British Empire Books

Our Bones are Scattered

by Andrew Ward

This is one of the most disturbing books that I have ever read. It is also one of the best. Andrew Ward has written a fascinating, intricate and excellently organised version of events that surrounded the Cawnpore Massacres in 1857. Yes, that should be a massacres in the plural. This was one bloody series of events that was without mercy. What makes it particularly disturbing is the casual violence against women and children. For some reason reading about massacres of men, whether they are soldiers or not, just does not seem to carry the horror meted out to the innocent civilians who got caught up in one of the bloodiest events in Imperial history.

I really appreciate the organisation of this book. It gives the roots to the mutiny - but does not get bogged down. It builds up interesting profiles of the main actors - so you can identify and empathise with the characters. It clearly lays out the sequence of the events with easy to follow date stamps for each of the chapters - You do need to keep an eye on the chronology as events frequently overlapped or would build into a crescendo from the opposing sides. The language is very clear and crisp - when you have a story as interesting as this one, it almost seems to write itself. The pictures and maps are actually laid out in areas useful to the story - I hate the inclusion of plates where the pictures are lumped all together - this book incorporates the images into the main body of text which is exactly where they should be. Finally, the author is clearly impartial and tries to give both sides of the story. He attempts to be dispassionate, but I certainly found myself empathising with one side far more than the other. It actually made you appreciate, or at least understand, how the British were provoked into committing some horrific acts themselves.

The book does explain some of the surrounding events but again with just the right amount of detail to make it understandable but without losing focus on the city of Cawnpore itself. Cawnpore was a gateway city and it held a strategic imperative that meant that it was going to play a larger role in the mutiny no matter what happened to its initial inhabitants.

Some of the individual stories told are truly harrowing. Most come to a desperately sad ending, but every now and then hope seems to have triumphed over adversity. The stories of Jonah Shepherd or Lieutenant Thomson were truly fascinating and beyond imagination really. Notwithstanding their remarkable stories, you can tell that this topic would never make a suitable subject for a Hollywood film. Not only was it unremittingly dreadful but the magnitude of the events just seems so immense. If any script writer were to submit half of these events then he would be lambasted for having an over active imagination. This book is prime evidence for the maxim that truth is certainly stranger than fiction. But that is why I said that this is one of the most disturbing books that I have ever read. You literally have to keep pinching yourself to remind yourself that these events actually happened - and that is what makes it so horrific.

Review by Karl E. Meyer
It can be sensibly argued that no human earthquake in the imperial era was so misnamed or misunderstood as the Indian Mutiny of 1857. To many of the British it was only that: a mushrooming mutiny of native troops, or sepoys, against their European officers and the East India Company, which then ruled India. Its immediate cause was the belief among Indian troops that their newly issued Enfield rifles would have to be loaded with cartridges coated in grease taken from cows, anathema to Hindus, or from pigs, abominable to Muslims. Worse, the cartridges had to be bitten.

When the first rumblings reached the colonial authorities in January, a prompt order exempted sepoys from using lard. Native troops were instructed to concoct their own grease from vegetable oils and beeswax. But objectors saw this as yet another ruse to degrade their faiths. In March, a young sepoy named Mungal Pandy was executed for defying and wounding an officer. A protracted rebellion followed in northwest India. It came close to unseating the British Raj, and it resulted in savage atrocities that were to haunt India and Britain for generations. This was no simple mutiny. In "Our Bones Are Scattered," Andrew Ward focuses on Cawnpore, scene of some of the worst butchery, weaving a narrative from a host of old and newly available sources. He has striven, I think successfully, for fairness, but so overcrowds his canvas that even a patient reader may lose sight of its design.

The revolt erupted in barracks just north of Delhi. The rebel troops swiftly overran Delhi and proclaimed themselves followers of the last Mogul Emperor, Bahadur Shah, whom the British had kept on his throne as a powerless pawn. His Hindu counterpart was Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Maratha ruler. Although Nana had been deprived of his titles, he lived in courtly splendor in Bithur, 10 miles from Cawnpore, a garrison town on the Ganges. As the rebellion spread, Nana was hailed by mutineers as the heir to the once mighty Marathas.

The British were absurdly outnumbered. Some 250,000 Indian soldiers were led by 34,000 Europeans. But the rebels had no unity of command or shared political purpose. The British quickly limited the contagion by disarming wavering sepoys and calling in reinforcements to relieve besieged Europeans in Lucknow and Cawnpore. Britons were hopeful, since the formidable Sir Henry Lawrence was in charge at Lucknow, while the commander at Cawnpore was the battle-tested Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Wheeler. But Wheeler, whose wife was Indian, vainly overestimated his influence on Nana Sahib. Nana declared for the rebels, and may have connived with them owing to the skillful nudges of a British-loathing aide, one Azimullah Khan, who prowls like an avenger through Mr. Ward's pages. When Nana switched sides, Wheeler's British officers, faithful sepoys, servants and civilian noncombatants came under raking fire in an exposed entrenchment. Wheeler in desperation agreed to an offer from Nana of safe boat passage for all those willing to leave for Allahabad, the next big city downstream.

On the riverbank there ensued a massacre of British officers and sepoys. Some 125 surviving women and children were rounded up, taken to a dwelling called Bibighar and stabbed to death, and their dismembered bodies flung into a well. Mr. Ward makes a persuasive case that allegations of rape were exaggerated and probably unfounded. But the slaughter was deeply shaming to the rebels; it drew Britons together and drove Indians apart. In England, the prevailing belief that European women had been raped seemed to many a nightmare fouler than death.

When Cawnpore was retaken, retribution was savage. "Officers and men searched the Bibighar for inscriptions that might prove their worst fears," Mr. Ward relates, "and, finding none, invented their own: . . . 'My child! My child!' 'Think of us.' 'Avenge us!' . . . And in several places, daubed in broad and clumsy strokes, 'Remember Cawnpore!' which would become the British battle cry for the remainder of the rebellion." Even suspicion of sympathy for rebels could mean hanging or being tied to the mouth of a cannon and blown apart.

But blood cooled, and Queen Victoria spoke out for conciliation. The most obvious lessons of the Great Mutiny were quickly absorbed: the ratio of Europeans to sepoys was diminished; more care was taken to heed signals of discontent. But the wider import of the mutiny was not generally grasped: The rebellion grew in soil fertilized by the average Briton's contempt for India's history and culture, by a pervasive racism expressed in scornful kicks and derision, by the Raj's reluctance to open high-ranking positions to Indians and by the religious intolerance of missionaries. It was fed by the shattering encounter of a traditional society with European ideas and technology. I wish Mr. Ward had dealt more fully with these matters, which are discussed in previous accounts of the mutiny whose help he acknowledges. It is a pity, as he remarks, that so little testimony by Indians exists about such unsolved puzzles as Nana Sahib's fate.

In my own delving, I was struck by the prescient reportage of William Howard Russell of The Times of London. Russell sailed to India after covering the Crimean War, was repelled by the nasty racism among Anglo-Indians and took note of crude forgeries of Cawnpore atrocities. He went on to remark that the horror of Cawnpore was that black men dared to shed the blood of their masters: "Here . . . we had a war of religion, a war of race and a war of revenge, of hope, of some 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. There is a kind of God's revenge against murder in the unsuccessful issue of all enterprises commenced in massacre, and founded on cruelty and bloodshed. 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 and child who fell into their hands -- a design which the kindliness of the people . . . frustrated on many remarkable occasions."

The soundness of Russell's judgment is demonstrated in Andrew Ward's welcome and definitive narrative.

"Why Cawnpore" by Andrew Ward from Autumn 2017 Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
I am sometimes asked, albeit with decreasing frequency, how it was I chose to write about the special horrors of the 1857 uprising for my Mutiny history; Our Bones Are Scattered. The uprising at Cawnpore claimed the lives of almost an entire European community. It commenced with the siege of Wheeler's Entrenchment with its low mud walls and battered barracks, and proceeded to the massacre at the ghats, the slaughter of women and children at the Bibighar, and the exponential horrors of British reprisals that claimed the lives of thousands of Indians. I concede that my account. Our Bones Are Scattered, makes for harrowing reading, but until recently I was not able to answer 'Why Cawnpore?' to my satisfaction.

