The Bibighar Massacre: The Darkest Days of the Indian Rebellion of 1857

Monument erected at Cawnpore in 1863 at the Site of the Bibighar Well.(Image via Leiden University)

Monument erected at Cawnpore at the Site of the Bibighar Well.
(Image via Leiden University)

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 began on May 10th with a small-scale mutiny of sepoys in the town of Meerut, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.  Sepoys were the native, Indian soldiers who served in the army of the British East India Company.  This initial rebellion against British rule sparked similar uprisings throughout India.  Amongst these, none had such horrifyingly tragic results as the June 1857 sepoy mutiny in the town of Cawnpore (now Kanpur), which culminated with the senseless, mass killing of hundreds of British women and children who had been confined inside a small house known as the Bibighar.

(*Warning: This article contains some graphic details of the 1857 Bibighar Massacre and aftermath.  If such details might disturb you, I encourage you to skip this post.)

Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler was the British commander at Cawnpore at the time of the mutiny.  When the Sepoys besieged the town, he expected that he would have the support of a local leader by the name of Nana Sahib who would help the British in fighting the rebels.  Instead, Nana Sahib assumed leadership of the rebellion.  Outnumbered, the British garrison at Cawnpore held fast against the rebel forces for three weeks, but they lacked the resources to withstand an extended siege.

 

Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler's Entrenchment in Cawnpore where the British held against the seige for 3 weeks in 1857, photo by Felice Beato, 1858.

Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler’s Entrenchment in Cawnpore where the British were under Seige for Three Weeks during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
(Photo by Felice Beato, 1858)

In the last week of June, Wheeler agreed to surrender on the condition that the garrison and their women and children would be given safe passage out of the city.  Nana Sahib accepted these terms.  On June 27th, at Sati Chaura Ghat, as the British were about to board the boats that would take them to safety in Allahabad, they were attacked by rebel sepoys.  The boats were burned and most of the men were killed, including Major General Wheeler.  In The Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre at Cawnpore, During the Sepoy Revolt of 1857, author W. J. Shepherd relates:

When the males had all been put to the sword, the order to cease firing was given by the cavalry, and the poor women and children that survived were brought out of the river and collected on the bank.  Many of them were wounded with bullets and sword cuts; their dresses were wet and full of mud and blood; they were ordered to give up whatever valuables they might have hid upon their persons. (77)

1857 Massacre in the Boats off Cawnpore by Charles Ball, 1858.

1857 Massacre in the Boats off Cawnpore by Charles Ball, 1858.

The women and children that survived the attack were originally taken to a building called Savada Kothee, but were later moved to the Bibighar.  Bibighar translates roughly to “The House of the Ladies.”  In Cawnpore, it was a small, villa-like residence in the cantonment magistrate’s compound.  It had a courtyard and a well.  Conditions there were poor and, with 200 women and children in residence, illness was quick to strike.  Several died from cholera and dysentery as a result of the unsanitary conditions.

Ground Plan of the House where Women and Children were Imprisoned at Cawnpoor, 1857. (Drawing by W. J. Shepherd, 1879)

Ground Plan of the Bibighar, the House where Women and Children were Imprisoned at Cawnpore during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
(Drawing by W. J. Shepherd, 1879)

According to many historians, the prisoners were left under the supervision of a woman named Hossaini – also sometimes called the “the Begum.”  Hossaini was a courtesan in Nana Sahib’s palace.  In his book Freedom Struggle of 1857, author Renu Saran writes:

Nana Sahib placed the care of these survivors under a prostitute called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum).  She put the captives to grinding corn for chapatis. (Chapter 22)

Engraving of General Henry Havelock, 1886.

General Henry Havelock, 1886.

At first, Nana Sahib attempted to use the captives as a bargaining chip with the British.  However, when news arrived in Cawnpore that General Henry Havelock was nearing the city with relief troops, an order was issued that all of the British women and children at the Bibighar were to be killed.

It is not clear who gave the order.  Some historians, especially colonial historians and those writing during the Victorian era, claim it was Nana Sahib himself.  In his book Terrorism, Insurgency and Indian-English Literature, author Alex Tickell writes:

On the fifteenth, two days before the retaking of Cawnpore, the rebel soldiers in charge of the hostages had been ordered to kill them by firing their rifles through the windows of the Bibighar, but sickened by the task the guards only fired a single volley and refused to do anything more.  Finally, an execution squad of local butchers led by Nana Saheb’s [sic] bodyguard entered the building and methodically killed all the prisoners with their swords.  They then dumped the stripped, mutilated bodies of the women and children in a nearby well. (Chapter 2)

Other historians place the blame for the massacre on the courtesan, Hossaini – who is often depicted as a very ruthless figure.  The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, edited by Biswamoy Pati, states:

It is suspected that it was Hossaini who ordered the massacre of Bibighar, and when the sepoys proved reluctant, she fetched her lover Sarvur (or Sirdar) Khan, who was perhaps a Pathan. (101)

Expanding on this theory, Saran reports that after the initial volley of shots, the rebel soldiers were so disturbed by the “screams and groans” of the wounded inside the Bibighar that they declared they would not kill any women and children.  Saran writes:

An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum termed the sepoys’ act as cowardice, and asked her lover Sarvar Khan to finish the job of killing the captives.  Sarvar Khan hired some butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. (Chapter 22)

Aftermath of the Siege of Cawnpore, showing the remains of the Bibighar 1857. (Image via Imperial War Museum, 1857-1859)

Aftermath of the Siege of Cawnpore, showing the remains of the Bibighar 1857.
(Image via Imperial War Museum, 1857-1859)

The massacre at the Bibighar had a devastating effect on the relieving British forces.  Expecting to find the female hostages alive, when Havelock’s soldiers entered the Bibighar, according to Tickell, they found the floors “ankle deep” in blood, the walls scored with sword cuts, and the rooms “littered with pieces of clothing, daguerreotype cases, bonnets, shoes, and other unspeakable remnants of violent death.”  In The Victorians, author A. N. Wilson cites a portion of a letter from J. W. Sherer, the newly appointed magistrate at Cawnpore, in which he describes the scene:

The whole of the court and this room was literally soaked with blood and strewn with bonnets and those large hats now worn by ladies – and there were long tresses of hair glued with clotted blood to the ground – all the bodies were thrown into a dry well and on looking down – a map of naked arms, legs and gashed trunks was visible. (213)

The British soldiers were deeply affected by what they found at the Bibighar.  Tickell writes:

As a terrible derangement of the protocols of European nineteenth-century warfare, the sight of the inner courtyard of the house appeared to rob Havelock’s men of their masculinity: ‘stalwart, bearded men, stern soldiers of the ranks […] have been seen coming out of that house perfectly unmanned, utterly unable to repress their emotions,’ stated one witness. (Chapter 2)

As much as the massacre at the Bibighar devastated the soldiers, it also electrified them.  Tickell reports that the soldiers’ grief was “a prelude to an immediate uncontrolled counter-violence, and a compensatory reassertion of authority that was unleashed upon the local Indian population.”  After finding a warehouse full of liquor, Havelock’s soldiers drank to excess and, as Tickell states:

[The] grief-stricken soldiers ‘remembered’ the colonial dead by embarking on a frenzied bout of ‘intoxication, plunder and rapine’ through Cawnpore’s ‘native town,’ a practice that European soldiers would repeat in other cities retaken from the rebels. (Chapter 2)

News of the massacre also electrified the British public at home, unifying them in their desire for retributive justice.  Further stoking the public’s outrage, reports surfaced that the women had been raped before they had been killed.  Some newspapers even printed stories stating that the women and children had been “sold at public auction” after which they were violated and then “barbarously slaughtered.”  The following article from the August 31, 1857 Sheffield Daily Telegraph is fairly representative of those circulating at the time.  Not only does it declare that the atrocities committed at the Bibighar were “almost unparalleled in the history of the world” it also contains the hope that punishment of those responsible would not be long deferred.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, August 31, 1857.(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, August 31, 1857.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

According to Wilson, from the very first, the British vowed to “meet cruelty with redoubled cruelty, terror with terror, blood with blood” 213.  An example of the vengeful feelings generated by the atrocities at the Bibighar is exemplified in this Punch cartoon in which a Bengal tiger standing over the fallen body of a British woman is attacked by a raging British lion.

The British lion and the Bengal tiger by John Tenniel for Punch, 1857.

The British lion and the Bengal tiger by John Tenniel for Punch, 1857.

When Brigadier General Neill arrived to take command at Cawnpore, he exacted a brutal vengeance against those deemed responsible for the massacre.  Saran states that the arrested rebels were forced to “clean the blood from the floor of the Bibighar compound” (Chapter 22).  While Wilson claims that Neill forced the prisoners to “lick the blood from the floor while a European soldier lashed their backs with a whip” (214).

Brigadier General Neill, 1859.

Brigadier General Neill, 1859.

