The Indian Rebellion of 1857 began on May 10th with a small-scale mutiny of sepoys in the town of Meerut, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Sepoys were the native, Indian soldiers who served in the army of the British East India Company. This initial rebellion against British rule sparked similar uprisings throughout India. Amongst these, none had such horrifyingly tragic results as the June 1857 sepoy mutiny in the town of Cawnpore (now Kanpur), which culminated with the senseless, mass killing of hundreds of British women and children who had been confined inside a small house known as the Bibighar.
(*Warning: This article contains some graphic details of the 1857 Bibighar Massacre and aftermath. If such details might disturb you, I encourage you to skip this post.)
Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler was the British commander at Cawnpore at the time of the mutiny. When the Sepoys besieged the town, he expected that he would have the support of a local leader by the name of Nana Sahib who would help the British in fighting the rebels. Instead, Nana Sahib assumed leadership of the rebellion. Outnumbered, the British garrison at Cawnpore held fast against the rebel forces for three weeks, but they lacked the resources to withstand an extended siege.
In the last week of June, Wheeler agreed to surrender on the condition that the garrison and their women and children would be given safe passage out of the city. Nana Sahib accepted these terms. On June 27th, at Sati Chaura Ghat, as the British were about to board the boats that would take them to safety in Allahabad, they were attacked by rebel sepoys. The boats were burned and most of the men were killed, including Major General Wheeler. In The Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre at Cawnpore, During the Sepoy Revolt of 1857, author W. J. Shepherd relates:
When the males had all been put to the sword, the order to cease firing was given by the cavalry, and the poor women and children that survived were brought out of the river and collected on the bank. Many of them were wounded with bullets and sword cuts; their dresses were wet and full of mud and blood; they were ordered to give up whatever valuables they might have hid upon their persons. (77)
The women and children that survived the attack were originally taken to a building called Savada Kothee, but were later moved to the Bibighar. Bibighar translates roughly to “The House of the Ladies.” In Cawnpore, it was a small, villa-like residence in the cantonment magistrate’s compound. It had a courtyard and a well. Conditions there were poor and, with 200 women and children in residence, illness was quick to strike. Several died from cholera and dysentery as a result of the unsanitary conditions.
According to many historians, the prisoners were left under the supervision of a woman named Hossaini – also sometimes called the “the Begum.” Hossaini was a courtesan in Nana Sahib’s palace. In his book Freedom Struggle of 1857, author Renu Saran writes:
Nana Sahib placed the care of these survivors under a prostitute called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum). She put the captives to grinding corn for chapatis. (Chapter 22)
At first, Nana Sahib attempted to use the captives as a bargaining chip with the British. However, when news arrived in Cawnpore that General Henry Havelock was nearing the city with relief troops, an order was issued that all of the British women and children at the Bibighar were to be killed.
It is not clear who gave the order. Some historians, especially colonial historians and those writing during the Victorian era, claim it was Nana Sahib himself. In his book Terrorism, Insurgency and Indian-English Literature, author Alex Tickell writes:
On the fifteenth, two days before the retaking of Cawnpore, the rebel soldiers in charge of the hostages had been ordered to kill them by firing their rifles through the windows of the Bibighar, but sickened by the task the guards only fired a single volley and refused to do anything more. Finally, an execution squad of local butchers led by Nana Saheb’s [sic] bodyguard entered the building and methodically killed all the prisoners with their swords. They then dumped the stripped, mutilated bodies of the women and children in a nearby well. (Chapter 2)
Other historians place the blame for the massacre on the courtesan, Hossaini – who is often depicted as a very ruthless figure. The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, edited by Biswamoy Pati, states:
It is suspected that it was Hossaini who ordered the massacre of Bibighar, and when the sepoys proved reluctant, she fetched her lover Sarvur (or Sirdar) Khan, who was perhaps a Pathan. (101)
Expanding on this theory, Saran reports that after the initial volley of shots, the rebel soldiers were so disturbed by the “screams and groans” of the wounded inside the Bibighar that they declared they would not kill any women and children. Saran writes:
An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum termed the sepoys’ act as cowardice, and asked her lover Sarvar Khan to finish the job of killing the captives. Sarvar Khan hired some butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. (Chapter 22)
The massacre at the Bibighar had a devastating effect on the relieving British forces. Expecting to find the female hostages alive, when Havelock’s soldiers entered the Bibighar, according to Tickell, they found the floors “ankle deep” in blood, the walls scored with sword cuts, and the rooms “littered with pieces of clothing, daguerreotype cases, bonnets, shoes, and other unspeakable remnants of violent death.” In The Victorians, author A. N. Wilson cites a portion of a letter from J. W. Sherer, the newly appointed magistrate at Cawnpore, in which he describes the scene:
The whole of the court and this room was literally soaked with blood and strewn with bonnets and those large hats now worn by ladies – and there were long tresses of hair glued with clotted blood to the ground – all the bodies were thrown into a dry well and on looking down – a map of naked arms, legs and gashed trunks was visible. (213)
