book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres

Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Mukherjee, Rudrangshu;

Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres

Penguin India 1998 / 2007

ISBN 9780143101819 / 0143101811

topics: |  british-india | history | 1857 | kanpur


Historiography of the British Raj's monopoly on violence

Mukherjee's thesis, which appears to have escaped Indian historiography so far, is to underline the role of systemic violence in the British Raj. The excessive violence exhibited while repelling the mutiny and the Indian native is shown by Mukherjee to be a reaction to the audacity of the native to overturn the empire's "monopoly on violence". He argues that the violence exhibited by the insurgents during the mutiny was cut from the same cloth, and was no less horrific than the spectacle of forty live men being blown off from cannon, their flesh and bones scattering on observers.

Mukherjee highlights the violent methods by which Britishers (East India Company) had imposed its dominance on the peasantry, hanging any suspected criminal from the nearest tree, forcing native women into sexual subservience, and redistributing large tracts of ancestral property based on revenue assessments that were often ill-informed, harsh and unbalanced.

As an example of the violence by the British, we have this statement by a
British official in Allahabad:
       Every native that appeared in sight was shot down without question, and
       in the morning Colonel Neill sent out parties of regiment . . . and
       burned all the villages near where the ruins of our bungalows stood,
       and hung every native that they could catch, on the trees that lined
       the road.  Another party of soldiers penetrated in to the native city
       and set fire to it, whilst volley after volley of grape and canister
       was poured into the fugitives as they fled from their burning houses.

Natives were lynched by such groups for even the most "trifling
crimes".  Since such descriptions are available primarily from British
sources, Mukherjee suggests that only excesses were documented, and
the established practice of British violence on Indians was largely
overlooked since it was considered "necessary".

   a gallows erected by britishers where any indian could be
   hanged by kangaroo courts of Britishers.  An official
   described Colonel Neill's method as: "Every native that
   appeared in sight was shot down without question..."

though British historians, including a response by Barbara English to an
earlier paper by Mukherjee, attempt to portray Neill and some others as
outliers, Mukherjee argues that they were actually the mainstream, which
is why the inverse violence was seen as so staggering.

Unsurprisingly, there has not been much written on the violence committed by
the British state on its Indian subjects.  It is not that historians were
unaware of the violence - indeed, this underlying violence appears between
the lines as the unspoken assumption of colonial historiography, taken as a
justified step against the dark immoral forces of thuggery and lawlessness.
This continued a tradition.  The driving compulsion behind these acts was a
sense of difference, the backwardness of the natives, requiring the
civilizing mission of colonialism (see Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj,
New cambridge history of India v.III.4, 1995).  Brutal aspects of despotic
rule and wealth generation by force are largely suppressed or presented as
part of the civilizing impulse or as justifiable acts of retribution.

As an example of this blindness to violence we may note what the late
historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, observes in his autobiography, The World in
Our Time (2011). After arriving at Oxford in the 1950s, he found it 
"a major centre of empire worship"; he is dismayed by the ignorance, 
even among liberals, of the empire’s connection with bloodshed: one of them
"had never heard of Britain’s exploitative role" till he visited India,
though "he had studied the history of Britain and her empire at Oxford."

Introducing Violence in the Colonial narrative

In the colonial myth, the heroic acts of the colonizers are constantly
being undermined by the dark intrigues of the natives.  These views are
aligned with a national ideology steeped in the ideas of a civilizing
mission and liberalism.  Whereas violence against the natives is routine,
violence against the ruling class calls forth the strongest emotion.
Though comparatively insignificant numbers of Britishers are killed or
attacked, the events are magnified manifold.  And this is especially so if
it is the women whose honour have to be safeguarded, when it becomes a
source of the fiercest indignation:

      can pen describe the nameless horrors of the time — gently nurtured
      ladies outraged and slain before the eyes of their husbands, children
      and helpless infants slaughtered — a very Golgotha of butchery, as all
      know who have read of the Well of Cawnpore?
		[Griffiths and Yonge, A Narrative of the Siege of Delhi]

Mukherjee's argument is that in the colonial narrative, violence against the
natives is never a concern, and the focus is exclusively on the violence
against the perpetrators of systemic violence, the ruling British.

A second objective of the work is to highlight the inadequacy of evidence
underlying colonial narrative of events in Kanpur.

Massacre of Indians

The story of the massacre of two hundred british at the Sati Chaura ghat has
been endlessly retold (though it turns out, it may have been the British
who started the firing at the ghat).  In contrast, though indian
casualties were at least a few hundred times the British deaths, we know
very little about incidents where Indians were massacred in the mutiny.

In today's lucknow, the residency an important landmark for tourists, but
no one knows about Sikander Bagh, where 2200 mutineers were cornered and
ruthlessly killed in the enclosed garden; they were shot and bayoneted
heaped up against a wall by the British and Sikh troops advancing to
relieve the residency.  Today the building houses the National Botanical
Research Institute.
By some estimates based on evidence of emptied villages and undeliverable
letters, 10-15 million Indians may have died in the decade following the
mutiny in Oudh alone.

The total British casualty was 2163 officers and men.

	Photo of Sikander Bagh by Felice Beato, taken in 1858, showing skulls
	littering the ground.  Around 2200 mutineers were cornered and
	ruthlessly bayoneted in this enclosed garden.  Today it is
	the garden of the National Botanical Research Institute.

Did the British start firing at Massacre Ghat?

While this part of the story is hard to extract from his ineffective
writing style, one of the main points seems to be that it is conceivable
that at the Sati Chaura Ghat ("Massacre Ghat"), the first shots were fired
not by the Indian sepoys, but by the tense britishers whose boats were
refusing to launch into the weakened flow, and who were unable to
communicate with the boatmen trying to launch the boats.  In at least one
of the descriptions by a direct participant, we find Mowbray Thomson's
report saying:

    at a signal from the shore, the native boatmen, who numbered eight and
    a coxswain to each boat, all jumped over and waded to the shore.  We fired
    into them immediately, but the majority of them escaped...

It seems that only later did the sepoys on shore start firing.  Thus, it
may indicate that the firing was started by Britishers on boats, after the
tension and confusion caused by boatmen's actions.  (p.96)

Mukherjee analyzes all the writings about the event and shows that later
reports, even by original participants, often were coloured by the widespread
lurid writing appearing in mainstream magazines and other sources.  Going by
the very earliest reports, it is certainly not possible any longer to
reconstruct what actually happened; that the Britishers started firing first
is just as likely an eventuality than the (much ballyhooed) other way around.

Unclear writing

Mukherjee's objective is to array a series of arguments and detailed
analysis, without much regard to the flow of the evidence.  The dense,
bristling arguments defeat any attempts to follow the story (even the
logic).  The book is impossible to "read" in any commonly understood sense
of the term.  In the middle of the action, he will suddenly withdraw to
pontificate on Hegel and Foucault, leaving the reader stranded as to what
happened next.

It's as if the book was written for those who already know the mainline
narrative, only the extras need to be given.
For example, we find on p.68 the first mention of Mowbray Thompson, who
	was part of the first two boats that got away; down river he swam to
	the shore and was rescued by a landed magnate".

Disconcertingly, nothing appears earlier about two boats being able to get
away.  Also, we are left wondering what happened to others on these boats.

Much later, on an insignificant aside, you find that the British claimed
"that these two boats were chased and most were shot down."  Was the
British claim impugned or not?  You never find out.  You are left wallowing
in the ganges mud on these and many other questions.

In parts, the narrative reporting the british p.o.v. appears to be
sarcastic, but the reader is unsure of this.

Revisionist historiography is not a new enterprise.  I can see John Keegan
taking the same narratives, and skewering mercilessly the substance-less
romanticism and uniformity and implausibility of the stories (see
The face of battle) while still weaving a fascinating narrative.

Mukherjee is good in his trench-work, but one wishes the narrative was
stated with greater clarity...

British women in the mutiny

In late June 1857, Colonel Neill at Allahabad and Major Renaud at
Fatehpur had been killing natives recklessly.  In one of Neill's orders of
June 29 1857, he orders a village "to be attacked and destroyed — slaughter
all the men — take no prisoners.... All insurgents that fall into good hands
hang at once — and shoot all you can."

Mukherjee suggests that some of this news may have trickled into Kanpur by
mid-July, when about 200 british women and children were butchered in one of
the most savage acts in the mutiny.  At the time, the British relieving
forces under Havelock were at Maharajpur, just two day's march from Kanpur.

that evening, about two hundred British women and children, imprisoned in
Bibighar, were killed by swords at the order of a woman called "the Begum".
Later investigations revealed that sepoys had refused to shoot them, and
that they had been murdered by a group of butchers.

Mukherjee suggests (in a more general context) that the excessive violence
of the rebels may have had something to do with news coming in of the
excessive violence being inflicted on their kith and kin in the villages by
the troops of Neill and others:

	It is not far-fetched to imagine that the news of British atrocities
	reached the rebel stronghold in Kanpur.  The rebels wanted to counter
	this show of violence by their own exhibition of power.  This
	'borrowed' from the British and replicated the violence.  p.73

This event, more than any others, electrified the British depictions of the
mutiny.  The atrocities committed on the kind-hearted British on their
civilizing mission, were viewed as ‘foulest treachery’.

Gautam Chakravarty, writes in The Indian mutiny and the British imagination:

    	Kanpur was extraordinarily sensational not only because of the
    	numbers involved but also and especially because at Kanpur British
    	women had been subjected to systematic humiliation and violence, the
    	news of such events questioned current notions of security, and the
    	inviolability of British power, prestige and person in India.

However, stories of atrocities against women were much amplified in Britain.
In the early months as news of the mutiny seeped in, the Earl of Shaftesbury
proclaimed in a speech at Wimborne:

	I myself heard a letter the other day, from the highest lady now in
    	India, describing that day by day ladies were coming into Calcutta
    	with their ears and noses cut off and their eyes put out...
	     [the speech was widely reported, in The Times 2 Nov 1857
	      see The London Quarterly Review, 1857

The speech was also circulated as a pamphlet ("penny dreadful") under
the title "The Earl of Shaftesbury's Great Speech on Indian Cruelties."  He
subsequently retracted the statement, but the images had already
seeped into the populace.  (cited in Martin, The Indian Empire, vol. ii, 1)

Even by late 1858, the "Cawnpore" had become a word to reckon with in the
British imagination.  So much so, that a newly arrived soldier "polished off"
two natives who they heard talking about "'Cawnpore'.  I knowed what that
meant..."  (see below)

Margaret Wheeler shooting an approaching native soldier.

Much of the lurid imagination in the British narrative focused on British
women in the mutiny, who were supposed to have been ravished by the
mutineers, particularly in Kanpur where Nana was painted in the darkest
villainous colours.  However, the record is clear that the women were only
confined, and were very much unmolested, and it is not clear that the
Bibighar killings were ordered by Nana.

In contrast, how much do we know about the atrocities committed by british
troops against indian women from the villages?  It is this lack of
commentary that Mukherjee is primarily commenting on.

The story of Margaret Wheeler, in the image above, is of interest.
The daughter of General Hugh Wheeler and his Indian wife, she and Amy Horne
had floated downriver, and were separated.  She was never heard from
thereafter, and many a fictional narrative grew up about her having killed
some infidels (depicted above).   But many britishers believe that she
survived.  One legend is that she lived as a wife in a muslim household and
confessed on her deathbed that she was indeed Margaret Wheeler.


In the early months of the rebellion at Kanpur, nearly four hundred Britishers
were killed by the Indian rebels. This act was viewed with extreme horror
by the British, who in the words of Mukherjee and other subaltern authors
like Ranajit Guha, were accustomed to a monopoly on violence as the ruling
power.  Earlier events such as the Black Well of Calcutta (which appears to
have been an exaggerated account), had been similarly melodramatized.  To the
British mind, these incidents related to violence against a handful of
british, were the focal point of the mutiny narrative, and a large body of
British historiography focused on this episode.  Gautam Chakravarty, in his
The Indian mutiny and the British imagination (2005), demonstrates that
with 70 odd full-length novels dealing with the mutiny (from 1859 to 1985),
the mutiny fired the imagination of the British public like no other event of
19th century imperial expansion.

However, in an earlier book on the mutiny, Awadh in Revolt 1857-1858: A
Study of Popular Resistance, Mukherjee completely ignored the episode at
Kanpur.  This was not viewed kindly by the traditionalists, as seen in this
1991 response from Barbara English:

	The best-known incident of the "Indian Mutiny" or "First Freedom
	Struggle" of 1857 was the massacre of Europeans at Kanpur - or, as
	the Victorians invariably called it, Cawnpore.  ...  In 1984
	Rudrangshu Mukherjee published a history of the 1857 revolt in the
	kingdom of Oudh, of which Cawnpore had formerly been a part. His book
	contained no mention of the massacre...
		[In his response, Mukherjee points out that at the very
		 outset of Awadh in Revolt he had said he was going to
		 focus on the Lucknow region.  Thanks to this remark by
		 English, Mukherjee took up the story in his Spectre of Violence.]

One of the questions that Mukherjee seeks to unravel in this book is
precisely how, and to whom this incident came to become the
"best-known".  He analyzes the various descriptions, the process of
collecting evidence, uncovering several contradictions, particularly
regarding the massacre at Satichaura ghat.  Then he traces the process
of English narrative construction, analyzes three texts in detail, and
then moves on to the several earlier Indian histories.

Thus, while his primary aim is historiographical, he also seeks to underline
the extreme violence prevalent in the British rule.  The violence
perpetrated by the Indians, while treacherous and ghastly, is on a far
smaller scale compared to the violence inflicted by the state.  This view is
somewhat obscured in the book by the larger attempt to analyze the
historiography of the event.  In a 1990 [|paper] by Mukherjee, he writes:

   British rule in India, as an autocracy, had meticulously constructed a
   monopoly of violence. ....  It was an era of brutal floggings and of
   Indian women being forced to become mistresses of white men; of
   recalcitrant elements being blown from cannons so that their bodies were
   effaced and the onlookers covered with blood and fragments of
   flesh. British rule thus visibly manifested itself by marking the body of
   the Indian.

   British forces punishing sepoys by blowing them from guns.  One man has
   just been blown off and his body parts appear in the smoke.  In the
   foreground, the next prisoner sits on the ground resisting his fate, while
   behind him another man appears bravely defiant.
      -  from History of the Indian mutiny. Charles Ball (1859). (source)

Here is a first person account of a man being blown from a cannon (p.40-41):
   The first man led out was a fine looking young sepoy... I had his wrists
   tied tightly, each to the upper part of a wheel of the gun.  Then I
   depressed the muzzle, until it pointed to the pit of his stomach, just
   below the sternum. The young Sepoy looked undauntedly at us during the
   whole process of pinioning: indeed, he never flinched for a
   moment. ... Then I ordered the pot-fire to be lighted and gave
   the word 'Fire!'  There was considerable recoil from the gun and a thick
   cloud of smoke hung over us.  As this cleared away we saw two legs lying
   in front of the gun; but no other sign of what had, just before been a
   human being and a brave man.  At this moment, perhaps six to eight seconds
   after the explosion, down fell the man's head among us, slightly
   blackened but otherwise scarcely changed.
   	     - FC Maude, Memories of the Mutiny 1894, v.1 p. 277

Blowing up by cannons : Vellore Mutiny

After the {|Vellore mutiny] of 1806, six mutineers were blown away from guns
[canons].  In the Manual of the North Arcot District (1898) magistrate 
Arthur C. Fox notes how the executions

	produced the profoundest impression. A spectator describes how
	numbers of kites accompanied the party to the place of execution,
	flapping their wings and screeching as if in anticipation of the
	bloody feast, till the fatal flash which scattered their fragments
	of bodies in air, when, pouncing on their prey, they caught in their
	talons many pieces of quivering flesh before they could reach the
	ground. At sight of this the native troops employed on duty,
	together with the crowd assembled to witness the execution, set up a
	yell of horror.

Decline in British familiarity with India, 1780s-1850s

As an aside, it may be noted that many mutinies were caused by
the arrogance of newly arrived British officers, In the case of Vellore,
Gen. John Craddock, who had just arrived in India from Naples, and was
unfamiliar with Sepoy mores, forbade Hindus from wearing 'Tilak', and
required Muslims to shave their beards and trim their moustaches.

As sepoy Sita Ram Pandey has noted in his autobiography, From Sepoy to Subedar (1861) the newer officers were far less 
informed than the seasoned Britishers he had met in the 1890s. 

	In those days the sahibs could speak our language much better than
	they do now, and they mixed more with us. Although officers today
	have to pass the language examination, and have to read books, they
	do not understand our language.  I have seldom met a sahib who could
	really read a book or letter although he had been passed by the
	examining board.

	The only language they learn is that of the lower orders, which they
	pick up from their servants, and which is unsuitable to be used in
	polite conversation.

	These sahibs have done, and are still doing, many things to estrange
	the British officers from the sepoys.  When I was a sepoy the Captain
	of my company would have some of the·men at his house all day long
	and he talked with them. Of course many went with the intention of
	gaining something-to persuade the company commander to recommend them
	to the Colonel for promotion, or to obtain this or that appointment
	in the regiment-but far more of us went because we liked the sahib
	who always treated us as if we were his children.  p.25

We also find a narrative of British familiarity with Indian mores - to the
extent of understanding intricate ghazals - in what may be the first prose
novel  written in India, Fasana-e-Rangeen (Cawnpore, 1790), by Muhammad 
Shah, tr. Q. Hyder, The dancing girl (1993), where we find British Company officials 
of the 1780s enjoying the nautch and taking up Indian womens in their
zenana.  The intimate lifestyle of this period is also portrayed by William
Dalrymple in his White Mughals (2004).

With the advent of the steamship and the Suez Canal, a stricter Christian
ethic came to the fore (as noted also by Sita Ram).  Memsahibs started
arriving and the British settled down to expatriate lives, more insulated
from India.  Arrogance and ignorance thrived together as familiarity with
Indians declined.  

Underlining the violence of empire

By highlighting British violence, Mukerjee appears to be making two points.
The first is that while there was indeed considerable violence against the
British, but this was highlighted far more in the public mind, compared to
the violence routinely meted out to the natives by the colonial power.
This happened because of the violence against the British was rare, and
antithetical to the concept of governance, which is why it became "
"the best-known incident of the Indian Mutiny".

Secondly, Mukherjee may be saying that the violence perpetrated by the
Indians was no different in degree from the violence exemplified by the
state, so the violence per se was not very radical, except that it was
being inflicted on members of the ruling class.  The fact that this
generated so much umbrage underscores the assumption of legitimacy behind
the state's violence underlying the colonial view.

In addition to the excerpts from the main book below, I have provided large
chunks from Mukherjee's 1990 paper, Satan let loose upon earth, a response
by a British historian and Mukherjee's own counter-response.


   khalk khoda ki, mulk Badshah ka, hukum subahdar sipahi Bahadur ka
   The world is God's, the country is the Emperor's, the rule or order is that
   of the soldiers,
		from Tapti Roy: The politics of a popular uprising,
		Bundelkhand in 1857, Delhi 1994, p.47

E.H. Carr: The writing of history as a "dialogue between the past and the
present" xx

The rebels when they took to arms and killed the British broke the monopoly
of violence the British thought they enjoyed as the ruling power. ... Radical
historiography, in which tradition my own work on 1857 is, I think, situated,
privileged rebel violence because it saw it as a viable, perhaps only,
modality to invert the structure of domination and subordination. xx


   What distinguishes Cawnpore in the imperial mind is the act of violence
   committed against a number of Europeans.  It still looms large over the
   histories written of the period, which are treated at length for about a
   quarter of the book.

Of Andrew Ward's 1996 book on the mutiny at Kanpur: Our bones are scattered:
The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Mukherjee writes:
     Even today, Kanpur is seen as a site of British suffering, as a chapter
     in the saga which records a time when white men ruled the world.  A
     recent and detailed account has as its title Our bones are scattered.
     The choice of the pronoun is significant.

     In this genre of writing, Cawnpore has not made the transition to
     Kanpur.  This is not a semantic quibble. 'Cawnpore' is the sign that the
     massacres have not lost their pride of place in the white man's chamber
     of horrors.  'Cawnpore' is event and metaphor. 5
	[but OBaS is not all unbalanced invective; see]

[Indeed, the use of the term "Cawnpore" is keenly reflects the long-standing
attitudes built up by the British narrative.  On Wikipedia, for instance,
historical events from European history (e.g. the deepest European battle
fought by Mongol army, the Battle of Liegnitz, has become the
Battle of Legnica, adopting the Polish name despite the dominant
German historiography; yet  Plassey and Cawnpore continue. ]

    Violence looms over Kanpur and over writings about it.  Eric Stokes, who
    initiated a historiographical revolution in the study of the revolt of
    1857, felt when he visited Satichaura Ghat that, even more than a century
    after the massacres, "the air seems loaded with menace." p.5

Part of Mukherjee's enterprise in this book seems to be to illustrate
that violence was far from a monopoly of the mutineers. Perhaps the menace is
more evident to those weaned on the narrative of the violence against
Englishmen, a far rarer occurrence, as Mukherjee highlights throughout
the book.  As Russell says:
	    the peculiar aggravation of the Cawnpore massacre was this, that
	    the deed was done by a subject race -- by black men who dared to
	    shed the blood of their masters, and that of poor helpless ladies
	    and children.. " 118
		[WH Russell, Times correspondent, was in India in 1858, and
		reports on the anti-nigger prejudices of the time. ]

	The mutiny is presented as a result of terrible deprivations caused by
	rapacious tax collection policies, and the focus is more on the
	retribution, which is put in Foucault-ian terms: "It is not a
	question simply: "Has the act been established and is it punishable,
	but also, "What is this act, what is this act of violence... what are
	the most appropriate measure to take?  108

The larger Context

1763: Mir Kasim, ousted as Nawab of Bengal by the British, arrives at
Allahabad to Shah Alam II, the fugitive Mughal Emperor, seeking assistance
against the British.  The emperor was then completely under the control of
Shuja-ud-daula, Nawab-Wazir of Awadh.  After tortuous negotiations, it was
agreed that the three parties join forces against the British.  The
tripartite alliance was defeated at Baksar in October 1764.

The subsequent treaty signed at Allahabad on 16 Aug 1765 was the result of
explicit guidelines for Clive set out by the Select committee of the East
India Co:

   It will be necessary however that your Lordship obtain a full grant in
   the strongest terms for carrying on a free trade through his Dominions,
   with the privilege of establishing Factories wherever we think proper --
   to which shall be annexed contiguous lands and districts as may be found
   necessary to the convenience and support of the
   settlements... [including] the keeping of strongholds and protecting our
   Commerce by Military power... 7

	[NOTE: I wonder how present confiscations of property (with some
   	compensation) as in Nandigram - is different from these earlier
   	annexations for commerce] 

Kanpur: the beginnings

The hamlet of Kanpur, had one remarkable building - the palace of
Raja Hindu Singh Chandel... "the only building of any consequence", said an
early British officer.  The Raja had founded the village, legend had it, as
an act of penance and to honour Krishna. 6
   [source: Yalland, Zoe, Traders and Nabobs. The British in Cawnpore 1765-1857]

2 Feb 1771: Capt Robert Brooke led British troops into Kanpur, following a
   request from the Nawab, after a Maratha incursion in May 1770.  He "left
   two companies in the line and proceeded immediately against the first
   zemindar who had rebelled." 9

1773: Troops in Awadh maintained at Nawab's expense (treaty at Faizabad)
   Troops initially stationed at Bilgram; transferred to Kanpur 1778
   [Montgomery p.1] Nawab to pay Rs 30 lakh p.a. to EIC for supporting
   these troops.

1778: 12 villages, centered at Kohna (old Kanpur) to Jajmau on the bank of
   the Ganges, ceded to the East India Company for cantonment at Kanpur.
   The names of all the (revenue) villages are hard to find, but they
   include Patkapur (Patkapur mosque is S of Christ Church college),
   Kursawan (present-day Phool Bagh/Mall road area), Sisamau (near the
   P-road), Juhi (near Govindpuri), Nawabganj, Jajmau, Rawatpur.

1801: Wellesley truncated Awadh by taking away a major chunk of the Nawab's
   territories.  Seven districts or zilla's, one of them Kanpur.

1802 March: Abraham Welland appointed to the revenue, judicial and criminal
   charge of newly formed Kanpur district.  His first order is to have a
   bungalow built that combines living quarters, cutcherry (court room),
   treasury, a locking cell, and a record room. 10

[Detailed history of revenue collection.  The tahsildar, patwari and the
 qanungo were hostile to British interests.  The British felt that they
 overestimated the revenue, in order to make the districts seem more
 attractive.  Revenue rates were fixed without prior knowledge - extremely
 high levels:]

As long as money was got, there was very little thought of the effect that
might be produced on the minds of the people by the manner of getting it.
The black and white of demonstrable figures was greater .. than the
animosities and resentments of an overtaxed people.
   - John William Kaye, A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858. 3 vols.

Over 1801-1840, the Rajputs [Bai, Chandela, Gautam, Gaur, Chauhan] had their
holdings reduce from 50% to 38%; Brahmins went up from 11% to 19%, and
moneylender castes from 1% to 4%.   16

At the time, "besides the castes specially devoted to that business
... Brahmans [were] the chief money-lenders".  Wright, Final Report on the
settlement of the Cawnpore District (Allahabad, 1878) 17

In a district assessed at around Rs 21 Lakhs, land paying revenue of 14.7 L
changed hands in thirty years. 21

Mark Bloch: [Historical documents are] a "trace", that is to say, the
	perceptible mark left by a phenomenon itself impossible to grasp. 78

The 19th c. imperialist historians inscribed the story of Kanpur into their
grand narrative of Indian cruelty and inferiority and of British triumph.

The vilification of Nana Sahib

[The primary material, particularly Nanak Chand's controversial journal, do
not implicate Nana Sahib in the Satichaura massacre or the Bibighur
episode.  However, Mukherjee attempts to show how from the earliest
investigations by Lt. Col. Williams, Nana is painted in darker colours.  ]

Nanak Chand recorded that Nana Sahib had not given his assent to the
massacre plan.  [In fact, he ordered the return of all abducted women] But
for Williams, from the beginning of his account, the total complicity of
Nana Sahib was something that was a 'given'.  ... The uprising in Williams'
account was monitored completely from above. 114

This vilification of Nana continues in subsequent narratives, and even
relatively saner histories like that of Kaye talk of his "black heart".

Evidence of events at Kanpur

Several survivor accounts exist, and two give considerable details about
the event.  Amelia Horne (after marriage, Bennett) and Mowbray Thomson were
part of the group that were boarding the 40 boats to Allahabad on June 27.
[Amelia (Amy Horne) was abducted by a muslim sepoy Liyakat Ali Khan of 2nd
cavalry and converted to Islam and she remained nine months with the
family; she later married a railway officer and lived in Calcutta all her
life.  Published her memoirs of events at Kanpur in 1913. ]

Mowbray was part of the first two boats that got away; down river he
swam to the shore and was rescued by a landed magnate. p.68
[Disconcertingly, you don't know what happened to these boats.
You are told much later, on an aside that these two boats were chased and
most were shot down.  It's as if the book was written for those who already
know the mainline narrative, only the extras need to be given. ]

Thomson and Delafosse had been rescued by the talukdar of Murarmau,
Dirighbijai Singh.  The old talukdar finally conveyed them to Havelock's
army as they were marching to Kanpur. 90

Eliza Bradshaw, who succeeded in hiding in a Muslim cemetery,
describes the scene:

    At sunrise on the 27th, some hackerries, three or four elephants, and
    three palkees were brought into the entrenchments... When we got to our
    boat, we found it had no bamboo flooring... Suddenly we heard firing, and
    the pattering of bullets, and then the roar of cannon on both sides of
    the river. p.69

Also, Amelia Horne, who was taken away by a sepoy as his "prize" echoes much
of the mainline narrative.

Mukherjee shows that many aspects of these narratives may be later accretions
in memory based on mainline published accounts: - "the ghats lined with a
large crowd, boatmen setting fire to the thatchings, strategically placed
guns on both sides of the river opening fire at a signal ("a bugle sounded"),
and of sowars going into the river to cut down those who had jumped off the
boats into the waist deep water... the descriptions do not vary"  71

many authors also cite other histories by the time they are writing such

Chapter 2, "The Event", ends suddenly with this discussion of the
mainstream narrative and some incomplete mumblings of their underlying bias
and unreliability.

Ch3: The evidence

The following chapter opens with a discussion of Hegel on historiography
which I found impossible to read since I wanted to find out what Mukherjee
has uncovered about the unreliability of these witnesses.  This does not
come until after quite a few pages, where he starts comparing the first
narratives collected with their later printed versions.

In the narrative of Amelia (Horne) Bennett,
    in the manuscript version she writes of "General Sir Hugh Wheeler whose
    hands were cut off as soon as he was brought from the boat."  But this
    fact disappears in the published version.  Presumably, a familiarity
    with the works of Kaye and Malleson, from whom she quotes in the
    printed version, had made her aware that it was by no means certain
    that Wheeler had suffered such a fate.

In the printed version of Mowbray Thomson's report, he writes
    at a signal from the shore, the native boatmen, who numbered eight and
    a coxswain to each boat, all jumped over and waded to the shore.  We fired
    into them immediately, but the majority of them escaped...
It is only later that the guns from the shore start firing.  Thus, it seems
to indicate that the firing was started by Britishers on boats. 96

Also considers the evidence of Nanak Chund's diary and Hulas Singh (kotwal
under the Nana Raj, who eventually surrendered in the Terai and gave a
detailed confession.)

A main claim is that Nanak Chand's diary has the line: The Nana did not
consent [to a plan for a massacre] - this was left out by Lt Col G Williams
who was compiling a history of events at Kanpur.  Mukherjee shows how
Williams' report was predicated from the start on the assumption of Nana's
complicity in a planned act of massacre.

The native testimony certainly does not contain any evidence that a
massacre was planned, as claimed vigorously in the colonial narrative.

Finally, Mukherjee concludes:
    The historian of the massacre at Kanpur is thus faced with a situation
    where the so-called primary sources do not centrally address the issue
    of the massacres.  The first-hand survivor accounts describe the horror
    but they also contain contradictions, variations between different
    versions, attempts to render their accounts credible by incorporating
    external testimonies, and so on.  ...
        In the years following the massacre, many histories came to be
    written, all of them making claims to 'truth' based on the same body of
    evidence, till 'Cawnpore' became a myth.

Supplementary material

Rudrangshu Mukherjee 1990: Satan Let Loose upon Earth

		Past and Present, No. 128 (Aug., 1990), pp. 92-116

[The central theme of Spectre of Violence was presaged by Mukherjee's 1990
paper, which makes the case for the British use of violence as a means to
establish the master-slave relationship, and the image of the revolt as a
popular insurrection with deep causes (as opposed to a military revolt fueled
by rumours). ]

       In fact, the peculiar aggravation of the Cawnpore massacres was
    this, that the deed was done by a subject race by black men who dared to
    shed the blood of their masters, and that of poor helpless ladies and
    children.  Here we had not only a servile war and a sort of Jacquerie
    combined, but we had a war of religion, a war of race, and a war of
    revenge, of hope, of national promptings to shake off the yoke of a
    stranger and to re-establish the full power of native chiefs, and the
    full sway of native religions . . .  Whatever the causes of the mutiny
    and the revolt, it is clear enough that one of the modes by which the
    leaders, as if by common instinct, determined to effect their end was,
    the destruction of every white man, woman or child who fell into their
    hands. [ Martin Gubbins, An Account pf the Mutinies in Oudh and the Siege
    of the Lucknow Residency  London, 1858), p. 118.]

"Our learned men . . . told us that the Company's rule would come to an end
in 1857, since this was one hundred years after the Company's first great
battle": so wrote Sitaram, the loyal sepoy, in his autobiographical narrative
of the uprising of 1857.

The explosion that the astrologers had predicted -- a prophecy that was widely
circulated in north India - did indeed come, but not exactly on the centenary
of Plassey. It began on 10 May 1857 in the cantonment town of Meerut,
north-east of Delhi.  In the space of one month the uprising had engulfed the
entire Gangetic plain, and British rule there, as one British officer put it,
had collapsed "like a house made of cards". It took nearly two years for
British rule to be re-established. The uprising and the subsequent
re-establishment of British power were marked by scenes of violence quite
unparalleled in the history of British rule in India. This article attempts
to analyse one such episode: the massacres of the British by the rebel
Indians in Kanpur (Cawnpore).

The British Empire: Founded by the gun

Violence, it must be emphasized, was an essential component of the British
presence in India.

It was violence that served as the ultimate imprimatur of
colonialism. "There was no power in India", wrote Philip Francis, "but the
power of the sword, and that was the British sword, and no other".
Warren Hastings also admitted that the sword was the most
valid title the British had to sovereignty in India.

[The fact that the empire rested on a thesis of violence has been covered
up by many layers of narrative.  In Terry Deary's Barmy British Empire
the opening page makes this cartoon treatment:

	You're sitting at your house one day when in marches a bunch of
	soldiers and they say:

which is funny because, like all humour, it is also true. ]

A dominant power is always uneasy with violence directed against it, since
non-reciprocal violence is one of the necessary conditions of its
reproduction. The right to violence is, therefore, everywhere a privilege
that authority enjoys and refuses to share with those under it: power always
insists on violence as its exclusive monopoly.  British rule in India, as an
autocracy, had meticulously constructed a monopoly of violence. The revolt of
1857 shattered that monopoly by matching an official, alien violence by an
indigenous violence of the colonized.

William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent, noted in his diary that: to
the intelligent Briton, they are as the beasts of the field. "By Jove!  sir",
exclaims the major, who has by this time got to the walnut stage of the
argument, to which he has arrived by gradations of sherry, port, ale and
Madeira - "By Jove!" he exclaims, thickly and fiercely, with every vein in
his forehead swollen like whip cord, "those niggers are such a confounded
sensual lazy set, cramming themselves with ghee and sweetmeats and smoking
their cursed chillumjees all day and all night, that you might as well think
to train pigs. . ." The fact is, I fear that the favourites of heaven - the
civilizers of the world la race blanche . . . are naturally the most
intolerant in the world.

Another British resident recorded that:

   the sepoy is [regarded as] an inferior creature. He is sworn at. He is
   treated roughly. He is spoken as a "nigger". He is addressed as "suar" or
   pig, an epithet most opprobrious to a respectable native. . . [the
   younger British officers] seem to regard it as an excellent joke, as an
   evidence of spirit and a praiseworthy sense of superiority over the sepoy
   to treat him as an inferior animal. [Quoted in C. Hibbert, The Great Mutiny ]

It was an era of brutal floggings and of Indian women being forced to become
mistresses of white men; of recalcitrant elements being blown from cannons so
that their bodies were effaced and the on-lookers covered with blood and
fragments of flesh. British rule thus visibly manifested itself by marking
the body of the Indian. This brutality and violence is important if we are to
understand the overall context of the Kanpur massacres. Imperial rule in
India could only perpetuate itself by a deployment of terror, a terror that
would strike awe in the minds of the ruled.

The British had in the process of consolidating their power in the first
half of the nineteenth century, violated all that was held sacred and dear
by the people of India. Social reforms based on the principles of reason,
land-revenue administration based on Ricardian theories of rent, a legal
system imported from England, the propagation of Christianity and the
dispossession of kings, their successors and landed magnates, had together
brought about a major upheaval in north India. An entire way of life was
going under, and naturally the people affected felt aggrieved.

This way of life in the nineteenth century was inevitably imbricated with
religion. The reforming zeal of British administrators was thus often
interpreted as an attempt to subvert the religion of Hindus and Muslims. This
created an atmosphere of fear and distrust in which anything associated with
Christianity was an object of suspicion and hatred.  In Sitapur, in Awadh,
the very name of the commissioner Mr. Christian became identified with the
religion and increased the wrath of the rebels. [J. W. Kaye, History of the
Sepoy War in India, 1857-58,1880-1881, iii, p. 456.]

The uprising of 1857 thus displayed a very strong religious fervour. The
rebels thought that they were fighting in defence of their religion. And in
this there was no difference between a Hindu and a Muslim.  A group of rebels
setting out why they had taken to arms declared, "If the religion of a Hindoo
or Mussalman is lost, what remains in the world''?10 A rebel proclamation
announced that "The rebellion began with religion" 11

10 National Archives of India, Delhi, Foreign Dept., Political Consultations
   13 May 1859, consultation no. 326, abstract translation of an arzi
   (proclamation) from the rebel camp on the part of all the rebel officers
   and sepoys to Maharaja Jang Bahadur, quoted in Rizvi and Bhargava(eds.),
   Freedom Struggle, ii , pp. 603-S.
11 National Archives of India, Foreign Dept., Political Consultations 17
   Dec. 1858 consultation no. 251, "Translation of a Proclamation Issued by
   the Begum in the Name of Birjis Qadr".

There was among the people and the sepoys a deep-seated belief
in the existence of a deliberate British plot to overthrow caste and
religion. The interventions of British administrators in all aspects of
life only served to aggravate these apprehensions. Such an atmosphere
facilitated the circulation of rumours. In north India in the summer
of 1857, there were rumours about the cartridges of the new Enfield
rifle being coated with the fat of cows and pigs; about flour being
polluted by bone-dust; about forcible conversions to Christianity;
about the intentions of the British to disarm the sepoys; and about
the end of British rule at the centenary of Plassey. All these circulating
together aggregated in to one gigantic rumour about the evil intentions
of the British.

The violence intrinsic to British rule in India, the violation by
zealous British administrator of all that was sacred and cherished,
and a perceived threat to religion that manifested itself in the circulation
of rumours these are perspectives that have to be borne in
mind for comprehending the nature of the uprising and the massacres
in Kanpur.

The first news of disaffection among the sepoys of the Bengal Army
reached Kanpur some time in April 1857.13 In May the news of the
outbreak in Meerut and following that, the fall of Delhi a few days
later, had an electrifying effect on the troops and the population in
Kanpur as well as all over north India.

Troops in Kanpur very soon began to show their hostility to the
British. One sepoy told an employee at the commissariat, "You are
serpents, and not one of you shall be spared".15 In the bazaar a sergeant's
wife was told by a sepoy out of regimental dress, "You
will none of you come here much oftener; you will not be alive
another week".16 There was a general sense of alarm and expectancy
in the city, in which there also seemed to be more sepoys and villagers
than usual.17 In the sepoy lines, panchayats (a general assembly where
things of importance are discussed and decided collectively) were
held every night.18 A loyal sepoy made the following statement after
the revolt:

    The foremost in this consultation [held on 4 June] were Shumsh-ood-deen
    Khan, Sheikh Boolagee, Sirdar Beg Raw Singh and others . . . The meetings
    were held at Shumsh-ood-deen's house, and sometimes at the house of Teeka
    Ram Singh, a subadar of the cavalry. . . On the 4th June, all the
    troopers sent away their families and property to the city.l9

The mutiny began on the night of 4 June 1857 in what J. W. Kaye described
as the "wonted fashion": firing of guns and extensive burning of British
property. Then the sepoys sped in the direction of Delhi, stopping for the
night at a place called Kalyanpur, a little distance from Kanpur.

13 Deposition of Sheo Churrun Das, Sadho of Cawnpoor in Depositions Taken at
   Cawnpore under the Direction of Lieutenant-Colonel GW . Williams in
   Narrative of the Events in the NWP in 1857-58( Calcutta,n.d.), section on
   Kanpur [Narrative Kanpur:]
14 Williams, "Review of the Evidence".
15 W. J. Shepherd, A Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre at Cawnpore
	 (Lucknow, 1879),p . 11.
16 Mowbray Thomson, The Story of Cawnpore (London,1859),p .29.
17 Nanak Chand's diary of events in Kanpur printed as "Translation of a
   Narrative of Events at Cawnpore" in Narrative Kanpur: 3 June 1857.
18 C, Ball, History of the Indian Mutiny, 2 vols. (London, n.d.), i, pp. 299-300.
19 Deposition of Ewuz Khan in Depositions at Cawnpore.

Since the time of the outbreak at Meerut, the British in Kanpur had
been making preparations to protect themselves. Sir Hugh Wheeler,
commander of the Kanpur Division, a favourite of the sepoys and
convinced of the loyalty of his troops, decided none the less to take
precautions. He was responsible not only for the safety of the British
troops and their families, but also of all Europeans. He decided,
principally because he did not want to be too distant from the sepoy
lines, not to use the magazine adjacent to the river and which,
surrounded by a strong wall, was therefore the best suited as a
defensive position. Instead he chose a spot nearer the sepoy lines,
where there were two single-storied barracks with verandahs around
them and several outhouses. This site he began to entrench, to fortify
with artillery and stock with provisions. As the alarm spread in the
city he ordered all Europeans into the entrenchment, which came to
be inhabited by some nine hundred persons. This would be the
spot where the British would remain until 27 June. Surrounded on
all sides by rebels who fired on them night and day, the British
withstood the siege. Their suffering and heroism are the stock-in-trade
of most popular accounts of the Mutiny.

