Suddenly a bugle was sounded, and a murderous fire of grape-shot and musketry was opened upon the wretched passengers from both sides of the river.
Continuing The Sepoy Mutiny,
our selection from Short History of India and the Frontier States of Afghanistan, Nipal, and Burma by J. Talboys Wheeler published in 1884. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Sepoy Mutiny.
Time: June, 1857
It was the height of the hot weather in Hindustan. A blazing sun was burning over the heads of the besieged; and to add to their misery, one of the barracks containing the sick and wounded was destroyed by fire. The besiegers, however, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, were utterly unable to carry the intrenchment by storm, but continued to pour in a raking fire. Meanwhile the garrison was starving from want of provisions, and hampered by a multitude of helpless women and children. Indeed, but for the latter contingency, the gallant band would have rushed out of the intrenchment and cut a way through the mob of sepoys or perished in the attempt. As it was, they could only fight on, waiting for reinforcements that never came, until fever, sunstroke, hunger, madness, or the enemy’s fire delivered them from their suffering and despair.
On June 25th, a woman brought a slip of writing from Nana, promising to give a safe passage to Allahabad to all who were willing to lay down their arms. Had there been no women or children, the garrison would never have dreamed of surrender. The massacre at Patna a century before had taught a lesson to Englishmen which ought never to have been forgotten. As it was, there were some who wished to fight on till the bitter end. But the majority saw that there was no hope for the women or the children, the sick or the wounded, except by accepting the proffered terms. Accordingly, the pride of Englishmen gave way, and an armistice was proclaimed.
Next morning the terms were negotiated. The English garrison were to surrender their position, their guns, and their treasure, but to march out with their arms, and with sixty rounds of ammunition in the pouch of every man. Nana Sahib on his part was to afford a safe-conduct to the river-bank, about a mile off; to provide carriage for the conveyance of the women and children, the sick and the wounded; and to furnish boats for carrying the whole party, numbering some four hundred fifty individuals, down the river Ganges to Allahabad. Nana accepted the terms, but demanded the evacuation of the intrenchment that very night. General Wheeler protested against this proviso. Nana began to bully and to threaten that he would open fire. He was told that he might carry the intrenchment if he could, but that the English had enough powder left to blow both armies into the air. Accordingly, Nana agreed to wait until the morrow.
At early morning on June 27th the garrison began to move from the entrenchment to the place of embarkation. The men marched on foot; the women and children were carried on elephants and in bullock-carts, while the wounded were mostly conveyed in palanquins. Forty boats with thatched roofs, known as budgerows, were moored in shallow water at a little distance from the bank; and the crowd of fugitives were forced to wade through the river to the boats. By nine o’clock the whole four hundred fifty were huddled on board, and the boats prepared to leave Cawnpore.
Suddenly a bugle was sounded, and a murderous fire of grape-shot and musketry was opened upon the wretched passengers from both sides of the river. At the same time the thatching of many of the budgerows was found to be on fire, and the flames began to spread from boat to boat. Numbers were murdered in the river, but at last the firing ceased. A few escaped down the river, but only four men survived to tell the story of the massacre. A mass of fugitives was dragged ashore; the women and children, to the number of a hundred twenty-five, were carried off and lodged in a house near the headquarters of Nana. The men were ordered to immediate execution. One of them had preserved a prayer-book, and was permitted to read a few sentences of the liturgy to his doomed companions. Then the fatal order was given; the sepoys poured in a volley of musketry, and all was over.
On July 1st Nana Sahib went off to his palace at Bithoor and was proclaimed peshwa. He took his seat upon the throne, and was installed with all the ceremonies of sovereignty, while the cannon roared out a salute in his honor. At night, the whole place was illuminated, and the hours of darkness were wiled away with feasting and fireworks. But his triumph was short-lived. The Mahometans were plotting against him at Cawnpore. The people were leaving the city to escape the coming storm, and were taking refuge in the villages. English reinforcements were at last coming up from Allahabad, while the greedy sepoys were clamoring for money and gold bangles. Accordingly, Nana hastened back to Cawnpore and scattered wealth with a lavish hand; and sought to hide his fears by boastful proclamations, and to drown his anxieties in drink and debauchery.
Within a few days more the number of helpless prisoners was increased to two hundred. There had been a mutiny at Fathigarh, higher up the river, and the fugitives had fled in boats to Cawnpore, a distance of eighty miles. They knew nothing of what had happened, and were all taken prisoners by the rebels, and brought on shore. The men were all butchered in the presence of Nana; the women and children, eighty in number, were sent to join the wretched sufferers in the house near Nana’s headquarters.
Meanwhile Colonel Neill, commanding the Madras Fusiliers, was pushing up from Calcutta. He was bent on the relief of Cawnpore and Lucknow, but was delayed on the way by the mutinies at Benares and Allahabad. In July, he was joined at Allahabad by a column under General Havelock, who was destined within a few weeks to win a lasting name in history.
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