Endeavour are continuing to republish the John Williamson Chronicles and last week the second in the series came out.
Cawnpore is a story about the Indian Mutiny (or First Indian War of Independence). When I wrote it, I thought everybody would understand that it was going to be a tragedy because when I was a child we were still taught about Cawnpore at school. It was one of the most famous massacres of the British Empire – by which I mean a massacre in which local people were killing the British, rather than the other way about. It turns out that nowadays people are blissfully unaware of the implications of the title, so some of them seem to have been taken aback when, essentially, everybody dies. That may be a spoiler, but the way things work out in the book was never intended to be a surprise. The story is closely based on an actual historical event and “everybody dies” is what this historical event was all about.
What intrigued me about Cawnpore was that the horror seems to have arisen from the structural problems of colonialism. The British at Cawnpore were not generally bad people and the leaders of the Mutiny were not, by and large, the monsters that they were later represented as. The events that led to slaughter on a horrific scale, carried out across India by both Indians and Europeans, seem to have been the inevitable result of a clash of cultures. Certainly the British did exploit India economically, but Indian rulers had exploited their populations for centuries without rousing the people to revolt. When the British had first arrived in India, they had shown a lot of respect for native customs and culture, but, over time, muscular Christianity and the growing self-confidence of the British in their natural “right to rule” led to increasing contempt for the Indian way of life. Even what the British saw as positive steps, such as the banning of suttee (widow burning), were resented when they showed contempt for ancient customs.
John Williamson seemed the ideal person to tell this story. Although he was part of the machinery of Empire, he was himself an outsider. His homosexuality and his working class origins meant that he was never truly comfortable with the men who ruled India. In fact, his only true friend was an Indian, a prince in the court of Nana Sahib, the man who would eventually lead the Indians at the massacre of Cawnpore. Williamson therefore sees both sides of the conflict, sympathising with each in turn, desperate to stop the killing but, in the end, doomed to see the tragedy unfold without being able to prevent the atrocities of Indians and Europeans.
It’s not a cheerful book, but it’s my personal favourite. Although most of the characters are real people and the events follow very closely on the historical facts, the story really centres on Williamson. We see India and the events of the Mutiny through his eyes and I felt I grew to know him much better. It’s also an amazing story, for which I can take very little credit, because the story is the one history wrote for me. The Indian Mutiny was a war where the personalities of individual leaders made a huge difference to the outcome. People decided on their loyalties based as much on their evaluation of the personal worth of the protagonists as on race or creed. It was a time of deeds of great military valour and courage and, on both sides, a time of appalling cruelty and mass killings. It was, indeed, a clash of civilisations. It ended the rule of the East India Company, which had run India as a private fiefdom, and initiated the period of Imperial rule and the Raj. It also, though no one could have known it at the time, started India on the road to eventual independence and the end of the princely states. It is one of the great stories of the 19th century and, with Cawnpore I’ve tried to capture something of that story.
I hope you read it. Let me know what you think of it.