An apparently ordinary early-20th century application for a King’s India cadetship within the India Office records contains a traumatic story from the time of the Indian uprising of 1857.

On January 31, 1908, Louisa Sutherland of Bedford took it upon herself to write an appeal to the war office on behalf of her teenage son. Her five-page letter was forwarded and reached the India Office on February 10.

Louisa Sutherland's letter to the India office. Credit: British Library

Her reason for writing was unambiguous, “The request and favour I now humbly and respectfully crave is that my son Herbert Orr Sutherland may be granted a King’s Honorary Cadetship in His Majesty’s Indian Army, on his passing the necessary qualifying examination ... My desire is to secure for him a Commission ... beyond the accident of the matter of a few marks in an open competition...”

Louisa Sutherland’s father, Captain Patrick James Orr, had been an Assistant Commissioner in the freshly annexed state of Oudh when Indian troops rebelled in May 1857. Five-year-old Louisa and her mother Hannah were sent by night to seek the protection of a local rajah while Captain Orr stayed at his post to protect the treasury.

Things, however, did not go to plan. “ father was recognised by some of the men of his old regiment who called upon him to throw down his arms and said they would spare his life,” she wrote. “He was notoriously feared, loved and respected by the men who had served under him and it was through the fidelity of these men that he ... was escorted by them and placed under the protection of that same Rajah...”

This protection proved illusory, however, for they spent more than two months in the jungle. “ to the prowlings of wild animals, to the fiery heat and torrential rains of a tropical climate, without any shelter or covering, bare-footed and with scanty tattered clothing and subsisting on the coarsest and poorest of diet barely sufficient to keep body and soul together...” went the letter.

John Trivett Nettleship, 'Tiger drinking at a jungle pool' from the year 1880. Credit: British Library

The family and the small number of Europeans who were with them were sold to the rebels iat Lucknow, which they reached on October 26. The four men in the party were then taken out and shot on November 16. Incredibly, in mid-February 1858 “...after some negotiations between General Outram’s camp and one of the officials of the Rebel Durbar I was smuggled out of the City as a corpse after having been coloured to represent a native child”.

View from General Outram’s headquarters at Lucknow from General views and special points of interest of the city of Lucknow, from drawings made on the spot by DS Dodgson in 1781. Credit: British Library

On March 19, Orr and Madeline Jackson, the only other surviving European from the original party, were rescued and mother and child were reunited the following day. Louisa Sutherland sought to bolster her case by mentioning that two of her paternal uncles had served on General Outram’s staff.

But if Louisa Sutherland thought that recounting her family’s dreadful sufferings would melt the hearts of the India Office’s bureaucracy and gain a cadetship for her son, she was to be cruelly rejected. The cover of the file bears the word “Ineligible”.

The India office's rejection stamp. Credit: British Library

Hedley Sutton is the Asian & African Studies Reference Services Team Leader at the British Library.

This article first appeared on the Untold Lives blog, a publication of the British Library.