The Voyage of the Great Tasmania

W.J. Reader describes a scandalous episode that arose out of the transfer of authority in India from the East India Company to the Crown.

At four in the morning of Thursday, March 15th, 1860, the clipper ship Great Tasmania, Captain Gardyne commander, dropped anchor in the Mersey. She had left Calcutta about the middle of November 1859. She was carrying men discharged from the East India Company’s European regiments, who had been serving against the Company’s mutinous sepoys. The officer commanding the troops on board was Captain Alexander Pond, 3rd Bengal European Regiment. He had already announced himself, by telegram, to the India Office, and he had given some indication of the state of the ship.

William Rathbone, agent in Liverpool to the Council of India, went off to the Great Tasmania, in a steamer, soon after ten o’clock. He found that she had left Calcutta with 985 men, twenty officers, seventeen women, and twenty-one children.

By the time she reached the Mersey only 937 of the men were still alive, and an unspecified number of the other passengers. Over a hundred men were too ill to stand. The stores—what was left of them—were foul. The men had no blankets, and most of them were wearing clothing described as ‘suitable for summer wear in a hot climate’. Even by the standards of the early Victorian army, these conditions were scandalous. What had gone wrong?

The affair arose out of the transfer of power in India from the Company to the Crown, and especially from a decision to move the Company’s European regiments in a body to the Queen’s service, without giving the men any choice in the matter. The men looked on this decision as an invasion of the very few rights they possessed against authority. After some months’ preliminary mutterings, the upshot was an episode in the spring of 1859 that for a week or two looked as if it might turn into another Indian Mutiny, this time among the Company’s Europeans.

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