The Massacre at the Bibighar

The Massacre at the Bibighar

It’s Thursday evening and I have no idea what people would like me to write about for tomorrow. I do ask suggestions from time to time but I don’t get an awful lot of feedback, especially at this time of year when I think people have more interesting things to do than read blog posts. So, in the absence of any better ideas, I am once again marking an anniversary by reposting something from a year ago.

July 15 (Saturday) marks the anniversary of the massacre of women and children at Cawnpore. It was a terrible act and it led to appalling retribution. Even today, it can rouse strong feelings with Indian Nationalists celebrating the Indian leader as a hero while in the UK the massacre (if it is remembered at all) is remembered as an infamous act.

Here’s the story.

What was the massacre and why did it become so infamous?

The siege of Cawnpore was an incident during the Indian Mutiny which ended with the British agreeing to evacuate the town in exchange for safe passage out of the area. When the British forces marched out of their camp and boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety, Indian forces under Nana Sahib 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 (the British camp during the siege) 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.

You can buy Cawnpore at this link:

Indian Mutiny or War of Independence?

In an age when any conversations about empire and colonialism can be triggering, I’ve always been quite surprised that the John Williamson Papers don’t seem to have attracted a lot of political attacks. I’m surprised rather than pleased, because there is no doubt that controversy sells books and also I suspect that there would be more controversy about the John Williamson series if more people had actually read it.

In Cawnpore, I refer to the events of 1857 as the Indian Mutiny. The book is written from the point of view of a Victorian Englishman and “Indian Mutiny” is what Victorian Englishmen called it. Nowadays, though, what to call that uprising is an intensely political decision. To many Indians and Pakistanis the war was the First War of Indian Independence or the Freedom Struggle of 1857. (Wikipedia hedges its bets with ‘Indian Rebellion’.)

Leaving aside political considerations, part of the confusion as to what to call it is down to the fact that several conflicts coalesced into a single rebellion. There seems little doubt that the actual fighting started with a mutiny. That is, soldiers disobeyed a direct order and, when some were imprisoned, their comrades rose up to release them, murdered some of their officers and broke camp. Whether the soldiers were encouraged to mutiny by political activists seeking independence from the British is uncertain. Some Europeans were convinced that the whole thing was a calculated plot, but it is the nature of the political class always to claim that acts of rebellion were incited by “outside agitators” and there is no clear evidence on this either way. What is certain is that the first troops to mutiny decided to march to Delhi and put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor.

With mutineers claiming to be acting in the cause of the deposed rulers, the conflict quickly began to take on a wider political complexion. Other rulers, like Nana Sahib, saw the opportunity to re-establish their power while the British, deprived of the support of their native troops, were weakened. The situation was further confused because these rulers did not all act in concert. For example, as mentioned in my novel, the troops who mutinied at Cawnpore first marched towards Delhi to put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor, before being persuaded to return to Cawnpore to serve the Peshwa, Nana Sahib. Although the various leaders of the Indian forces made common cause against the British, their failure to act effectively as a single political or military force counted against them.

One of the first acts of the rebels in many places (including Cawnpore) was to open the jails. So beside the mutinying troops and the various forces of the native rulers, many of those who joined in the fighting were local convicts who simply saw an opportunity to profit from the general unrest. Thus natives who were associated with the British (such as Christians or other Eurasians) were often attacked and murdered, less to achieve a military or political goal than because their attackers could then loot their property. With an almost complete breakdown of law and order and mass conflict spreading across huge areas of the country, there was an opportunity for many old scores to be settled.

Many Indian troops attached to the British forces and many local rulers supported the British, giving some of the conflict the character of a civil war. This picture (by George Francklin Atkinson in 1859) claims to show Troops of the Native Allies.

There are clear modern parallels. In Iraq the fighting following the American-led occupation was blamed on elements of the Army (essentially mutineers), forces loyal to the old regime, criminal elements and those settling scores between different religious groups. In Britain, at least, commentators struggled for ages to find a term which encompassed all these different elements before they settled on “insurgency”. Perhaps that is how we should refer to the events of 1857. But, whatever the best term should be, for the British involved, and for most British historians, even today, the bloodshed and horror of that year are simply summed up as the Indian Mutiny.


Cawnpore is now available on Kindle and in paperback.

The events at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) are seen through the eyes of an Englishman who, disillusioned with many aspects of British rule, finds his loyalties torn between the Europeans he despises and the Indians he loves. How can he be true to himself and still survive the massacre that will follow the fall of Cawnpore?

Williamson’s story takes us to the heart of the Indian Mutiny, a crucial point in British history. The massacre at Cawnpore shocked the world and its repercussions shaped the future of India.

It’s real history, but not the way you learned it at school.

(This is an edited version of a piece last posted in 2021)

Why Cawnpore?

Last week somebody asked me what it was about Cawnpore that made me want to write about it. Cawnpore was originally published over ten years ago so that’s a long time to think back.

I remember quite vividly what it was that first triggered my interest in the events of 1857 in India. I was spending a long weekend in an isolated cottage in Wales with no TV, Internet, or phone. It was raining. There were bookcases full of books (the place was owned by an English teacher). With nothing better to do, I picked one out more or less at random: Red Year by Michael Edwardes, which describes the events of what he calls ‘the Indian Rebellion’.

I am old enough to have covered what we were taught to call the Indian Mutiny when I was at school. But Red Year described a history I was completely unfamiliar with. There were more books about 1857 on the shelves and as the rain continued (it so often does in Wales) I read several of them.

What happened in 1857 was the culmination of a century of colonialist policies in India. A Marxist could hold it up as a clear example of how the tide of history is determined by economic forces. There was a sort of inevitability to the conflict. There was no inevitability to the outcome, though. The British came a great deal closer to losing India than people nowadays seem to realise.

Although the overall conflict represented a clash of civilisations and economic forces, within this wider conflict individuals and personal loyalties played an enormously important role. The story of 1857 is often a very human story.

There were heroes and villains on both sides, and the people of India often chose the side they would fight for based on personal or family loyalty to local leaders. It was a time of larger than life figures, whose personal strengths and weaknesses shaped the course of history in India for the next hundred years.

I had written the first of the John Williamson stories, The White Rajah, as a single novel, with no idea of producing a sequel. But when the tiny American publisher who had taken a chance on the book, suggested that they would like to publish another one, I realised that the events of the first novel had left my narrator, John Williamson, in Singapore with just time to take a ship to India ready to plunge into the events that led to what he would definitely have called the Indian Mutiny.

Of all the incidents in 1857, the massacre at Cawnpore was one of the most dramatic. Its horror became a byword for savagery across the world. More interestingly, from the point of view of a writer, it highlighted the confusions and mixed loyalties that had led to the Mutiny in the first place.

It was also particularly well documented. One of the few survivors, Mowbray Thomson, published an account (The Story of Cawnpore) which gives a strong feeling of what it was like to be there. There are also first person accounts from two of the less well known survivors, Jonah Shepherd and Amy Horne. Reading the experiences of people like that is invaluable for a novelist who wants to get into the mindset of his characters.

Working out the details of the plot took some time. They had to fit what we know happened at Cawnpore and what we understand about the leading actors in that tragedy. At the same time, they had to allow the narrator to travel between the British and Indian lines and communicate with both sides. Fortunately there is a wonderful modern book detailing all the events of Cawnpore, Our Bones are Scattered by Andrew Ward. That proved invaluable in allowing me to put together a story that stitches fact and fiction. Most of the detail in the story is accurate and, unlikely as it is, John Williamson’s tale is not at all impossible.

John Williamson is the ideal person to tell this story. As a homosexual, in the days when sodomy was “the sin that dare not speak its name,” he was always an outsider to the rigid English society that characterised the stations of the East India Company. His experiences in Borneo meant he had a natural sympathy with the natives and had become adept at learning their languages. Thus, Williamson allows us to see the events at Cawnpore from both sides of the conflict.

Once I had the plot, I found the writing much easier than in The White Rajah. By now, Williamson was a well-established and fully rounded character in my head and this time his lover was another fictional character, so that I was not continually constrained by what history tells us about him. I found myself carried along with Williamson’s enthusiasm for the country he was working in and then caught up in his horror as he realised how badly things were going to end.

Cawnpore is not a cheerful book, nor does it end with simple rights and wrongs. The story of colonialism, whether that of the British in the 19th century or the new Great Powers of the 21st is neither pretty nor straightforward. The joy of fiction is that it allows us to look at these issues from a different angle, free of the prejudices that we have about the world we are in today.

I can more or less guarantee that Cawnpore will, at some point or other, make you cry. But it’s also a love story which, like every love story, has moments of humour and beauty. And it takes you back to an impossibly romantic world of rajahs and holy men and beggars; a world where a general could still lead his army into war on an elephant, where cavalrymen were dashing and heroic figures, and where a few hundred men, women and children held out against thousands of enemy troops in one of history’s most desperate sieges.

The siege of Cawnpore

The siege of Cawnpore

Last week I outlined the historical background to the siege of Cawnpore, as described in the second of my John Williamson novels, Cawnpore. The siege ran from 6th to 25th June 1857, so last Monday was the 165th anniversary of its start.

General Wheeler, the officer commanding the small European garrison, was, as I explained last week, convinced that the uprising among native troops would not extend to those in Cawnpore. However, he took some 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 (about 15 metres) wide and 190 feet (60m) long, the other 60 (20m) feet wide and over 350 feet (100m) 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 15 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. Today, 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.

A version of this post appeared on my blog last November, but I felt that the anniversary of the siege was a good reason for publishing it again.


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 put 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 in both paperback and e-book versions. Go to

India, 1857

India, 1857

This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to Cawnpore and the events of 1857.

Although the British had been establishing themselves in India for some time before 1757, the battle of Plassey is often seen as a turning point, marking the beginning of British rule in the country. This was certainly a view shared by many Indians and the idea had grown up among some but British rule would last for 100 years, ending in the summer of 1857.

In the early years of British rule, colonial officers were surprisingly well assimilated into Indian society. Many took Indian wives. In some cases these were little more than mistresses, but a lot of officers formed Indian households and raised children in the country. There was genuine interest in the local customs and religions, which were generally respected. Many parts of India were ruled by people who were not originally from that area and the change from an Indian overlord who had conquered their region to a European one meant little to the locals. Over time, though, the nature of British rule changed. European women travelled out to India in search of potential husbands and the custom of taking native wives was frowned upon. The Church saw India as fertile ground for new converts and preachers arrive who denounced local customs and religions. The country was flooded with new officials who saw a job in India as a way to make a fortune and who were little interested in the culture of the country, often despising the natives and their beliefs.

By the mid-19th century, many Indians were fractious and resentful of the British. Yet at the same time the British were so confident of their apparently inalienable right to rule that the majority of the soldiers employed to maintain British power in the sub-continent were, in fact, Indians. Furthermore, Indian troops were seeing a reduction in the respect and privileges that used to be accorded to them in the earlier years of British rule.

Throughout the spring of 1857 there were indications of growing Indian discontent and calls for revolt, yet when the first Europeans were killed by mutinying Indian soldiers – in Meerut on 10 May 1857 – it seems to have taken the authorities by surprise.

“The Sepoy revolt at Meerut,” from the Illustrated London News, 1857

Once the mutiny had started it spread rapidly from regiment to regiment. The revolt spread to the civil population too, taking on the character of a general uprising, though some Indians never turned against the British and those who did were riven by factional in-fighting.

Soon much of north-west India was rising against the British, but many of the Europeans stationed in India struggled to believe that it was really happening. Officers often implored their troops to stay loyal. Some troops did, others shot their commanders down. In Cawnpore (now Kanpur), a town about 250 miles from Meerut the local British commander, General Wheeler, did not expect any trouble even after news of the Mutiny reached the town. His military force was negligible and the local ruler was thought to be sympathetic to the British.

In the event, Wheeler (himself married to an Indian) proved horribly mistaken. The siege of the British at Cawnpore and the massacre that ended it was one of the darkest single incidents of 1857.

This is the background to the second of the John Williamson stories, Cawnpore. Cawnpore is set during a particularly vicious war, but it is not a war story. The book centres on John Williamson, the narrator of The White Rajah. (The story stands alone and you don’t need to read The White Rajah first.) 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.

India, 1857

Meerut 1857

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.