The Rumpa Rebellion

The RUmpa Rebellion, India, 1879-81

Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale, Royal Engineers

My great-great grandfather, Walter Andrew Gale, as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, on his graduation from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1875. Four years later he was deployed as a Company Officer in the Madras Sappers and Miners with the Rumpa Field Force in the jungle of southern India (photo in the collection of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst).

The first part of my novel The Tiger Warrior takes place in 1879 in southern India, where two British officers fighting a tribal insurgency make an astonishing discovery deep in the jungle - an artefact brought from the mountains of the north almost two thousand years before, one which leads the officers on a quest into Afghanistan to face the legacy of those ancient times in a terrifying modern form. The historical context for their discovery was the Rumpa Rebellion (pronounced and spelled that way in 1879, though later spelled Rampa), the largest uprising of tribal peoples under British Imperial rule in India. Unlike much of the campaigning in earlier years during the British conquest of India, where the British faced adversaries trained and equipped in the European manner, the Rumpa rebels had a material culture more akin to the Zulu tribesmen fought by the British that year in southern Africa or the Sioux adversaries of General Custer in America a few years earlier. A big difference from those campaigns was the dense rain forest and the monsoon conditions of central India, compounding the difficulty for troops of hunting the rebels and reducing the chances of a decisive engagement. The rebellion was overshadowed by the 1878-81 Afghan War, yet for many of the soldiers deployed in the jungle - with little chance of military glory in what was regarded as a 'police action' - the Rumpa Rebellion was to prove the most arduous and debilitating campaign of their careers.

The rebellion was named after a jungle hill tract bordering the Godavari River (pictured in the banner above) about a hundred miles inland from the east coast of India. The local people were predominantly Koya and Reddi, part of the 'Khond' group of tribes. The spark for revolt was a tax on toddy - palm liquor - but there were bigger underlying problems, particularly the corruption of native police constables and encroachments by lowlanders on the forest way of life. Direct British management in the forest tracts had been woefully inadequate. In March 1879 over 1000 rebels converged on the Godavari, capturing a river steamer and murdering native policemen. The Madras government ordered in a field force that eventually numbered more than 2,500 men, including infantry, cavalry and even artillery, as well as two companies of the Queen's Own Madras Sappers and Miners - two of whose officers, Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale, my great-great grandfather, and Lieutenant Robert Wahab, are the basis for fictional characters in my novel.

The army had been sent as a show of force to assist the police, but in the event the deployment dragged on for months and the final units were only withdrawn after the last rebel leader had been hunted down and shot in 1881. The rebel force had devolved into marauding gangs who terrorized and murdered villagers, sometimes invoking the ritual of 'meriah', human sacrifice. 'Jungle fever '- malaria - exacted a huge toll on the troops. Although the rebellion was suppressed, failure to resolve the main issues for the hill people had long-term consequences which are still a major problem in India today, in a region which has become a haven for Maoist terrorists - something that features in my novel when my protagonists Jack and Costas with their modern-day Madras sapper friend Pradesh visit the region and attempt to find out what happened in 1879, the beginning of a trail that leads them to the mountains of central Asia.

Over many visits to the Oriental and India Office Collections (now the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections) of the British Library I built up a detailed picture of the campaign and my great-great grandfather's involvement, and realised that my research was likely to provide the first detailed modern account of the rebellion. Most of what is known comes from the daily reports in the Madras Military Proceedings and the Madras Judicial Proceedings. There is a dearth of personal accounts such as diaries or memoirs and very few photographs, so I'd be fascinated to hear from anyone who has any more information or images related to the rebellion (you can contact me here).


A detailed account of the rebellion will appear as a series of blogs, the first three of which are here: