Sunday, October 1, 2017

Women and the Indian Mutiny

The Indian Mutiny, 1857-1859, also known as the Sepoy Rebellion or Uprising or First Indian War of Independence, is one of those salient events from British Empire history that has always resonated strongly with me.  The perceptions of it have changed greatly over the past 160 years and, as happens so often with history, its heroes are now considered the villains while its murderous rebels are now glorified as fighters of freedom.

The Mutiny particularly strikes a chord with me because of my own African childhood during the “sunset” of that Empire when colonised countries were beginning to demand self-determination with many of them resorting to violence against resident Europeans in the process.

As a sensitive and highly-imaginative child I remember being really quite terrified when I overhead adults talking of the murders of white families not that far away in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising and being worried that the same thing would happen to us, that our servants would turn and murder us in our beds. (Although we lived in a town with a secure and well-policed environment, my father didn’t take anything for granted and kept both a loaded revolver and a rifle hidden in a cupboard.)

Later at school when we studied the Mutiny on the occasion of its centenary, our teacher did not censor his descriptions of the horrific Cawnpore Massacre in which defenceless white women and children were hacked to pieces by Indian rebels and thrown into a well.

The Well and Monument, Slaughter House, Cawnpore”  [now Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh] 1858. From ‘Murray Collection: Views in Delhi, Cawnpore, Allahabad and Benares’  taken by Dr. John Murray. Picture shows at rear the Bibigurh house in which European women and children were killed and in the foreground the well where their bodies were found

Too well aware that I was living in that disintegrating Empire, it isn’t surprising that the symbolism of this nightmarish tale added another layer of anxiety. And then, to add real immediacy to it in 1960-61, I witnessed first-hand the trauma of white refugees fleeing gang-rape and murder taking place only a few miles away in the Belgian Congo when that country exploded into extreme violence on gaining its independence.

All of which brings me back to my fascination with the Mutiny which is now far removed from living memory but can still be seen as an early harbinger of events destined to take place over a century later in Africa that would impact my own path in life.

There are more than enough published accounts of the battles, sieges and biographies of the men involved in putting down the uprising, including the grisly atrocities and horrific aftermath but, apart from a few diaries or recollections of women from a higher social strata - plus the controversial stories of two female survivors * of Cawnpore - there is not much else from the ordinary women or girls who were caught up in the Mutiny and so this will be the start of a new project to see what I can find about some, if any, of them by way of books, journals, newspapers, genealogical and other sources.

Miss Wheeler *  defending herself against the Sepoys at Cawnpore
by anonymous engraver
published in The History of the Indian Mutiny, c. 1860. 

If anyone reading this has a previously unknown story of a European female ancestor who had connections to what happened in India c. 1857-1859 that they would be happy to share with others, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Queen Victoria puts things right.  Punch, 11 September 1858.

* Ulrica/Margaret Frances Wheeler and/or Amelia/Amy/Ann Horne (later Bennett)

No comments: