting some serious reflection on the context of the arrival of some of our ancestors from Bombay, especially those who came soon after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (sometimes referred to as the first Indian war of independence). It also attempts to highlight the link between the political conditions in the Bombay Presidency and the increase in the number of immigrants during that period.
Often their descendants recount stories of ‘aja panjas’ or great grandfathers’ participation in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. But these lack crucial details and remain to be substantiated.
Nevertheless, some of the current customs and practices associated with the worship of Goddess Bhawani such as gondal, cas lasen, animal sacrifice have historical and martial significance particularly for the warring classes to develop mental strength, discipline and focus. ‘Cas lasen’ or breaking the chains symbolises renouncing and relinquishing attachments, both material and otherwise. Historically, these rituals were performed before going to serve the motherland.
These practices and customs do not seem to have been learnt from Marathi movies or television soaps but are certainly the family traditions, naturally handed down from one generation to the next.
Bombay Presidency: Bombay Presidency was a province of the English East India Company (hereinafter, the Company). Lord John Elphinstone was the Governor of the Presidency at that time. As soon as the news of the Meerut rebellion of 10th May 1857 reached him, he decided to fortify the Presidency with the British troops.  He chartered two steamers, the Pottinger and the Madras, and sent them under the command of Captain Griffith Jenkins to Mauritius and the Cape, with requests to return with reinforcements of British troops.
By this time the impact of the mutiny on the British in Central India had reached the two Governors (of Mauritius and the Cape) and they dispatched all troops they could spare.  
On 22nd June 1857, Lord Elphinstone wrote, “If you allow the insurrection to come down to our borders without attempting to check it, we shall almost deserve our fate.” (The Gazetteers of Maharashtra)
Mutiny in Bombay Presidency: Many of the native rulers, their families, staff and subjects were unhappy with the Company rule. Some were either dethroned or reduced to titular positions while others had lost their estates to the Company under the guise of the infamous doctrine of lapse, according to which, any state whose ruler was either found incompetent or who died without a direct heir was automatically annexed to the Company.
The Company’s land revenue systems also affected them all, kings, chiefs, landlords and peasants included. And if these systems were not harsh enough, the Inam Commission set up in 1852 to regulate the state grants of lands or ‘inams’ had increased the ordeals of many ‘inamdars’ or the grant holders by questioning the inheritance of grants that they (or their forefathers) had received as rewards for their services to the native rulers.
Their discontent was further aggravated by the British’s criticism of the native beliefs, practices and culture. It was this unwanted intrusion that Malleson (1890) succinctly sums up as the main reason for the Mutiny. He explains, “The determining cause of the Mutiny of 1857 was the attempt to force Western ideas upon an Eastern people.”(p.276)
They therefore decided to join the rebellion. The native troops of various British regiments posted at Aurangabad, Bombay, Satara, Kolhapur, Dharwar, Belgaon also rebelled but were severely dealt with by the British.
Fate of the Rebels: We can roughly sort them into three groups.
Royals and their chiefs: The first group comprised the royals and their chiefs. The Company decided to detain them as political prisoners with a view to checking any future rebellion. For example, the family of Raja Pratapsinh of Satara was first confined at Butcher’s island (Jawahar Dweep) in the Bombay harbor and later moved to Karachi. The adopted sons of the Raja and his senapati (chief of the army) were kept “in residences separate from the Ranis, who proved incurable intriguers.”(The Maharashtra State Gazetteers)
Captured rebels: The second group comprised captured rebels. The leaders and their vocal supporters were executed by hanging or blown from guns, often in public as a deterrent for any future rebellious activity. On 27th August 1857, a special commission trialed seventeen captured rebels and found them guilty. They were executed on 8th September 1857. Today there is a memorial called Faschicha Wada at Genda Mala in the city of Satara. (Brahme, 2011)  There were many such executions.
As far as the fate of the remaining captured rebels was concerned, the British were shrewd enough to gauge the difficulties and risks involved in imprisoning them inside the country. They were skeptical of the native guards, whom they feared could easily turn sympathetic to the brave rebels. Moreover, the existing prisons lacked the space needed to accommodate such large numbers.
The Maharashtra State Gazetteers report that the captured rebels were transported. But it does not mention the destination. Transported where? To the Straits Settlements (Malacca, Dinding, Penang, Singapore) or to the Andaman Islands that the Company was developing as penal colonies? Could these settlements accommodate such huge numbers?
Runaway rebels: The third group comprised rebels who took the advantage of the monsoon rains and familiar terrain to escape into the hills and forests of the Sahaydri. The British did not chase them for two reasons. First, they were preoccupied with the captured rebels and did not have sufficient time and resources to search for the runaway ones. Secondly, they reckoned that in the absence of their chiefs and leaders (most were either detained or executed) there was neither leadership nor logistical and financial support to regroup and continue the rebellion.
One famous rebel was Rango Bapuji. He was the political adviser of the Raja Prapapsinh of Satara. He managed to escape and was never caught although there was a reward of rupees five hundred for his capture.
Where did these runaway rebels go? Did the sepoys return to their regiments? Could they (sepoys and civilian rebels) return to their villages and live in anonymity without the fear of capture and punishment?
Emigration to Mauritius
The massive increase in the number of Indian immigrants to the colonies in the post Mutiny days and the family stories of patriotism, especially relating to Shivaji and of strong self-reliance, corroborate their involvement in the Indian Mutiny.
Also if they were the economic migrants who wanted to escape famine and other hardships, they could have migrated to Bombay which was experiencing tremendous growth and development in infrastructure and many other sectors. Workers were in great demand. Moreover, the spinning mills opened around this time, not only offered jobs to both skilled and unskilled men and women but also provided housing in ‘chawls’ or basic tenements in large multistory buildings, thereby facilitating the migration of families.
Many of the immigrants to Mauritius were accompanied by young families. My website relates the story of the Hunma family from Satara (father, mother, children from ages 1 to 14) who reached Mauritius on 29 December 1957.
Interestingly, Carter and Bates (2010) cite the minutes of the Governor of British Guiana which was drafted for the Court of Policy wherein he suggested that thirty thousand ‘transportees’ could be accommodated in the colony with their families. Was there a similar arrangement for Mauritius also?
Certainly, uprooted from their familiar surroundings and tied with the responsibility of young families, they would think twice before starting any rebellion in a new territory.
Although there is circumstantial evidence of the involvement of the immigrants in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the question remains: Were they sent away or runaway rebels of the Indian Mutiny?
 (For details, visit my website: )


