Spectre of Violence The 1857 Kanpur Massacres

Spectre of Violence The 1857 Kanpur Massacres

Item Code: IDJ518
Author: Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 0143101811
Pages: 231
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.6" X 5.0"
Back of the Book

On 27 June 1857, rebels publicly slaughtered over 300 men, women and children of the 'master race' at the Satichaura Ghat in Kanpur. On 15 July, a group of women and children who had survived were killed at the Bibighur. Two days later, General Havelock reclaimed Kanpur and Colonel James Neill decimated the rebel population. This sequence of violence has held sway over Indian and British imaginations for generations, and historians and commentators have recounted the massacres with horror.

Locating the massacres in the upheaval, which overtook north India in the early nineteenth century, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, an eminent 1857 historian, analyses the nature of the violence. Mukherjee argues that the absence of revel accounts and chronicles inhibits a telling of their version of the story. What is available are the contemporary accounts of British survivors, diaries of British loyalists and depositions as part of the official report prepared by the British. By reading these sources 'against their grain' and by examining the manner in which the evidence was stitched together, spectre of Violence bring to light fresh directions of inquiry into the events of 1857.


The truth is that the revolt of 1857 has not evoked a great deal of interest and enthusiasm among Indian historians. This might seem like an odd assertion but any bibliographical study will show that very few books and articles have actually been written since the clutch of books that came out in the centenary year. If reports are to be believed then the 150th anniversary will see many seminars, conferences and a large amount of government spending. This, one hope, will perhaps result in even books coming out to commemorate the uprising. One should perhaps be grateful since it is the anticipation of that public interest that has prompted the publishers to reprint this neglected monograph of mine, which was first published in 1998.

The most noteworthy work on 1857 to be published since this book first appeared is, of course, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 by William Dalrymple. This is the first book is English to use the treasure trove of Urdu and Persian documents in the National Archives of India in New Delhi. In its purpose and in the range of themes it covers, Dalrymple's book is very different from my book, which tried to analyse the most violent episode of an uprising notorious for the blood that was shed in the course of it. Despite this, in the context of the analysis I had made of the Kanpur massacres, some aspects of Dalrymple's book should perhaps be highlighted. Dalrymple's rich and vivid narrative brings alive the events in Delhi immediately after the sepoys from Merrut entered the city on the morning of May 11. There was looting, plundering and killing, and the initiative was taken by members of the lower middle class-Muslim weavers and textile merchants. Apart from the white population, the targets were the elites of Delhi. The poet Ghalib was to lament this. Dalrymple quotes from his diary: 'Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches…. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds… The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord… These events in Delhi, in fact, set a pattern for how the uprising began in other parts of north India. In Kanpur, as my chapter on the events tried to capture, the first days of the rebellion saw acts of looting and destruction. The targets were again the Britons, their property, government building and the Indian elites of Kanpur. The men who carried out these acts of violence elites of Kanpur. The men who carried out these acts of violence were the sepoys, the ordinary men of the city and of the surrounding villages. Nanak Chand's diary- in no way a document comparable to Ghalib's diary in terms of literary merit- bore witness to what I called a moment of liberation.

In Delhi, while the devastation of the city continued, a group of sepoys had entered the Lal Qila around 11 in the morning and had come into the private courtyard of the Mughal Emperor. By the late afternoon, this group of sepoys was restive and was clamouring to meet Bahadur Shah. When he did appear, the sepoys asked for his blessings as they had risen to defend their religion. Bahadur Shah procrastinated but finally gave his blessings. His reason for doing this is 'not hard to guess', as Dalrymple writes. He continues: 'With the armed, threatening and excitable sepoys surrounding him on all sides, he had little choice… For all his undoubted fear, anger and irritation with the sepoys, Zafar made the critical choice that would change both the fate of his dynasty and that of the city of Delhi, linking them both with the Uprising…' In the subsequent weeks many princes, of lesser importance than the Mughal Emperor, would have to make similar choices across north India. In Bithur, near Kanpur, in early June Nana Sahib, surrounded by mutinous sepoys and rebels made the same choice that Bahadur Shah has made in Delhi in early May. The blessings of the Mughal Emperor, of course, carried more symbolic significance than those of Nana Sahib. But the situation of the powerless Emperor had a parallel in the plight of the Peshwa's descendant. For the historian of 1857, the critical question is why the rebels had to seek the blessings of the traditional leadership. My book tried to address this question.

