Last month I wrote about the siege of Cawnpore and mentioned that it is best known for the massacre that ended it. In fact, there were two massacres. When the British forces marched out of the Entrenchment and boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety, Nana Sahib’s forces opened fire before they could cast off. Those who stayed on the boats died on the river and those who attempted to return to shore were cut down by cavalry.
Although many women and children died in this massacre, they do seem to have been what we would now call ‘collateral damage’. It was the troops who were the target and all but four men who escaped down river died in that action. The women and children who survived were taken to a house that had been the residence of an officer’s mistress or bibi and which was therefore known as the bibighar.
After the insurrection had been suppressed, the British made much of the poor conditions in the bibighar, but, though the building was crowded and uncomfortable, the Nana Sahib does seem to have been doing his best to keep his prisoners safe. Guards on the building were as much there to protect the women and children from hostile (or just curious) crowds, as to prevent attempts at escape. Conditions could have been a lot worse (and after the conditions in the Entrenchment the bibighar must have seemed paradisaical) but the care of the women and children was entrusted to a serving girl (often described as a prostitute) called Hussaini Khanum who saw this as an opportunity to avenge herself on women who had always looked down on her and her like. She made their already difficult conditions nearly intolerable. Crowded, baking in the July heat, short of water and with limited amounts of food, some of the women went mad. Cholera took off others.
Nana Sahib seemed genuinely uncertain what to do with his prisoners. He provided them with a doctor, but no proper facilities to treat the sick — not even a separate building with more air. They were at one stage given fresh clothing, but with no proper access to water for washing their replacement clothes were soon reduced to filthy rags as well and no further clothing was provided. There were sweepers, but not enough to keep the place clean. Nana Sahib seemed, on the one hand, to feel that if the women and children were kept reasonably well, they might be used as hostages to bargain with the British, who were rumoured to be approaching Cawnpore looking for revenge. On the other hand, his advisers seem to have been suggesting that if a single European was left alive to give details of the massacre at the boats then the Indians might well be massacred in turn.
Eventually, with the British only days away, he seems to have reached a decision that it was too late to try to negotiate his way out of his situation. On 15 July, orders were given for sepoys to fire into the bibighar and kill everybody there. To their credit, the men ordered to do the killing refused, firing instead into the ceiling. A few of the women and children were killed by the sepoys but the soldiers finally refused to shoot any more and withdrew. At this point Hussaini Khanum called on her lover to do the job. He recruited four helpers – two of them butchers – who entered the building and proceeded to hack at the women and children inside with swords.
The next day, the building was cleared. Three or four of the women and a handful of children were sitting apparently uninjured and, after asking orders as to what to do with them, the women were killed as well. The bodies were cleared from the building and thrown down a nearby well. Some were not quite dead, but they were thrown in the well anyway. The children, panicked and with nowhere to run, circled the well until, with the bodies of their mothers disposed of, they too were murdered.
“The Well and Monument, Slaughter House, Cawnpore”, taken in 1858.Picture shows the Bibighar house and the well where the bodies were found.
It was a vile act and it became the excuse for terrible retaliatory behaviour by the British. “Remember Cawnpore!” was often used as a battle cry by the British army in the fighting that followed. British attitudes are reflected in this poem, which appeared in The London University Magazine in 1858:
Let us swear by that well e’en the Hindoo unborn
Shall have cause to remember Cawnpore
For vengeance the blood of the massacred cry,
For vengeance each true British heart beateth high,
Who would not for vengeance be willing to die
When he thinks of that well at Cawnpore?
Sadly, as is so often the case, the atrocities committed by troops who were “remembering Cawnpore” rivalled those of the initial massacre. Certainly far more people were killed by the British than had ever died at the hands of Indians in Cawnpore.
The well became a shrine to the dead. In the decades following the uprising more tourists visited the Cawnpore memorial park than the Taj Mahal and it continued to be a popular tourist location until Indian Independence in 1947. The independent government of India removed the statuary that marked the well. It now stands in a local church.
Image credits and further reading
“The Well and Monument, Slaughter House, Cawnpore” (1858). From ‘Murray Collection: Views in Delhi, Cawnpore, Allahabad and Benares’ taken by Dr. John Murray.
The picture of the monument and the picture of ‘The Angel of Cawnpore’ from inside the monument (at head of page) were both taken by Samuel Bourne in 1860.
Anyone who wants more detail on the events at Cawnpore should read Andrew Ward’s excellent Our Bones Are Scattered. John Murray 1996
You will be pleased to know that my book, Cawnpore does not feature the massacre at the Bibighar. It does have a lot about life in the Entrenchment and the massacre at the boats and, honestly, that’s more than enough misery.