You have sadly attempted to communalise the events of 1857 by falsely giving the impression that it was a Hindu event! The reality was that ALL Indians who rose against the British, did so in the name of the Mughal Emperor, Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar (Bahadur Shah II). NB. Many Indians also chose to remain ‘loyal’ to the British!

Professor Clare Anderson, Chair of UK Imperial History at the University of Leicester (UK) has conducted extensive research on the issue of Indian prisoners post 1857, as well as writing a book on the subject:

‘The Indian Uprising of 1857: prisons, prisoners and rebellion’, Anderson, Clare (Anthem, 2007/2012).

The reality is that the British were not about to spread anti-British sentiments throughout their empire by scattering Indian revolutionaries to it‘s four corners! The Andamans was the ONLY place where Indian POW's were sent to. However, the British chose to execute thousands of men, women and even children, often employing the foulest and most barbaric methods. Though Bahadur Shah II and his immediate family were exiled to Burma. This is not to say that no Indian revolutionary from the events of 1857 managed to escape the terrible vengeance wrought by the British, by fleeing abroad!

Many Indo-Mauritians, perhaps to escape their indentured heritage, have created fantasies of how their ancestors came to this island! In the first instance, the MGI MUST make all records during the indentured period easily and openly accessible to Mauritians. Not all Mauritians are financially able to have their ‘Alex Haley (‘Roots’) moment’ in tracing and even visiting their ancestral village/city in India.