One story which quickly captured the imagination of the public was that of Ensign Arthur Marcus Hill Cheek. The book, “The Martyr of Allahabad” first appeared in 1858 and was written by the Reverend Robert Meek. In his hands, a story of unimaginable suffering is turned into one of heroic Christianity, the perseverance of faith in the face of adversity.
The fourth child of Oswald Cheek and Emma Ashwin, Marcus was born in Evesham, Worcestershire, on 31 July 1840. He was baptised “Arthur Marcus Hill” in honour of his Godfather, Lord Arthur Marcus Cecil Hill – a Member of Parliament for Evesham at the time of his birth. By all accounts, Marcus was an affectionate and dutiful son, he was fond of reading poetry, and often read pieces by Sir Walter Scott. His friends remembered him as “pleasant, frank and open” with “a chivalrous feeling of honour and integrity..” and a remarkably cheerful disposition. And while a school master did recall Marcus as having an obstinancy of temper, and he was not a particularly bright scholar, he was eminently “truthful, courageous and gentlemanly.” Even as a child he had been fond of attending church and as he grew older, Marcus made it a point to never miss the Sunday services. His devotion to his religion was as frank as his manners – his sister had “convinced him of the good of constantly attending to this, his duty”, a teaching Marcus never forgot.
At the age of 16, after discovering a “decided predilection for the military profession,” his father, with the help of his Godfather who in his turn, used his influence with the President of the Board of Control, Robert Vernon Smith, Marcus obtained a direct appointment into the EICO’s army, enabling him to skip Addiscombe for the obligatory two years provided he passed the examination which he did in February 1857, to the “satisfaction of those who examined him.” On the 20th of March, Marcus left from Southampton docks, bidding goodbye for the last time to his father who had come with him to the ship. Having taken the overland route, Marcus arrived in Calcutta on the 28th of April, and received his appointment of ensign to the 6th Regiment of Bengal Infantry stationed in Allahabad.
He was permitted three weeks to visit his uncle and relatives all of whom were residing in India, after which he travelled to Allahabadrriving at his destination on the 19th of May. On the evening of the 6thof June, the 6th Bengal N.I. broke out into open mutiny. Anyone who could escaped to the fort – but Fate was decidedly unkind to Arthur Marcus Hill Cheek.
On the night of the mutiny, Marcus had left the Mess of the 6th early and had returned to his room, ostentatiously to write letters home. It was a short respite. On hearing shots fired, Marcus left his room and went outside. It did not take long before the sepoys had spotted him and cut him down, leaving him on the ground where he lay, presumably dead.
Severely wounded, Marcus managed to dag himself to a ravine on the banks of the Ganges. For four days he remained hidden, drinking only the water of the river as sustenance. On the fifth day, he was found by a band of sepoys and taken to the Maulvi, the leader of the Allahabad insurgents. He was held captive until the 16th when the Maulvi fled Allahabad. Marcus was found and brought into the fort but he was beyond saving and died shortly afterwards from his wounds and dehydration.
Although Marcus, in moments of consciousness, did attempt to give an account of his escape and subsequent capture, his story was too “confused” and has not been recorded in his own words. What we do have are the accounts of people who saw him shortly after his rescue up to the point of his death, after which they wrote letters to his family giving their versions of events. It is here that Marcus slips into the beau idéal of a Christian hero.
As the mutiny in Allahabad raged, the Maulvi was not beyond taking prisoners. Among his captives was a Christian convert, the Reverend Gopenauth Naundy with his family and the Conductor Coleman with his. They were not kept as bargaining chips or it seems for any other purpose other than to be tortured until they gave up their faith in Christianity.
On the 11th of May, Marcus Cheek was brought into the room –
“…he was led by two men holding his arm – not because he would run away, for he was too weak to do so, but to save him from falling down. His wounds were many, but three were severe: two in his head gaped about an inch, and one in his jaw bone. They were all sword cuts. His only clothes which he had on him – a pair of trousers and a flannel bannian – were, on account of the quantity of blood, as hard as stone. He had no shoes or stockings; his uniform had been stripped from him.”
When Marcus was dragged into the room, Gopenauth tried his best to help the boy, who was so badly injured it was a miracle he was alive. The Reverend had a little suji and sugar which he turned into a kind of gruel with a little water and fed the boy. He then tried to get him a charpoy from the guards – this was reluctantly given but it was broken and added nothing to Marcus’ comfort. It was as if “their object was to see how much he could suffer.” In the little he could tell the Reverend of the attack and capture, he managed to impress upon him, that should his life be spared, the Reverend should write to Marcus’ parents and his aunt at Bancoorah, and tell them the “account of his sufferings and end.”
Seeing the Reverand’s kind attention to the boy, the jailor dragged him away from his side and ordered the Reverend’s feet be placed in stocks, while at the same time, offering to release him if he became a Mohamedan. To push the point home, the Maulvi’s men attempted then to terrorise the poor Reverend into submission by dragging his wife across the floor by the hair with such violence she suffered a severe wound on her forehead. It was under these circumstances that Marcus found the strength to call out “Padre Sahib! Hold onto your faith! Don’t give it up!”
It had the effect of restoring the Reverend’s faith and gave him the strength to resist his tormentors and by this one act, Marcus became a martyr.
They remained imprisoned from the 10th to the 16th of June, during which time they were fed on a handful of parched grain in the middle of the day and at night a single chapati none of which Marcus could eat, on account of the wound to his jaw. The only thing he could swallow was a little milk, but this was denied him after the first day. He then was forced to subsist on the water with which they were supplied but twice daily – for hours and hours, Marcus would cry for it.
Upon the Maulvi fleeing, Marcus was brought to the garden of the American Mission house in a dooly by “some friendly people” who subsequently sent a message to the fort, mile away. Men of the Madras Fusiliers were sent out in a steamer up the Jamuna to bring him in, the Mission House being located on the river bank. Once in the fort, Marcus tried to give an account of himself, but his mind was rambling and although in his lucid moments he managed to explain how he had tried to escape but had been cut down, the one thing he remembered was “the fact of some people having been kind to him and giving him water and melons…” His injuries were extensive – ” he had an incised wound over the right ear, through the scalp, an inch and a-half long; another in the left elbow, and left humerus fracture..the skin was literally off his chest and thighs from exposure to the sun…” Besides this, he suffered a wound to the abdomen. His injuries had remained untreated for ten long days – and on the evening of the 16th of June, Marcus Cheek died in Allahabad Fort.
Marcus’ last words, however, were not addressed to his Saviour or reserved for noble ideas. At the very last, he wanted to write to his mother.
In the aftermath of his death, a flurry of letters arrived at the door of his parents, some from exalted personages but also from strangers – each extolling the virtues of Marcus and his unshakeable faith. The Honourable and Reverend Baptist W. Noel, M.A., went as far as composing a poem in Marcus’ memory (though in all fairness, he does dedicate it not only to him but to the other ensigns murdered at Allahabad). The Essex Herald published “An Incident in the War” an equally tumultuous poem in Marcus’ honour written by someone calling themselves Alpha. We can only hope that somewhere, in all those words at least a few gave some measure of comfort to his poor, grieving parents.
It is equally touching that in one of the letters, written by Mrs. E.B. Lanzeen, although there is mention of Marcus at first, she had concerns of her own. Her nephew 18 year-old Thomas Lane Bayliff had arrived travelled out to India with Marcus and had arrived in the city the day before him – he was killed on the 6th of June. Mrs. Lanzeen was desperate to find out what fate her nephew had met, and hoped Marcus’ parents could help her. She ends her letter with the sad words, “He too, was a jewel; but few find grace early or late to shine with lustre such as your dear lost son’s.”
Marcus was held up to the awed public as a “shining example of Christian fidelity, to stimulate other young persons to cultivate by prayer and diligence those Christian graces which can arm the unprotected sufferer with the same courage to bear affliction, even captivity and torture, without giving up their trust in the power and love of their Saviour.” According to the Reverend Meek and many others of the day, Marcus died not in vain, but upholding the very ideals of spirited Christianity, and with all these virtues embodied in the soul of a young boy, nonetheless! It is Victorian heroic sentiment let loose in grand style and far from reality or in effect, from the truth. What Marcus Cheek represents is the true face of the mutiny. Away from the heroics and the posturing of men doing their duty here was a boy, one of the many at the wrong place, at the wrong time, who had no idea finally, why he had to die. This is not martyrdom, it is the grim fury of war.
"Rest - they burning thirst is over, All thine agony and pain; Thou hast quaffed the living water, And shalt never thirst again." Lines to the Memory of the Late Ensign Cheek - D.S.W.
The Martyr of the Allahabad – the Memorials of Arthur Marcus Hill Cheek – The Reverend Meek, M.A. (1858)
Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick (1859)