Here is Christina Rossetti’s Indian Mutiny poem, first published in her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862):
In the Round Tower at Jhansi
June 8, 1857 , Chirstina Rossetti
A hundred, a thousand to one; even so;
Not a hope in the world remained:
The swarming howling wretches below
Gained and gained and gained.
Skene looked at his pale young wife:?
'Is the time come?'?'The time is come!'?
Young, strong, and so full of life:
The agony struck them dumb.
Close his arm about her now,
Close her cheek to his,
Close the pistol to her brow?
God forgive them this!
'Will it hurt much?'?'No, mine own:
I wish I could bear the pang for both.'
'I wish I could bear the pang alone:
Courage, dear, I am not loth.'
Kiss and kiss: 'It is not pain
Thus to kiss and die.
One kiss more.'?'And yet one again.'?
A footnote appeared in 1875: ‘I retain this little poem, not as historically accurate, but as written and published before I heard the supposed facts of its first verse contradicted.”
Rossetti wrote the poem in September 1857 and was probably inspired what she had read either in the Illustrated London News or in the Times, before the Times revised their version of events.
However, this account was soon contradicted by a number of other eye-witness accounts, and on September 11 the Times printed a new letter, with some corroboration from surrounding letters, reporting that Skene, his wife, and the other Europeans had surrendered and voluntarily left the fort, under assurances of safe passage. They were subsequently all killed, according to these new accounts, “by the sword.” She chose to go with it anyway – and published her poem in 1859 and reprinted it, in 1862 with an extra stanza, in the volume “Goblin Market and Other Poems.”
I will not present you, dear readers, with a dissertation on the merits of and the obvious untruths of Rossetti’s poem. However, it does further prove yet another instance of stories, already quite horrible, being given a sheen of romanticism which they hardly deserve. As a poem, I will let it stand as it is and in my heart, it is the end can imagine the Skenes themselves would have preferred. Their deaths were anything but so picturesque. Why it took her 13 years to write a footnote is somewhat befuddling but perhaps she was far removed from the level plain to be concerned with earthly truths? At least she did not try to convince anyone her poem was true. At least she did not try to convince anyone her poem was true though she still speaks of “supposed facts.”
The events at Jhansi are, even in this century, much disputed and by presenting them here, with this humble effort, I would like to stress to my readers that I am taking a non-partisan stance. The discussion whether Lakshmi Bhai was coerced or a willing participant, a saint or a sinner, is not my objective. It can be discussed until every side shouts themselves hoarse and there would still be no definitive answer. I will not entertain anyone who wants to portray her as the pan-ultimate heroine, yet in the same vein, I refuse to vilify her as a demon. We must always look back at the times before anointing anyone with lofty titles. We will never know her true motivations – but suffice to say, her actions had very unpleasant consequences for a rather large group of people and the repercussions were still being felt long after the massacre at Jhansi.
The Doctrine of Lapse
One of the more perfidious schemes of the East India Company to grab huge swaths of Indian territory was by the use of the Doctrine of Lapse. It was nothing more than a policy of annexation as related to the princely states of India and was still in force until 1859. Certain elements of it were used well until 1971 to remove the remaining recognition of princely families and render them powerless. So despite of its drawbacks, it seems post-independence India found a use for this rather wicked doctrine as well.
There is no simple way to explain the Doctrine of Lapse yet it basically falls under the category of land grabbing.
Accordingly, any princely state under the dominion of the East India Company would have its princely status revoked ( and thus leading to annexation into British territory) if the ruler was either
“manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir.” It comprised of the following points:
- Policy to expand British territory in India on basis of pro-imperialistic approach.
- State must be handed over to British, if they have no heir or ruler.
- Adoptions of child were not accepted for heir.
- Policy was not in support to give title and pension to adopted child of rulers.
- Adopted heir would inherit only the personal property of the ruler
- Ended the title and pension.
An adopted heir could be recognized but only on the say so of the EIC and getting their approval was basically impossible. Nana Sahib went so far as to send an envoy to England to appeal his case, with no success. His case was particularly painful – on the death of his adopted father, the exiled Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao II in 1851, (he had been exiled to Bithur after the conclusion of the Third Maratha War in 1819) Nana Sahib was denied the pension which had been granted to Baji Rao – the sum of 80’000 pounds in today’s money, under the pretext that he was not an heir and the kingdom which had been bestowed upon him through adoption, no longer existed. Although independently still wealthy, Nana Sahib was denied a title and all grants were suspended.
By this declaration the long established right of an Indian ruler to choose his own successor was made null and void. It also gave the EIC the complete right to decide who was competent and who wasn’t. it is no surprise that this heavy-handed, discriminatory and frankly cruel doctrine was very much resented by many Indians. It is small wonder, when 1857 came around, disbanded soldiers and the general populace rallied behind these deposed dynasties – a point in fact is Kanpur. It was its application in Oudh by Dalhousie that can be directly said to be one of the many causes of the mutiny – it was used against Nana Sahib to depose him as an adopted son, and against the rulers of Oudh to charge them with misrule. It can be no coincidence that the EIC gathered a further 4 million pounds to its annual revenue by this doctrine alone and little wonder that the mutinies in Oudh took on such a sinister and brutal face. Here it was not just disgruntled soldiers – it was the entire population that bore the British a grudge. Greed on the part of the EIC is undoubtedly one of the driving issues behind the rebellion of 1857.
Although Dalhousie is blamed for his rather vigorous use of the doctrine, it must be held to account it was not solely his invention. The directors of the East India Company had been using it as early as 1834, and subsequently annexed Mandvi in 1839, Kolaba and Jalaun in 1840, and Surat in 1840. The EIC already had administrative jurisdiction over large areas of India – in order to get their hands on as much as possible, the Doctrine of Lapse became a useful tool. However Lord Dalhousie, as Governor General of the EIC between 1848 and 1856, he applied it with such vigour that is it no wonder that this policy is widely associated with only him.
Events at Jhansi
The Mutiny at Jhansi reads, from beginning to the end, like some terrible, slow motion unravelling of a grotesque horror show. Any number of learned writers can put their own spin on it – I choose, in this case, to let the witnesses speak – their accounts are similar yet all gripped with the hand of sadness.
The ruler of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao died in 1853 with no natural heir; his adoptive son, Danodar Rao ( adopted in 1851) was denied his right of succession. Gangadhar Rao’s wife, the energetic Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibhai, sent appeal after appeal to the EIC but with no effect. She was accorded a pension of 60’000 pounds per annum, permitted to live in the palace, while being placed outside the jurisdiction of EIC courts and police. The troops at Jhansi were dismissed and soldiers of the 12th BNI were deployed to garrison the fort.
41 year old Captain Alexander Skene, political agent at Jhansi was not particularly worried when news reached him of the outbreak at Meerut. He had complete confidence in his men; and there was the Rani. He simply refused to believe that anything was wrong in Jhansi. Not that he hadn’t been warned – in May, a report reached Captain Skene that the Rani was very much in league with the troops and was planning treachery. The Rani asked Skene’s permission to raise a troop for her own defence – he did not object.
On the 1st of June, one of the signs of mutiny appeared – arson. Some officers bungalows were burnt to the ground – Captain Dunlop the commander at Jhansi, wrote it off as an accident. Pre-monsoon India is hot and dry and bungalows with thatched roofs could just quite suddenly, catch fire? Two days some sepoys seized the Star Fort which housed not only the treasury but the magazine. However, the rest of the troops still appeared loyal, even though appearances could be deceptive, and as part of the 12th BNI and a squadron of the 14th Cavalry rose up in mutiny, Captain Dunlop and 2 other officers were shot dead on the 5th of June.
Suddenly it seemed as if the time had come to actually do something – Captain Skene ordered the rest of the British and Eurasians to take refuge in the town fort and – and now, in vainly prepare to defend themselves. Here they stayed until the 8th.
Gordon sent messages to the chiefs of Datia, Tehri and Gursarai, all of whom had professed their loyalty. When no help came, he then tried to elicit aid from the tehsildar of Jhansi and several Thakurs. once again, he was met with silence. A force from nearby Nagong was thwarted in their effort to provide relief to Jhansi. It became rapidly clear to Skene that no one was coming. His only hope now lay with the Rani.
His own orderly, Sahibuddin, gave the following statement in 1858:
“I have been in Major Skene’s service for the last three years. On the 5th of June, about 3 p.m., muskets were fired near the magazine, and a loud cry was raised that the dacoits had attacked the station. Major Skene came to his house from his cutcherry, and placing his wife and children and Miss Brown in the carriage of Captain Burgess, who had come to see him, sent them all to the fort with Captain Burgess. In the meantime he ordered his carriage, which being brought to him, he drove to the Jokhun Bagh, where Mr. Gordon met him. He was also taken into the carriage. Both these gentlemen went to the fort. I remained at the bungalow. I had sent the mussalchee and khitmutgar to the fort, At 7 p.m. having dressed dinner, I and the cook went to the fort. All the officers that were present dined together. During the night I remained in the fort. Ahmed Hossein, tahsildar of Jhansie, the next morning came to see Major Skene in the fort. I told him to send us coals, wood, fowls, and eggs. He did so. He also sent some men, seven or eight in number, with sweetmeats; breakfast was then served. Memsahib and Mr. Gordon asked for tiffin without delay. There was no khitmutgar present, all had gone to the bungalow. I, Dildar chaprassi, and Captain Brown’s khitmutgar assisted in serving the tiffin, which being done, the superintendent ordered me to remove all the silver from the fort to Akheychund treasurer, but to keep as much as was required. I obeyed his orders and packed up all the things in two boxes, which I, in company with Mungul Khan and Khodabux, chaprassis, took to the house of the treasurer, While I was leaving the fort, Mr. Gordon called me back, and impressed upon me the necessity of making some arrangement that they might be put to no trouble for their meats. I went to the treasurer, gave him the two boxes, told him to examine the contents which he refused to do, stating that there was no need for that. I locked up the boxes, keeping the keys in my possession. I went towards the bungalow, taking with me some rice, potatoes, two sheep, and four geese. Gholam Mahomed chaprassi was with me, On reaching Ashan Allee Sheristadar’s house we heard a loud noise and firing of guns. It was about 2 o’clock. Near the city gateway, we saw that the Adjutant was galloping hard, and two sowars were following him. The Adjutant dismounted and went into the city through the wicket. The sowars took his horse and pelting and kicking us told us that we were going to feed the officers. We were arrested and taken to the kotee. Our houses were plundered. The sowars and the sepoys went to the jail and liberated the prisoners, who set fire to the bungalow of Andrews. A few sowars, prisoners, jail burkundauzes, and men from the town, both Hindoos and Mahomedans, commenced plundering the house of the superintendent. I and Bissram Sirdar taking advantage of this opportunity ran to the garden, Busis Allee, jail daroga, made his burkundauzes carry two boxes from the superintendent’s bungalow to his house, The same day some other boxes were carried off by Moroo Bulwant alias Mama Sahib, Ranee’s father; Goolzar Khan, jail burkundauze, took three bullocks and one cow. This man with his followers came to the garden, asked the gardener where we lay concealed. He pointed out our hiding place. Goolzar Khan caught me, his two men drew swords and pointed their muskets towards us asking where was Major Skene’s treasure. I told him that the money was always kept in the treasury, which was plundered, They then took all I had on my body, The sirdar was then plundered of all his wife’s ornaments that he had with him at the time. I was then set free; I remained in the same garden, On the morning of the 7th of June I went towards the fort with two bottles of milk and four loaves of bread. I remained outside the fort near a hay rick. Mr. Gordon, who was walking on the fort wall, saw me, Major Skene also came to the same spot; they dropped a rope to which I tied the loaves and the bottles of milk. I at the same time informed him that the house was plundered. I was told that I could not get access to the fort, but that I should try if I could furnish them with provision in the same way, While returning from the fort I was arrested by Choonee, a relative of Jharoo Koar, and some other men from the town whom I can recognise, but whose names I do not know, and was taken to Mama Sahib, because I had supplied the officers with food. Mama Sahib ordered his men to take me to Jemadar Lall Bahadoor and the ressaldar to be murdered or to be blown from a gun. The jemadar and the ressaldar first ordered me to be shot, then they recalled their order and kept me confined.“
It was a small, and sadly pathetic force, made up of 55 people including many women and children and only four of the men were soldiers or had had any military experience at all. They had had nothing but ill-luck for days.
