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Siege of Cawnpore

The Siege of Cawnpore was considered to be an important part of the Sepoy’s Mutiny in 1857. When Nana Sahib captured Cawnpore, British forces surrendered to him and he promised them that they will be shifted safely to Allahabad. As the journey was commenced, they were attacked by rebel forces and many of them lost their lives in that incident. It was indeed an unpleasant event of siege of Cawnpore.

Cawnpore was an important garrison town situated on the Grand Trunk Road and Grand Trunk Canal beside the river Ganges and lay on the approaches to Punjab, Sind and Oudh provinces.

Mutiny in Kanpur

In 1857, British ruled two-thirds of India through East India Company. The remaining part of the country was under the control of princes with whom the British had an alliance. The year 1857 was an eventful year in the history of Indian people. It was in that year that the great armed uprising took place against the British rule in India. It began on 10th May 1857 at Meerut with the mutiny of Indian soldiers or ‘sepoys’ as the British used to call them. Next day these soldiers marched into Delhi where they were joined by the soldiers stationed at Delhi. The city of Delhi passed into their hands. The unrest against the British rule that had been brewing for a long time now broke out into a revolt. It was by far the most widespread challenge to the British rule. It brought together soldiers of different regions and many rulers and chiefs of different states and principalities to fight for the common aim of overthrowing the British rule. Many other sections of Indian society- landlords, peasants, artisans, scholars- joined the revolt. Because of the widespread and popular nature of the revolt, some consider it the first Indian war of Independence.

The battle at Cawnpore was led by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II. Being a brave and determined general, Nana Sahib captured the fort and declared himself the Peshwa. From then onwards the British were held in captivity.

The British contingent in Cawnpore had altogether 900 people which included military men, women, children merchants, business owners, drummers, engineers and others.

During siege the British felt that the magazine situated in the northern part of Cawnpore would help them to defend better. This place was surrounded by thick walls and had lot of ammunition and the local treasury. But General Wheeler wanted to take shelter in the southern part of the city which was not that safe. This area didn’t have proper sanitary facilities. There was only one well situated here resulting in the scarcity of water. The entrenchment that the British chose to stay in, was clearly visible to the buildings situated in the surrounding area.

Though there were many other safer places in Cawnpore, General Wheeler had chosen this area and this idea of his, still stands controversial. The reasons for this choice could be: expecting the reinforcements to arrive from the southern region of the city and thinking that the Indian soldiers would collect the money and ammunition and march towards Delhi as the Sepoy’s movement was becoming stronger over there. Therefore, he was not prepared for such a siege which lasted long.

After three weeks of siege, the British started facing the difficulties. The summers were very hot. Many died due to sunstroke. They were short of ammunition as they had to face successive bombardments, snip fire and assaults from Nana Sahib’s side. Their food supplies were getting exhausted and they had to face starvation. People were becoming sick and they were deprived of medical facilities. In such a situation Wheeler expected help from the British garrison at Lucknow, the capital of Oudh which was 50 miles away. But his efforts were in vain as Lucknow was also under siege that time.

On 24th June, 1857 Nana Sahib had permitted for the safe evacuation of the women, children and sick to Allahabad across the river Ganges. Wheeler was not very much sure of the whole process but had to accept the offer as they were short of rations.

Finally on the 27th of June, Wheeler’s garrison was allowed to move from Cawnpore. The women, children and sick climbed upon a number of thatched-roof boats with the help of some mutineers. When the boats were ready to depart, the British were attacked and shot. Soon the boats were set ablaze. The people who jumped into the waters and tried to swim to the opposite shore to save their lives were caught and hacked to death. Many people including Sir Wheeler died in this incident.

The women and children who were survived were taken to the town and incarcerated in a house called ‘Bibighar’ the House of Ladies built by an Englishman for his Indian mistress. On 15th July Nana Sahib received a news that the British troops are again on their way to capture Cawnpore. Nana Sahib who was panicked, gave an order to kill the women and children in Bibighar. They were all killed and this incident is still remembered in the history as ‘Bibighar Massacre.’

Two days later, the British under the leadership of General Sir Henry Havelock, recaptured the city of Cawnpore. However, the siege of Cawnpore had witnessed two dreadful massacres which left a black mark in the history of India.

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