On joining the East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon to the celebrated regiment of the North-West Frontier warriors, James Fairweather soon found himself at the centre of what is sometimes called India’s first war of Independence, but to the British was known as the Mutiny of 1857. Fairweather’s regiment fought in all the major battles of the bloody campaign, including the Storming of Delhi, the Battle of Agra, and the breathlessly awaited Relief of Lucknow, Of the 1,000 men in the regiment, 900 would be lost to battle, exhaustion I, and diseases brought about by the terrible conditions of war. Fairweather’s extraordinarily honest and dramatic memoirs of this time ‘p: been edited and annotated by British William Wright, giving us a glimpse into one of the pivotal events in Indian history.
William Wright has written many articles for Soldiers of the queen and savage and Soldier.He is a former chairman of the Victorian Military Society and the author of A Tidy Little War: The British Invasion of Eqypt 1882. He spends much of His spare time Visiting Colonial battlefield, praticularly in Africa and New Zealand .He lives in Budapest.
There are hundreds of millions of people alive today who have lived part of their existence during the same span as the last participant in the Indian Uprising of 1857, commonly known as ‘the Mutiny’. He was not a willing participant hut whether he liked it or not he certainly was there and earned a kind of immortality; Stanley Delhi—Force Tytler was the son born to Harriet Tytler, the only woman present at the Siege of Delhi and her husband, Captain Robert Tytler. That baby Stanley survived was something of a miracle. His birth certainly inspired several of the begrimed and worn out men on the Ridge to believe that they might win, might bring order again into their lives from chaos or yet raise families of their own.
Stanley went on to become a surveyor and died at the ripe age of9l in Vancouver in 1948.’I mention him only because it is easy to dismiss the Mutiny as something in the far Victorian past. Certainly it was an age when men died for honour, glory, the old school and their country’s flag, all symbols which it is easy today to scoff at. But the Mutiny, as Stanley’s life and death make us aware, happened on the edge of our memory, too long ago to be called modern history and yet full of significance for some grandparents, and certainly our great—grandparents’ generation.
I began collecting books on the Raj and the Mutiny when still a schoolboy in the 960s. Changes in domestic circumstances said goodbye to a lot of them and a rather fine library; but book collectors never lose the bug and so, after a time, I began re—assembling.
It was one afternoon, playing around on the internet that I stumbled over what sounded like a super discovery. A dealer in New Zealand was offering a Xerox copy of a journal made by a Surgeon-General. Fairweather. Not quite sure what might turn up, I decided to buy the item and see. The dealer had said another Xerox existed at the University of Cambridge Centre for South Asian Studies. What arrived in the post, when I excitedly opened the parcel, was not a Xerox (which I took to mean a photocopy) at all but an original typed manuscript clearly done on an old typewriter that looked pre-1946s to me. The author’s name was on the front and it was titled, ‘Through The Mutiny With The 4th Punjab Infantry, Punjab Irregular Force’.
I read the journal and found it fascinating; clearly its author had intended it either for publication or as a way of setting down, perhaps for family and close friends, his memories of India from his arrival in 1856 as an assistant— surgeon in the forces of the Honourable East India Company to his departure from the 4th P1. in 1859. 1 set out to do a little research on the document. At Cambridge the famous Centre for South Asian Studies told inc they had a Xerox of this memoir taken from a copy held by the National Army Museum in Chelsea. I found out that Christopher Hibbert had used and quoted from the Fairweather memoirs a few times in his narrative history of the 1857 Uprising published in 1978. So had Saul David in his much more recent 2002 account (though he seems perhaps to have been quoting from Hibbert). Yet Richard Collier, who wrote a superbly evocative history in 1963, The Sound Of Fury, based on every published and unpublished memoir he could find at the time, seemed not to know of Surgeon Fairweather’s account.
The National Army Museum have a policy of refusing to put anyone in touch with persons who have given or loaned them documents, for reasons of privacy. They did tell me, however, that the journal came to them, along with some First World War letters and Second World War material, from a Mr l.H. Fairweather of New Zealand. The gift was made on 2OJuly 1976. The memoirs were those of his grandfather. But I was delighted to see that the typescript owned by the National Army Museum was clearly much younger than mine; it ran now to barely seventy pages, mine to over one hundred and fifty and mine also had some corrections here and there by hand. At one point near the end of his memoirs James Fairweather refers to King Edward VII and thus places the writing (if not the typing) to before 1911. I later found out Fairweather died in 1917 so he seems to have written the book when in his late seventies, It is partly based, one suspects, on letters and (since he quotes from it during the Relief of Lucknow), a diary of events.
