THE battle of Kirkee was the turning-point in the last Mahratta war, which sealed the fate of the Peishwa's dynasty and transferred the Deccan to British rule, and is naturally, in that part of India, still regarded by all whose recollections go back to those days, as the one great event of modern history.
When the collector of these tales was in India, the house temporarily occupied by the Governor of Bombay overlooked the field of battle, and among those who came to see the Governor on business or pleasure were some, natives as well as Europeans, to whom the events of half a century ago were matters of living memory.
Old soldiers would tell how the fidelity of the native Sepoys resisted all the bribes and threats of Bajee Row Peishwa, the absolute Brahman ruler of Poona, and thus, while the Peishwa hoped to effect his purpose by treachery, enabled Mr Mountstuart Elphinstone to defer open hostilities--a matter of vital importance to the operations of Lord Hastings on the other side of India, in preparing for his great campaign against the Pindaries.
The veterans would recount all the romantic incidents of the struggle which followed. How the 'old Toughs' (H. M.'s royal Regiment, now 2d Bn. Royal Dublin Fusiliers), the only European corps within reach, when at last slipped from the leash at Panwell, marched seventy-two miles straight up over the Ghauts to Poona, with but a single three hours' halt en route; how they closed up their ranks of travel-soiled warriors and entered the British lines with band playing and colours flying; and how not a straggler dropped behind, 'for all knew that there must be a battle soon.' Their arrival was the signal for the Peishwa to throw off the mask, and the British Residency being untenable, our troops moved out to take up a safer position at Kirkee, about three miles from the city of Poona; and as they marched they saw all the houses of the Resident and his suite fired by the enemy, who swarmed out of the city. As they formed in line of battle, they anxiously watched the native regiments coming up on their flank from Dapoorie, for that was the moment for successful treachery, if the native soldiers were untrue! Not a Sepoy, however, in the British ranks wavered, though before the junction was complete a cloud of Mahratta cavalry poured down upon them, dashed through the opening left between the two lines, enveloped either flank of the little army, and attacked the European regiment in the rear. Then, as a last resource, the European regiment faced about their second rank, and kept up such a steady rolling fire to front and rear at the same time, that but few of the eager horsemen ever came within spear's-length of the British bayonets.
In these days of rapid and far-reaching musketry fire, such a manoeuvre bids fair to supersede the formation of squares to resist cavalry, but up to that day it bad been but twice successfully attempted, as far as our military histories told, even by 'the terrible infantry' of England, and the veterans of the 'old Toughs' were not a little proud to have succeeded in a movement which bad won for H. M.'s 28th Regiment (now 1st Bnt Gloucestershire Regt.) the unique honour of having a double number, on the back as well as the front of their caps.
One of the most touching recollections of those times attracted our notice almost the last day we spent at Kirkee. An old chief, Jadowrow of Malagaom, had come to take his ancestors were famous as a very ancient royal house, before the Mahomedans invaded the Deccan. The old man had borne arms as a youthful commander of horse, when the great Duke was at Poona in 1802, just before the battle of Assaye; had been greatly distinguished for his gallantry in the battle of Kirkee, so fatal to his race, and had followed the fortunes of the Peishwa to the last. Disdaining to make separate terms for himself with the English conqueror, he remained one of the few thoroughly faithful to his sovereign, not from love, for he loved not Bajee Row, but 'because he had eaten his salt,' and only after the Peishwa's surrender returned to his old castle near Poona. There for many years he lived, hunting and hawking over his diminished acres, and greatly respected as a model of a gallant and honourable old chief; but he could never be persuaded to revisit the capital of the Mahrattas after its occupation by the English. 'He had no child,' he said, 'and his race would die with him.' At last, as years rolled on, an only son was born to him; and then, touched by some unexpected act of liberality on the part of the British Government which would secure his ancestral estate to this child of his old age,he resolved to go to Poona, and visited the Governor, whose temporary residence happened to overlook the battle-field of Kirkee. He gazed long and wistfully from the drawing-room windows and said, 'This place is much changed since I was here last, fifty years ago. It was here the battle was fought, and it was from near this very spot that we charged down that slope on the English line as it formed beyond that brook. I never thought to have seen this place again.'
As these pages are written the overland mail brings a letter written on gold-flowered paper, in beautiful square Mahratta characters. It is from the old chief. It asks no favour, save a photograph of an old friend he can never see again, and conveys in terms of stately courtesy an assurance of his good-will and cordial recollection.
Not many miles from Poona a beautiful obelisk of black basalt, rising from the great plain which stretches eastward, marks the village of Koreigaom. There, a few weeks after the battle of Kirkee, a single battalion of Sepoys (the 1st Bombay Grenadiers), with a few British gunners of the Madras Artillery, and troopers of the Poona Horse, defended the open village for a whole day against the Mahratta army, commanded by the Peishwa in person, and infuriated by their then recent defeat at Kirkee.
Of the heroes of that little band few, of course, now survive. When we visited Koreigaom, the most conspicuous among the crowd of villagers was a little Mahratta boy, who over his ordinary garments had donned the full dress coatee of a native officer's uniform of half a century ago. He was the son of a Jemadar (captain of native infantry), selected by Sir John Malcolm from among the heroes of the Grenadiers, to hold a small grant of land which the wise liberality of the old Court of Directors had given in perpetuity to insure the safeguard of the monument. The lad had carefully preserved his father's sword, sash, and cap, and had ranged them on a carpet in the little courtyard in front of his door, that we might see them as we passed by to examine the scene of the struggle. A few only of the elders of the village remembered the day, when, as terrified children, they had hidden themselves while the battle raged; but all could point out the spots where every incident occurred. The mud houses of the village are clustered now, as then, on the summit of a large mound which overlooks the river Bheema, and on the highest point, at the intersection of the two irregular streets, is a little open space (as usual in Mahratta villages), with the sacred tree, under which the elders congregate every evening to hear the news, and to sit in conclave in front of the village temple and choultry (or resting-place for travellers). These were the only stone buildings in the village. The massive square pillars of black basalt bear in bas-relief carvings of ages ago, scenes of battles of heroes and demigods taken from the ancient national epic. This little temple though not many feet square inside, was, from its strength and situation, the key of the position. Commanding the street on one side, and overlooking the river on the other, it enabled a few men to protect the guns posted in the open space. Here was the only shelter for the wounded. Our men had but partial possession of the village, small as it was, for on the morning of the battle as they marched in to occupy it from one side, the advanced guard of the Mahratta army, of whose approach they had, till a few minutes before, been unaware, swarmed in from the other (the river side), and the contest began when a few yards only separated the leading combatants. The Peishwa took up his position on an eminence at a little distance, and through the livelong day one body after another of his choicest troops, Arabs and others, were Sent to overwhelm the handful of British Sepoys. The enemy moved up under cover of the mud wails, and more than once succeeded in seizing our guns; but each time the Sepoys, advancing with the bayonet, as long as an English officer remained to lead them on, drove their foes back. Here, we were told, fell Pattinson, the gigantic adjutant. He was the son of a Cumberland clergyman, and was greatly beloved by his men. Early in the day he bad been shot through the body, and otherwise sorely wounded, and the men thought he was dead; but when he heard the guns were taken by the enemy, he struggled to his feet, and, clubbing the musket of a fallen Sepoy, struck down an Arab, and led his men once more with a rush to recover the guns. At length every combatant European officer in that part of the position was killed or disabled, and then the young Assistant Surgeons Wylie and Wingate, leaving their wounded in the temple, took their swords, and, calling the almost exhausted men to follow them, twice led them to the charge, retook the precious guns, and restored the fortune of the day. In one of these charges Wingate fell mortally wounded.
The greatest sufferings of the Sepoys were from thirst; the villagers had depended on the sacred waters of the Bheema, and our men could see the clear stream running within a hundred yards of them; but it was death to drink it, for those hundred yards were swept by the fire of the whole Peishwa's army, and no man could live to cross that space and return.
At length night closed on the unequal combat. The Peishwa, utterly dispirited by his failure to overwhelm even such a handful of British Sepoys unsupported by any body of Europeans, withdrew, and never again attempted to try the fortune of war in the field. The surviving remnant of the victors made good their retreat, carrying with them, among their other wounded, their gallant adjutant, to die and be laid in a soldier's grave at Seroor. 1
Almost every hill-fort and large village round Poona has some tradition, not only of the days of Alumgeer, Sivagee, and of early Mahratta history, but of the campaigns of Wellesley in 1802 and of the last great struggle in 1817-18; and many were the tales. like those above referred to, that still survive, mingled with recollections of Elphinstone's wisdom and noble generosity, and Malcolm's frankness; which it was pleasant to hear and verify in these days of cynical scepticism which affects to doubt alike the power of unsupported European heroism, and the existence of courage, unselfish fidelity, and real gratitude among the natives; and which too often really does doubt the possibility of holding and governing India by the same means and in the same spirit by which our empire was acquired. Do we not, by such disbelief; sometimes risk the power to do such deeds as the last generation witnessed?