There are numerous accounts of the physical and psychological torture inflicted on those who were suspected of involvement in the massacre at Bibighar, as well as on those in the town who had known of the British women’s plight but had done nothing to assist them.  Those that survived their torture, were ultimately executed by various means – from shootings and hangings to other more sadistic methods.  Saran writes:

A set of nooses was set up next to the well at the Bibighar, so that they could die within sight of the massacre.  Some rebels were tied across the mouths of cannon that were then fired; an execution method initially used by the rebels, and the earlier Indian powers, such as the Marathas and the Mughals. (Chapter 23)

Blowing Mutinous Sepoys From the Guns, Steel Engraving, London Printing and Publishing Co., 1858.

Blowing Mutinous Sepoys From the Guns, Steel Engraving, London Printing and Publishing Co., 1858.

On July 19th, British forces took possession of Nana Sahib’s palace.  They seized everything of value, including elephants and camels, and then set the palace on fire.  Nana Sahib himself was never found.  It was rumored that he had fled to Nepal, but according to Saran, “his ultimate fate was never determined” (Chapter 23).  The same can be said for the courtesan Hossaini.  Though another courtesan connected with the massacre was executed by a British firing squad, I can find no information on what became of Hossaini herself.

As for the Bibighar, after removing the remains of the women and children, the magistrate ordered that the well be filled up and sealed.  Later, when the revolt was finally suppressed, the British dismantled Bibighar in its entirety.  Saran reports:

They raised a memorial railing and a cross at the site of the well in which the bodies of the British women and children had been dumped.  The inhabitants of [Cawnpore] were forced to pay £30,000 for the creation of the memorial; this was partially their punishment for not coming to the aid of the women and children in Bibighar. (Chapter 23)

Photograph of the Marble statue over the Memorial Well by Samuel Bourne, 1860.

Photograph of the Marble statue over the Memorial Well by Samuel Bourne, 1860.

The massacre at the Bibighar and the subsequent brutal retaliation of the British is one of the darkest moments in British-Indian history.  Historians and scholars still debate the exact motivation behind it.  Did the rebels panic at the advance of Havelock and the relief soldiers?  Or was the massacre a deliberate retaliation for atrocities against women and children previously committed by the British?  As with much in war and rebellion, the accounts of the events differ according to who is doing the telling.  Nevertheless, some facts are undisputed.  Approximately two hundred British women and children met a tragic end at the Bibighar on July 15, 1857.  They were mothers, wives, sons, and daughters.  I close this article with a partial list of their names, as provided by W. J. Shepherd, one of the few survivors of the siege of Cawnpore (120).  This list was found by British soldiers in the courtyard of the Bibighar after the massacre and reads as follows:

Partial List of the Victims of the Massacre at Bibighar, 1857.(W. J. Shepherd, 1879)

Partial List of the Victims of the Massacre at Bibighar, 1857.
(W. J. Shepherd, 1879)

**Author’s Note:  This article focuses on the 1857 tragedy at the Bibighar, however, it is important to note that, when compared to the thousands of Indian men, women, and children killed by the British, the number of those killed at the Bibighar is actually very small.  This in no way excuses the atrocities at the Bibighar, but I hope it gives some insight into what was a very dark time in British Indian history.


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

1001 Battles That Changed the Course of World History.  New York: Universe Publishing, 2011.

“Cawnpore.”  Sheffield Daily Telegraph.  August 31, 1857.

The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring Transgressions, Contests and Diversities.  New York: Routledge, 2010.

Saran, Renu.  Freedom Struggle of 1857.  New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2008.

Shepherd, W. J.  A Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre at Cawnpore: During the Sepoy Revolt of 1857.  London: R. Craven, 1879.

Tickell, Alex.  Terrorism, Insurgency and Indian-English Literature, 1830-1947.  New York: Routledge, 2013.

Wilson, A. N.  The Victorians.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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16 thoughts on “The Bibighar Massacre: The Darkest Days of the Indian Rebellion of 1857

  1. Angelyn says:

    Interesting post–I know very little specifics about British – Indian history. I was not surprised, however, that a woman was found to blame–and a prostitute, at that. Handy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    Not exactly the proudest moment of the British Army but the anger must have been tangible over broken promises and brutality to non-combatants. And the rebellion was largely over a mistake in communications… the execution by cannon was the only thing some of the Indians feared since it meant the mixing of Hindu and Muslim body parts. I read about this first when I was about 8 and had the most awful nightmares over it. But such filthy incidents – on both sides – should not be forgotten in the hopes that we might learn from them and be able to say ‘that could never happen now’; and I hope, one day, we might truly be able to say that. I shouldn’t like to answer for it being impossible nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I agree, it is best not to forget these kinds of incidents. And though it was over 100 years ago, like you, I wouldn’t be so sure something similar couldn’t happen again. The tensions are already running high whenever a foreign power is occupying someone else’s country and it doesn’t take much to escalate things pretty quickly.

