British Empire Books

Through the Indian Mutiny

The Memoirs of James Fairweather
4th Punjab Native Infantry

AuthorWilliam Wright

This is certainly one of the more interesting personal accounts of the Indian Mutiny that I have come across. In the Victorian era, recounting stories from heroic campaigns was all the rage and many participants of the Indian Mutiny dutifully wrote about their exploits in this exotic part of the world under the trying circumstances. Some of these are very well told, but many of them betray the prejudices of the era or can be scant on some details whilst being overly verbose in others. These books were so commonplace and so well known that they were able to be successfully parodied in the 20th Century by J. G. Farrell in the Siege of Krishnapur. Once a parody has been created, you know that the subject has been well and truly over-exposed.

Despite this fact, William Wright seems to have stumbled across a manuscript of a personal memoir that is perfectly pitched and genuinely sheds an interesting light on the events of a century and a half ago. It tells the story of James Fairweather and the involvement of his unit, the 4th Punjab Irregular Infantry, from the intriguing angle of his profession as surgeon to the regiment. This is not to say that he loses the prejudices of his era, but he does tend to give a far more sympathetic balance towards the non-Europeans than you might find in the more traditional corpus of Mutiny reminiscences. It is also a very honest account by a medical expert who has to deal with the most appalling conditions. It also sheds light on the state of military medicine in an era when medical knowledge was still very limited. He also does not shy away from atrocities committed by both sides - which again is highly unusual.

William Wright has written a very detailed introduction which explains the tortuous route of how the original manuscript came into his possession and how it so easily could have been overlooked and lost forever. He also gives a brief, but suitably detailed explanation of the course of the Mutiny and the role of the 4th Punjab Infantry in that campaign. In fact the 4th seems to have been present in most of the major battles and expeditions or at least of those that involved the relief forces. It was not caught up in the initial wave of mutinies being on duty up North in the Himalayas. It was because the Punjab had been so little affected by mutinous troops that the Frontier Force was called on so quickly and depended upon so heavily. It took time for British forces to be sent to India from elsewhere in the world, but the dependable forces in the North of India could quickly get to the action and, once involved, then stayed throughout until the mutiny was finally put to an end. So Captain Fairweather saw the relief and recapture of Delhi, the relief of Lucknow and the battles at Cawnpore and the final big battle back at Lucknow - amongst other actions! In that time, he saw his unit swell to a thousand soldiers as it marched South and gained recruits but also watched it be reduced to a mere 100 personnel by the end of the campaign as casualties from disease and fighting took their toll.

In addition to Wright's fine introduction, where he explains why the Punjab Force was so loyal and also explains its 'irregular' features in some detail, he also provides excellent notes and pen portraits of all the major names and events mentioned in Fairweather's account. The detail is perfectly pitched - not too much obscure detail that you lose interest, but enough to explain the roles of the individuals or why they had the reputation that they had. So often, notes can be an afterthought or go to the other extreme and become too obtrusive. Here, Wright provides paragraph length descriptions that really help explain the ins and outs of the campaign as it progressed. He also gives extensive suggestions from a very wide range of sources for further reading or to find accounts that dispute or differ over the events explained. Again, this is a very thoughtful and useful addition and helps make the book an excellent jumping off point on a myriad of mutiny related topics.

Fairweather is a concise writer. His descriptions of battles, individuals and places is succinct but believable. Although it is often the non-heroic parts of the campaign that convey the reality of the campaign experience. He does explain the laborious nature of moving his regiment painfully slowly through extremes of temperature and past geographical obstacles whilst expecting to have to fight at a moment's notice. A throw away line of seeing a dead dog stripped by vultures within an hour can convey something of the hostile nature of the terrain. He can also point out the nature of British power on the subcontinent in that it was very much based on military strength and technological ability. At one point he mentions the arrival of British sailors and their Naval Brigade with huge guns. 'It did one's heart good to see the jolly English tars again and it have the sepoys an idea of our power and resources seeing the many different kinds of soldiers that we could bring into the field.' This sentence conveys why he himself thought that the British would prevail as they had the military resources of a modern industrial nation at its disposal and as soon as it all arrived he believed that victory was inevitable. He was part of the holding force allowing Britain to be able to marshall its resources and employ them to crush the mutiny.

The account is not always deadly serious, Fairweather does have something of a sense of humour. There is an amusing anecdote by Fairweather where he states that members of the mess joked about how they might earn one of the newly created Victoria Crosses and it was agreed that Fairweather would have to rescue one of the officers under fire and then operate on him to save his life - which is exactly what he had to do in one of the last battles of the campaign -they even predicted the officer he would have to save! They all agreed that he had come closest to realising the achievement. Having said that, the officers in the mess at the end of the campaign were all strangers to him, nearly all the serving officers of the regiment had been injured or died along the way. He was the only officer to make it all the way through the campaign with the 4th. He gives an interesting and honest description of this high turnover after one of the last battles:

I think this Rooiya affair took the spirit out of our Regiment for the men felt they were just being expended and that few or any would live to return to the Punjab. I know the spirit was taken out of me, for I had seen the Regiment so often cleared out of its officers and their places filled with strangers, whose only desire was to drive the poor remnant of the Corps to new expeditions in order that they might reap honours and rewards, while most of them took no interest in themen; I was heartily sick of the thing.

This honest outburst is placed into context by Fairweather who feels that the Regiment was mightily mismanaged at the tailend of the campaign after having seen so much action at so many critical junctures of the campaign. They had been sent off to pacify a region under something of an incompetent general. Fairweather was seething when he was told that he would have to bring the regiment's wounded with him as there were no facilities or hospitals to care for the men who had sacrificed so much. He then finds his own field hospital under threat and has to retire under fire after a bungled attack. He does not hold back on who he holds responsible for this ignomonious final expedition.

The book does seem to come to something of an abrupt ending, but then again it is at heart a simple narrative of events that he thought might be of interest to those with a passing interest in the Mutiny. It does seem a shame that it was not published in his life-time or even in the Victorian era. We are fortunate though, that William Wright has pulled this account from obscurity and made it available to posterity. But William has actually done much more than simply publish a manuscript by adding his very helpful insights, explanations and his own considerable knowledge of the campaign. In effect he has allowed this account to become a much richer and useful source in its own right.

Buy this book at: Amazon or at Abebooks

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by Stephen Luscombe