“The sowars there severely wounded with pistols or carbines Lieutenant Campbell of the 15th Native Infantry, the only officer present with the 14th Irregulars. He escaped to the city fort pursued by sowars, some of whom were wounded by the officers inside it. Lieutenant Turnbull of the artillery employed in the revenue survey failed to reach the fort. I suppose he was on foot; he took refuge in a tree, he was seen to climb it, and was shot down. Lieutenant Burgess of the revenue survey department and some of his English and Eurasian subordinates had been living for sometime in the city fort. On the evening of the 4th of June he was joined by Major Skene, his wife (and I believe two children); Captain Gordon, Madras Native Infantry; Dr. McEgan, 12th Native Infantry, and his wife; Lieutenant Powys, 6th Native Infantry, canal department, and his wife and child; two ladies from Orai, relatives or guests to Captain Browne; and the English and Eurasian employees in the civil and canal department and salt excise.
They employed their time until they were attacked on the 7th in getting provisions and ammunition, and fire-arms into the fort; they piled stones behind the gates to prevent their being opened. They appear to have made great havoc among the assailants with rifles and guns, only one of their number being killed by those outside Captain Gordon; he was shot through the head when he exposed himself at the parapet. A native who was in the fort said he was kneeling over pulling up a bucket, some syce in the lower enclosure had filled with wheat. A native who was in the city at the time said he was firing at the assailants, but both agreed that he (Captain Gordon) was shot in the head when exposing himself at the parapet; they all agreed that Lieutenant Powys was killed by Mussulmans inside the fort.
The native who was inside the fort says that Lieutenant Powys was found by Captain Burgess and others lying bleeding from a wound in the neck, and was able to say that four men beside him had attacked him; the four were immediately put to death, one was a ressaldar (?) moonshee, another a jemadar, and two chaprassis: all four were employed in the revenue survey; the informant who was in the city said that Lieutenant Powys saw a khitmutgar of Captain Burgess attempt to pull down the stones that closed the fort gates and shot him, that this man’s brother cut Lieutenant Powys down with his tulwar, and was instantly shot down by Lieutenant Burgess.” (PG Scot)
Interestingly enough, the Skene’s vakil had a different account of Captain Gordon’s death – “after making a most gallant resistance, finding the place no longer defensible, and preferring death to surrender, shot himself through the head, putting the muzzle under his chin and pulling the trigger with his toes…”
On the 8th of June, the sepoys offered a bargain with Skene – the lives of the besieged in return for the fort. They were given an offer of safe passage, and would allow Skene and his party to leave unmolested, if they laid down their arms. Sceptical, Skene demanded a letter from Rani herself. Mrs. Mutlow, a pregnant Eurasian woman who, with her small son, would be one of the only survivors of the fort, gave the following statement to the capitulation:
“..that regiment subadar wrote to Captain Skene to come out of the fort, saying, ‘We will not kill any of you, we will send you all to your own country’ so Captain Scene wrote to the Ranee to tell the sepoys to take their oath and to sign her name on the letter. All the Hindoos took their oath, “If any of us touch your people just as we eat beef;” and those Mussulmans took their oath, “if any of us touch you just as we eat pork;” and the Ranee signed her name on the top of the letter, and it was given to Captain Skene. As soon as he read the note everyone was agreed to it..”
Oaths Mean Little
Oaths mean little to men whose will is set to treachery.
The party left the fort – and with no hesitation on the part of the sepoys, were immediately taken prisoner. Shahibuddin continues:
” About 4 or 5 p.m. it was reported that the officers were coming down from the fort. I also went to the gateway. When my master with memsahib and other officers came down, I saluted him and could not help weeping, The sowars and sepoys pelted us with stones and obliged us to separate. All the officers went to one side and their servants joined me. The mutinous sepoys and Ranee’s men took the officers to the Jokhun Bagh, and all the servants, including myself, were sent to the pultun. The ladies and officers were murdered near the garden. All the people of the town were with the sepoys. After perpetrating this inhuman deed, Bukish Ally, the jail daroga, sowar, sepoys, and the Ranee went to the pultun to the ressaldar. Bukish Ally observed that he had killed the burra sahib with one stroke, Then the subadar, the ressaldar, and the Ranee’s men came to the parade ground, and ordered that the prisoners should be set free, We were in consequence liberated, The next morning I went to the garden of Jokhun Bagh, and saw that the bodies of the officers, ladies, and children were lying unburied, without clothes. The third day I was told that the bodies were buried in a pit, but by whom is not exactly known; when I had gone to see the dead bodies, I wrapped memsahib in a piece of cloth which was tied to my head. One day before the murder of the officers it was proclaimed in the town by the beat of drum that “the country belonged to the king, the Ranee held the rule, and that the officers will be killed to-morrow.” After the murder no proclamation was issued.”
Another version was offered by P.G. Scot.
“The party at last were induced to open the gates relying on the most solemn promises made to Major Skene that the lives of all would be spared; they all walked out save Lieutenant Powys who was alive, but unable to move; his wife was torn from him, and, with the rest of the Christians, was beheaded in a garden near or in the city. Women and children were alike killed; the men are said to have pleaded hard for the lives of these last, The informant who was inside the fortress says that quarter master Sergeant John Newton, of the 12th Native Infantry, and his wife and four little children were alone spared, and taken with the rebels when they left Jhansie; he was a dark East Indian; he was received in September or October last from 3rd Europeans.” (P.G. Scot)
Mrs. Mutlow was one of the survivors at Jhansi – she too left a statement in 1858, and owed her survival to being able to slip away, unnoticed.
“As we came out of the fort the sepoys came and put their guard around them. I was out of the guard with my ayah; they did not take notice of me. I told my ayah to take me to her house; she said they would kill her; she brought and left me in the Jokhun Bagh, where a Hindoo grave is made like a house. I remained there about a month. I gave my earring to that gardener to get something for me to eat; he brought chunna flour and made rotie, so I lived on mowah and chunna for some time, and Dowlutram came from Saugor and heard of me; he came to me that very evening, and prepared everything for me, and saved me from those sowars who came from Saugor. From the month of July this man gave me to eat; he used to get me wheat and rice, ghee, and when not able to go to the bazar, he used to give me ready money, and he gave me a female to do every business for me, and used to give her a rupee per month and four annas for house rent every month; and I sent Dowlutram twice to Saugor; he was caught twice on the road; those letters came to Jhansie to the Ranee, and she was looking out for me and Dowlutram. So Dowlutram hid himself and me and two children. “
“…they were seized by the rabble and conveyed to Jokhun Bagh, where they were separated into three lines, one comprising all adult males, another all adult females, and a third all the children. Then commenced the horrid massacre, the daroga of the jail first raising his sword and killing Captain Skene. Then all hands were raised and an indiscriminate slaughter took place, the males were despatched first, the females next, and the murder of children closed the brutal scene.
Poor Captain Skene before he received the finishing stroke exclaimed to a sepoy who was standing beside him “that it was idle for the mutineers to hope that England would be denuded of all her bold sons by the destruction of the handful of men that were now at their mercy”, and poor Mr. Carshore’s eldest son before he was murdered begged in Hindee that his life might be spared as he hoped that the vengeance of the mutineers had been satisfied by the blood of his father and mother. (Narrative of a Bengali clerk , of the Jhansi Customs Collector’s office.)