Despite the horrors of the massacres, I remain broadly sympathetic to the Indian cause. The British were not evil and neither was Nana Sahib, but the relationship between Indians and British was poisoned by the politics of colonialism. Cawnpore is a book about a decent man from England who finds his closest friendship in the Indian community and who is torn in a terrible conflict of loyalties when the fighting breaks out. At the time that I wrote it, my son was with the British Army in Afghanistan. Like many of the young men in colonial India, he thought he was helping the people there. Sadly, history suggests that life is never that simple.
Cawnpore is not a cheerful book, but of all the books I’ve written it is the one that I am most pleased with. I do hope you will give it a go.
Cawnpore is available on Amazon and, in the USA, through Simon and Schuster. For somereason, Amazon seems to hide the paperback away, but a paperback is available. It’s here:
This week marks the anniversary of the start of the siege of Cawnpore, which became, in the eyes of the Europeans, one of the key events of what they called the Indian Mutiny. The Mutiny, as I described in an earlier blog post, started at Meerut on 10 May 1857. At first General Wheeler, the officer commanding the small European garrison at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) had hoped that the insurrection would not spread to the town, but as the situation seemed to be deteriorating in the countryside he took precautions, preparing what he called an Entrenchment in which civilians could shelter in the event of a rising.
The Entrenchment was an area of open ground of around 9 acres (3.6 hectares) which contained two barrack buildings. One was about 50 feet wide and 190 feet long, the other 60 feet wide and over 350 feet long. In addition there were some outhouses, a kitchen, a warehouse and a row of huts. The whole thing was surrounded by a shallow ditch and a rampart made from earth dug from the ditch. This was not a militarily defensible position, and was intended just as a temporary refuge while the problems with the local Indian population died down.
On 5 June 1857 the troops at Cawnpore mutinied. The Europeans were left alone in the Entrenchment while mutineers burned their houses in town before setting off to join the main rebel force in Delhi. For a few hours it looked as if General Wheeler had made the right call and the Entrenchment had served its purpose. The next day, though, the rebels changed their plans and returned to Cawnpore to lay siege to the Europeans.
Nobody is sure how many rebels there were. Certainly their numbers ran into thousands. Some were actual mutineers, and thus trained troops, including cavalry. Others were local Indian troops loyal to local leaders, in particular the Peshwa, Nana Sahib. General Wheeler, on the other hand, commanded around 60 European artillerymen with 6 guns, 84 infantrymen and about 200 unattached officers and civilians and 40 musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had 70 invalids who were convalescing in the barrack hospital and around 375 women and children.
Wheeler held out from 6th to 25th June under constant artillery fire, resisting attacks by infantry and cavalry forces. The scale of the bombardment is clear in these photographs of the two large buildings, taken after the siege.
In the end, Wheeler was persuaded to surrender on the grounds that it was the only way to save the women and children trapped with him. Nana Sahib promised Wheeler’s forces safe conduct, but reneged on the promise. Only four men survived the subsequent massacre.
Accounts both then and now tend to concentrate on the massacre. The achievement of the British forces in holding a completely inadequate position against overwhelming forces for so long is often neglected. Details of the defence are harrowing. For example, the well was out in the open and water had to be drawn from it under fire. Water was therefore drawn at night, but the enemy would wait for the sound of the bucket being raised and then fire blind to where they knew the well to be. Despite the appalling danger, there were always volunteers for this task. Similarly, the cannon were always manned, although the inadequate height of the breastworks meant that the people firing them were exposed to enemy fire throughout. Despite constant casualties, the artillery fire was kept up.
Modern attitudes toward the memsahibs of 1850s India suggest, with some justification, that their attitudes and behaviour were often not particularly admirable, but the women took their positions alongside the men, reloading muskets in order to enable the soldiers to keep up a faster rate of fire when they were under attack. Women who had been used to a life of indolence, surrounded by servants, found themselves packed together in wholly inadequate accommodation with very limited sanitation, watching their children dying before their eyes. It is amazing that they continued to record phlegmatically what was happening to them. One of them left a poignant record of the fate of her family:
Entered the barracks May 31st
Cavalry left June 5th
First shot fired June 6th
Aunt Lilly died June 17th
Uncle Willy died June 18th
Left Barracks June 27th
George died June 27th
Alice died July 9th
Mam died July 12th
The writer, Caroline Lindsay, was killed with her sister, Fanny, when the women and children who had survived the initial massacre were all murdered on 15th July. The list of deaths was found in the room where they died.
The story of the insurrection that we call the Mutiny is full of deeds of great valour as well as of great cruelty on both sides. On the anniversary of the siege of Cawnpore, though, I would like to remember the heroism of the defenders rather than dwelling (as most accounts do) on the horror of the massacre that concluded the siege.
Further reading and photo credits
If you want to know more about the events of 1857 at Cawnpore, the definitive modern account is Andrew Ward’s excellent Our Bones Are Scattered (John Murray, 1996).
The engraving is a contemporary propaganda image.
