The Bolarum Mutiny, or the First War of Independence, was a forerunner of the Sepoy Revolt against the British in 1857
Published Date – 11:59 PM, Sat – 23 September 23
By KSS Seshan
With the Rashtrapati Nilayam, the official winter sojourn of the President of India at Bolarum in Secunderabad thrown open for public viewing in recent months, it has brought to the fore the importance of this magnificent building and its hoary past. This attractive colonial edifice was built in the 1860s as the official residence for the British Commandant of the Nizam’s cavalry after a severe mutiny took place in 1855 when the then Brigadier Commandant, Colin Mackenzie, was seriously wounded and almost killed by rebellious mutineers in protest against his blatant orders prohibiting their customary religious procession during Muharram.
The Bolarum Mutiny became very significant as the British viewed it as a forerunner of the countrywide outburst of the Sepoy Revolt against them in 1857, popularly known as the First War of Independence.
The Nizam of Hyderabad at the beginning of the 19th Century had a vast army, one of the largest of any Indian native prince. While the infantry was composed of both Hindus and Muslims, the Nizam’s cavalry was mainly of Muslims belonging to different tribes and nationalities — mostly Pathans, Arabs and Daccanies. The Nizam’s government was responsible for the payment of the troops but had no administrative control over the contingent. This system gave scope for creating unnecessary posts and paying high salaries for the European military officers. This is well revealed in a popular but sarcastic expression among the Europeans then in India: Poor Nizzy! Nizzy pays for all.
British Rules for Sepoys
As the Nizam’s troops were trained, armed and clothed on British lines, severe punishments in the name of strict discipline produced a feeling of resentment among the native soldiers. This gave expression to open defiance and mutiny among Hyderabad’s native sepoys on several occasions. The earliest of such an open defiance against the British in Nizam’s army ranks occurred in 1827 at Mominabad in the Hyderabad dominion where in the name of uniformity and discipline in the army, the British Commandant wanted all the sepoys to shave off their beards.
Rashtrapati Bhavan was built in the 1860s as the official residence for the British Commandant of the Nizam’s Cavalry after a severe mutiny took place in 1855 when the then Brigadier Commandant, Colin Mackenzie, was seriously wounded and almost killed by rebellious mutineers
To comply with the order, Colonel Davies, a deputy of the Commandant, got two soldiers forcibly shaved off their beards and insisted that others follow suit. As keeping beards was a part of their religious custom, the soldiers felt humiliated. The highly peeved soldiers the next day took position on their parade grounds with loaded guns and shot dead Col Davies on his arrival. His body was cut into pieces by the mutineers, sending shock waves to the British.
Three decades later, a more severe mutiny occurred in Hyderabad in September 1855, when the Nizam’s cavalry stationed at Bolarum broke out in open rebellion and attacked the Commanding officer Brigadier General Colin Mackenzie in protest against his blatant orders prohibiting their customary procession during Muharram. This mutiny attained great significance as it occurred a mere 20 months before the outbreak of the 1857 Revolt.
Mackenzie: a Decorated Commandant
Brigadier Colin Mackenzie was a Scottish officer of the Indian army who distinguished himself as a political agent in Afghanistan. Born in 1806 in London, he joined as a cadet of the Madras Native Infantry at the age of 19 and thus arrived in India. He participated in a number of campaigns in South India. In 1840, he was selected by Lord Auckland, the Governor General, to serve in Afghanistan where his services in the first Afghan war and in the capture of Kabul were highly appreciated. Afghans called him an English Mullah.
Subsequently, Mackenzie was employed on the North-West frontier to raise a Sikh regiment, participated in the Second Sikh War (1848) and impressed Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General. In 1850, Dalhousie appointed Col Mackenzie as the Brigadier General of the Nizam cavalry in Hyderabad. The mutiny in Bolarum brought an end to his active military career.
It was usual for the Commanding officers of the regiments to grant leave for Muslim troops for ten days during Muharram. As in the previous years, the Muslim cavalrymen applied to the Brigadier-General for leave from 14 to 23 September 1855. As the 23rd happened to be a Sunday and thus a ‘Sabbath Day’ for the local Christian officers, Mackenzie felt the Muharram procession would interfere in the social and religious engagements of fellow Christians. He, therefore, suggested that the observance of Muharram be changed from Sept 23 to Sept 26.
The cavalrymen did not agree and Mackenzie prohibited the procession. His orders, issued on 20 September, said, “No procession, music or noise will be allowed on any account whatsoever, from twelve O’ clock on Saturday to twelve O’clock, Sunday night”. But on further representation, he modified his orders permitting procession to take place only within the Lines of the Regiments; but not in the barracks or along the roads.
One of the earliest open defiance against the British in Nizam’s army ranks occurred in 1827 at Mominabad in the Hyderabad dominion where the British Commandant wanted all the sepoys to shave off their beards
The cavalrymen felt outrageous and humiliated. They decided to give vent to their feelings. On 21 September 1855 after sunset, friends and colleagues had come visiting Mackenzie’s family. As they all sat in the garden near the gate, a procession made a “hideous uproar” of the cavalrymen belonging to the 3rd Regiment and came along the road in front of his residence. Mackenzie went out and reminded the rioters of his orders and shouted to get back to their Lines. As they did not relent, he forcefully seized the two religious Alums (the standards generally taken in procession during Muharram). Within minutes, a large crowd from the Cavalry Lines returned with the war cry, Din Din.
Mackenzie raised his arm indicating to speak to them. But suddenly a man struck him with a violent blow with his sword on the head. Several blows followed in quick succession from the sepoys who by then had encircled him. One cut was six inches long; another took off the middle finger of the right hand of Mackenzie. Seething with pain and screaming with blood all over, Mackenzie returned with fast paces. But his pursuers did not stop. As he mounted the steps of the house, a few gave him “tremendous gashes on the back, one of which was 11 inches long.” There were altogether ten deep cuts all over the body. The thickly padded coat that the Brigadier was wearing actually saved his life.
On 25 September, Resident GA Bushby constituted a Court of Enquiry with Major Davidson, the Assistant Resident, as Chairman. Major Brice of the Artillery, Major Pritchard, a Judge, and Captain Clogstoun were the other members. After three months, based on the proceedings of inquiry which were kept strictly secret, the Governor-General issued his final orders.
Dalhousie’s Stern Orders
Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General, in-Council, in his orders dated 23 January 1856 came heavily on the Brigadier General when he wrote: “ ……. he prohibited a Muslim procession on the great Muslim festival, that when the orders were disobeyed, he not only behaved with undue violence but insulted the procession”. Mackenzie’s act was termed as “intemperate and unusually stringent and objectionable for it put forward the Moharam in direct conflict with the Christian Sabbath and thus introduced a religious element into the prohibition of the procession”.
Dalhousie further stated: “The immediate and real cause of the outrage by which Brigadier Mackenzie has so severely suffered was the act of the Brigadier himself”. Dalhousie ordered Mackenzie to proceed on leave to England forthwith to recoup his health.
He also made a general observation exhorting the European officers, “not to interfere with the religious observances of the natives of India under their control, further than what is actually necessary for the preservation of public peace and the maintenance of discipline and order”.
When Mackenzie returned from England, he was appointed as a political representative to the Nawab of Bengal. Then he was transferred to the civil department of the army as Superintendent of Army clothing, a post obviously inappropriate to the positions he held earlier. Mackenzie left India in 1873 and died in Edinburgh on 22 October 1881 at the age of 75.
After the attack on Mackenzie, the Nizam, Nasir ud Daulah, (1839-57) decided to build a residence in Bolarum for the Commandant worthy of his power and position with due protection that would not be vulnerable to any future mob fury. The building was completed in 1860 during the regime of Afzal ud Daulah (1857-69).
