Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Massacre of Cawnpore.
For those who died, there is no “Lest We Forget…,” there is no shrine of remembrance, no one who grieves with flowing tears at that woebegone place. Hardly anything remains of Wheeler’s Entrenchment save, a well, a cellar of sorts and a few markers buried in the dirt.The church is visited by the few and the angel who looked down on the well for nearly 100 years, sits in a garden far away from its charges.
In our modern world, where the “enlightened” tear down statues of so-called oppressors and those who hold unpopular opinions it is foreseeable what they would think of Cawnpore. It would be seen as righteous, the slaughter of the European invaders by the downtrodden masses. Where wrong is right and right is well, wrong, depending on the opinion of the day.
I can only hope these self proclaimed saviours of the truth will never discover Cawnpore. That they will not desicrate the dead and glorify their murderers. If there is one wish I have, it is let them rest in peace. Suffering should never be mocked, regardless the colour of one’s skin. Best be forgotten in an unmarked grave than their names be used as a spectacle of triumph by any side.
In this journey through 1857 we have met many people, some good, some not so, heros and cowards. The list is long and terrible. The longest remains Cawnpore and it still makes for sad reading. We can try to justify the blunders of Sir Hugh Massey Wheeler, but in the end, his misjudgement, his blind faith in his men, and his trust in the wrong men cost the lives of those he was to have guarded.
The sad truth about Cawnpore is it will always remain that one incident in history that has no explanation. Wheeler was not a fool but he made a fool’s decision by not arming the Magazine for a siege; the Nana Sahib was not inherently evil, but he was turned by greed and self aggrandization to evil deeds. His anger at the EICo, though justifiable, did not call for this – nor can it be called a cry for freedom. He rebelled from self-interest, not the glory and greatness of the country as we all seem to forget that at the time, there was no unified country. Ultimately, it was leaders like him that ensured the mutiny could not succeed. Yet today, he is a national hero.
Heros are made, not born – circumstance leads to heroic deeds and in his way, Nana Sahib can be viewed as hero of the masses. Yet he remains the blood stained killer of women and children, the man who broke his promises and then turned his eyes away at Sati Chaura Ghat, who shifted the blame on others when the fugitives of Fatehgarh were murdered, and then tried to save his own skin by killing off the witnesses of his butchery by ordering the murders at Bibighar. His later deeds, though perhaps worthy of the cause, should not be held on high. “Remember Cawnpore” was finally, his doing and we cannot forget that.
Our world has, in the past 165 years seen much evil and death through war and strife. We may condemn the men who fought for revenge, yet we forget too quickly that 21 years ago, another nation was screaming for retribution. That single event cost the lives of countless thousands in Afghanistan, Syria,Libiya and Iraq. It gave one nation and its friends carte blanche to terrorise the planet. And yet, when the men shouted “Remember Cawnpore” in 1857, that is considered a vile epitomy of evil. We have forgotten the why and the what for.
We hold countless memorials for victims of another war, yet we cannot look at Cawnpore and see it for what it is – with Cawnpore, we must always shake our heads and say, “but they were colonials, tut tut…” That is the right thing to do. Their deaths are somehow meaningless because we don’t agree with the context, the narrative is too complicated, the circumstances too murky. So we mock the dead instead.
Tomorrow is the 165th anniversary, not of Cawnpore, but the slaughter in the Bibighar. There is no anniversary of Cawnpore. That would start on the 5th of June when the first shots were fired and terminates on the 15th of July, when there was no one left to tell their tale. We should not commemorate Cawnpore – it was a military mistake, a tragic blunder that led to a dreadful narrative. We should however, remember the lives that were lost because of it no matter who they were or on which side they stood. In war, the first victim is always reason.
At Cawnpore Days of unclouded bright, where, 'neath the sweltering sky, Quivers the panting earth, and the white blooms fade and die, And the gold bee idly flits, and the powdered butterfly. In the hot river-bed below, with shrunken streams, The holy Ganges winds and dwindles, till it seems Lost in the flaming south afar, in a haze of dreams. The city's heart beats slow; now languid is the sight Of the crowds down-moving in the blinding light Through the long bazaar, with garments gleaming white. In many an avenue, and many a glade, The young rose droops and pines beneath the mango shade Where, through the afternoon, the buffalo is laid. At eve the high sun sinks, and o'er the scorching plain Scatters into the West his showers of golden rain, And beast and man revive, and thought stirs in the brain. Now over all the dusk her scented mantle flings, And a cloud of sweetness from the earth up-springs, And the night-bird cries, and bats wheel by on velvet wings. (The poet, Alfred Williams, was stationed at Kanpur (Cawnpore) in India, during World War One)