Journal

The Rumpa Rebellion, India, 1879-80: jungle fever and the cause of malaria

This is one of several 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 and counter-insurgency in the jungle, click here. Once these postings are complete a comprehensive account of the rebellion and the British military deployment with full references will be added as a PDF.

 A view of the jungle near Rumpa from the Godavari river. The problem with mosquitoes, especially during the monsoon, can easily be envisaged.

A view of the jungle near Rumpa from the Godavari river. The problem with mosquitoes, especially during the monsoon, can easily be envisaged.

The greatest challenge facing the regimental surgeons with the Rumpa Field Force in India in 1879 was jungle fever, ‘that severe sickness that paralyses every effort, disheartens the men, and fosters the preconceived belief of the superiority and valour of the insurgents.’ The Madras Military Proceedings for 1879 and 1880, the source of this quote and others below, reveals a stark picture. As with many campaigns of the Victorian period, including the 1878-81 war in Afghanistan, death and disability through illness far outstripped the casualties of battle. The pestilential nature of the upper Godavari region was notorious well before the rebellion. Sixty years earlier, in the summer of 1819, fever had struck down all of the men of the Great Trigonometrical Survey sent to map the district, under Lieutenant George Everest of the Bengal Artillery. They were deep in the jangal, the Hindi word for uncultivated land that the British used for dense rain forest. Because of the ‘champagne quality’ of the air after the rains, essential for theodolite sightings, they had been working through the summer months when the monsoon reduced the jungle to a quagmire and the air was thick with mosquitoes – something they had yet to connect with the illness.

Everest survived to see his name immortalized in the Himalayas, but fifteen of his party died and much of the region was bypassed. In 1879 it remained largely unmapped, a vast area of jungle and hills as poorly known and forbidding as any territory beyond the frontiers of India. Deep-seated fear of illness among the British can be seen as one of the main factors behind the 1879 rebellion, as it was the reluctance of the British district officials to live in the hills that led to the unchecked corruption of the local headman and the native police constables that was a major grievance of the rebel leaders.

 Colonel Sir George Everest, who as a young officer working for the Great Trigonometrical Survey was one of the first Europeans to explore the Godavari jungle, in 1819.

Colonel Sir George Everest, who as a young officer working for the Great Trigonometrical Survey was one of the first Europeans to explore the Godavari jungle, in 1819.

The huge toll taken by illness on Rumpa Field Force is shown by the medical report on the 10th Madras Native Infantry (later the 10th Gurkha Rifles) after 8 months of deployment:

… the whole regiment has suffered, and is still suffering, from malarious fever. Most of the men have had repeated attacks, and are in a very debilitated state, needing rest and an early removal to a more favourable climate … In many instances the fever has been followed by serious after-consequences, such as enlarged spleen, anaemia, partial paralysis, extreme emaciation, disorders of the stomach and bowels, and other complaints of a grave nature … many of the men were actually passing through the hot stage of a febrile paroxysm, and their sufferings and distress were painful to witness.

All of the British officers in the regiment and three-fifths of the sepoys were unfit for duty, amounting to 303 out of 505 men. The deaths from fever in that regiment alone amounted to 24, including one European, Major W.C. Bayley, who died on 17 January 1880 of ‘conjestion of the brain’ – probably cerebral malaria; his gravestone near the village of Rumpa, ‘erected by his fellow officers,’ was to be one of few lasting reminders of the army deployment in the district.

Considerable effort was made to provide medical personnel for the units deployed. The surgeon who accompanied the Madras Sappers in 1879 was Dr George Lemon Walker, a Canadian born in Kingston, Ontario, who had trained at Queen’s University, Belfast before making a career in the Indian Medical Service. Because the sapper companies were despatched to Rumpa at very short notice that August they had arrived without an appropriate complement of medical servants, but they were then provided in the same proportion as for the Madras Sappers in Afghanistan – a sweeper, a waterman, a coolie and a ward coolie for each company – after the direct intervention of the Madras Surgeon-General:

… in ordinary native regiments in serious cases orderlies are detailed to attend on the sick and assist them in various ways, but I consider that the services of the Sapper in the field are much too valuable to be diverted in this manner … It may also be mentioned that orderly duty is particularly distasteful to the Sapper.

