Saturday 27 August 2011

Sir Hector Munro - Who's Who in Scottish Military History

We’ve mentioned Sir Hector Munro before in the Who’s Who about Lord Macleod. They were contemporaries of each other but while Macleod was a Jacobite, Munro was a staunch supporter of the Hanoverians. When MacLeod was an exile in Europe, Munro was rising through the ranks in the British Army.

In his long career Munro served in many parts of the world but it was in India he had his biggest success, and biggest failure.

It’s not clear exactly when he was born but his father moved from Novar to Clayside at Dunrobin Mains, near Golspie when he was a baby, so he was probably born in 1725-1726.

He was first commissioned into Loudon’s 64th Highlanders in 1747 but biographies mention previous service against the Jacobites. He may well have served in one of the Independent Companies raised by the Northern clans in 1745-46 and under Loudon’s command which were beaten at Inverness and Dornoch. If he was captured, as has been rumoured, then he was unlikely to have taken part in Cromartie’s defeat at Golspie.

After being commissioned in the 64th Highlanders he went with them to the Low Countries, where they were serving in the War of Austrian Succession. His regiment was in action at Bergen-op-Zoom near Antwerp but saw little service apart from that. It was disbanded in June 1748 at the end of hostilities.

Munro was after an army life so transferred into the 48th Foot as an ensign, and then in the days of purchasing commissions he bought himself a lieutenancy in the 31st Foot in Ireland, and a few years later he was a Captain and company commander of the 2nd battalion 31st Foot (which became the 70th Foot in 1758).

Another regiment soon followed in 1759 when Munro got his majority in the newly raised 89th Highlanders. This was during the Seven Years War and Imperial commitments saw the 89th being sent to India.

With Munro in charge the 89th arrived outside French held Pondicherry in Madras in September 1760. They were there until early 1761 when they were sent to Bombay after the French capitulated.

When the 89th sailed for home in 1763 Munro elected to stay in India. In 1764 he was sent to his third East Indian Company Presidency in India, Bengal, with some other European troops to help quell a mutiny amongst EIC sepoys.

No believer in taking a soft line Munro decided that the only way to deal with the sepoys, whether their grievances were justified or not, was to execute the ringleaders in typical EIC fashion - by tying them to the wheels of a cannon and blowing them apart. He also disbanded the most rebellious native regiment.
With the mutiny suppressed Munro was given charge of the Bengal Presidency Army and took it north from Calcutta to head off an invasion force of Mughals on the Bihar – Oudh border.

On 22nd September 1764 Munro’s army met the Mughals at Buxar, under the command of Nawab Wazir Shuja ud-Daula.

On paper it looked like there would be no contest. The Indians had a force of 40,000 and Munro had only 7,000 men. However since taking command Munro had drilled his men hard to prepare for battle and it would be no walkover.

In a shocking display of underestimating your opponent Shuja ud-Daula left his prepared defences and advanced over open ground to meet Munro’s force.
Wave after wave of Mughal cavalry attacked the Bengal Presidency Army but Munro’s training had paid off and the disciplined firepower of the redcoats held off the horsemen.

Munro then showed his tactical prowess by throwing forward his sepoys at the point of the bayonet onto his opponent’s left flank. The Indians were unprepared for this assault and fell back. Retreat soon turned to rout as the whole Indian front line collapsed.

Whilst Plassey in 1757 may have been the decisive battle to decide which European power influenced Indian affairs, it was the overwhelming victory at Buxar which led to the East India Company becoming the de facto rulers of India’s richest provinces and it tuned British traders into rulers.

It was the high point of Munro’s career and with a very large haul of prize money he resigned his commission and returned to Scotland in early 1765. His uncle had left him the Munro estate at Novar in Cromarty near Evanton, and his money bought him a seat in Westminster as MP for Inverness Burghs. For the next few years he led the life of a country laird spending his Indian fortune on improving his house and estate.

Investment mistakes and loss of money in the 1770s probably led to his decision to rejoin the army. India was where he had made his name and his fortune over ten years before; so with his EIC and parliamentary connections, and his reputation preceding him, he was appointed in 1777 as commander-in-chief at Madras. Now he also had a local royal commission as an EIC major-general and a seat on the Madras council.

Things were complicated in India when Munro arrived. Struggles for control of the East India Company were taking place in London and in Madras the local rulers were not as compliant as the ones in Bengal. It was a recipe for future disaster.

