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BISAC: Literary Collections / Ancient, Classical & Medieval
The city of Cawnpore lies on the south bank of the Ganges, which at that spot is about a quarter of a mile in breadth, and this too in the dry season: for, when the rains have filled the bed, the stream measures two thousand yards from shore to shore. And yet the river has still a thousand miles of his stately course to run before that, by many channels and under many names, he loses himself in the waters of the Bay of Bengal. In old times an officer appointed to Cawnpore thought himself fortunate if he could reach his station within three months from the day he left Fort William. But tow-ropes and punt-poles are now things of the past, and the traveller from Calcutta arrives at the end of his journey in little more than thirty hours.
By the treaty of Fyzabad, in 1775, the East India Company engaged to maintain a brigade for the defence of Oude. The revenues of a rich and extensive tract of country were appointed for the maintenance of this force, which was quartered at Cawnpore, the principal town of the district. In 1801, Lord Wellesley, who loved to carry matters with a masterful hand, closed the mortgage, and the territory lapsed to the Company, who accepted this new charge with some diffidence. Indeed, they were not a little uneasy at the splendid rapacity of their high-souled servant. No one understood better than he the full meaning of the finest lines of that poet whose graceful diction none like himself could imitate:—
Hæ tibi erunt artes: pacisque imponere morem;
Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos.”
But that policy which suited the temper of the Senate of old Rome was not exactly of a nature to please the Directors of a Joint Stock Company. It was very well for statesmen and generals to look for their reward in the pages of history. It behoved City men to keep an eye on the fluctuations of the Share list.
Thus it happened that, ever since the beginning of the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Cawnpore had been a first-class military station. In the spring of 1857 it had attained an importance to which the events of the following summer gave a fatal shock. The recent annexation of Oude was an additional motive for keeping a strong hold on Cawnpore: for that city commanded the bridge over which passed the high road to Lucknow, the capital of our newly acquired province. At that time the station was occupied by three regiments of sepoys, the First, the Fifty-third, and the Fifty-sixth Bengal Infantry. The Second Cavalry, and a company of artillerymen, brought up the strength of the native force to three thousand men. Of Europeans and persons of European extraction, there were resident at Cawnpore more than a thousand. There were the officers attached to the sepoy battalions; sixty men of the Eighty-fourth regiment of the British line; seventy-eight invalids belonging to the Thirty-second regiment, then quartered at Lucknow, and destined to pass through the most fearful trial from which ever men emerged alive; fifteen of the Madras Fusileers; and fifty-nine of the Company’s artillerymen: in all, some three hundred soldiers of English birth. Then there were the covenanted civilians, the aristocracy of Indian society; the lesser officials attached to the Post-office, the Public Works, and the Opium Departments; the Railway people; the merchants and shopkeepers,—Europeans some, others half-castes, or, as they would fain be called, Eurasians. There, too, (alas!) were the wives and little ones of the men of all these classes and grades, and in no slender proportion; for among our countrymen in India the marriage state is in special honour. There likewise were a great number of half-caste children belonging to the Cawnpore school, who were soon to buy at a very dear price the privilege of having been begotten by an European sire.
The military quarter was entirely distinct from the native city. And here let the English reader divest himself at once of all European ideas, and keep clear of them, as much as in him lies, during the whole course of this narrative. Let him put aside all preconceived notions of a barrack,—of a yard paved with rough stones, and darkened by buildings four storeys high, at the windows of which lounge stalwart warriors in various stages of déshabille, digesting their fresh boiled-beef by the aid of a short pipe and a languid gossip. Let him try to form to himself a picture of a military station in Northern India, for it was within the precincts of such a station that was played out the most terrible tragedy of our age.
The cantonments lay along the bank of the river, over a tract extending six miles from north-west to south-east: for, wheresoever in Hindostan Englishmen make their homes, no regard is had to economy of space. Each residence stands in a separate “compound,” or paddock, of some three or four acres, surrounded by an uneven, crumbling mound and ditch, with here and there a ragged hedge of prickly pear: for all over India fences appear to exist rather for the purpose of marking boundaries than for any protection they afford against intruders. The house, like all houses outside the Calcutta Ditch, consists of a single storey, built of brick, coated with white plaster;—the whole premises, if the owner be a bachelor or a subaltern, in a most shabby and tumble-down condition. A flight of half a dozen steps leads up to a verandah which runs round three sides of the building. The noticeable objects here will probably be a native tailor, working in the attitude adopted by tailors in all lands where men wear clothes; a wretched being, squatted on his haunches, lazily pulling the string of a punkah that passes through a hole in the brickwork into the Sahib’s bedroom, a monotonous occupation, which from time to time he sweetens by snatches of sleep; a Madras valet, spreading butter on the Sahib’s morning toast with the greasy wing of a fowl; and, against the windward wall, a row of jars of porous red clay, in which water is cooling for the Sahib’s morning bath.
The principal door leads at once into the sitting-room, a spacious, ill-kept, comfortless apartment; the most conspicuous article being a huge, oblong frame of wood and canvass suspended across the ceiling, and the prevailing impression an overwhelming sense of the presence of cobwebs. The furniture, which is scattered about in most unadmired disorder, is in the last stage of dilapidation. Every article in an Anglo-Indian household bears witness to the fact that Englishmen regard themselves but as sojourners in the locality where fate and the quartermaster-general may have placed them. A large rickety table in the centre of the room is strewn with three or four empty soda-water bottles, a half-emptied bottle of brandy, a corkscrew, glasses, playing-cards, chessmen, an Hindostanee dictionary, an inkstand, a revolver, a bundle of letters, a box of cigars, the supplement of Bell’s Life, and a few odd volumes from the regimental book-club—of no very seductive quality, like enough, for the colonel’s lady has kept the new novels, and the doctor, who is secretary to the club, has impounded the biographies, so that our ensign is fain to put up with “Aids to Faith,” and the third volume of the “History of the Inductive Sciences.” Then there are eight or ten chairs, a good half of which might well claim to be invalided on the score of wounds and long service; a couch with broken springs; a Japanese cabinet, bought as a bargain when the old major was sold up; and an easy cane chair of colossal dimensions, the arms of which are prolonged and flattened, so as to accommodate the occupant with a resting-place for his feet. In one corner stands a couple of hog-spears, supple, tough, and duly weighted with lead and barbed with steel of proof; a regulation sword; a buggy-whip; a hunting-crop; a double-barrelled rifle and a shot-gun—weapons which the owner depreciates as archaic, expressing his intention of providing himself, during his first visit to Europe, with a complete outfit from Purdey. On nails driven into the plaster hang a list of the men in the company to which the young fellow is attached; a caricature of the paymaster; a framed photograph of the cricket eleven of the public school where he was educated; and, if he be of a humorous turn, the last wigging, or letter of admonition and reproof, received from the colonel of his regiment.
In such a scene, and amidst such associations, does the English subaltern wear out the weary hours of the interminable Indian day: smoking; dozing; playing with his terrier; longing for the evening, or for a call from a brother-officer, with whom he may discuss the Army List, and partake of the ever-recurring refreshment of brandy and soda-water; lazily endeavouring to get some little insight into the languages of the hateful East by the help of a fat, fawning native tutor, and a stupid and indecent Oordoo work on mythology; pondering sadly on home landscapes and home recollections, as he gazes across the sharply-defined line of shadow thrown by the roof of the verandah into the outdoor heat and glare; with no pleasanter object of contemplation than the Patna sheep belonging to the Station Mutton Club, and his own modest stud, consisting of a raw-boned Australian horse and an old Cabul pony picketed under a group of mango-trees near the gate of the compound.
The centre apartment is flanked on either side by a smaller chamber; both of which are employed as bedrooms, if, for the sake of company or economy, our young friend is keeping house with some Addiscombe chum. Otherwise, the least desirable is set apart as a lumber-room; though, to judge from the condition of the articles in use, it is hard to imagine what degree of shabbiness would qualify furniture to become lumber in Bengal. The door into the Sahib’s bedroom stands open, like every other door in British India; the multitude of servants, and the necessity for coolness, forbidding the very idea of privacy. There stands a bedstead of wood, worm-eaten, unplaned, unpolished; inclosed on all sides with musquito-curtains of white gauze, the edges carefully tucked in beneath the mattress, through which is dimly seen the recumbent form of the Sahib, clad in a silk shirt and linen drawers, the universal nightdress of the East. The poor boy is doing his best to recover, during the cooler morning hours, the arrears of the sleepless night, which he has passed in a state of feverish irritation—panting, perspiring, tossing from side to side in desire of a momentary relief from the tortures of Prickly Heat, the curse of young blood; anon, sallying into the verandah to rouse the nodding punkah-puller, more happy than his wakeful master. Little of ornament or convenience is to be seen around, save a capacious brass basin on an iron stand, and half a dozen trunks, of shape adapted to be slung in pairs on the hump of a bullock. An inner door affords a view into a bath-room, paved with rough bricks; the bath consisting of a space surrounded by a parapet some six inches high, in which the bather stands while his servant sluices him with cold water from a succession of jars. It may be that on a shelf at the bed’s head are treasured some objects, trifling indeed in value, but made very dear by association; a few school prizes and leaving-books; a few sheets of flimsy pink paper, closely written, soiled, and frayed at every fold; one or two portraits in morocco cases, too sacred for the photographic album and the inspection and criticism of a stranger. There is something touching in these repositories, for they tell that, however much the lad may appear to be absorbed in the pursuits and pleasures of the mess-room, the parade-ground, the snipe-marsh, and the race-course, his highest thoughts and dearest hopes are far away in that land where he is never again to abide, until those hopes and thoughts have long been tamed and deadened by years and troubles.
Such are the quarters of a British subaltern. The home of a married pair may be somewhat more comfortable, and the residence of a man in high office considerably more magnificent; but the same characteristics prevail everywhere. A spirit of scrupulous order, and a snug domestic air, are not to be attained in an Indian household. At best a semi-barbarous profusion, an untidy splendour, and the absence of sordid cares, form the compensation for the loss of English comfort. Still, the lady must have her drawing-room, where she can display her wedding-presents, and the purchases which she made at the Calcutta auctions during the cold season before last. The Commissioner must have his sanctum, where he can wallow in papers, and write letters of censure to his collectors, letters of explanation to the Revenue Board, and letters of remonstrance to the local military authorities. The epicure cannot do without a roofed passage leading from his kitchen to his parlour; nor the sporting man without a loose box for the mare which he has entered for the Planter’s Plate at Sonepore. Then, too, gentlemen of horticultural tastes like to devote a spare hour to superintending the labours of their gardeners: and the soil of Cawnpore well repays attention. Most kinds of European vegetables can be produced with success, while peaches and melons, shaddocks and limes, grow in native abundance: together with those fruits which an old Qui-hye loves so dearly, but which to a fresh English palate are a poor substitute indeed for hautboys and ribstone pippins;—the mango, with a flavour like turpentine, and the banana, with a flavour like an over-ripe pear; the guava, which has a taste of strawberries, and the custard-apple, which has no perceptible taste at all.
None of those institutions which render the ordinary life of the English officer in India somewhat less monotonous and objectless were wanting at Cawnpore. There was a church, whose fair white tower, rising among a group of lofty trees, for more than one dull and dusty mile greets the eyes of the traveller on the road from Lucknow. That church, which has stood scatheless through such strange vicissitudes, will soon be superseded by a more imposing temple, built to commemorate the great disaster of our race. There were meeting-houses of divers Protestant persuasions, a Roman Catholic chapel, and a mission of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. There was a race-course, as there is in every spot throughout the East where a handful of our countrymen have got together; a theatre, where the ladies of the garrison with good-natured amusement witnessed cornets and junior magistrates attempting to represent female whims and graces; a Freemason’s lodge, where the work of initiation and instruction went merrily on in a temperature of 100° in the shade. There was a racket-court, and a library, and news-rooms, and billiard-rooms. There were the assembly-rooms, where dinners were given to passing Governors-General, and balls to high official dames, where questions of precedence were raised, and matches made and broken. There was a breakfast club, whither men repaired after their ride to discuss the powers that be over their morning toast, at that meal so dear to Britons from the Himalayas to Point de Galle, and from the Sutley to Hong-Kong, whether, as throughout Bengal, it be termed “little breakfast,” or, as at Madras, it be known by the title of “early tea.” There was the band-stand, the very heart and centre of up-country fashion, where the wit and beauty and gallantry of the station were nightly wont to congregate. There was the ice-club for the manufacture and supply of that luxury which becomes a necessity under the tropic of Cancer;—which more favoured Calcutta obtains straight from North American lakes, with Newfoundland codfish and Pennsylvanian apples embedded in the crystal mass. The markets were well supplied with fish, flesh, and fowl, at a cost that would gladden the heart of an English housewife, though Anglo-Indians complain loudly of the rise in prices, and grumble at being forced to pay sixpence a pound for mutton, and three shillings for a fat turkey. In the game season, quails, wild ducks, snipe, and black partridges were cheap and abundant; and a dish of ortolans, a treat which in Europe is confined to Italian tourists and Parisian millionaires, was a common adjunct to the second course at Cawnpore dinner-tables.
The quarters of the native troops presented a very different appearance from the English bungalows. Sepoy lines, generally speaking, consist of long rows of huts built of mud on a framework of bamboos, and thatched with straw. Every soldier has his own doghole, in which he keeps an inconceivable quantity of female relations, from his grandmother downwards. There he rules supreme: for no Sahib, be he ever so enthusiastic on the subject of sanitation and drainage, would care to intrude upon the mysteries of a sepoy household. At the ends of each row stand the habitations of the native officers attached to the company: two or three cabins round a tiny court-yard, fenced in with a mud wall a few feet in height. The sepoy, unlike a European soldier, never becomes wholly military in his tastes and habits. The dearest ambition of a villager is to increase the number of huts on his little premises, and that ambition is not to be quenched even by drill and pipe-clay.
Each of the regiments had a bazaar peculiar to itself, crowded with people employed in supplying the wants, and ministering to the pleasures of the battalion which honoured them with its patronage. Sutlers, corn-merchants, rice-merchants, sellers of cotton fabrics, of silver ornaments, of tobacco and stupefying drugs, jugglers, thieves, swarms of prostitutes, fakeers, and Thugs, retired from business, made up a motley and most unruly population, which was with difficulty kept in some show of order by the energy of Sir George Parker, the cantonment magistrate. The united crew of these dens of iniquity and sedition did not fall short of forty thousand in number.
The sepoys were tall men, the average height in a regiment being five feet eight inches, and, seen from a distance, in their scarlet coats and black trousers, they presented a sufficiently military appearance. But, on nearer inspection, there was something in the general effect displeasing to an eye accustomed to the men of Aldershot and Chalons. No Oriental seems at ease in European costume,—least of all in the English uniform so dear to the heart of the old tailor colonels. The native soldier in full dress wore a ludicrous and almost pathetic air of uneasiness and rigidity. His clothes hung on him as though he were a very angular wooden frame. Whether from consciousness of the figure which he cut in his red tunic, or from an instinctive fear of the contamination contained in Christian cloth, the sepoy was no sooner dismissed from parade or relieved from guard than he hastened to doff every shred of the dress provided by Government. Clad in the unprofessional but more congenial costume of a very scanty pair of linen drawers, he might be seen now seated over a pile of rice or a huge bannock, cooked for him by the women of his family; now, performing the copious ablutions, the obligation to which constitutes the single virtue of his national religion; now, submitting the crown of his head to the barber for a periodical shave; now, perchance, discussing with a circle of comrades the probability of the Emperor of the Russians joining with Brigadier Napoleon and the King of Roum in a scheme for destroying the power of the East India Company.
His pay was seven rupees, or fourteen shillings, a month. Small as this sum may appear to us, it was amply sufficient to endow the sepoy with far higher social consideration than is enjoyed by a private soldier in European countries. The purest of pure Brahmins, his faith forbade him from spending much money on the gratification of his appetite. The most confirmed gourmand in the battalion could never dream of a better dinner than some coarse fish from a neighbouring tank, flavoured by a handful of spices ground between two fragments of a gravestone abstracted from the last English cemetery on the line of march. Such luxuries as these could be procured at a rate that left even the private soldier a large margin whence to provide for any other calls that might be made upon his purse. He accordingly was regarded as a very considerable personage by the native populace. A peasant-proprietor or small shopkeeper thought it no small honour to receive an offer of marriage for his daughter from a gentleman serving in the ranks of the Company’s army: and the sepoy was not slow to make use of his matrimonial advantages. A column of native troops on the march was accompanied from station to station by an endless string of small carts, each containing one or two veiled ladies, presumably young and pretty; one or two without veils, very indubitably old and ugly; together with a swarm of dusky brats with enormous stomachs, stark naked, with the almost nominal exception of a piece of tape fastened round the loins.
In spite of his excellent pay, the native soldier was almost invariably deep in debt. A strong sense of family ties, an extreme generosity towards poor connexions, is a marked trait in the Hindoo character, amiable indeed, but not encouraging to the student of Social Science. Whenever an Indian official steps into an income, relations of every degree flock from all parts of the continent to prey upon his facile affection: and the prospect of sharing the corner of a sepoy’s hut and the parings of his pay proved sufficiently attractive to bring into cantonments herds of country cousins from Rohilcund and Shahabad. Neither would seven rupees a month adequately defray the occasional extravagances enjoined by “dustoor” or custom: dustoor, the breath of a Hindoo’s nostrils, the motive of his actions, the staple of his conversation, the tyrant of his life. It has frequently happened that a private soldier has celebrated a marriage feast at a cost of three hundred rupees, to obtain which he must sell himself body and soul to one of those griping ruthless usurers who are the bugbears of Oriental society.