Mrs. Mutlow remained in hiding with her children, finally writing, ” I suffered a great deal in this Jhansie, lost my husband and brother-in-law, and all my property, and turned as a beggar, only to save my two children. Now its master’s will to do some good for me and two children. I have no one in this world just now, except master. I have one sister in Rangoon in the 84th regiment, Mrs. Susan Leary, and one sister was in Nagode in the 3rd Native Infantry, Mrs. Agnes W. Karard. But l don’t know where they are now. My father-in-law and mother-in-law is in Vellore, Queen’s pensioner, Mr. Mark Mutlow.”
Those killed at Jhansi
- Mr. T. Andrews, Principal Sadr Amin. Jhansi
- Mr. Robert Andrews, Collector and Magistrate, Mrs. Andrews and four children
- Mr. Bennett, Sub-Assistant Revenue Surveyor
- Mr. D.T. Blyth,Asst. Revenue Surveyor, Mrs. Blyth, her mother and four children
- Mrs. Browne, wife of Captain Browne, Deputy Commissioner at Joloun, one child
Miss Browne, sister
- Lieutenant Burgess, Revenue Surveyor, Bundelkhand
- Lieutenant J. A. Campbell, Commanding Detachment of Irregular Cavalry – killed on the 5th of June
- Mr. William Samuel Carshore, Collector of Customs, aged 55
- Mrs. Mary Jane Franklin Seyers Carshore aged 28 and four children, – Mary Seyers was born in Calcutta, the daughter of Thomas Seyers, an apothecary. She had spent her whole life in Bengal and the North West Provinces, mostly schooled at home. In 1850, she married William Carshore, 15 years her senior, the son of an indigo planter. Mary left behind a book of poetry in which she stated, writing of herself in the third person, ‘cannot boast an extensive or intimate acquaintance with the literature of the West, and her only object in publishing the following tales and songs has been, to give a more correct idea of native customs and manners, than she has yet observed Europeans to possess’. She only published one book of verse in 1855, called Songs of the East.
- Arthur Carshore, aged 4
- Herbert Carshore, aged 8 months
- Violet Carshore, aged aged 2
- Clara Carshore aged 3
- Mr. Crawford, clerk – escaped
- Captain Dunlop, 12th B.N.I., commanding at Jhnasi – killed on the 5th of Jun
- Mr. D.G. Elliott, Clerk, Deputy Comissioner’s Office, with his mother and father
- Mr. Fleming, killed in Jhansi. He was discovered hiding in an Indian clerk’s home, dragged outside and killed.
- Mr. Gabriel
- Captain Francis David Gordon, 10th Madras N.I., Deputy Comissioner Jhansi, aged 35. Last surviving son of Michael Francis Gordon, Esq, of Abergeldie, County of Aberdeen.
- Sergeant Kailly,
- Dr. McEgan, wife and sister
- Sergeant H. Millard, Sub-Assistant Revenue Surveyor, wife and three children
- Mr. Munrow, Sub-Assistant Revenue Surveyor
- Mr. Mutlow, Clerk, Superintendent’s Office, wife and 2 children.
- Mr. Mutlow, brother of above.
- Quarter Master Sergeant Newton, Mrs. Newton and two children – killed on the 5th of June, Scot claims they survived. However, as their names appear in Blunt’s List of Incriptions on the memorial a Jhansi, it is more than likely that Scot is wrong.
- Mr. Orr, wife and mother, Superintendent of Customs
- Mr. Palfreyman, Apprentice
- Mr. G. Parcell, Clerk, Head Clerk, Superintendent’s Office
- Mr. J. Parell, Clerk, Deputy Commissioner’s Office
- Lieutenant Powys, Irrigation, Mrs. Powys and one child
- Sergeant Ryley or Reilly ,Overseer, Public Works – escaped
- Lieutenant W.C.L. Ryves, purported to have escaped.
