Glimpses of History: Rajah’s encounter with Col. Gillespie 1807

‘A Memoir of Major-General R. R. Gillespie (1816)’ by Major William Thorn has an interesting account of the encounter of Lt. Col. R. R. Gillespie with the Rajah of Morni in 1807. Col.Gillespie rose to fame with his daring cavalry charge at the head of the Light Dragoons in July 1806 from Arcot to Vellore to crush a revolt by the native troops against East India Company.In 1807 the Light Dragoons left for England, but Col. Gillespie stayed in India and was transferred to the 8th Royal Irish Regiment stationed at Cawnpore. The incident occurred when Col Gillespie had gone for tiger hunting with the Adjutant-General and the Military Secretary to Mornee. Mornee was a popular hunting ground. Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan invader,  is said to have camped at Pinjore for tiger hunting at Mornee in 1765. The party was encamped amongst sylvan surroundings of Mornee for the shoot, unaware that Gillespie’s services were being coveted for higher game than tiger. The local Rajah, being at enmity with the Sikhs, had need of a military commander of merit. At this time India was filled with military adventurers ready to sell their services to the highest bidder. Whether the Rajah of Mornee mistook Gillespie for one of these men or whether he had heard of his reputation, is not known. He approached Gillespie with the offer of the command. Gillespie of course refused. The Rajah was furious and surrounded Gillespie’s camp with troops and threatened to use force. Little did he know the man with whom he was dealing. Gillespie, sitting in his tent, the flap open wide, sent out an order for the leader of the armed forces to appear before him.The leader arrived and stands before him. Gillespie stared at the hill man for a full minute or more. Under the solemn survey of those brown eyes of Gillespie, the left eye large and compelling, the right eye threatening from a slight droop in the upper lid – the hill man’s glance wavered. Nervously the toes of the bare feet wriggled on the matting floor of the tent. Finally Gillespie spoke. Pulling out his watch and setting it on the camp table before him, he said, “Go tell the Rajah, your master, that if in half an hour he does not recall his men from around my tents, I shall take his fort and expel him from the country.” The sublime assurance – indeed the whole episode – was considered typical of Gillespie. At most, his party, including cooks, servants and coolies, cannot have exceeded thirty men. Not only was the ultimatum obeyed, but an escort of honour was provided to conduct Gillespie’s party through the Rajah’s territory. Gillespie returned to the Royal Irish at Cawnpore.Gillespie’s scorn for danger and wreckless disregard for the odds finally led to his death 7 years later. Major General Gillespie died leading his troops on 31st Oct 1814 in an impossible attempt to capture the Kalunga Fort during the Gurkha wars.

Major General Gillespie recounted the encounter with the Raja of Mornee in his letter to a friend in October 1814 days before his fatal charge to take the Kalunga Fort from the Gorkhas. He wrote, “You recollect Mornee, where the Rajah wanted us to command his people.  That very spot where he encamped is close to where a detachment must enter the mountains for the purpose of attacking Nahan.  The recollection of my friend will render this spot dear to me, and bring past scenes in glowing colours to my imagination.” 

 ‘A Memoir of Major General Sir R R Gillespie’ (1816) by William Thorn and ‘The Bravest Soldier, Sir Rollo Gillespie, 1766-1814: a historical military sketch’ (1937) by Eric Wakeham recount this famous incident. The extract from the book is reproduced here.

The Nineteenth Light Dragoons being ordered to Europe, Mr. now Lieutenant Colonel Gillespie, on the 16th April, 1807, exchanged into the Eighth or Royal Irish Light   Dragoons ; soon after which he was appointed to command the cavalry in Bengal, against the Seiks.  On the   breaking up of the camp at Ludheana, he went to Hurdwar,* in order to enjoy the favourite Indian recreation of tiger-hunting.  On this occasion we are again presented with Colonel Gillespie engaged in one of those striking adventures which appear to have marked his life :-

While they were encamped for this   purpose, at a place called Mornee, in the Kemaoon mountains, the Rajah of   those parts, who was then at war with his neighbours, the Seiks, offered the command of his troops to Colonel Gillespie, which was of course refused, as   our government was at that time in a state of amity with the Seiks.  But the Rajah being unwilling to lose the   advantage which fortune seemed to have thrown in his way, of gaining a   European leader for his army, in an attack he was about to make, conceived   that he should gain by menace what was denied to his entreaty.  With this view, he ordered the small camp of the English gentlemen to be surrounded by large body of armed men : upon which, the Colonel, whose presence of mind never forsook him in an emergency, and whose courage was not to be daunted by threats or numbers, called the   chief of the party before him, and pulling out his watch, said to him, “Tell the Rajah, your master, that if in half an hour he does not recall his men   from around my tents, and leave the road open to me and my company, I shall take his fort from him, and expel him the country.”  The determined manner with which this was   spoken completely awed and astonished the chief, who reported the message so   faithfully, and with such a description of the firmness of the Colonel, that   the Rajah not only withdrew his forces, thus leaving the passage free, but voluntarily gave the Europeans an honourable escort to attend them out of his   territory.  When this instance of heroism occurred, it was little to be apprehended that among these very mountains, and probably upon this very spot, the Colonel should six years afterwards terminate his glorious and eventful career.Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie, K.C.B.

4 thoughts on “Glimpses of History: Rajah’s encounter with Col. Gillespie 1807”

    1. Vinod Malhotra

      History teaches us so much and it always interesting to find your ancestors being mentioned. Gillespie are always flamboyant? Maybe those times called for adventurous people to really be respected.

  1. Rollo Gillespie

    It would be nice to be able to see the Geology mentioned in your blogs however ’tis but a dream. Flamboyance isn’t something I and family can afford- another dream I am afraid. I do have the adventurous side in me, so it’s possible that one day I could visit Kalunga Fort, and it would be interesting to do an Archaeology dig there. I think following in the dead mans footsteps is appealing, and maybe finding even one bullet from the times, exciting. I was contacted by a Jyoti Thapa who says she is the owner of the site since her Ghurka grandfather bought it but she tries to ward of the usurpers. She tells me she cleans the bird droppings off the steps off the generals memorial in Meerut and tries to maintain it a little. I visit the family graves of his and my descendants in Betwys Newydd in Monmouthshire.

  2. Rollo Gillespie

    It would be lovely if you contacted me. My name with a dot between it and mypostoffice after it. If you get to see this then feel free to take in the message and delete it.

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