Books: Mutineers without bounty

Frank McLynn reviews a sober account of the bloodlust that characterise d the Indian Mutiny; Our Bones are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 by Andrew Ward John Murray, pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Of the three great atrocities in the history of the British Raj - the Black Hole of Calcutta (1757), Cawnpore (1857) and Chillianwallah (1919) - it can be said that the British obtained ample revenge for the first two but the Indians never visited their wrath on the British for the last one. In a remarkably even-handed book, Andrew Ward retells the story of Cawnpore: how after a siege of the entrenched camp, the Mahratta leader Nana Sahib tricked the exhausted defenders into surrender on a promise of safe conduct and then massacred them; and how when the British relieving force defeated his army and closed in on Cawnpore, Nana had 200 British women and children captives butchered in the most horrible way. In retaliation the British matched atrocity for atrocity.

This is a sober-sided rather than sensational book, deeply researched in private archives and county record offices.Yet the story of debased humanity it tells still has the power to shock 20th-century readers. Ward spares us none of the gruesome detail of mutilation, decapitation, torture, hangings, eviscerations and cholera. As is fairly well known, the British Army's way with the sepoy rebels was not notable for compassion. Bearded Highlanders forced beef down Hindu throats and pork into Moslem mouths; the Mahrattas were smeared with cow's blood before being executed; Brahmins were forced to lick up the blood of their victims from the floor and were then hanged by untouchables; the most fortunate sepoys were blown from the mouths of cannons so that their scattered remains would form into gibbering spirits condemned to wander the spirit world forever; the less fortunate suffered a lingering death from mis-tied nooses and inadequate ropes.

Ward is fascinating on the subject of the demons from the Victorian unconscious and the British conviction that rape really was a fate worse than death. Caught between the power of their own libido and their absurd cult of female virginity and "pure" womanhood, Victorian males in their paranoia could not imagine that their ladies could have been held captive by the sepoys without being raped. Although Hindus usually thought the feringhee female unclean (according to their religion, the British in general were lower than the lowest untouchable), and would have regarded sexual contact as defilement, the British used the tiny handful of actual violations to create a myth of mass rape on their wives and daughters. Part of the insane blood lust that followed the sepoy defeat in the Mutiny was not so much revenge for the actual atrocities at Cawnpore as the displacement of an entire Western society's sexual repression.

In his day-by-day narrative of the 21-day siege of Cawnpore and its sanguinary aftermath, Ward has fashioned a definitive account. But his book is unbalanced, as there is not enough about the deep causes of the Mutiny or the reasons for its failure. If the whole of India had mutinied, the British would indeed have been swept into the sea, as Nana Sahib threatened. But the rebellion was centred on Oudh, never caught fire nationwide and was bedevilled by tribal, religious and political differences. Moslem and Hindu rebels barely collaborated, and the Sikhs were vociferous in their pro-British loyalty and hatred of the Mahrattas. Once again the British triumphed through divide and rule.

Ward's book is a terrific read - no mean feat when one considers the depth of research - but at vital points dealing with events away from his chosen theatre, especially at Lucknow, the narrative lacks clarity. There are times when, unless one has a good background knowledge of the successive sieges of Lucknow, Ward's history barely makes sense. To an extent, therefore, one has to conclude that the author has been dragged down by the weight of his own research on one particular siege and its aftermath. Ward clearly had it within his grasp to write the definitive history of the Indian Mutiny but has thrown away the chance through a monographic obsession with Cawnpore.