Monday, February 4, 2008

Lucknow Kavanagh: Carry on Civil Servant

“Man was born for turmoil and trouble, and is sometimes glad to be rid of the restraints of civilisation”
– T Henry Kavanagh

"Extraordinary hilarity" all round
HERE’S THE GREAT THING about Thomas Henry Kavanagh: not only did he pull off a stunt of astonishing pluck and courage, he did it dressed up like an extra from Carry On Up the Khyber.

We’re talking turban, baggy trousers, sword and blacked-up face here - the works. It makes you wonder why more of our mad heroes and heroines don’t go in for fancy dress.

Kavanagh’s big moment came during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, not a great year to find yourself on the subcontinent if you were European.

He was living in the northern city of Lucknow with his wife and nine kids when it all kicked off. He was, in his words, a “plain man”. He had a dull job with the Bengal Civil Service. At 36, he was resigned to a life of “miserable drudgery”. The Mutiny would change everything, change it utterly.

Kavanagh’s grey world was suddenly filled with more action and violence than a Sam Peckinpah film. And instead of crumbling, instead of cowering in horror, he came alive. The bureaucrat roared. He stared death in the face and he gave her a wink. He turned into Superman.

I wouldn’t recommend fear, suffering and insanity for everyone, but they certainly worked for T Henry Kavanagh.

The Indian Mutiny began in peculiar fashion when native troops refused to accept new cartridges that were rumoured to be greased with animal fat. Since soldiers back then had to bite open cartridges to load their weapons, they risked defilement – Hindus if the grease was from cows, Muslims if it came from pigs. Instead of accepting the new ammunition, they turned their guns on the British.

Fuelled by widespread anger at colonial rule, the uprising spread rapidly. The rebels seemed to go berserk. Europeans were massacred all over the shop. Delhi and Allahabad fell. In Cawnpore, British women and children were hacked to death after being promised safe passage from the city – definitely not cricket.

Lucknow’s small and frightened European community barricaded themselves behind the walls of the British Residency compound and waited for the fury to descend on them too. Guns were rolled into place, weapons distributed, schoolboys and civilians joined soldiers at the defences.

Kavanagh knew right away this would be his finest hour. He would fight on the ramparts, he would fight in the streets, he would never surrender. “I resolved to die in the struggle,” he writes, “rather than survive it with no better fame than I took into it.”

The Residency was soon surrounded by thousands of rebels. It faced daily attacks and constant sniper fire. Assault after assault was repelled. And as the siege dragged on, hunger and disease spread through the compound.

Kavanagh nearly lost his head, in the most literal way, when a cannon ball flew over his shoulder, burning his ear. His youngest daughter fell ill and died. His wife was shot in the leg. But to his surprise he found he was in his element - “glad to be rid of the restraints of civilisation” is how he put it.

Four months into the desperate struggle, word arrived that a relief force under Sir Colin Campbell had reached the outskirts of Lucknow. But there it had stalled. Campbell faced a problem: how to punch through the ring of rebels surrounding the British Residency without losing half his men.

Fired up like Henry V at Agincourt, Kavanagh decided he had the answer – despite having bright red hair and standing more than 6ft tall, he would disguise himself as an Indian, slip out of the Residency at night, cross enemy lines, make contact with Campbell, then using his local knowledge he would guide the relieving force through the city to the besieged garrison by the swiftest and safest route. Simple. Kavanagh would save the day.

It looked like a suicide mission of course - and he knew it. The rebels would have his guts for garters if they caught him. But to hell with the risk; it was time to pack a whole lifetime of adventure into a single night. “I sat amazed by my boldness,” reports the hitherto quiet civil servant.

To be fair, there was a method in his madness. An earlier relief effort under General Havelock had failed precisely because there’d been no one to guide him through Lucknow’s heavily defended narrow lanes. Hundreds had died but the siege wasn’t broken. It was a mistake that couldn’t be allowed to happen again.

Kavanagh went to his superiors with his bold plan. Colonel Robert Napier was amused but judged it “most absurd”. Sir James Outram, the commander in chief, although also dubious, was more willing to be persuaded. He told Kavanagh he could give it a shot on one condition: he came up with a convincing disguise.

The would-be hero immediately dashed off and began assembling the best “native” costume he could muster. And that evening he returned to Outram’s quarters looking like a cross between Ali Baba and that blacked-up white guy in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

He wore a cream turban on his head, a yellow chintz sheet round his shoulders and tight turned-up-toe shoes on his big feet. He carried a traditional Indian sword and a shield. His face and hands were darkened with dye.

