The Indian Mutiny
England was resting and recovering from her losses in the Crimea. She was just going to keep her hundredth anniversary of Plassey, when, like a "thundercrash from a cloudless sky," came the news of a mutiny in India, destined to shake British authority in the Far East to its very foundations. When the mutiny broke out—in May 1857—no one in England realised the discontent, that was growing among the dark-skinned natives of distant India. The large kingdom of Oude in the north, had just been brought under British rule to save it from the cruelty and oppression of its native rulers. This was bitterly resented by the natives. They saw the old state of things passing away; they feared for their religion. The English, they said, wanted to make them Christians.
Matters reached a climax at last. Hitherto the native soldiers, known as sepoys, had used a musket popularly called "Brown Bess." In 1857 Enfield rifles were substituted, with greased cartridges. The news spread, that these new cartridges were greased with hog's lard, and it was forbidden for Mohammedans to touch the fat of swine. A panic of religious fear ran from regiment to regiment, from village to village, town to town.
Early in May, a regiment near Delhi refused to bite the new cartridge. The men were tried, and eighty sepoys sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. The following Sunday, when the English were at church, the prison was broken open and the mutinous sepoys were set free by their companions. Then all took up arms, fired on their officers, and marched forth in battle array for Delhi. Here they proclaimed a descendant of the Great Mogul, Emperor of India. Europeans were massacred, and Delhi was in the hands of the mutineers, who held it till the end of September.
Meanwhile mutiny was breaking out in other parts of northern India. At Cawnpore there were some thousand Europeans, of whom more than half were women and children. Under the command of Sir Hugh Wheeler, an old man of seventy, hasty entrenchments were thrown up, and for three weeks, the few defenders held out gallantly against the mutineers, led by the infamous Nana Sahib.
On promise of a safe-conduct across the Ganges, to Allahabad, they at last surrendered, wholly unsuspicious of treachery. Accompanied by sepoys, a long procession of men, women, and children, carrying their sick and wounded comrades, made their way slowly to the boats, prepared for them. Hardly had they embarked, when a murderous fire opened upon them from either bank, from which four men only escaped. For 125 women and children a crueller fate was reserved.
Hearing that General Havelock and an English army were on their way to Cawnpore, Nana Sahib gave orders for an instant massacre of the helpless women and children, who, dead and dying, were cast into a well, the site of which is marked to-day by Marochetti's beautiful white marble angel. Nana Sahib escaped after this and was never heard of again.
Meanwhile at Lucknow, some forty miles distant, a strong man, Sir Henry Lawrence, was coping with the coming rebellion. For the defence of the Europeans, he chose a large building, known as the Residency. With unremitting toil, he laid in stores of grain, powder, and arms, while the defences were strengthened by night and day.
It was sunset time, on the last day of June, when a large body of rebels dashed over the bridge and swarmed into the city of Lucknow. All the Europeans withdrew into the Residency. The blaze of watch-fires and the flash of guns lit up the darkness of the night. It was the first long night of the famous siege of Lucknow. Two days later, Lawrence was in his room at the top of the Residency, when a shell crashed through the wall and burst.
"Sir Henry, are you hurt?" cried a friend, who was with him.
There was silence for a time. Then in a firm voice came the answer—"I am killed."
He was right: the wound was fatal. With his dying breath, he planned for the defence of the Residency, for the safety of his countrymen, now in such peril and distress.
"Never give up, I charge you. Let every man die at his post."
Speaking to himself, rather than to those around him, he murmured: "Here lies Henry Lawrence, who tried to do his duty," words, which may be seen on his tombstone to-day, in Lucknow. They form a simple summary of "the noblest man that has lived and died for India."
Lawrence had calculated, that Havelock and his relieving army, might arrive in another fifteen days. But a fortnight after his death, they had only just reached Cawnpore. No easy task had been allotted to Havelock. Already he had marched 126 miles in nine days, under the burning July sun, fighting four actions with large native bodies in his way. He must have reinforcements before attempting the relief of Lucknow. Pitiful, indeed, grew the messages from the little garrison. If help did not reach them soon, they must fall. They were nearly starving, and the sick were increasing daily. Still Havelock was delayed. Suddenly came the news that another man, Sir James Outram, had been appointed with troops to relieve Lucknow, instead of himself. It was a crushing blow. He had done all that man could do, in the face of obstacles. Now another was to enter Lucknow at the head of fresh troops and win the glory, he had earned. But Outram was too great a man for this.
"I shall join you with reinforcements," he said; "but to you shall be left the glory of relieving Lucknow, for which you have already struggled so hard."
Such an act of self-sacrifice has not been beaten in the noblest days of chivalry. It is one of the bravest acts in history, and won the unbounded admiration of the whole world.
The relieving army now started at once, Havelock at the head, Outram a volunteer in the army. On September 25, they reached Lucknow. It was the eighty-seventh day of the siege. With feelings of joy, they detected the tattered English banner still waving from the roof of the Residency, showing that British hearts still beat within, and they were not too late to save the garrison. Hour after hour they fought the rebel host, till at last they gained the narrow streets leading to the Residency, and in the dusk of that September evening, a deafening shout at last greeted them, as they grasped the hands of their comrades after their brilliant defence.
Lawrence had bade them hold the Residency for fifteen days.
"Hold it for fifteen days? We have held it for eighty-seven!" they might well have cried, in the words of the poet Tennyson.
Meanwhile desperate were the doings at Delhi. The siege, begun on June 4, was not ended till September 20, just five days before the relief of Lucknow.
"If there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it." Such was the popular idea among men, who knew the power of this famous brigadier.
The "desperate deed" was truly at hand: Delhi must be stormed. And to John Nicholson was entrusted the post of honour and danger. He—"the Lion of the Punjab"—lead the storming columns, against the defences of the city. Four columns were to assault four of the gates leading into Delhi at the same time, Nicholson himself leading the first column. At first all went well. But after a time, the enemy's fire became so appalling, that the men could not steel their hearts to follow their dauntless leader any further. In vain he strove to nerve them for the last fatal rush onwards; officers and men were falling every moment. At last Nicholson himself strode forward. He turned to his men, and waving his sword above his head, pointed to the foe in front, entreating them to advance. His tall and stately figure, standing alone and unprotected, was an easy mark. In another moment he had fallen, shot through the chest. He was carried from the action, a dying man. He lived just long enough to hear that Delhi was taken, after five days' heavy fighting— long enough to know, that he had not given his life in vain. He was but one of the many brave men, who helped to restore the authority of England in India; but his name is loved and feared still in the northern provinces of India, where "Nicholson's God" and "Nicholson's Queen" are reverenced to-day. The natives say that the hoofs of his war-horse are to be heard ringing at night, over the Peshawar valley, and until that sound dies away, the Empire of the English will endure.
With the advent of Sir Colin Campbell, as Commander-in-Chief of India, the final capture of Lucknow and Delhi and further fighting, the rebellion ended. England had been taught a lesson. An Act was at once passed for the better government of the mighty Indian empire. The East India Company ceased to exist, and in 1877 Queen Victoria became Empress of India.