November’s object of the month has been chosen by Carl Watts, the museum’s Learning Officer…
It’s a little unusual and very specific; more of a symbol than an object, but we’re not that pedantic!
“My choice comprises two intersecting ink lines at the end of a few carefully penned paragraphs, recounting events experienced by a small number of men of the 19th Regiment of Foot, and those who opposed them, in 1803.
The document, known as Barnsley’s disposition, is important, but it’s the simple ‘X’ and what unfortunate, illiterate George Barnsley had to go through to place his mark on that page that’s quite simply astounding.
Green Howards have been involved in campaigns across the globe from the New World to the Far East – George Barnsley found himself involved in action in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Following British advances, the 19th Regiment of Foot became part of the garrison of the King’s Palace in Kandy (Ceylon’s capital), and it is here that Barnsley’s incredible adventure really begins.
As was so often the case with troops stationed abroad in the Georgian period, sickness amongst those in the garrison was widespread and extreme difficulties predominated. Lieutenant Blakeny, of the 19th Foot, reported, ‘I need not attempt to picture to you the dreadful state of affairs here. Sickness and starvation, together with the treachery of the Adigar (the Kandyan Prime Minister), and the desertion of the Malays and Lascars; combine these things with the General’s sickness and departure, and I fear not a man now here will ever leave it.’
On 24th June 1803 vengeful native Kandyans, in response to the British presence in their capital, attacked the weakened British garrison. While an attempt to repulse the attack was made, Major Davie felt the only option in the circumstances was to surrender. He agreed to allow the evacuation of those of the garrison who were fit, while the Kandyans were to care for the sick and wounded until satisfactory arrangements could be made for their transportation. However, it wasn’t long before things turned nasty.
The officers were disarmed, separated from the men and massacred. Kandyan attentions then focussed on the remaining men…
‘At length it came to poor Barnsley’s turn, who, more dead than alive, passively walked to the fatal spot strewed with the bodies of his countrymen. The executioners, with their large swords, chopped their victims down; the sword fell upon the back of his neck, his head fell upon his breast, the sinews of his neck were cut through; he got but one chop and became deprived of all sensation….. When he opened his eyes, he saw several of the natives stalking over the heaps of slain, beating every one on the head whether life was extinct or not. During this sight of horror, he lay as still as death, receiving only one blow on the head, which again deprived him of sensation.’ (From ‘The life of Alexander Alexander’, 1830)
Many of us might have ‘called it quits’ at this point. However, after regaining consciousness for a second time, Barnsley supported his head with his left hand, crawled into nearby bushes for cover and then resolved to head for Fort MacDowall, where a neighbouring British force was stationed. An overnight pause was followed by an unimaginable journey.
A swollen, fast flowing river was Barnsley’s first obstacle. Bombardier Alexander reports ‘Here he plunged in, swimming with his right arm, and holding his head out of the water with his left. In the middle of the stream he nearly perished: the current was so strong it hurried him along with it; to prevent which he had, in desperation, to use both arms, when his head fell under the water, and he was nearly suffocated.’
Through a superhuman effort, George Barnsley managed not only to cross the river, but also to cover the sixteen or so miles between the river and his destination. Four days after receiving his wounds, Corporal Barnsley arrived at the relative safety of Fort McDowell.
There he reported to the duty officer: ‘The troops in Kandy are all dished, your honour.’ It is at this point that he gave his disposition and marked it with an ‘X’, after which he received treatment for his wounds.
George Barnsley made a full recovery.
As a result of his testimony Fort McDowell was evacuated, undoubtedly saving the lives of the 58 officers and men stationed there.
In 1805, he was invalided home and finished his military career serving at Fort George on the Moray Firth. He died in 1812 – reputedly having turned to the bottle.”