Things to my mind now fall more into place. Mr Fairweather, the donor, gave his family’s military papers to the National Army Museum in 1976. For Surgeon—General Fairweather to be his grandfather (and some of the 1930s letters from the Himalayas seemed to be from his brother or cousin), I must assume he was born not later than 1920. That the document now in my possession surfaced in New Zealand in 2007 implies that someone down under died or disposed of a few remaining papers. I have been unable to trace his descendants, if indeed there are any direct ones. Should any read this I hope they will approve.
James Fairweather was born only October 1828. the son of a country gentleman, also james, from Balyordie, Forfarshire, Scotland. He was educated at Edinburgh University where he graduated M.D. in 1851 and taking the L.R.C.S.Edin. in the same year. He entered the Indian Medical Service as an assistant—surgeon on 4 August 1855. His memoirs tell us all we need to know of the next three years during which he fought in an early North-West Frontier expedition against the Bozdars, another one against the Yusafzais and in the Mutiny at the Siege of Delhi; the actions of Bulandshahr, Aligarh and Agra; the relief of Lucknow; the defeat of the Gwalior Contingent at Cawnpore; the action at Shamshabad; the siege and capture of Lucknow; the action at Aliganj and the capture of Bareilly He later received the Mutiny medal with three clasps.
Most of Fairweather’s service up to 1859 had been with the 4th Punjab Infantry, but that year he transferred to become assistant-surgeon of the 4th Punjab Cavalry. His years of campaigning were not quite over; in 1861 he took Assistant-surgeon hill of hodson’s horse an irregular cavalry regiment his informal attire shows how fair-weather probably dressed, to the field again for another campaign against the Black Mountain people on the Yusafzai frontier. The expedition was commanded by none other than Alfred Wilde, Fairweather’s dear old former comrade of the 4th P1. and John McQueen, another friend, wrote that no officer was more esteemed by all ranks, not only for gallant devotion to officers and men in the field, but for his many kindnesses and attention to the sick and wounded under his care.
Later still, James Fairweather—a surgeon—major from 1 July 1873—served as Sanitary Commissioner of the Punjab. ‘During his incumbency,’ noted the Pioneer newspaper in an obituary, ‘the Province was visited with several attacks of cholera and fever, those epidemics affecting a population of 19 million souls, the duty of advising the Government rested entirely on him, he performed his task with the highest success, and to the entire satisfaction of the Government.’2 Fairweather was made a brigade surgeon on the institution of that rank in 1879 and retired as a surgeon-general in 1886. During the 1880s he was for a time civil surgeon at the cantonment of Lahore. After leaving India in the late 1 8$Os the middle—aged doctor retired to Jersey with his wife and family (details are missing from his obituaries but he clearly had at least one son). He died at Forest Hill, Beaumont, Jersey, on 29 April 1917 aged 89.
So much for Fairweather’s career. What of the real person, his everyday experiences? A perusal of his memoirs reveals a man who writes in a solid, matter—of—fact manner. They are shot through with honesty, even to the point of describing atrocities committed by his fellow countrymen, yet it is clear that he hated to see so much suffering and death. Whether stumbling through flooded rivers or sleeping on the cold ground, Fairweather makes us understand better, I think, than any other account by a doctor in the Mutiny, what it must have felt like to be on campaign in 1857. His account is also the only full one we have of anyone who served throughout the campaign with the Punjab irregular infantry.
The published writings by medical men form some of the most interesting accounts of the Mutiny. There are three good ones by regimental surgeons serving with forces of the Crown; two are autobiographies dealing in part with the event and the third is a diary 1857—58. Anthony Dickson Home was with the 90th Foot; three years earlier he had been a doctor with the 13th Light Dragoons in the Crimean War and spent time in the hospital at Scutari but in India he and his new regiment marched with Havelock’s column to Lucknow where they were confined until Campbell’s forces broke through. In his book, Service Memories, Dr Home, who won the Victoria Cross at Lucknow, devotes about 1 00 pages to detailing these events. They cross over with Fairweather only so far as the Relief is concerned. Becoming an assistant—surgeon in 1855, Henry Kelsall’s dates mirror Fairweather’s, but he served with the 20th Foot and did not arrive in Calcutta until 19 November 1857, the date Campbell’s forces, along with the 4th P1., reached the Alambagh. Subsequently the 90th marched with Brigadier— General Franks’ column, meeting up with Campbell’s army at Cawnpore for the final assault on Lucknow. Though good on some medical points, Surgeon Kelsall’s diary is pithy, as such writings usually are, and gives the reader little sense of what the campaign must have felt like to a participant. The best of the three is Records Of Service And Campaigning In Many Lands by William Munro, regimental surgeon of the 93rd Highlanders, Serving as they did so closely with the 4th Punjab Infantry it is hardly surprising that Munro’s memoirs—they also cover his extensive service in the 8th Xhosa ‘war in South Africa as well as the Crimea—mirror and occasionally flesh out Fairweather’s narrative.