- Mr. Arthur Scott, Head Clerk, Deputy Commissioner’s Office, husband of Ruth Scott who was not at Jhansi
- Captain Alexander Skene, Superintendent
- Mrs Margaret Herschel Cumberledge Skene, born 1834, and 2 daughters
- Mary Isabella Skene, born 29th July ,1854
- Beatrice Harriet Annie Skene, born 11th December, 1855
- Ensign S.B. Taylor, 12th B.N.I.
- Lieutenant Turnbull, Assistant Revenue Surveyor, Bundelkhand – – killed on the 5th of June. ” So warm-hearted and anxious to do good..” He had been with his brothers shortly before the mutiny broke out, and had hastened to return to Jhansi.
- Mr. J. Young, Sub-Assistant Revenue Surveyor, Mrs. Young
- Mr. G. Young, Apprentice
- Mr Winton (or Wetton) Mrs Winton
- 2 sisters of Mrs. Winton
Crawford and Reilly, both Anglo Indians, escaped from the Fort on the 7th. Crawford went towards Samthar and Cawnpore, while Reilly went to Burwa Saugor.
Mssrs. Andrews, Scott and both Purcells had left the fort on the 7th in disguise, hoping to get an interview with the Rani. They were denied an audience and killed outside the palace.
What Jhansi Wasn’t
This highly fantastical, and very inflammatory painting served a fiendish purpose – to enrage Victorian morality, reiterate the stereotype of the “lascivious heathen”, feed an ever increasing public appetite for horror and fuel the cry of revenge. Every aspect of the scene is wrong, as if a truthful account simply wasn’t bad enough.
Gordon’s servant witnessed the scene:
“Captain Browne’s sister begged very hard for her life. She said she would remain whereever they told her and held the hand of the sepoy, but they would not spare her and she was killed too.” Mrs. McEgan, the wife of the doctor, threw her arms around her husband, – the sepoys beat her, and cast her aside. When the doctor’s lifeless body lay on the ground, his wife threw herself onto his body and was shortly after killed.
This of course, is the famous story of the death of Captain Skene and his wife. Suffice to say, it was anything as romantic as Rossetti or as straightforward as the writer of the letter, – known as R.G. – had envisioned, or the painter of this picture, for that matter.
Christina Rossetti was not the only poet who eulogised Jhansi.
“How They Died at Thansi” by Louisa Annie Murray – it strikes all the right notes – bravery, heroism, sacrifice and rolls it up in a Scottish blanket of pride. Essentially there is nothing wrong with that – but like Rossetti, it is just unfortunate that poets allow themselves so much liberty with other people’s fates.
What Happened to the Rani Of Jhansi
After the Doctrine of Lapse came into place, she pleaded and petitioned the case of her adopted son to no avail – it is highly unlikely that even after it became clear that Jhansi had been illegally annexed, that the Rani was not holding a very large grudge.
However, even after the massacre on the 8th of June, she still had supporters among the British. It could not be established whether she had ordered the massacre, had been threatened by her own people to do nothing to stop it, or if she simply turned a blind eye. Her letters to Major Erskine had the desired effect, she wrote the following:
Translation of Khureeta of the Ranee of Jhansee to the address of the Commr. and Agent Lieutenant Governor, Saugor Division dated (supposed) 12th June 1857.
After compliments. States that the Govt. forces, stationed at Jhansie, thro’ their faithlessness, cruelty and violence, killed all the European Civil and Military Officers, the clerks and all their families and the Ranee not being able to assist them for want of Guns, and soldiers as she had only 100 or 50 people engaged in guarding her house she could render them no aid, which she very much regrets. That they the mutineers afterwards behaved with much violence against herself and servants, and extorted a great deal of money from her, and said that as the Ranee was entitled to succeed to the Reasut, she should undertake the management since the Sepoys were proceeding to Delhi to the King.
