Calcutta During Mutiny
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 did not actually touch Calcutta as such if one does not count the breaking out of the rebellion at Barrackpore, headquarters of the Presidency division of the Bengal army, some 16 miles away from the city. But the city did experience the alarm and apprehension that had gripped the Europeans across India. It reached such a height that on a Sunday in that summer, rumours that native regiments having mutinied in Barrackpore were marching towards the city, caused panic among European population which promptly fled the city in ships, carriages, palanquins and every other vehicle they could requisition to take them out of the reach of the imaginary cut-throats. Anindita Mazumder relives the history of the 'Panic Sunday’
It was 11 May, 1857 that the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar was declared the sovereign ruler of India; the sepoys rebellion having spread to Meerut, Lucknow, Delhi, Cawnpore and Oudh. The clouds of a possible mutiny were also gathering in the skies of Calcutta in June. Besides the sepoy regiments in Barrackpore and Fort William there were a few thousands of armed retainers of the deported ruler of Oudh at Garden Reach, some hundred armed men of the Scinde Ameers at DumDum apart from the black town comprising a population of six hundred thousand. The sepoys had not been completely unarmed and the only complete regiment of English troops were lodged at Chinsurah. There was also no reason to expect real help from the native police. "My conviction is that even a street row at the capital would give us an awful shake, not only in Bengal but in Bombay and Madras at this moment," wrote John Peter Grant, a member of the Supreme Council.
On June 14, Sunday after the conclusion of morning services word came in that the sepoys at Barrackpore had rebelled and were marching towards the city. The rumbling sound of heavy materials moving out of the Fort William enhanced the apprehension. Calcutta had not forgotten the plunder by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula's troops when he had attacked the city, only 101 years ago. A sudden and uncontrollable panic then seized the European population and according to a detailed account given by Colonel Malleson, an eyewitness to the event, "All was panic, disorder and dismay."
Rumours that the Barrackpore Brigade was in full march, the people in the suburb had risen and the Nawab of Oudh and his followers were up in arms and plundering Garden Reach, spread like wild fire.
It is said those highest in office were the first to give to alarm. "There were secretaries to Government running over to Members of the Council, loading their pistols, barricading their doors and sleeping on sofas; Members of the Council abandoning their houses with their families and taking refuge on board the ships in the river, "wrote Malleson.
Following their examples the lesser ones also hurriedly collected their valuables and rushed to the fort in order to sleep under the guns. Every vehicle- palanquins, carriages, horses were used to convey the fugitive European population and in the suburbs Christian homes abandoned.
According to another eye witness, "The whole of the ghats was covered with fugitives and those who could find no shelter on the ships took refuge within the fort, of which the squares, the corridors, all the available space everywhere, indeed, were thronged by many, who passed the night in carriages. However, it was the commercial and trading community which displayed courage and kept composure. As time wore on and no marauders were seen, the panic reduced and the Town mayor sought out the refugees on the ships or fort convincing them to return home. However, the alarm was again raised at half past four in the afternoon when a column of armed European troops left the fort to disarm the sepoys of a small barrack guarding the Governor House. The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. The Great Eastern hotel became the rallying place for the European community.
Meanwhile, a patrol of forty Englishmen were given arms from the fort and divided into two squads, in order to parade the native quarters. They found the poor Eurasians in great panic who considered that their safety lay in a frantic and aimless fusillade of blank cartridges and it was after great effort they could be restrained. Next day, the city woke up to the news that native troops in Barrackpore and elsewhere had been successfully disarmed and the former Nawab of Oudh and his prime Minister were imprisoned in the fort.
There was a repeat of the scene of Panic Sunday on March 3, 1858, but this time the city's European population set about protecting the city with volunteer cavalry and artillery.