Nevertheless, without a full understanding of the connection between malaria and mosquitoes, even this provision of extra orderlies could do nothing to allay the problem of disease in the jungle; by the end almost all of the sapper officers had been invalided out of Rumpa through illness. The medical report on the Madras Army for 1880 shows a spike in deaths directly attributed by the medical authorities to the Rumpa deployment, with almost 400 native troops dying of disease that year. The troops were not the only ones stricken: Octavius Butler Irvine, Acting Collector and Magistrate for Vizagapatam, a district that included part of the hill tracts, died of fever in the jungle on 14 March 1880 while he was attached to the Field Force.

 Tribal people such as these Hill Reddis on the banks of the Godavari may have had some resistance to malaria, as well as their own treatments (photo: Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf,   Tribes of India  ).

Tribal people such as these Hill Reddis on the banks of the Godavari may have had some resistance to malaria, as well as their own treatments (photo: Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, Tribes of India).

The cause of all this misery, ‘jungle fever’, the same illness that had laid low Lieutenant Everest and his survey team sixty year before, was a particularly virulent form of malaria. By a remarkable coincidence the man who was to have the greatest impact on the understanding of malaria was on the Madras medical establishment while cases from Rumpa were being treated. In 1883 the recently qualified Acting Garrison Surgeon at Bangalore, and a year later the officer in medical charge of the Madras Sappers, was Ronald Ross – later Sir Ronald Ross, Nobel laureate and Fellow of the Royal Society, famous for establishing that the Anopheles mosquito was the carrier of the malaria parasite.

In 1882 Ross had been in medical charge of the 10th Madras Native Infantry, whose sufferings two years earlier in Rumpa are described above. In his autobiography, Ross writes warmly of his time with the Madras Sappers in Bangalore, where he shared a bungalow with fellow officers. He would undoubtedly have treated Rumpa veterans suffering from remittent malaria, several of whom were affected for the rest of their lives – including Captain Robert Ewen Hamilton, officer in command during the engagement at Rekapalle described in my previous post, who died in 1885 from cholera, his health ‘shattered by continued attacks of malarial fever’ picked up in Rumpa, and Colonel Robert Wauchope, his health broken by malaria and forced to early retirement in 1900. Treating these men may well have spurred Ross to his most important realisation, that he was going to have to make visits to the jungle of the eastern Ghats himself to collect mosquitoes in order to test his hypothesis.

 Surgeon-Major Ronald Ross with his wife and assistants outside the Calcutta laboratory where he carried out his research, photographed in 1898.

Surgeon-Major Ronald Ross with his wife and assistants outside the Calcutta laboratory where he carried out his research, photographed in 1898.

Quinine was available by the time of the Rumpa rebellion, but it was only in 1880 that the malaria parasite was identified – by Alphonse Laveran, a French army surgeon – and not until 1897 that Ross announced his breakthrough in identifying the Anopheles mosquito as the culprit. Nevertheless, as early as 1883 he had made the connection between mosquito breeding and standing water, and his greatest effort in later years was to press for improved sanitation and the draining of standing water around settlements in regions where malaria was rife. In 1905, the annual report of the Chief Engineer in Baluchistan, Colonel Walter Andrew Gale  - who as a Lieutenant had served in Rumpa - shows how important the clearance of mosquito-breeding water had become in all parts of India, something that would have been a prime consideration in the planning of barracks, cantonments and civic projects by all of the  sapper veterans of Rumpa who went on to employment in the Public Works Department.

Ross also knew that children brought up in infected areas could develop a degree of immunity, as appears to have been the case among the Koya and Reddi hill people - who had their own treatment for the fever, a pill made from paste of the bark of Alsonia scholaris, the root bark of Ophioxylon scrombiculatum and the root, stem and leaves of Andrographis paniculata. This may also have been the case for British officers such as Lieutenant Gale who had been born in India (as was Ross himself); Gale's first years on his father’s indigo estate in Bihar – a region in which mosquito-borne illness was rife - might help to account for his service throughout the Rumpa deployment from August 1879 to early 1881, the only British sapper officer to remain in the field without being invalided through illness.

By adding to Ross’s formative experience and thus helping to alleviate ‘a gigantic amount of misery in the world,’ as Ross described malaria, the suffering of the troops in Rumpa contributed not only to suppressing the rebellion and improving administration in the Godavari hills but also to a scientific and medical advance of huge global significance to this day.