The photos were taken in 1858 by Felice Beato. They are held by the Paul J Getty Museum whose generosity in making them freely available is acknowledged.
Cawnpore is my favourite of all the books I’ve written. It provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the siege, the military action, and the subsequent massacres viewed from both sides. Until recently, Cawnpore was usually presented as illustrating the bravery of the British forces and the cruelty of the Indians. Nowadays it is as likely to be poor forward as an example of the way in which the Indians rose in a struggle for independence against a rapacious invader. In fact, the situation was more nuanced than either interpretation suggests. My book tries to reflect the moral ambiguities on both sides of the battle as well as providing a gripping, if depressing, read. It’s available on Amazon (and via Simon & Schuster in the USA) in both paperback and e-book versions.
For some reason the paperback can be hard to find on Amazon. If it doesn’t show up, click this link:
I generally post on this blog on Fridays and this particular Friday is the exact anniversary of the events at the Meerut in the North West Provinces of India (now Uttar Pradesh) which sparked a rebellion that shook the British Empire and changed the history of India. This seems worth marking with a post about the events of 1857. I did post an earlier version of this a year ago, but I have more readers nowadays and I hope I will be forgiven for repeating it.
The army of the East India Company – the peculiar organisation responsible for European rule in the sub-continent – had recently introduced Enfield rifles with cartridges said to be greased with pig and beef fat. As the paper on the cartridges was torn off with the teeth when the rifle was loaded (‘biting the bullet’) their use was anathema to both Muslims and Hindus. Most commanding officers held off issuing the new cartridges, waiting for the unrest to calm down. Unfortunately, Colonel Carmichael-Smyth was not most officers. He ordered some of his troops to drill with the new cartridges and, when they refused, they were paraded in front of the rest of the regiment, sentenced to life imprisonment and marched off in chains. This was on 9 May 1857.
Nowadays we tend to see the events at Meerut as marking a violent break with the past by the sepoys (native soldiers). In fact, mutinies were not uncommon. Generally the approach of the military authorities was to try to handle them as smoothly and calmly as possible and they had no significant impact. Perhaps things at Meerut would have got out of hand anyway, given the deteriorating relations between Indians and Europeans at the time, But it seems likely that most of the problems were the result of gross stupidity by Colonel Carmichael-Smyth. (A young European officer in Carmichael-Smyth’s regiment wrote to his mother on 10 May – shortly before becoming one of the first Europeans to die – “It is generally supposed that [Carmicael-Smyth] will lose his command.”)
On 10 May the Indian troops rose in revolt, released the prisoners, burned the camp and killed about fifty European men, women and children before setting off to march to Delhi. The Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence) had begun.
Nobody knows if the rumours were true. Even today there is doubt about what the cartridges were actually greased with. In any case, the Mutiny was not really about the fat on the cartridges. Trouble had been brewing for a while and the incident at Meerut simply served as the flash point for a revolt that many people had been expecting for some time. The Indians had become increasingly uncomfortable under British rule. The old, relaxed style of colonial government by men who had come to love India and worked alongside existing Indian customs and institutions was giving way to a more ‘modern’ approach. Christian missionaries were attacking Indian beliefs; the caste rules that governed Indian soldiers were being disregarded by European officers; Indian land was being seized on dubious legal grounds. In a word, the British, no longer captivated by India, were becoming arrogant.
Arrogance is a dangerous emotion when your army relies on the services of the very people whose culture and customs you are dismissing as uncivilised.
“The Sepoy revolt at Meerut,” from the Illustrated London News, 1857
The events at Meerut triggered a war of extreme savagery. Both sides killed without mercy and often with little distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Some Indians sided with the British, fighting against other Indians. Many officers were convinced that their men would remain loyal and literally trusted them with their lives. Sometimes that trust was rewarded, sometimes they were summarily shot.
The unrest led to much violence within the Indian community. Old scores were settled and Indians who had become rich under British rule were often denounced and murdered, their property looted.
Some British officers opened fire on men who were almost certainly loyal to them, forcing them to join the enemy. Some Indian princes changed sides, fighting for Europeans or rebels, depending on how the tide of battle changed.
It was against this background of bloodshed and treachery that I set the story of Cawnpore.
Cawnpore (now Kanpur) lay on the Ganges, about 250 miles from Meerut. The local ruler, Nana Sahib, was regarded as friendly to the British and, even after news of the Mutiny reached the town, the local British commander, General Wheeler, did not expect any trouble. As tensions grew, Wheeler made provision for the British to shelter around two hospital blocks in the British lines, building a low earth wall around them. This, though, was simply a position to wait out any local unrest – it was never seriously designed as a defensible fort.
When Nana Sahib decided to join with the rebels, Wheeler found himself trapped with 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.
The siege of Wheeler’s entrenchment became a tale of astonishing heroism and fortitude and it is central to the story I tell, but Cawnpore, for all the military trimmings, is not essentially a war story. My hero (insofar as he is a hero) is John Williamson, the narrator of The White Rajah. His life in the Far East has left him more comfortable with the princelings of the local Indian court than with the class-ridden Europeans he works with. He has friends on both sides of the conflict and struggles to stay true to them all. In the midst of a war that is fought with terrible ruthlessness, he tries to remain a decent person.
Cawnpore is a story about idealism and reality; about belonging and exclusion. It looks at the British colonial project and how it went so horribly wrong. It makes most people cry.
At the time that I wrote it, my son was serving in Afghanistan, in a conflict that can trace its origins back to the 1850s and before. Yet again, British troops were fighting and dying for a way of life they didn’t understand. Researching Cawnpore made me realise that the important thing about the war in Afghanistan wasn’t that it was right or that it was wrong: it was that it was futile.
Cawnpore is my favourite of all the books I’ve written. I do hope you read it.
Cadell, P. (1955). THE OUTBREAK OF THE INDIAN MUTINY. Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 33(135), 118-122.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Nana Sahib, “the demon of Cawnpore”. I suggested there that the rights and wrongs of his behaviour (and that of the British) were not as straightforward as they are often presented. Even so, when Heather Campbell of The Maiden’s Court invited me to write the story from Nana Sahib’s point of view, it was a serious challenge. After all, how do you set about justifying a war crime?
In the end, I was pleased with what I wrote and I thought I’d like to share it here. I know that a lot of people who read this blog are interested in writing and I do recommend things like this as useful exercises. And for those who don’t write, I hope you can just enjoy it as a different way of looking at an infamous bit of Indian history.
Nana Sahib’s story
My father was the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. He was a mighty lord who rose against the British who had come into his country and despoiled it. He fought valiantly against the invaders, but he was defeated and exiled from his own country to the miserable little village of Bithur, not far from Cawnpore. The British allowed him to retain his title and a small pension and he made his peace with them and lived alongside his enemy until he died in 1851.
I was an adopted son – a common practice in my country when a great lord has no sons of his own – but the British refused to recognise me as Peshwa and no longer paid the pension that they had paid to my father.
Despite the loss of my lands, my title and my pension, I tried to be a good friend to the British. They had ruled in India now for a hundred years and many Indians had accommodated to them. But their rule was becoming more harsh. Where once they had made honourable peace with men like my father, now they seized their lands, ignored their titles, and denied them the respect they were due in their own country. They began to send Christian missionaries who tried to tempt my people from their faith. They told us we must abandon our old customs.
Those Indians who served in their armies (for there is no disgrace in serving the army of any lord once he has proved himself a power in the land) were not accorded the respect they had been. Their officers, who had once loved this country, were replaced by arrogant fools who did not understand our ways. There were rumours that they might be sent overseas, where they would lose their caste. Then there was the terrible business of the new cartridges. The cartridges were greased with the fat of cattle and with the fat of pigs. This was an insult to all the Hindus in the Army and to their brothers who were Moslems.
Finally, the people of India rose up against these injustices. I was not sure what to do. I had been friends with the British and I hoped that things could be settled without violence, but it was soon apparent that there must be a war and that the British would finally be driven from our country. My people looked to me, for they still called me “Peshwa” and acknowledged me as their leader. Now that it had come to war, it was my duty to lead my people against the British in Cawnpore.
The British fought bravely: I will give them that. Hundreds of my troops died as we attacked their fort again and again. In the end, I agreed to lift the siege if they would go. They said they would and asked for boats to sail down the Ganges to rejoin their people. But this had to be a trick. The British were being defeated everywhere. Where could they hope to go? No, once they were on the boats they could set up a fort somewhere else and attack us from there. My generals told me I would be stupid to let this happen.
What was I to do? They had surrendered, but there was nowhere they could go. We had an army in our midst that could turn on us at any time. The British, we Indians had learned over the past hundred years, were liars. They had promised my father he could keep his title and then took it from me because I was adopted: a cheap trick. They had stolen the Kingdom of Oudh on the same pretence – that the new King was adopted, and therefore could not inherit. We could not trust them.
My general, Tatya Tope, told me what to do. He arranged to have artillery hidden across the river from the boats and for his men to conceal themselves along the banks. When the British came to the boats, we opened fire. They still had their muskets. It was war: these things happen. We tried not to kill the women and children, but we took them captive and kept them safe.
Then news came that a British force was on its way to relieve the siege. Everybody was terrified. The British were killing people who they thought might have ever harmed any of their troops and they would kill us all if they heard what had happened by the river. It was essential that any of the British who might speak against my sad, but necessary, actions should be silenced. I had no choice: the women and children would speak against me. They had to die. So many Indians had died under British rule and the British always said that sometimes these things were necessary or that sometimes these things just happened. But would they have happened if the British had not stolen our country? Had we asked these women and children to come and live amongst us, ordering their Indian servants to do this and to do that as if they were slaves? Bringing their foreign ways, their terrible food, their arrogance and their ignorance? They looked down on us as savages and sneered at our ways. Well, they’re not sneering now.
