The Revolt of Cawnpore (Kanpur) & The Massacre of 1857
The Siege of Cawnpore was a key episode in the Indian rebellion of 1857. In the 19th century, Kanpur was an important British garrison with barracks for 7,000 soldiers. During the First War of Independence 1857, 900 British were besieged in the fortifications for 22 days by rebels under Nana Sahib
The besieged British in Cawnpore (now Kanpur) were unprepared for an extended siege and surrendered to rebel Indian forces under Nana Sahib, in return for a safe passage to Allahabad. However, under ambiguous circumstances, their evacuation from Cawnpore turned into a massacre, and most of them were killed. Those captured were later executed, as an East India Company rescue force from Allahabad approached Cawnpore; in what came to be known as the Bibighar Massacre, 120 British women and children captured by the Sepoy forces were hacked to death and dismembered with meat cleavers (a butcher’s knife having a large square blade), with the remains being thrown down a nearby well in an attempt to hide the evidence.
Cawnpore was an important garrison town (Garrison town is a common expression for any town that has a military base nearby.) for the East India Company forces. Located on the Grand Trunk Road, it lay on the approaches to Sindh (Sind), Punjab and Awadh (Oudh).
By June 1857, the Indian rebellion had spread to several areas near Cawnpore, namely Meerut, Agra, Mathura, and Lucknow. However, the Indian sepoys at Cawnpore initially remained loyal. The British General at Cawnpore, Hugh Wheeler, knew the local language, had adopted local customs, and was married to an Indian woman. He was confident that the sepoys at Cawnpore would remain loyal to him, and sent two of British companies (one each of the 84th and 32nd Regiments) to besieged Lucknow.
The British contingent in Cawnpore consisted of around nine hundred people, including around three hundred military men, around three hundred women and children, and about one hundred and fifty merchants, business owners, drummers, engineers and others. The rest were the native servants, who left soon away after the commencement of the siege.
In the case of a rebellion by the sepoys in Cawnpore, the most suitable defensive location for the British was the magazine located in the north of the city. It had thick walls, ample ammunition and stores, and also hosted the local treasury. However, General Wheeler decided to take refuge in the south of the city, in an entrenchment composed of two barracks surrounded by a mud wall. There was a military building site to the south of Cawnpore, where nine barracks were being constructed at the dragoon barracks. The British soldiers found it difficult to dig deep trenches, as it was hot summer season. The area also lacked good sanitary facilities, and there was only one well and that would be exposed to enemy fire in case of an attack. Also, there were several buildings overlooking the entrenchment that would provide cover for the attackers, allowing them to easily shoot down on the defenders.
General Wheeler’s choice of this location to make a stand remains controversial, given the availability of relatively safer and more defensible places in Cawnpore.It is believed that General Wheeler was expecting reinforcements to come from the southern part of the city. He also assumed that in case of a rebellion, the Indian troops would probably collect their arms, the ammunition and money, and would head to Delhi and therefore, he did not expect a long siege. There is also another theory that Wheeler had simply chosen this location because it was closer to his personal residence at the time.
Outbreak of rebellion at Cawnpore
There were four Indian regiments in Cawnpore: the 1st, 53rd and 56th Native Infantry, and the 2nd Bengal Cavalry. Although the sepoys in Cawnpore had not rebelled, the European families began to drift into the entrenchment as the news of rebellion in the nearby areas reached them. The entrenchment was fortified, and the Indian sepoys were asked to collect their pay one by one, so as to avoid an armed mob. The Indian soldiers considered the fortification, and the artillery guns being primed and aimed at them, as insulting as well as threatening. On the night of June 2, 1857, a British officer named Lieutenant Cox fired on his Indian guard while drunk. Cox missed his target, and was thrown into the jail for a night. The very next day, a hastily convened court acquitted him, which led to discontent among the Indian soldiers. There were also rumors that the Indian troops were to be summoned to a parade, where they were to be massacred. All these factors instigated them to rebel against the East India Company rule.
