1915 Singapore Mutiny
In the midst of World War I, on 15 February 1915, the Right Wing (Rajput) of the 5th Light Infantry (Indian Army) which was stationed in Singapore, revolted, killing more than 40 British officers, British residents and local civilians.1 The mutiny was originally referred to as the Mutiny of the 5th Light Infantry, but became known later as the Singapore Mutiny, or Sepoy Mutiny.2
Active propaganda for Indian independence from British rule by the Ghadr Party in India during the early 1900s had generated unrest amongst overseas Indians, affecting troops stationed in Singapore. The Muslim 5th Light Infantry was one of these. The troop’s morale had been constantly at a low, afflicted by slack discipline, squabbles among the officers and a weak leadership. A certain Kassim Mansoor, a Gujarati Muslim coffee-shop owner, had also influenced the troops by sowing negative feelings towards the British. The troops had been stationed to guard military prisoners from the German ship, Emden, at Tanglin Barracks. With their duties completed, they were slated to leave for Hong Kong by 16 February 1915. However, rumours spread among the troops that they were to be ferried to fight against Muslim Turkey instead. The misunderstanding led to greater disaffection, which was fanned further by German prisoner, Oberleutnant Julius Lauterbach, who encouraged the troops to mutiny against their British commanders.3
The mutiny broke out in the afternoon of 15 February, which was the last day of the Chinese New Year holiday. A single rifle shot fired by sepoy, Ismail Khan, shortly after 3 pm at Alexandra Barracks signalled the start of the mutiny. The mutineers killed some of the British officers at the barracks and took possession of boxes of ammunition. They then divided themselves into groups under individual leaders. While one party remained at Alexandra Barracks to prepare for an attack on the commanding officer’s house, the other groups set off from the barracks. One group went to Tanglin Barracks to release the German prisoners and invite them to lead the rebellion. After killing some British officers and releasing the German prisoners at Tanglin Barracks, the mutineers then roamed the streets of Singapore, killing any Europeans they came across.4
The mutiny took the British authorities by surprise because it was a public holiday and most officers and men were away on leave. However, without strong leadership and with their German supporters having escaped, the mutiny soon lost direction. The British authorities, recovering from the initial surprise, managed to mobilise and mount a counter-attack with reinforcement from the police, the Singapore Volunteer Corps, military men brought in by the Sultan of Johor, a naval force from HMS Cadmus as well as sailors from Japanese, French and Russian naval ships nearby. The Japanese sailors were joined by an additional group of Japanese special constables raised by the Japanese Consul. Even though the initial crisis was over within a short time, the mutiny lasted 10 days as the authorities carried out mopping-up operations to round up the mutineers. 44 British officers, soldiers and civilians, as well as three Chinese and two Malay civilians, were killed in the mutiny. In the course of the fighting, 56 sepoys were killed.5
Court of Inquiry
A Court of Inquiry was held on 23 February 1915, first in secret. It then continued publicly, and lasted until May. A total of 47 mutineers were executed, including two Indian officers, six havildars and 39 sepoys. The executions were carried out at Outram Prison. Two of the mutineers were executed on the day of the first trial on 23 February while the others were executed in public executions, witnessed by a large crowd of 15,000 on one occasion. A further 165 mutineers were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment. Kassim Mansoor was found guilty of treason and hanged on 31 May.6
As a consequence of this mutiny, all Indian residents were required to register, causing ill feelings among a majority loyal community.7 More than half a century after the event, studies imply that the mutiny might have had strong support from factions based in India who were keen on overthrowing British forces in the region.8 The event also serves as a reminder of the importance of internal security and the need for a civilian force trained in defence.9
To commemorate the event, two memorial tablets were placed at the entrance of the Victoria Memorial Hall (now known as Victoria Concert Hall) and four plaques at St Andrew’s Cathedral.10
1. R.W.E. Harper and Harry Miller, Singapore Mutiny (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), v–vi. (Call no. RSING 355.1334095957 HAR)
2. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 245; Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 139, 169. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS); T. M. Winsley, A History of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, 1854–1937: Being Also an Historical Outline of Volunteering in Malaya (Singapore: G.P.O., 1938), 61. (Call no. RCLOS 355.23 WIN)
3. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 10–11, 21–39; Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 138–39.
4. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 40–54; Malcolm H. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1999), 163–170. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET); Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 138–39.
5. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 40–54; Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 163–170; Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 138–39.
6. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 195–207.
7. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 139.
8. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 240; Tilak Raj Sareen, Secret Documents on Singapore Mutiny, 1915 (New Delhi: Mounto Pub. House, 1995), ii, 1–20. (Call no.: RSING 940.41354 SAR)
9. Harper and Miller, Singapore Mutiny, 234.
10. “Blood in the Afternoon,” Straits Times, 9 August 1989, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
Sho Kuwajima, Indian Mutiny in Singapore, 1915 (Calcutta: Ratna Prakashan, 1991). (Call no. RSING 940.41254 SHO)
Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984). (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.