The British soldiers were deeply affected by what they found at the Bibighar. Tickell writes:
As a terrible derangement of the protocols of European nineteenth-century warfare, the sight of the inner courtyard of the house appeared to rob Havelock’s men of their masculinity: ‘stalwart, bearded men, stern soldiers of the ranks […] have been seen coming out of that house perfectly unmanned, utterly unable to repress their emotions,’ stated one witness. (Chapter 2)
As much as the massacre at the Bibighar devastated the soldiers, it also electrified them. Tickell reports that the soldiers’ grief was “a prelude to an immediate uncontrolled counter-violence, and a compensatory reassertion of authority that was unleashed upon the local Indian population.” After finding a warehouse full of liquor, Havelock’s soldiers drank to excess and, as Tickell states:
[The] grief-stricken soldiers ‘remembered’ the colonial dead by embarking on a frenzied bout of ‘intoxication, plunder and rapine’ through Cawnpore’s ‘native town,’ a practice that European soldiers would repeat in other cities retaken from the rebels. (Chapter 2)
News of the massacre also electrified the British public at home, unifying them in their desire for retributive justice. Further stoking the public’s outrage, reports surfaced that the women had been raped before they had been killed. Some newspapers even printed stories stating that the women and children had been “sold at public auction” after which they were violated and then “barbarously slaughtered.” The following article from the August 31, 1857 Sheffield Daily Telegraph is fairly representative of those circulating at the time. Not only does it declare that the atrocities committed at the Bibighar were “almost unparalleled in the history of the world” it also contains the hope that punishment of those responsible would not be long deferred.
According to Wilson, from the very first, the British vowed to “meet cruelty with redoubled cruelty, terror with terror, blood with blood” 213. An example of the vengeful feelings generated by the atrocities at the Bibighar is exemplified in this Punch cartoon in which a Bengal tiger standing over the fallen body of a British woman is attacked by a raging British lion.
When Brigadier General Neill arrived to take command at Cawnpore, he exacted a brutal vengeance against those deemed responsible for the massacre. Saran states that the arrested rebels were forced to “clean the blood from the floor of the Bibighar compound” (Chapter 22). While Wilson claims that Neill forced the prisoners to “lick the blood from the floor while a European soldier lashed their backs with a whip” (214).
There are numerous accounts of the physical and psychological torture inflicted on those who were suspected of involvement in the massacre at Bibighar, as well as on those in the town who had known of the British women’s plight but had done nothing to assist them. Those that survived their torture, were ultimately executed by various means – from shootings and hangings to other more sadistic methods. Saran writes:
A set of nooses was set up next to the well at the Bibighar, so that they could die within sight of the massacre. Some rebels were tied across the mouths of cannon that were then fired; an execution method initially used by the rebels, and the earlier Indian powers, such as the Marathas and the Mughals. (Chapter 23)
On July 19th, British forces took possession of Nana Sahib’s palace. They seized everything of value, including elephants and camels, and then set the palace on fire. Nana Sahib himself was never found. It was rumored that he had fled to Nepal, but according to Saran, “his ultimate fate was never determined” (Chapter 23). The same can be said for the courtesan Hossaini. Though another courtesan connected with the massacre was executed by a British firing squad, I can find no information on what became of Hossaini herself.
As for the Bibighar, after removing the remains of the women and children, the magistrate ordered that the well be filled up and sealed. Later, when the revolt was finally suppressed, the British dismantled Bibighar in its entirety. Saran reports:
They raised a memorial railing and a cross at the site of the well in which the bodies of the British women and children had been dumped. The inhabitants of [Cawnpore] were forced to pay £30,000 for the creation of the memorial; this was partially their punishment for not coming to the aid of the women and children in Bibighar. (Chapter 23)
The massacre at the Bibighar and the subsequent brutal retaliation of the British is one of the darkest moments in British-Indian history. Historians and scholars still debate the exact motivation behind it. Did the rebels panic at the advance of Havelock and the relief soldiers? Or was the massacre a deliberate retaliation for atrocities against women and children previously committed by the British? As with much in war and rebellion, the accounts of the events differ according to who is doing the telling. Nevertheless, some facts are undisputed. Approximately two hundred British women and children met a tragic end at the Bibighar on July 15, 1857. They were mothers, wives, sons, and daughters. I close this article with a partial list of their names, as provided by W. J. Shepherd, one of the few survivors of the siege of Cawnpore (120). This list was found by British soldiers in the courtyard of the Bibighar after the massacre and reads as follows:
* For even more information on 1857 Cawnpore, see Liz Lloyd’s excellent post on The Tragic Story of Mrs. Lindsay and Her Daughters.
**Author’s Note: My article focuses on the 1857 tragedy at the Bibighar, however, it is important to note that, when compared to the thousands of Indian men, women, and children killed by the British, the number of those killed at the Bibighar is actually very small. This in no way excuses the atrocities at the Bibighar, but I hope it gives some insight into what was a very dark time in British Indian history.
© 2015-2019 Mimi Matthews
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