The rebellion began at 1:30 AM on June 5, 1857, with three pistol shots from the rebel soldiers of the 2nd Bengal Cavalry. Elderly Risaldar-Major Bhowani Singh, who loyally refused to hand over the regimental colours and join the rebel sepoys, was subsequently cut down by his younger subordinates. The 53rd and 56th Native Infantry, which were the most loyal units in the area, were awoken by the shootings. Some soldiers of the 56th panicked and started to run off into the city. The European artillery assumed that they were rebels too, and opened fire on them. The soldiers of the 53rd were also caught in the crossfire.
The 1st N.I. rebelled and left in early morning on June 6, 1857. On the same day, the 53rd N.I. also went off, taking with them the regimental treasure and as much ammunition as they could carry. Around 150 sepoys remained loyal to General Wheeler.
After obtaining arms, ammunition and money, the rebel troops started marching towards Delhi to seek further orders from Bahadur Shah II, who had been proclaimed the Padshah-e-Hind (“Emperor of India”). The British officers were relieved that they would not face a long siege.
Attack on Wheeler’s entrenchment
On June 5, 1857, Nana Sahib sent a polite note to General Wheeler, informing him that he intended to attack the following morning, at 10 AM. On June 6, Nana Sahib’s forces (including the rebel soldiers) attacked the British entrenchment at 10:30 AM. The British were not adequately prepared for the attack, but managed to defend themselves for a long time, as the attacking forces were reluctant to enter the entrenchment. Nana Sahib’s forces had been led to falsely believe that the entrenchment had gunpowder-filled trenches that would explode if they got closer.
As the news of Nana Sahib’s advances over the British garrison spread, several of the rebel sepoys joined him. By June 10, he was believed to be leading around twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Indian soldiers.
The British held out in their makeshift fort for three weeks with little water and food supplies. Many died as a result of sunstroke and lack of water. As the ground was too hard to dig graves, the British would pile the dead bodies of their killed outside the buildings, and drag and dump them inside a dried well during the night. The lack of sanitation facilities led to spread of diseases such as dysentery and cholera, further weakening the defenders. There was also a small outbreak of smallpox, although this was relatively confined.
During the first week of the siege, Nana Sahib’s forces encircled the entrenchment, created loopholes and established firing positions from the surrounding buildings. Captain John Moore of the 32nd (Cornwall) Light Infantry countered this by launching night-time sorties. Nana Sahib retreated his headquarter to Savada House (or Savada Kothi), which was situated about two miles away. In response to Moore’s sorties, Nana Sahib decided to attempt a direct assault on the British entrenchment, but the rebel soldiers displayed a lack of enthusiasm.
On June 11, Nana Sahib’s forces changed their tactics. They started concentrated firing on specific buildings, firing endless salvos of round shot into the entrenchment. They successfully damaged some of the smaller barrack buildings, and also tried to set fire to the buildings.
The first major assault from the Nana Sahib’s side took place on the evening of June 12. However, the attacking soldiers were still convinced that the British had laid out gunpowder-filled trenches, and did not enter the area. On June 13, the British lost their hospital building to a fire, which destroyed most of their medical supplies and caused the deaths of a number of wounded and sick artillerymen who burned alive in the inferno. The loss of the hospital to fire on the 13 June was a major blow to the defenders. Nana Sahib’s forces gathered for an attack, but were repulsed by the canister shots from artillery under the command of Lieutenant George Ashe. By June 21, the British had lost around a third of their numbers.
Wheeler’s repeated messages to Henry Lawrence, the commanding officer in Lucknow, could not be answered as that garrison was itself under siege.
Assault on June 23
The sniper (a marksman who shoots at people from a concealed place) fire and te bombardment continued until June 23, 1857, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey. The Battle of Plassey, which took place on June 23, 1757, was one of the pivotal battles leading to the expansion of the British rule in India. One of the driving forces of the rebellion by sepoys, was a prophecy that predicted the downfall of East India Company rule in India exactly one hundred years after the Battle of Plassey. This prompted the rebel soldiers under Nana Sahib to launch a major attack on the British entrenchment on June 23, 1857.
