Gillespie, Robert Rollo (DNB00)

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GILLESPIE, Sir ROBERT ROLLO (1766–1814), major-general, of an old Scottish family which acquired property in Downshire early in the eighteenth century, was only child of Robert Gillespie of Comber, co. Down, where he was born on 21 Jan. 1766. The father was married thrice, twice without issue. Robert was child of the third marriage with a sister of James Bailie of Innisharrie, co. Down, member for Hillsborough in the Irish House of Commons.

Robert went to a private school at Kensington, known as Norland House, and afterwards to the Rev. Mr. Tookey of Exning, near Newmarket, to prepare for Cambridge. He strongly preferred a military career, and on 28 April 1783 was appointed to a cornetcy in the 3rd Irish horse, now the 6th dragoon guards (carabineers). Three years afterwards, on 24 Nov. 1786, he contracted a clandestine marriage in Dublin with Annabell, fourth daughter of Thomas Taylor of Taylors Grange, co. Dublin, whom he met at the deanery, Clogher, a few weeks before. Soon after Gillespie was second to an officer named Mackenzie, in a duel with a brother of Sir Jonah Barrington. It was proposed that the matter should end after two fruitless discharges, but a quarrel then arose between Barrington and Gillespie. Gillespie drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and challenged Barrington to fight across it. Shots were fired, and Barrington fell dead. Gillespie fled, and took refuge with some of his wife's relations. Afterwards he and his wife escaped to Scotland, whence he returned, and surrendered to take his trial. He was tried on a charge of wilful murder at Maryborough, Queen's County, at the summer assize of 1788, when, despite the adverse summing-up of Judge Bradstreet, the jury, which included several half-pay officers, brought in a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide,’ and Gillespie was discharged upon his own recognisances to come up and plead the king's pardon in the court of king's bench, Dublin, during the ensuing term. Gillespie refused the persuasions of friends to sell out and settle down on his estate, his father having died in 1791; he resolved to see active service, and accepted promotion in 1792 to a lieutenancy in the newly raised 20th Jamaica light dragoons. At Madeira, on the voyage out, the ship was driven out of the roads by a violent storm, and Gillespie and some others escaped to shore in an open boat across a mountainous sea. At Jamaica he had yellow fever, from which he recovered, and when the French planters in St. Domingo applied to Jamaica for aid, he offered his services as a volunteer, his regiment, in which he got his troop in January 1794, remaining in the colony. He was present at the capture of Tiburon in February 1794, and afterwards at Port-au-Prince, where he was fired at while swimming ashore with a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the town. He displayed much gallantry at the capture of Fort Bizotten, and received several wounds in the attack on Fort de l'Hôpital. After the fall of Port-au-Prince Gillespie took advantage of a temporary cessation of hostilities to return home. He rejoined his wife, and travelled about at home for a time. Appointed major of brigade to General Wilford he re-embarked for the West Indies in 1796. He became regimental major the same year. He accompanied General Wilford to St. Domingo, where he was appointed adjutant-general, and was much feared by the republicans. A gang of eight desperadoes broke into his quarters, murdered his slave-boy, and attacked Gillespie, who, however, defended himself with his sword, and killed six of his assailants, when the two others, after firing at and wounding him, fled. The report brought the patrol to the spot. News of his assassination reached Europe, and appears to have hastened his mother's death. When Gillespie attended a levée long after, George III at first expressed surprise at Gillespie's boyish appearance. ‘Eh, eh, what, what,’ said the king, looking at his diminutive stature, ‘is this the little man that killed the brigands?’ Returning to Jamaica, Gillespie assumed command of his regiment, and in 1799 was recommended by the lieutenant-general and house of assembly for the rank of lieutenant-colonel. At the peace of Amiens the 20th light dragoons were transferred from Jamaica to the English establishment, and Gillespie returned home in command, when the house of assembly ordered the receiver-general to pay over to him one hundred guineas, ‘to be by him expended in the purchase of a sword, as testimony of the high esteem in which he is held by this house’ (Jamaica, Journals of the House of Assembly, 9 Dec. 1801).

