Eighteen fifty-seven

Book: Eighteen fifty-seven [English]
Author: Surendra Nath Sen
Publisher: Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India
Year: 1957
Reprited: 1995
Pages: 470
Price: Rs 200
Amitabha Mukerjee
A number of Indian historians have written histories of the events of 1857, reconstructing the mutiny from the extensive (British) records. These provide a more balanced history than the mainstream British texts and certainly compared to the fanatical writings of Savarkar, or even the more nuanced position of RC Majumdar. The British mainstream narrative tends to view the rebellion as a mutiny by the sepoys owing to a rumour about animal fat in the cartridge.

Starting with the work of S. B. Chaudhuri in the 1930s, a number of texts by Indian historians have taken a more Indian view. In particular, the events have been portrayed to have been broader than a mutiny by a group of disgruntled sepoys, with support from a wide section of the population, including a number of local kings and zamindars, and particularly the role of the class of north Indian villager (peasant), from whom the sepoy was drawn, has been widely analyzed in the subaltern histories. While not quite a war of independence, it was clearly much more than a military mutiny.

In 1956, on the eve of the centenary of the rebellion, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, himself a respected scholar, and then the Minister for Education in India’s second Lok Sabha, commissioned the historian S. N. Sen to write a history of 1857, removing the prejudices of British historiography. The resulting text is well-balanced, and gives a very broad analysis of the causes behind the event.

Subsequent texts, such as Ranajit Guha’s British Imagination and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s Awadh in Revolt, build on this view with additional material emphasizing the broad discontent with the Company rule, and the many strands of causes that led to that great upheaval. Unfortunately this book, printed by the Government of India, remains out of print...


A balanced look at the Kanpur “massacre”

On the morning of the 27th sixteen elephants and seventy to eighty palanquins came to convey the fugitives to the boats. But all of them could not be accommodated, and Captain Moore, who was supervising the operations, had to come for a second time. “The women and children were put on the elephants, and into bullock carts; the able-bodied walked down indiscriminately, after the advance had gone.” It was after the first batch had left that the sepoys came to the entrenchment. “Inquiries were made by men after their old officers whom they had missed,” says Mowbray Thomson, “and they appeared much distressed at hearing of their death.” “I inquired of another sepoy of the 53d, ‘Are we to go to Allahabad without molestation?’ He affirmed that such was his firm belief; and I do not suppose that the contemplated massacre had been divulged beyond the councils of its brutal projectors. Poor old Sir Hugh Wheeler, his lady and daughter, walked down to the boats. The rear was brought up by Major Vibart, who was the last officer in the entrenchment. Some of the rebels who had served in this officer’s regiment insisted on carrying out the property which belonged to him. They loaded a bullock cart with boxes, and escorted the Major’s wife and family down to the boats, with the most profuse demonstrations of respect.”59 By 9 o’clock the last boat had received her complement. If anything had happened on the way Mowbray Thomson and Delafosse were unaware of it. The river was low, the boats had no gangway, and the passen­gers, men, women and children, had to wade through the water. What followed, let Mowbray Thomson relate. No one was likely to know the whole truth, for no one could possibly have witnessed everything. There was a huge crowd on the river banks that morning, and thousands of spectators had gathered to see their former rulers leave. But there were no more reliable witness­es than Mowbray Thomson and Delafosse, two of the four sur­vivors, who escaped the massacre and lived to record their un­happy experience. They were both of them trained observers, but while Delafosse’s account is very brief, Mowbray Thomson’s narrative is more detailed. Neither of them had complete con­fidence in Nana and his counsellors.

Thomson writes, “As soon as Major Vibart had stepped into his boat, ‘Off’ was the word; but at a signal from the shore, the native boatmen, who numbered eight and a coxswain to each boat, all jumped over and waded to the shore. We fired into them immediately/0 but the majority of them escaped, and are now plying their old trade in the neighbourhood of Cawnpore. Before they quitted us, these men had contrived to secrete burning char­coal in the thatch of most of the boats. Simultaneously with the departure of the boatmen, the identical troopers who had escorted Major Vibart to the ghat opened upon us with their carbines. As well as the confusion, caused by the burning of the boats, would allow, we returned the fire of these horsemen, who were about fifteen or sixteen in number, but they retired imme­diately after the volley they had given us.”61 Then followed pandemonium. Most of the boats could not be moved, though the passengers jumped into the water and tried to push them afloat. Fire was opened from ambushed guns and the thatched roofs of the boats were in flames. Women and children crouched behind the boats and “stood up to their chins in the river” to avoid the thickly falling bullets. Vibart’s boat, however, drifted into deep waters with its thatched covering unburnt. Mowbray Thomson swam to this boat and was pulled in. A second boat also got away from the ghat but a round shot below the water mark sent it down. The survivors were rescued and taken in Vibart’s boat. With the help of spars and pieces of wood the passengers tried their utmost to move the boat out of the danger zone, but grape and round shot fell all around. About mid-day the fugitives got out of range of the big guns but they were fol­lowed by musket fire the rest of the day. At night burning arrows were shot and a fire boat was sent down stream with a view to setting fire to the boat.

