One rainy weekend, I was stuck in a small house in the middle of Wales with no TV or Internet. We used to make our own entertainment in those days, but, lacking a piano for us to organise a singsong round, I resorted to reading. Picking books off the shelf more or less random I came across a history of the Indian Mutiny. The more I read, the more fascinated I was. Although the Mutiny had its share of battles and derring-do, an awful lot of the history of that terrible year was about individuals and their relationships with other people. More than in most conflicts, success or failure seemed to depend on the ability of leaders on both sides to convince people of the justness of their cause. Indian rulers chose between loyalty or a revolt based on their estimation of the men they were dealing with. Some Indian regiments mutinied, while others, in almost identical situations, fought under the British flag because they believed in their commanders.
For anybody like me, whose historical fiction tends to focus on armed conflict but who isn’t that interested in matters military, the opportunity to write about a conflict where the human element was so vital to the outcome was too good to miss. The question was: where should I focus the story?
In the end, I decided on Cawnpore because the protracted struggle there allows us to look in depth at what drove both sides. It also seemed to me a subject that would be familiar enough to my readers for me not to have to worry about their finding the whole idea of the siege and the massacre too alien to grasp. Alas, I have given away my age. When I was at school, we learned about Cawnpore presented somewhat one-sidedly as the heroic struggle of the besieged British, the treachery of the local Indians, and the terrible massacre of women and children. When I talked to younger friends, though, it turned out that nobody nowadays knows anything about Cawnpore at all. So I’m going to write about it here. (Don’t worry: you don’t need to know the history to enjoy the book, but you might well be interested in the background anyway.)
In 1857 the British had been ruling India for exactly 100 years (assuming we measure from Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey). British rule had become a bit complacent, a bit arrogant, and a bit greedy. The native rulers were becoming increasingly impatient with their European overlords and the native soldiers, who we relied on to maintain our rule, were complaining that we were no longer treating them with proper respect. Things came to a head with a rumour (quite probably false) that we were using pig and beef fat to grease the cartridges that we issued to our native troops. As part of musket drill, the end of the cartridges (made of greased paper) was ripped off with your teeth (hence the expression “bite the bullet”). To bite pig fat was anathema to Muslims, while Indians would lose caste by touching the beef.
Whether the cartridges were really the issue, or whether they were simply the casus belli for a planned revolution remains an open question, but on 10 May 1857 troops at Meerut refused an order to load with these cartridges and the Indian Mutiny had begun. Mutinies of Indian troops and outbreaks of rebellion by local leaders soon spread across the whole of north-west India.
In June, the rebellion reached Cawnpore. The tiny British force stationed in the town was commanded by General Wheeler, a man coming to the end of a long military career. He had not seriously considered the possibility of the Indian troops and the local leader, Nana Sahib, turning on them. They had made totally inadequate provision for defence. Wheeler’s force consisted of around sixty European artillery men with six guns, eighty-four infantrymen, and about two hundred unattached officers and civilians and forty musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had seventy invalids who were convalescing in the barracks hospital and around three hundred and seventy-five women and children. They were surrounded by hugely bigger Indian force, supported with cavalry and artillery from 6th to 25th June, the British forces were under continual bombardment by day and sometimes by night. They nevertheless managed to hold out until they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender.
The Indian forces, under Nana Sahib, reneged on the terms of the surrender and attacked the British as they boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety. The massacre (and massacre it was, as almost all the soldiers who had survived the siege were killed at the boats) was bad enough, but terrible things happen in war. It was what came next that made Cawnpore a byword for horror for almost a century and was used to justify appalling acts of retribution by the British after the real fighting in India was over.
The European civilians had taken shelter with the army when mutiny broke out at Cawnpore. The men fought alongside the soldiers and were massacred with them. There were, though, around 375 women and children who were also trapped in the siege. It was concern about the safety of these civilians which was a principal reason for the surrender. Many of the women and children were killed at the boats, but after the initial bloodshed, those who survived were taken prisoner. They were kept in a private house. The house was said to have once belonged to the mistress (or ‘bibi’) of a British officer, and it was therefore called the Bibighar. Around 180 women and children were imprisoned there.
Conditions in the Bibighar were, to put it mildly, poor, but some effort was made to ensure that the prisoners received food and medical attention. They were even occasionally allowed to take the air outside the house – an important concession in a jam-packed building in the summer heat.
It seems likely that Nana Sahib didn’t really know what to do with his prisoners. There were those in his court who demanded that he show mercy to the women and children. Others, though, had a different agenda. As the British forces sent to relieve Cawnpore drew close to the city, the latter group gained the upper hand.
A little before 5.30 in the evening of 15 July, the women of the Bibighar were told that Nana Sahib “had sent orders for their immediate destruction”. The soldiers ordered to do the killing refused, most firing instead into the ceilings.
In the end, five men (two of them butchers) went into the Bibighar with swords and cleavers and set about hacking all those within to death. Their leader hacked with such a combination of enthusiasm and incompetence that he twice broke his sword and had to send out for new ones.
The next morning, the bodies were removed and thrown down a nearby well. It emerged that not all of them were dead, but the wounded were thrown in anyway. Three or four children, who had survived uninjured, ran helplessly around as the bodies were disposed of. Once the adults were all in the well, the children were killed and tossed in after them.
The horror of Cawnpore led to reprisals that were themselves horrific. The repercussions echo, albeit increasingly faintly, even to the present day. Nana Sahib is honoured as a hero in modern India.
The story of British colonial rule in India is not straightforward. The British did much good, as well as great harm. The lesson of Cawnpore, though, is that when one culture imposes its rule on another, the result is often behaviour that brings out the worst in both.
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