The British beat us in 1857. I was driven into exile and watched as the white men tightened their grip on my country. But I know that our time will come. It is not right that the Indians should live under the rule of the British and one day we will rise up and we will defeat them and I will not be hated by the rulers of India, but loved by them as one of those who showed the way to regaining our own country.
The story of Cawnpore and the clash of cultures that led to the massacre is the subject of my book, Cawnpore. The narrator is English, but in love with an Indian. Caught between the two camps, he sees the tragedy developing around him, but is powerless to stop it. Can he survive the massacre and, if he does, can he save anyone else from the horror?
Cawnpore is the second of my books about John Williamson but it stands alone. Of the three, it is my personal favourite.
Cawnpore is available on Kindle and in paperback. It has had some lovely reviews.
“All that historical fiction should be: absorbing, believable and educational.” – Terry Tyler in Terry Tyler Book Reviews
“For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.” Historical Novel Society
If you haven’t already, I do hope you will buy it soon.
Just before Christmas I had a request from Lydia from Toronto (sounds like I’m writing a problem page). She asked for more posts about the people who were caught up in the historical events I describe. Given the interest there’s been in the item about Indian history that I just revived from my old blog-site (you were fun, Blogger, but life moves on) I suggested I might dig out something I wrote about Nana Sahib, one of the key characters in the siege of Cawnpore, as featured in my book, Cawnpore. Lydia was happy with that, and fortunately I’ve come across some more details of the end of his life since my original post, so here goes:
‘Real’ historians tell stories pretty much as much as historical novelists do and, when I was young, the story that was told about Cawnpore had a clear villain: Nana Sahib.
Nana Sahib was, according to the Victorians (and it is their version of the Mutiny that dominated the way it was seen for a hundred years), the evil genius of Cawnpore. He was the local Indian prince who pretended sympathy for the British, and then betrayed them. Most importantly, he was the man who ordered the massacre there. For decades, he was hunted by the British, who wanted to drag him before their courts and, after a show trial, execute him. But he vanished after the British recaptured Cawnpore. For decades, there were claimed sightings of the man, but eventually it was presumed that he was dead and, in time, the historical character was forgotten and only the pantomime villain of Cawnpore lived on.
I believe that Nana Sahib was a much more complex and sympathetic character than he is usually painted, and I have tried to reflect this in my book.
Seereek Dhoondoo Punth was born in 1824 into an undistinguished family, but was adopted by Baji Rao, the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. His capital was at Poona (now Pune), which was one of the main political centres of India. From there, he ruled over the most important of the Indian kingdoms.
The Maratha Empire was riven by internal strife and some factions went to war against the British. There were three wars in total and, after the third, the British decided to annex the Maratha Empire. Baji Rao was allowed to keep his title and even given a pension by the British. However, he was stripped of all political power and forced into exile. He chose to live in Bithur (now Bithoor), a small town near Cawnpore (now Kanpur).
Baji Rao needed a male heir to succeed him and, in the absence of a natural heir, Nana Sahib was adopted in 1827 and raised to inherit his father’s position. This was a common practice in India when a ruler did not have a male heir. The British, however, refused to acknowledge that an adopted son could inherit a hereditary title and would not acknowledge him as Peshwa. By then, the title was purely honorary and it is possible that the British did not realise how much distress this caused, although Nana Sahib petitioned repeatedly for his title to be recognised. He also petitioned that the pension that was paid to his father should continue to be paid to his father’s heirs, but the British refused to do this, claiming that the pension had been personal to Baji Rao and their obligation had died with him.
Nana Sahib toyed with the idea of travelling to England to appeal directly to the East India Company but, as a Brahmin, he would have lost caste by travelling overseas. He therefore sent Azimullah Khan, one of his most trusted advisers. Azimullah Khan appears to have enjoyed his trip, especially as he was something of a ladies’ man and was a great success with many of the women he met in London. However, he was completely unsuccessful in pleading Nana Sahib’s cause and the experience seems to have left him with a very strong antipathy for the British.
Despite Azimullah Khan’s attitude to the British and Nana Sahib’s grievances against them, the Peshwa enjoyed the company of Europeans and was very fond of entertaining them, occasionally arranging parties in the European style at his palace, Saturday House, at Bithur. His generosity made him a popular figure with the English who saw him as a useful friend. He was particularly trusted by Charles Hillersdon, the Collector (senior British official) at Cawnpore. When the Indian Mutiny broke out, Hillersdon asked Nana Sahib for military assistance. The Nana’s troops moved into the town to guard the Treasury.
At this stage, it seems likely that Nana Sahib had not decided which side to ally himself with. Many of his advisers, especially Azimullah Khan, urged him to act decisively against the occupiers, and regain his rights and titles through military power, but he was unwilling to commit himself while the outcome of any war seemed in doubt. In any case, it seems likely that he had genuinely warm feelings for Hillersdon and some of the other British officials. On the other hand, he was proud of his Indian heritage and his position as Peshwa – a position the British were still refusing to acknowledge.
After considerable vacillation, he threw in his lot with the rebels. Some people believe that he was forced to do so. The fact was, though, that the troops of his already in the town made resistance futile and, in any light, his action had to be regarded as a betrayal.
The British evacuated town and took shelter in a hastily constructed entrenchment on the outskirts. Despite the impossibility of their position, they held out against Indian attack for almost three weeks, when they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender. Their commander, General Wheeler, considered that surrender was an honourable option, given the almost certain death of the women and children in the Entrenchment were the siege to continue.
The Indians agreed that the British should evacuate Cawnpore by water. The British therefore marched out of the camp to the nearby river, where a small fleet of boats was waiting for them. However, as the British started to board the boats, the Indians opened fire. Only four of the soldiers from the garrison escaped alive.
Once the British had surrendered, it seems likely that Nana Sahib was pressured to agree to massacre them in order to prove that he was firmly on the side of the native population and that he would not be able to turn against them if (as happened) the British returned to Cawnpore in force.
The initial attack on the British after their surrender left many of the women and children alive and in Nana Sahib’s hands. Again, he seemed uncertain what action to take. He did not kill his captives and, although their conditions were not good, he seems to have done his best to provide them with reasonable food and shelter. To the extent that they were ill-treated, this seems to have been largely due to the attitudes of some of the people who were dealing with them on a day-to-day basis, while Nana Sahib kept his distance. Eventually, though, the decision was made to massacre the women and children. At the time, the English straightforwardly blamed this on Nana Sahib, but there is no record of who actually ordered the massacre. Many people think the decision was taken by Azimullah Khan. Nana Sahib himself refused to witness the massacre.
After Cawnpore was once again firmly in British hands, Nana Sahib disappeared. He was said to be hiding out in Nepal. Margaret Oldfield, the wife of the British Residency doctor there, wrote that the Resident “has not the slightest doubt that these monsters are alive” in Nepal. The matter was a diplomatic problem as Britain was anxious to maintain friendly relations with Nepal and the Nepalese government was unwilling to hand over a Brahman to face certain death. The situation was resolved by concocting a story of the death of the Nana. Nobody believed it, but it suited both governments to accept the fiction and Nana Sahib was left in peace. Although he was widely believed to have died there by 1906, a report in the The Hindu (a major Indian newspaper) in 1953 claimed that he had moved back to India. There, they said, he lived out his life little more than a hundred miles from Cawnpore, finally dying in 1926 at the age of hundred and two.
Cawnpore is the second book in my John Williamson trilogy, although it can be enjoyed without reading the first. (If you want to read all three books, this is probably a good time to mention that they are now available as a Kindle bundle.) After his adventures in Borneo (The White Rajah), Williamson takes a job with the East India Company at Cawnpore. After his time with James Brooke, the relationship between the rulers and ruled in India comes as a shock, but he finds a friend at the court of the Nana Sahib. When rebellion breaks out, he is caught between his loyalty to the European community and his friendship in the Indian court. As the tensions between the two communities move toward atrocity and counter-atrocity, can he be true to his friends and keep both them and himself alive?
Cawnpore is not a particularly easy book to read (lots of people have told me it has them in tears) but this story of a decent man caught up in the horror of colonial war is one I am particularly proud of. At the time, my son was serving with the British Army in Afghanistan. The issues that were so obvious in 1857 are still there today and I am grateful to have had the chance to write about them.
Cawnpore is available on Kindle and as a paperback. It can also be bought through Simon & Schuster and Amazon in North America. Note that the cover may be different in North America.
On my blog last week I asked if people had anything they would like me to write about. Antoine Vanner, whose own blog (https://dawlishchronicles.com/dawlish-blog/) is packed with fascinating historical posts, suggested I write about the Indian Mutiny. It’s a natural subject for me because my book, Cawnpore, is set during the Mutiny. In fact I wrote a long post about the history that led to the Mutiny on my old blog three years ago. I had a lot fewer readers in those days, so most of you are unlikely to have seen this and the simplest way of dealing with Antoine’s request seemed to be to publish it again. So here it is.
British India to 1857: The Rise and Fall of the East India Company
In the mid-19th century, India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown wasn’t, technically, part of the Empire at all. It was run by the East India Company, a commercial organisation, originally set up to trade with the Far East. Under the India Act of 1784, the activities of the Company were subject to direction from the British government, but the Company remained a commercial organisation with shareholders who were paid dividends from the Company’s substantial profits. How had we reached a situation where one of the world’s largest countries was being administered for profit by a private company?