It’s ridiculous, unbelievable really, but this ludicrous pantomime get-up did the trick. Kavanagh waltzed in uninvited, pulled up a seat, plonked himself down – and was immediately rebuked by several officers who took him for an impertinent “native”. He had fooled them; they thought he was an Indian.

Outram was impressed. Mission impossible was perhaps not so unthinkable after all.

A map was hidden in Kavanagh’s turban. A double-barrelled pistol was tucked into his waistband, to use on himself if he was captured. And another layer of dye was slapped on his face for good measure. “There was extraordinary hilarity in the whole proceeding,” Kavanagh writes, “which was most beneficial to my nerves.”

Then at 8.30pm on 9 November, 1857, Kavanagh set off with a brave Indian courier called Kunoujee Lal. No one expected to see either of them alive again.

It was to prove quite a night for the plucky pair. They were repeatedly questioned by suspicious rebels – a hair-raising test not only for Kavanagh’s dodgy disguise but also his even dodgier grasp of “Hindoostanee”. But each time they put on a bold front, tried to stay in the shadows – and somehow were allowed to continue.

They got lost, fell in a canal, had to walk through a swamp for two hours. And Kavanagh’s tight-fitting shoes were a nightmare, cutting his feet to ribbons and causing him to mince and slide almost every step of the way.

As dawn approached it looked like their luck might run out. Kavanagh’s face and hands were now streaked, his panto costume in tatters. When the sun came up he’d be rumbled; he’d have no chance. Then, at 5am, they heard another voice challenging them - and this time it was in English: “Who goes there?” By God, they’d done it! They’d reached the British lines.

After being given a drop of brandy and some nice dry socks, Kavanagh was taken to Sir Colin Campbell who stared in disbelief at the tall, dishevelled nutter standing in front of him. But he was impressed by the mad messenger’s tale. And even more interested in what he had to say about the safest routes into Lucknow.

Off the back of that intelligence, Campbell’s relief force of Scottish Highlanders and loyal Sikhs launched a surprise assault on the rebels. “Cawnpore, boys! Remember our women and children!” was the cry as the Scotsmen charged, bayonets flashing and kilts flying. The city was secured, the besieged Europeans evacuated to safety - and Thomas Henry Kavanagh was a hero.

The following year, with the Indian Mutiny petering out, our man was ordered to put down his sword, discharge his revolver, and return to his humdrum life of civil service. “I did not like the change,” he writes.

But his bizarre night of adventure didn’t go unrecognised. In January 1860, he was presented with the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest gallantry award. He was only the third civilian to be given the medal.

He also earned himself a new nickname. “Lucknow Kavanagh” they called him. The name filled him with pride for the remainder of his days.

One final thing about our ginger hero, something important, something that technically disqualifies him from this blog about British nutters: he wasn’t British.

It’s true that he was a loyal servant of the British crown. He accepted his VC from Queen Victoria. He performed his heroics, in his words, “under the Banner of England”. But this “plain man” was born in the plain town of Mullingar, County Westmeath. He wasn’t British at all; he was Irish.

With apologies to Irish readers and the Kavanagh clan, I’ve shamelessly shoehorned him in for two reasons:

a) I love his swashbuckling story and couldn’t resist

b) I want to recognise that Britain’s mighty reputation for pluck and fearlessness sometimes rested on the heroics of foreign-born adventurers. They did the work, but we got the benefit – a bit like Polish builders today.

The defence of Lucknow gave Britain some desperately needed heroes during the shocking upheaval of the Indian Mutiny. Here was a heroic British stand made against appalling odds. Yet, not for the first time or the last, the biggest hero of the lot was an Irishman.

Military historians Richard Doherty and David Truesdale have established that more than 200 winners of the Victoria Cross were Irish – that’s 16.5 percent of all VC winners, a remarkable statistic for a small country.

And it’s not just the Irish: the success of countless British expeditions, wars and adventures have hinged on the antics of courageous characters from Jamaica, New Zealand, Africa and beyond. Britain’s record of producing half-mad action heroes is second to none – but let’s not forget, we’ve also had more than a little help from our friends.

If a red-haired civil servant from Mullingar can get away with disguising himself as an Indian rebel then anything is possible. So let the hero of Lucknow be the first on our list of honorary Great “British” Nutters from overseas. Let’s say he qualifies under a new criterion - call it the Kavanagh rule.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at Thanks again!

Kavanagh, T Henry, How I Won the Victoria Cross (1860)
Doherty, Richard and Truesdale, David, Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Dublin, 2000)
David, Saul, Victoria's Wars: the Rise of Empire (London, 2006)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)

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