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.
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.