At the commencement of 1857, the condition of the native army was unsatisfactory in the highest degree. An impartial observer could not fail at every turn to note symptoms which proved beyond the possibility of a doubt that a bad spirit was abroad. But, unfortunately, those who had the best opportunity for observing these symptoms were not impartial. The officers of the old Bengal army regarded their soldiers with a fond credulity that was above suspicion and deaf to evidence: and no wonder: for on the fidelity of that army was staked all that they held most dear—professional reputation, social standing, the means of life, and, finally, life itself. It was in deference to their pardonable but most fatal prejudices that on this ominous subject silence was enforced during the years which preceded the outbreak. It was to please their pride of class that the tongues of more discerning men were tied, and their pens blunted. It was in vain that General Jacob, the stout Lord Warden of the Scinde Marches, wrote and expostulated with all his native energy and fire. Threatened and frowned on by his employers, sneered at by his fellow officers as an agitator and a busybody, he was at length brought to acknowledge that the tone of the Bengal army was a matter on which a wise man did well to hold his peace. That great commander, whose excellent military judgment, matured in European camps, revolted at a state of things so fraught with peril and scandal, learned too late that not even the audacity of a Napier, not even the glory of Meeanee, could protect him from the consequences of having presumed to call in question the faith of the sepoy. As the only apparent effect of his admonitions the turbulent and warlike province of Oude was annexed to our territory, and the ranks of our army were swelled by the addition of thousands of disaffected native mercenaries.
That discipline was lax, that insubordination was afoot, had long been known by many who dared not speak out the truth. As far back as the year 1845 there occurred a case in which a regiment broke into open mutiny, and pelted its officers through cantonments with the material employed in road-mending, a customary missile in Bengalee riots. A party of native infantry on a night march presented an appearance, absurd indeed, but to a thoughtful spectator not without serious significance. The men straggled along, carrying in their hands some beloved pipe, their most treasured possession, while their muskets were carelessly flung into the bullock-carts, in which not a few sepoys were snoring comfortably amidst the baggage. Even those on foot dozed as they walked, with that unaccountable capacity, common to all Hindoos, of going to sleep under the most adverse circumstances; the collar of their great-coat turned up and kept in its place by a strip of calico; their ears protected by folds of cloth passed underneath the chin and fastened over the top of the head, with a regimental forage-cap perched on the summit of this unsightly and unmartial head-gear. In some corps men had so little respect for military rule and custom as to strip off their uniforms even when on guard. There were those who in great part attributed these irregularities to the abolition of corporal punishment effected by Lord William Bentinck, that wise and true friend of the native population of India. It is to be hoped, for the cause of humanity and enlightenment, that men who so think are mistaken in their opinion. It cannot, however, be denied that, whatever be the reason, there was truth in the words spoken to a civilian by an old pensioned native officer:—”Ah Sahib!” said the veteran, “The army has ceased to fear.”
At the siege of Mooltan, where native troops from all parts of India were collected into one army, the vile temper of the Bengal sepoys and the extraordinary indulgence displayed towards them by their officers became painfully apparent. These insolent high-caste mercenaries positively refused to labour in the trenches, and endeavoured to induce or force the modest and trusty Bombay soldiers to follow their example. On one occasion a mob of these rascals, being unable to persuade a fatigue-party of Bombay men to strike work, proceeded to revile and at length to stone their worthier comrades. A captain in a rifle regiment marked the ringleaders, but the Bengal officers flatly declined to take any steps inthe matter, and the story was hushed up in order that their feelings might be spared. When the Sixty-sixth Native infantry mutinied, their chiefs endeavoured to palliate the guilt of the regiment; but Sir Charles Napier refused to see with any eyes save his own, and promptly disbanded the corps, which was replaced by an excellent levy of the valiant Highlanders of Nepaul. Sir Charles expressed great displeasure at the report sent in by the commanding officer of the regiment, and especially at a sentence which characterised what was in fact a shout of defiance as “a murmur of discontent.” To the very last, at a time when mutiny and murder were rife from Peshawur to Dacca, each particular colonel was firmly impressed with the idea that his battalion would be the Abdiel of the army, faithful only to its oath and salt, to the recollections of bounty-money and the hopes of pension. “Pity,” writes an officer of the Sixty-fifth regiment, “that Europeans abusing a corps cannot be strung up.” On the twenty-second of May a letter appeared in the Englishman newspaper from Colonel Simpson, who commanded the Sixth Bengal Infantry at the all-important station of Allahabad. He was very indignant at the suspicions which had been expressed concerning the intentions of the men under his charge, who, according to him, “evince the utmost loyalty. So far from being mistrusted, they are our main protection.” Not many days after he was glad to escape into the fort with a ball through his arm, while his officers were being butchered by the men on whom he had placed so unbounded a reliance. The “staunchness” of the sepoys was at that time so common a topic with their chiefs that the expression became a byword among Calcutta people; for at whatever station the colonel most loudly, pertinaciously, and angrily declared his regiment to be “staunch,” it was to that quarter that men looked for the next tidings of massacre and outrage. It was not till he saw his own house in flames, and the rupees from the Government treasury scattered broad-cast over the parade-ground:—it was not till he looked down the barrels of sepoy muskets, and heard sepoy bullets whizzing round his ears, that an old Bengal officer could begin to believe that his men were not as staunch as they should be; and yet, as will be seen in the course of this narrative, there might exist a degree of confidence and attachment which was proof even against that ordeal.
Respect for the obligations of blood-relationship is so strong in the Hindoo mind, that jobbery and nepotism flourish in Oriental society to an extent which would seem inconceivably audacious to the colder imagination of a western public servant. The system of family patronage runs through all ranks and classes. The Indian judge loves to surround himself with kindred clerks of the court and consanguineous ushers. The Indian superintendant of police prefers to have about him inspectors and sergeants bound to his interest by nearer ties than those of official dependence. The head bearer fills his master’s house with young barbarians from his native village; and, in like manner, the veteran sepoys took measures to keep the regiment supplied with recruits from the neighbourhood in which they themselves had been born and bred. No strapping young Tewarry, or Pandy, who had a mind to shoulder a Company’s musket and touch the Company’s rupees, had long to wait for a place in the section of which the sergeant was his uncle and the corporal his brother-in-law. On the other hand, a stranger was soon driven from the regiment by that untiring and organized social oppression, in which, if we are to believe the daily press, military men of all nations and grades are such admirable adepts. And so it came to pass in the course of time that the company partook of the nature of a family, and the battalion of the nature of a clan. The consequence was that there existed a sympathy and freemasonry throughout the ranks of quite another tendency from that tone of regimental patriotism and martial brotherhood, known in European armies by the title of “esprit-de-corps.” Such a state of things afforded peculiar facilities for conspiring. A disaffected body of sepoys possessed the power of a host, and the discretion of a clique. The most extensive and perilous designs could be matured in perfect secrecy, and carried into effect by the weight of a vast and unanimous multitude.
The real motive of the mutiny was the ambition of the soldiery. Spoilt, flattered, and idle, in the insolence of its presumed strength that pampered army thought nothing too good for itself, and nothing too formidable. High-caste Brahmins all, proud as Lucifer, they deemed that to them of right belonged the treasures and the empire of India. Hampered with debt, they looked for the day of a general spoliation. Chafing under restraint, they panted to indulge themselves in unbridled rapine and licence. They were bent upon the foundation of a gigantic military despotism. They looked forward to the time when Soubahdars and Jemmadars should be Maharajas and Nawabs; when the taxes should be collected by sepoy receivers-general, and paid into sepoy treasuries; when every private should have his zenana full of the loveliest daughters of Lahore and Rohilcund; when great landholders from Bundelcund and Orissa should come with cases of diamonds to beg a favourable decision from Mungul Pandy; when great merchants from Liverpool and Marseilles should come with bags of sovereigns to ask leave of Peer Bux to establish a factory at Mutlah or Chandernagore. They evinced an equal contempt for all the other classes of the inhabitants of India. They despised the excellent armies of Bombay and Madras, and their insolence was requited with bitter aversion. They looked down on the Ghoorkas as savages, and presumed to regard the heroes of Chillianwallah and Ferozeshah as a conquered race; as if, forsooth, it was sepoy prowess which, after more than one series of fierce and dubious battles, had at length prevailed over the brave and haughty warriors of the Punjaub. And at length, in the plenitude of their pride and folly, they began to call in question the efficacy of the English name.
We had, indeed, been negligent. We had been improvident even unto madness. Some twenty thousand European troops were scattered over the continent of India; for the security of which seventy thousand are now held to be barely sufficient. In the May of 1857, from Meerut in the North-west, to Dinapore in the South-east, two weak British regiments only were to be found. In these days, a battalion of English infantry may be placed at any important city in our dominions within the twenty-four hours. Then, all the field-batteries throughout the entire region of Oude, with a single exception, were manned by native gunners and drivers. Now, in every station on the plains, the artillerymen, the trained workmen of warfare, without whom in modern times an armed force is helpless, are one and all our own countrymen. Then, our only communication was along roads which the first rains turned into strips of bog, and up rivers treacherous with crossing currents and shifting sandbanks. Now, through the heart of every province, there run, or soon will run, those lines of rail and lines of wire, which defy alike season and distance.