Munro had to deal with weak allies, a strong and antagonistic neighbour, and the involvement of the French and Dutch. Both had enclaves in India and the American War of Independence saw them become allies of the Unites States and enemies of Britain. When the news of the French taking the American’s side reached Munro in 1778 he immediately marched south to take their base at Pondicherry. He had last been there nearly twenty years before with the 89th Highlanders and once again the French capitulated.

Eager to capitalise on his success he captured the other French settlements on the Coromandel Coast / Malabar Coast. Unfortunately this eagerness to defeat the French antagonised Hyder Ali, the powerful ruler of Mysore at Seringapatam.

Ali had no love for the British and had beaten them in a war in 1768. He also considered the French possessions to have been under his protection. Munro’s attacks on Pondicherry was too much for Hyder Ali and he made preparations to march across the Eastern Ghats and onto the Carnatic Plain.

Time and again we’ve seen in our who’s who and on this day articles that pride comes before a fall; and once again a Scot in a position of power chose to ignore the advice of others and carry on regardless.

Hyder Ali and his son Tipoo Sultan amassed 90,000 men. It took time to assemble an army of that size and throughout 1779 and early 1780 it was obvious to everyone except Munro that he would be marching East in strength. Munro chose to ignore the signs. Even when reinforcements were sent to him, including the newly raised Lord Macleod’s Highlanders, they were sent to outlying posts.

In June 1780 Ali moved. Munro finally responded. Instead of ordering his outnumbered troops back to the protection of Madras to regroup he decided to push his force forward and consolidate his army in the field.

The man who lead the Bengal Army to victory against impossible odds at Buxar must have thought he could outfight Ali’s native host. Munro was sadly misjudging his opponent. Ali’s army was well trained by French advisors, and equipped with the latest guns. As Munro advanced on Arcot he expected his other troops to meet him at Conjeeveram.

Unfortunately for Munro his supply train was not as good as he had hoped and his advance bogged down. Ali advanced to meet him before he could congregate all his forces, and Colonel Baillie’s column containing Macleod’s Highlanders was attacked and soundly beaten at the Battle of Pollilur by Tipoo Sultan’s force. 2,800 men, including the future general, David Baird, were killed or captured.
Munro knew his position was untenable and finally retreated to Madras leaving Hyder Ali in control of most of the Carnatic Plain.

Munro’s handling of the affair nearly wrecked his career. He was criticised by Macleod on his tactics and his failure to support Baillie’s men once battle commenced. Certainly no other East India Company in the Carnatic had been beaten so badly. Rather than being sacked Munro was effectively demoted when Eyre Coote was sent to take command of the Madras Army. Munro continued to serve under Coote and attempted to rebuild his reputation as Coote took the fight back to Ali.

Eventually after a spell in his sick bed in Madras he was given independent command again. This time it was to capture the Dutch port of Negapatam in November 1791. Munro’s old skill returned and this attack was a success.

Munro’s second spell in India was now coming to an end. With the campaigning over he resigned his appointment and returned to London. Mixed fortunes awaited him at home. He was granted a knighthood for capturing Pondicherry and then sacked by the East India Company for losing Baillie’s column. He must have cried all the way to the bank because he was awarded yet more prize money and was made a major general in the British army.

He remained a soldier on paper an eventually becoming a full general on 1st January 1798 and he was also Colonel of the 42nd Highlanders (the Black Watch).

His main activity between his return to the UK in 1782 and his death in 1805 seems to have been interesting himself on improving his estate in the then current fashion of replacing tenants with sheep. The man who restored order in Bengal by blowing mutineers from his cannon had no problems bringing the army in to restore order when his improvements provoked protests in the summer of 1792.

However he also showed a slightly more benevolent side when he built a folly on his land to provide jobs during a period of unemployment. Fyrish Monument is said to represent the gates of Negapatam, the city he had captured in 1781 and which had saved his reputation. It doesn’t, but it certainly has an Asian feel to it, and given he renamed many of the parks on his estate after places in India then it’s likely Fyrish was built to remind him of his many years in the sub-continent.

Finally was it civic duty as the local MP, or right-wing tendencies, which led him to provide a substantial sum of money to the building of the new court house and jail in Inverness? The building is gone but Munro’s steeple and clock still survive to mark his contribution to his constituency’s policing.

It was at Novar where Munro died. Uncertainty over his date of birth was matched by the uncertainty of his date of death. Sources quote late December 1805 or early January 1806. His headstone says 27th December 1805.

Munro is a little known figure in his own land. I come from East Sutherland and had never heard of him until recently, but he was an important figure in the history of the British in India. His reforms in the Bengal and Madras EIC armies and his victory at Buxar had laid solid foundations for British supremacy in India and the establishment of the Raj.

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