HistoriCity | A Banarsi landlord was exiled to St Helena 16 years before French emperor Napolean I was sent there to die - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | A Banarsi landlord was exiled to St Helena 16 years before French emperor Napolean I was sent there to die

ByValay Singh
Mar 23, 2024 09:31 PM IST

The year was 1764, and an angry landlord, Jagat Singh, incited insurrection with a deposed nawab in a bid to free Varanasi

In 1764, the British East India Company fought the combined forces of Balwant Singh, king of Banaras, the nawabs of Bengal, and Awadh, and Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in what is called the Battle of Buxar (1764). This landmark battle, which the English won, led to the administration of the Banaras region passing into British hands through the Treaty of Faizabad.

Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor of India, reviewing the East India Company's troops, painted 1781. An illustration from A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, illustrated edition, Volume IV, Macmillan and Co, London, New York, 1894.(Tilly Kettle/A Short History of the English People"/ Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor of India, reviewing the East India Company's troops, painted 1781. An illustration from A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, illustrated edition, Volume IV, Macmillan and Co, London, New York, 1894.(Tilly Kettle/A Short History of the English People"/ Wikimedia Commons)

This left a large number of landlords (both Hindu and Muslim) seething with resentment, which forms the underlying reasons for a well-known but very brief insurrection in 1779 involving Wazir Ali, a deposed nawab and Babu Jagat Singh, a minor landlord who had (unsuccessfully) tried to be recognized as an heir to the Banaras throne.

The insurrection failed — more about that shortly — but Jagat Singh became one of the first Indians to have been ordered to be sent to the remote island of St. Helena in 1799. This island remains one of the most isolated places in the world as it is situated in the south Antarctic Ocean, at a distance of more than 4000 kilometres from Brazil and nearly 2000 kilometres from South Africa.

Had he made it there, he would have been joined by another famous king 16 years later. St Helena is famous because Napolean Bonaparte, the emperor of France, was exiled there in 1815 and eventually died on this obscure and tiny island.

Jagat’s plan to overthrow the British

 

The insurrection left at least five Britishers dead, and its main protagonist was Wazir Ali, the deposed nawab of Awadh. Jagat Singh’s role has so far been seen as that of a lemming to the bigger and better-known story of Wazir Ali.

However, a recently released book The Lost Hero of Banaras: Babu Jagat Singh, claims a more central role for Jagat Singh in the insurrection. It also seeks to rectify another legacy that visitors to the Buddhist site of Sarnath may be familiar with, i.e Jagat Singh is thought to have plundered one of the biggest stupas (Dhamek stupa) for bricks and stones to build a market in his name in Banaras. Not true, claim the authors HA Quereshi and Shreya Pathak.

Babu Jagat Singh belonged to a branch of the Bhumihar Brahmin landlord family that eventually came to acquire first the zamindari (system of land holding) of Banaras in 1737 in the reign of Muhammad Shah, the Mughal emperor. Jagat Singh had descended from one of the brothers of the founder Mansaram, whose son Balwant Singh, through cunning and courage acquired enough political power and wealth to declare himself the king of Banaras in 1740.

After the battle of Buxar, Banaras was effectively brought under British control. They established a mint in the town and a garrison nearby at the ancient Chunar fort. With a pliant Balwant Singh as the king, the British started using the temple town to house deposed rulers like Wazir Ali, Mughal pensioners like Prince Jahandar Shah, and others like the ruler of the south Indian kingdom of Vizianagaram.

 

The death of Napoleon Bonaparte at St Helena in 1821. Lithog(Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons)
The death of Napoleon Bonaparte at St Helena in 1821. Lithog(Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Wazir Ali Khan, ruler for four months

Wazir Ali, the adopted son of Asaf-ud-Daulah, became Nawab of Awadh with the backing of the British in 1797. Four months later, he was deposed and the kingdom went to his uncle, Sadat Ali Khan. Wazir Ali, who was reportedly not as pliable as the British had hoped, was shifted to Banaras and given an annual allowance of three lakh rupees along with a retinue of hundred servants and loyalists, including well-trained fighters.

Babu Jagat Singh had been vying unsuccessfully to be recognized as the legitimate heir to the Banaras throne — which was then occupied by Mahip Narayan Singh, whose ascension was questioned because didn’t descend from the male line but was the grandson of Balwant Singh’s daughter Rani Gulab Kunwar.

Wazir Ali, cruelly deposed, enjoyed the sympathy of even a few British officers. Both men were disgruntled, and though unevenly matched in power and status, they came together to make a plot to dislodge the British and restore themselves and their supporters to lost power and privilege.

Things didn’t go as planned.

