This is the second of several planned postings related to the 1879-80 Rumpa Rebellion in India, a setting in my novel The Tiger Warrior that I researched extensively using primary sources in the India Office Collections of the British Library. The rebellion was a tribal uprising in the jungle of southern India near the Godavari river, and was countered by a brigade-sized expedition of the Madras army including a company of sappers led by my great-great-grandfather Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale, Royal Engineers. For my other postings, on human sacrifice in the jungle and malaria, click here. Once these postings are complete a comprehensive account of the rebellion and the military deployment with full references will be added as a PDF.
The Military History of the Madras Engineers and Pioneers, published in 1881, contains only a brief account of the involvement of the Madras Sappers and Miners in the Rumpa Rebellion, written by an officer who was not present and at a time when most of the junior officers who had been deployed in the Rumpa Field Force had left the Corps for other appointments. Although service in the Field Force counted as ‘War Service’ in officers’ records, there was to be no campaign medal – the only general service medal then issued in India was awarded sparingly, and only for frontier actions – and therefore little military glory, with the rebellion being overshadowed by the Afghan War of 1878-81 in which most officers of the Corps had served. Nevertheless, unlike the Afghan War, the Rumpa operations were an unqualified success, and the two companies of Madras Sappers deployed in the Field Force –a brigade-sized force ultimately numbering more than 2,500 troops of the Madras army and the neighbouring princely states, as well as police - saw more action than a number of the Madras sapper officers sent in 1880 to Afghanistan, where they spent their time building roads and other installations in the frontier passes without encountering the enemy.
The volumes of the Madras Military Proceedings held in the India Office Collections of the British Library provide a detailed record of all army operations during the Rumpa campaign, based on the daily reports of officers in the field (many of which are reproduced verbatim); the page and date references for the material quoted below will appear in the PDF to accompany these posts. The operations bore many of the hallmarks of a modern counter-insurgency campaign: patrolling for an elusive enemy; short, sharp contacts when they did occur; searching villages for concealed weapons; and reprisals and punishments on both sides. The initial role of the sappers on their deployment in August 1879 was as infantry, relieving parties of the 10th Madras Native Infantry as guards on the river steamers and then in the hills. Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale, my ancestor, took a detachment of G Company deep into the jungle to Yellaishweram, where they fortified a camp and confronted the rebels. Lieutenant Robert Ewen Hamilton - recently returned from Afghanistan - with 60 men of D Company was sent above the gorge of the Godavari to prevent rebels crossing into the adjacent princely state of Hyderabad, and to contain the uprising in the neighbouring district of Rekapalle.
On 20 August 1879 Hamilton and his men were involved in one of the bloodiest engagements in the rebellion, one reported in The Times and The New York Times. On the previous day, Hamilton had been informed that one hundred men under the rebel leader Chendriah were eight miles away intent on looting Rekapalle. Along with Mr J.F. Beddy, Assistant Commissioner in the Central Provinces, he marched with 30 sappers through the night and led a dawn attack. Despite surprise being lost at the last moment, the sappers advanced out of the jungle in skirmishing order and met a heavy fire. Hamilton described the action:
The fire of the sappers, however, as they advanced, demoralized the rebels, for they retired into the jungle, keeping up a continuous fire. As the troops advanced, some high cultivation intervened, so they moved along the side of this into the village, then going on arrival on open ground, and kept up a fire on the rebels, who were occasionally visible as they moved through the jungle … where the rebels, knowing their way about, had such a decided advantage on the sappers, without regard to numerical strength … I was, however, wrong in thinking the rebels had retired, for the whole way back they harassed us considerably, keeping up a continuous fire, which was replied to wherever practicable … but the rebels always took refuge behind the trees and it was difficult to get a good shot at them.
After enduring more harassing fire as the rebels ‘flitted from tree to tree’ Hamilton reached Rekapalle, where he halted and repelled the attacks ‘by heavy fire.’ Altogether 1050 rounds were expended from their Snider-Enfield rifles, and ten rebels were killed.
Despite this and other successes, four months later the Adjutant-General in Madras expressed his frustration: ‘Up to the present time, our action has not been such as to instill fear amongst the rebels or confidence amongst those who are well-disposed towards us …our position in the disturbed districts is little, if at all, better than it was ten months ago when the insurrection first commenced. Our troops are uselessly harassed and exposed, suffer in health and in life, and we seem no nearer suppressing the insurrection than in March last.’
In response to this, the commander of the force, Colonel (acting Brigadier) Lewis William Buck, ordered a surge in offensive patrolling over the next four months, during the dry season. On 15 January 1880 a surprise attack by troops killed six rebels, and the troops confiscated ‘one percussion gun, seven matchlocks and a dagger.’ On 16 February another rebel was shot, and troops recovered ‘two police carbines, one matchlock, a sword and some bows and arrows.’ In another incident a rebel shot and wounded a policeman with an arrow, before cutting his own throat. The rebels continued to mount audacious attacks: on 17 March police repulsed one attack, killing four; two months later another attack resulted in the deaths of four constables. On that occasion Colonel Richard Kirwan Macquoid of the Hyderabad Infantry - an Indian Mutiny veteran - went after the enemy, in an attack he described vividly in his report:
About 8.30 I proceeded on my way to Ponch, preceded by an advance guard. We had not gone more than one and a half miles before a shot was fired by the enemy, followed by five or six others in quick succession. Dr Brown and myself were riding together at the head of the column; we jumped off the horses and got the men into skirmishing order on the right and left of the road and opened fire on the enemy … we quickly drove the enemy from their position and they made for the river which was close by, and, jumping in, swam to the opposite bank. We kept up a hot fire on them as they did so.
Ten rebels were killed and twenty wounded, for the loss of one man killed and one wounded, and a wound to MacQuoid’s horse. Surgeon William Richard Brown - a future Surgeon-General, and official surgeon to the Viceroy - had two months earlier shot and killed the rebel leader Bemma Reddi. In the same month the rebel widely seen to be the ringleader, Chendriah, was murdered by a rival and his head sent to the British, an act that could have ended the rebellion except that by then the rebel force had fragmented into many smaller gangs under their own leaders. It was the surge in offensive patrolling that gradually gave troops the edge, as well as improved tactics and equipment. The number of night engagements led the force commander Colonel Buck to request special ammunition: ‘Frequently the rebels have been surprised at night and got off with very small loss in killed and wounded, and I think that, if the men had buck-shot cartridges, the effect would be greater.’
The reports reveal the civilian cost of the rebellion, and the brutality. The rebels frequently terrorized and murdered villagers; in one of many incidents, three men were murdered in January 1880 at the village of Pundamamidi by Karum Jumman Dora, a rebel leader. In February, troops and police destroyed the village of Angulpolem for harboring a rebel, and punishments were meted out to others who assisted the enemy. By the middle of 1880 at least 26 rebels had been killed and over 100 had been captured and put on trial. Many were sentenced to short terms in local prisons, and some were transported to the penal colony on the Andaman Islands, but those convicted of murder were hanged. The place of execution, whether in the lowland town of Rajahmundry or in the hill villages, became a matter of contention: ‘ … at present, prisoners sentenced to death are hung at Rajahmundry. Mr Johnson strongly advocates that all Rumpa prisoners convicted of murder and sentenced to death should be hung at Chodavaram … I do not know that this will do much good, as, knowing the native prejudice to attend such occasions, I can hardly expect any large numbers to go to see the executions …’ Despite these measures and the attrition among rebel leaders, it was only the arrival of the monsoon in late 1880 that put a halt to the killings that by then had made the rebellion the most costly in human lives within India since the Mutiny.