|COLONEL JOHN WILLIAM
WILLOUGHBY OSBORNE, C.B.
24th Madras Native Infantry
The John William Willoughby Osborne was a military officer in civilian
employ at the time the Indian Mutiny erupted. A mere Lieutenant, he could
never have envisioned what the future held for him as the events of the
Mutiny began to unfolded around him. However, few men of any age or rank
were to rise meet the challenges of the rebellion as well as the young,
previously untested Lieutenant Osborne. Indeed, the historian T.R.E. Holmes
was to say about him: “it is not too much to say that he contributed more
than almost any officer of his rank to the preservation of the Empire.”
Born in Madras on the 25th of September, 1833, he was the son of George
Willoughby Osborne, a Captain in the19th Madras Native Infantry and his
wife Maria. Growing up the son of an Army officer in India, Osborne was
exposed to a culture of privilege, duty and an unshakable belief in God, the
Empire and superiority of the British way of life. These values were to
serve Osborne well when he was called upon to fight to defend his corner
of the Empire.
In December of 1849, Osborne was recommended for a direct infantry commission in the Madras Army by East India
Company Director Sir Henry Willcock, at the request of his father, who was then a Major in the Madras Army.
Commissioned an Ensign on the 1st of January, 1850, Osborne received orders in April to do duty with his father’s
regiment, the 19th Madras Native Infantry. His service in his father’s regiment was to be short lived, as in October
of that year Osborne received a posting to the 24th Madras Native Infantry.
In July of 1855, while still just an Ensign, Osborne was ordered to officiate as the Executive Engineer, Mhow Division.
Osborne served in that position until February of 1856 when he was appointed Commissioner of the Settlement of
Boundary Disputes in Central India, a position he held until October of 1856.
In April of 1856 the military authorities offered services to the Government of India for civil employment and the
following October he was deputed on behalf of the Government to the court of the Maharajah of Rewah. Osborne
received a promotion to Lieutenant in November of 1856 and would to serve at the court of the Maharajah of Rewah
until July of 1857.
In May of 1857, the soldiers of the native regiments stationed at the large military cantonment at Meerut rose against
their officers and began killing all Europeans, starting what was to become known as the Great Indian Mutiny. Two
months later, in July of 1856, with important city of Delhi in the hands of the mutineers and the Mutiny continuing to
spread throughout the Bengal Presidency, Osborne was appointed Political Agent at Rewah. The History of the Indian
Mutiny in discussing the situation at Rewah states:
Rewah…is a small native state, ruled by a quasi-independent raja, recognizing the suzerainty of the British, bound to
them by treaties, and having a British resident at his court. In 1857 the resident political agent was Lieutenant
Willoughby Osborne an officer of the Madras Army, possessing great strength of will, a courage that never faltered,
and resolute to do his duty to the upmost. Left unfettered, Willoughby Osborne almost always did the right thing;
but, like many other men conscious of their power, he writhed under the sway of self-appreciative mediocrity. Happily,
at Rewah, he was unfettered.
The town of Rewah lies little more than midway between Allahabad and Sagar, being one hundred and thirty-one miles
south-west of the former, and one hundred and eighty-two miles north-east of the latter. It is built on the banks
of a small river, the Bihar, a tributary of the Tons…”
As the Mutiny continued to spread across Northern India, Osborne soon found himself in a very difficult position.
As the Times reported:
“The Rewah Rajah, it is reported, though still faithful, has fled from his palace to some fort. The Political Agent,
Lieutenant Osborne, is therefore left alone. His position and conduct are an excellent illustration of the scenes taking
place all over India. He is a young Madras officer, and till this outbreak but little known by anyone. He is now living in
Rewah in a tent without a single companion, without a friend within a hundred miles. He is so ill with a liver complaint that
he cannot lie down, taking rest only in a chair. He has no guard, no soldiers, sentries or reliable servants. Every day the
soldiers surround his tent, threatening to put him to death by torture. He admits their power, but tells them that he can
take at least six of their lives before he dies. And so, day by day, there he lives, sick almost until death, all alone, and
with murderers all round, confident only that his duty is to remain at his post, and that God is above him still. It is not
such men as these that Sepoys can subdue. So magical, indeed, is the influence of character,that to this moment
Lieutenant Osborne, the sole European alive in Rewah, is felt by the natives to be at least a match for the regiment
around him. To this hour, therefore, they are willing, when not stopped by force, to convey his messages and obey his
T. R. E. Holmes in discussing Osborne and the challenges he faced stated:
“He was a noble type of the rough and ready soldier-statesman of the old East India Company, zealous, brave, clear-
headed and self-reliant. He saw that upon his keeping a firm grasp of Rewah depended not only the conduct of the
wavering chiefs of Bundlecund, but what was even more important, the security of the line of communication between
Calcutta and Central India, the Deccan and Bombay; and, though his resources seemed wretchedly inadequate, he applied
himself cheerfully and confidently to his task.”
It was announced that the 50th at Nagode and the 52nd at Jubbulpore had mutinied. The news stimulated the rebellious
passions of the disaffected at Rewah. They openly talked of murdering Osborne. He reported their intentions to
Government, and wrote coolly of the contingency of his own death. On the 8 October 1857 the crisis came. Osborne
heard that his office was to be attacked. Collecting about 100 men around him, he calmly awaited the issue. Early in the
afternoon some 2500 budmashes (native hooligans) thronged round the office, but, finding to their astonishment that the
sahib was prepared to resist them, stopped short, hovered about for a few hours, and finally slunk off. From that
moment Osborne’s attitude was changed. He no longer stood on the defensive ...”
Osborne assisted in raising an irregular infantry force known as the Rewah Levies (in which Osborne presumably held the
rank of Local Captain since he is from then on referred to Captain Osborne, even in official despatches) which was under
the military command of Colonel Hinde. Captain Osborne went on to personally participate in no less than nine actions,
which are summarized in his record of service:
“He was engaged in the operations against the 3-gun fort of Kunchundpoore and present at its capture on 7 December
1857; Joorah on the 17 December; the fortified town of Myhere on 28 December; the 22-gun fort of Myhere on 3
January 1858; Jokehaie on 19 January; the 3-gun fort of Kunwarrah on 21 January; the 13-gun fort of Bigiragoogurh on
24 January (wounded); the fort of Jigneehut on 22 May; the action at Kurrereah on 2 January 1859 (wounded); and at
Kentee on 5 March 1859 ….”
Besides capturing 42 pieces of rebel ordnance, the Rewah Levies also took numerous prisoners including several
prominent rebel leaders. Over one hundred of these prisoners were sentenced to death, sentences which would soon be
carried out. On one occasion, Osborne was attacked by one of these prisoners who had concealed a sword in his clothes.
Osborne’s life was saved by Sirdar Davy Singh, who was himself severely wounded when his sword blade shattered while
warding off the prisoner’s slashing sword blow directed at Osborne.
Osborne’s life was saved yet again on a separate occasion when an enlisted man, Private Henry Addison of H.M. 43rd
Regiment, came to his rescue in the action at Kurrereah on the 2nd of January, 1859. In the middle of that action,
Osborne found himself on the ground surrounded by a large force of mutineers. With no regard for his personal safety,
in an act of extraordinary heroism, Private Addison rushed to Osborne’s aid, fighting off Osborne’s attackers and
“covering him in a most gallant fashion”. Addison received “two dangerous wounds and lost a leg in this gallant service”.
Private Addison was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in coming to Osborne’s assistance.
On October 7th of 1859, near the end of the Mutiny, the London Gazette published the Minutes of the Governor-General
of India regarding the Services of Civil Officers and Others during the Indian Mutiny. In recognizing Osborne’s
services the Minute states:
“As also the very remarkable services of Captain Willoughby Osborne, Political Agent in Rewah. Few servants of the
Government have labored more courageously or successfully, against difficulties of every kind, to maintain the influence
of the British Government, and to repress disloyalty, than this distinguished young officer.”
For his services during the Indian Mutiny, Osborne was several times mentioned in despatches, received the Indian
Mutiny with clasp for Central India and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (Civil Division). In February
of 1858, he was appointed Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Governor-General of India, a significant honour.
Admitted to the Madras Staff Corps in February of 1861, Osborne was appointed Political Agent at Bhopal in October
1862 and again appointed an Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Viceroy and Governor-General in January, 1864. Promoted
Major in January 1870 and Lieutenant-Colonel in January of 1876, in February of 1879 he was appointed Resident and
Political Agent in the Eastern States of Rajputana. Following his appointment as Resident and Political Agent Gwalior,
Osborne retired from the Army with the rank of Colonel in February 1883.
John William Willoughby Osborne, C.B., died in April of 1883, only two months after his retirement. He was survived by
his wife Emma and his six children.
Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny, Vol. V., London 1907.
Holmes, A History of the Indian Mutiny, London 1883.
Intelligence Branch, Army Headquarters, The Revolt in Central India, 1857-59, Simla 1908.
Wilkins, History of the Victoria Cross 1904, Reprint by Benchmark Publishing, New York 1970
Hart’s Annual Army List 1871, London.
Times, 30 November 1857.
Cadet Papers, L/MIL/9/223.
Record of Services, L/MIL/11/80.
London Gazette, 10 June 1859; 27 Sept. 1859; 7 Oct. 1859; 18 May 1860.
Census Enumeration of the United Kingdom.