The Rani of Jhansi 1854-1858
v.1.0 March 21, 2005
As warrior kings and queens of India go, Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi had a short military career. She fought just two battles, a few weeks apart, but she ensured her name would endure for history.
The Roots of Rebellion
[Primary reliance has been put on R.C. Majumdar’s ninth volume of The History and Culture of the Indian People: British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1963.]
On November 19, 1853, Gangadhar Rao, Raja of Jhansi, decided to adopt a son as he had no surviving child by his wife, Laxmibai, who is known to history as the Rani of Jhansi. On November 20, 1853, he died.
Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, did not recognize the adopted son as the legitimate heir and ordered the annexation of Jhansi to the East India Company’s dominions in India. The debate as to the rights and wrongs of this move are lengthy and complex; suffice it to say that Lord Dalhousie was only conforming to the wishes of his masters in London. And since the Crown determined the EIC’s political policies, he was also indirectly conforming to the wishes of the British government.
Using the Doctrine of Lapse, Lord Dalhousie also annexed several other kingdoms, and the Doctrine became the root cause of the 1857 Mutiny.
Indian queens had no independent authority of their own. In fact, had the British not outlawed the barbarous custom of Sati, Laxmibai would have been expected to follow her husband in
Death by immolating herself on his funeral pyre.
Also in fact, Laxmibai of Jhansi originally continued to serve her British overlords, with fidelity and honesty, even as she continued arguing her son’s case for secession.
When the Mutiny erupted and Jhansi sepoys of the East India Company took up arms against the British, she continued to remain loyal. She aided the rebels only at the point of their guns, and immediately informed the British of events. The British appointed her as their agent and gave her full authority to govern, which she did without wavering in her duty despite the foul blow dealt her infant son by the British.
The British, however, did not trust her and soon it became evident to Laxmibai that when law and order was restored in Central India, which included Bundelkhand, which in turn included Jhansi, they would come for her to arrest her as a traitor.
Faced with the imminent likelihood of execution, Laxmibai then – and only then – revolted against the British.
To call this astonishing woman a fighter for Indian
freedom, and to posthumously bestow on her the highest accolades as one of
the main rebel leaders, is not accurate. No one in rebellion was fighting for
an “independent India”, if only because such a concept did not exist.
The Rani of Jhansi
1830 She is born. Some sources say her birth date lies in 1835.
1838 She is married to the King of Jhansi, a man at least 40 years her senior. Sources giving 1835 as her birth date have her married in 1842.
1853 She is widowed, and her adopted son deprived of his kingdom by the British
June 5 & 6 India is in flames as the Great Indian Mutiny rages. On these dates, native troops at Jhansi mutiny, but Laxmibai remains faithful to Jhansi’s treaties with the British, even if the latter disavow their signed promises.
June 8 Between 72 and 92 European men, women, and children are treacherously massacred by the rebellious troops who had promised them safe passage from Jhansi. The British pin the responsibility on her though she was not involved. She revolts and prepares for the inevitable British onslaught.
Please note there are slight variations in the dates. This is of no significance.
Sir Hugh Rose, with two brigades, opens his Central Indian campaign. From Bombay, he begins an advance on Saugor, Central India. He is acting in concert with a column that sets out from Madras.
February 3 Saugor
Sir Hugh raises the siege of Saugor. The rebels have held it for seven months.
March 3 Madanpur
Sir Hugh forces the pass at Madanpur, clearing his way for an advance to Jhansi.
March 22 Jhansi. Laxmibai’s First Battle Sir Hugh Rose opens the siege of Jhansi.
March 25 Jhansi. The cannonade of Jhansi fort begins, but the Rani’s troops respond in kind, refusing to give way.
March 29 Jhansi The forts guns are silenced.
March 30 Jhansi
A breach in the formidable walls is created. A party of Bombay engineers storms the breach and after heavy losses, secures a position allowing reinforcements to pour in.
Far from ending the battle, the breach only signals the end of its first phase: the Rani of Jhansi defends every inch in house-to-house fighting, but to no avail as the British forces continue to advance.
