Friday, 14 July 2017

Nana Sahib and the Cawnpore massacre

Tomorrow is the 160th anniversary of the massacre of the women and children who had survived the siege of General Wheeler's forces in Cawnpore. It was, from the British point of view, the worst incident of the Indian Mutiny, a war (for Indians are right to call it a war rather than a mutiny) notable for violent horror.

The massacre was blamed by the British on a local ruler called Nana Sahib.

I think that the idea that Nana Sahib was evil incarnate is wrong. (So is the modern Indian notion that he was a noble warrior for independence.) As with so much colonial history, the nuances of right and wrong were much more subtle than either old-school jingoists or modern revisionists seem to be able to accept. That's more or less the theme of my book, Cawnpore. So I welcomed the opportunity when Heather Campbell of The Maiden's Court invited me to contribute a piece justifying Nana Sahib's actions. It was also a great chance to write a first person justification of a war crime.

This first appeared in the Maiden's Court just over a year ago. It was an interesting exercise for me. I hope it's interesting for you as well.

Two Sides to Every Story: The Butcher of Cawnpore: Hero or Villain?

In 1857, British rule in India was challenged by an uprising across the north west of the country. Even today, opinions as to exactly what happened and how we should view it are polarised. To most British people who have any interest in it at all, it was the Indian Mutiny. To many Indians, it was the 1st War of Independence.

British India in 1856
The conflict was extremely brutal, with outrages committed by both sides. However, the most appalling single incident occurred at the end of the siege of Cawnpore.

Cawnpore was not a major military centre and in 1857 there were not that many troops based there. Many of those who were in the lines at Cawnpore were sick men recuperating away from their regiments. When the Indians rose against them, General Wheeler, commanding the British forces, took those troops he considered would be loyal (mainly European, as opposed to locally recruited Indians) together with the civilians in the station into what became known as the Entrenchment. This was a few buildings surrounded by a low earth wall, which offered only minimal protection to those inside.

At the start of the siege on 6 June 1857 the Entrenchment offered some sort of shelter to around 60 European artillerymen, 84 infantrymen, and about 200 unattached officers and civilians and 40 Indian military musicians. In addition there were 70 invalids who were convalescing in the barrack hospital and around 375 women and children. They were surrounded by thousands of Indians, who included cavalrymen and who were supported with significant amounts of artillery.

The British held out until 25 June when they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender. Wheeler considered that surrender was an honourable option, given the almost certain death of the women and children in the Entrenchment were the siege to continue.

The Indians agreed that the British should evacuate Cawnpore by water. The British therefore marched out of the camp to the nearby river, where a small fleet of boats was waiting for them. However, as the British started to board the boats, the Indians opened fire. Only four of the soldiers from the garrison escaped alive. Most of the women and children survived but were held captive until 15 July, when the decision was taken to kill them all. The killing was crudely and ineffectively carried out, with many apparently reliable accounts of women and children being still alive when they were thrown into the well which was used for the bodies.

When British troops arrived to lift the siege, they found the site of the massacre covered in blood. Their revenge was horrific. Indian prisoners were made to lick the blood from the floor before being executed. "Remember Cawnpore" became the battle cry of British troops engaged in putting down the uprising and in exacting retribution afterwards. Nobody is sure how many Indians were killed. In many villages that the British army marched through, any man who could not prove that he had not joined the uprising was hanged. I will not dwell on the details of what became known as 'TheDevil's Wind', not because I want to gloss over the horror of the behaviour of British troops, but because the details are so appalling. (In fairness, I have rather glossed over the details of the massacres as well.)

Cartoon by Tenniel showing Britannia avenging the deaths at Cawnpore

The leader of the Indians at Cawnpore was a man called Nana Sahib. The British hunted him for years, but never caught him. It is widely believed that he died peacefully in Nepal. He was, if you like, the Osama bin Laden of the 19th century, yet today he is widely hailed as a hero of the Indian independence movement and his face has appeared on Indian stamps. This is his side of the story.

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 shortly to be re-published by Endeavour and will be available on Kindle and in paperback. I'll be letting everyone know about the re-launch here on my blog, on my Facebook author page and on Twitter. Cawnpore has had fabulous reviews and I hope you'll all be rushing to buy it once it's available again!


  1. Interesting - however, I can't hep but think that if the captive women and children had been kept safe and returned alive, history would have looked more kindly upon Nana Sahib - as it is, it's hard to see him as anything but a murderous thug. Mostly, it reminded me of the story of the Alamo - I guess humans and war never change, do they?

  2. By the time of the massacre of the women and children, Nana Sahib had already killed all the men (and quite a few women and children) at the massacre at the boats. That would have damned him as far as the British were concerned. And modern Indians often represent him as a hero (as on the stamp). It's all a matter of perspective.

    I am really pleased with 'Cawnpore' (currently unavailable, but back on Kindle soon). Poor John Williamson (the narrator) is caught between the British and the Indians, seeing good and bad in both. In the end, there are no actual villains. It's the almost inevitable consequence of a hundred years of colonial rule and a growing cultural gap between rulers and ruled. The first British rulers really cared about India and tried to understand the country but by 1857 their growing arrogance had alienated the local rulers and the native soldiers. This was to prove a fatal error.

  3. This is very interesting, as my novel "Belonging", also covers the Mutiny/Revolt at Cawnpore and goes up to the end of the First World War, and is also told mostly from the British point of view, though, like you, I have tried to be even-handed. It has always struck me as odd that only 60 years after the Mutiny/Revolt 1.5 million soldiers volunteered to fight for the British in the First World War, and 2.5 million in the Second, even though Nationalism was at its height before the latter. Also interesting, reading the memoirs of Indian (including Hindu) officers in the Second World War, that they report being issued with "bully beef" in their rations without comment.

    1. This is really interesting. Thank you for writing. Your book seems worth a look too.