The horrific massacre of European men, women, and children during the Indian Mutiny represented the worst aspects of warfare and provoked fierce reprisals.
Cawnpore, modern day Kanpur, in the mid 19th century was a strategically important garrison on the Grand Trunk Road. In 1857 Cawnpore housed three regiments of Native Infantry and the 2nd Bengal Cavalry. The number of European troops had been reduced to less than 300 following the annexation of the province of Oudh. The commander at Cawnpore was Major General Hugh Wheeler, an imposing veteran with over 50 years service as an officer of The Honourable East India Company. Cawnpore had a European civilian population of around 1,000.
The Rebellion Begins
Following a series of isolated disturbances earlier in the year, the Great Mutiny began at Meerut on Sunday May 10th 1857. The uprising quickly spread to Delhi, Agra and Lucknow, however Cawnpore remained unaffected throughout May. This was due in large part to the genuine respect between General Wheeler and his native troops. Hugh Wheeler had spent his entire adult life in India, spoke the native languages fluently and had taken an Indian bride. He also enjoyed a close friendship with the local ruler, Nana Sahib, who was the heir of the Mahratta king. The East India Company had traditionally paid a pension to the local rulers but Nana Sahib was informed that this would no longer be paid following the death of his father.
Despite the terrible events taking place in the surrounding areas, the Sepoys in Cawnpore showed no inclination towards mutiny and British officers made a point of staying close to their native troops in a show of confidence in their loyalty. It began to look like Cawnpore would be spared and Wheeler’s confidence was such that even as late as June 2nd he felt able to send two companies of British troops to the aid of Henry Lawrence at Lucknow.
Gradually matters became more tense as news filtered into Cawnpore of massacre of Europeans elsewhere. Civilians began moving into the protection of the recently fortified entrenchments. The Sepoys, who were already resentful over the new fortifications, were ordered to collect their pay individually, out of uniform and disarmed rather than by company. During the evening of June 2nd, the same day that Wheeler had sent a substantial portion of his troops to Lucknow, a British officer, Lieutenant Cox fired at his own troops while drunk. The next day he was acquitted of all charges much to the disgust of the Sepoys.
The 2nd Bengal Cavalry were the first to mutiny during the small hours of June 5th. In the confusion the British artillery fired on Sepoys of the 53rd and 56th Native Infantry driving them into the ranks of the rebels. As the mutineers marched off towards Delhi around 150 loyal Sepoys opted to remain in Cawnpore with Wheeler.
The Siege of Cawnpore
Despite his personal feelings towards Wheeler, the dispossessed ruler Nana Sahib saw his chance to restore his fortunes by seizing the treasury and throwing his own soldiers into the rebellion. He caught up with the rebels and persuaded them with the promise of doubled pay to return to Cawnpore and help him to destroy the British garrison there.
General Wheeler has been widely criticized for choosing an indefensible entrenchment at the southern end of the town, ignoring the much more substantial Magazine at the north end. The main drawback was a single well which would be in full view of the attackers and would cost the lives of several defenders trying to collect water in the fierce June heat. Wheeler was not expecting a long siege and wanted to be as close as possible to any relief force or reinforcements arriving from the south.
At 10:30 am on June 6th the rebel artillery opened up a prolonged barrage signaling the start of the siege. The defenders could not make an effective reply due to their smaller guns and the need to keep canister shot loaded in case of a sudden charge. The siege lasted for three weeks during which time several determined attacks were repulsed with many acts of heroism by the British. The cost to the defenders was heavy and a third of them lay dead among the ruins, including Lieutenant Wheeler, son of the General. Thirst, hunger, disease, filth and constant bombardment had reduced the morale of those still alive to rock bottom.
Nana Sahib sent a letter to Wheeler on June 25th offering safe passage to Allahabad if the British laid down their arms. Although many of the defenders wanted to fight on, Wheeler’s experience told him that with little food or water and no prospect of relief his position was untenable.
Massacre at Sati Chowra
On the morning of June 27th General Hugh Wheeler surrendered his position to Nana Sahib and lead out a long, straggling column of survivors towards the River Ganges. As those at the head of the column were approaching the embarkation point at Sati Chowra order was breaking down at the rear of the column. Wounded British officers who had fallen behind were killed by the mob as were many of those Sepoys who had remained loyal to Wheeler.
As those at the riverbank began boarding the native crewmen set fire to the boats and swan towards the shore. Concealed infantry opened fire and cavalry entered the water to cut down the survivors. All surviving males, including General Wheeler were executed on the orders of Nana Sahib and the women and children imprisoned in the former home of the mistress of a British Officer, the Bibighar.
The Bibighar Tragedy
Conditions were badly crowded for the women and children, whose number soon grew to about 200 as more captives were brought in. A British relief force lead by General Havelock and the fearful Brigadier James Neill was fighting it’s way up the Grand Trunk Road, sweeping away several attempts by the rebels to stop them. As they approached Cawnpore news of the terrible reprisals carried out by the British and in particular James Neill against suspected rebels caused Nana Sahib to panic. Determined to leave no witnesses to the massacre at Sati Chowra he ordered the cold blooded killing of the women and children on July 15th. The Sepoys refused to participate and so butchers were recruited from the local bazaars to carry out the killings with meat cleavers. The bodies, some still breathing were thrown into a well in the courtyard which later became a shrine to the victims.
Nana Sahib was never brought to justice for his crimes but his abandoned followers were shown no mercy by the enraged British.
- Mowbray Thomson. The Story of Cawnpore,
- Sanderson Beck. British India’s Wars 1848 – 1881