The Massacre at the Bibighar

The Massacre at the Bibighar

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: 

The siege of Cawnpore

The siege of Cawnpore

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: