Thursday, 29 January 2015

The story behind 'Cawnpore'

When I started writing the story of Cawnpore, I thought that most readers would have heard of the place. How wrong I was!

Cawnpore (now Kanpur) is in the north-west of India. Looking on the map, it's pretty near the centre, but in the mid-19th century, it was one of what were then referred to as the North-West Provinces. It was a garrison town, from which troops could be despatched toward the borders with Afghanistan. During the Indian Mutiny (or the Freedom Struggle of 1857, as many Indians refer to it), the native troops at Cawnpore joined the rebellion. The British troops and the civilians living in the town dug in on open ground near the garrison. They had assumed that the rebels would march off to Delhi and they had not prepared for a long defence. In fact, the rebels stayed in Cawnpore and the Europeans, in a totally inadequate position and short of food and water held out against overwhelmingly superior Indian forces for almost three weeks. When the British commander surrendered, largely to save the many women and children caught in the siege, all of the Europeans were massacred.

For over 100 years, the story of Cawnpore was presented in Britain as a story of plucky Brits and perfidious natives. More recently, it has been largely neglected in school history and few people have heard of it. If they do think of the events of 1857 at all, it is probably with a feeling of mild embarrassment that the British were in India, lording it over the people who lived there.

In fact, the truth, as ever, was much more subtle than either the jingoistic tale of British heroism or the politically correct notion that the Indians were only responding understandably to European oppression.

The Mutiny took place at a time when the British approach to India was changing, and the attitudes of the Indians to the British were confused. In many ways, British rule in India had benefited the local population, but the Indians were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the domination of people who, as time went by, were more inclined to impose their values (especially their religion) on what they had come to see as a subject people incapable of ruling themselves. On both sides, there were those who sought compromise and coexistence and those who, had they been living today, would have cheerfully subscribed to the theory of a "clash of civilisations". This was reflected in social relationships, too. Many Indians had good friends in the European community, and there were still Europeans who married Indian women and adopted many of the customs of the country. Alongside this, there was increasing division between the two cultures, with growing distrust and enmity between individuals.

This is the background to a novel which, besides giving an account of a particularly horrible historical event, tries to show some of contradictions implicit in colonial rule. The events in Cawnpore are seen through the eyes of John Williamson – an outsider, both by class and sexual orientation, who often feels more comfortable with his Indian friends than with the Europeans he is working alongside.

Cawnpore is not a cheerful book. It was originally published by a very small publisher in the USA, and it did not sell well. Of all the books I've written, though, I think it is the best, and I have had some very kind comments from people who have read it. I am hoping that its republication by Accent will bring it to a larger readership. If you blog about books, please contact me (on and I will see if I can get a review copy to you.

Cawnpore should be available in February. I will be writing more about the background to the book between now and then.


  1. Tom the new look is fab, easier to find things. I am very interested in all things Raj having had grandparents living out there at the time. My Dad was born there and didn't leave until partition. A grand uncle was Lt Governor of the Punjab at the time of the Amritsar Massacre and was later assassinated on the steps of Caxton Hall in London. Do you have plans to write about this event at all? Would love to know. Good luck with all your new books and an increase in sales now you are with Accent. Duncan's idea was good. :)

  2. Thank you, Jane.

    At the moment I have two 'series' of books being published with Accent. The 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent' books deal with the adventures of James Burke, a real spy in the Napoleonic Wars (although his adventures after the first book in the series are fictional). The 'John Williamson Papers' are set in the mid-19th century. The first two, 'The White Rajah' and 'Cawnpore' are about colonialism in Borneo and India respectively. There are plans for another one set in London.

    There are no plans at present for a book about 20th century India. I don't think I know enough about the country to attempt it, especially when so many writers have produced classic books about the sub-continent.

  3. Still all very interesting and informative Tom. Thanks for the reply. I just wondered. Good luck with them all and I wish you much success in all you do. :)