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Chapter 2: Mutiny and Massacre
April to May 1857
The punishment handed out to the 34th and 19th Native Infantry regiments was foolish; it turned out to be an ineffectual lesson and proved counter-productive. Rumbles of disaffection flew from nearly every station throughout Bengal and the northwest provinces. At Agra, Ambala and other places arson became frequent; letters calling on the sepoys to revolt were frequently intercepted, while at Lucknow serious disturbances occurred and Sir Henry Lawrence, Commissioner for Awadh (Oude), disarmed the 7th NI Regiment.
So the month of April passed, and as it went on the feeling of disquiet and danger grew deeper and more general. It was like the anxious time preceding a thunderstorm – the clouds were gathering, but how or when the tempest would burst none could say. Many Europeans still maintained stoutly that there was no danger whatever, and that the whole thing would blow over, but men with wives and families were inclined to take a more sombre view.
In 1857 the British formed a tiny portion of India’s population, isolated among the natives, outnumbered by a thousand to one. Any man would be forgiven for feeling helpless to assist those he loved in the event of an uprising of the people in the face of such odds. The soldiers without family ties took things more lightly, excited by the whiff of danger and strong in the youthful belief that they would always get through somehow – but the men with wives and children in India had every reason to be anxious, very very anxious.
The conflagration erupted far from Calcutta, in the northwest at Meerut. The military cantonment here was substantial in size, and for once there was an almost equal number of British soldiers alongside their native counterparts: about 2,350 native infantry and cavalry and just over 2,000 white soldiers, with twelve British-manned artillery pieces.
The British command was well aware of the unrest swelling over the Enfield cartridge issue, but in spite of it Lieutenant-Colonel Carmichael-Smyth, commanding the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, ordered ninety sowars – the cavalry equivalent of sepoys – to parade for firing drill on the 24th of April 1857. All except for five refused to touch the cartridges issued to them, in spite of the fact that they were of the old pattern which they were familiar with.
On the following day, the entire cantonment was paraded to watch the degrading and jailing of the eighty-five sowars for mutiny. After the court-martial they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, their badges and medals – records of long and faithful service in the past – were ripped from their uniforms. Then they were taken away shackled in irons. By the end of the month the native contingents were verging on open rebellion.
By the end of the first week in May there were loud mutterings from the ranks and white officers were scowled at. To the Indian troops who had witnessed the trial, the disgraced men were heroes – martyrs sacrificing themselves for their religious beliefs. They were all aware of the secret messages proclaiming an uprising to come at the month’s end, but suddenly they could not wait. Tomorrow was Sunday and the white sahibs would go unarmed to church. It was an opportunity not to be missed.
At seven pm on Sunday, the 10th of May, the church bells finished their clangour and the doors shut on the European congregation. Immediately, the men of the 3rd Bengal, brandishing their swords, attacked the gaol and freed their comrades. Meanwhile, the 11th and 20th Native Infantry fell into their ranks and confronted their commander, Colonel Finnis and his sergeant, neither of whom had attended the church service. For some time, the colonel attempted to calm the men’s nerves, but as dark began to fall, the sepoys’ patience broke – there was a flash of muskets from the ranks, and the mutiny claimed its first white victim as Colonel Finnis fell dead.
If it had been competently commanded, the ample British force would have been more than sufficient to have crushed the native troops and stopped the spores of mutiny spreading to other stations. Unfortunately, Major-General Hewitt was an elderly time server, lacking all energy. He dithered in a state of indecision as all hell broke loose around him. Geography was also against the British troops. Meerut’s cantonments were almost five miles in length by two and the British barracks stood at almost opposite ends from those of the native regiments. These two factors paralysed the British response to the situation.
Delays only escalated the violence. The sepoys shot their officers, murdered all the women and children, and the white inhabitants whose bungalows were situated at their end of the cantonment. The miserable white residents were dragged from their hiding-places, chased along the streets and barbarously mutilated before being slain. After setting fire to the whole of this quarter of Meerut, the native regiments formed up and marched off towards their cultural capital Delhi, unchecked by the stunned British soldiers.
Even at this late date an urgent despatch to the officer commanding at Delhi might have saved the lives of hundreds of Englishmen and women, but nothing was done. The Meerut troops made a few meaningless and uncertain movements, then marched back to their barracks. No one came forward to take the lead. So the white troops of Meerut remained stationary in battle array all night and the substantial European population of Delhi was left to its fate.
The Meerut mutineers, marching all night, covered the thirty-two miles to Delhi and arrived outside the walls after sun-up at eight. Surprisingly, the ancient capital of India, centre of Hindu and Muslim aspiration and where Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the Mughal emperor, and his family resided, was left entirely to the guard of native troops; not a single British regiment was garrisoned there. However, as the major commercial centre of the vast province, Delhi held a large European population of bankers, merchants, missionaries, civilian administrators, and officers of the native infantry and artillery regiments, including all their families.
