On 27 June 1857 in Cawnpore in India, a British garrison of men, women and children, under siege, were offered safe passage and sanctuary. Instead, they were betrayed and butchered, an atrocity that shocked Victorian Britain to its core. The surviving women and children were later hacked to death. Retribution, when it came, was unrelentingly severe. This is a gruesome story of the Siege of Cawnpore.
In 1857, the British, through the East India Company, directly ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. On 10 May, a group of sepoys (Indian soldiers) ran amok in the town of Meerut, killing several men and women of the British garrison based there, before heading to Delhi, 40 miles away. The Indian Mutiny had begun.
The name ‘Indian Mutiny’, as it was taught to generations of British schoolchildren, has a very Eurocentric ring to it; Indians prefer to call it the First War of Independence or the First Nationalist Uprising. But independence was not the ultimate aim of the mutineers and, confined mainly to the north-west of the country, in particular Bengal, neither was it of a national character. It was an outbreak of violence without leader and without objective beyond being motivated by a string of grievances.
The Siege of Cawnpore
Among the many sieges during 1857, was the siege and massacre at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), 250 miles from Delhi within the district of Oudh. Home to a large British garrison, the British, under Sir General Hugh Wheeler, a 67-year-old with 54 years of army service in India, had barricaded themselves within their barracks and prepared for the worse. The worse came in the form of one Nana Sahib (pictured), a man apparently on friendly terms with Wheeler and his Indian wife, promising him his loyalty in the conflict due to engulf them.
But Nana was a bitter man. His father, a prince, had been retired off by the British with a generous pension but on the old man’s death the payments stopped and his territory annexed, depriving Nana of an income. Now, in late May 1857, Sir Hugh, believing Nana’s promises of assistance, offered him possession of the garrison’s ammunition store to arm him for the anticipated siege.
On 4 June, the Cawnpore sepoys mutinied. The few that refused to mutineer took refuge with the British bringing the number within the barracks to 240 men and 375 women and children. To Wheeler’s horror, he realised that the man leading the mutineers was none other than Nana Sahib, generously endowed with the general’s ammunition.
After three weeks of siege, with the summer at its hottest, the British, already desperately short of ammunition and with their supplies dwindling, were facing starvation. Under a continual barrage of gunfire, deprived of medical supplies and with precious little food or water, the situation was desperate and disease rife. Many went insane. Wheeler’s son had been one of the victims, decapitated by artillery fire. Wheeler smuggled out a plea to the British garrison at Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, 50 miles away, ‘Surely we are not to die like rats in a cage?’ But the Lucknow garrison, also under siege, was faring little better.
Safe passage or betrayal?
On 24 June, Nana in an apparent show of mercy, permitted the evacuation of the women, children and sick under safe conduct down the River Ganges to Allahabad. Wheeler suspected subterfuge but with only a couple days of rations left, he had little choice but to accept the offer.
On 27 June, Wheeler’s bedraggled garrison, many too sick to walk unaided, climbed upon a number of thatched-roof boats, guided in by helpful mutineers. But then, as the boats prepared to depart, the British were shot at. Flaming arrows set the thatched roofs ablaze and soon bodies, shot or beheaded, clogged up the shallow waters. Those who tried to swim to the opposite shore were caught and hacked to death. Among those killed was Sir Hugh Wheeler, three days short of his 68th birthday.
The ‘House of Ladies’
The surviving women and children, 210 in number, were spared to later face an even worse ordeal. They were marched back to town and incarcerated in a single-storey house, the Bibighur, the ‘House of Ladies’, built by an Englishman for his Indian mistress. Deprived of sustenance and suffering in the July heat, the prisoners weakened. After over two weeks of torment, on 15 July, Nana Sahib received news that a relieving force of British troops was on its way. Panicked, Nana ordered the women and children killed.
The sepoys dispatched to murder their captors found the task too distasteful, and so Nana ordered in professional butchers who, wearing aprons, showed no qualms in wielding their meat cleavers and swords. Amid the screams and blood, their sword blades broke from overwork. An hour later, they had finished their pitiless task, leaving over 200 dead and dismembered women and children. The following morning, they found three women and three children, aged under seven, covered in blood, quivering beneath the piles of dead bodies. They were thrown, one-by-one, down a 50-foot deep mine shaft, and there suffocated under the weight of corpses and body parts thrown in on top of them.
Two days later, a company of British soldiers, under the command of General Sir Henry Havelock, captured the city (Havelock’s statue can be found in London’s Trafalgar Square). On finding the scenes of murder, and inflamed with anger, they extracted revenge. Most of the perpetrators had made good their escape but no matter the British made captured Indians, whether involved or not, lick the blood stains of the dead. Hindus were forced into eating beef, Muslims pork. The latter were tied up in pigskin before being executed. Many inhabitants of Cawnpore who had played no part in the violence were summarily executed for having failed to do anything to prevent the killings. The preferred method of execution was to blow the perpetrator from the guns – hanging seemed too easy a death. The victim was tied to the muzzle of an artillery gun and blown to pieces. Retribution had been brutal.
Rupert Colley’s novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available in paperback and ebook formats.
Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century. Also available in paperback and ebook formats.
Join the mailing list for digests of history articles or new releases by Rupert Colley: New Releases List