March 31 Tantia Tope Arrives
On this day Tantia Tope comes to the relief of Jhansi with 22,000 troops [Majumdar]. Major A.H. Amin [retired], a modern historian of South Asian wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries, disputes this figure.
April 1 Tantia Tope Defeated
Tantia fights and loses to Sir Hugh’s detachment of 1500.
April 3 Jhansi
Sir Hugh storms Jhansi Fort
April 4 Laxmibai escapes the fort after nightfall. Covering 150 kilometers in 24 hours, reaches Kalpi, northeast of Jhansi.
April 6 Jhansi falls
Five thousand defenders perish, many are victims of the terrible atrocities the British forces unleash after gain the fort’s surrender.
May 1 Kunch Second Battle
On this day Sir Hugh wins Kunch, enroute to Kalpi. Laxmibai and Tantia meet the British forces but are defeated. Tantia leaves the scene. The Rani of Jhansi is determined to make a stand at Kalpi, and is fortuitously aided by the Nawab of Banda. He has been defeated by Whitlock, leader of the second column into Central India, this one advancing from Madras. He joins the Rani as they both feverishly prepare for Sir Hugh’s attack.
May 22-23 Kalpi Third Battle
The British commander-in-chief fully understands the danger that Laxmibai poses to the Central Asian campaign. He sends reinforcements from Whitlock’s column to Sir Hugh.
Sir Hugh is attacked by the Rani of Jhansi and the Nawab of Bandi outside the fort but defeats them. They abandon Kalpi, and the next day Sir Hugh takes Kalpi without opposition. Though Rose has the fort, he does not have Laxmibai.
The Rani, Tantia, and Rao Sahib, a Marattha general and nephew of Nana Sahib meet up at this town, 60 kilometers southwest of Gwalior.
They have been repeatedly defeated; and have little left by way of men and equipment. They take a dramatic decision, which though the historical record is lacking. Could only have come from Laxmibai. They will attack Gwalior, solidly defended by the British vassal Scindhia.
May 30, 1858 Gwalior
With a few thousand men the rebels arrive outside the fort.
June 1, 1858 Gwalior
Scindhia marches out to meet the rebels. But – the fort has been won over by secret negotiations and the garrison refuses to fight. Protected alone by his bodyguard, Scindhia flees to Agra.
The fort falls, its treasure and fighting men are now at the disposal of the rebels. The three rebel leaders proclaim Nana Sahib as Peshwa.
The British are stunned at the loss of this strategic fort, which stands in the way of the 3 British armies from linking up (the third is advancing from Bengal).
At Gwalior there is great celebration, with Rao Sahib standing in for the Peshwa.
A new hope is upon the land, but the male leaders squander this amazing opportunity. The men have little time either for Laxmibai, or for the Gwalior contingent, which has turned to the Nana’s cause. She frets and fumes to no avail, while Sir Hugh relentlessly continues his advance, even though he has suffered his 5th sunstroke, and his men and animals are dying of the heat.
June 16 Morar Cantonments, Gwalior
The men leaders are unable to stop Sir Hugh at Morar, which defends the outreaches of Gwalior. Ironically enough, they appeal to the Rani of Jhansi to save them. Without ado, she leads the last remnants of her Jhansi troops and the Gwalior contingent, which has given her its loyalty, in defending the mountain passage to the fort and city.
June 17 Laxmibai’s Fourth and Last Battle
The British attack the pass, counting their advance in inches as the Rani refuses to give way. At last the British can make a cavalry charge. The Rani meets it without wavering, and in the subsequent melee, is cut down, either by a cavalryman’s saber or by a bullet.
She is dressed as a man, and has led her men from the front, so the British forces cannot know whom they have killed.
Her faithful soldiers, determined to avoid dishonor to her, retrieve her body and cremate it immediately that night.
Meanwhile, the forces of the Rao Sahib and Tantia Tope are defeated and Gwalior restored to its king. The rebels cannot run away fast enough. The men desert by the thousands. They are defeated again. Whatever his shortcomings, Tantia, who before the Mutiny had been just a common soldier, escapes into Rajasthan with a few hundred men. He continues to escape the British until the next year, when he is betrayed, captured, and hanged.