The British Empire Library

The Devil's Trap: The Victims of the Cawnpore Massacre During the Indian Mutiny

by James W. Bancroft

I would describe James' W. Bancroft's The Devil's Trap very much as a companion volume to the remarkable and harrowing story of the Cawnpore Massacre during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The name of Cawnpore would soon come to epitomise the worst fears that Victorian Britons imagined that their subjects might be capable of. This was no ordinary military defeat as the involvement of women and children as victims and the employment of skulduggery by local rulers elevated the crimes of the perpetrators to a whole different level. The author points out that the Cawnpore Memorial would become the most visited shrine in British India in years to come, surpassing that of even the Taj Mahal in Agra. Cawnpore became a byword for treachery as the victims were elevated to the level of imperial martyrs in art, literature and popular culture.

The word 'companion' is important as this book is primarily concerned with the lives of the victims before the massacre and it tracks the all too few survivors after the event also. The author does indeed provide an overview of the more important events as they unfolded but the focus is definitely on the individuals involved. I think this book is best enjoyed by someone who already has an understanding of the underlying political issues and intrigue and a more detailed chronological overview of the major events. For example, Andrew Ward's excellent Our Bones are Scattered would make a great primer for a book like this, although there are other overviews of the Cawnpore events that would suffice too. However, once you have a handle on the events then this book's value soon amplifies your knowledge and gives valuable context to the lives of those involved. It is so interesting to realise just how geographically mobile colonial and East India Company servants were in the Nineteenth Century. We think we live in a globalised world of mass travel and yet many of those involved in the Mutiny had lives spread out all over Britain, the Indian sub-continent and the wider Empire still. Memorials to the fallen are as likely in Australia as in the shires of England. The author reminds us that although often portrayed as an Indian versus European conflict, many of the victims and those affected were loyal servants, children and wives of mixed marriages and local people who were caught up in the maelstrom of violence. It is just such a pity that the lives of say the Ayahs and servants are so much harder to track down over the intervening centuries than those of their European counterparts. Their bureaucratic footprint probably never existed in the first place, but their sacrifices and sufferings should not be forgotten either.

The author offers his own forthright views on the morality (or lack of it) around Cawnpore; "The lowest depth of sickening cowardice." Normally I might hesitate when a book makes such strong condemnations but I have to say that I think an argument can indeed be proferred that the events in Cawnpore did indeed touch the status of evil. One can certainly discuss the merits of the totality of events in 1857 as a Mutiny or a proto war of independence and many of the military clashes can be discussed on their merits but Cawnpore does indeed seem to fall into a category of evil that people in the Nineteenth Century found utterly contemptible and even looking at it from the Twenty-First Century still looks beyond the pale. I hesitate to draw any comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust, but the depths of depravity definitely approached that level of evil if nowhere near the scope. So I am on the author's side in agreeing that the events of Cawnpore were evil. There is an interesting if chilling connection made to pure evil by the author in his foreward when he reveals that he and a friend had a very close call with the Moors Murderers. I was a little worried where this analogy was going when it started, but when revealed a little shudder of understanding certainly occurs.

The biographical details come thick and fast and early lives of these colonial servants and their families are invariably fascinating. However, you cannot but help feel that the date of 1857 hangs portentously over their lives as they head closer to the convulsions that would impact and in most cases end their lives. One also soon understands the intricate connections of this Indian ruling class as many crossed paths or certainly shared lifestyles, schools and followed familiar career routes. It is nice that the people swept up in the events can be portrayed and understood as being real people with real lives and not just seen through the lens of victimhood. Of course, not all those involved would have considered themselves as part of the ruling classes, there were plenty of victims from across the social spectrum and as mentioned previously it includes local people too. And of course although there were too few British soldiers (this was swiftly rectified after 1857) there were indeed ordinary soldiers and privates who just went where they were sent. You also get snippets of information which you might not expect to come across. For example, I was fascinated to read that the 32nd Regiment of Foot (some of whom would end up in Cawnpore although most were at Lucknow) travelled with families and their children and orphans. In hindsight, the presence of orphans should not really have been a surprise, the harsh climate took its toll on soldiers alongside the many years of fighting up on the North West Frontier and from the Sikh Wars only a few years earlier. Suddenly one understands why so many women and children were in a place like Cawnpore when events spiralled out of control there. In a world with such poor communications links, the options for family life were to be separated for years on end or for wives to live in the harsh landscape of India and share their husband's lives no matter what the dangers. These are very human motivations and many of the women who had decided to make a life for themselves in Cawnpore appear to have suffered the privations and difficulties with every bit of fortitude as most of the men did.

