The story of Maj Gen WH Blachford, and the hole in his head

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

The final act at Calicut – 1790 - Hussein Ali’s defeat at British hands

Not much is written about the events that transpired in Calicut in 1790. Much misery afflicted the people of Calicut and Malabar in general during that time. If you recall, the Mysore Sultans were on their padayottam (troop movements) phase in Malabar and were now aiming for Travancore. On one hand they needed money to finance their operations against the British; on the other hand, cash hordes were not easy to come by even after steamrolling through Malabar. Travancore was still resisting and Tipu was vexed. The British were proving impossible to beat and the French were being fickle in their support. Events that followed exactly 30 years in the Tirur area after they set foot in Malabar, eventually forced them out, once and for all.

Looking back one can say that the Mysore rule brought some order to the state, but what it also did was upset the delicate social balance in the region. Their departure resulted in bringing to a boil the frustrations and ire of the landlords and the nobility versus the Moplah populace. Violence was to follow, sporadically and later in an organized fashion, as we saw in previous articles.

I will not get deep into this topic and a paper has been readied by our esteemed Dr Noone, a founding member of the Calicut heritage forum. He has spent years of research on this very topic, so I will eagerly wait to read his paper. However I will provide some details if only to establish a perspective and to get to the story of a very interesting person, who was a member of the British forces at that time. I can only wonder, if we will ever have such people these days and if we did at the sheer dedication of those people living and fighting for the King in such far away lands.

I had set the scene in my article about the Ravi Varma princes of the Padinjare Kovilakom.
1790 - Tipu takes the last misstep and invades Travancore by himself. The British, whose successes have so far been mainly owing to the ground support received in the wars from the Varmas, now play the end game to perfection when Lord Cornwallis invites the Varma princes for discussions, agreeing to restore the Zamorin all his lands and commercial powers should the rebels render long term cooperation to them. Accordingly Ravi Varma meets Gen Meadows at Trichy and conducts negotiations. A Cowlnama is drawn up between Kishen Varma and the British. With the help of the Varma’s and their Nairs, the Mysore armies are routed by the British in Malabar. In 1791, the Cochin king after having been at first under the Portuguese and later the Dutch, agree to the suzerainty of the British and to pay an annual tribute. With Mysore under simultaneous attack by the British, Tipu sues for peace in 1792 and cedes Malabar to the British in compensation. The Varma princes were in the meantime busy restoring order in Malabar and fighting and taming the Muslim leaders who were persecuting them under Tipu’s reign. It was to prove a mistake. What followed was a mixture of misused opportunity and undue faith in the legality of the 1790 cowl nama. A meeting called by Cornwallis was not attended by the Malabar princes. The old Zamorin, more interested in celebrating his ‘ariyittuvazcha’ or coronation in Chavakkad possibly missed the significance of the British call for a meeting in Cannanore to discuss the rights. The British decided against reinstating the Zamorin and other Malabar princes, with all their powers using the argument that they would continue wars with the Moplahs who had been against them in the Hyder - Tipu reign and that the British will have to spend time, money and maintain an army to keep peace.

Reference is also made to the Travancore lines story posted earlier, which provides another backdrop to this event.

The Battle of Calicut (a.k.a Battle of Tervanagary or Thiroorangadi) took place between 7 and 12 December, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War. A force of three regiments from the British East India Company, comprising some 1,500 men, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Hartley, defeated a 9,000 man Mysorean army, killing or wounding about 1,000, and taking a large number of prisoners, including their commander, Hussein Ali Khan Sahib of Mysore. Hartley himself had been soldiering on in India since 1764 and did very well in his engagements. During a campaign in 1779, he excelled in his work and had been promoted as Lt Colonel. However the promotion was cancelled due to complaints from some seniors who were superseded by the younger Hartley. He promptly resigned from his services and fought his case all the way to the King George III, who finally reinstated his promotion.

To summarize the battle of Calicut, on the 1790 outbreak of war (3rd Mysore war) with Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Hartley received command of a detachment sent to the coast of Cochin to aid the EIC’s ally, the Rajah of Travancore. In May Hartley received orders to take the Palghat fort. By the time he got near, it had already surrendered. He, however, continued his march, and occupied himself partly in collecting supplies for the main army, and partly in watching any movement of Tippoo's troops to the south-west. On 10 Dec. he inflicted a crushing defeat on vastly superior forces under Hussein Ali, Tippu's general, at Calicut. The remnants of the beaten army were pursued to Feroke, where it surrendered, and that fortress was later occupied by the British. Martab Khan fled on elephants via the Tamarassery pass taking much of the amassed treasure to Mysore. Hartley died much later, at Cannanore in 1799. But then this story is not about Hartley.

