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.

British Empire Book
Andrew Ward
John Murray


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