The rebel soldiers of the 2nd Bengal Cavalry led the charge, but were repulsed with canister shot when they approached within 50 yards of the British entrenchment. After the cavalry assault, the soldiers of the 1st Native Infantry launched an attack on the British, advancing behind cotton bales and parapets. They lost their commanding officer, Radhay Singh, to the opening volley by the British. They had hoped to get protection from cotton bales; however, the bales caught light from the canister fire, and became a hazard to them. On the other side of the entrenchment, some of the rebel soldiers engaged in a hand combat against 17 British men led by Lieutenant Mowbray Thomson. By the end of the day, the attackers were unable to gain an entry into the entrenchment. The attack left over 25 rebel soldiers dead, with very few casualties on the British side.
Surrender of the British forces
The British garrison had taken heavy losses as a result of successive bombardments, sniper fire, and assaults. It was also suffering from disease and low supplies of food, water and medicine. General Wheeler’s personal morale had been low, after his son Lieutenant Gordon Wheeler was decapitated (cut the head of) by a roundshot. With approval of General Wheeler, a Eurasian civil servant called Jonah Shepherd slipped out of the entrenchment in disguise to ascertain the condition of Nana Sahib’s forces. He was quickly imprisoned by the rebel soldiers.
At the same time, Nana Sahib’s forces were wary of entering the entrenchment, as they believed that it had gunpowder-filled trenches. Nana Sahib and his advisers came up with a plan to end the deadlock (a situation in which no progress can be made or no advancement is possible). On June 24, they sent a female European prisoner, Mrs Rose Greenway, to the entrenchment and conveyed their message. In return for a surrender, Nana Sahib had promised the safe passage of the British to the Satichaura Ghat, a dock on the Ganges from which they could depart for Allahabad. General Wheeler rejected the offer, because it had not been signed, and there was no guarantee that the offer was made by Nana Sahib himself.
Next day, on June 25, Nana Sahib sent a second note, signed by himself, through another elderly female prisoner, Mrs. Jacobi. The British camp divided into two groups with different opinions – one group was in favor of continuing the defence, while the second group was willing to trust Nana Sahib. During the next 24 hours, there was no bombardment from Nana Sahib’s forces. Finally, General Wheeler decided to surrender, in return for a safe passage to Allahabad. After a day of preparation, and burying their dead, the British decided to leave for Allahabad on the morning of June 27, 1857.
1858 picture of Sati Chaura Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River, where on 27 June 1857 many British men lost their lives and the surviving women and children were taken prisoner by the rebels.
On the morning of the June 27, a large British column led by General Wheeler emerged out of the entrenchment. Nana Sahib sent a number of carts, dolis and elephants to enable the women, the children and the sick to proceed to the river banks. The British officers and military men were allowed to take their arms and ammunition with them, and were escorted by nearly the whole of the rebel army. The British reached the Satichaura (or Sati Chowra) Ghat by 8 AM. Nana Sahib had arranged around 40 boats, belonging to a boatman called Hardev Mallah, for their departure to Allahabad.
The Ganges river was unusually dry at the Satichaura Ghat, and the British found it difficult to drift the boats away. General Wheeler and his party were the first aboard and the first to manage to set their boat adrift. There was some confusion, as the Indian boatmen jumped overboard after hearing bugles from the banks, and started swimming toward the banks. As they jumped, some fires on the boats were knocked off, setting a few of the boats ablaze.
Though controversy surrounds what exactly happened next at the Satichaura Ghat, and who fired the first shot, it is known that soon afterwards, the departing British were attacked by the rebel sepoys, and were either killed or captured.
Some of the British officers later claimed that the rebels had placed the boats as high in the mud as possible, on purpose to cause delay. They also claimed that Nana Sahib’s camp had previously arranged for the rebels to fire upon and kill all the English. Although the East India Company later accused Nana Sahib of betrayal and murder of innocent people, no evidence has ever been found to prove that Nana Sahib had pre-planned or ordered the massacre. Some historians believe that the Satichaura Ghat massacre was the result of confusion, and not of any plan implemented by Nana Sahib and his associates. Lieutenant Mowbray Thomson, one of the four male survivors of the massacre, believed that the rank-and-file sepoys who spoke to him did not know of the killing to come.
After the conflict began, Nana Sahib’s general Tatya Tope allegedly ordered the 2nd Bengal Cavalry unit and some artillery units to open fire on the British. The rebel cavalry sowars moved into the water, to kill the remaining British soldiers with swords and pistols. The surviving men were killed, while women and children were taken into captivity, as Nana Sahib did not approve of their killing. Around 120 women and children were taken prisoner and escorted to Savada House, Nana Sahib’s headquarters during the siege.
By this time, two of the boats had been able to drift away: General Wheeler’s boat, and a second boat which was holed beneath the waterline with a round shot fired from the bank. The British people in the second boat panicked and attempted to make it to General Wheeler’s boat, which was slowly drifting to safer waters.
General Wheeler’s boat had around 60 people aboard, and was being pursued down the riverbanks by the rebel soldiers. The boat frequently grounded on the sandbanks. On one such sandbank, Lieutenant Thomson led a charge against the rebel soldiers, and was able to capture some ammunition. Next morning, the boat again stuck at a sandbank, resulting in another charge by Thomson and 11 British soldiers. After a fierce fighting on the ground, Thomson and his men decided to return to the boat, but didn’t find the boat where they expected to find it.
Meanwhile, the rebels had launched an attack on the boat from the opposite bank. After some firing, the British men on the boat decided to fly the white flag. They were escorted off the boat and taken back to Savada house. The surviving British men were seated on the ground, as Nana Sahib’s soldiers got ready to fire on them. The women insisted that they would die with their husbands, but were pulled away. Nana Sahib granted the British chaplain Moncrieff’s request to read prayers before they died. The British were initially wounded with the guns, and then killed with the swords. The women and children were confined to Savada House, to be reunited later with their remaining colleagues, who had been captured earlier, at Bibighar.
After being unable to find the boat, Thomson’s party decided to run barefoot to evade the rebel soldiers. The party took refuge in a small shrine, where Thomson led a last charge. At the end, six of the British soldiers were killed, while the rest managed to escape to the riverbank. They tried to escape by jumping into the river and swimming to safety. However, a group of rebels from the village started clubbing them as they reached the bank. One of the soldiers was killed, while the other four, including Thomson, swam back to the center of the river. After swimming downstream for a few hours, they reached ashore, where they were discovered by some Rajput match lockmen, who worked for Raja Dirigibijah Singh, a British loyalist. They carried the British soldiers to Raja’s palace. These four British soldiers were the only male survivors from the British side, apart from Jonah Shepherd (who had been captured by Nana Sahib before the surrender). The four men included two privates named Murphey and Sullivan, Lieutenant Delafosse, and Lieutenant (later Captain) Mowbray Thomson. The men spent several weeks recuperating, eventually making their way back to Cawnpore which was, by that time, back under British control. Murphey and Sullivan both died shortly after from cholera, Delafosse ironically went on to join the defending garrison during the Siege of Lucknow, and Thomson took part in rebuilding and defending the entrenchment a second time under General Windham, eventually writing a firsthand account of his experiences entitled The Story of Cawnpore (London, 1859).
Another survivor of the Satichaura Ghat massacre was Amy Horne, a 17-year-old Eurasian girl. She had fallen from her boat and had been swept downstream during the riverside massacre. Soon after scrambling ashore she met up with Wheeler’s youngest daughter, Margaret. The two girls hid in the undergrowth for a number of hours until they were discovered by a group of rebels. Margaret was taken away on horseback, never to be seen again, and Amy was led to a nearby village where she was taken under the protection of a Muslim rebel leader in exchange for converting to Islam. Just over six months later, she was rescued by Highlanders from Sir Colin Campbell’s column on their way to relieve Lucknow. It is rumoured that the youngest daughter of General Wheeler survived the massacre and married a Muslim soldier. On her deathbed, she confided to a Christian priest that she was the daughter of General Wheeler.
Bibigurh house where European women and children were killed and the well where their bodies were found, 1858.
The Bibigurh Well site where a memorial had been built by 1859. Samuel Bourne, 1860.
The surviving British women and children were moved from the Savada House to Bibighar (“the House of the Ladies”), a villa-type house in Cawnpore. Initially, around 120 women and children were confined to Bibighar. They were later joined by some other women and children, the survivors from General Wheeler’s boat. Another group of British women and children from Fatehgarh, and some other captive European women were also confined to Bibighar. In total, there were around 200 women and children in Bibighar.
