Victoria—The Siege of Delhi
A HUNDRED years had passed since the terrible night when the British had been murdered in the Black Hole of Calcutta; a hundred years had passed since Clive had gained the victory of Plassey. Since then the British power in India had steadily grown and grown until, instead of a few sepoys, there was a great Indian army; instead of a few factories, the whole of India was under the rule of Britain, and British rule in India seemed firm and certain. But suddenly, from out the calm, rebellion blazed.
New guns had been sent to India for the use of the sepoys. The powder and shot for a gun is made up with paper into what is called a cartridge. In those days the end of the cartridge had to be bitten off before it could be used. The paper of these cartridges was greased, and somehow the sepoys came to think that the grease was a mixture of cow's fat and pig's lard, and they refused to use the cartridges.
These Indian soldiers were not Christians, but Brahmins and Mahometans. The Brahmins worship the cow, and they thought that it was dreadfully wicked to put into their mouths, or even touch, what they held as sacred. The Mahometans, on the other hand, thought that pigs were unclean animals, and their religion forbade them to touch anything which was considered unclean. So they, too, felt that it would be wicked to use the cartridges.
The governor, Lord Canning, sent out a proclamation telling all the people that the cartridges were not greased either with cow's fat or with lard. But the sepoys did not believe him, and a terrible rebellion, known as the Indian Mutiny, broke out.
It was a most dreadful time. There were very few British soldiers in India, and Lord Canning knew that it would be many weeks before others could arrive from Britain. But the British had been fighting in Persia, and Lord Canning sent for the soldiers there, and also for some who were on their way to fight in China.
The Mutiny first broke out at a place called Meerut. There the native soldiers one day suddenly fired upon their officers, and killed some of them. Then they murdered many of the white people in the town, broke open the gaols and freed the prisoners, who joined in rioting and plundering. But at last the few British soldiers who were there succeeded in driving the sepoys from their barracks, and they fled to Delhi, another town near.
At Delhi there lived an Indian Emperor of about eighty years old. He was an emperor only in name, for his whole empire was under British rule. But now the sepoys, driven from Meerut, rushed to his palace and loudly clamoured for him to come and be their Emperor once more. They would no longer have British rulers, they said. They would sweep them from the land. Dreadful deeds were done in Delhi, but British troops besieged the town and took it again. When the Mutiny was over, the old Emperor was put in prison, where he died.
At a place called Cawnpore, some of the most cruel acts were done. There were only about three hundred British troops there, and more than three thousand sepoys. Sir Hugh Wheeler, who was in command, was a very old man. He knew that with his few soldiers he could not hold out against so many sepoys, and he sent to Lucknow, to Sir Henry Lawrence, for help. But alas! Sir Henry could not help him, for Lucknow, too, was in great danger, and he needed every one of his men.
So Sir Hugh sent to a native called the Nana Sahib, and asked him for help. The Nana Sahib had always pretended to be a friend, and Sir Hugh believed that he was. Really, he hated the British. Now he came with three hundred men, professing to be glad to help them. He got into Cawnpore with his soldiers and his guns, and then he turned against the British.
Sir Hugh and all the white people had gathered into an old hospital for safety. The magazine, the place where the gunpowder and fire-arms were kept, would have been a far better refuge for them. It is difficult to understand why Sir Hugh did not go there, but he did not, and it fell into the hands of the sepoys.
The hospital was surrounded by a low wall of mud, which was all the defense there was between the white people and the shrieking, yelling mob of sepoys. Within these walls there were nearly one thousand white people, and more than half of them were women and children. The sepoys thought that it would be easy to kill them all. But they found out their mistake. The white people fought fiercely, and the sepoys were driven back again and again.
The suffering within the old hospital was dreadful. The women and children died by hundreds. The fierce Indian sun blazed down upon the almost roofless house. There was little to eat, and less to drink. Water could only be had from a well which was within the range of the enemy's guns. To go for water seemed to the bravest to be going to certain death. During the whole siege not a cupful could be spared to wash with.
Thousands of yelling sepoys were without the low mud walls, yet so great was their dread of the white men that they dared not leap over. At last the Nana Sahib, out of the deep wickedness of his heart, proposed terms.
He promised that all who would lay down their arms should be allowed to leave the town; that he would give them boats to take them to another town where they would be safe; and that they should have food for the journey. All he asked was that they should go away.
What joy there was within the hospital when it was known that the terrible siege was at an end. The women and children were utterly worn and weary, the men were wounded, sick, and hopeless. The joy and relief were almost too great.
The day came. Everything was ready, and the long, slow procession passed down to where the boats were waiting on the river. Gently the sick and wounded were placed under the straw awnings, with which the boats were covered to protect the passengers from the blazing sun. Then the women and children stepped in, lastly the men. The Indian rowers took their places and pushed off, when suddenly a trumpet was heard. In a moment the straw-thatched roofs of the boats were in flames, and the rowers, throwing down their oars, made for the shore. A moment later both banks blazed and roared with gunshots, and a horrible rain of bullets fell upon the boats. To make the horror worse, the boats drifted upon the mud banks and stuck fast.
At last the firing ceased. The women and children who were still alive were taken ashore again and shut up this time in a place called the Savada House. The men were all killed. So the Nana Sahib kept faith!
But the British were coming. General Havelock and his brave soldiers were not far off, and the Nana made haste to finish his cruel work. He ordered his sepoys to fire at the women and children through the windows of the Savada House. Even the sepoys, however, turned from this awful work and aimed high, so that the shots fell upon the roof and did no harm.
But in the evening five men went into the house. Horrible shrieks were heard, then all was silence. The work was finished. All the women and children were dead.
The bodies of those poor women and children were thrown into a well, and when the British took Cawnpore, the horror of that well was one of the first sights they saw. Now it is covered over. A marble angel, holding a palm branch, guards the spot, and a garden blooms where that ghastly house stood.
The Nana Sahib was never punished. When his sepoys were defeated before Cawnpore, he galloped away and was seen no more. People said that he was not a man, but an evil spirit, and that when his work was done, he vanished as a spirit would.