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.
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)
This is 5-star reading for those enjoying military history, and readers should be aware of other works by author Tom Williams who uses Burke’s career as settings both before and after the Peninsular War when there was turmoil in Europe.
Amazon Vine Review
‘Burke in the Peninsula’ is the best selling of the Burke books, apart from the series starter, ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’. There’s little doubt that it does well in part because of Sharpe fans and others who like nothing better than a Napoleonic Wars campaign that they know well. (‘Burke at Waterloo’ does well too.)
I’m happy to get such generous praise for any of my books, but it’s another reminder of why writers write series books. There’s another Burke book on the way. ‘Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras’ is also set in the Peninsular Wars and I hope will sell well, but it would be ever so nice if people would take a look at the books I write that aren’t about Burke.
The first book I wrote was ‘The White Rajah’, based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. It’s set in mid-19th century Borneo and although it has drama and battles, it also a book about the complexities and contradictions of colonial rule. It’s not helped, commercially, by being written in the first person by a mid-19th century writer, so the language is more Dickens than Dan Brown. It’s a bloody good book though, and, commercial or not, it got positive opinions from some major publishers. Unfortunately, the consensus was that it was too “difficult” for a first novel from an unknown author and I should write something less demanding first. Hence ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’.
Since then, I have written two sequels to ‘The White Rajah’, including ‘Cawnpore’, which is the book I’m most proud of (and readers have said lovely things about it). But mainly I write about James Burke because it’s always nice to have readers and Burke is obviously what people want to read.
Lately, I’ve branched out into Urban Fantasy. I can see that many military history fans aren’t going to touch my stories featuring a vampire policeman or a werewolf MP, but people who like that sort of thing seem to enjoy them. I’ve had people who say they generally don’t like that sort of thing enjoy them too. They’re funny, for a start. They get nice comments when they come out but then they quietly vanish away. I’ve only written two novels and a novella, so mine is not a name that is much recognised in that genre. They’re huge fun to write and I want to write another one but the reality is that, if I want more readers, I have to produce more books about James Burke.
Of course, the amount that I (and most other writers) make from our books is so insignificant that it would make perfect sense to ignore sales and just write whatever I want to – which is sometimes James Burke, but often not. In the end, though, I am not one of those people who sits down at a keyboard and gets up having produced 2,000 brilliant words. I find writing quite hard work and what motivates me is knowing that people read and enjoy my books. So it looks as if I’m going to be writing about James Burke until the end of time unless, of course, some of you lovely people would like to give the other books are try and then post reviews on Amazon to let everybody know that there is more to life than the Peninsular Wars.
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.
This weekend is Historical Writers’ Day. (Yes, I know that there are two days in a weekend, but we are historical writers, not mathematicians.) The event is being run through Twitter and you can follow what is going on using the hashtag #HistoricalWritersDay22.
I’m marking the weekend by selling Cawnpore for just 99p for two days.
Cawnpore is the second of the three books making up the John Williamson papers but you can read it even if you haven’t read the first and it is complete of itself, so you don’t have to read the sequel. I think that, of all my books, it is the one I am most proud of, but its sales are miniscule compared to the relatively successful Burke series. Be warned, though, it’s a very different sort of book.
The story is set around the siege of the British forces in Cawnpore (now Kanpur) during the war usually referred to in Britain as the Indian Mutiny. John Williamson, as a gay working class man, finds it difficult to identify with the British he is working alongside. On the other hand, he is very sympathetic towards the local population. When war breaks out, he is torn between loyalty to his friends and to his countrymen.
The siege at Cawnpore and the massacre that followed is not a pretty story. Cawnpore shows the events from both sides, sticking very closely to the historical record. It has its moments of drama and excitement, but mostly it describes events that are desperately sad. It is almost guaranteed to make you cry.
I will also be checking #HistoricalWritersDay22 looking for any questions people might have posted about my books and trying to respond to them. Please ask any questions you might have, otherwise that element of the “day” isn’t really going to work.
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 mybook.to/Cawnpore.