Remember Cawnpore

By February 20, 2013February 18th, 2021No Comments

Bibighar massacre

Bibighar: the house where 200 British and other European women and children were butchered and the well where their bodies were found, 1858.

A hand-written caption identifies the man as Gungoo Mehter who was tried at Kanpur [Cawnpore] for killing many of the Sati Chaura survivors, including many women and children. He was convicted and hanged at Kanpur on 8 September, 1859.

The Bibighar Well site where a memorial had been built by 1859. [On David Cameron’s itinerary?]

The surviving British women and children were moved from the Savada House to Bibighar (House of the Ladies), a villa-type house in Cawnpore. Initially, around 120 women and children were confined to Bibighar. They were later joined by some other women and children, the survivors from General Wheeler’s boat. Another group of British women and children from Fatehgarh, and some other captive European women were also confined within Bibighar. In total, there were around 200 women and children in Bibighar.[14]

Nana Sahib placed the care of these survivors under a prostitute called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum). She put the captives to grinding corn for chapatis. Poor sanitary conditions at Bibighar led to deaths from cholera and dysentery.[3]

Nana Sahib decided to use these prisoners for bargaining with the East India Company.[5] The Company forces, consisting of around 1000 British, 150 Sikh soldiers and 30 irregular cavalry, had set out from Allahabad, under the command of General Henry Havelock, to retake Cawnpore and Lucknow.[13] The first relief force assembled under Havelock included 64th Regiment of Foot and 78th Highlanders (brought back from the Anglo-Persian War), the first arrivals of the diverted China expedition, 5th Fusiliers, part of the 90th Light Infantry (seven companies), the 84th (York and Lancaster) from Burma, and EIC Madras European Fusiliers, brought up to Calcutta from Madras.[15] Havelock’s initial force was later joined by forces under the command of Colonel James Neill and Major Renaud, which had arrived at Allahabad from Calcutta on 11 June. Nana Sahib demanded that the combined British force under General Havelock and Colonel Neill retire to Allahabad. However, the British troops advanced relentlessly towards Cawnpore. Nana Sahib sent an army to check their advance. The two armies met at Fatehpur on 12 July, where General Havelock’s force was victorious and captured the town.

Nana Sahib then sent another force under the command of his brother, Bala Rao. On 15 July, the British defeated Bala Rao’s army in the Battle of Aong, just outside the village of that name.[5] On 16 July Havelock’s force resumed its advance on  Cawnpore. During the Battle of Aong Havelock had captured some rebels, who informed him that there was an army of 5,000 mutineers with eight artillery pieces further up the road. Havelock decided to launch a flank attack on this army, but the rebels spotted the flanking manoeuvre and opened fire. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but cleared the road to Cawnpore for the British.

By this time, it became clear that Sahib’s bargaining attempts had failed and the British force was nearing Cawnpore. Nana Sahib was informed that the British troops led by Havelock and Neill were engaging in violence against the Indian villagers.[3] Some historians, such as Pramod Nayar, believe that the forthcoming Bibighar massacre was a reaction to the news of violence being perpetrated by the advancing British troops.[10]

Nana Sahib and his associates, including Tatya Tope and Azimullah Khan, debated what to do with the captives at Bibighar. Some of Nana Sahib’s advisers had already decided to kill the captives at Bibighar, as revenge for the execution of Indians by the advancing British force.[3] The women of Nana Sahib’s household opposed the decision and went on a hunger strike but their efforts were in vain.[3]

Finally, on 15 July, an order was given to murder the women and children imprisoned at Bibighar. The details of the incident, such as who ordered the massacre, are not clear.[14][16] According to some sources, Azimullah Khan ordered the murder of the captive women and children at Bibighar.[17]

The rebel sepoys executed the four surviving male hostages from Fatehghar, one of them a 14-year-old boy. But they refused to obey the order to kill the women and the other children.[5] Some of the sepoys agreed to remove the women and children from the courtyard, whereupon Tatya Tope threatened to execute them for dereliction of duty. Nana Sahib left the building because he didn’t want to be a witness to the incipient massacre.

The British women and children were ordered to come out of the assembly rooms, but they refused to do so and clung to each other. They barricaded themselves in, tying the door handles with clothing. At first, around twenty rebel soldiers opened fire on the outside of the Bibighar, firing through holes in the boarded windows. The soldiers of the squad that was supposed to fire the next round were disturbed by the scene, and discharged their shots into the air. Soon after, upon hearing the screams and groans inside, the rebel soldiers declared that they were not going to kill any more women and children.

An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum called the sepoys’ refusal cowardice and told her aide, Azimullah Khan, to finish the job of killing the captives.[5] Azimullah Khan hired butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. The butchers left when it seemed that all the captives had been killed. However, a few women and children had managed to survive by hiding under dead bodies. It was agreed that the bodies of the victims would be thrown down a dry well by some sweepers. The next morning, when the rebels arrived to dispose of the bodies, they found that three women and three children aged between four and seven years were still alive.[3] The surviving women were cast into the well by the sweepers who had also been told to strip the bodies of the murder victims. The sweepers then threw the three little boys into the well one at a time, the youngest first. Some victims, among them small children, were therefore buried alive in a heap of butchered corpses.[6]