Tantia Topi: traitor or patriot

The most important of the Indian leaders in the insurrection which the British still call 'the Indian Mutiny' and Indians 'the First War of Independence' was the man who called himself Tantia (or Tatya) Topi. The Nana Sahib, Dhundu Pant, achieved greater notoriety because of his alleged responsibility for the massacre at Cawnpore; the Rani of Jhansi, Lakhshmibai, acquired greater glamour because of her rumoured lifestyle and alleged promiscuity. (1) But Tantia Topi played a more effective and longer-lasting role. Yet we know very little about who he was or what motivated him.

Virtually all we know about him with any certainty is contained in the statement he made at Shivpuri (then Sipri), in what is now Madhya Pradesh, on 10 April 1859 just before his trial and execution:

'My name is Tantia Topi; my father's name is Pandurang, inhabitant of Jola-Pargana, P'atoda-Zillah, Nagar. I am a resident of Bithur. I am about forty five years old, in the service of the Nana Sahib, in the grade of companion or aide-de-camp'. (2)

His real name, in fact, appears to have been Ramchandra Panduranga and he was a Maratha Brahman of the highest caste and almost certainly the son of a former Maratha officer from the Deccan. There were suggestions at the time that he was the brother of PandurangRao, the Rao Sahib, and therefore a nephew of the Nana Sahib, and even that he was actually Bao Tambaka, the former Chief Minister of Baroda. These suggestions however can be dismissed as speculation although they illustrate the degree of obscurity which surrounds his origins.

It is not known when he joined the Nana Sahib's court at Bithui. north of Cawnpore, where the last Peishwa had been domiciled since 1832. Prior to 1857 many Europeans visited the Nana Sahib socially and at least one of his entourage, the notorious Azimullah Khan, was frequently mentioned, but not Ramchandra Pandurang. It would be reasonable therefore to assume that such importance and influence as he had was exercised in the background. His description of himself as a 'companion' or 'aide-de-camp' probably accurately defines his official status - of high-caste, but not princely or aristocratic, status. He appears to have adopted the nom-de-guerre of Tantia Topi in 1857 - 'Topi' appears to have been a Marathi term meaning 'leader' or 'captain' and is clearly linked to his Maratha descent and perhaps to his father's position.

He came first into prominence in June 1857 when he was part of the leadership of the rebel forces under the nominal leadership of the Nana Sahib who besieged General Wheeler at Cawnpore. Certainly Tantia Topi, who showed a good eye for ground, was the guiding hand behind the rebel defences at Bithur which caused Havelock so much difficulty in his attempts to relieve Lucknow. Therein lies the second mystery about Tantia -where had he acquired his military talents, such as they were? There is no evidence that he had ever had any military training or served in a state force. One is left to speculate that it was the result of heredity and natural ability One contemporary report described him as stout, of middling height, with a fair complection and beard; another, more hostile witness thought him far from good-looking, with a low forehead, rather broad nose and irregular, discoloured teeth.3 A sketch of him in custody, after months of hardship in the jungle, shows a gaunt face, with prominent nose, piercing eyes and heavily bearded.

After their defeat by Havelock, the Nana Sahib and Tantia appear to have separated. Early in November 1857 Tantia assumed command of the Gwalior Contingent which had mutinied and reached Kalpi on the Jumna on 9 November. Sir Hugh Rose considered the Contingent among the best trained and disciplined native troops in India. Some 8000 strong, comprising cavalry, artillery and infantry they provided Tantia with a powerful striking force. With adherents from the Nana's original force, mercenaries and others, he now commanded a force of some 20,000 and at the end of November he attacked the British force garrisoning Cawnpore, under Major General Sir Charles Windham, and soundly defeated it. The force was saved from being driven across the Ganges by the hasty arrival of Sir Cohn Campbell from Lucknow. Tantia then retired to Kalpi and henceforth operated south of the Jumna in support of the insurrection in Central India.

Nevertheless, from his fortified base at Kalpi, Tantia posed a major threat to Campbell's operations in Oudh and Rohilcand and it was the need to eliminate this threat which partly determined the strategy behind the Central India campaign under Sir Hugh Rose. The basis of that campaign was an advance from Indore on Jhansi and then to Kalpi, where Rose would link up with a force from Cawnpore. Early in March 1858 when Rose was approaching Jhansi, Tantia was besieging the loyal Raja of Charkari in his fortress some 80 miles east of Jhansi and the same distance south of Kalpi. Whether this attack was deliberately designed to deflect Rose from Jhansi we do not know but it certainly had that effect on the British high command because Rose was instructed by Campbell to bypass Jhansi and go to the help of the Raja. Rose and Hamilton, his Political Adviser, took the bold course of disobeying instructions with the result that Tantia took Charkari and then advanced to attack Rose and relieve Jhansi. He achieved a substantial degree of tactical surprise but the ensuing battle on the Betwa river reveals much about Tantia's strengths and weaknesses as a commandet Rose stripped off some 1900 men from the force besieging Jhansi and boldly attacked Tantia, totally shattering the latter's army and driving it from the field in confusion; Rose himself led the decisive cavalry charge. Clearly, Tantia had not made the best use of his overwhelming numerical strength but unlike Rose, he did not command from the front and was unable to coordinate the different elements of his army. In the last analysis, however, it was the inability of his troops to stand firm which lost him the battle. Rose had earlier perceived the flaw in the rebel forces:

'The great thing with these Indians is not to stay at long distance firing but after they have been cannonaded to close with them. They cannot stand.'(4)

Nevertheless Tantia showed great skill in collecting his shattered troops and in making a further stand at Kunch, some 70 miles from Jhansi, only a month later. He was manoeuvred out of his defences by Rose but his troops fought very stoutly for him; a British officer wrote that 'history does not record an instance of devotion superior to that displayed by Tantia's rear guard at Koonch. I should like to see a monument erected on the spot where they fell, all rebels as they were - but for the innocent blood of women and children they had shed.'(5)

When Rose finally reached Kalpi in the third week of May 1858 he found Tantia solidly entrenched with a large force behind formidable natural and artificial obstacles. He had been joined by a notable trio of rebel leaders, the Rao Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi and the Raja of Banda. They showed unusual aggressiveness and after a week of probing attacks launched a major attack on 22 May. It was ably conceived and one may reasonably suppose that the main influence was Tantia himself. A determined attack against the British left wing was followed by an unexpectedly heavy attack against Rose's weak right flank on the river. A critical situation was retrieved in the nick of time by a charge led once again by Rose himself. With his army shattered again, Tantia was forced to surrender the city with its supplies, and the British not unnaturally assumed that the threat from Tantia was over and the Central India campaign successfully concluded. Rose sold his horses and prepared to return to Bombay on sick leave; large convoys of sick and wounded headed for Cawnpore.

Tantia now pulled off his master strategic stroke. With his fellow leaders and the troops he had reassembled from Kalpi, he marched on Gwalior, ejected the Maharaja Scindia, enlisted his troops and occupied the town and fortress. In one move, he had resupplied himself with guns, ammunition, men and money, and was master of perhaps the strongest fortress in India, only 60 miles from Agra. Rose reassumed command of the troops round Kalpi and marched at once for Gwalior where he linked up with a column under Brigadier Smith which had been leisurely traversing Rajputana and Malwa, and had just reached JhansL In three days fighting, the rebels were defeated; the Rani was killed in the fighting(6) and Tantia and the Rao Sahib fled westwards into Rajputana. The massive fortress was found to be virtually undefended, suggesting that Tantia had grasped the folly of standing on the defensive behind stone walls against the British with their skill in siege warfare.

For the next eleven months Tantia conducted a brilliant campaign of evasion, covering hundreds of miles through Rajputana, Maiwa and Central India, clashing frequently with the numerous British columns chasing him but always escaping to fight another day. It was not guerrilla war because that implies a policy of strike and run, and Tantia was concerned only to run, but he tied up considerable forces and, while he was loose, the embers of insurrection continued to smoulder. That he was able to carry on for so long was due to his skill in enlisting the sympathy of the civilian population, notably by insisting on paying generously for supplies. When he was betrayed in April 1859 it was not by peasants anxious for reward but by a fellow rebel, Man Singh, anxious to save his own neck. Tantia was tried and executed at Sipri (now Shivpuri) on 18 April 1859. The Rao Sahib was caught and executed in 1862; the Nana Sahib was never caught and it is not known when he died.

The transcript of Tantia's trial is a document of considerable historical interest. (7) He was charged with 'having been in rebellion and having waged war against the British Government between January 1857 and December 1858, especially at Jhansi and Gwalior'. The use of the date 'January 1857' is curious. It suggests either that the Government regarded the Mutiny as having started then, or that at that date Tantia was actively planning insurrection. Neither suggestion can seriously be sustained. In particular, despite much argument, there has never been any serious evidence that the outbreak of mutiny and insurrection in May 1857 was planned or coordinated.

The second curiosity lies in the use of the words 'rebellion' and 'war. To rebel implies action against a legitimate authority; Tantia claimed, almost certainly correctly, that he was not a British subject. But, equally, if he was a rebel he could hardly be accused of waging war which in itself implies the existence of two independent powers. There is, moreover, a further twist. More than sixty years ago F.W.Buckler pointed out that, since ultimately the British power in India depended on the devolution of sovereignty from the Mogul Emperor under whom the British ruled in effect as Viceroys, and since in 1857 the British still recognised the aged Bahadur Shah II at Delhi as the legitimate Emperor, then if any one was in rebellion in 1857 it was the British. (8)

But the real curiosity of the charge lay in what it excluded - any suggestion that Thntia was responsible for the murder of British civilians, and in particular for the massacre at Cawnpore. Since the Nana Sahib was beyond reach, it might have been expected that the British would have been desperate to pin responsibility for the massacre on some one. In his Proclamation of 1 November 1858, intended to bring the insurrection to a close, Canning had offered pardon to all, provided that they had not murdered Europeans. But Tantia was one of a handful specifically excluded. The omission of any accusation of murder can only be taken as a clear admission that such a charge could not be made to stick and, indeed, Tantia strongly denied any such charge. But for Government there remained a problem. British public opinion demanded a sacrificial victim for the massacre at Cawnpore. The obvious candidate, the Nana Sahib, was beyond the range of British justice. A scapegoat had to be found and that could only be Thntia Topi. By this reasoning, his execution can only be regarded as a political act.

Finally, the reference specifically to Jhansi and Gwalior is slightly odd, since Tantia had been prominent elsewhere, particularly against Windham at Cawnpore. The reference to Gwalior may have been simply a propaganda device since Tantia had acted against a British ally.

We come finally to two questions:

(1) how talented a commander was Tantia?
(2) what was his motivation?

Any consideration of (1) must start from an assessment of the tools he had to work with. Under British officers the sepoy regiments were formidable troops and if they had retained their discipline and cohesion it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Northern India was lost in the spring and early summer of 1857 before British reinforcements could have arrived in adequate numbers. With Northern India lost, no great reliance could have been placed on the Bombay Army, largely recruited from Marathas and from Oudh. A reconquest of India based upon Madras seems a dubious proposition. But without British officers the sepoys lost cohesion. The Indian officers, promoted by seniority, tended to be elderly and the excessive importance attached to caste tended to destroy discipline in the Bengal regiments. (9) There were many occasions when the mutinied sepoys showed flashes of their old discipline and power but on the whole they performed much below their pre-.Mutiny form, and it is significant that they threw up no leader of consequence. (10) The other components of Tantia's armies - former state soldiers, mercenaries and patriotic civilians were largely useless against disciplined troops.

Man for man, Tantia's troops were no match for the British troops but what he could aim for was the concentration of superior numbers and surprise. He succeeded in this on a number of occasions - at Cawnpore against Windham, at the Betwa river in March 1858, at Kalpi and at Gwalior. When he was forced on the run, he showed remarkable skill in keeping his men together and in covering great distances in remarkable secrecy. He was no tactical genius but he showed considerable natural talent as a commander. Malleson probably hit the nail on the head when he wrote,

'The qualities he had displayed would have been admirable, had he combined with them the capacity of the general and the daring of the aggressive soldier."(11)

Tantia's motivation clearly derived from his ancestry as a Maratha Brahmin. The Marathas had a proud history of independence and military prestige - in the 18th century they had briefly ruled India. And in 1857 the majority of the Maratha states remained intact, induding the great principalities of Indore and Gwalior. Like all Marathas, he would have bitterly resented the annexation of states such as Berar and Sattara, as well as the abolition of the Peishwaship, under Daihousie's infamous doctrine of lapse. As a Brahmin he would have been disturbed by those British innovations which seemed designed to destroy the caste system and even Hinduism -innovations such as the railways, communal feeding in gaols, and, above all, the spread of Christian missionary acfivity~ His adherence to the rebel cause might, therefore, have been regarded as a foregone conclusion. What remains a mystery is how he rose so quickly to leadership.

A more detailed knowledge of Tantia's character and career would undoubtedly give us a deeper understanding of the events of 1857-58. There was in him much to admire and his execution can only be regarded as a piece of political revenge.


1. There are biographies in English of the Nana Sahib and the Rani; material for one of Tantia hardly exists.
2. Statement reproduced in Burton, Appendix XVII.
3. John Lang, Wanderings in India (London, 1859), 410-11
4. Rose to Sir William Mansfield, COS to Sir Colin Campbell, 9 March 1858
5. Annand, 135<
6. There are conflicting accounts of her death; what is unchallenged is taht she was killed by a trooper of the 8th Hussars.
7. Transcript in National Army Museum, accession no. 6610-42-1
8. F.W. Buckler, 'The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny', Transactions of Royal Historical Society, 4th Series, Vol V
9. Evidence of Major General Birch, Military Secretary to Government of India to Royal Commission on Organisation of Indian Army (London, 1859), Appendix 61, p77: "I cannot conceive the possibility of maintaining discipline in a corps where a non-commissioned officer will, when he meets off duty a Brahmin sepoy, crouch down to him with his forehead on the ground. I have seen this done. The sepoy thus treated is the master of the officer."
10. The only possible exception was Bakht Khan, a subadar of the Bengal Artillrey, who held command at Delhi during the siege but he quickly disappeared from the leadership.
11. Malleson, Vol III, 381-2

Further Reading

Annand, A.M., Cavalry Surgeon: the recollections of Deputy Surgeon-General John Henry Sylvester (London, 1971).
Burton, R.G., The Revolt in Central India 1857-59 (Simla, 1908). Kaye, J.W, History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-58, 3 vols., (London, 1880).
Hibbert, Christopher, The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (London, 1978).
Malleson, G.B., A History of the Indian Mutiny, 3 vols.,( London, 1878-80).
Sen, S.N., Eighteen Fifty-Seven (Delhi, 1958).
T.Lowe, Central India during the Rebellion of 1857 and 1858 (London, 1860).

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 85

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