A hundred and fifty-eight years ago British forces in India were fighting an insurrection which became known in British history as the Indian Mutiny.
The mutiny started at Meerut on 10 May 1857, rapidly spreading to nearby Delhi. Mutinies of Indian troops and outbreaks of rebellion by local leaders soon spread across the whole of north-west India.
In June, the rebellion reached Cawnpore. The events that followed are the subject of what was my second novel, Cawnpore, which was republished by Accent Press earlier this year.
The tiny British force stationed in the town was commanded by General Wheeler, a man coming to the end of a long military career. He had not seriously considered the possibility of the Indian troops and the local leader, Nana Sahib, turning on them. They had made totally inadequate provision for defence. Wheeler’s force consisted of around sixty European artillery men with six guns, eighty-four infantrymen, and about two hundred unattached officers and civilians and forty musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had seventy invalids who were convalescing in the barracks hospital and around three hundred and seventy-five women and children. They were surrounded by hugely bigger Indian force, supported with cavalry and artillery from 6th to 25th June, the British forces were under continual bombardment by day and sometimes by night. They nevertheless managed to hold out until they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender.
The Indian forces, under Nana Sahib, reneged on the terms of the surrender and attacked the British as they boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety. The massacre (and massacre it was, as almost all the soldiers who had survived the siege were killed at the boats) was bad enough, but terrible things happen in war. It was what came next that made Cawnpore a byword for horror for almost a century and was used to justify appalling acts of retribution by the British after the real fighting in India was over.
The European civilians had taken shelter with the army when mutiny broke out at Cawnpore. The men fought alongside the soldiers and were massacred with them. There were, though, around 375 women and children who were also trapped in the siege. It was concern about the safety of these civilians which was a principal reason for the surrender. Many of the women and children were killed at the boats, but after the initial bloodshed, those who survived were taken prisoner. They were kept in a private house. The house was said to have once belonged to the mistress (or 'bibi') of a British officer, and it was therefore called the Bibighar. Around 180 women and children were imprisoned there.
Conditions in the Bibighar were, to put it mildly, poor, but some effort was made to ensure that the prisoners received food and medical attention. They were even occasionally allowed to take the air outside the house – an important concession in a jam-packed building in the summer heat.
It seems likely that Nana Sahib didn't really know what to do with his prisoners. There were those in his court (notably his adoptive father's widows), who demanded that he show mercy to the women and children. Others, though, had a different agenda. As the British forces sent to relieve Cawnpore drew close to the city, the latter group gained the upper hand.
A little before 5.30 in the evening of 15 July, the women of the Bibighar were told that Nana Sahib "had sent orders for their immediate destruction". The soldiers ordered to do the killing refused, most firing instead into the ceilings.
In the end, five men (two of them butchers) went into the Bibighar with swords and cleavers and set about hacking all those within to death. Their leader hacked with such a combination of enthusiasm and incompetence that he twice broke his sword and had to send out for new ones.
The next morning, the bodies were removed and thrown down a nearby well. It emerged that not all of them were dead, but the wounded were thrown in anyway. Three or four children, who had survived uninjured, ran helplessly around as the bodies were disposed of. Once the adults were all in the well, the children were killed and tossed in after them.
Cawnpore looks at the historical facts from the perspective of a European who finds himself fighting alongside the Indians. He sees the horrors committed by both sides. Decent people are doing terrible things as they are caught in a clash of cultures and civilisations. It is a story without heroes and where there is little chance of a happy ending. Unsurprisingly, it is not my best selling book, though it is the one I am most proud of (and it has had some lovely reviews).
A hundred and fifty-eight years after the massacre, it is worth reminding ourselves of where the ideals of British colonialism (and there were idealists amongst the colonisers) could all too easily end up.