The natives of India possess a sharp insight into matters that come within the limits of their own sphere, but are strangely ignorant of all that passes beyond those limits. The sepoy ringleaders knew to a man the strength, or rather the weakness, of European force in the North of India. But, incredible as it may appear, they were firmly impressed with the idea that they saw with their eyes the whole extent of our resources. Public opinion in Hindostan placed the population of the British Isles at something over a hundred thousand souls. This error was so universal that a native who did not share in the hallucination was sure to be a man of superior discernment and rare strength of mind. Hyder Ali and Runjeet Singh, the Hannibal and the Mithridates of India, had often in their mouths the same phrase concerning the power of the Company. They feared, they would say, not what they saw, but what they did not see. Jung Bahadur, the far-famed Mayor of the Palace of Nepaul, when the first dull rumour of the coming crisis began to be bruited, paid a visit to England on purpose to learn for himself what the state of the case really was; and returned firmly resolved not to take part against a power which could raise at a pinch hundreds of millions of money, and hundreds of thousands of men. On one occasion during the troubles, a party of sepoys attacked some guns worked by Sikh artillerymen, only to be beaten off with heavy loss. The officer in charge of the battery was much amused at hearing one of the men say to his comrades: “If those fools of pandies had ever been at Battses Hotel, Vere Street, Oxford Street, they would not have come on so boldly.” On inquiry, it appeared that this judicious Punjaubee had gone to London in the service of some Anglo-Indian; where, as he stood at the mouth of Vere Street, he might see passing to and from Hyde Park in a single day as many Sahibs as would stock two such towns as Loodianah or Umritsur.
The conviction that all our available male population was already in India began to be shaken as, regiment after regiment, brigade upon brigade, angry fighting men of Saxon race came pouring up from Calcutta in a continuous stream, by road, by rail, and by river. And yet that conviction lingered long. When the magnificent array collected for the final siege of Lucknow passed through Cawnpore, our Sikh allies would have it that Sir Colin, like the stage manager at Astley’s theatre, marched his men in at one end of the town and out at the other, and then brought them back outside the walls to repeat the same manœuvre. When the mutineers first caught sight of the Highland costume, they cried with joy that the men of England had been exhausted, and that the Company had been reduced to call out the women. They soon had reason to repent their mistake, and thenceforward adopted a theory more consistent with the fact, for they held that the petticoats were designed to remind their wearers that they had been sent to India to exact vengeance for the murder of the English ladies.
The insolence and greed of the soldiers, their impatience of discipline, and their lust of power, were the effective causes of the outbreak. But the proximate cause was the fancied insult which had been offered to their national religion. Upon this most vexed question, a distinguished civil servant, who held high office in Calcutta during those eventful months, is wont to say that he could never trust the judgment of a man who maintains that the greased cartridges had little to do with the mutiny. There are a class of our countrymen who delight in stigmatizing the natives of India as hypocrites and infidels. These men affect to disbelieve in the sincerity of the religious professions of any Mussulman who cannot resist the temptation of iced champagne, or of any Hindoo who indulges himself in a quiet slice of the joint which has appeared at his master’s table. As if the men who are foremost to avenge the wrongs of their creed and to thrust it down the throats of their neighbours were always the most scrupulous in their obedience to its precepts! As if History was not full of covetous Fathers of the Church and polygamous Defenders of the Faith! Jehu was zealous to destroy the priests of the House of Baal, and to burn his images with fire: howbeit he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. Archbishop Laud was emphatically a good Churchman: and yet he too often forgot the blessing pronounced upon the merciful by the Divine founder of his Church, and the curse uttered against those who lade men with burdens grievous to be borne.
The mind of the sepoy reeked with religious prejudice. He had adopted his profession in accordance with the dictates of his superstition. He belonged to a sacred order, and his life was one long ceremony. He could not prepare his simple food without clearing for himself a separate plot of ground secure from the intrusion of others. Should a stranger step into this magic ring, the food which he had cooked was thrown untasted away. When some Bengal regiments were serving in China, it occasionally happened that an unlucky native of the country, intent on theft or barter, set his profane foot within the hallowed circle, and was immediately saluted with a volley of threats and missiles from the outraged soldier whose meal he had spoiled. The bewildered wretch would take to flight across the camping-ground, plunging through the kitchens, defiling dinners by the score, and, in whatever direction he turned, rousing about his ears a swarm of indignant hungry Brahmins. Even if the sepoy was inclined to become lax in his observances, there were not wanting ghostly advisers to check his latitudinarian tendencies. A battalion on march was usually preceded by two or three fakeers, the bloated, filthy, sensual wandering friars of the East; wild-looking fellows, in orange or salmon-coloured linen, if by good luck they deigned to wear any clothes at all; their locks of long hair matted in strange fashion with grease and dirt; their bodies sprinkled with ashes and daubed with coarse paint. So pernicious and irregular a custom was not tolerated in the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras: but in Bengal these fellows were highly regarded by the soldiers, and did duty as unofficial regimental chaplains.
Five parts tallow, five parts stearine, and one part wax, were the ingredients of that unsavoury composition, the memory of which will henceforward never perish as long as England has history and India has tradition. Captain Boxer, of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, was quite unable to offer any decided opinion as to the particular description of animal from which the tallow was derived, but was certain that the mixture was innocent of hog’s lard. Not so thought the Brahmins of the regiments stationed in the vicinity of the capital. About the middle of January, 1857, amidst the frivolous and ill-natured gossip which is the chief material of Calcutta journalism, there peer out certain vague and uncomfortable paragraphs: “A rumour has been current among the sepoys at Dumdum and Barrackpore that they are to be baptized, and we hear that they are greatly alarmed in consequence. It should be explained to them that the only ceremony of the kind to which soldiers are required to submit is the baptism of fire.” Again, a letter from Barrackpore announces that “bungalows here are set fire to every night.” On the 10th of February, “a Hindu” solemnly warns the Governor-General thus: “My Lord, this is the most critical time ever reached in the administration of British India. Almost all the independent native Princes and Rajahs have been so much offended at the late Annexation policy, that they have begun to entertain deadly enmity to the British empire in India. Moreover, as for the internal defences of the empire, the cartridge question has created a strenuous movement in some portions of the Hindu sepoys, and will spread it through all their ranks over the whole country to the great insecurity of British rule.” These notices, which we now read by the light of a terrible experience, appear side by side with satirical poems on their more fortunate comrades by military officers who cannot get civil employ; advertisements of a fancy fair for the advancement of native female education; and a proposition to appoint a committee of “eligible young civilians” to indemnify the ladies whose Europe bonnets have been ruined by the dust on the course. Ere many months were flown, eligible young civilians had far other matters to occupy their attention.
At length, on the 26th of February, the Nineteenth Bengal Native Infantry, quartered at Berhampore, being directed to parade for exercise with blank ammunition, refused to obey the command, and in the course of the following night turned out with a great noise of drumming and shouting, broke open the bells of arms, and committed other acts of open mutiny. By order of the Governor-General the regiment was disarmed, marched down to Barrackpore, a distance of something over a hundred miles, and there disbanded by Major-General Hearsey, who performed his trying task with energy, discretion, and courage. As yet there had been no blood shed; but far worse was soon to come. The Thirty-fourth Native Infantry had for some time past been ripe for revolt. There were nearly six hundred high-caste men in the ranks, and the corps was stationed among local associations which fostered the most lively emotions in the minds of men in a state of high religious excitement. In the year 1825, Barrackpore had been the scene of a military tumult which had been repressed with timely severity. One of the ringleaders, a Brahmin sepoy, had been hanged in the presence of his comrades. This man was regarded as a martyr; the spot where he met his fate, on the edge of a large tank, was still pointed out to each new-comer; and the brass implements with which he performed his acts of worship had been preserved in the quarter-guard as relics of the departed saint. Unfortunately the regiment was commanded by an officer who thus describes himself in honest and manly language: “I beg to state that it has been my invariable plan to act on the broad line which Scripture enforces, that is, to speak without reserve to every person. When I therefore address natives on the subject of religion, whether individually or collectively, it has been no question with me whether the person or persons I addressed belonged to this or that regiment, or whether he is a shopkeeper, merchant, or otherwise, but I speak to all alike, as sinners in the sight of God; and I have no doubt that I have often in this way (indeed, am quite certain,) addressed sepoys of my own regiment, as also of other regiments at this and other stations where I have been quartered…. As to the question whether I have endeavoured to convert sepoys and others to Christianity, I would humbly reply that this has been my object; and, I conceive, it is the aim and end of every Christian who speaks the Word of God to another, namely, that the Lord would make him the happy instrument of converting his neighbour to God.” Did not this good Colonel forget who it was who bade us give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast our pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend us?
On the 29th of March, a private of the Thirty-fourth, Mungul Pandy by name, under the combined influence of religious frenzy and intoxicating drugs, took into his head to swagger about in front of the lines, musket in hand, bawling: “Come out, you blackguards! The Europeans are upon us! From biting these cartridges we shall become infidels! Get ready! Turn out, all of you!” This conduct in the course of time brought down upon him the Adjutant and the serjeant-major, which in no wise disconcerted Mungul Pandy. He shot the officer’s horse, disabled his bridle arm, and finally, with the assistance of some of the boldest among his comrades, desperately wounded and drove off both the Europeans. The Colonel next appeared on the stage. Here again it may be best to quote his own words: “The native officer at length ordered the guard to advance. They did so, six or seven paces, and halted. The native officer returned to me, stating that none of the men would go on. I felt it was useless going on any further in the matter. Some one, a native in undress, mentioned to me that the sepoy in front was a Brahmin, and that no one would hurt him. I considered it quite useless, and a useless sacrifice of life, to order a European officer with the guard to seize him, as he would, no doubt, have picked off the European officer, without his receiving any assistance from the guard. I then left the guard, and reported the matter to the Brigadier.”
Fortunately there was at hand a man who had no scruple about the life of at least one European officer. Before many minutes had elapsed General Hearsey rode on to the parade-ground, and found it already covered with an agitated mob of sepoys, amongst whom might here and there be seen an English officer doing his best to prevent his men from following the example of Mungul Pandy, who had by this time reloaded his musket, and was now stalking about in the presence of his regiment, which had got together round the quarter-guard, brandishing his dripping sword, and shouting: “You have excited me to do this, and now, you blackguards, you will not join me!” An officer called out to Hearsey, “Have a care! His musket is loaded!” The General replied, “Damn his musket!” an oath concerning which every true Englishman will make the customary invocation to the Recording Angel.
Hearsey summoned the guard to advance, but the native officer answered as before. The General, however, by a significant motion of his revolver, gave the Jemmadar to understand that this time he had to deal with a man of very different kidney from the Colonel. The guard, accordingly, went forward; the Jemmadar in front, watched on either side by a young Hearsey, pistol in hand. Their sire himself rode straight at the mutineer, who, seeing that the game was up, turned the muzzle to his own breast, touched the trigger with his toe, and fell, severely hurt. He was secured, and conveyed to the hospital; and the concourse dispersed quietly to their lines, after having been roundly taken to task by the General for their cowardice and unsoldierlike behaviour in standing by without moving a finger while their officers were being cut to pieces.
Mungul Pandy was condemned by court-martial, and duly hanged on the 8th of April. At first there was some difficulty about finding an executioner. Public opinion had become less squeamish before the year was out. From this miserable fanatic was taken the name of “Pandy,” which in Anglo-Indian slang signified mutineer. There were those who loved to apply the horrible nickname of “white Pandies” to those wise and good men who, amidst the general frenzy, preserved some spark of justice and humanity; who would not lend their countenance to a barbarous policy dictated by cruelty and craven fear; who refused to devastate provinces and depopulate cities, to butcher the women of Delhi and torture the shopkeepers of Allahabad, to confound innocent and guilty in one vast proscription and one universal massacre: just as, at the end of the last century, there were those who stigmatized as “Jacobins” the English statesmen who could not be reviled or shocked out of the belief that the king and the nobility of France had been less sinned against than sinning; and that, in any case, it was not our business to avenge the wrongs of alien dukes and marquisses upon the senators who had abolished their privileges, the peasants who had shot their game, and the board which was busily engaged in dividing their provinces into departments.
Seven companies of the Thirty-fourth regiment were disbanded, after all pecuniary claims had been discharged. The closing effect was dramatic enough. General Hearsey made the men a spirited harangue, reminding them of their misdeeds, and giving some hints as to their future conduct which they would have done well to have laid to heart. Then came the parting; not without tears, it is said, on both sides. The sepoys stripped off their accoutrements, and were ferried across the river, bag and baggage, in Government steamers, and there sent about their business. In order to disprove the report that the Company had designs against their religion, they were informed that every facility would be afforded them for visiting Hindoo shrines of repute before they bent their steps towards their villages in Oude and Bahar.
Unfortunately for themselves, the men of the two regiments broken up at Barrackpore were bent upon doing a far less innocent service to the cause of their faith than that of feeing, out of the arrears of their pay, the priests of Juggernauth and Gyah. The most active and determined among their number deliberately proceeded to spread over the whole continent of India the tidings of the late occurrences, told with more than Oriental exaggeration, and received with more than Oriental credulity. No society of rich and civilized Christians, who ever undertook to preach the gospel of peace and good-will, can have employed a more perfect system of organization than was adopted by these rascals, whose mission it was to preach the gospel of sedition and slaughter. By twos and threes, in various disguises, and on divers pretexts, they found their way to every native regiment in the three Presidencies. Wherever they went they related how the Queen of England had commanded that the Hindoos and Mussulmans of India should be made Christians, come what might; how the Governor-General, the Great Lord Sahib, had remonstrated with her, saying that he must first slay three hundred thousand holy and learned men of both religions; how the Queen had rejoined, “Let it then be done“; how the Great Lord Sahib had resolved to begin with the army, and had ordered the troops to bite cartridges smeared with the fat of cow and pig; how the sepoys at Barrackpore had bravely resisted the tyrannous and accursed mandate; how some had testified to the death, and some had suffered bonds and scourging, and all had been deprived of their rank and calling, and robbed of the pensions which they had earned by valour and fidelity and ancient service. Then their hearers were warned that a like fate was in store for all; that a strenuous and united effort could alone save their freedom and their religion; and that the hour was fast approaching when the Brahmins of the army must rule, or be for ever slaves and Christians. Sometimes, it was a couple of fakeers perched on an elephant; sometimes, a party of country-people on their way to the Ganges for their annual dip in the sacred stream; a gang of gipsies; a string of camel-drivers; or a troop of musicians escorting a celebrated nautch-dancer to her home in Cashmere, after a successful season in Bengal. However it might be, it invariably happened that, a few hours after the strangers had entered the station, the bazaar and the cantonments were in a ferment of gossip and conjecture; the sepoys at once grew sulky and idle; the Mahomedans of the town became insolent, and the Hindoos pert. The very domestic servants appeared to share the contagion; the cooks got drunk, and the grooms stupid; the water-carrier omitted to fill the bath, and the butler to ice the Moselle; the peon spent twice his usual number of hours in conveying a note to the next compound but one; while the bearers delighted to insult their mistress by smoking under her window, and coming bareheaded into her presence, whenever the Sahib and his horsewhip were well out of the way.
To us, who from the standing-point of complete and certain knowledge look back upon that March and April pregnant with a great and sombre future, it seems indeed miraculous that our countrymen then resident in India should not have entertained a suspicion of what those months would bring forth. It appears incredible that the officers should have lived their ordinary lives; hunting; dining; dancing; speculating on the probable height of the thermometer, and the possible chances of promotion; while within a few yards of their quarters the men were debating the programme of the coming mutiny; arranging who was to shoot down the adjutant, and who was to fire the thatch of the colonel’s bungalow; discussing their hopes of assistance from Gwalior, Nepaul, and St. Petersburg. Can it be believed that morning after morning our countrymen looked down the row of dark faces and gleaming eyes, and never dreamed that in all that array, so fair and orderly to view, any heart beat with a loftier ambition than could be satisfied by a stripe or an epaulette; with a deadlier malice than might be gratified by the disappointment of some rival in the good opinion of the soubahdar? And yet, so it was. In spite of all that was said and written concerning the childlike docility of the affectionate sepoy, confidence and regard did not exist between the officer and the soldier. That the case had once been far otherwise wasacknowledged on all sides; and the change was noted by military men of the old school with regret, qualified by a slight tincture of self-satisfaction. Young subalterns retorted that the ancient intimacy between superior and inferior was connected with the loose habits which disgraced Anglo-Indian society in days gone by, when the soldier pandared to the vices of his officer, or, at any rate, was cognisant of their existence. Those who have studied cause and effect will be slow to accept the theory that this estrangement between the mess-room and the lines was in any great measure due to the increased morality of the Indian army.
The root of the evil lay in the withdrawal of officers from regimental duty for employment on the staff and in the civil posts; a custom so dear to all who bore the great and time-honoured names, which had been conspicuous in the Court of Directors and at the Calcutta Council-board as far back as the time of Barwell and Warren Hastings. And yet, though family interest received due consideration from those who dispensed the good things of the service, it was unfortunate for the efficiency of the Bengal army that merit did not go without a share in the loaves and fishes. A young man on the threshold of his profession was recommended by his father, and entreated by his sisters, skilled like all Anglo-Indian ladies in the inscrutable mysteries of official success, to get away from his regiment as early as possible. The teaching of his relations was enforced by the golden words which dropped from the lips of the Chairman of the Honourable Court, when, on the prize-day at Addiscombe, the lad stood forth blushing with modest pride, the Pollock medal in his hand, the sword of honour under his arm, and a pile of military histories, emblazoned with the arms of the academy, on the table before him. After his arrival on Indian shores, the same advice was impressed upon him by his uncle the Sudder judge, his cousin the junior secretary, and his school-chum the probationary-sub-assistant-commissary-general.
Rich were the prizes open to the aspiring cadet:—rich, but far from rare. There were the political agencies at the courts of Holkar and Scindiah; at the seats of the ancient and romantic dynasties of Rajpootana; at that European station whence, in dangerous proximity, an English resident still watches with anxious glance the intrigues and feuds which agitate the nest of Arab and Rohilla cut-throats, who protect and terrify the Nizam of Hyderabad. There were the Deputy Commissionerships of Oude and the Punjaub, whose occupants enjoyed a salary almost equal to that of a Collector in the more settled provinces, with a far greater share of power and responsibility. There were the posts in the branches of administration more exclusively military: the Departments of the Adjutant-General, the Quarter-Master-General, the Commissary-General, and the Judge-Advocate-General. Finally, there were the numerous irregular corps in the Deccan and on the North-west Frontier, to each of which were attached some three or four captains and subalterns, who fully appreciated the increase of their pay, and the excitement afforded by their critical and interesting duties. In short, appointments which enabled officers to make money and reputation faster than was possible for their less fortunate brethren who remained in the line were so numerous that, after family claims had been satisfied, the surplus sufficed to absorb all the most promising and pushing youngsters in the Bengal Military service.
It was not only that this system drained the army of individual zeal and talent. The professional spirit of the mass could not thrive under so blighting an influence. The officers present with the corps gradually ceased to take pride in the conscientious performance of their regimental duties; for their employment upon those duties was a standing proof that they were wanting in ability and high official connexion. It was very difficult to throw much energy and enthusiasm into such work as escorting treasure, guarding jails, inspecting the cross-belts and listening to the grievances of sepoys, while a junior lieutenant in the same battalion was coercing refractory Rajahs, or scouring the border at the head of five hundred wild Pathan horsemen. What wonder if, under these circumstances, men became sick at heart? Disgusted at their position, they no longer made the welfare and happiness of their soldiers an all-important object: and neglect often deepened into aversion and contempt. The cadets, as was only too natural, caught the prevailing tone. Young men fresh from home are so shocked at the apparent deficiency of the Hindoo character of manliness, honesty, and self-respect, the qualities which Englishmen most regard, that, so to speak, their better impulses are apt to render them careless of the rights and sentiments of the native population. “Do I not well to be insolent?” is a question asked daily, in a more or less logical form, by the majority of our countrymen in India. It requires a larger stock of philosophy than generally falls to the share of a lad of nineteen in a new red coat, with his first month’s pay in the pocket, to realize the conviction that an imperial people, who undertake to govern others, must first govern themselves; and that it is the height of folly and cruelty to subjugate a hundred millions of men, and then abuse them because they are as God made them, and not as we would fain have them.
And so it came to pass that to be sent back to head-quarters was “a shame,” regimental duty was “a bore,” and the sepoys were “niggers.” That hateful word, which is now constantly on the tongue of all Anglo-Indians except civilians and missionaries, made its first appearance in decent society during the years which immediately preceded the mutiny. The immorality of the term is only equalled by the absurdity. To call the inhabitants of Hindostan “niggers,” is just as unreasonable as it would be for Austrian officials to designate the subject populations of Venetia and Hungary by the collective title of “serfs.” In the eyes of an English planter, or railway-contractor, there is no distinction of race or rank. Khoonds and Punjabees, Pariahs and Coolin Brahmins, bazaar-porters and Rajahs with a rent-roll of half a million, and a genealogy longer than that of Howards and Stanleys, are “niggers” alike, one and all, with the prefix of that profane epithet, which has been the Shibboleth of the Englishmen abroad since the days of Philip de Comines. And so, in a Bengal corps,—whether he were a grey-bearded Mahomedan soubahdar, the arbiter and exponent of regimental custom and tradition, or the high-caste Rajpoot, or a Sikh veteran marked with the scars of Sobraon,—every man knew well that he was dubbed “nigger” by some slip of an ensign, who could not tell his right hand from his left in any Oriental language. In such an atmosphere how could mutual attachment exist, or mutual confidence? How could there not exist dislike and disaffection; the bitterness of injured pride, and of feelings misunderstood or heedlessly contemned?
There were usually some eight or nine officers actually doing duty with a battalion. A colonel and doctor, three or four captains and lieutenants, and three or four ensigns, formed what was in those days considered to be a very respectable complement. The other members of the mess were far away from head-quarters, inditing minutes at Calcutta, deciding suits in some distant non-regulation province, or tracking the course of the Nile through the deserts of Nubia. Such, however, was not universally the case. Here and there might be found a corps where the regimental tone (that unwritten and impalpable law, not passed in words, nor enforced by overt penalties, but obeyed in silence and without question), had ordained that staff employment was not a legitimate object of ambition. The officers plumed themselves upon keeping all together, and rising one with another in the ordinary course of promotion. They shot tigers, and speared hogs, and played whist and billiards, and meanwhile looked well after their companies, and contrived to know something about the private history and character of every man under their command. They voted it unfashionable to attempt the pass examination in Hindoostanee, success in which was an indispensable qualification for the staff: an ordeal familiarly known as the P.H.; that pair of consonants which are seldom far from the lips, and never out of the thoughts, of the more aspiring subalterns of the Bengal army. And yet, averse as they were to grammars and dictionaries, these men spoke the vernacular languages with rare facility. But not even to such officers as these was breathed a syllable of that fearful secret, which England would have cheaply bought at the price of a million pounds for a single letter. Their soldiers entertained towards them a strong and genuine regard. It was not among the ranks which they commanded that the spirit of sedition was born and nurtured. But in the day of wrath there was no distinction of person. When the baneful sirocco of mutiny, called by the imaginative Hindoo “the Devil’s Wind,” was abroad in the air, all milder influences yielded before its withering blast. The consciousness of the authority of the “Fouj ki Bheera,” or “general will of the army,” was to individual men, or regiments, almost irresistible. Some troopers in Fisher’s Irregular Cavalry performed a signal act of gallantry at Lucknow, during the early days of the outbreak, for which they received a handsome reward. While waiting for their money in the verandah of the commissioner’s house, they fell into conversation with certain of their fellow-villagers among his servants. “We like our colonel,” said they, “and will not allow him to be harmed; but, if the whole army turns, we must turn too.” A week elapsed, and these men looked quietly on from their saddles, while Colonel Fisher was shot to death by a scoundrel in the lines of the military police. Then they threw aside all semblance of discipline; murdered the second in command; and shouted to the adjutant, who was a general favourite, to ride and begone, if he desired to spare them the pain of taking his life. At one large station the men were in open mutiny, and the officers had grouped themselves in front of the battalion, expecting every moment the fatal volley. They agreed, however, not to abandon hope until they had witnessed the effect produced by the presence of a captain of old standing in the service, who was apparently loved and trusted by the whole regiment, and especially by the grenadier company, to which he had been attached for many years. When his approach was announced, every eye turned towards his bungalow, which stood on the parade-ground, close to that flank where the grenadiers were stationed. He had not gone ten paces down the line before he fell dead, pierced by a bullet from the ranks of his own command.
In every regiment there was a Soubahdar major, or native colonel; and in every company a Soubahdar, who answered to a European captain, and a Jemmadar, who answered to a European subaltern. These were the commissioned officers, who wore swords and sashes, sat on a court-martial, and were saluted by the rank and file. They had one and all carried the musket, and there was no approach to friendship or even to familiar intercourse between them and their Saxon brethren in arms, who considered that, if they offered their soubahdar a chair during an interview on regimental business, quite enough had been done to mark the difference between a commissioned and a non-commissioned sepoy. The sergeant and the corporal were represented by the havildar and the naick; titles which make the list of killed and wounded in Indian battles so bewildering to an English reader. Thus the Brahmin battalion had a complete outfit of Brahmin officers; and this it was that rendered the rebellious army so terribly efficient for evil. When every Englishman in a corps had been murdered or scared away, the organization none the less remained intact. The regiment was still a military machine finished in every part, compact, flexible, and capable as ever of a great and sustained exertion of strength and courage. This imperfect, but, it is to be feared, tedious sketch of the composition of our native force, as it existed before the mutiny, may well be closed with the oracular words of Sir Charles Napier, the Cassandra of the old Bengal army: “Your young, independent, wild cadet, will some day find the Indian army taken out of his hands by the soubahdars. They are steady, respectful, thoughtful, stern-looking men; very zealous and military: the sole instructors of all our soldiers.”
