Rajahs and “Mutineers”: How convicts from the Indian Rebellion 1857 came to Sarawak


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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

On October 24th this year all Indians everywhere will be celebrating the Indian Festival of Lights – Deepavali or Diwali as it’s called. A celebration of good over evil.

This article is another reminder of the contributions of Indians to the cultural heritage of Sarawak – Rajah Charles could find the good in these convicts and thus more Indian contributions!

By Jutta Kelling

Here’s another interesting contribution from India to the beginnings of Sarawak.

In May 1866, a strange party of fifty Indian convicts arrived in Kuching. They had been travelling from Port Blair on the Andaman Islands via Rangoon and Singapore to Sarawak. Some looked poor and scanty, others were better dressed and wore brass badges as a reminiscence of their previous lives. However, their appearance must have been different from the Indian traders, washermen and bullock-cart drivers that people in Kuching were used to seeing and in fact, they had a unique history among those individuals who made their way across the Indian Ocean to Sarawak.

The men had been sentenced to transportation for life – for their participation in the Indian Rebellion in 1857. Some of them were former sepoys of the British Army. It may sound strange, but these rebel convicts were brought to Sarawak to serve as soldiers for James Brooke and they became an indispensable part of his military and police forces.

The Great Rebellion in India (often called the “Mutiny”) in 1857 was the result of widespread discontent with foreign rule and was brutally suppressed. Many insurgents were executed immediately. The rebellious Indians were regarded as ungrateful and had to be punished. The British established a new penal settlement on the Andamans, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, to receive the convicts of the Great Rebellion.

Fig 1: Map of Andaman Islands

In December 1863, Rajah James Brooke wrote to the India Office suggesting the following:

“I should be glad to have 50 Sepoys condemned for the mutiny as soldiers in Sarawak. Many of the younger men, though guilty of a heinous military offence, were doubtless led on bad example rather than intentional wickedness, and it would be an act of grace, to pardon the younger and best behaved of these convicts confined at the Andamans on the condition of their taking service in Sarawak. The government of Sarawak would give pay to these men and provide them with the equipment of soldiers, and hereafter, by affording every facility to their families to join them, a useful Colony might be founded. I will only add that the men should not be Mahomedans nor Brahmins.”

At that time there were 165 convicts from the Indian Rebellion on the Andaman Islands but not all of them were interested to leave the penal colony. In the end, 18 Hindus and all 53 Muslims were prepared to do service in Sarawak and fifty men were selected from among them. (Although some authors, Margaret Brooke for example, refer to the convicts as Sikhs no evidence for this could be found in the correspondence.) They left Port Blair in January 1866 and Charles Brooke confirmed their arrival in Sarawak on May 12, 1866.

Who were these men? The correspondence in the National Archives of India gives interesting details about the individual lives of the convicts and about their involvement in the rebellion. Only eleven of the convicts were employed as sepoys in the military service before 1857. Others were shopkeepers or they worked as washerman, court inspectors or tax collectors. Their cases were tried in the centres of rebellion in the districts of Northern India, for example, in Jhansi, Gorakhpur and Cawnpore.

Some of the “50 sepoys” were released and permitted to return home within the following years after 1866. They were pardoned under the amnesties from the Government of India, or because they had served a fixed period of banishment. In 1872, there were still 16 convicts left in in Sarawak.

The lack of sources makes it difficult to reconstruct the circumstances of every case, especially of those convicts who were released before 1872. Thus, petitions that can be found in the archives cover serious offences like murder or rebellion. Babajee bin Bussapa Tambe and Yenkut Rhao Bhousla had joined the cavalry of the Chief of Nurgood for rebellion. They accompanied the Chief to the village of Soorebun and helped him with the murder of British subjects. Private Ramlogan Singh and Corporal Nandlal Tewary were convicted of taking part in the murder of railway engineers. Another insurgent, the Sarawak policeman Hurree Ram, was convicted because he had been involved in the murder of Europeans at Manpur during the rebellion. Sarawak police sergeant Mohun Singh was convicted of complicity in the murder of an Englishman after the rebellion.

An intriguing example is the story of Sedasheo Rao. He was a distant relation to the husband of the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai. She was one of the leading figures in the rebellion and she is venerated today as the “Joan of Arc” of India. But Sedasheo raised his own force and proclaimed himself Maharajah to the throne of Jhansi. The Rani sent soldiers and lured him to a pretend “conference” so as to capture him. He was then taken as a prisoner by the Indian Government when they stormed and captured Jhansi and after several trials, he was sentenced for his taking part in the rebellion.

But, notwithstanding the serious crimes they had committed, the Brookes employed the convicts in particular positions of trust. In the military forces, they were employed as private, corporal or drill instructors. Others worked as office clerks, police officers or prison warders in the government service. Charles Brooke even encouraged the convicts to bring their families to Sarawak. The former sepoy Tuffazool Hossein was accompanied by his wife and two children to Sarawak. Another three children were born in Sarawak. Ali Khan was also offered the opportunity to bring his wife to Sarawak, but he refused.

Finally in 1875, Charles Brooke recommended to the Governor General of India to pardon the remaining insurgents despite their serious offences because they had “served the Sarawak Government so well and faithfully for such a number of years”. He was fully convinced that no person had the right to condemn others to a life-long punishment without hope for forgiveness (Sarawak Gazette, 6 October 1875).

Charles emphasised that they had been working for him “for many years with exceedingly good characters, have been trusted with arms, and in important positions under me in Sarawak, where they have had entire freedom from the day of their arrival there.” (see http://archive.brooketrust.org/DA/showObject.php?id=CBLB_1_46a)

Another petition from 1875 was for Ali Khan, Nandlal Tewary, Shedasurow and Munsa Singh who had been working at Sibu Fort for nearly ten years and they had never neglected their duties.

Obviously, the “Mutineers” who went to Sarawak made a good job and were rehabilitated despite their serious offences. The second last of the “50 sepoys” was Ramlogan Singh. He was in the Bengal Infantry at the time of the uprising and his regiment went to Delhi to support the insurgents. He died in 1902 in Rejang just at the time when he was finally allowed to hope for mercy on the coronation of Edward VII (Sarawak Gazette, 1 November 1902).

Jutta Kelling is a Ph.D. candidate in history from FernUniversität Hagen in Germany. Her study explores the history of indentured labourers who were brought from South India and Ceylon to Sarawak in the second half of the nineteenth century to work on the plantation at Mount Matang.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily