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Duplicitous Nana Sahib sent European women and children to gruesome death

Posted in Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about India first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

Massacre at Cawnpore, picture, image, illustration

The Europeans were soon under relentless attack and the defenders of Cawnpore were doomed, by C L Doughty

On 20th September, 1857, the city of Delhi was strangely silent. Within its shattered red walls, which only a few hours before had been defended by the remnants of 40,000 mutineers, British soldiers now walked like men in a dream, picking their way carefully through streets littered with debris and corpses. Over the city a pall of black smoke hung like a giant smoke signal announcing to the outside world that after three long weary months of siege, the city was once more in the hands of the British.

The days which followed the capture of Delhi should have been ones of quiet pride for those who had breached its walls. But instead, those days were to be remembered only with shame by those who did not take part in what followed. Quickly recovering from their stunned relief that the battle was over, the British soldiers went on an orgy of looting and murder. Defenceless civilians who had not even taken part in the mutiny, were shot down or hanged, or else were robbed of everything they possessed in the way of portable valuables. Most of the officers, who should have been trying to control the men, were in the newly established headquarters mess, chatting idly among themselves.

After the orgy of looting and murder had died down and order had re-established itself, the British brought to trial Badahur Shah, the last of the Mogul Emperors whose support of the mutineers had given them fresh heart at a time when they might have wavered in their resolve to put Delhi to the sword. His defence at this trial was that he was an old man, so bowed down by his age and infirmities that he had had no other choice than to be a passive tool of the mutineers. The tribunal was not impressed, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In truth Badahur Shah was a poor enough conspirator, whose claim that he had been swept along by a series of events outside his control, had some truth to it. Certainly, he cannot claim to be the arch villain of the Indian Mutiny. This role, in actual fact, had already been taken by another Indian, the Maharaja of Bithur, better known as Nana Sahib, who was responsible for the most hideous of all the incidents of the Indian Mutiny – the massacre of Cawnpore, which had taken place while Delhi was in rebel hands.

Nana Sahib was thirty-six, a rather stout gentleman with a pock-marked face whose kindness and jovial manner had endeared him to the British officers who were in the habit of dining with him at his palace, a few miles outside Cawnpore. From the very beginning, they had noted with approval that he like to have the English newspapers read out to him and that a great deal of his food came from Fortnum and Mason. It would be unfair to the officers concerned, however, to imply that their judgement of a man was likely to be conditioned by his reading habits or the state of his larder. It was all his kindnesses which had impressed them. There were those expensive Kashmiri shawls he had presented to their wives, the hunting parties and picnics he had given, where everyone had been royally entertained and then sent off with gifts. There was also that rather touching incident when the Nana had insisted on giving one of his pianos to the wife of an officer, whose own piano had been lost somewhere between England and India. All in all, everyone agreed that Nana Sahib was a most capital fellow – a view that was also shared by the commanding officer, General Sir Hugh Wheeler.

Everyone was aware that Nana Sahib nursed a grudge against the Indian government for their refusal to grant him a pension to which he considered he was entitled. But this was something which they mentally brushed aside – if only because Nana Sahib had shown no personal resentment against the British. The reality was something quite different. The rejection of his claim had turned Nana Sahib into a man with a pathological hatred of the British race.

On 14th May, 1857, news of the mutiny at Meerut and Delhi reached Cawnpore. From that moment onwards the situation for the British inhabitants began to deteriorate rapidly. The Sepoys who had remained quiet enough until then now became so openly hostile that, in order to avoid any provocation, the usual Royal salute was not fired on 24th May, Queen Victoria’s birthday.

But Sir Hugh Wheeler was only too well aware that he was living on borrowed time, and he was therefore almost pathetically grateful when he was approached by Nana Sahib who offered him the use of his palace troops to guard the Treasury. Sir Hugh agreed that the palace troops should also guard the arsenal. From that moment every European in Cawnpore was doomed.

As soon as he was in possession of the arsenal, Nana Sahib threw aside his mask of deceit and openly preached sedition in the sepoy lines. Sick at heart at this treachery, Sir Hugh Wheeler ordered every European to gather in a small area of the city, where they prepared to make their last stand against the now inevitable attack. It came on 6th June.

From the moment the attack began, it was obvious that the situation for the defenders was hopeless. Round them were the Nana’s batteries and over their head was the merciless Indian sun. The two small barracks in which most of them were sheltered were soon shattered and riddled by shot, and it became necessary to extemporise defences; a 5 ft. high parapet, barrels, sacks filled with earth, stone, and such walls that still remained standing. It was impossible to procure a single drop of water during the day without risking certain death, for the well was the special mark of the enemy sharpshooters who poured a steady hail of lead into the entrenchments from their positions in neighbouring houses, or from the tops of trees. Within a few days 250 of the 800 besieged souls were dead.

Incredibly, this little garrison hung on until 25th June when Nana Sahib sent them a message, offering the survivors a safe passage to Allahabad if they surrendered. Faced though he was by the awful circumstances which now existed within the entrenchments, General Wheeler was reluctant to place his faith once more in Nana Sahib’s word. But eventually he yielded to the advice of his staff, and he signed the capitulation, which guaranteed the lives of every European there. On 27th June, the little garrison of some 450 men, women and children moved out under the guns of the sepoys and begun to straggle down to the river bank where some 20 boats waited to convey them to Allahabad.

Not one of these boats was ever to reach its promised goal.

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