I was actually studying the movements of Arthur Wellesly and had come across Messer’s Hartley and Stuart in his dispatches. I was also compiling information on the Ferokhabad based Tipu administration, in more detail. It was around then that a gentleman living in Canada, a direct descendant of a Colonel involved in this battle, contacted me asking for information about Tervanagary. While checking out the details of the person and his curious injury, I got further and deeper into the story of the battle that took place in 1790. Coincidentally, I saw a mention of the presentation that Dr Noone did at the School of Management in Calicut on the very subject. Perhaps it is time, I guess, for it is close to December and hence the time to talk about the events of a December week some 222 years ago, events that finally released Calicut from Mysore Bondage and delivered it to another power, albeit milder.

Quoting from ‘Life of a regiment’ – Another summary of the battle provides some perspective - Early in 1790, the 75th, commanded by Colonel Hartley, who had also two battalions of Bombay Sepoys under his orders, proceeded to assist our ally, the Rajah of Travancore, whose country was at that time invaded by Tippoo, the Sultan of Mysore. The quarrel was about two towns on the Malabar Coast, which Travancore had purchased from the Dutch, but which Tippoo affirmed belonged to his tributary the Kwajah of Cochin. The 75th was at Travancore from April to September, when, along with the Bombay troops, they were ordered, under Colonel Hartley, to the relief of some Madras battalions at Pallyghautcherry; on the march Hartley found the enemy in possession of the Fort of Chowghat, which he instantly attacked and carried. He afterwards, with his brigade, marched to the Malabar Coast, from which Tippoo intended to cut off the British communications. As he approached Calicut, Hartley received information on the 10th December that 14,000 of the enemy under Martab Khan and Hussein Ali Khan were strongly posted in a jungle at Tervangherry, ten miles distant. He at once advanced, with the 75th and two native battalions, towards the enemy, who, trusting to superior numbers, did not decline the battle. After a warm engagement, they were driven to the village of Teronkibeel, where they made an obstinate defence, but were compelled to fly to Trincalore (Trikulam) Fort, which the Bombay Grenadiers entered with the fugitives. Hussein Ali Khan was taken, but Mahab Khan escaped with his cavalry. The victory was gained without much loss; I find no complete list of casualties, but among the wounded were Captains Lawson and Blackford, and Lieutenants Powell and Stewart of the 75th.

Look at some related reports - As Buchanan puts it, in 1790, a British force of 2,000 men under Colonel Hartley landed in South Malabar to deal with Mysore army of 9,000 Sepoys and 4,000 Moplays. He forgot the local support. Ravi Varma rushed to aid with 5,000 of his best Nairs (termed Nair irregulars by Abercrombie) and that helped to turn tide in favor of British. Most history books fail to mention Varma and his 5,000 men support, but just state that the smaller Hartley force defeated the bigger Mysore army. Historian Dale also mentions it to be the most important of the battles and he says - It is worth mentioning, though, that after the British became militarily involved in Kerala in 1781 two of the most important battles in which they defeated Mysorean armies, including the climactic one of 1790, occurred at Tirurangadi. LD Campbell’s book even mentions the Nair irregulars were supplied to Hartley by the King of Travancore.

It is interesting to note that the Moplahs sided with Tipu. About 4,000 of them fought with Tipu while the British were aided by the Nairs, showing the religious divide at that time. To continue, the fort of Ferokabad was soon evacuated; 1,500 men laid down their arms. Beypore, and all the vessels in the harbour, submitted, as did 6,000 inhabitants. As is summarized in history - Shortly after the above, advices were received that Maj.Gen. Abercrombie had arrived at Cannanore; that the fort bad surrendered at discretion; and that all the troops in the neighborhood had laid down their arms; by which means, and in consequence of the brilliant success of Col. Hartley, the Ponnani River had been opened, and the Malabar coast; completely cleared. They got the guns Tipu had captured from the Travancore lines.

Now I will quote from The East India Military Calendar…

Introducing MAJOR-GENERAL William henry BLACHFORD (Bombay Establishment)

This officer arrived in Bombay in Aug. 1777; the 7th March 1779 he was appointed a cadet in the engineers, Bombay establishment; the 1st Jan. 1780 he was promoted to an ensigncy, and served at the siege of Bassien, with the army commanded by Gen. Goddard. After the storm of that fortress, he was one of the sub-engineers employed to survey that territory, and to establish a chain of field-works for the security of the environs against Mahratta horse. On the 20th Feb. 1783 he was promoted to lieut. He served in the memorable campaign commanded by the unfortunate Gen. Matthews, from the first landing of the army on taking of Rajamundroog on the Canara coast, to the conclusion of peace that followed in 1785. During this long and trying campaign, Lieut. B. served at the siege and storm of Onore. He was entrusted with repairing the breaches, and making other improvements in that fortress; and ultimately he had the honour of being the only engineer officer belonging to that garrison during the successful defence it made under the command of Maj. Torriano. The siege and blockade of Onore lasted eight months under the most pressing events, arising from famine, sickness, and desertion; the garrisons were at length relieved by a peace, which returned them to Bombay, reduced from their original strength of 1200 to about 250, for embarkation to the Presidency. The want of provisions was at one time so seriously felt, that a number of horses were killed and salted as a last resource rather than surrender to Tippoo's forces- After this service Lieut. B. was appointed senior engineer to the garrison of Surat.

