Castle of despair

Against tyranny

Castle of despair

Cawnpore had been an important British military station in the 19th century. During the uprising of 1857, General Hugh Wheeler was its commander. As a precautionary measure, he gathered nearly 700 Europeans into two fortified barracks, later to be called Wheeler’s Entrenchment. But for Indians it was a ‘Castle of Despair’. After the death of Baji Rao II in 1851, Lord Dalhousie had refused to recognise Nana sahib — Peshwa’s adopted son as successor. Nana’s appeal to England was rejected unceremoniously. Still, Nana maintained cordial relations with the British and during the crisis he was called upon to take charge of the government treasury by the Collector of Cawnpore.

When the native regiments rose on June 5, Nana assumed their command and rebel guns started pounding the Entrenchment. The thatched roof of one of the barracks caught fire destroying all medicines. Apart from these attacks, sickness, unbearable summer, shortage of food and drinking water took their toll, killing 250 people within three weeks. Wheeler was crying for aid. Aid was coming, of course, but from Allahabad! Colonel James Neill of Madras Fusiliers had reached Benares on June 3. But this overzealous officer found more pleasure in hunting innocent villagers than rushing to the aid of Cawnpore garrison.

All for revenge

In the meantime, when Nana offered Wheeler a safe passage, the beleaguered garrison readily agreed. After the Capitulation Treaty was signed by Wheeler, Nana supplied 40 boats at ‘Sati Chauraghat’, a boarding place one mile away from the Entrenchment.  On the morning of June 27, the melancholy procession from the Entrenchment reached the ghat. A large crowd had already gathered to see the English off. By now, Colonel Neill’s atrocities were widely known. “Revenge!” they cried. 

Guns concealed in the bushes suddenly opened fire on the boats killing Europeans instantly. Several boats caught fire and many jumped into the water only to be cut down by the rebel cavalry. When the news of the massacre reached Nana, he ordered killing of women and children to be stopped. The wounded — exhausted European women and children were gathered and taken to ‘Savada Kothi’, later to be shifted to another bungalow called ‘Bibighar’. Meanwhile, a boat had moved on stream with a few people on board. Only four from this boat survived to tell the blood curdling story later.  

Whether Nana had really planned this massacre remains to be an enigma. Mowbray Thomson, one of the four survivors says, “We fired into them immediately,” which is interpreted as — the British provoked the attack. Historian Michael Edwardes opines, “It was one of those ghastly accidents on which any interpretation suitable to the needs of the occasion can be imposed.” Veer Savarkar asserts, “Such was the wrath of God Har Deo! Such was the hundredth anniversary of Plassey!”

When the news of the English forces nearing Cawnpore reached, Nana sent his forces to meet them near Fatehpur. But the new Enfield rifles in the hands of the enemy proved disastrous. In the battle, his brother Bala sahib was injured and had to retreat. The next battle was at Aong where Nana’s men fought bravely but their effort to blow up the bridge on Pandoo River was foiled. Now, the road to Cawnpore was secured and the British arrival was certain. This sealed the fate of the hostages at ‘Bibighar’. Five butchers entered ‘Bibighar’ on the evening of July 15 with swords in their hands. Within minutes,  shrieks of the victims filled the air. 200 helpless lives were reduced to heaps of flesh and gore. European blood flowed like water on the floor. Slowly, the shrieks died down to groans followed by deadly silence. Next morning all the dead bodies were dumped into a nearby well.

Three women and one or two children were alive. They too were thrown alive into the well. On July 17 when the British army marched victoriously, the scene in ‘Bibighar’ made their victory look hollow. As days passed, ‘Bibighar’ became a password for the English retribution. Their barbarity knew no bounds. Colonel Neill was ever ready to administer his ‘divine justice’. Every Indian before being hanged was made to lick the blood from the floor, moistened with water by low caste natives. But as this punishment alone did not satisfy him, he burnt all the bodies of Muslims and buried the bodies of Hindus so that both might be visited with eternal perdition.  

Immortalising mortals

The British immortalised the Wheeler’s Entrenchment by erecting All Souls Cathedral to mourn the victims of the ‘native treachery’. Where ‘Bibighar’ stood, a shrine was built with a marble gothic screen and the famous Mournful Seraph placed on the well. For the next 90 years, no native was ever allowed inside.

However, when India gained her independence, the people of Cawnpore could no longer bear the humiliation and damaged the memorial. Presently the remains are relocated in the churchyard of  All Souls Cathedral. For independent India, Nana sahib and his followers were no more ‘fiends’ but national heroes who fought for the freedom of India.

The Companybagh has been renamed Nana Rao Park and a bronze statue of Tantia Topi stands proudly overlooking the well. The old banyan tree on which Colonel Neill had hanged 133 martyrs has fallen on the ground, but its veiling still fills the ears of the visitors. A stone inscription alongside commemorates its sufferings.  A colonial memorial was turned into a national monument. The Ganges quietly flows at ‘Sati Chauraghat’ unmindful of the blood and human gore that had polluted her 152 years ago. What a change indeed!

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