The Sepoy General who defeated Napoleon

Even a schoolboy knows that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington. But how many of us know that Wellington spent his youth at Fort St. George, Madras (modern Chennai)?

If you walk down the Charles & James Street at the Fort, you would find a ruined mansion at the corner. The only thing that keeps the mansion from going to pieces is a great banyan tree that has lovingly embraced it and is holding  it together.  THAT was the house where he lived in the late 1790s. He was not THE famous Wellington then. He was just young Colonel Arthur Wellesley, trying to make a mark in the world.

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Left: Wellington’s ruined house held together by a banyan tree.  Image Credit: ©SV Kaushik Right: Arthur Wellesley as a young man. Image Credit: John Hoppner [Public domain]

It was in India that he honed his military skills. He participated with distinction in the Anglo-Mysore Wars and the Anglo-Maratha wars. He gained a reputation for emerging victorious out of desperate situations where the enemy had numerical superiority, AND with minimal losses. By the end of his tenure in India he had become a Major-General and had been knighted. After years of tough military campaigns, he deserved a rest. On his way back to England in 1805, he stopped for a brief vacation at St. Helena, off the West African coast. There, he stayed at the Briars cottage belonging to a friendly British merchant named William Balcombe. This cottage, as we shall soon see, was to become famous in history.

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Above: Briar’s Pavilion on Balcombe Estate. Image Credit: David Stanley [CC BY 2.0]

Years passed. Wellington’s army was now busy fighting Napoleon Bonaparte’s French armies all over Europe. Napoleon derogatorily called Wellington the “Sepoy* General” — an insult to his military service in India, meant to contemptuously dismiss him as an unworthy opponent. The French press gleefully published it. But that  glee was short-lived.

In 1815, the British and Allied forces under Wellington’s command decisively defeated Napoleon’s army at Waterloo.  Wellington victoriously marched to Paris and commandeered the Elysee Bourbon, which was the official palace of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena and placed under house-arrest in Briar’s Cottage, which belonged to the Balcombes: the very place where Wellington had enjoyed a pleasant holiday some years back. The irony was not lost on Wellington. He wrote a letter to the British commander at St. Helena, “You may tell Bony ( a dismissive way of addressing Bonaparte) that I find his apartments at the Elysee-Bourbon very convenient and that I hope he likes mine at the Balcombes.” THE SEPOY FROM FORT ST. GEORGE HAD THE LAST LAUGH!

For more stories like this join us on one of trails in Chennai. Discover more about Colonial Madras on the British Blueprints trail.

*Note: Sepoy is derived from the Urdu word Sipahi, meaning soldier. The word is usually used to denote soldiers of the Indian Army.

Main Image Credit: Major-General the Hon. Arthur Wellesley being received in durbar at the Chepauk Palace Madras by Azim al-Daula, Nawab of the Carnatic, 18th February 1805. George Chinnery [Public domain]

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