From Kalyanpur the rebels turned back, having first met up with
Nana Sahib and his men. Nana Sahib was the adopted son of the last
peshwa (prime minister), Baji Rao II, the leader of the Maratha
confederacy, who had surrendered to the English in June 1818. He lived
in exile in Bithoor, near Kanpur, and was given an annual pension of Rs.8
lakhs in lieu of surrendering his kingdom.  He adopted three sons; Nana
Sahib, or Dhondo Pant,
which was his real name, was the eldest. In his will Baji Rao made
Nana Sahib the sole heir to his property.

When Nana Sahib inherited
the property after Baji Rao's death in 1851 he was in his thirties. The
Company's government, however, refused to recognize his right to
the pension that Baji Rao had received. "For thirty years", the
governor-general wrote, "the Peshwa received an annual stipend
. . . Those who remain have no claim whatever on the consideration
of the British Government". The Nana Sahib appealed to the court
of directors and even sent his agent, Azimullah, to London to plead
his case. His efforts were in vain. Yet he continued to remain friendly
with the British, entertaining them quite lavishly in his palace in
Bithur.23 His relationship with them was so close that he was invited
by the magistrate of Kanpur to guard the treasury; Nana Sahib had,
in fact, put himself' in frequent communication with the Magistrate
. and proffered offers of assistance in case of an outbreak".24 The
circumstances that led to Nana Sahib's joining the rebels will be
discussed below. Suffice to say at this point of the narrative that the
rebels returned to Kanpur and the Nana informed General Wheeler
on 7 June of his intention to attack the British entrenchment. The
siege had begun.

23 The best account of Nana Sahib is in P. C. Gupta, Nana Sahib and the
   Rising at Cawnpore Oxford, 1963). The governor-general's is quoted on

On 25 June the British pickets saw a woman approaching the
entrenchments. (identity not certain - either Mrs. Greenway or Mrs. Jacobi).
She carried a letter which stated that
	All those who are in no way connected with the acts of Lord
	Dalhousie, and are willing to lay down their arms, shall receive a
	safe passage to Allahabad".25
It was not signed, but the handwriting was recognized as Azimullah's.
Negotiations began, terms of surrender were agreed upon and the treaty signed
by Nana Sahib. The conditions of surrender according to Mowbray Thomson, were
	"honourable surrender of our shattered barracks and free exit under
	arms, with sixty rounds of ammunition per man; carriages to be
	provided for the conveyance of the wounded, the women and children;
	boats furnished with flour to be ready at the ghaut." [p.153]

On the morning of 27 June the British left the entrenchments to proceed to
Satichaura Ghat, where the boats were kept. According to one estimate, made
after comparing different accounts, four hundred and fifty persons came out
of the entrenchments.  [Shepherd, Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and
Massacre at Cawnpore, p.74.]

As the British began to board the boats, guns opened fire from both banks
and the thatched awnings of the boats were set alight. All but one hundred
and thirty were slaughtered; twenty of the survivors managed to escape, the
rest were taken prisoner.

[with the outbreak of the mutiny] the sepoys "divest[ed] themselves of their
uniform", tore off the regimental colours and broke out from their lines.
sepoys cast off the markers with which an alien power had sought to regiment
them and thus set them apart from the peasantry from which they were
recruited... they reclaimed their peasant character. They merged
with the ordinary people. [p.99]

This merger is significant since it signals the extension of the mutinies to
a general uprising. The mutinies struck with remarkable success resulting in
the disappearance of British rule in north India.  This breakdown allowed the
inhabitants of Kanpur's neighbouring villages, some of whom had been arming
themselves prior to the mutiny, to pour into the city.  Once this happened it
became meaningless and impossible to distinguish the rebel and the mutineer.
Insurgency, true to its character, had become a collective enterprise.31
Nanak Chand, a loyalist who kept a diary of the events in Kanpur: wrote on 6
June, "There is a great crowd. It is impossible to record the names of all at
such a time".  8 June, "It would be impossible to mention the names of all
evil-minded men who joined the standard".

The populace, seized by a rebel consciousness, set out to destroy, but not
indiscriminately. The British, and all that they owned or represented, were
the first target.  After this the destruction extended to the wealthy and
propertied in Kanpur; businessmen, especially money-lenders, were the chief
targets.  Such discrimination and selectivity in destruction has been
singled out as one of the general features of peasant insurgency in colonial

Other features of insurgency, like undermining the prestige of the
dominators through verbal and other kinds of insult, accompanied the
outbreak. Shepherd recalled that while in captivity he had been
continously insulted and that the rebels would not utter a word
without an "abusive epithet" to describe the British.   Amelia Horne
recorded the "rude and rough" behaviour of the rebels when they
entered the entrenchments on the morning of 27 June. British officers,
she said, were severely beaten, and when an officer objected to such
behaviour "they abused him in so gross a manner that it made the
ears of all tingle, threatening in the bargain to spit on his face". The
British were not accustomed to such behaviour; it frightened "us to
death", wrote Amelia Horne.

Colonel Ewart, before being killed, was taunted by the former sepoys of his
regiment as the British walked out of the entrenchment with the words,
"Is not this a fine parade and is it not well dressed up?"

It was not the British alone who had such indignities inflicted upon
them. The elites of Kanpur, who were known to be friends of the
British, were similarly insulted. The Nuneh Nawab, or Mahomed
Ali Khan, an influential person in the town and a known friend of
the British, had his horse taken away from him and "instead of which
I got a mere 'Tuttoo' [mare/mule] belonging to a servant of my
brother"4 2 In a society where the type of carriage invariably indicated
status, to ask a Nawab to ride a mule and that belonging to a
servant - was to destroy his position in society. The Nuneh Nawab
was also "led through the streets in ignominious show", the rebels
"heaped abuses on me" and "threatened to have me tied to a tree".43

As the rebellion gathered momentum the ranks of the rebels swelled. People
came "to see the fun" of the dominators being attacked and humiliated, and
such people were pressed into the rebellion.  The rebels used their presence
in large numbers to win over the vacillator and draw the onlooker into the
folds of the rebellion. The collective nature of the enterprise possibly
contributed to it being seen as "fun": there was feasting and sharbat was
distributed; the rebels held nautches with buffoons.  There was a sense of
liberation, the joy of having achieved the impossible.

What these features make obvious is that the initiative for the uprising in
Kanpur came from the ordinary people. Having revolted and destroyed, they
still had to deal with Nana Sahib. There are two versions of the meeting
between the rebels and the Nana. According to one version, a deputation from
the rebels met and told him, "Maharaja, kingdom awaits you if you join our
cause but death if you side with our enemies". The Nana readily replied,
"What have I to do with the British? I am altogether yours". And in a royal
gesture he placed his hands on their heads and swore to join them.  The other
version states that when the Nana saw the entire soldiery had completely
thrown off their allegiance to the Company, he decided to join and advise

from Reply by Barbara English

[reply to above paper by Mukherjee]

The best-known incident of the "Indian Mutiny" or "First Freedom Struggle" of
1857 was the massacre of Europeans at Kanpur - or, as the Victorians invariably
called it, Cawnpore.  There were three interrelated phases of killing.  The
outnumbered and ill-equipped garrison of about a thousand Europeans (half
were women or children), besieged at Cawnpore in June 1857, surrendered on
the promise of a safe passage and boats to take the survivors to Allahabad.
After the Europeans had left their defences and had begun to board the boats
at Satichaura Ghat on the Ganges, they were ambushed, and the boats were set
on fire.  Of approximately four hundred and fifty men, women and children at
the ghat, more than half were killed in and around the boats on 27
June. Later the same day the surviving men were shot on the river bank. The
remaining members of the garrison, about two hundred women and children, were
taken back to the town and imprisoned in a building called the Bibighur, and
there, on 15 July, as a relief column approached Cawnpore, those that had not
already died were cut to pieces and, dead or dying, were thrown into a
well. From the prisoners in the Bibighur there were no survivors. The outline
of the story is clear; the detail, because of the difficulty in obtaining and
verifying evidence, has always been blurred.

