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Saturday, 7 July 2012


Allen’s Indian Mail of 6th January 1846 announced the names of cadets recently joining the Bengal Army of the East India Company. Robert Urquhart Jenkins, a cousin of my great grandfather William Henry Castle (and a great grandson of my 4x great grandparents Rev George Castle and Mary Edye), had signed up with the Bengal Cavalry on  8th December 1845.

His father was Robert Castle Jenkins, a Calcutta merchant, and his mother was Annie Palmer, daughter of John Palmer, whom The Times described as “one of the most famous merchant princes of Calcutta.” The language is an indication of the unassailable right to rule India which the East India Company had by the 1840s firmly assumed. R.C. Jenkins’ first three sons were all born in Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata). The eldest, Richard Palmer Jenkins, served in the Bengal Civil Service, and R.U. Jenkins’ younger brother Charles Vernon Jenkins rose to the rank of Major-General.

The fort at Multan
(photographed in the 1860s by William Henry Baker)

Robert Urquhart Jenkins joined in time to help fight the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49) which saw the East India Company invade and capture the Punjab when Indian rulers in the Sikh city of Multan resisted the imposition of higher taxes and a puppet governor. RUJ was involved in the siege of Multan whose fall led to the establishment of the North-West Frontier Province.

The British soon ran railways into Multan, and if RUJ was involved in their building it would explain his presence as Captain in command of the Railway Engineers Post in the important garrison town of Cawnpore eight years later in 1857. Cawnpore (modern-day Kanpur) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, midway between Calcutta and Multan, controlled a number of important supply routes. It was home to a British contingent of 900 men, women and children – soldiers, engineers, merchants and their families. Captain Jenkins’ wife was with him, which suggests that his was a long-term posting in the town.

Nothing is known of Robert’s wife. She may well have been a local woman. The wife of Robert’s commanding officer General Hugh Massy Wheeler was one; Wheeler had learned the local customs and language too, and felt relatively safe from the violent acts of rebellion which were breaking out amongst Sepoy troops elsewhere in India that year. (Incidentally, Wheeler’s grandparents were my 5x great grandparents Hugh First Lord Massy and Rebecca Delap. Small world.)

Sepoy troops (here in uniforms of 1812) made up more than three quarters of the East India Company’s Bengal Army – sepoy literally means soldier

The causes of the Sepoy or Indian Mutiny, as it was known in Britain at the time, are of course complex. But it is hardly surprising that the erosion of native princely power, and the ruthless exploitation of the Indian people for the East India Company’s commercial benefit, had been building massive resentment in the local population for decades and centuries. One example of British insensitivity to local custom was the often cited rumour that army gun cartridges were greased with either cow or pig fat, which soldiers had to bite through to prime their weapons. This caused offence to Muslims and Hindus who held, respectively, pigs and cows sacred.

Unrest was in the air, and it prompted Wheeler to prime his cannons as a precaution. This in turn alarmed the large Sepoy contingent of the Bengal Army stationed at Cawnpore. Despite the relatively cordial relations between the British and the Sepoys in the town, suspicion fed suspicion. On the evening of 2nd June 1857 it only took one drunken British officer, Lieutenant Cox, firing off a shot at one of his own Sepoys, to spark the revolt.

Read just how wrong Wheeler was in the events leading up to the Cawnpore Massacre, and what happened to Jenkins and his wife, in Part 2, via this link.


  1. Did the mutineers hesitate to bite the greased cartridges when it served their purpose to shoot British people?
    I think that sensitivity went out the window!!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. There was sadly no hesitation to kill on either side. The insensitivity I was describing was British, but their barbarity after the crushing of the uprising was matched by some ruthless acts of the Indian rebels. Soldiers must expect death, but the cruel killing of civilians on all sides seems to this day to be a dreadful and inevitable part of warfare.


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