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.


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.


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.

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The Amritsar Massacre – a brief outline

On Sunday 13 April 1919, the occupants of the city of Amritsar in the Punjab were preparing to celebrate the Sikh New Year. Three days previously, six Britons had been indiscriminately killed by an Indian mob and the British, fearful of further violence during such a potentially volatile occasion, sent in a man ‘not afraid to act.’ That man was 54-year-old Reginald Dyer, and act he did.

Reginald DyerReginald Dyer (pictured) issued a proclamation banning any gatherings of four or more men and imposing an eight o’clock curfew. Those failing to comply risked being shot. Yet word reached Dyer that a gathering of about 5,000 men, women and children (Dyer’s estimate) had converged in a square at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting. The square was accessible only via a narrow gateway and otherwise was surrounded by walls. Dyer approached with a unit of about 90 soldiers, mainly Indians and Gurkhas. Although the gathering was unarmed and, it seemed, peaceful, Dyer feared that his small contingent of men would, if things got out of hand, soon be overwhelmed. Deciding attack was the best form of defence, he ordered, without warning, his men to open fire. Bedlam ensued.

With the only entrance blocked, there was no escape from the withering fire that lasted an entire quarter of an hour. People hid behind bodies, others were killed in the circling stampede. Dyer only ordered a stop when he feared his men would run out of ammunition. Without sanctioning any medical aid, Dyer ordered his men out. 379 were left dead, over 1,200 wounded. Dyer did not stop there; in the days that followed Dyer subjected miscreants, as he saw them, to public flogging.

Mistaken concept of duty

Amritsar MassacreAt the resultant enquiry, General Dyer was censured for ‘acting out of a mistaken concept of duty’ but survived unpunished. The British press was outraged – not by the lack of punishment but that the British establishment had failed to condone his actions. The Morning Post launched a campaign, raising over £26,000 for the beleaguered general, as they saw him; Rudyard Kipling being one such giver. Reginald Dyer quietly took early retirement and died eight years later humbled perhaps but unrepentant. Indeed, his only regret was that ‘I didn’t have time to do more’.

(Pictured, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial).

Amritsar was systematic of all that was wrong in post-First World War British India. Mahatma Gandhi wrote of the massacre, ‘We do not want to punish Dyer; we have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.’

Amritsar confirmed an uncomfortable truism – that ultimately British rule in India was dependent on force.

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The Vellore Mutiny – a brief outline

Fifty-one years before the outbreak of the year-long ‘Indian Mutiny’, took place another act of defiance against British rule in India. Lasting but a few hours, the Vellore Mutiny of 10 July 1806 was a mere foretaste of 1857. But the grievances that led to the brief uprising were very much the same as the ones half a century later.

Vellore MutinyMuch of India, at the time, was governed by the East India Company. The monolithic, monopolizing commercial company with its own army had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government. The town of Vellore, in south-east India, contained a large fort garrisoned by some 380 British soldiers and 1,500 sepoys. Incarcerated within the fort of Vellore, although in considerable comfort, were the sons, families and servants of Tipu Sultan, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who had been killed by the British in battle in 1799. (Pictured the Vellore Fort today)

Religious sensibilities

In 1806, as in 1857, the Indian soldiers, sepoys, feared the British were attempting to undermine their religions in order to convert them to Christianity. A new dress code, introduced in 1805 by the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, General Sir John Craddock, forbade Hindu soldiers from sporting any caste marks on their foreheads, banned the wearing of earrings and proposed that turbans be replaced by a round hat. Muslim soldiers were to shave off their beards and trim their moustaches. Craddock, in issuing his directive, was going against advice from his Military Board who warned that local religious sensibilities be respected.

United by their grievances, Hindu and Muslim sepoys decided to act. An initial protest resulted in a number of sepoys being lashed.

But in the early hours of 10 July 1806, the rebel sepoys launched their main attack on the fort. The rebels looted and killed, and barged into the garrison’s hospital where they slaughtered men in their hospital beds. 200 British soldiers were killed or wounded. The sepoys declared the eldest son of Tipu Sultan their new leader, hoisting Tipu’s flag atop the fort.


Rollo Gillespie The British took refuge on the fort’s ramparts. One soldier escaped, took to his horse and galloped the sixteen miles to the garrison based at Arcot to call for help. A small relieving force of about twenty men, led by Sir Rollo Gillespie, quickly made their appearance at Vellore. (Born in Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, a statue of Gillespie standing upon a 55-foot high column today dominates the town square, pictured).

Climbing up the ramparts to aid the stricken British still clinging on, Gillespie led a bayonet charge to keep the sepoys at bay. More reinforcements arrived in larger numbers, blowing down the garrison gates and setting upon the rebellious sepoys. By 2 pm, the rebellion had been quashed. Retribution was swift and merciless; executions plentiful. The Vellore Mutiny was over.

Tipu Sultan’s sons and their retinues were resettled in Calcutta. The British certainly did not want to risk them becoming a rallying point again.

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The Black Hole of Calcutta – a brief outline

On 20 June 1756, 123 Britons perished in a tiny dungeon cell in the city of Calcutta. The incident, which soon became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta, illustrated only too well that the Indian race, when left without Britain’s civilising influence, was barbaric in the extreme.

Siraj ud-DaulahIn April 1756, the nawab (provincial governor) of Bengal died and the throne passed to his 23-year-old grandson, Siraj-ud-Daulah (pictured), a name that was soon to become infamous in Britain as the ultimate in perfidy and cruelty. The British had been hastily strengthening Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata) against possible future French incursion into the city. When Siraj-ud-Daulah demanded that the British desist, the British refused – it was they, after all, that had, in 1690, established Calcutta in the first place. Siraj-ud-Daulah marched into the city with 50,000 men and 500 elephants and, imposing his authority, took it with relative ease.

Black Hole

The British fled – but not all managed to escape in time. On the 20 June 1756, those left behind, 146 soldiers and civilians, including two women, surrendered. Despite assurances that they would be protected, they were imprisoned on the apparent orders of Siraj-ud-Daulah in a tiny cell within Fort William measuring only 18 feet by 14 feet, 10 inches, with only two small windows. Screams and appeals for water were ignored. The prisoners were left to suffocate in the oppressive summer heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts for liquid or drinking their own urine.

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Indian Mutiny – a brief outline

On 10 May 1857, the Indian Mutiny, as it became known, erupted in the town of Meerut in northern India. Discontent among the native Indian soldiers, the sepoys, had been simmering for months if not decades but the violence, when it came, took the British completely by surprise. History In An Hour looks at the causes of the Indian Mutiny.*

Indian SepoyBy 1857, the East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government, ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. That the East India Company could maintain its authority was down to the might of its huge army, consisting of 45,000 Europeans and 230,000 Indian sepoys. While most sepoys were glad and even proud to serve in the army, their loyalty to it always took second place to their religion

Religious sensibilities

Sepoys of all faiths were concerned for their respective religions. The prospect of being made to serve overseas, for example, alarmed Hindu sepoys as travelling over water was a compromise of caste. (Similar grievances led to a much smaller rebellion, the Vellore Mutiny, in 1806).

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Mangal Pandey – a brief biography

The events that led to India’s ‘First War of Independence’, or to use its Eurocentric name, the ‘Indian Mutiny’, stemmed from decades of grievances and unrest but it was something quite mundane that sparked the rebellion and it was a single man, Mangal Pandey, that fired the first shots.

The sepoys had been issued with a new Enfield rifle. In order to use the rifle, the soldier had to bite off the end of a lubricated cartridge before inserting the powder into the weapon. The problem was that the grease used to seal the cartridge was made from animal fat – both cow, a sacred beast to Hindus, and pork, an insult to the Muslim soldiers.

The East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of India acting on behalf of the British government, made amends by substituting the forbidden fats with that of sheep or beeswax. Too late. The sepoys saw it as a deliberate ploy to undermine their respective religions and to convert them, through this perfidious route, to Christianity. The fact this was not the case did nothing to squash the rumour.

The first symptom of unrest came in January 1857, when the recently-opened telegraph office in Barrackpore (now Barrackpur, about 15 miles from Kolkata, or Calcutta) was burned down as a protest against the march of Westernization.

Two months later, on 29 March 1857, also at Barrackpore, a 29-year-old sepoy called Mangal Pandey, staged, in effect, a one-man rebellion. Born 19 July 1827, Mangal Pandey had joined the 34th Bengal Native Infantry regiment of the British East India Company, aged 22, in 1849. Continue reading