In 1984 Rudrangshu Mukherjee published a history of the 1857 revolt in the
kingdom of Oudh, of which Cawnpore had formerly been a part. His book
contained no mention of the massacre, and it is to this that he has returned,
in a recent article in Past and Present, which seeks to explain the killings
in sociological terms.  Quoting Hegel, Gramsci, Foucault and, on the
particular circumstances of 1857, Ranajit Guha's Elementary Aspects of
Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, he sees the first two phases of the
massacre (at the river) as a public spectacle of total communal involvement
"when a body politic struggled to recover its totality by destroying the body
of its dominant other", while the third phase (at the Bibighur) was the
secret and criminal act of the rebel leadership.  The killings were based,
his argument continues, on two different codes of violence, the code of
peasant insurgency governing the first phases and the code of the criminal
governing the last: "the criminal may be said to stand in the same relation
to the insurgent as does what is conspiratorial (or secretive) to what is
public (or open), or what is individualistic (or small group) to what is
communal (or mass) in character".

Mukherjee's approach connects the nature of British rule in India with the
particular e vents at Cawnpore.H e rightly emphasizes among the causes of
the revolt the significance of British administrative and social reforms,
provoking Indian anxieties about caste and religion. Although armed revolt
was endemic in British India, in 1857 the Indian troops of the Bengal army
joined with the disinherited nobility and with landowners and peasants
driven by economic pressures. To these well-documented grievances, however,
Mukherjee has added the violence of British colonialism: "Violence, it must
be emphasized, was an essential component of the British presence in
India"; "British rule in India, as an autocracy, had meticulously
constructed a monopoly of violence"; "Imperial rule in India could only
perpetuate itself by a deployment of terror". The linkage between colonial
rule and the Cawnpore massacre follows: "the terms of their violence [at
Cawnpore] were thus derived from that very structure of power against which
they had revolted".  More specifically:

   It was an era of brutal floggings and of Indian women being forced to
   become mistresses of white men; of recalcitrant elements being blown
   from cannons so that their bodies were effaced and the onlookers covered
   with blood and fragments of flesh. British rule thus visibly manifested
   itself by marking the body of the Indian. [p. 94].

The use of "body", in this and other passages, presumably derives
from Foucault...

The actions in 1857 of Renaud, of Neill, of "Hanging" Power, of Frederick
Cooper and of many others, should be recorded with horror-as they have been,
by British historians and others from the 1850s onwards.  There were evil men
and atrocities among both the British and the Indians, but there were also
humane men and merciful actions.  The few survivors of Cawnpore were
sheltered by Indian landowners; many officers and their families elsewhere in
the north-west were protected by the sepoys, and even at Cawnpore some sepoys
remained in the British entrenchments. Indeed the British held India in 1857
only because of the large number of Indian troops who fought for the

Charles Canning was appalled by the Cawnpore massacre, which still retains
its power to chill the blood: within ten days, however, he had issued his
famous "Clemency" resolution...

response to Barbara English by RM

Through a series of Acts numbers VIII, XI, XIV and XVI of 1857 (all passed in
May-June) something much more than martial law was imposed all over north
India. In effect these various Acts gave individual Britons the right to
judge and take the life of Indians without recourse to the due processes of

It was this framework of policy that permitted the atrocities practised by
Neill in and around Allahabad and by his officers, like Colonel Renaud, when
they moved from Allahabad towards Kanpur. A list of persons tried between 22
June and 2 July 1857 by the commissioner appointed at Allahabad under Acts XI
and XVI of 1857 showed that anything from rebellion, to stealing, to
desertion, to possessing money for which the accused could provide no
explanation, were punished by death.  Subsequently even the government had to
admit that capital punishment was inflicted for trivial offences. . . and on
evidence, which under ordinary circumstances, would not have been received,
and that in some quarters the fact of a man being a Sepoy was enough, in the
state of excited feeling which then prevailed, to ensure his apprehension and
immediate execution as a deserter.

I am convinced on the basis of the available documentary evidence that the
scale of violence in the British counterinsurgency measures was much greater
than was indicated in the one paragraph of my essay. From the British point
of view, this was necessary because British rule without any legitimate basis
in India had no other instrument at its disposal except violence on a grand
scale to handle a crisis and perpetuate itself. It was necessary, as
Lieutenant (later Lord) Roberts wrote, to show the Indians "that with God's
help Englishmen will still be masters of India'' A master-servant
relationship held together by force and fear had been destroyed and the
master, the British, could restore the relationship only through a deployment
of terror.

John Lawrence expressed this in his statement: "Our object is to make an
example to terrify others''.  I am afraid that this sentence beginning with
the words "our object" can only be read as statement of purpose, of intent
and therefore of policy.  Barbara English reads in Lawrence's letter a plea
for clemency; I prefer to see in it also a cold-blooded calculation of what
was a sufficient number to inject terror.

Nowhere in my essay did I write about the executions of the
55th Native Infantry. So to say that I described "the executions
. . . as massacres" is a distortion. What I described as "massacres"
were the indiscriminate killings that Neill and his officers indulged
in. One official describing one episode in Neill's operations wrote:

      Every native that appeared in sight was shot down without question, and
      in the morning Colonel Neill sent out parties of regiment . . . and
      burned all the villages near where the ruins of our bungalows stood,
      and hung every native that they could catch, on the trees that lined
      the road.  Another party of soldiers penetrated in to the native city
      and set fire to it, whilst volley after volley of grape and canister
      was poured into the fugitives as they fled from their burning houses.

Such killings were not rare occurrences under Neill and his
officers in the area around Benares and Allahabad. I would, thus,
like to stand by my use of the word "massacres" in describing
these counter-insurgency measures.

I did not suggest that Renaud's march "triggered" off the massacre at
Satichaura Ghat. I was trying to suggest that the violence involved in the
British counter-insurgency measures had to be borne in mind as a context of
the massacres. I could have spelt out in detail the counter-insurgency
measures which preceded the massacres but, as Barbara English admits, this is
a well-known story. I thought it would be enough just to draw attention to
this context. There is something very naive in the assumption, which Barbara
English makes, that the atrocities were the work of "evil men". The violence
had nothing to do, as I have tried to emphasize, with individual Englishmen
and their characters. It was a product of a historical situation connected
with the nature of British rule and resistance to it.  As Kaye wrote, "it was
not a time for tenderness - for mercy - even for justice''.

Similarly, her statement that "Of the recruitment of mistresses by force
there are no official records" will, I am sure, raise a hollow laugh among
readers of Past and Present. As any social historian knows, the keeping of
mistresses and other aspects of sexual politics seldom enter "official
records". This is even more so when the relationship is one between colonizer
and colonized.

The punishment of blowing from cannons was practised by
the Mughals. This is known. Why did the British retain it and
use it so frequently? The available documentation offers some
significant clues to the answer. One of the very early instances
we have of the British using this method of punishment is the execution of a
sepoy convicted of being a Maratha spy in 1780. The official report noted:

      We judged it highly necessary for the public safety in a case of such
      fatal Tendency, to inflict the most exemplary punishment and to make
      the Example as striking as possible to deter others . . . He was
      therefore put to death. . . by being blown from a gun.l9

To be exemplary it also had to be spectacular. The latter aspect was
underscored in one of the first of such executions to be carried out in
1857. In Peshawar, on 10 June, forty mutineers were blown from guns and,
according to Kaye, "the whole garrison of Peshawar was drawn up, forming
three sides of a square, to witness the consummation of the sentence
. . . Thousands of outsiders had poured in . . . to be spectators of the
tremendous ceremony".  Such executions were devised as a ceremony of
power. The British used this mode of execution as a political ritual to
invoke terror. One witness to the Peshawar executions noted that "this is
nearly the only form in which death has any terrors for a native''.2l The
onlookers beheld with a confused horror the spectacle of a human body blown
to smithereens. The spectacle inevitably succeeded in evoking terror and awe.

Such executions were invested with power relations. ...
British power had articulated itself by marking the sepoy's body; when the
sepoy defied the mastery, the dominance could only be restored by
disembodying the rebel body with pomp and in public.

British rule, despite its rhetoric of liberalism and civilizing mission,
lacked any consensual basis in India; when that rule was threatened in the
nineteenth century the British could not fall back on the politics of
persuasion, it fell back on an instrument of terror which was a relic of the
previous despotic regime.

I absolutely refuse to accept and I dare say most historians of modern India
will agree with me that Russell's diary and a pamphlet written by somebody
who resided in north India before 1857 are "doubtful secondary material" for
depicting British attitudes in India.  Lurking behind  this assertion of
Barbara English is the assumption that only papers of governors-general and
official dispatches have the status of primary sources. I may be forgiven if
I have no patience with objections of this kind.

Of "Nanak Chand's diary ... has been completely discredited since the
publication in 1957 of S. N. Sen's Eighteen Fifty-Seven". She is unaware that
S. B. Chaudhuri, who is as eminent and as influential a historian of the
uprising as Sen, refuted Sen's objections.

Barbara English writes: "In 1984 Rudrangshu Mukherjee published a history of
the 1857 revolt in the kingdom of Oudh, of which Cawnpore had formerly been a
part. His book contained no mention of the massacre, and it is to this that
he has returned, in a recent article in Past and Present". The implication, I
think, is obvious: I should have written about (or at least mentioned) the
massacre in my book and I did not, and returned to it in the article. I made
it clear on page 1 of chapter 1 of my book that it was concerned with that
part of Awadh which Wellesley did not take from the Nawab in 1801. In other
words, I wrote about the kingdom of Awadh which Dalhousie annexed in
1856. Kanpur was not a part of that kingdom so I could not possibly have
written about the massacre. Therefore I did not "return" to the massacre in
my article; rather it was the first time that I had any occasion to write
about it.

Indian deaths subsequent to the mutiny

A young corporal recounted the following incident, about an "honest"
soldier, who had just disembarked with his head full of stories of
    I seed two moors talking in a cart.  Presently I heard one of 'em say
    'Cawnpore'.  I knowed what that meant; so I fetched Tom Walker, and he
    heard 'em say 'Cawnpore', and he knowed what that meant.  So we
    polished 'em both off.
		[Russell, W.H. My Indian mutiny diary, p.29]  p.118

In the repercussions to the killing of two thousand Britishers across the
country, the number of Indians killed in reprisals has been estimated
between 150,000 and twenty millions in Oudh alone.  The total figures are
difficult to assess.

In War of Civilizations (2008), Amaresh Mishra suggests that 10-15
million Indians died in the decade following the mutiny.  He outlines his
arguments in an interview on Tehelka:

   I was intrigued that, in any history book, you won’t even find the
   question how many Indians were killed in 1857. Bipin Chandra, in the NCERT
   textbooks, says about 1.5 lakh. And he only mentions Awadh. There is no
   attempt to arrive at an all-India figure. This has bugged me. Sources on
   this are extremely rare. But then I thought how did they find out how many
   Jews were killed by the Nazis, how many by Stalin, how many in China by
   Mao? I saw that western scholars had developed a very interesting
   methodology where they are looking at the labour reports. So they compare
   the labour reports from pre and post-Great Leap Forward. I did the same
   and then I went on to the road survey reports. Every road building report
   in UP complains that there is lack of labour and the percentage which they
   give is very interesting. In Awadh, there are 16 reports that say there is
   a shortfall of more than 25 percent.

   At the conclusion of my second volume, I have quoted an officer's letter
   who says, I think we have polished off about 25 percent of these black
   devils. The population of Awadh in 1857 was one crore. In the 1872-census
   there is a 15-20 percent drop. It is only in the 1902 census that the
   population returns to one crore. At the GPO in Lucknow, I discovered
   ... reports by British GPO officers around early 1870s said that, between
   1857 and 67, 20 lakh letters have been returned from Awadh addresses. He
   says that these people might have perished in the mutiny, because there is
   no account of them. He is enquiring into what to do with these, whether
   they should be addressed. I looked for a few letters and they were written
   in kheti, an early form of Devnagiri. I showed them to a scholar of kheti,
   and he was shocked because the dates they mention. One was 1859, sent by
   someone from abroad, writing because he has heard about the gadar.

Clearly, much more research awaits the mutiny.

Introduction, paperback edition

The truth is that the revolt of 1857 has not evoked a great deal of interest
and enthusiasm among Indian historians. This might seem like an odd assertion
but any bibliographical study will show that very few books and articles have
actually been written since the clutch of books that came out in the
centenary year. If reports are to be believed then the 150th anniversary will
see many seminars, conferences and a large amount of government
spending. This, one hope, will perhaps result in even books coming out to
commemorate the uprising. One should perhaps be grateful since it is the
anticipation of that public interest that has prompted the publishers to
reprint this neglected monograph of mine, which was first published in 1998.

The most noteworthy work on 1857 to be published since this book first
appeared is, of course, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 by
William Dalrymple. This is the first book is English to use the treasure
trove of Urdu and Persian documents in the National Archives of India in New
Delhi. In its purpose and in the range of themes it covers, Dalrymple's book
is very different from my book, which tried to analyse the most violent
episode of an uprising notorious for the blood that was shed in the course of
it. Despite this, in the context of the analysis I had made of the Kanpur
massacres, some aspects of Dalrymple's book should perhaps be
highlighted. Dalrymple's rich and vivid narrative brings alive the events in
Delhi immediately after the sepoys from Meerut entered the city on the
morning of May 11. There was looting, plundering and killing, and the
initiative was taken by members of the lower middle class-Muslim weavers and
textile merchants. Apart from the white population, the targets were the
elites of Delhi. The poet Ghalib was to lament this. Dalrymple quotes from
his diary: 'Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power and nameless
men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and
unlimited riches.... Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at
night they slept in silken beds... The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers
and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord...'

These events in Delhi, in fact, set a pattern for how the uprising began in
other parts of north India. In Kanpur, as my chapter on the events tried to
capture, the first days of the rebellion saw acts of looting and
destruction. The targets were again the Britons, their property, government
building and the Indian elites of Kanpur. The men who carried out these
acts of violence elites of Kanpur. The men who carried out these acts of
violence were the sepoys, the ordinary men of the city and of the
surrounding villages. Nanak Chand's diary- in no way a document comparable
to Ghalib's diary in terms of literary merit- bore witness to what I called
a moment of liberation.

Historians continue to ponder the question why a group of sepoys, who had
broken off their loyalty to the British Indian army by killing their officers
and all other Britons they could lay their hands on, should rush to Delhi to
seek the blessings and the nominal leadership of an old and powerless Mughal
Emperor.  The Mughal Emperors had ceased to be of any consequence a long time
before Bahadur Shah ascended the throne in 1837. Yet it was to him that the
rebels first turned, and it was the fall of Delhi, after he had accepted the
leadership, that triggered off uprisings in the various towns and cantonments
of north India. The most important proclamations of the revolt were all
issued in the name of Bahadur Shah or in some way alluded to his
superiority. Loyalty to the regional princes like Birjis Qadr in Lucknow,
Nana Sahib in Kanpur and so on occupied a secondary or a subordinate
position. Despite this acceptance of the traditional leaders, the sepoys did
not completely surrender their autonomy of decision-making. Tapti Roy in her
study of the revolt in Bundelkhand noted a proclamation issued by the sepoys
that declared: Khalk khoda ki, mulk Badshah ka, hukum subahdar sipahi Bahadur
ka (The world is God's, the country is the Emperor's, the rule or order is
that of the soldiers). In the course of the rebellion in Kanpur, as I noted,
the views of the sepoys were critical in determining the turn of events.
from the various rebels statements and ishtahars, it seems plausible to
suggest that the rebellion of 1857 had a strong restorative element to
it. It was to the Mughal Empire of the 18th century that the rebels harked
back to. Yet it could never be a complete return. It is not unreasonable to
suggest that through the experience of fighting the British, Indian ruling
groups and the rebel sepoys had been compelled to recognize the military
superiority of the British. This recognition should have made them admit
that the way in which armies had been organized under the Mughals and their
successor states in the 18th century was a thing of the past. Any attempt
to introduce a European-style military organization would have had
inevitable implications on state power and the way it was wielded. The
concrete ramifications of this is, of course, a matter of speculation but
it seems safe to suggest that such changes could not have contained in the
18th century state formations.

from review of Mukherjee's serious coffee table book, 1857:
Mukherjee says it was perhaps this perception of the rebellion as a struggle
to preserve the purity of caste and religion of both Hindus and Muslims that
forestalled a sexual attack on white women, equally victims of the movement
as their men. However, the absence of rape, Mukherjee relents, is bound to
remain an enigma since the survivors could not be expected to own up to
their dishonour and the dead women could not tell their tale.


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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Oct 29