On February 14, 1799, Wazir Ali met G.F. Cherry, the city magistrate of Banaras, for breakfast. There, his small army launched a short-lived but violent uprising. The final tally among the Europeans was six, beginning with Cherry. Many more on the side of Wazir Ali and his supporters died. Wazir Ali, escaped, and remained at large before he was caught and exiled to Fort William in Calcutta a year later.

This incident, labelled as ‘Massacre at Benares’ by the British, came less than two decades after the insurrection by Chait Singh, the second king of Banaras in 1781. Chait Singh had revolted because of the East India Company’s rapacious taxation and persistent slights by its officers like Warren Hastings. That bloody revolt left scores dead and immortalised Chait Singh as Banaras’s first freedom fighter. Later, his nephew Mahip Narayan Singh was made king by the British East India Company.

So far, Jagat Singh’s chroniclers have noted his role only as a supporter of Wazir Ali through testimonies and other information that became part of his trial by the special court. For instance, one of Jagat Singh’s servants testified that four months before the insurrection Wazir Ali and Jagat Singh had exchanged messages through him.

According to his testimony, ex-nawab (Wazir Ali) had said: “Go to Jagat Singh, and in case you find him well affected to me, tell him on my part that I intend to seize on the four zillahs (or districts) of Benares and to make war against the English. Bequest him if he has any friendship for me to join us.'”

According to the servant, Jagat Singh replied, “I am the slave of the nawab, and ready to serve him. I will extend his dominions as far as Calcutta. Let me assemble troops and raise money from the bankers to defray the expense of massacring the English. I will then seize the bankers, extort money from them, and subdue the whole province.”

Jagat Singh also promised to raise forces from 60 of his landlord friends and relatives who felt similarly vexed by the British.

After his arrest, Jagat Singh was taken to Fort William in Calcutta and due to reasons which remain unclear, on 18 October 1799, a British judge passed an order sentencing him for transportation to St. Helena. Authors H A Quereshi and Shreya Pathak write, “it reveals the English feeling of insecurity and the probability of any further resistance. They felt so threatened by Jagat Singh that even the idea of keeping him imprisoned in any part of India failed to bolster their confidence. They wanted to preclude even an iota of possibility of further attempts of resistance.”

In fact, Jagat Singh never made it as far as the Osterley, the ship, that would have taken him to St. Helena, instead, he is said to have jumped into the Hooghly River from another vessel that was taking him to port in October 1799. He could have taken this extreme step out of the dread of leaving his motherland or polluting his Brahmin caste by entering sea waters. We will never know what led him to end his life, but it is hard not to surmise that his legatees would have found it easier to redeem this lost hero if indeed he had reached St Helena.

Did Jagat rampage Sarnath's stupa?

Sarnath is one of those rare sites in the world which has contributed immensely to the understanding of Buddhism, Buddha and his adherents, particularly emperor Ashok who developed the place to honour Buddha. Lying 10 kilometres north-east of Banaras, this is where Buddha delivered his first sermon to his first five pupils. The discovery of Sarnath, fortuitous as it was, began with a completely prosaic purpose: the dismantling of one of its largest ruins for the purpose of stones and bricks. And here the main protagonist was undoubtedly Jagat Singh under whose Zamindari Sarnath was.

BC Bhattacharya writes in his book The History of Sarnath. In 1793-1794, Jagat Singh broke this “stupa and carried bricks and other materials from its site to make there a market named Jagatganj after his own name.”

Bhattacharya further writes, “In its relic chamber, Jagat Singh found a green marble casket which was enclosed in a bigger stone. The casket contained a few bones, some decayed pearls, etc, which were committed to the Ganges. The outer stone is now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, but the casket has disappeared. In the same structure, though evidently at a higher level, Jagat Singh found an inscribed Buddha image, the base of which is now preserved in the Archaeological Museum at Sarnath.”

Both British and Indian historians and archaeologists have bemoaned the loss of historical information and artefacts due to Jagat Singh’s dismantling of the stupa, and have portrayed it as a ruthless plundering.

However, the authors of this hagiographical work on Jagat Singh argue that “had Jagat Singh's labourer not gone to dig the place in 1787, this archaeological site would have never been discovered so early”. They argue that if plunder was the sole motive Jagat Singh wouldn’t have spared the other stupas, which he did as soon as he discovered statues of the Buddha, and left them intact.

Revising history to redeem lost pride and honour is more often than not a doomed exercise. But, Jagat Singh’s story does remind us that history writing is also an exercise of power and that history is also to be found in lost slices and forgotten chapters.

In the pages of history, the English attempted to take credit for the discovery of this site, and Jagat Singh was intentionally propagated for destroying the whole structure, including even the wrong date.

Sources:

The Initial British Impact on India: A Case Study of the Benares Region, Bernard S. Cohn

Kashi Ka Itihas, Dr Motichandra

Vizier Ali Khan; or, The massacre of Benares: A chapter in British Indian history, Davis, John Francis, Sir, 1795-1890

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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