Soon after his arrival in England insinuations of signing false returns were made against Gillespie by a Major Allen Cameron, of the 20th dragoons, who had been tried in Jamaica for mutiny and sedition. Gillespie applied for enquiry by a court-martial. After two years' delay he was tried at Colchester on 29 June 1804 by a general court-martial, of which the Hon. John Hope was president, and Lord Paget, afterwards Marquis of Anglesey, Hussey Vivian, and others were members. He was fully acquitted. His accuser was removed from the service. Gillespie's pecuniary means became sorely embarrassed by his open-handedness and misplaced trust, and he was compelled to exchange to India. He joined the 19th light dragoons, of which Sir Robert Wilson had just become lieutenant-colonel. Gillespie, intending to travel overland, proceeded to Hamburg, where he was warned as a countryman by Napper Tandy that he was in danger from French spies. He escaped in disguise to Altona, and afterwards travelled by Vienna and the Danube to Greece, whence he made his way by Aleppo and Bagdad to India. He was appointed commandant of Arcot, where the 19th light dragoons were stationed, and had not been there many days when, riding before breakfast on 10 July 1806, he was met by an officer who reported a mutiny at Vellore. Vellore was fourteen miles distant, and the retreat of the captive princes of Tippoo's family. Starting at once with a squadron of the 19th and some native cavalry, and directing the rest of the dragoons with their ‘galloper’ guns to follow, Gillespie hurried to Vellore, to find that the sepoy troops had massacred the Europeans, and that the survivors of the 69th foot had spent their ammunition, and were making their last stand. With the aid of a rope Gillespie had himself hoisted into the fort, where he rallied and encouraged the 69th until the arrival of the guns from Arcot, when the gates were blown open, and the dragoons entering cut down over eight hundred of the mutineers. Gillespie's resourceful heroism at Vellore proved of immense importance to British prestige in India. After removing the captive princes to Madras, Gillespie was employed at Wallajabad and other stations where symptoms of disaffection appeared. When the 19th dragoons were ordered home, in April 1807, he exchanged to the 8th royal Irish light dragoons (now hussars). He commanded early in 1809 the cavalry and horse artillery against the Sikhs under Runjeet Singh, until Sir Charles Metcalfe ended the dispute in April. In Jan. 1809 Gillespie effected a transfer to the 25th (formerly 29th) light dragoons, when the non-commissioned officers and men of the 8th presented him with a costly sword, ‘the gift of the Royal Irish,’ and the officers solicited his restoration to the regiment. Gillespie was subsequently commandant of Bangalore, and afterwards commanded the Mysore division of the Madras army.

In 1811 Gillespie, with the rank of brigadier-general, commanded the advance of Sir Samuel Auchmuty's force in the expedition against Java, which landed near Batavia and took possession of that city. Although suffering from fever, he directed the principal attack on the Dutch lines at Cornelis the day after, and to his gallantry, energy, and prompt judgment in the execution of that service, Auchmuty attributed the successful issue. After the reduction of the island Auchmuty left Stamford Raffles as civil governor, and gave Gillespie command of the troops. The sultan of Palembang, in the island of Sumatra, which had been tributary to the Dutch in Java, having murdered the Europeans there, Gillespie was despatched from Batavia in March 1812. He deposed the sultan in a most summary manner, placed the sultan's brother on the throne, secured the cession of the island of Banca to the British, and returned to Java. Finding a confederacy of Javanese chiefs had taken up a position at D'joejocarta (Yodhyakarta), a powerful stockaded fort defended by one hundred guns and thirty thousand men, Gillespie promptly attacked and carried it with fifteen hundred troops, thereby, in all probability, saving the lives of all the Europeans in the island. (Mill, Hist. vii. 353 et seq.) Gillespie appears to have had disputes with Raffles respecting the military establishment requisite for the safety of the European population, and to have preferred charges against Raffles which the court of directors of the East India Company considered openly disproved. Lady Raffles implies that Gillespie continued to make grave accusations against her husband after their supposed reconciliation (Memoir of Raffles, pp. 133, 204). Gillespie became a major-general on 1 April 1812, and in October of that year threw up his Java command, in which he was succeeded by Sir Miles Nightingale, and returned to India, where he was appointed to a command at Meerut. In 1814 he commanded the Meerut division of the Bengal troops in the war against Nepaul. Among the frontier defences was the fort of Kalunga (Kalanga), near Deyra Dhoon, perched in an almost inaccessible position in the Himalayas, with stockaded approaches. An attack on Kalunga was fixed for 31 Oct. 1814, the troops being told off in four small columns to attack the four faces of the fort. Three of these columns had to make long detours over difficult ground, and a preconcerted signal was agreed upon. Meanwhile the Ghoorka garrison made a sortie, and Gillespie, thinking to follow them in after their repulse, attempted to rush the fort with a dismounted party of the 8th dragoons. This manœuvre failed. Without waiting for the other columns, he renewed the attack with some companies of the 53rd foot which also failed, in the course of which Gillespie, who was in front encouraging the men, was shot through the heart (Mill, Hist. viii. 23–7). His body was brought to Meerut for interment, where an obelisk was erected to his memory. Small obelisks on the hillside make the place where Gillespie and his comrades fell, but all traces of the hill-fort had vanished years ago. The news of his death not having reached England, he was included in the K.C.B.'s made on New Year's day 1815. A public monument by Chantrey, dated 1820, is in St. Paul's Cathedral. As a commanding officer, Gillespie inspired his men with admiring confidence. He was a keen sportsman; among his recorded feats was the killing of a tiger in the open on Bangalore racecourse.

[Memoir of Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie, with engraved portrait (London, 1816). The work supplements the narrative of Major William Thorn, whose Conquest of Java (London, 1816, 4to) gives the most detailed account of Gillespie's achievements in the far East,—a romantic chapter of Indian story. See also Mill's Hist. of India, vols. vii. and viii.; Lady Raffles's Memoirs of Sir Stamford Raffles, and Colonel Welsh's Forty Years' Military Reminiscences, ii. 322 et seq. For the 19th and 20th light dragoons see Colburn's United Serv. Mag. Dec. 1873 and Oct. 1876. Gillespie's letters to Sir John Cradock, relating to Vellore, are in Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 29181 fol. 236, 29192 fol. 297.]

H. M. C.