The 27th Sept. 1785 Lieut. B. was promoted to the rank of a Capt. In 1785-6 he was ordered to Tellichery, where he suggested various plans, which ultimately led to a curtailment of the original lines to a more limited system of defence. In Jan. 1787 he returned to the presidency, to the ordinary duties of his department.

In April 1790 he was ordered, as senior field-engineer, with a detachment under Gen- James Hartley, for the relief of the King of Travancore, attacked by Tippoo. Gen. Hartley landed, and cantoned near Cochin. Tippoo had made a successful attack on the Travancore lines, but the timely arrival of the Bombay detachment saved the interior of the territory from further depredation. Capt. B. was detached to ascertain whether the fort of Cranganore (belonging to the King of Travancore) could be defended against Tippoo, who was preparing to attack it. Its local position was very tenable and strong; but the total want of supplies of every kind for its defence induced Gen. Hartley to give up the idea of defending it. The Travancore garrison was withdrawn, and the fortress was blown up by Tippoo's troops the next day. On the opening of the season, Gen. Hartley's army, joined by the Travancorians, marched to Palicaudcherry, encamped there some time, and relieved Madras garrison at Paulghaut, where Capt. B. succeeded to the duties of engineer, which he held until Gen. Hartley's division was directed to return to the coast of Malabar. On the 10th Dec. 1790 the detachment came up with the enemy, strongly posted for defence near Trevanagary; after a severe action, Tippoo's forces were completely defeated. In this engagement Capt. B. received a severe wound on the side of his head—a musket-ball passed through his hat, and lodged near his temple; the ball was immediately extracted, but the wound was very obstinate in healing.

Now consider the situation. Tipu’s forces perhaps used the Bukmar flintlock blunderbuss musket. Hyder had decided on the flintlock against the matchlock muskets earlier (much later matchlocks were again made by Tipu). Strangely they got the muskets from the British sources as well as French and many were made in Mysore factories. The inscriptions include, on the barrel 'asad allah al-ghalib' (The victorious lion of God), a reference to 'Ali, the son-in-low of the Prophet and the first Shiite Imam.

The simplicity of the musket design allowed it to fire a variety of ammunition. While various old accounts list the blunderbuss as being loaded with scrap iron, rocks, or wood this would result in damage to the bore of the gun; it was typically loaded with a number of lead balls smaller than the bore diameter. The choice ammunition for musket was the round ball, which was literally just a round ball of lead. Round balls were loaded loose into the barrel even after the barrel had been fouled by previous shots. This loose fitting ammunition, and the poor aerodynamics of the round ball led to the musket's inaccuracy beyond 46 to 69 m distance. The package of gunpowder and ammunition was intrpoduced into the barrel using a cartridge.

Quotin from “Military medicine from the 18th century” - It is generally thought that at up to a range of 30 yards the ball would go straight through a man. At a greater range it would still be enough to cause very significant injuries. The primary problem was infection. Almost all gunshot wounds became infected either due to the injury itself (clothing, dirt, and other contamination was often forced into the wound by the musket ball), or from unsanitary conditions following injury, for example with the surgeon probing for the musket ball or shrapnel with his unwashed fingers, or even from being deliberately introduced by the surgeon in an effort to promote healing. Death from infection rather than from the injury itself was the primary danger to the soldier on the battlefield. The blunt-force trauma generated by musket balls produced shattered bones, resulting in the need to amputate the injured limb. Amputation often resulted in death from shock or infection.

But was not an option in the case of Capt B, you can’t cut off his head, right?

In Jan. 1791 Gen. Hartley's detachment formed a junction with the Bombay army assembled at Cananore, under Sir Robert Abercromby. Capt. B- joined it, and was attached to the van with some pioneers to clear the road for its march up the Ghauts. In the execution of this fatiguing duty, with an impaired state of health (his wound not having healed,) he was attacked on reaching the head of the Ghauts, with a violent fever and delirium that threatened his existence. In this despairing condition he remained a long time too ill to be moved: the surgeon at length laid open his wound, conceiving some splintry adhesion of the skull prevented its healing, when a piece of Capt. B-'s hat was found buried in it. This discovery effected a favourable change for removing him to Tellichery, where he arrived with total loss of memory; and from thence embarked, and arrived in Bombay in May 1791. On recovering from that illness, he rejoined the army at Cananore in Oct- 1791, and resumed his duties in the field during that service, and siege of Seringapatam by Lord Cornwallis, which campaign terminated in a peace with Tippoo. From this period (20th May 1792) he returned to the ordinary duties of his department at the presidency, and was employed on a particular survey of the town of Bombay, to ascertain the superficial measurement each house occupied within the garrison.