The native town of Cawnpore contained sixty thousand inhabitants. It possessed no architectural beauties worthy to detain the traveller who, from those stately landing-places whence rise, tier above tier, the shrines and palaces of Benares, was hurrying on towards the ineffable glories of Agra. The most remarkable feature was a spacious boulevard, more than a hundred feet in breadth, called the Chandnee Choke, or street of silver. This name, common to the principal avenue in all the great cities of the north west, is a monument of the days of bad government and a primitive commercial system. When banks were few and robbers bold and numerous, men preferred to have some part of their wealth about their persons and in a portable form. A minister at a native court, however rich the harvest he might gather in during the fitful sunshine of royal favour, thought it well to keep a handful of diamonds and rubies in his girdle, as a provision against the day of disgrace and flight. Now, by the help of a bill of exchange and a single trusty agent, he may store up his gains in European stocks and debentures far out of reach of the greediest Nizam or the neediest Maharaja. In like manner, in old times, farmers and shopkeepers were wont to convert their superfluous rupees into ornaments of fantastic design for themselves, their wives, and their children. The unceasing flow of silver towards the east, which affords to political economists a constant sensation of pleasing bewilderment, is attributed in part to the fact that the Indian peasant still continues to invest his earnings on the wrists and ankles, the ears and noses of his family. Cawnpore was noted for the excellence and cheapness of all articles made of leather,—saddlery, boots and shoes, bottle-covers, helmets, and cheeroot-cases. The manufacture was introduced by a colony of Chinese, the frugal and industrious Lombards of India, who settled in the Bazaar many years ago. A subaltern could buy a set of harness for his buggy at something under three pounds, and thoroughly equip his hack for half that sum: and, if he was not very particular about shape and colour, he might pick up a serviceable country-bred horse for a hundred rupee note.
The city had an evil reputation. Situated on the frontier of two distinct jurisdictions, it swarmed with rascals from Oude, on their way to seek obscurity in British territory, and rascals from our north-west provinces, on their way to seek impunity in the dominions of the Nawab. Oonao, the half-way house on the road which led from Cawnpore to Lucknow, gave a name to a class of murders of peculiar atrocity. On and about that highway were constantly found the dead bodies of travellers: sepoys, for the most part, returning to their villages with their savings and the voucher for their pension. In most cases a rope was drawn tightly round the neck: but the surgeons who conducted the inquests gradually came to be of opinion that the victims had been poisoned, or, at any rate, stupefied, by being induced to smoke tobacco mixed with a noxious drug. The police exerted themselves in vain to obtain a clue to the mystery. Whenever a fresh officer of note was appointed to the district, the murderers made a point of presenting him with a “nuzzur,” or “offering,” in the shape of a larger than usual batch of corpses. The difficulty of detection was increased by an odious custom well known to all Anglo-Indian magistrates, which here flourished with extraordinary vigour. A malicious Hindoo will deliberately mangle the body of a person who has died from a natural cause, and fling it on the ground of some neighbour to whom the scamp may happen to bear a grudge. The unfortunate recipient finds himself involved in the consequences dreaded by the poor people in the Arabian Nights, when the hunchback was choked by a fishbone beneath their hospitable roof.
Bajee Rao, the Peishwa of Poonah, was the last monarch of one of those great Mahratta dynasties which long shared the sovereignty of the Central Highlands and the plunder of all Hindostan. So near a neighbour could not fail to be guilty of the amount of “treachery,” “faithlessness,” and “bad internal government,” necessary to justify the annexation of his dominions. Urged by that painful necessity of taking what belongs to others, which is the inevitable result of all our dealings with Oriental powers, we dethroned Bajee Rao, confiscated his territories, and assigned him a residence at Bithoor, a small town twelve miles up the river from Cawnpore. Here he lived until his death in princely state, inasmuch as the Company always behaved with great generosity towards the princes whom it had plundered, after the manner of those open-handed thieves of fiction who fling back a couple of broad pieces to the traveller whom they have eased of his purse and watch. Bithoor was pleasantly situated upon the banks of the sacred stream, and was peculiarly suited to be the Saint Juste in which a retired Brahmin ruler might be content to end his days; for the spot was held in singular favour by Brahma. Here, after the creation had been accomplished, the deity had sacrificed a hecatomb, in token that his great work was good. The pin which fastened the divine sandal was picked up in after days, and inserted in the steps of the principal landing-place, where it may still be seen by the incredulous. At the full moon in November, prodigious crowds of pilgrims assemble from all parts of India to celebrate the present god with frankincense, and flowers, and barbarous music, and drunken frenzy. With his traditions and his greyhounds, his annuity of eighty thousand pounds, and his host of retainers, Bajee Rao led a splendid and not unhappy existence. But the old Mahratta had one sore trial. He had no son to inherit his possessions, perpetuate his name, and apply the torch to his funeral pyre: for the last office, so the inflexible law of his religion ordained, might be performed by none other than a filial hand. In this strait he had recourse to adoption, a ceremony which, by Hindoo law, entitles the favoured person to all the rights and privileges of an heir born of the body. His choice fell upon an individual who, according to some, was the son of a Poonah corn-merchant, while others say that he was born in great poverty at a miserable village in the vicinity of Bombay. The name of this man was Seereek Dhoondoo Punth: but the execration of mankind has found his cluster of titles too long for use, and prefers the more familiar appellation of “the Nana.”
Bajee Rao died in 1851, and the heir forthwith put in a demand for the continuance of the pension which the Company had granted to his adopted father. The claim was disallowed, and the Nana, who at length began to despair of prevailing upon the Calcutta authorities, determined to go to the fountain-head, and accordingly despatched an agent to London. For this purpose he selected his confidential man of business, Azimoolah Khan, a clever adventurer, who began life as kitmutgar, or footman, in an Anglo-Indian family. In spite of his disadvantages, he acquired a thorough acquaintance with the English and French languages. He subsequently became a pupil, and thence a teacher, in the Government School at Cawnpore; in which position he attracted the notice of the Nana. Azimoolah arrived in town during the height of the season of 1854, and was welcomed with open arms by that portion of society which makes no inquiries into the antecedents of an aspirant to its favour, provided he be not a fellow-countryman or Christian. According to the creed of this class, every Hindoo was necessarily a prince, just as every Maronite is a martyr, and every Pole a patriot. Azimoolah speedily became a lion, and obtained more than even a lion’s share of the sweetest of all flattery. The ladies voted him charming. Handsome and witty, endowed with plenty of assurance and an apparent abundance of diamonds and Cashmere shawls, the ex-kitmutgar seemed as fine a gentleman as the prime minister of Nepaul, or the Maharaja of the Punjaub. On the first day of the great vengeance, when Havelock’s forlorn hope came to Bithoor, grim and eager, straight from the brink of the fatal well, our soldiers discovered amongst the possessions of this scoundrel letters from more than one titled lady couched in terms of the most courteous friendship. An indiscretion for which a sneer would be too severe a punishment, at such a moment excited bitter and painful emotion.
Great as were the successes which the agent of the Nana gained on his own account in Mayfair, he was able to effect very little for his master in Leadenhall Street and Westminster. In the reports which he transmitted to Bithoor he attributed his failure to the bribes which the Board of Control and the Privy Council had eaten at the hands of the East Indian Company; an explanation which appeared satisfactory to the Maharaja. On his way home Azimoolah passed through Constantinople at the time when our fortune in the Crimea was at the lowest ebb. During the mid-gloom of that terrible winter there was much talk among those who did not love us concerning the decadence of England and the youthful vigour of the Russian power. Of such gossip the clever Asiatic collected an ample budget, in order to console his baffled employer with cheery vaticinations relating to the approaching downfall of the British rule.
Although the Nana had failed in his attempt on the public purse, his wealth was still conspicuous even among the colossal incomes of Indian landholders. He had contrived to secure to himself the whole property of the ex-Peishwa; and strange stories were told about the means by which this end had been accomplished. The nephew of Bajee Rao started a claim for one half of his uncle’s estate, which moiety he valued at more than three millions. The suit was dismissed, and the plaintiff never ceased to affirm that “the palm of the judge had been greased by the Nana:” but too much attention must not be paid to this declaration; for, whenever a native accuses the bench of corruption, he simply means that he has lost his case. It is certain that the Maharaja kept in confinement against their will the widows of his predecessor; for whose younger daughter he planned a marriage inconsistent with the rules and traditions of the family: an act of outrageous tyranny in the estimation of High Brahmins. He wedded the eldest sister to a husband whom she was never allowed to see; and, when her death occurred after no long interval, it was whispered about the neighbourhood that there had been very foul play in every sense of the word. Those fictitious tales of vice and atrocity, with which literary hacks of the vilest class feed the corrupt imaginations of their readers, too often find a parallel in the realities of a great oriental household. The doctrine of personal rights has no existence within the walls of a zenana. Nowhere was the mystery of iniquity deeper and darker than in the palace of Bithoor, which was indeed a worthy nest for such a vulture. There were rooms in that palace horribly unfit for any human eye, where both European and native artists had done their best to gratify a master who was willing to incur any expense for the completion of his loathsome picture-gallery.