For the opposition, the leaders like Nana Sahib, Azimullah Khan Yusufzai, Tantya Tope and the Begum Hussaini Khanum are sketched out. These names would soon become very well known back in Britain for their infamy. It is a shame that more of the Indian actors involved could not be similarly fleshed out. There are some examples but they are thin on the ground. The author definitely analyses why he believes Cawnpore took such a dark turn even by the Mutiny's standards and alas they are prosaic reasons indeed revolving around money (or lack of it), prestige or danger. The big 'what-if' for me is Wheeler's choice of where to make his stand. If only he had selected the Magazine by the river he would have had access to far more ammunition, fresh water and even a viable escape route. Instead he chose the barrack buildings with a hastily constructed entrenchment around it and just a single source of water from a well which would later entail much danger to those seeking to gain its precious contents. The elderly but experienced Wheeler is not entirely at fault in that he still trusted the local leaders who would so badly betray him. However, if he had assumed the worst then the Magazine might have made for a far more vigorous place to withstand the mutineers. As it was the flimsy walls of the barracks offered little defence for its inhabitants, and indeed the walls were frequently breached by enemy artillery which mercilessly fired on the camp around the clock. Many of the defenders were buried in rubble or killed by falling masonry although many more were killed in the most unlikely of places by the cannon balls themselves removing limbs, heads, etc to the evident horror of any who witnessed it.

The harrowing siege also showed elements of bravery, initiative and fortitude. It must be said that the defenders definitely put up a fight and the mutineers were definitely put off frontal assaults due to heavy casualties from their initial assaults and decided to sit back and let the artillery do most of the damage and wait for disease and hunger to take their toll. Some 21 days of privations ultimately led to terms being sought by the British for their evacuation to safety. Again, there was no reason to believe that the attackers would not honour their pledges and the fact that they were to be allowed to keep their small arms and escorted to boats to make the trip to safety at Allahabad seemed to bode well. It appears that Wheeler himself was hesitant but the plight of the women and children made some of the more junior officers who had high opinions on honour and truth and felt it necessary to sacrifice their position for the sake of their weakened charges. This was to prove to be a fatal miscalculation which cost most (but not all) of the men their lives when they were set upon in a well organised ambush as they boarded the boats. The author explains the daring escape of a small number of soldiers who had a harrowing time before just four of them eventually found sanctuary. The women and children appeared to fare better as they were taken hostage with a view to using them as bargaining chips in future negotiations. In the end, their eyewitness accounts of the treachery of Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope and the mutineers meant that they were soon regarded as liabilities rather than as assets. As a British relief column closed in, these eyewitnesses were despatched with a brutality that still has the power to shock all these years later. The disrespect shown to the bodies only adds to the horror. For all the criticism meted out to the soldiers who exacted revenge on the mutineers in the coming weeks and months, one finds it hard not to empathise with their rage after what they witnessed as they arrived just a day too late to save the innocent non-combatants. In the short term their rage did indeed have fearful repercussions for any Indians apprehended. Administrators like Canning would later earn the sobriquet Clemency Canning for insisting on a more reasonable rehabilitation policy, but that came too late to save many. Of course, the Cawnpore massacre fundamentally motivated the British to hold out elsewhere in India. There was no way the defenders of Lucknow for instance would consider surrendering or seeking terms after the treachery exhibited at Cawnpore. The massacre fatally undermined an already faltering rebellion.

The author then follows up the lives of the far too few survivors. Unbelievably two of the four soldiers who made it back were involved in a ship wreck as they returned to Britain. Talk about bad luck. Fortunately, they survived this mishap although they lost an awful lot of evidence and written material with this loss of the ship they were travelling on. One of the other four died of disease very shortly after. The fourth must surely have been suffering from PTSD as he seems to have lived an unhappy life thereafter. The Victorian morality story of Margaret Wheeler which was popularly mis-conveyed in the following years as her wishing to die before being dishonoured is explained to a very different conclusion. Indeed she appears to have lived to a ripe old age in Cawnpore with a Sowar who had saved her from the massacre at the river. At least one other woman was rescued by a mutineer and survived to tell the tale. The brevity of this section compared to the earlier biographical sketches hints at the extent of the massacre during the siege, at the river and at the Bibighar. A nice touch is that the author explains where we might see the various memorials to the victims scattered around the churches of Britain, India and beyond. It is always nice to be able to be able to seek these out and see for yourself how these people had loved ones and families who were moved to remember and honour them so. The book also has some very good colour illustrations which show some of the artefacts, people and places related to the events. The old Angel of the Resurrection memorial (forcibly paid for by the inhabitants of Cawnpore as punishment for not helping sufficiently) was a striking construction. Sadly, only the base of it remains now, with a bust of one of the architects of the massacre, Tantia Tope, looking on incongruously and most certainly inappropriately.

James W. Bancroft's book adds more detail and understanding to the horrible events at Cawnpore in 1857. It is no wonder that Victorian Britain regarded those who were killed there, especially the women and children, as being nothing short of martyrs to Empire. I am a firm believer that every life is inherently fascinating and the lives of these victims and the few survivors are similarly interesting. I believe the author does them a service in turning them into identifiable human beings and setting out where they were born, where they grew up, who they married, who their parents were and how they ended up in Cawnpore at that fateful time. They may have lived and died over 160 years ago but their lives can still feel remarkably relatable; they loved their families, got sick, married, had jobs to do even if in an exotic and often inhospitable location. This book adds additional insight into the lives of those involved in what must surely be one of the saddest incidents in imperial history. It must be hard to add new information on an infamous event that took place over 160 years ago, but the author has managed to do precisely this. Therefore, this book is to be commended as a welcome addition to the Cawnpore corpus.

British Empire Book
James W. Bancroft
Pen and Sword


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