Historians continue to ponder the question why a group of sepoys, who had broken off their loyalty to the British Indian army by killing their officers and all other Britons they could lay their hands on, should rush to Delhi to seek the blessings and the nominal leadership of an old and powerless Mughal Emperor. The Mughal Emperors had creased to be of any consequence a long time before Bahadur Shah ascended the throne in 1837. Yet it was to him that the rebels first turned, and it was the fall of Delhi, after he had accepted the leadership, that triggered off uprisings in the various towns and cantonments of north India. The most important proclamations of the revolt were all issued in the name of Bahadur Shah or in some way alluded to his superiority. Loyalty to the regional princes like Birjis Qadr in Lucknow, Nana Sahib in Kanpur and so on occupied a secondary or a subordinate position. Despite this acceptance of the traditional leaders, the sepoys did not completely surrender their autonomy of decision-making. Tapti Roy in her study of the revolt in Bundelkhand noted a proclamation issued by the sepoys that declared: Khalk khoda ki, mulk Badshah ka, hukum subahdar sipahi Bahadur ka (The world is God's, the country is the Emperor's, the rule or order is that of the soldiers). In the course of the rebellion in Kanpur, as I noted, the views of the sepoys were critical in determining the turn of events.

The almost instinctive turn to the Mughal Emperor and the regional leaders was indicative also of the aims and aspirations of the rebels. In any rebellion, especially in one that was as massive and as varied as the 1857 revolt, there are always overlapping and conflicting visions. Many of these have been lost because they did not leave behind any trace in the available documentation. But from the various rebels statements and ishtahars, it seems plausible to suggest that the rebellion of 1857 had a strong restorative element to it. It was to the Mughal Empire of the 18th century that the rebels harked back to. Yet it could never be a complete return. It is not unreasonable to suggest that through the experience of fighting the British, Indian ruling groups and the rebel sepoys had been compelled to recognize the military superiority of the British. This recognition should have made them admit that the way in which armies had been organized under the Mughals and their successor states in the 18th century was a thing of the past. Any attempt to introduce a European-style military organization would have had inevitable implications on state power and the way it was wielded. The concrete ramifications of this is, of course, a matter of speculation but it seems safe to suggest that such changes could not have contained in the 18th century state formations.

Given this importance of the Mughal Empire and its titular head, Dalrymple is right in the significance he attaches to the battle for Delhi through the months of July, August and September in 1857. It was the 'Raj's Stalingrad' he calls it somewhat anachronistically. Yet the two most violent episodes of the revolt were enacted away from Delhi in Kanpur. These were the two massacres that this book attempts to analyse. The massacre of the British at Satichaura Ghat on July 27, and the subsequent one in the Bibighur on July 15 became the signature events of the rebellion. These massacres drove the avenging zeal exhibited by the British counter insurgency forces all over north India. Cawnpore, as I suggest, became more than a name. It became a slogan for revenge, and a shrine to commemorate.

The writing of history, as indeed the changes in the historiography of 1857 demonstrate, cannot be free from the influence of contemporary events. The point is well known since E.H. Carr's memorable definition of the writing of history as a 'dialogue between the past and the present' but it is sometimes not adequately recognized. The revolt of 1857 was the most violent episode in the history of British rule in India. On both sides, the scale of the violence and the intensity of the hatred that surfaced during the rebellion were unexpected and unprecedented. It is true, and I emphasized this point in this book, that violence was inherent in British rule. But in the course of the insurrection certain limits were crossed and norms transgressed. The rebels when they took to arms and killed the British broke the monopoly of violence that the British thought they enjoyed as the ruling power. The British tried to restore that monopoly through a show of violence that was unique in the annals of British rule in India. The historians' approach to the violence witnessed in 1857 cannot remain unaffected by the violence witnessed at the beginning of the new century. The rise of global terror and the use of violence by a global superpower to eradicate terrorism haunt our lives and should therefore force historians to rethink the way they have approached violence in general, and rebel violence in particular. Radical historiography, in which tradition my own work on 1857 is, I think, situated, privileged rebel violence because it saw it as a viable, perhaps only, modality to invert the structure of domination and subordination. The violence inherent in counter insurgency was, on the other hand, seen as necessary to preserve British rule since, as a despotism it had no other means to preserve its authority when faced by a rebellion. The ethical question concerning violence was thus sidestepped. Contemporary events might force us to rethink this approach. Contemporary events might force us to rethink this approach. In a world whose very existence is threatened by the violence of terrorism and that of the US, it is necessary perhaps to ponder if the use of violence for whatever cause should at all be privileged.

This of course raises issues that go far beyond the analysis presented in this small monograph, which discussed the nature of rebel violence at a moment when it manifested itself at its most powerful and its most grotesque. But the problem articulated in the previous paragraph needs to be addressed and the 150th anniversary of 1857 might be the right time to do so.

I have corrected some errors that existed in the hardback edition. I am grateful to Professor Partha Chatterjee for his comments on an earlier draft of this introduction.


Introduction to this Editionxv
The Context6
The Event45
The Evidence78
The Histories118
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