In the apartments open to the inspection of English visitors there was nothing which could shock either modesty or humanity, though a Sahib of fastidious taste might take exception to the arrangement of the furniture and the decorations. The habits of an Oriental are so simple, his wants so few, that the most Anglified Hindoo gentleman can never acquire himself, and still less impart to his servants a thorough acquaintance with our complicated domestic appliances. There is something very droll in the sanctum occupied by the eldest son of a rich native family; where, by a display of Western art and civilization, “Young Bengal” excites the envy of his contemporaries, and scandalises those among his relatives who belong to the old school. A cast from an exquisite statuette of Thorwaldsen stands side by side with a gilt shepherdess, or Highlander, or other specimen of that vulgar ware which with us has long been banished from the farmhouse to the cottage. A copy of some Roman or Florentine Madonna hangs next to a coloured print of a ballet-dancer; while a proof signed by Holman Hunt or Millais is flanked by “Facing a Bullfinch” and “Swishing a Rasper” from the classical collection of Mr. Fores, of Piccadilly. Over a sideboard of carved oak has long ceased to tick a veneered clock, daubed with the representation of the Exchange at Philadelphia; and round the tent-table of some deceased or insolvent ensign are gathered half a dozen chairs which once graced the boudoir of a vice-regal dame. No Eastern Anglo-maniac possessed a more heterogeneous collection than the Nana, who, living far from Calcutta, the centre of exotic fashion, was reduced to content himself with whatever treasures might come into the market at casual up-country sales. A gentleman of some literary reputation, who was entertained by the Maharaja in days gone by, thus describes the Bithoor ménage:—”I sat down to a table twenty feet long (it had originally been the mess-table of a cavalry regiment) which was covered with a damask table-cloth of European manufacture, but instead of a dinner napkin there was a bedroom towel. The soup—for the steward had everything ready—was served up in a trifle-dish which had formed part of a dessert service belonging to the Ninth Lancers—at all events the arms of that regiment were upon it; but the plate into which I ladled it with a broken tea-cup was of the old willow pattern. The pilau which followed the soup was served upon a huge plated dish, but the plate from which I ate it was of the very commonest description. The knife was a bone-handled affair; the spoon and fork were silver, and of Calcutta make. The plated side-dishes, containing vegetables, were odd ones; one was round, the other oval. The pudding was brought in upon a soup-plate, of blue and gold pattern, and the cheese was placed before me on a glass dish belonging to a dessert service. The cool claret I drank out of a richly cut champagne glass, and the beer out of an American tumbler of the very worst quality.”
The Maharaja had a large and excellent stable of horses, elephants, and camels; a well-appointed kennel; and a menagerie of pigeons, falcons, peacocks, and apes, which would have done credit to any Oriental monarch, from the days of Solomon downwards. His armoury was stocked with weapons of every age and country, from a masterpiece of Purdey, to the bow and arrows used by the Hillmen of Orissa. His reception-rooms sparkled with mirrors and chandeliers that had come direct from Birmingham; and his equipages had stood within the twelvemonth in the warehouses of Longacre. He possessed a vast store of gold and silver plate; and his wardrobe overflowed with shawls and jewellery, which on gala days were regarded with longing eyes by the Cawnpore ladies. Nor did they lack frequent opportunities of contemplating the Maharaja in his panoply of kincob and Cashmere scarfs, crowned with a tiara of pearls and diamonds, and girt with old Bajee Rao’s sword of state, which report valued at three lacs of rupees. For the Nana seldom missed an occasion for giving a ball or a banquet in European style to the society of the station; although he would never accept an entertainment in return, because our Government, which refused to regard him as a royal personage, would not allow him the compliment of a salute. Nor did he treat his guests with the semi-barbarous discourtesy evinced by some native hosts, who pass the evening seated among a group of courtiers, scrutinizing the dancers through a lorgnette, and apparently regarding the whole proceeding as a ballet arranged for their individual amusement. The Maharaja mixed freely with the company; inquired after the health of the Major’s lady; congratulated the judge on his rumoured promotion to the Sudder Court; joked the assistant magistrate about his last mishap in the hunting-field; and complimented the belle of the evening on the colour she had brought down from Simla. His wealth was abundant enough to allow of any vagaries of hospitality and personal extravagance, and does not seem to have been seriously impaired even by the expense entailed by a crowd of lazy myrmidons whom he kept about his person; a folly common to all high-born and opulent Hindoos. Every native landlord, who can induce his neighbours to dignify him with the title of Rajah, delights in flourishing about the country under the escort of a host of blackguards;—the horsemen armed with lances and old cavalry swords, and mounted on raw-boned, long-tailed horses, smeared with coarse paint;—the infantry straggling along under the weight of clubs, partizans, brass blunderbusses, and long matchlocks, of which the stock is studded with glass beads, and the muzzle shaped into the semblance of a dragon’s mouth. The Nana kept several hundreds of these scamps in idleness and insolence. He provided them with four rupees a month, and a suit of clothes once a year; an allowance which they eked out by plundering the peasants for twenty miles round, and extorting an intermittent blackmail from the tradesmen of Cawnpore.
At the time of the mutiny the Nana was about thirty-six years of age. His complexion was sallow; his features strongly marked, and not unpleasing. Like all Mahrattas, both head and face were shaven clean. He was fat with that unhealthy corpulence which marks the Eastern voluptuary. The circumstances under which a young Rajah comes to maturity leave him a very scant chance of obtaining perfection, moral or physical. From his earliest years he is surrounded by flatterers and pandars. While still a child in the harem, it is the object of every one, beginning with his own mother, to obtain his ear by adulation, and by the freemasonry of corrupt discourse. During his boyhood he has no little peers on whom to exert his faculties for emulation and self-denial; and, when he has arrived at man’s estate, he may look in vain for any object of honourable ambition amidst the dead level of national dependence. He never walks, save from his divan to his bath; never mounts one of the huge cream-coloured steeds, which on high feast-days amble behind his palanquin in melancholy cavalcade; never knows the sensation of honest fatigue and wholesome hunger. No whim ungratified; every propensity cherished and pampered; incapable of effort; incognizant of duty; he is vicious with deeper than Parisian immorality, and listless with more than Belgravian ennui. Long before the age at which a high-born Englishman makes his choice of Hercules between balls and blue-books, the effete sensuality of a Hindoo noble is reduced to seek gratification in the illicit charms of Indian hemp and French brandy. What wonder that in middle life he is flabby and gross beyond hope and compass; too feeble for manly exercise, too self-indulgent to practise a self-denying regimen?
The Maharaja of Bithoor exhibited a lively interest in the proceedings of our Government at home and abroad, in our history, our arts, our religion, and our customs; although he was entirely ignorant of our language. He subscribed to all the leading Anglo-Indian journals, which were translated to him daily by an individual who had been unlucky enough to exchange a situation on the East Indian Railroad for the post of English Professor in the household of the Nana. The Rajah played billiards admirably, while he was yet slim enough to bend over the table without inconvenience. He especially delighted in the game, because it afforded him an opportunity for mixing on familiar terms with the officers of the garrison. Nothing could exceed the cordiality which he constantly displayed in his intercourse with our countrymen. The persons in authority placed an implicit confidence in his friendliness and good faith, and the ensigns emphatically pronounced him a capital fellow. He had a nod or a kind word for every Sahib in the station. There were hunting-parties and jewellery for the men, and picnics and shawls for the ladies. If a subaltern’s wife required change of air, the Rajah’s carriage was at the service of the young couple, and the European apartments at Bithoor were put in order to receive them. If a civilian had overworked himself in court, he had but to speak the word, and the Rajah’s elephants were sent on to the Oude jungles. But none the less did he never for an instant forget the grudge which he bore our nation. While his face was all smiles, in his heart of hearts he brooded over the judgment of the Company, and the wrong of his despised claim. From his hour of repulse to his hour of vengeance his life was one long irony. Thenceforward his story would more fitly be told in the wild and mysterious rhythms of the old Greek drama than in sober English prose; for in truth that story finds no parallel, save in the ghastly tales which hang like a mist of blood round the accursed house of Pelops. The lads who, with his sapphires and rubies glistening on their fingers, sat laughing round his Thyestean table, had one and all been doomed to die by a warrant that admitted of no appeal. He had sworn that the injustice should be expiated by the blood of women who had never heard his grievance named;—of babies who had been born years after the question of that grievance had passed into oblivion. The great crime of Cawnpore blackens the page of history with a far deeper stain than Sicilian Vespers, or September massacres: for this atrocious act was prompted, not by diseased and mistaken patriotism, nor by the madness of superstition, nor yet by incontrollable fear that knew not pity. The motives of the deed were as mean as the execution was cowardly and treacherous. Among the subordinate villains there might be some who were possessed by bigotry and class-hatred: but the chief of the gang was actuated by no higher impulses than ruffled pride and disappointed greed.
Categories: English Literature