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The Telegraph and the Mutiny

The history of India may have been different had it not been for William Brooke O’Shaughnessy and his Indian assistant Sib Chandra Nandy. One conjecture is that without their efforts and contribution, the mutineers of 1857 would have succeeded in vanquishing the British. In 1839, Samuel Morse, reputed as the telegraph pioneer, laid the first telegraph lines connecting Washington to Baltimore. In India, the same year, O’Shaughnessy completed 21 miles of a telegraph line wrapped around trees and vast stretches which included a river crossing of 4 miles as an experiment.

O’Shaughnessy, born in the small town of Limerick, Ireland in 1809 joined medicine studies at the age of 18 at the Trinity College in Dublin and later Edinburgh. It was there that he mastered topics such as Forensic toxicology and anatomy. Post graduation he spent his time in research and at the young age of 22, he analysed and wrote a paper that would form the cholera treatment by intravenous fluid and electrolyte-replacement therapy in the treatment of cholera.

However, he was unable to find work and in 1833 he joined the East India Company in Calcutta as an assistant surgeon. He was first posted in the small towns of Gaya and Cuttack and then later was posted as the Opium Agent in Patna. In August 1835 he became Professor of the medical college in Calcutta and served on different committees.

Apart from his work he experimented on many practicals such as developing methods to detect poisons and was the first to prove that zinc coating prevented rusting. One of his significant contributions was to prove that cannabis could be used as a medicinal drug, especially as an anaesthetic.

After publishing his independent design of an electric motor in 1837, he spent time conducting experiments in the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta on the new invention called the telegraph system.

While visiting England in 1841, he introduced the benefits of cannabis to the Western world. So much so, that the personal physician of Queen Victoria prescribed cannabis to her for her menstrual pains!

On his return three years later O’Shaughnessy was made the Chemical Examiner and also the dual charge as the Deputy Assay Master of the Calcutta Mint. The 1840s were thinking time for the expanding British Raj. Though they had suffered a defeat in the Afghan War, the Raj had dethroned Ranjit Singh and other such powerful states.

The Telegraph and the Mutiny

In 1848 the far-sighted and maybe wily, Lord Dalhousie took over as the Governor General. It was in his tenure that the controversial Doctrine of Lapse was passed but he also introduced the railways, the postal system and the Widow Remarriage Act. Dalhousie’s biggest contribution was ensuring the telegraph system in India as he was aware of the potential it had and its uses. He appointed O’Shaughnessy to spearhead the installations who immediately began work on various telegraph instruments and systems.

O’Shaughnessy had met Shib Chandra Nandy during his time at the mint. Nandy was born to a poor family in 1824 but the young man joined the Mint in 1846 and his good work and technical aptitude caught the eye of the Assay Master. When O’Shaughnessy was asked to construct the telegraph lines he appointed his protege Nandy to look after the first line from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour. It was natural that when the line was completed in 1851 Nandy sent the first signal from Diamond Harbour which was received by Lord Dalhousie in the presence of O’Shaughnessy.

Over the years Nandy held several important positions and was number two only to O’Shaughnessy. It was Nandy that constructed the lines to Allahabad and Dhaka from Calcutta and Varanasi to Mirzapur etc. He also laid the 7-mile-long cables under the Padma River!

During 1853-57 roughly about 3500 miles of telegraph were constructed including a cable between India and Sri Lanka a few years later. The installation went over terrains which were the habitats of wild animals and ferocious tribes. Thick vegetation infested with snakes, and crocodiles in rivers and lack of proper food was routine. Maintenance of these overhead lines was an additional nightmare but to ensure communications these lines were laid, supervised by Nandy. The latter also introduced a novel way that reduced cost and logistics by using palm trees as poles!

The Telegraph has saved us all

On a very hot day on the 10th of May 1857, the telegraph office near the Delhi Cantonment came alive. The message was from Meerut about the excitement of the Indian Sepoys who were unhappy about the arrest and death sentence of some sepoys who had refused to “bite the new cartridge”.

By the evening the line to Meerut was severed but the Delhi telegraph centre who got the first message contacted Ambala which in turn flashed the message to Lahore and other centres informing them of the mutiny. This gave the Englishmen at all stations enough time to disarm all Indian troops before the news of the mutiny arrived by messengers. In Calcutta, as O’Shaughnessy was away in London and it was Shib Chanda Nandy took charge of heading the telegraph operations.

The telegraph network was a significant weapon in the hands of the British to quell the Indian uprising. The message from Delhi to Ambala and onwards to Lahore ensured that the then Punjab, which controlled the majority of English troops, did not fall. Had it fallen, British India would not have survived.

David McLeod, the Financial Commissioner of Punjab said: “The Telegraph has saved us all.”The Golden Book of India states that the services rendered by Nandy during the Mutiny in securing all communications of all stations were excellent. He was formally made the Asst. Superintendent in 1866. He was given the title of Rai Bahadur in 1883 and retired with special pensions and the designation of a Magistrate in 1884.

O’Shaughnessy was knighted in 1856 and returned to England in 1860 to continue his work in medicine. He passed on in 1889.
In 1902, Nandy was again honoured at the opening of the Mutiny Telegraph Memorial in Delhi. He died a year later of plague in Calcutta. To honour him, all Telegraph offices all over India closed for a day! The Municipal Corporation named a lane after him in 1904.


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