Alanna Li is a youth educational equity activist and grassroots organizer from Maryland. She is the co-founder of Lifting Lives, a nonprofit that mitigates the impact of educational inequality, and has worked on political campaigns such as the Ossoff for Senate Campaign in Georgia.

The sporadically narrated dark tale of an Industrial city: the Siege of Cawnpore and the succeeding events.

When the humanities department of my high school came up with the proposal of a ‘Historical Walk’, I didn’t know what to expect. I grew up in the industrial city of Kanpur where debris from leather factories collects along the riverbanks faster than dust on windowpanes and popular topics of conversation are mostly politics and pollution. Most of the people here are either into commercial jobs or are techies. To be honest, my school didn’t even have a humanities department until 2018.

 

If you were to book a tour of all the places of historical importance in this city, it would be more of a scavenger hunt than an itinerary. In a city where social sciences are virtually dead, it’s not surprising that very few people know about the Siege of Cawnpore (as the city was called during the British era). 

 

In 1857, there was a mutiny and within a matter of weeks, it turned into the most well-known revolt in the Indian history. Indians put up a collective resistance against colonial rule for the first time and like the French or Russian Revolution, this near-attempt of overthrowing the government was violent. The authors of history textbooks love to summarize the details with words like violence, heroism, and sacrifice. However, history feeds on a storyline to keep itself alive and demands accountability from all the concerned parties; the two elements textbooks choose to overlook. 

 

The historical walk took us to three places- the All Souls Church, the Massacre Ghat, and Nana Rao Park. These seemingly unrelated locations hold factions of a dark and violent past that I’m about to narrate. 

 

The Siege of Cawnpore:

In June 1857, the rebel army under the command of Nana Sahib laid a siege on the British entrenchment where as many as a thousand British troops, their families, and loyal Indian soldiers had taken refuge including the British general at Cawnpore, Hugh Wheeler. The Siege lasted from 5th to 25th June and in the course of which the British suffered heavy losses owing to the lack of supplies, outbreak of cholera and dysentery due to unsanitary conditions, and heavy firing and bombardment from the rebel army that weakened their defenses. 

 

The Satichaura Ghat Massacre:

On 25th June, General Wheeler formally surrendered in exchange for a safe passage to the neighboring city of Allahabad to which Nana Sahib obliged and by the morning of 27th June, an evacuation via roughly forty boats was arranged. Owing to the shallow depth of the river near the Satichaura Ghat, the departure was considerably delayed as the British found it difficult to get their boats to float. While the British were grappling to set course, gunshots were heard in the perimeter and within moments of paranoia and apprehension, the entire convoy was fighting with the rebels overseeing the evacuation. 

It is still ambiguous as to whether it was a planned attempt to instigate an attack or a mere misunderstanding. While some first-person accounts deem it as a ploy, others negate it. However, a large number of British soldiers as well as rebels were killed. The captured British soldiers, along with women and children, were then moved to Bibighar (a villa in Kanpur) and were incarcerated under the care of a woman called Hussaini Begum. 

The ghat was later renamed as Massacre Ghat.

 

The Bibighar Massacre:

As the fighting between the rebels and the British progressed on other North Indian fronts, Nana Sahib decided to use these captives for bargaining with the East India Company. However, his attempts failed and a large chunk of the British army penetrated within the considerable distance of the city. There was news of brutal violence against the villagers at the hand of the advancing British army. It has been speculated that the Bibighar massacre was a reaction to this news. 

Nana Sahib’s associates were growing impatient and suggestions were being passed around to kill the captives. On July 15th orders were issued to execute all the prisoners, including women and children. Women in Nana Sahib’s household went on a hunger strike against this decision but it was all in vain. It is unclear as to who issued the orders, however, Nana Sahib left the building, unable to bring himself to witness this gory massacre. 

The rebels executed the four surviving male hostages first, including a fourteen-year-old boy. However, despite repeated orders and threats from Tatya Tope, they could not bring themselves to execute the women and children. The women barricaded themselves in a room and refused to come out. The first round of soldiers open-fired however, after witnessing the clamor and bloodshed, the second group threw their weapons and stood their ground, refusing to execute women and children. 

 

What ensued was one of the most brutal acts of violence ever committed in the course of the Indian freedom struggle. Hussaini Begum denounced the rebels as cowards and ordered her aide to finish the task. She hired butchers who murdered the captives with cleavers and their bodies were thrown into a well. Those who had managed to hide beneath the dead bodies were thrown alive into the well, including children aged four to seven.

 

When the British recaptured Cawnpore and arrived at the scene, the graphic and disturbing scene of mass murder infuriated them. They followed a policy of brutal crackdown and violence against the city’s population and that of neighboring villages. Those who tried to protest were either shot down or burnt alive. At one such instance, when a village of two thousand people protested, it was surrounded and set on fire. Those who tried to escape were shot dead. There were reports of mass rapes and most of the rebels who had been taken prisoner were insulted and hanged directly facing the Bibighar well.

 

The details of the incident are way gorier than mentioned. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 continues to remain the most documented mass murder in the country’s history while the Massacre of 1857 is seldom talked about. 

 

AFTERMATH:

After the revolt was suppressed, a memorial railing and cross at the site of the well were constructed. The inhabitants of the city were forced to pay reparation of 30,000 pounds for the construction of the memorial. The Angel of Resurrection, one of the most famous statues of British India, was constructed as a memorial in 1865.

The statue incurred certain damages during the Independence celebration of 1947 and was later removed from the original site over the Bibighar well to the All Souls Memorial Church(built-in 1875).

Today, the well has been sealed off and a skating court has been constructed over it. A small wooden plank near the banyan tree overlooking the well where approximately 135 undocumented rebels were hanged recalls the incident. 

 

This untold chapter of my city’s history had a profound impact on me and I guess it is alarming that even after spending years in this city no one ever taught us about it until an exclusive field trip. 

 

This is a small attempt at keeping the tale alive.

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