book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Massacre at Cawnpore

V. A. Stuart

Stuart, V. A.;

Massacre at Cawnpore (Alexander Sheridan Adventures 3)

McBooks Press, c1973 / 2002, 240 pages

ISBN 1590130197 9781590130193

topics: |  fiction-historical | british-india | 1857 | colonial | kanpur

Written in the 1970s, this fictional narrative follows the well-trodden british colonial narrative of "massacre at cawnpore".

History or fiction?

the book opens by saying that except for the lead character of Sheridan, all others were historical personages, and their roles are as recorded in history. however, the story paints a black and white picture of nana as the villainous ogre and the british in the heroic mould. even when brigadier Neill is looked down upon, it is not for the extreme cruelty of his revenge, but for his delay in coming to the aid of the siege at cawnpore.

the text of course ignores much postcolonial work; for a more nuanced view, see works such as Saul David's The Indian Mutiny: 1857 or Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Spectre of violence.

"Massacre at cawnpore" is strongly associated with the theory of the treacherous nana, who had planned the massacre and lined the shore with cannon intending to blow up the british boats. However, there is little evidence that the massacre was well-planned; the first bullets may have indeed been fired by britishers from the boats, who were taken by surprise when the boatmen jumped off. This resulted in reciprocatory firing from the sepoys lining the shore. In one of three versions of the narrative by a survivor, Mowbray Thomson, we find him 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...
		 (cited in Spectre of violence p.96)

there is no talk of any "firing" prior to this.

The written records of the survivors often changed dramatically with the
years, and new versions seemed to incorporate gory details that had first
appeared in other non first-person narratives.  certainly there is little
in the native testimony to point to any planning behind the deaths of the
Britishers, certainly no record for Nana's personal complicity in the
events.  among the many legends repeated here is the story of wheeler's
daughter amelia (p.207) and her gun which is clearly completely imagined.

the "history" is cliched, and even the storytelling is far from gripping.

Vivian Stuart (1914-1986) was born in Rangoon and spent her childhood in
colonial India.  She wrote a large number of Mills & Boon and other
romances and two series of historical novels nder the names V.A. Stuart
and William Stuart Long.

map of cawnpore areas, 1857


    Based on subsequently published accounts by survivors of the siege of the
    Cawnpore entrenchments, everything recounted in this novel actually

    The only fictitious characters are Alex Sheridan and his wife Emmy; all
    others mentioned — with the sole exception of Lucy Chalmers — are
    called by their correct names, and their actions are on historical
    record although, of course, their conversations with the fictitious
    characters are imagined.

By mid-afternoon on Friday, 5th June, 1857, the last of the sepoy corps to
join in the mutiny of the Cawnpore Brigade — the 56th Bengal Native
Infantry — formed up in readiness to follow the rest of the brigade on the long
march to Delhi.

In their scarlet tunics and white crossbelts, with muskets shouldered and
shakoed heads held high, they looked the picture of a well-disciplined corps
as they marched, four abreast, out of Cawnpore, the cheers of an excited
crowd from the native city ringing in their ears.  ... field guns and
ammunition tumbrils which the mutineers had seized [from the magazine] and
which, harnessed to bullock teams and elephants, were now heading towards
Kalianpore... on the first stage of their 270 mile journey.

Offer of safe passage

"A Eurasian woman, a Mrs Henry Jacobi, sir, has brought this letter from the
Nana. She says that he is offering his terms, sir."  Addressed not to him,
but to "The Subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria," the
message ran: "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."  153

"Send Mrs Jacobi back to the Nana with the letter, if you please, Captain
Moore. Provided that he signs it, we will receive his representatives to
negotiate conditions for our evacuation.  Then call a conference of senior
officers to decide what conditions we can accept and have them put in
writing.  The Nana will have to agree to them also." 155

Evacuation from Wheeler's Entrenchment

By dawn on Saturday, 27th June, as a procession of bullock carts and
palanquins came towards them across the sandy plain, the survivors of the
Cawnpore garrison were ready to evacuate their entrenchment. 166

The Nana Sahib had kept his word, they told each other, he had sent eighty
palanquins and doolies; the boats were waiting to take them to Allahabad and
soon, very soon, their long ordeal would be over.

A few, observing that the Nana had sent his own elephant, with a
gold-encrusted howdah, for General Wheeler's conveyance to the river, called
down blessings on their enemy's head.

Well-planned treachery

The Nana Sahib had, however, made other preparations for their reception at
the riverside. All night, while an army of coolies had toiled to roof the
waiting boats with fresh thatch, another and larger army of sepoys and
golandazes had been busy at the Suttee Chowra Ghat under the direction of the
Nana's elder brother, Bala Bhat, his two commanders, Teeka Singh and Tantia
Topi, and Azimullah Khan, his young Moslem vakeel.

They had worked without fear of discovery, for the ghat — an open, dusty
landing place at the river's edge, a hundred and fifty feet long and about a
hundred feet in width—lay nearly two miles east of the entrenchment, well
screened by groves of neem and pipal trees. The road, skirting the New
Cantonment and the Artillery Bazaar, approached it across a wooden bridge
which spanned a wide ravine, with high ground on either side as it descended
to the ghat . . . barren, rocky ground, dotted with prickly pear and offering
no cover for fugitives until the tree-line was reached.