That her dependence was entirely on the British authorities who met with such a misfortune the Sepoys knowing her to be quite helpless sent her messages thro’ the Tehseeldar of Jhansie, the Revenue and Judicial Seristadars of the Deputy Commissioner’s and Superintendent’s Courts to the effect that if she, at all hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her palace with guns. Taking into consideration her position she was obliged to consent to all the requests made and put up with a great deal of annoyance, and had to pay large sums in property, as well as in cash to save her life and honour.
Knowing that no British Officers had been spared in the whole District, she was, in consideration of the welfare and protection of the people, and the District, induced to address Perwannahs to all the Govt. subordinate Agency in the shape of Police &c. to remain at their posts and perform their duties as usual, she is in continual dread of her own life and that of the inhabitants.
It was proper that the report of all this should have been made immediately, but the disaffected allowed her no opportunity for so doing. As they have this day proceeded towards Delhi, she loses no time in writing.” (British translation from the original Persian)
Erskine was completely convinced of her innocence and requested her, in his letter, to assume control of Jhansi, until a new superintendent could be sent. She took up the reigns quite willingly and proved herself a strong and competent leader. With the mutineers now gone from Jhansi, she set about ruling her domain.
The British were suddenly nowhere in sight and the Rani was left on her own. She successfully kept the mutineers at bay when they attempted to put the nephew of her husband on the throne, then she defended herself against attacks by Orchha and Datia (the erstwhile friends Gordon had tried to convince to come to his aid) who now, though still loyal to the British, wanted to carve up Jhansi between themselves.
Her intention appears to have been to hold Jhansi for the British – but in the meantime, the wind had turned against her, and they were no longer so convinced that she wasn’t responsible for the massacre after all. All her requests now for aid went unanswered.
When they finally did come to retake Jhansi, by any means necessary, in March 1858, she issued a proclaimation: “We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”
Following the Siege of Jhansi which started in March 1958 and ended on the 2nd of April, the Rani would eventually be forced to throw in her lot with Tatya Tope, the Nawab of Banda and Rao Sahib, (brother of Nana) – the British force came with such a vengeance with no quarter given, leaving Jhansi in ruins and countless numbers of its citizens killed. Such brutality has seldom been seen in the records of man and for the sake of 55 people, dead nearly a year, it was a horrifying display of brute vengeance.
The Rani, with her son and loyal retainers, fled the city under cover of night, and joined the rebel forces, which included Tantya Tope, at Kalpi. it was easier for her to throw in her lot with them now – she had grown up in Bithur where her father had worked for Peshwa Baji Rao II and she counted among her childhood friends Nana Sahib and Tope.United with old friends they now set their sights on a common goal.
This brief respite ended on the 22nd of May when the British forces attacked Kalpi and the forces which the Rani herself now commanded were defeated. Fleeing to Gwalior, it would again prove to not go as planned.
On the 17th of June she once again met Sir Hugh Rose’s force in the field. It was to be her last fight.
The Rani of Jhansi was killed, in battle, while facing a squadron of the 8th Hussars, and thus passed into legend.
Generations may argue her innocence or condemn her as guilty. It is unfortunately an argument no one can win with any satisfaction. There is no question she proved her prowess in battle and she was a strong leader – but she was not a ringleader. She did not start the mutiny, instigate it or even play a very large role. Her concern first and foremost, had been Jhansi itself. Her actions must speak for themselves.
Letters, Despatches and Other State Papers, Volume IV (Forrest)
The Revolt in Central India 1857-59 (Intelligence Branch, Army H.Q., India)
Annals of the Indian Rebellion 1857-58 (Chick)
Red Year (Edwardes)
The History of the Indian Mutiny (Ball)
The Great Mutiny (Hibbert)
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Malleson)
The Rani of Jhansi (Lebra-Chapman)
List of inscriptions on Christian tombs and tablets of historical interest in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.(Blunt)
Personal Narrative of the Escape from Nowgong, to Banda and Nagode (Scot)