Thursday, August 14, 2008

Travancore and its Victoria Cross connection

Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Until 1912, the Victoria Cross was not awarded to Indian members of the Indian Army and was restricted for award only to the Europeans.

Only Forty Indians and Gurkhas were awarded the Victoria Cross since 1912. Subedar Major and honorary Captain Umrao Singh, the last surviving Indian Victoria Cross recipient died in 2005 .Umrao Singh, was awarded the Victoria Cross, for beating off four Japanese attacks on his advanced battery position at Kaladhan valley in Burma on the night of 15th December 1944. He struck down three Japanese soldiers before being knocked out. Six hours later, a counter attack party found Singh at the site of his gun, so severely wounded that he was hardly recognizable. Around him lay ten dead Japanese soldiers.

No south Indian has ever won a VC and so what can be the Travancore connection to a VC?

During the reign of Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma of Travancore (AD 1885-1924), various British Residents had been stationed in Trivandrum who assisted in the administration of the country.
Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma of Travancore (1885-1924)

In AD 1887, for a brief period of four months between July and September, General Sir Henry North Dalrymple Prendergast was the British Resident (acting) for Travancore and Cochin. He later left for Mysore and was the resident there between 1887 and 1892 in two terms, with some gaps in between.

What is interesting about General Sir Henry North Dalrymple Prendergast is that he was a Victoria Cross winner and that too for his gallant action during the Indian mutiny or the first war of Indian independence as we call it now.

Lt. Henry North Dalrymple Prendergast was with the Royal (Madras) Engineers and aged 23 when his unit, the Malwa Field Force was assigned to suppress the mutiny.

General Sir Henry North Dalrymple Prendergast

On November 21st 1857, at Mundisore, Lieutenant G. Dew, of the 14th Hussars, was in imminent danger of being shot by a Velaitee,-a light infantry man- who covered him from the rear with his musket. Lieutenant Prendergast rushed at him and cut him down, but not before being wounded himself by the discharge of the piece. His gallant action saved the life of Lieutenant Dew, but he was almost cut down in his turn, had not Major Orr killed the rebel. He also distinguished himself at the actions of Ratgurh and Betwa, being severely wounded.

Major-General Sir Hugh Rose, in forwarding his recommendation of this officer, states-
“Lieutenant Prendergast was specially mentioned by Brigadier Stuart for the gallant act at Mundisore when he was severely wounded; secondly; he was specially mentioned by men when acting as my A.D.C. in the action before besieging Ratgurgh on the Beena River for gallant conduct. His horse was killed on that occasion. Thirdly, at the action of the ‘Betwa,’ he again voluntarily acted as my A.D.C. and distinguished himself by his bravery in the charge, which I made with Captain Need’s troop, against the left of the Peishwa’s army under Tantia Topee. He was severely wounded on that occasion.”

He was the son of Thomas Prendergast, a magistrate of the Madras Civil Service. Sir Henry Prendergast was born in India, in 1834 and entered the Army in 1854. He served in the Persian War of 1856-7 and the Central India Field Force of 1858 and was mentioned in dispatches. Ten years later he had taken part in the putative invasion of Abyssinia and was present when Lord Napier and his combined British and Indian army stormed and then destroyed Emperor Theodore’s mountain fortress of Magdala. He also saw through the Indian Expedition to the Mediterranean 1878 and the Upper Burma operations 1885-6 and had been thanked by Her Majesty Queen Victoria and the government of India. He was the British resident in Travancore and Cochin (1887) and Mysore and later held other distinguished positions in Baroda (1889) and Baluchistan (1889).

Since his term was rather short in the service of Travancore and Cochin, not many details are known of his days and work over here.
Dubai, Indian Independence Day 2008.


Kariyachan said...

Really informative and interesting .. not many people know about these important yet unknown facts and figures.. especilly in a historical perspective.

Excellent posts, I have nothing else to say!!

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thanks, Kariyachan. It is heartening that a youngster from Kerala sitting in far away South Africa enjoys these write-ups.

Abraham Tharakan said...

This is an excellent piece as most of your posts are. I must also compliment you on your research skills.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thanks, AT Sir. It was gratifying to know that the article was of some interest.

Sid O'Brien said...

I actually believe that the origins attributed to the VC are incorrect, this may sound strange but about thirty years ago I had strange dream about it's true origins, I dreamed that I saw Queen Victoria actually walking through a field hospital when all of a sudden she saw a seriously injured soldier and decide to talk with him.
She was actually impressed personally with his story and decided then and there she was going to create a medal for soldiers on the battlefied, the thing that actually made this dream unusual and unique is she decide that the original medal was to be cast in silver and not the conventional bronze, if this dream was not real then why was the dream so vivid?

Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Sid,

I was very amused to see your comment and about the dream you had. Possibly, there was some truth behind it. Freud might have interpreted the meaning of the dream in his own intellectual way. But the Indian spiritual masters as well might have had an answer. Anyway, thank you indeed for your interesting experience. Kind regards,

Sid O'Brien said...

Dear Murali, my reson for such posting was not meant for amusement, even though you may have found it to be so.
I was actually questiong the origins attributed to the VC, not to mention that if my dream were to have some truth in it and as the bronze VC now fetches around $A200.000 at aucyion just imagine what a silver one the only one of its kind would be worth?

Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Sid,

Thanks for your response. Please be assured that I did not want to make fun of your dream or observation. May be, I took it with a little ease.

The site on Victoria cross,, mentions the following:” Lord Panmure took the commission for the new medal to a firm of jewellers, Hancock's of Bruton Street, who had a high reputation for silver work. From the beginning, however, it had been decided that the new decoration would be made of base metal and the first proof which the Queen received was not at all to her taste. 'The Cross looks very well in form, but the metal is ugly; it is copper and not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat'.”

It is clear from the above that

1. the medal makers were reputed for their silver work
2. Queen Victoria was not impressed with the metal used.

Quite possibly, the Queen wanted the metal to be silver and not bronze as it appeared to you.

Once again, thank you for giving food for thought.

Kind regards,

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