Cawnpore dogs

This anecdote was found in the papers of Mrs Chandrapur Gohshe (deceased 2007), great granddaughter of the writer, Mrs Rani Bheikeji Cama, who had been at Kanpur in 1857.

This is what I know of battles and war; that there is no order, no logic, no sense. It is fear and panic and hasty decisions that one may later come to regret. And when you are a woman and have no say in it, then it is worse.

Charles Ball – Image taken from ‘The history of the Indian Mutiny’. Originally published/produced in London; New York, London Printing & Publishing Co., 1858-1859

What I shall always remember is the dogs, let in to clean the floors. One of them, a most savage cur, found a large bony hunk of flesh that the men had missed and fought its way out, jubilant and huge with its prize.

‘Bidi,’ my mistress said to me, ‘you will watch from safety and remember what you see; I have a dreadful premonition that this will not turn out well.’

‘I want to stay with you,’ I said. I too did not feel the omens were good. And I had better reasons than my mistress for foreboding. I had heard the rumours of great doings – of the demise of the British – one hundred years after Plassey had given India to them. Part of me, the little orphaned Indian girl who would never be right, wanted them gone, but not with blood and terror… This was only a very little part of me. The other part of me, much more significant, the little Indian orphan who had been adopted and loved by Mrs Emily Graves, wanted the land whole and the British part of India and somehow different than they were. But they were different and India did not want them now; even as the woman I thought of as a mother and who held my chin now was telling me to go.

‘Bidi, I love you and would want you to stay but you cannot. Be strong now, put on your Indian dress, the plain one, and go… hide in Aja Khan’s home. He will not betray you.  If it is all right and I am just being a silly woman, we shall look for you there once it is clear…’

It was not all right.


What would have happened if they had found that no-good Lieutenant Cox guilty after he had fired on his men? Perhaps Kanpur would not have mutinied? Perhaps people would not have said there is one rule for the British and another for everyone else. I remember Aja Khan even saying it when the men came to talk with him. But he winked at me, hidden among his women, and he said to the men – ‘…there are better ways to fight this injustice than with rebellion…’

I do not know.  I remember Mrs Emily Graves always saying that what ifs are like snowflakes on a fire. I remember laughing when she said it the first time. ‘I’ve never seen snow,’ I said. I still have not seen it. I doubt I ever shall, now.

And then the madness of the following days.

Rissaldar-Major Bhowani Singh of the second Bengals refused to mutiny and was cut down. Guns, cannons, musket fire (were they using the bullets that had pig fat, I wondered?), rooms filled with rumours and counter rumours. ‘Oh me,’ said Aja Khan, ‘they have fired on the 53rd and now all the sepoys are their enemies.’

This is what I know of battles and war; that there is no order, no logic, no sense. It is fear and panic and hasty decisions that one may later come to regret. And when you are a woman and have no say in it, then it is worse.

My mistress was told that the mutineers had gone and it was safe to come out. I thought I would go home. Aja Khan’s house was outside the entrenched walls where the British had gathered. