Easter this year looks set to be rather different from usual. Although people are naturally alarmed about covid-19, we are at least not worrying that there may be rebellion and massacre in the near future. Spare a thought, then, for the British community in India in 1857. The events that the British still generally (and inaccurately) refer to as the Indian Mutiny were not to kick off until May, but by Easter that year there were already indications that things were not as they should be.
In my book, Cawnpore, my narrator, John Williamson, is the Deputy Collector — part of the British administration running India. He has arrived in India from Borneo. There is a reference in this passage to his guilt over killings he had witnessed there. Sadly, Victorian colonial history features quite a lot of massacres. John Williamson has been involved in a massacre in Borneo and (though he does not know it yet) is is about to see one from the other side in Cawnpore (now Kanpur). That Easter, though, the European community was determined to carry on as if there were no signs of trouble to come. This extract from my book reflects the reality of life at the time.
I took myself to my office and settled to work as best I could. There was plenty to do. The end of the week would be Good Friday and work in the office would stop while the Europeans took themselves to church for a day of prayer and fasting.
That evening I did not return directly to my bungalow but, instead, called in on the Club. I was not a regular visitor for I never felt truly comfortable with the gentlemen there. Still I took care to call in often enough that neither my presence nor absence caused comment. This evening I wanted to judge for myself the atmosphere in the European community.
All seemed much as it had been on my last visit a couple of weeks earlier. The waiters moved quietly from table to table pouring more brandies than might have been expected in quieter times and the newspapers were tattered from the number of people reading them but there was no sign of panic. Indeed, the promise of Easter seemed to be calming nerves. The stately rhythm of the ecclesiastical year seems to promise that the present crisis would pass. The story of the Resurrection and Christ’s triumph over death reassured believers (and none would admit to doubting) that the Lord would see them safely through their present travails.
So the days to Easter passed with no further excitement and, on Good Friday, I joined the faithful in St John’s Church to repent my sins. I listened to the murmured prayers of the men and women around me and wished that I could share their faith and their belief but I could not and I left the service still weighed down by the guilt of all that had happened in Borneo. Every Good Friday since I had stood by and watched my friend destroy his enemies, I had repented my sin, that I had not stopped him. Yet I did not believe that God had forgiven me.
My spirits were lifted the next day when I dined again with Hillersdon. It was a quiet evening with Charles treating me almost as one of the family. Lydia suffered with the heat, given her condition, but was as bright and cheerful as could be expected and we parted with best wishes for Easter Day.
The service on Sunday went well. The bright red of the officers’uniforms enlivened the place and their voices covered for any weakness on the part of the choir. All the European families had turned out to celebrate and decorated eggs were handed to the children as they left the church. Listening to their laughter and seeing their mothers in their Easter bonnets, it was easy, for a moment, to imagine ourselves back in England and the air of menace that had filled every waking moment for so long seemed temporarily lifted.
Cawnpore is available as an e-book at £1.99 or in paperback at £5.99. (Remember that Amazon can be slow to deliver books at the moment.) Although it is the second of three books about John Williamson, it can be read as a stand alone novel.
“For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.”Historical Novel Society