In 1794-5 he succeeded to the appointment of superintending engineer at Bombay, which he held until he was compelled to seek a furlough to Europe for the benefit of his health. Capt. B. quitted India 17th Jan. 1796, and arrived in England 4th Aug. following. He returned to India 17th Feb. 1798, and arrived in Bombay-4th June following. He was then ordered to Cananore, as superintending engineer to the works carrying on to a great extent. About this period the Bombay army, under Gen. James Stuart, assembled at Cananore, to proceed a third time up the Ghauts, to co-operate against Tippoo's capital. On the army quitting Cananore, Capt. B. was appointed to the command of the garrison. The duties of it became important to exercise, as the place formed a centrical dept for forwarding and receiving supplies for the armies besieging Seringapatam. He held the command of Cananore until the conclusion of that campaign, and then returned to Bombay.

He was promoted to the rank of maj. 11th Dec. 1801, and resumed the duties of superintending engineer at the presidency, which he continued to discharge until Sept- 1803; when finding the state of his health on the decline, he yielded to the necessity of proceeding to Europe on furlough. He quitted India 14th Sept. 1803, and arrived in England 2nd Feb. 1804. He succeeded to the rank of lieut-col. 1st May 1804; and on the 6th March 1805 he obtained, by succession, the rank of full col. of engineers.

Previous to M.-Gen. Blachford's leaving Bombay he had passed more than twenty-two years in actual service in India, independent of his furlough. He addressed the court of directors, representing the impaired state of his health, arising from a bad wound, and various trying duties he had undergone in India, requesting their permission to remain in England as a full colonel, with the advantage of sharing in the offreckoning fund as chief engineer of Bombay; which request they were pleased to accede to.

He passed away on July 8th 1841 aged 82 at Ham, Surrey. His family took up a Blachford coat of arms…..

I was looking at the picture of Hartley’s soldiers and wondering how they would have managed in the heat and humidity of Malabar. Anyway these events took place after the monsoon season when it would have been somewhat bearable!!

Ironically Tipu himself died from a musket ball…in April 1799

The East India military calendar: containing the services of general and field officers of the Indian Army, Volume 1 By John Philippart
The Scots Magazine, Volume 53- By James Boswell
Historical records of the 8th Regiment, Bombay Infantry - By John Robert Sandwith
The life of a regiment: the history of the Gordon Highlanders... By Charles Greenhill Gardyne
The military history of the Madras engineers and pioneers, from 1743 up to the present time - Volume 1
Malabar manual Logan page 473
The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 69 - By John Nichols

Pics – courtesy

Scottish soldier - from page 224 – The life of a regiment

Blunderbass pic

Tipu’s soldier – Charles Gold – Printing inscription provides some detail .The dress of the regular infantry is generally of purple woolen stuff, with white diamond formed spots on it, which is called the tyger jacket. On the head is worn a muslin turban, of a red colour, and round the waist a cumberband, or sash, of the same. Their legs and feet are entirely naked, excepting a kind of sandal slipper, worn to protect their soles from the roughness of the march. They are accoutred with black leather cross belts, and commonly armed with musquets of French manufacture; though some are made in their own country; over the lock is a leather covering, to defend it from dampness

Locations – Calicut, Palghat (Palghautcherry, Palighaut), Around Tirurangadi (Tervannengurry, Taravangerry), Feroke (Ferokebad, Firakabad), Tricalore (Tirukkallur - Thrikkulam) is where the battle actually took place.


  1. drtejnaik

    Onore is the present Honnavar town, north of Bhatkal...and the Rajdroog should be the Basavarajadurga island fort, which guards the estuary of Sharavathi river, entry to Honnavar town.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Thanks for the detailed post. In fact, there is enough material for half a dozen stories but you have skilfully welded them together.
    More than four years ago, a team from CHF led by Dr.Noone had scouted in and around Trikkulam (the theater of the 1790 battle) and had posted our findings in this post :;postID=4219340605602223406

  1. Maddy

    thanks drtejnaik
    the bhatkal area is well represented in all post Gama era memoirs. It is mentioned often in british records as well..

  1. Maddy

    thanks chf
    yes, i listened to Dr Noone's explanations as well which provide the reasons to why the battle was so critical.

  1. Beverley Buchanan

    William Henry Blachford is my 3x great grandfather. Tank you for the information.

    Beverley Buchanan