In 1954, after I had just turned eight, my father accepted a job as educational consultant to the fledgling Government of India. Our family first sailed from New York to Southampton aboard the SS United States, among whose amenities was a movie theatre. One afternoon I ducked in to watch the Marlon Brando version of Julius Caesar. I think I must have had a distrustful disposition even then. But it was a trait that set like concrete as I watched the depiction of Caesar's assassination at the hands of his ostensible friends and colleagues, all of them heaping praise on 'Mighty Caesar' while at the same time drawing out their daggers and cutting him down. We took the P&O Strathmore the rest of the way to India and disembarked at Bombay. At first, and to some extent ever afterwards, India made me uneasy. We landed only seven years after Independence and the ghosts and the protocols of the Raj were still potent. Suddenly throngs of adults were treating me, an eight year-old kid from Chicago, with inexplicable deference. They dove to the ground to fetch a dropped napkin, laid out my clothes every morning, whisked me to the front of the line at the bookshop, and called me Chota Sahib. Besides spoiling me rotten, these courtesies filled me with dread. Why were they treating me like a prince? Didn't they resent me deeply for my wealth and privileges? What were they up to? Where were they hiding their daggers?

My imperial anxiety eased off until 1957, the centennial of the Mutiny of 1857. My older brother brought home books and pamphlets about what the Government now approvingly called the First War of Independence, with illustrations depicting the massacre of my predecessors, the British. My darkest suspicions reasserted themselves when I learned that the very thing I dreaded had already happened.

So, I told myself, they hated us after all, and at any moment our fond bearer Sriram; or Ameya our scholarly cook; or even our driver, Peter John, who wore his hair like Elvis and kept up with the latest American slang, might rise up and murder us in our sleep. We lived in what were then the outskirts of New Delhi, and behind our house lay a dairy farm on a couple of weedy acres that local people employed to relieve themselves. Next to this was a collection of recent huts and tents where refugees from Partition lived. One Saturday morning I had just donned my Cub Scouts uniform when a crow alighted on a branch in the backyard. I had been given a Diana pellet rifle the Christmas before, but with the admonition that I was never, ever to fire it without adult supervision. But that cawing bird seemed to be heckling me intolerably, and who would ever find out if I were to shoot it?

So I went to my closet, fetched and loaded the gun, stepped out onto the verandah, and, taking careful aim, missed the crow entirely. But, as it flapped off derisively, a cry arose from beyond where I had aimed, and up stood an elderly widow, clutching her head with both hands. I couldn't move as the drama unfolded below me, but continued to stand in my Cub Scout uniform with my rifle in my hands, unable to countenance that I had just shot an old lady in the head. When the widow staggered back toward the hutment, its residents began to swarm about, led by the old lady's son. After scanning the vicinity, he caught sight of me with my rifle and shouted, 'Dekho! Chota Sahib!' and led his neighbors across the field and over our compound wall, whereupon, convinced that by disobeying my parents I had doomed us all to massacre, I retreated into my bedroom and reloaded.

In the end our bearer calmed the mob, and my mother came out to placate my victim's family, following them back to examine the old lady and treating what turned out to be a grazing wound with iodine and band-aids. Satisfied, her son magnanimously told my mother, 'Never mind, Memsahib. We were boys once ourselves,' and escorted her back to our house. I caught hell, of course, and never saw that rifle again. Nor have I touched one since.

We return to the States in 1959. Decades go by, and after turning to writing I find myself drawn to the subject of imperial massacres: the Alamo, Isandlwana, Khartoum, Custer's Last Stand, and the Mutiny, of course. I even proposed a book that would be a survey of all such 19th century collisions between ruler and ruled, but I chose to write in detail about Cawnpore instead. But I had not, I am ashamed to say, linked it all together until three or four years ago, when I was in my late sixties.

I was scanning some pictures from my family's India album and came upon a snapshot I must have taken of the view from my verandah. There, to the right, was the assembly of refugee tents on a barren field, with the rooftops of two army barracks beyond. It must have been taken before the encampment became a hutment. Nevertheless, it was, of course, the mirror image of Wheeler's Entrenchment, or at least the image I had of it when I wrote about Cawnpore. So apparently I didn't choose to write about it. I really had no choice. And I suppose I was able to wade through all those horrors because, as a child, I had already imagined far worse.

Also from Autumn 2017 Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Mark Probett visited the memorial at Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore). Mark has a personal interest in the site, because his great great grandparents and six of their children were massacred here. He has visited the area several times, paying his own tribute to the uneasy dead that lie here. Because the site of Wheeler's Entrenchment is within the army cantonment, access to parts of it are understandably restricted. After six years of seeking permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit a particular memorial, this was unexpectedly granted on compassionate grounds. The area has been thoroughly refurbished and the wild undergrowth of a few years earlier had disappeared. The military authorities deserve praise, Mark says, for taking an awful lot of time and some real expense in refurbishing what is essentially a British grave site. The recently restored memorial stands above the Sepulchral Well, just south of the Entrenchment, Standing on one of the stone arms that supports the pillar with its Celtic cross is a small Greek cross. This was one of several such monuments erected by different regiments as the horror of the Bibighar massacre sank in.

The inscription on the restored memorial reads: In a well under this cross were laid, by the hands of their fellows in suffering, the bodies of men, women and children, who died hard by during the heroic defence of Wheeler's entrenchment when beleaguered by the rebel Nana. June 6th to 27th A.D. MDCCCLVJI. This was not the infamous well into which the massacre victims were thrown at the end of the siege, but the place where those who died during the siege were unceremoniously interred. There was no opportunity to bury the deceased in a makeshift cemetery, as there had been at Lucknow' during the siege of its Residency. As Mark points out, the soil during June 1857 was iron hard, and a father who had to bury his infant daughter 'had great difficulty scratching out a small grave with his knife for her'. The dead of Cawnpore were simply thrown down a disused well and the burial parties had to risk their own lives every night as they ventured outside the entrenchment. The dead were wheeled along an improvised barrier consisting of discarded vehicles while a small group maintained a a covering fire. It is estimated that as many as 350 people were entombed in this disused well. At the foot of the memorial is a quotation from the Psalms, which gave Andrew Ward the title of his book: Our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth. But our eyes are unto Thee, O God the Lord.

Among those killed in the final massacre at the Bibighar were Jessie Seppings and her two small boys, both fair-haired lads. Jessie's husband had already been killed with other British officers at the Sati Chaura ghat after a false promise of escape downriver. Jessie's little boys were said to have been the last victims on 16 July 1857 as they ran around the well in a vain attempt to escape being cut down. One of the boys dropped a favourite toy, which he had vainly clung on to - a simple box containing two small wooden balls. Mark takes up the story: While the sweepers were stripping and dumping the poor women and children down the Bibighar well, a large crowd had gathered to watch, as one would expect in India. Two Hindu men who knew the Seppings boys, but could do nothing to save them, scooped the toy up and next day, probably to save their own skins, presented the toy to General Havelock's men, who in turn handed this on to the General. He arranged for it to be returned to the Turnbull family, who were Jessie's people. The box has been handed down in the family and is now the treasured possession of Hamish Turnbull in New Zealand.

Not surprisingly there are a number of reports of ghosts seen at the site of the Well. Dogs in a nearby garden cottage started behaving oddly 'watching and following the movement of the screen doors as if some unseen figure were crossing the room' and there were mentions of small, fair-haired, spectral figures in motion around the Well. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Cawnpore is still a haunted city to many: not only to the British and Eurasian communities that lost relatives, friends, and loyal servants and sepoys; but also to the exponentially larger number of Indian men and women whose ancestors were killed in reprisals. Until fairly recently a large banyan tree stood in the Nana Rao Park (formerly the Memorial Well Gardens). It was from the branches of this tree that men suspected of being involved in the massacres were hanged, their innocence or guilt hardly considered in the fevered climate of revenge. A moving poem in Hindi is inscribed on a nearby plaque which speaks eloquently of the tears shed by the tree as another man met his death on its branches. It is a place for reflection, just as the restored Sepulchral Well is today.

British Empire Book
Andrew Ward
John Murray

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe