Crucial effects speedily followed the discovery of the fact regarding the greased cartridges. On the 26th of January the telegraph house at Barrackpur was fired. The same day one of the sergeants attached to Fort William reported to Cavenagh a remarkable conversation, between two sipahis, which he had overheard. It was to the effect that the Europeans forming the garrison were entirely in the power of the sipahis; that it would be easy to overcome the arsenal and the magazines, to exterminate the Europeans as they slept, then to possess themselves of the fort. They added that the firing of the telegraph house was the first incident in the far-reaching plot.
Cavenagh, who, as Town-Major, was responsible to the Governor-General for the safety of Fort William, at once took measures to nonplus the designs of which he had been informed, and then drove straight to Lord Canning to report the circumstance to him. Lord Canning listened to Cavenagh with the deepest interest, and sanctioned the measures he proposed. These were to transfer from Dam-Dam, where one wing of the regiment, which was responsible for the safety of the Presidency, the 53rd foot, was located, one company to Fort William. For the moment the outbreak was deferred.
Many little circumstances came up during this period to intimate to the few who preferred not to live in a fool's paradise that something strange was imminent. At Barrackpore, on the left bank of the Hooghly river, fifteen miles above Calcutta, were stationed four native regiments-the 2nd Grenadiers, the 34th N. I., the 43rd Light Infantry, and the 70th N. I. At Barhampur, 120 miles above Calcutta and five below Murshidabad, the capital of the Nuwab-Nazims of Bengal, was one native regiment, the 19th N. I. Between Calcutta and Danapur, in Bihar, 344 miles from the capital, there was but one English regiment, the 53rd, and that was distributed between Dam-Dam and Calcutta. The space of 344 miles was thus without European safekeeping. For, though there was one regiment, the 10th foot, at Danapur, there were also stationed there three regiments of native infantry, the 7th, the 8th, and the 40th.
There is reason to suppose that communications had passed at least steady as February between the men of these several regiments, and even of those stationed further north-westward. Small commands, treasure parties, and the post opened ample opportunities for such exchange of ideas. One of these communications gave to the Government the first glimmer of the general feeling. On the 18th and 25th of February two small detachments of one of the regiments stationed at Barrackpore, the 34th, a regiment peculiarly tainted, arrived at Barhampur. The men of the 19th N. I., there located, received their comrades of the 34th with unrestrained outburst of emotion. The evening after the arrival of the second detachment, the talk between the two parties was a talk of more than ordinary significance. The men of the 34th poured into the willing ears of their hosts all their grievances. They related the antecedent causes, which had led them to suspect their foreign masters. They then dwelt on the story of the cartridges, of the alleged mission of Lord Canning to force Christianity upon them, and added their determination, and that of their brethren at Barrackpur and elsewhere, to take the first opportunity to rise in revolt.
This tale, told with all the fervour of sincerity produced a remarkable effect on the minds of the men of the 19th N. I. They brooded over the information all the day following. They had not received the new P-53 rifle, and the cartridges in their magazine were devoid of the slightest stain of grease. They were the common paper cartridges to which they had been accustomed for years, the only change being that the paper in which they were wrapped was of a different colour. Yet when, in the course of the day, their commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, ordered a parade with blank cartridges for the following morning, a great perturbation was visible in the lines. The men seriously believed that they were about to be juggled out of their religion by means of cartridges. But the suspicion, which had fallen on their minds, had spawned a great fear. Their non-commissioned officers first refused to receive the cartridges. The threat that those who should continue to refuse would be brought to a court-martial had the effect of inducing them to take them. But that night the whole regiment sat in deliberation. They dreaded that by the use of the cartridges they should commit themselves to an act which might dispossess them of their caste. The Hindus had been informed that their religion was to be attempted by means of the cartridges, and their minds being in an excited and suspicious condition, they accepted the tale without enquiry. They therefore rose in an uproar, resolved to defy their officers. That same evening the information that the sipahis of his regiment were in a state of great excitement and perturbation, on account of the cartridges, was conveyed to Colonel Mitchell. Colonel Mitchell was an officer with a good reputation; he understood the sipahis. But he was not shrewder compared to his fellows; not more clairvoyant than the Government he served. The news that the sipahis were in a state bordering on mutiny was a shock to him. He could not comprehend why they should rise, or why they should even be excited. The cartridges, which formed the pretext for the sudden outburst, were, he well knew, the cartridges which had been used without a mumble throughout the period of his service. His men-the men of the regiment for the good conduct of which he was responsible to the Commander-in-Chief and the Government-were gesticulating in front of the lines, and were in a state of embryonic mutiny. Mitchell observed his duty like the good soldier that he was; he rode down to the lines, accompanied by his adjutant, and sending for the native officers to the quarter-guard, there addressed them. He told them that there was no reason for the fears expressed by the men; that the cartridges were similar to those which had been served out and used from time immemorial; that there was no question of asking the sipahis to bite them or to use them in any other way but in that to which they were habituated. Having thus explained the groundlessness of the concerns of the sipahis, he added that they were by their conduct placing themselves in a position, which the Government could not tolerate; that the men who, after his explanation, should persist in refusing to obey his orders would be brought to a court-martial, and suffer the consequences. He concluded by urging the native officers so to influence the men that the name of the regiment should not be blackened.
Colonel Mitchell told his native officers what Sir John Hearsey at Barrackpur, and what commanding officers all over the country subsequently told theirs, but he told it in vain. There is no terror like a religious terror; and there can be no doubt that the astute fomenters of the revolt-the men of Oudh, of the North-west Provinces, and of Bundelkhand-had so saturated the minds of the sipahis at Barrackpur and elsewhere with a real terror, that not all the words of the most gifted men on earth would have sufficed to expel it. The Barrackpur sipahis had in a moment communicated their fears to those of Barhampur. The native officers listened silently, and promised to do all they could to calm the excitement.
However, there was the parade to be held the following morning. To countermand that now would be an act of weakness of which Mitchell was incapable. But the thought never occurred to him. Scarcely had he reached his home when information reached him that the men had risen and were in open revolt.
It was too true. Whether the native officers had correctly interpreted Mitchell's words to their men; or whether, as is more probable, their minds were under the influence which swayed them, cannot be certainly known. The fact remains that before midnight the regiment rose as one man, the sipahis loading their muskets, and shouting violently.
There were at Barhampur a detachment of native cavalry and a battery of native artillery. It was presumable during that early stage of the great revolt, the contagion had not extended to these men. Mitchell then, as soon as he reached his quarters, ordered these to turn out. The order had been given but a few moments, when information reached him that his men had rebelled. Resolved to stop the mischief, Mitchell gathered his officers around him, and proceeded, accompanied by the guns, to the parade ground. The cavalry had preceded him there.
There he met his men, excited but not violent, and there he addressed them. Mitchell spoke well and to the point, and finally extorted from them a promise that they would return to their duty, provided the artillery and cavalry were first ordered back to their lines. Mitchell's hands were tied. With the 200 men behind him he could not, even if they had been loyal, have coerced his 800 sipahis. After events proved that, had he resorted to force, the men behind him would have joined the revolted regiment, and a catastrophe would have been precipitated which might, for the moment, have reduced the English in India to the greatest extremities. With admirable discretion, then, Mitchell sent back the cavalry and artillery. The men of the 19th then submitted, and returned to their lines.