The above—mentioned trio served with British line regiments. James Fairweather, however, served with soldiers of ‘John Company’ as the Honourable East India Company’s troops, be they officers or sepoys, were all called. We have two other useful accounts (a third if I include a recent biography of Dr Brydon, almost the sole survivor of the Kabul garrison in 1842, but wounded early in the Siege of Lucknow with a shot through the groin and thus out of action); one an autobiography and the other a memoir. Joseph Fayrer was somewhat senior to Fairweather having arrived in India in 1850. His recollections run to over 500 pages and form one of those books that are, depending on one’s point of view, fascinating reading or tedious Raj literature; he served first on the North—East Frontier, then saw action in the Second Anglo—Burmese War 1852—54 and here he so impressed the Governor—General, Lord Dalhousie, that Fayrer was singled out for the plum posting of residency doctor at Lucknow. About 115 pages of his memoirs deal with the excitement of the famous siege (the remainder of his book is dull indeed) and his house in the residency grounds, battered to a shell, still bears his name. These recollections are thus interesting in that they tell us what the suffering was like within the besieged residency and during Campbell’s relief operations but otherwise bear little on those of James Fairweather. Another H.E.I.C. doctor, James Wise, was with the artillery at Meerut in May 1857, and later published a lengthy memoir of his experiences; these include the Siege of Delhi, the march on Cawnpore with Greathed’s column and Campbell’s first Relief of Lucknow. Yet, readable as Wise’s book is as a contemporary narrative, it tells us surprisingly little about what it felt like to be a doctor and deal with the sick and dying, to tend wounds under fire, or sleep in the rough. In fact I get the feeling that Wise may have been on the staff of the Principal
Medical Officer at Lucknow, so distant does he seem to be from giving us a real taste of the action.
Before tracing the adventures outlined by Fairweather and examining sonic of them in more detail it is first necessary to say a few words about what it was like to be an army doctor, or regimental surgeon, in 1850s India. These men were not officially officers of the regiment but to all intents and purposes were part of the same unit, messing with them and being treated as equal comrades. An assistant—surgeon with less than six years service, such as Fairweather at the time of his exploits, ranked as a lieutenant and one above six years as a captain. Larger regiments, and here I am referring especially to Queen’s regiments, had a surgeon and two or three assistant—surgeons.
In some respects Fairweather’s task must have been a daunting one; he alone was responsible for the medical well-being of—at full strength—some 1,000 officers and men. To assist him he had 48 doolie bearers, along with a Sirdar Bearer and his ‘mate’—a medical support team of 50. The 4th P1. had eight doolies, one per Company, and six doolie bearers to each one. For the patients a doolie was an experience to be either hated or enjoyed. William Howard Russell, the war correspondent, was kicked by an excited horse and forced to rest in a doolie which he described as a ‘perambulating—bed, which was to me a couch for a Sybarite, but my poor bearers looked greatly exhausted’.4 Earlier Russell had admitted that the sensation of doolie travel had little to commend it since ‘I could see nothing but legs of men, horses and camels and elephants moving past in the dust,’5 sentiments echoed by Private Frederick Potiphar, 9th Lancers, who thought them ‘not altogether a pleasant affair to ride in:6 During the Mutiny there were 792 soldiers’ deaths due to heat apoplexy and some of these were the result of stuffy doolie conditions.
Most of Fairweather’s sick and wounded on campaign had to be housed in whatever temporary accommodation he or his fellow officers could find for them. Only in a few places did he have better arrangements; but all the more grave cases eventually were sent to a proper army hospital. Conditions here, as in the field, could vary greatly; in 1858 some hospitals had just 16 beds to a ward, while at Secunderabad the men were housed in a massive one of 228 beds. An 1 863 Parliamentary report on the Sanitary State of Tue Army In India lamented the appalling drainage, bad water supply and poor ventilation of many barracks and hospitals. Advances in care were slow but they were taking shape; thermantidotes—cooling devices that used a winnowing machine to pass air through the wetted screens known as ‘tatties’—were beginning to appear, a mechanical tattie had even been invented along with an ice—making machine, both of which were used in some hospitals. The General Depot Hospital at Allahabad even had six female European nurses in 1858 to care for the men and raise their spirits.
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