Nana Sahib placed the care of these survivors under a prostitute called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum). She put the captives to grinding corn for chapatis. Poor sanitary conditions at Bibighar led to deaths from cholera and dysentery.
Nana Sahib decided to use these prisoners for bargaining with the East India Company. The Company forces, consisting of around 1000 British, 150 Sikh soldiers and 30 irregular cavalry, had set out from Allahabad, under the command of General Henry Havelock, to retake Cawnpore and Lucknow. The first relief force assembled under Havelock included 64th Regiment of Foot and 78th Highlanders (brought back from the Anglo-Persian War), the first arrivals of the diverted China expedition, 5th Fusiliers, part of the 90th Light Infantry (seven companies), the 84th (York and Lancaster) from Burma, and EIC Madras European Fusiliers, brought up to Calcutta from Madras. Havelock’s initial forces were later joined by the forces under the command of Major Renaud and Colonel James Neill, which had arrived from Calcutta to Allahabad on June 11. Nana Sahib demanded that the East India Company forces under General Havelock and Colonel Neill retreat to Allahabad. However, the Company forces advanced relentlessly towards Cawnpore. Nana Sahib sent an army to check their advance. The two armies met at Fatehpur on July 12, where General Havelock’s forces emerged victorious and captured the town.
Nana Sahib then sent another force under the command of his brother, Bala Rao. On July 15, the British forces under General Havelock defeated Bala Rao’s army in the Battle of Aong, just outside the Aong village. On July 16, Havelock’s forces started advancing to Cawnpore. During the Battle of Aong, Havelock was able to capture some of the rebel soldiers, who informed him that there was an army of 5,000 rebel soldiers with 8 artillery pieces further up the road. Havelock decided to launch a flank attack on this army, but the rebel soldiers spotted the flanking maneuver and opened fire. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but cleared the road to Cawnpore for the British.
By this time, it became clear that the Company forces were approaching Cawnpore, and Nana Sahib’s bargaining attempts had failed. Nana Sahib was informed that the British troops led by Havelock and Neill were indulging in violence against the Indian villagers. Some historians, such as Pramod Nayar, believe that the forthcoming Bibighar massacre was a reaction to the news of violence being perpetrated by the advancing British troops.
Nana Sahib, and his associates, including Tatya Tope and Azimullah Khan, debated about what to do with the captives at Bibighar. Some of Nana Sahib’s advisors had already decided to kill the captives at Bibighar, as revenge for the murders of Indians by the advancing British forces. The women of Nana Sahib’s household opposed the decision and went on a hunger strike, but their efforts went in vain.
Finally, on July 15, an order was given to murder the women and children imprisoned at Bibighar. The details of the incident, such as who ordered the massacre, are not clear. According to some sources, Azimullah Khan ordered the murder of women and children at Bibighar.
The rebel sepoys executed the four surviving male hostages from Fatehghar, one of them a 14 year old boy. But they simply refused to obey the order to kill women and the other children. Some of the sepoys agreed to remove the women and children from the courtyard, when Tatya Tope threatened to execute them for dereliction of duty. Nana Sahib left the building because he didn’t want to be a witness to the unfolding massacre.
The British women and children were ordered to come out of the assembly rooms, but they refused to do so and clung to each other. They barricaded themselves, tying the door handles with clothing. At first, around twenty rebel soldiers opened fire on the outside of the Bibi-Ghar, firing through holes in the boarded windows. The soldiers of the squad that was supposed to fire the next round were disturbed by the scene, and discharged their shots into the air. Soon after, upon hearing the screams and groans inside, the rebel soldiers declared that they were not going to kill any women and children.
An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum termed the sepoys’ act as cowardice, and asked her lover Sarvur Khan to finish the job of killing the captives. Sarvur Khan hired some butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. The butchers left, when it seemed that all the captives had been killed. However, a few women and children had managed to survive by hiding under the other dead bodies. It was agreed that the bodies of the victims would be thrown down a dry well by some sweepers. The next morning, when the rebels arrived to dispose off the bodies, they found that three women and three children aged between four and seven years old were still alive. The surviving women were cast into the well by the sweepers who had also been told to strip the bodies of the murder victims. The sweepers then threw the three little boys into the well one at a time, the youngest first. Some victims, among them small children, were therefore buried alive in a heap of dead corpses.