For centuries, Europe had traded with the Far East. The spice trade was of vital economic importance as far back as the days of Ancient Rome. Look in your store cupboard, even today, and see how many of the spices we use come from the Far East. And remember that, in the days before refrigeration, spices were essential in making meat palatable.
Until the 15th century, trade routes to the East went overland and were controlled first by Arabs and later by the Ottoman Turks. It was not until 1498 that the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, navigated round the Cape of Good Hope and opened a sea route from Europe to the Far East. This meant that European merchants could trade directly with their suppliers and a new age of maritime commerce was born.
Britain was late to the party. By the time that the Queen Elizabeth signed the original Royal Charter of the East India Company in 1600, the Portuguese and the Dutch were well established in the Far East. Repeatedly rebuffed by their rivals in the East Indies, Britain looked to the possibilities of India.
It was not until 1639 that the Company established its first permanent base in India, in Madras on the Bay of Bengal. In 1668, it acquired Bombay, and then Calcutta followed in 1690. These three “factories”, as they were known, were intended as trading outposts: places where merchants could warehouse goods imported and exported in the increasingly profitable trade between Britain and the Indian states.
By the 1740s, the main threat in India came not from the Portuguese or the Dutch, but from the French. Their principal trading point was at Pondicherry, less than 100 miles from Madras. In 1749, the local ruler died. There were two rival claimants for his throne. The French and the British, both trying to extend their own influence, each backed one of the rivals. Both trading companies had their own military forces to defend their activities and each supported their own choice for ruler with troops. Open war was underway by 1750.
Although the dispute was notionally between two Indian princes, involvement of French and British trading companies led, inexorably, to the involvement of the French and British governments. Both sides sent professional government troops to support their own trading companies.
Backed by the military and naval resources of Britain and France, the two companies had now become significant political forces in the region. At this point, in 1756, a separate war broke out a thousand miles away, where the nawab of Bengal attacked and occupied Calcutta. The military build-up around Madras meant that the British were in a position to respond decisively. Ships of the Royal Navy carried an army from Madras to Bengal. At the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive, commanding the forces of the East India Company decisively defeated the Nawab of Bengal, supported by French troops. The defeat of the Nawab was of huge symbolic importance and Plassey came to be seen as marking the start of British rule in India.
Statue of Clive of India. Whitehall, London
Immediately following the victory at Plassey, Clive installed the British candidate, Mir Jafar, as Nawab of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Effectively, the East India Company now governed Bengal through a puppet ruler.
The tax revenues of these provinces now passed to the Company with Mir Jafar left responsible for justice and policing. (The Company took over even these residual powers in 1772.) All Frenchmen were expelled from Bengal. With the revenue from Bengal, the company was able to expand its efforts against the French further south and their hold over Pondicherry was destroyed in 1761.
India, at this time, was not a single country. The place was governed by local rulers, some with limited authority while some were absolute monarchs of huge areas of the subcontinent. All, though, recognised that the political and military presence of the British had changed the balance of power for ever. Some chose to make formal alliances with the British. Others sought to maintain some kind of independence by joining with the French.
The Sultan of Mysore allied with them to war on the Company in southern India in the late 1770s and 80s. His son, Tipu, became the most powerful threat to British hegemony. He styled himself the “Tiger of Mysore” with tiger motifs worked into his uniforms, cannons, cane handles, bed hangings, swords and thrones. His famous model of a full size tiger killing an East India Company soldier is now on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Tipu Sultan sent agents to Europe to buy arms that might enable him to meet the British on equal terms. Intelligence reports suggested he bought 50 cannon, 80 gun carriages, and 100,000 cannonballs, besides muskets and sabres. His army was built up to the point where he did pose a real threat to the British, but he was ultimately defeated, dying in battle in 1799.
By now, the Company was committed to Indian politics. Company troops had to defend the borders of those rulers that the Company had put in power and this meant coming to terms with their neighbours. In some cases “coming to terms” meant crushing militarily. In others, alliances were formed. The continuing involvement of the French, trying to regain territories that they had lost, and carrying on their Revolutionary Wars in the Indian theatre, meant that the Company continually felt under threat. Rulers who had not been won over to the British side might always ally with the French. Every new territorial gain, therefore, meant more territory that had to be defended, which, in turn, meant the need for further expansion.
The British conquest of India, state by state, was far from being motivated solely by the need for self-defence. The settlement after Plassey, gave the East India Company vast tax revenues. Clive predicted a £2 million annual revenue surplus (an incredible sum in 1760), which led to a 100% rise in the price of Company stock.
The military also benefited directly from the campaigns that accompanied the Company’s expansion. The word “loot” comes from the Hindu word for booty and its adoption into the English language gives an indication of the enthusiasm with which European troops plundered their enemies. Everyone from the humblest private to the general could expect to get rich should they survive a war in India.
As the Company moved from a commercial to a political entity, trade became an increasingly unimportant part of its activities. In 1833 the Charter Act ended the Company’s trading rights in India, as trading was deemed to be incompatible with ruling. The East India Company was therefore the ultimate example of privatisation. The entire government of one of the largest countries in the world had been outsourced to a private supplier whose profits came from the tax surplus of the nation that they governed. (Thomas Babington Macaulay, a leading British politician who served on the Supreme Council of India, described it as “the strangest of all governments … designed for the strangest of all empires”.)
Government for profit clearly had a vast potential for abuse. A clear example of this came early in the East India Company’s rule, with the Bengal Famine of 1770. This is estimated to have killed around 10 million people – about a quarter of the population of the province. During this time, the government of the East India Company took no effective measures to reduce starvation but, instead, increased land taxes and encouraged the growing of non-food crops (including opium) instead of the desperately needed rice.
Despite horrors such as the famine, many aspects of British rule were benign. In a time when communications with India were slow, British administrators would spend years in post, often not returning to Britain for long periods. In general, the late 18th century saw a relaxed coexistence between the Company’s servants and the native rulers. Many pleasures were shared, with British officers often enjoying lavish hospitality from native rulers.
Initially too, intermarriage was encouraged, with the Company giving cash gifts when their employees had children with Indian women, on the basis that the children would grow up to soldier for the Company. Colonel James Skinner, the founder of a famous cavalry troop, Skinner’s Horse, fathered a substantial Anglo-Indian dynasty. According to his family he had seven wives, while legend claims he had fourteen. In appropriately multi-denominational style, Skinner built a mosque for one Muslim wife, a temple for a Hindu one and then his own church in Delhi, where he was buried in 1841.
The result of such good relationships was a European ruling class that, for a while at least, demonstrated some understanding of India and a real interest in improving the economy of the country. The commitment of enlightened European rulers to their Indian subjects was rewarded with a surprising degree of loyalty and respect by many of the Indians.
By the mid-19th century, though, such mutual respect and understanding was breaking down. One in three wills made by Company servants between 1780 and 1785 made provision for Indian wives or mistresses. Between 1805 and 1810, it was down to one in four and by the middle of the century, such provisions had almost entirely disappeared. A new breed of administrators was ruling India, often contemptuous of all things native. Christian missionaries, whose activities had been restricted by the Company until 1833, were now proselytising widely in a country which was not naturally inclined to Christianity. Changes in the structure of the Army had reduced the pay and promotion opportunities of native soldiers. Perhaps most seriously, the British now controlled so much of India that they were increasingly ruthless in their manipulation of the law in order to seize those few states that remained even notionally independent.
By the time of my novel, Cawnpore, British rule had lasted almost 100 years. A trading company, still structured as a commercial organisation, was ruling over around 200 million people. It was a time of technological and social change, yet the administration was increasingly out of touch with the people and the army was restless. The scene was set for revolution.
In 1857 a rumour spread that the cartridges issued to native troops had been greased with pig and beef fat, making them unclean for both Moslems and Hindus. The story about the fat may well have been untrue. Despite official inquiries, no one will ever know for sure. On 24th April Colonel Carmichael-Smyth of the 3rd Light Cavalry took it on himself (against the advice of many of his officers) to insist that his men drill with the new cartridges. The men refused and 85 were convicted of mutiny. On May 9th, the men were paraded in chains before their regiment at Meerut in north west India and marched off to jail. Shamed by the treatment of their comrades, the regiment rose in revolt on Sunday 10th May, 1857. The Indian Mutiny had begun.
What started as a mutiny in one small outpost became a revolt that swept across the sub-continent and nearly saw Britain driven from its most important colonial possession. When it was over, millions had died, either in the fighting or the reprisals that followed. The East India Company was abolished soon afterwards. The British continued to rule for almost another hundred years, but the relationship between rulers and ruled had changed forever.
My book, Cawnpore, is set around the siege of Cawnpore, which was a particularly terrible incident in a particularly horrible war. I think it’s my personal favourite of all the books I’ve written. Only last week I had a message from a reader complaining that it had made her cry. So many people have said this that I’m tempted to offer a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t.
It’s the second of my books to feature John Williamson, but it’s completely self-contained, so you don’t have to read The White Rajah first. It’s available as an e-book or in paperback. Copies sold in the USA have a different cover to those in Britain, but the text is exactly the same.
Cawnpore has not got anything like the sales of The White Rajah or the James Burke books, which I think is a pity because people have said some very nice things about it:
“For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.” Historical Novel Society
“All that historical fiction should be: absorbing, believable and educational.” – Terry Tyler in Terry Tyler Book Reviews
The Kindle edition is an absurdly inexpensive £1.99. Please buy it.