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  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    May I say that ‘prostitute’ was probably a Victorian description of someone who was not a regular wife in the sort of way the conventional Victorian thought of it? Her very name tells you otherwise, as she is known as ‘begum’ which means ‘princess’ suggesting that she was a high caste lady who happened to be a concubine. Khanum also suggests high social rank. I can’t help wondering whether one or more of the British wives had humiliated the princess by acting as though she was a streetwalker in refusing to accept the customs of India which would lend a reason, if not an excuse, to her violent actions.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Good point, Sarah! And probably true. An interesting thing is that in some of the Indian written histories, she is also called a prostitute – which strikes me as a way to maintain a distance from her (after having laid the blame squarely on her shoulders). Not that a female could not have been behind the massacre. As Kipling says, “the female of the species…” etc, etc.

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        apparently the scapegoat then… and her apparent aristocracy a mystery. Of course if she started humiliating the women to get some ‘own back’ and it got out of hand, then it was an easy thing to say ‘it was the woman wot done it’ which is an excuse as old as legend. That is, however, one of my favourite Kipling poems, I have to say! But then, so many Kipling poems are my favourites…. though the most apt for me is ‘I keep six honest serving men’. I haven’t been called ‘Elephant’s Child’ in my time for nothing, I’m afraid…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. cawnporerevisited says:

    Hello Mimi. Thank you for this post, as it is most near and dear to my heart in so many ways. I have been on this journey for a few years now and have travelled twice from New Zealand in search of my family history in Cawnpore and Lucknow during 1857. I have been to Wheelers Entrenchment, been swimming in Ganga at Sati Chaura Massacre Ghart and paid respects formally at the Well of the Bibighar. My family loss through the Probett’s and Walsh’s amounts to 22 in all, most killed at Wheelers, I suspect some at Sati Chaura, 2 at Jhansie massacre, but worst of all, my Great, Great Grandmother Ellen Probett, her younger sister Bridget Roche (Walsh) of (Fatteghur) and their combined 8 children killed at Bibighar on 15th July 1857. Little has changed at these sites in 158 years, but All Souls Memorial Church, like St Johns soldiers chapel just across the way, are extraordinary places to visit and such peace within both. The ‘well’ where they drew water during the siege at Wheelers, is still there and the only marker left in the 4 acre block and the burial well over by Wheelers barracks by Cambridge Road with the large memorial built by Lord and Lady Canning and holding 350 of the dead during the siege is still there but terribly neglected. Is approx. 8,400 square feet in all. I am returning in June and July all going well, to document the dates and as the tragedy unfolded from 27th June to 17th July. More about that once I have returned to NZ. Can contact me if you like through mark@gafelk.co.nz Namaste – Mark Probett (New Zealand)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re very welcome, Mark. And thank you for the update on the site of the tragedy. I cannot imagine how you must feel to have lost so many family members in the rebellion and the Bibighar massacre itself. The women on the list of those who perished at Bibighar are strangers to me and yet, when I read their names, it still troubles me deeply to think of what they must have gone through. It is definitely a period in history well worth learning more about, especially if you have a personal connection to it. I wish you the best of luck with your continued research. Thanks again for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. cawnporerevisited says:

    Thanks Mimi, yes you are right, it is so very sad and the fear of those poor women and children must have been extreme and considering all they had been through during the previous 6 weeks and hearing those guns of Havelock approaching would have given them a mixture of hope, tempered with fearful uncertainty. Not only that, but during the 13 days they were at Bibighar, 27 of their number perished through the extremes of trauma, mental and physical, disease and shear break-down of spirit. But thank you once again Mimi and yes, ‘Kim’ by Kipling is a good read. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  6. evscha says:

    Hi. I found your write up on the Bibighar Massacre very interesting but I have a comment:
    the list you publish comes from Shepherds book true, but there was no list found at the Bibighar itself. An Indian doctor made notes regarding the women and children but there is no actual record as of who was in the Bibighar at the time of the massacre.
    There is a list of victims of the siege of Cawnpore, Satichaura Ghat and the Bibighar Massacre on the tablets of St John’s Church in Cawnpore and a lot of the information that there is also comes from that source.
    Best wishes

    Eva

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for your comment, Eva. Here is the exact quote from W. J. Shepherd’s personal narrative: “In the court-yard of this house of blood, a native list of names was found by some officers ; the names are believed to be those of the ill-fated victims butchered as above, and was kept by a Mahratta or Bengalee doctor who was appointed to attend upon the helpless sufferers. Some of the names were difficult to make out, not being quite intelligible. A translation of this list was published in Calcutta (see Phoenix of 20th August 1857), and I have thus been able to furnish an exact copy of it here; having merely arranged it alphabetically, for easy reference.”

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