They had a brief respite in the morning, but they learnt from some villagers, who were bathing in the river, that Babu Ram-baksh, a powerful zamindar, was waiting at Nazafgarh ready to intercept them. At about 2 o’clock they reached the dreaded place, and, as 111 luck would have it, the boat ran aground and offered a fixed target for the musketeers on the banks. A gun was later brought, but a lucky shower put it out of action. At sunset a boat-load of armed men came from Kanpur but their boat also got stuck on a sand bank. The fugitives anticipated their attack and completely routed them. The boat ran aground for a second time; though a strong hurricane released it soon afterwards. But their trial was not yet over. The morning reveal­ed that the boat had drifted out of the navigable channel and the pursuers were not long in coming. Two successive days and nights of Incessant toil, without a morsel of food and any drink, except what the river offered, had completely exhausted them, but they were fighting for their lives and were sustained by the primitive instinct of self-preservation. Vibart directed Thomson and Dela-fosse to get down with twelve others and charge the assailants. The mixed crowd of sepoys and rustics could not stand their mad onslaught, but when they had cut their way out of the mob, they found that the boat was gone. Unable to evade their pur­suers, the desperate band next took shelter in a temple. There was no food in the temple, but some putrid water, held In a hollow, helped to quench their thirst. They had to abandon this shelter and betake themselves to the river. By this time their number was reduced to seven. Two of them were shot while swimming and a third got to a sand-bank where he was knocked on the head. The pursuers at last gave up the chase. After three hours of swimming the survivors decided to take some rest. They sat by the shore, with water up to the neck, when they were hailed by friendly voices from the bank. At first they could not believe in their good luck, but when they were convinced that they were safe at last, they found that they had lost all their energy so long sustained by fear of life and had to be helped out of the shallow water. Thomson was clad in a shirt only, Delafosse had a sheet about his loins, Sullivan and Murphy had no clothing of any kind. Their host was Digvijaya Singh of Murar Mau, a zamindar of Oudh, whose residence they reached in the evening of the 29th June.

Delafosse’s brief account differs in some detail from that of Mowbray Thomson. “We got down to the river and into the boats, without being molested in the least; but no sooner were we in the boats and had laid down our muskets, and taken off our coats, in order to work easier at the boats than the cavalry gave the order to fire two guns that had been hidden; they were run out and opened fire on us immediately, whilst sepoys came from all directions, and kept up a heavy fire. The men jumped out of the boats, and instead of trying to get the boats loose from their moorings rushed to the first boat they saw loose; only three boats got safe over to the opposite side of the river, but were met there by two field pieces guarded by numbers of cavalry and infantry. Before the boats had gone a mile down the stream half of our small party were either killed or wounded, and two of our boats had been swamped.”

Thomson and Delafosse had obviously boarded two different boats. Their accounts make it clear that if any outrage had been committed on the way, they were unaware of it. Mowbray Thom­son positively states that the sepoys were quite courteous before the embarkation was completed, and as he says, nothing happen­ed until Major Vibart, the last man to leave the camp, had boarded his boat.

It can be assumed that the story of Colonel Ewart being killed in the rear of the column and General Wheeler being beheaded as he was getting out of his palanquin does not rest on any substantial evidence. Ewart would have been missed at the ghat and Wheeler did not ride a palanquin, but walked with his wife and daughter all the way to the river. 63 It is not clear who fired the first shot, men from Mowbray Thomson’s boat or the horsemen on the banks. For, he is definite that when the boatmen deserted they were immediately fired on, and simultaneously the horsemen, who had accompanied Major Vibart, fired a volley. (p. 147-149)...

The boats were collected and fitted on very short notice. They did not belong to the boatmen, but to banias of Maheshwari and Agarwal section. The proprietors were duly compensated for their loss* On the evening of the 26th when the Committee of Inspec­tion went to see them, many of the boats still lacked their bamboo platforms and roofs of straw. But thousands of labourers work­ed all night to remove these deficiencies. If Nana meditated treachery from the first, one wonders why so much money and labour were wasted on the boats, for once out of the entrenchment, the English would be as helpless in the midst of a hostile crowd on land, as they were on the river. They had their arms, and it could not be expected that they would let their women and children be slaughtered without a des­perate fight. (

[A rather shoddy and unprofessional Urdu translation of this book with the same title [Attarah sau sattawan - 1857] is available from the same publisher at Rs 556]. Another book of interest from the same publisher is Yaden mujahidin-e azadi ki [Urdu] compiled by Rakeshrenu at Rs 180 - for details visit: others/FreedomStruggle.pdf - editor]

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2013 on page no. 21

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