Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 27, 1857 --- Cawnpore

In the blood-soaked story of the Indian Mutiny, the massacre and ensuing reprisals at Cawnpore (Modern: Kanpur) stand alone.

The besieged British garrison at the remote Ganges crossing had held out for several weeks. The Maharajah of Bhitur, known as Nana Sahib, had first arrived in the guise of a friend but soon took command of the 3000 rebel Sepoy force, admitting "I only pretended to help them. At heart, I am their mortal enemy."

Under constant shelling and sniping, their food exhausted, the surviving 350 men, with their families, finally surrender. An emissary promises that "the subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria" shall receive safe passage to Allahabad. At Satichaura Ghat, the men are made to board the flimsy bamboo boats first. As the women, children and wounded waded towards the boats, several captured cannons open fire. Saber-wielding Sepoys slashed and bayoneted those who managed to escape the now burning boats. A survivor wrote that the river turned red with blood. Only four men survive, drifting downriver to tell the tale.

Over 100 women and children are taken prisoner and housed at the Bibighar, "House of the Ladies."  But when British forces under General Havelock reached Cawnpore in mid-July, they found all the hostages had been butchered, the naked corpses thrown into the wells to poison the water. The Queen was haunted by thoughts of those subjected to "every outrage which women must most dread." To Lady Canning, wife of the Viceroy, she writes: "I ask not for details, I could not bear to hear more ... I cannot say how sad I am to think of all this blood shed in a country which seemed so prosperous-so improving and for which, as well as for its inhabitants, I felt so great an interest."

Capt. Garnet Wolseley, later Commander-in-Chief, recalled arriving in Cawnpore with the relief forces: "A more sickening, more maddening sight, no Englishman has ever looked upon ... it awoke in us, the countrymen of these helpless victims, a fiendish craving for the blood of the cowardly murderers."

It would be sated. Before the captured rebels were hung, they were forced to lick the blood of their victims from the walls and floor of a hut.  General Neill, who gave the order, wrote. "No doubt this is strange law but it suits the occasion well, and I hope I will not be interfered with until the room is thoroughly cleansed in this way.''

Nana Sahib escaped. He had as many as dozen "doubles" to confuse his enemies and for years after the mutiny was crushed, mistaken reports of his capture were commonplace.

1858 photo of the well & memorial at Cawnpore (

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