As at all other Indian towns, the great bulk of the whites lived in cantonments outside the walls, and had it not been for this, no one would have escaped the slaughter that commenced as soon as the sowars of the 3rd Light Cavalry rode into the town from Meerut. The resident 54th NI, which had hastily marched out to meet them, fraternised at once and, standing quietly by, looked on while their subedars were savagely butchered by the cavalrymen. No native officers were allowed to stand in the mutineers’ way unless they swiftly declared loyalty. Then began a scene of murder and atrocity yet without parallel, in which the city streets literally ran with rivers of blood.
With the exception of some half-dozen, who in one way or other managed to escape, the whole of Delhi’s white population inside the city walls was slain under circumstances of the most horrible and revolting cruelty. Those living in the cantonments outside the city fared somewhat better. Some were killed, but the greater part made their escape, and although many were murdered on the way, either by villagers or by gangs of mutineers, the majority reached Meerut or Aliwal.
The victims of the Delhi massacre did not die entirely unavenged. Inside the city walls the immense magazine containing vast stores of powder, cartridges and weaponry remained in British hands. It was vital to deny the arsenal to the mutineers. Two lieutenants and six non-commissioned officers bravely defended the magazine against a mass attack while taking turns to lay powder trails as fuses. After a spirited fight, with two badly wounded and the Indian mutineers breaching their barricades, the British soldiers fired the powder trails, and in another instant a tremendous explosion mushroomed up, so huge it shook all Delhi and covered the city with a pall of oily black smoke.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 mutineers and town rabble were either atomised in the blast or crushed to a pulp under the magazine’s falling masonry, while amazingly four of the British defenders survived the explosion and made their retreat in the confusion through a small sally port on the riverside.
The mutineers, driven to a blind fury by this misfortune, ran to the Red Fort – the emperor’s palace – and demanded Bahadur instantly execute those European officers, women and children who had sought refuge under his protection. Some were spared but many were handed over to the rebellious sepoys, who dragged them screaming into the elegant courtyard, there to be slaughtered one after the other like cattle.
Although reports of the general state of unrest alarmed those at rural Sandynugghur, no one feared anything as appalling as the incidents at Meerut and Delhi, news of which had not yet reached them. In the native troops’ barracks there was a truculent spirit of insubordination, but none of the white officers doubted that they could dampen things down. And so things went on as usual, and the garden parties and the drives, and the friendly evening visiting continued just as the week before.
It was at one of these pleasant gatherings towards the end of the week that the blow fell. Most of the officers of the station, their wives, and the two or three civilians had collected at Major Warrener’s. The windows stood open, through which wafted the strains of a piano duet played by the girls. Five or six other ladies were in the drawing-room and about the same number of officers stood or sat by them, some four or five others lounged on the veranda enjoying their cheroots. When the sepoy subedar came up the walk the servants in their white coats, moving noiselessly about, were about to serve the guests with iced lemonade or a glass of wine.
‘What is it?’ asked Major Warrener, who was one of the group seated on the veranda.
‘Dispatch for the colonel, sahib.’
Colonel Renwick, seated next to the major, held out his hand for the message as Warrener turned to one of the servants. ‘Boy, bring a candle,’ he ordered. The servant quickly obeyed and the colonel opened the envelope and glanced at the contents, then uttered an exclamation which was half a groan, half a cry.
‘Good heavens! What’s the matter, colonel?’
Renwick looked again at the note and read haltingly: ‘The native troops at Meerut have mutinied, have murdered their officers and all the European men, women and children they could find, and are marching on Delhi. Look after your regiment.’
A low grunt broke from the major. He had half expected this, but it was still awful news, and for a moment the two men sat half-stunned at the extent of the calamity, while the tinkle of music and merry talk came in through the open doors to mock their ears.
‘Let’s take a walk in the compound,’ said the colonel to Major Warrener, ‘where no one can hear us. You others stay here and don’t say a word.’
For half an hour the two officers ambled up and down the garden. There could be no doubt about the truth of the news, for it was an official telegram from the adjutant at Meerut.
‘With no white forces there, Delhi will fall into the mutineers’ hands and become a centre, and the revolt will spread like wildfire all over India. What was the general at Meerut thinking? What were our men up to? It’s as inexplicable as it’s terrible. Is there anything to be done, major, do you think?’
But Major Warrener could think of nothing. The native soldiers at present knew nothing of the news, but the tidings would reach them in two or three days, for news in India spread from village to village and town to town with almost incredible speed, and Meerut was only a hundred and fifty miles away.
‘Had we better tell them inside?’ the major asked.
‘No,’ answered the colonel, ‘let them be happy for tonight – they’ll know the worst tomorrow. As they’re breaking up, ask all the officers to come round to the mess. I’ll meet them there, and we can talk the matter over, but let the ladies have one more quiet night.’ For the tenth time, he sighed deeply: ‘They’ll want all their strength and bravery for what’s to come.’
Clearing their brows, the two officers returned to the house, listened to the music and joined in the small-talk until ten o’clock struck and every one got up to go. So ended the last happy evening at Sandynugghur.