Anna's remarks on the contrast between the present dearth and the 'good old times' of cheap bread, when the rupee went so much further than it does now, are very char. acteristic. The complaint, too, is very universal, and Is to be heard in the household of public functionaries, the highest as well as the lowest, in every grade of native society, and more or less in all parts of India. It is a complaint which deserves far more attentive consideration than it has hitherto received. Economists and statisticians are well aware that the great and steady rise in prices of late years in India is one of the consequences of a great and long continued influx of the precious metals, and therefore a symptom of the growing prosperity of the country; but the English subaltern or railway engineer finds only that it leaves him at the end of the year a poorer man than he would have been at home, when he expected to have been richer, and he is very apt to attribute his disappointment to the Government, and to imagine that he has been entrapped into a bad bargain.
The natives are naturally still less likely to weigh against the inconveniences of rising prices, the many advantages to all the labouring and mercantile classes with which high prices are accompanied, when caused by a cheapening of the precious metals; and very bitter are the invectives often directed against the 'Government which makes bread dear.'
The Narrator's notion that 'the English fixed the rupee at sixteen annas' is another specimen of a very widespread Indian popular delusion. The rupee always consisted of sixteen annas, for the anna means only the sixteenth part of anything, but to the poor the great matter for consideration in all questions of currency is the quantity of small change they can get for the coin in which their wages are paid. Formerly this used to fluctuate with the price of copper, and the quantity of copper change which a silver rupee would fetch varied as copper was cheap or dear, and was always greatest when the copper currency was most debased. The English introduced all over India a uniform currency of copper as well as of silver, and none of course were greater gainers in the long-run by this uniformity than the very poor. But, as usually happens in such cases, the memory of the occasional gain when the rupee brought more than its formal proportion of change, has outlived the recollection of the more frequent loss when it brought less; and the popular intelligence, however it may smart under the evils of an uncertain and irregular currency, is slow to recognise the benefits of uniformity.
I am unable, at present, to give either the native words or music of this curious little Calicut song. It is probably of Portuguese origin, or may have been derived from the Syrian Christians who have been settled on that coast since the earliest ages.
The English translation of the words as explained to me by Anna, is as follows:--
THE SONG FROM THE SHIP.
(To be sung by one or more voices.)
1. Very far went the ship, in the dark, up and down, up and down. There was very little sky; the sailors couldn't see anything; rain was coming.
2.. Now darkness, lightning, and very little rain; but big flashes, two yards long, that looked as if they fell into the sea.
3. On the third day the Captain looks Out for land, shading his eyes with his hand. There may be land. The sailors say to him, 'What do you see?" He answers, 'Far off is the jungle, and, swinging in a tree, is an old monkey with two little monkeys in her arms. We must be nearing land.'
4. Again the Captain looks out; the sailors say to him, 'What do you see?' He answers, 'On the shore there walks a pretty little maiden, with a chattee on her head; she skips, and runs, and dances as she goes. We must be nearing land.
5. The storm begins to rage again, and hides the land: at last it clears a little. The sailors say to the Captain, 'What do you see?' He answers 'I see a man ploughing; two bullocks draw the plough. We must be nearing land.
It is all true, they have gained the shore.
SONG FROM THE SHORE.
(To be sung by one or more voices.)
1. The ship's on the sea--
Which way is it coming?
Right home to land.
What cargo has it?
The ship brings the sacrament and praying beads.
2. The ship's on the sea--
Which way is it coming?
Right home to land.
What cargo has it?
The ship brings white paper and the Twelve Apostles.
3. The ship comes home to land--
What cargo does it bring?
Silver money, prophets, and holy people.
4. The ship comes home to land--
What does it bring?
All the saints, and holy people, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
5. The ship comes to our doors--
Who brings it home?
Our Saviour bless the ship, and bring it safely house.
The second song, 'The little Wife watching for her Husband's Return,' Anna had almost entirely forgotten.
It was, she said, very pretty, being the song of the little wife, as she decks herself in her jewels to please her husband when he comes home. She laments his absence, and fears he has forgotten her, and bemoans her loneliness.
1 For a full account of the military operations of this eventful period, see Grant Doff's admirable History of the Mahrattas.