Siege of Cawnpore – a brief outline

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.

Background

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

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.

Retribution

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.

In 1860, a memorial was built (pictured) to commemorate Britons that had been killed at Cawmpore, built over the well outside the Bibighur.

Rupert Colley.

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The Cleverest General: the Life and Death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley

When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.

Sir George Pomeroy Colley was a Victorian general who met his death on 27 February 1881, whilst fighting the Boers in South Africa.

(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).

The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.

To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?

Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.

The First Boer War

In 1877 the British had annexed the South African state of the Transvaal, and two years later made it a crown colony. The Boers naturally resented this, and in December 1880 revolted. At the time there were only 1,700 British troops dotted around the Transvaal in small, isolated garrisons. Colley, recently appointed governor in neighbouring Natal, was ordered to deal with the situation.

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The Death of Prince Albert

The light is subdued in the Blue Room. He lies in his bed, plumped up with pillows. His breath is slow and laboured, his skin terribly white, his hair stuck down by sweat. Kneeling on the floor beside his bed, trembling, his wife – the queen. Holding his limp hand, she knows he is dying. Beside her, five of her children, their faces pinched with fear. Standing awkwardly, nearby, various ladies in waiting, equerries, doctors, and a minister or two. But she has eyes only for her darling prince. The time is almost eleven in the evening. As he slips away, she mutters, ‘Oh, this is death, I know it.’ On his passing, the queen lets rip a scream that tears down the walls of Windsor.

Prince AlbertOn the 14 December 1861, Albert, the Prince Consort, died. He was only 42. His unexpected death plunged Queen Victoria into grief so overwhelming that it endured for the rest of her life. Her pain was shared by the nation in an outpouring of angst that would not be seen again until the death, 136 years later, of Princess Diana. But after a while, public and politicians alike began to ask whether the Queen’s period of mourning would ever end?

Prince Albert and Princess Victoria meet

The 16-year-old Princess was immediately smitten – on meeting Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha for the first time, she confided in her diary that her German cousin was ‘extremely good looking’. It was 18 May 1836. They would not meet again for another 3½ years by which time, October 1839, Victoria had become queen. This time, her praise went even further – ‘It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful’. Albert had the teenage queen’s heart ‘quite going’.

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