Recapture and violence by the British soldiers
The Company forces reached Cawnpore on July 16, and captured the city. A group of British officers and soldiers set out to the Bibighar, to rescue the captives, assuming that they were still alive. However, when they reached the site, they found only dead bodies of the British women and children.
Brigadier General Neill, who took the command at Cawnpore, decided to sentence the arrested rebels immediately, unless they could prove a defence. They were forced to clean the blood from the floor of the Bibighar compound. Then, they were forced to eat beef (if Hindu) or pork (if Muslim) — something they considered unholy. Some of the Muslim sepoys were sewn into pig skins before being hung, and sweepers were employed to execute the high-caste Brahmin rebels. The idea was to humiliate the religious victims and prevent any reward they might have expected in the afterlife. After that, the rebels would be hanged and then buried in a ditch at the roadside. A set of nooses was set up next to the well at the Bibighar, so that they could die within sight of the massacre. Some rebels were tied across the mouths of cannon that were then fired; an execution method initially used by the rebels, and the earlier Indian powers, such as the Marathas and the Mughals.
The British soldiers, angry after learning of the massacre, indulged in indiscriminate violence, including looting and burning of houses. They were angry even at the neutral locals for not doing anything to stop the Bibighar massacre. Remember Cawnpore! became a war cry for the British soldiers for the rest of the conflict In one of the villages, the Highlanders caught around 140 men, women and children. Ten men were hanged without any evidence or trial. Another sixty men were forced to build the gallows of wooden logs, while others were flogged and beaten. In another village, when around 2,000 villagers came out in protest with lathis, the British troops surrounded them and set the village on fire. The villagers trying to escape were shot to death.
On July 19, General Havelock resumed operations at Bithoor. Nana Sahib’s palace at Bithur was occupied without resistance. The British troops seized guns, elephants and camels, and set Nana Sahib’s palace to fire.
In November 1857, Tantya Tope gathered a large army, mainly consisting of the rebel soldiers from the Gwalior contingent, to recapture Cawnpore. By November 19, Tantya Tope’s advance guard of 6,000 dominated all the routes west and north-west of Cawnpore. However, Tantya Tope’s forces were defeated by the Company forces under Colin Campbell in the Second Battle of Cawnpore, marking the end of the rebellion in the Cawnpore area. Tantya Tope then joined Rani Lakshmibai.
Nana Sahib disappeared and by 1859, he had fled to Nepal. His ultimate fate was never determined. Up until 1888, there were rumours and reports that he had been captured and a number of individuals turned themselves in to the British claiming to be the aged Nana. As the majority of these reports turned out to be untrue further attempts at apprehending him were abandoned.
British civil servant Jonah Shepherd, who had been rescued by Havelock’s army, spent the next few years after the rebellion attempting to put together a list of those killed in the entrenchment. He had lost his entire family during the siege. He eventually retired to a small estate north of Cawnpore in the late 1860s
A memorial erected (circa 1860) by the British after the Mutiny was crushed at the Bibi Ghar Well. After India’s independence the statue was moved to the Memorial Church, Cawnpore. Albumen silver print by Samuel Bourne, 1860.
After the revolt was suppressed, the British dismantled Bibighar. They raised a memorial railing and a cross at the site of the well in which the bodies of the British women and children had been dumped. The inhabitants of Cawnpore were forced to pay £30,000 for the creation of the memorial; this was partially their punishment for not coming to the aid of the women and children in Bibighar.
The remains of a circular ridge of the well can still be seen at the Nana Rao Park, which was built after India achieved independence. The British also erected the All Souls Memorial Church, in the memory of their deceased. An enclosed pavement outside the church marks the graves of over 70 British men captured and executed on July 1 1857, four days after the Satichaura ghat massacre. The marble gothic screen with “mournful seraph” was transferred to the churchyard of the All Souls Church after the Indian independence in 1947, and a bust of Tantya Tope was installed in its place.