A small white, stone-built temple — Hundeen's — stood on a mound
overlooking the moored boats and here divans and cushions had been
arranged, to enable the Nana Sahib and his commanders to watch the
embarkation in some degree of comfort.  As yet, it was empty but beyond it,
in the ruins of a house once occupied by a merchant named Christie, a gun
had been placed, so as to command the whole line of boats, which had been
hauled into shallow water, their keels almost touching the sandy river
bottom. 167

A second gun—prudently withdrawn during the British officers’ inspection of
the landing place the previous evening—was once more in position a quarter of
a mile down-river, in a temple known as Bhugwan Dass's after its builder. A
third, a nine-pounder, was hauled on to the Koila Ghat, eight hundred yards
below the Temple of Bhugwan Dass and, distributed between them and hiding
amongst buildings and trees, Tantia Topi had positioned a strong force of
infantry, armed with muskets. Four hundred yards across the river, on the
Lucknow shore, a battery of bullock-drawn, six-pounder guns unlimbered and
waited, the gunners joined in their vigil by a regiment of irregular cavalry
and by the 17th Native Infantry, newly arrived from Azimghur, where they had
mutinied early in June.

The first ten boats were loaded—overloaded, Alex decided, studying them
anxiously—their keels resting perilously close to the sandy bottom, which
meant that they would have to be manhandled into deeper water. At the
previous night's conference, it had been decided that no boat should move off
until all were embarked and that no particular order should be observed in
loading, save that each must carry a complement of armed men for protection
during the voyage down-river. Edward Vibart was to command the leading boat
and give the signal to cast off, when all were to make for the Oudh shore
with all possible speed.

...  the rissaldar shouted something he could not catch and, as if this had
been the signal for which they had been waiting, the boatmen dropped their
oars and dived into the water.  They had barely reached the ghat when the
first shot rang out and turning, in swift alarm,Alex saw that every boat in
the long line had been deserted by its crew. He saw also, with a sinking
heart, that there were sepoys behind each rock and bush on the slope above
them. More appeared among the ruins of a deserted village on the edge of the
ravine, and the rearguard posted at the bridge were running down the steep
slope, their muskets no longer levelled at the mob from the bazaar but at
those they had purported to protect . . .

Above the frightened cries of the women and a ragged volley from the men in
the boats—aimed, for the most part, at their fleeing crews—a bugle shrilled,
loud and clear, from the small white temple overlooking the landing stage, in
which the Nana and his staff were seated.

A savage hail of canister and flaming carcasses descended on the helpless
line of moored boats. Several of the straw-thatched awnings were already on
fire and that covering Vibart's boat was set alight by one of the carcasses;
tinder dry, it blazed up, filling the boat with a cloud of thick, suffocating

[Rajah Drigbiji Singh helps four of the boat officers at his fort at Moorar
Mhow.  also spelled Dirigbijah Singh - Trevelyan]

Three times during their month-long stay at Moorar Mhow, messengers came from
the Nana demanding the surrender of their persons, but Drigbiji Singh sent
them back empty-handed. On 29th July when they had recovered and he
considered the roads safe, the Rajah sent them under escort across the river
and meeting a patrol of the 84th Foot after travelling some nine or ten
miles, they marched to Cawnpore on 31st July.] 203

the identity of drigbiji singh?

[most likely:
   Hon. HH Maharaja Bahadur Sir DIGVIJAY SINGH 1836/1882, born
   1818, conspicuous for his loyalty to the British authorities during the
   Indian Mutiny in 1857, as a reward for his loyalty, large estates in Gonda
   and Bahraich were made over to him, he was awarded the K.C.S.I. in 1866
   and granted the title of Maharaja Bahadur in October 1859, he also
   received a personal salute of 9 guns in 1877; he established a High School
   and a Hospital at Balrampur, and another Hospital at Lucknow called the
   Balrampur Hospital; Member of the Governor General's Legislative Council;
   President of the British Indian Association 1861/1882, married HH Maharani
   Indra Kunwar (see below), and had issue by Imam Bandi, born shortly before
   1831, a muslim lady in a secondary union. He died 27th May 1882.
		- facebook
however, the Balrampur district is 250km to the north of the ganga, well N of
Ayodhya / Faizabad - bordering nepal near Bahraich.   could this be some
other digbijay singh? ]

Amelia, proud daughter of a sepoy general, took out the pistol her father had
given her, days before, in the entrenchment.  She had not been able to put it
to the purpose for which her father had intended it—her mother and sister had
been butchered in their boat—but now she snatched the weapon from the bosom
of her dress. It contained six shots, her father had said; she used five of
them on her tormentors and the sixth, as her father had told her she must,
she reserved for herself, her hand quite steady as she depressed the
trigger. 207

"All know the Nana Sahib's command," Savur Khan reminded them. "It must be
obeyed. None may be spared."  Armed with tulwars and meat cleavers, the men
followed him into the shadowed room . . .  It was dark when they finally
emerged and the heart-rending cries and shrieks, which had issued from behind
the shuttered windows of the Bibigarh since they had entered it, faded at
length into a deathly silence. 221

--- blurb

1857. With savage mutineers laying relentless siege to its very gates, the
British garrison at Cawnpore holds on with little more than will. A ragged
band of exhausted soldiers defending some 400 frightened women and hungry
children in a crumbling outpost, they wait behind frail mud walls, under
scorching sun, for the uncertain arrival of relief troops. In epic and
meticulously authentic fashion, V.A. Stuart details this tragic story from
the Indian Mutiny through the captive characters of Alex Sheridan, an officer
in the East India Company's Bengal Light Cavalry, and his wife, Emmy. Intense
and inspiring, it describes the heroism of a handful of British soldiers and
civilians who confronted swarms of vengeful sepoys and all but hopeless odds.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 Sep 12