La Martiniere and the mutiny

On the eve of the event, known variously as the Revolt of 1857, the First war of independence or the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Lucknow, the capital of the kingdom of Avadh was one of the largest and most prosperous pre-colonial cities in India. Under the Nawabs, Lucknow experienced a virtual Renaissance. Much of the surviving architecture of the city reflects a unique moment of Indo-European intermingling.

One landmark of architectural achievements of this period is the grand building of La Martiniere. Major General Claude Martin, who arrived in India from France in 1751, as a common soldier, built it at the end of 18th century. However, his fortunes multiplied by the time he came to Awadh. La Martiniere was originally named ‘Constantia,’ after the motto Claude Martin adopted, “Labore et Constantia,” which means ‘work and fidelity’.

Claude Martin who died in 1800 was, according to his will, buried at Constantia. Thus, it became his palace-mausoleum. As per William Dalrymple it was “the East India Company’s answer to the Taj Mahal”. Martin also willed that his palace tomb should become a school for boys (he left money to open schools in Calcutta and Lyon, his hometown in France, as well.) La Martiniere, as he desired the school to be named, was started in 1845.

La Martiniere was a miniature fortress, with ditches, stockades, secret passages and cannons. It had Georgian colonnades with the loopholes and turrets of a medieval castle; Palladian arcades rise to Mughal copulas. Many of the statues which adorn the turrets and ramparts, depict classical figures of the Gods and Goddesses of the heathen mythology. Inside of the building was decorated with brightly coloured Nawabi plasterwork, especially in the college Chapel. It also has stain glass windows, one depicting “Jesus in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth subject to his parents,” and in other “Jesus in the temple in the midst of the doctors, hearing them and asking them questions.”

In the lake, facing Constantia, is the ‘Lat’. It is said to be the grave of Claude martin’s horse, or perhaps a lighthouse.

Impressed by its beauty Rosie Llewellyn Jones describes it in following words: “It is both the finest, and largest, example of European Funerary monument in the subcontinent… a wedding cake in brick, a gothic castle.”

La Martiniere was only 12 years old and still struggling to find its feet when the first spark was struck at Meerut on 10th May 1857 and as far as La Martiniere was concerned 1857 was perceived of and responded to the challenge as the mutiny.

Troops were stationed in many houses at Awadh, including La Martiniere, as per the orders of the Chief Commissioner Henry Lawrence. College principal George Schilling showed similar percipience and immediately after receiving the news about Meerut, he moved the establishment into the main building of Constantia, which was suitable for defence. The older boys were armed and assigned sentry duty on top of the building during the day while night duty was assigned to the masters.

By now, Lucknow was openly mutinous. People commenced moving to the Residency for protection in the third week of May but schilling remained in Constantia with his boys. Steps were taken to prepare the main building for defence. Classes continued but the boys were warned to make for Constantia, which had been barricaded with sandbags, bricks etc. An immense iron door guarded the stairway and artillery, composed of a few swivel muskets, was mounted on the bastions. The numerous doors in front of the building were barricaded while those behind were built up with mud and brick walls five feet high and five feet thick. All the staircases were built up and all doors leading to the central staircase excepting one filled up with bricks. To do all this only a few coolies could be obtained, but the masters and boys worked hard and the whole exercise was accomplished in 3 or 4 days.

On 17th June the Chief Commissioner issued orders for everyone to move to the Residency and all preparations for the defence of the building were stopped at once. On 18th June the college proceeded to the Residency in procession, the smaller boys on elephants and the senior boys armed with muskets, forming the rear-guard. The house of a banker was made over to the college and Posterity knows it as ‘the Martiniere Post’. It was a hot, closed house, located in an extremely exposed and vulnerable position on the southern perimeter of the Residency defences.

The gates of the Residency were shut on 30th June 1857, locking out both the Martiniere’s flock of sheep and the washer man, who had a large stock of the boys’ clothing. Consequently, the clothes became an even greater problem than food as the siege went on and on. The hard military, domestic and hospital duty that the boys had to do soon wore out what they were dressed in.

The siege of Lucknow began on 30th June and continued till 19th November. This period of one hundred and forty-two days bestowed on the boys of La Martiniere College an education no other school children had ever received. Between the ages of six and sixteen according to their capabilities, the boys stood to arms, served as hospital attendants, carried messages, ground wheat and corn until reduced rations weakened them and made this difficult task impossible. Quite apart from this, the boys showed remarkable ingenuity in erecting a semaphore on the Residency Tower, from instructions contained in a number of the Penny encyclopedia. This proved to be of immense value for it enabled contact to be established with the besieged and Colonel Campbell’s relieving force.

For the first time in her long history Britain had called upon her school boys to fight for her and the Martiniere boys responded magnificently. As an inevitable consequence, the Martiniere is unique among the schools of the world in having engaged, as a school in serious warfare when staff and students defended the Martiniere Post.

Schilling, the school principal, led a party of 6 masters, the estate Superintendent and 67 boys into the Residency. All but two came out alive, in spite of the extremely exposed position of their temporary quarters, constantly subject to danger from bullets, cannon balls, mines and assaults. Schilling was accorded the singular honour of commanding the Post even after regular troops were stationed alongside the boys.

Fourteen “Senior” boys, ages between 9 and a half to 15 years, along with most of the masters, bore arms in defence of the Post. The close proximity of the houses full of rebels, especially Johannis’ house (barely 20 feet away from the Post) meant constant threat from assaults and even more ominously, mines. [The worst nearly happened on 10th August when during the general assault a mine entirely carried away the outer room of the Post, blew open the doors of the inner room and destroyed a fifty foot stretch of palisades while the boys were away at prayers. However before the dust cleared the doors were barricaded with school tables. The boys also helped in digging a mine from an inner room, a marble tablet still marks the spot in the Post from where the mine, which blew up Johannis’ house, was started. The threatening assaults of the rebels were most harassing as they made the duty of guarding the Post an extremely one, especially at night when most of the attacks, both real and feigned, took place. For over a month this duty was left entirely to the college.

Military duty was only a part of the sterling work done by the boys right through the siege. Since all servants had absconded, the boys were required to carry out domestic work and for the first time, regular schoolwork was stopped. Some boys were deputed upon to attend upon the sick and wounded, some to sweep the compounds every morning and some to draw water, some to grind corn and some to cook. Keeping watch until the Masters came on duty at night and digging pits for the filth of the establishment was the duty of the senior boys. Washing their own clothes was a daily duty for all but the smallest. At Brigadier Inglis’ request, thirty-six boys, in twelve-hour shifts of twelve boys at a time, were assigned to pull fans over the sick and the wounded, but it became impossible to keep up this number especially in September when the health of the boys generally declined.

Right at the commencement of the siege, Henry Lawrence was mortally wounded on 2nd July. Three Martiniere boys attended him.

In such an extraordinary state of affairs, the boys did remarkably well. It is incredible that only two boys died, both due to dysentery. Two boys were wounded, one when stooping to fire at the rebels and other while carrying messages.

During the entire period in the Residency, the usual discipline of the college was maintained and, with very few exceptions, regularity observed in meals, prayers and daily inspection of the boys to see that personal cleanliness was being maintained to the extent circumstances permitted.

On 17th November, immediately after Colonel Campbell’s arrival at the Residency, the decision was taken to abandon the Residency; which was largely completed by 19th November. But on the next day those boys who had defended the Post went back to the Residency at dusk to continue the defence until the Residency was finally abandoned on 22nd November. A large number of rebels were killed before the Martiniere Post in the grand assault on the Residency on the 22nd when the boys were compelled to withdraw to the basement just before the portico collapsed under the heavy cannonade. (After the assault 24 cannon balls were recovered from the Post.)

After leaving the Residency, everyone was shifted to Allahabad. Shortly after Christmas all connected to the college left for Benares. On 15th January 1858, the college was temporarily shifted in two large bungalows at Benares, and continued to be there till March 1859. It was shifted back to Lucknow, once Constantia became habitable.

At Constantia, after the mutiny, nothing remained but the bare bullet and shot ridden walls. Doors and windows had vanished, marble pavements dug up, the library destroyed, the ornamented ceilings and interiors riddled with musket ball, the ironwork removed. The Founder’s tomb had been broken open and his bones scattered, apparently in the mistaken belief of finding a treasure.

Staff and boys of the college who served during the Mutiny received the Mutiny medal. The awards were notified to the principal on 5th February 1861 by a letter from the chief commissioner of Oudh. In April 1933, the Viceroy gave permission to La Martiniere to carry a “Flag” distinct from “colours” on ceremonial occasion. The flag was first ceremonially paraded on the Eighty-First Anniversary of Colonel Campbell’s relief of the Lucknow Residency. Whether it is a battle Honour, as generations of Martinians think it to be, or a flag as the then Viceroy decided it was, it is still unique.

Ever since the Mutiny of 1857, La Martiniere always had a volunteer unit. Its students also participated in the two World Wars and wars of Independent India.

Today after 175 years of the Mutiny, La Martiniere is a monument still alive. It is a flourishing educational institution, which is proud of its glorious past.


Credits : Prachi Pratap