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.