Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Aftermath of Cawnpore

Although we always talk about the Cawnpore massacre, there were actually two separate massacres: the massacre at the boats and the massacre of the women and children at the Bibighar. At the time, there were no formal laws of war but there were tacit understandings of what was and was not acceptable behaviour. Massacre of troops who had been promised safe conduct was, of course, outside of these. It was the massacre of the women and children, though, that truly horrified the British.

How Europe viewed the killings at the Bibighar
(not a terribly accurate representation)

In any rebellion in the 19th century, those on the losing side could expect to suffer, but after news of the Cawnpore massacre spread, the suffering of Indians was on a horrific scale. A relief column reached Cawnpore only days after the women and children had been killed and immediately took vengeance on any men who were (or might have been) involved. Prisoners were forced to clean the blood off the floor and walls of the house where the murders had taken place. Many were ordered to lick it off. Muslim prisoners were forced to eat pork and Hindus to eat beef. Then they were executed.

The scale of British reprisals was almost unbelievable. British columns delayed reaching their objectives to take the time to annihilate the adult male populations of entire villages. Trees along the line of march were decorated with the hanged bodies of any men who couldn't conclusively prove that they had had no involvement with the insurrection.

The bloodletting went on for months, largely supported by people in Britain. This cartoon by Tenniel (from Punch magazine) reflects the popular mood.

No one knows how many people died in the reprisals, referred to as 'The Devil's Wind' by Indians. It was a wind that probably cut down 100,000 Indian soldiers but there are no records of civilian casualties, which probably exceeded this figure.

It was not until July 1859 that Lord Canning finally issued a proclamation officially declaring peace in India.
"War is at an end; Rebellion is put down; the Noise of Arms is no longer heard where the enemies of the State have persisted in their last Struggle; the Presence of large Forces in the Field has ceased to be necessary; Order is re-established and peaceful Pursuits have everywhere been resumed."

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