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The Sepoy Rebellion (II), Episode 51 - 27/02/06


The siege at Cawnpore (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

The siege at Cawnpore, 1857
(Getty Images)
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In June 1857 the British garrison at Cawnpore (Kanpur) was besieged by mutineers led by Nana Sahib who fooled the Cawnpore commander, General Sir Hugh Wheeler into letting his guards in to protect the treasury. The sepoys rebelled, looted the treasury and laid siege to the garrison.

For nearly three weeks the British hoped for a relief column from Lucknow. Nana Sahib is said to have heard that Sir Henry Havelock's rescue brigade was approaching and on 25 June offered the garrison safe passage down the Ganges to Allahabad. The British survivors boarded waiting boats and were then fired upon. Indian cavalrymen rode among the wounded and hacked them to death. One boat escaped with just four men.

The surviving women and children were imprisoned in a former house of a British officer's mistress. On 15 July they were murdered. To the end of the mutiny British troops would go into battle with fixed bayonets and the war cry, 'Cawnpore! Cawnpore!' and no thought of mercy.

Later, the Governor-General Charles Canning issued a declaration that any mutineer who had not committed murder could be spared execution. Canning earned the name Clemency Canning after the Times of London said of his statement "There is so much heart in the document - indeed it is all heart, for we cannot say we find anything else in it. We presume it must be called the Clemency of Canning".

During not much more than a year, the Sepoy Rebellion chalked a list of bloody sieges and battles, particularly: Lucknow, Cawnpore, Dehli, Agra, Kunch and Gwalior. British and India leaders who might never have been noticed came to the fore: Havelock, Henry and John Lawrence, Colvin Nicholson, Outram, Campbell, Barnard, Whitlock, Rose, Bahudar Shah, the Nawab of Banda, Rao Sahib, Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi and most of all, Tatya Tope.

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Historical Figure

Charles Canning (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Charles Canning
(Getty Images)
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Charles Canning 1812-1862

Charles Canning was a son of the George Canning who was briefly Prime Minister but most remembered for having fought a duel with Castlereagh over the failure of the Walcheren expedition. Briefly Canning was an MP but then through his mother became Viscount Canning in 1837, the year of Victoria's accession. For 15 years he remained in London as a minister until 1856 when he was sent to succeed Dalhousie as governor general of British India. His nickname Clemency Canning was meant to denigrate him during the trying circumstances of the sepoy rebellion. Yet he was admired by Victoria and in 1858 was appointed the first Viceroy of India.

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Did You Know...

Prince Feroz Shah played on the national belief that the British were engaged on a Christian crusade. "I now proclaim this a sacred war and exhort all according to the tenets of their religion to exert themselves. The rest I leave to God." It has a modern ring.

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Have Your Say

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Contemporary Sources

The Queen shows support for 'Clemency' Canning

From a letter from Queen Victoria to Charles Canning, 9 November 1857

"The queen has to thank Lord Canning for a most interesting letter of the twenty fifth of September. Lord Canning will easily believe how entirely the queen shares his feelings of sorrow and indignation at the unchristian spirit shown - alas! Also to a great extent here - by the public towards Indians in general and towards sepoys without discrimination. It is however not likely to last and comes from the horror produced by the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against the innocent women and children which really makes one's blood run cold. For the perpetrators of these awful horrors no punishment can be severe enough and, sad as it is, stern justice must be dealt out to all the guilty ones. But to the natives at large, they should know there is no hatred of brown skin. Lord Canning will not mind the abusive articles in the press and recollects how harmless they are to those who have done their duty and their only desire is to produce annoyance and mortification from some miserable private motive. "

A human story from the rebellion

Excerpt from From Sepoy to Subedar, Being the Life & Adventures of Subedar Sita Ram, a Native Officer of the Bengal Army

"One day a great number of prisoners were brought in to the Officer Commanding my regiment, and in the morning the order came that they should be shot. It chanced that it was my turn to command the firing party...

"At four o'clock in the day, the prisoners were all to be shot, and I must be my son's executioner. I went to the major sahib and requested I might be relieved from this duty as a very great favour; but he was very angry and said he should bring me to court martial for trying to shirk my duty; he would not believe I was a faithful servant of the English Government; he was sure my heart was in reality with the mutineers; he would hear me no longer. My feelings as a father got the better of me and I burst into a flood of tears. I told him I would shoot every one of the prisoners with my own hands if he ordered me, but I confessed that one of them was my son. He ordered my unhappy son to be brought before him and questioned him very strictly. He became convinced of the truth of my statement and ordered me to be relieved from this duty.

"I went to my tent bowed down with grief. In a short time I heard the deadly volley. Through the kindness of the major I was allowed to perform the funeral rites over my misguided son - the only one of the prisoners over whom it was performed for the remaining bodies were all thrown to the jackals and vultures."

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