Built on a sprawling 90-acre plot, this single-storied bungalow with a Madras-type roof of 25 feet height has a unique double-pillared common verandah. With about 20 large rooms and halls, the bungalow has three wings, a main imposing hall and several smaller halls. The entire bungalow has profuse use of teakwood. The building, painted in bright white, is now declared a heritage mansion. An interesting feature is that an underground 50-metre tunnel connects the kitchen and the dining hall. This was a part of the precaution to protect the occupant from possible poisoning.
After Hyderabad state was merged with the Indian Union through police action in September, 1948, the Commandant’s bungalow at Bolarum was taken over by the government of India and converted into one of the official retreats of the President of India. It was named, ‘Rashtrapati Nilayam’, and declared as the winter retreat of the President for his annual southern sojourn. The other retreat home for the President is the Rashtrapati Nivas, the summer presidential resort in Shimla. Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President, stayed at Rashtrapati Nilayam and successive Presidents have been using it since then.
In the north-west of the bungalow, a huge flagpost-cum-weather watch was installed in 1867. It was in front of this flag post and in the open forecourt of this building that Prince Azam Jah, the elder son of Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, as the Honorary Commandant of Nizam’s troops, signed the instrument of surrender before a large assembly of Indian armies under the command of Gen JN Chowdhury on one side and his own Nizam’s troops on the other, on 17 September 1948, after the successful military action by the government of India, familiarly known as ‘Operation Polo’. The flag-post that stood tall as a sentinel for decades is now sadly pulled down.
Of all the components of the Nizam’s army, the cavalry regiment was considered the finest. It was known for its loyalty and occupied a pride of place even when compared to the infantry. By 1850, the Cavalry consisted of nearly 10,000 native sepoys of all ranks and 84 European officers. It had cantonments spread over several places in the state like Lingsugar, Hindoli, Mominabad, Ellichpur, Aurangabad and Bolarum each commanded by a seasoned British officer. In 1903, Hyderabad Cavalry was merged with the Indian army and was renamed Deccan Horse, which played a significant role in France and Palestine during World War I and was honoured with the prefix, ‘Royal’. However, with India becoming a Republic in 1950, ‘Royal’ was dropped. Today, Deccan Horse continues to be a renowned Tank Regiment of the Indian Army.
Helen Mackenzie’s account
Mackenzie was married first in 1832 to Adeline, the daughter of James Prattle, an officer of the Bengal Civil Service. She, however, died four years later on the day of their wedding anniversary. Mackenzie married Helen, daughter of Admiral John Erskine Douglas, in 1843. They had three daughters. As a prolific writer, Helen published a number of works relating to India besides the life of her husband. Her Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life, a biographical account of her husband, was highly acclaimed. The Narrative of the Mutiny at Bolarum: For the information of Brigadier Colin Mackenzie’s Family and Private Friends, the crucial document on the Bolarum Mutiny which is given in this volume is surmised to have been penned by Helen though she refrained from lending her name to the document for the obvious reason that by then Brigadier Mackenzie was still a serving officer under the Company administration in India. However, to those familiar with her other writings, it is obvious that she was the author of the Narrative…, a vivid eyewitness of the entire episode. Incidentally, a copy of this rare document is preserved at the Scottish National Library, Edinburgh.
Prince Azam Jah
Prince Azam Jah, known familiarly as ‘The Prince of Berar’, was the elder of the two sons of Mir Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam VII. Azam served as the Hon Commander of the Nizam’s forces before the State was integrated with the Indian Union in September 1948. It was Azam Jah, who on behalf of his father, signed the instrument of surrender. Prince Azam married Princess Darru Shehwar in 1932, the only daughter of Majid, the deposed Khalifa, the Sultan of Turkey. The second son of Osman Ali Khan was Moazzam Jah, who married Niloufer, the cousin of Darru Shehwar.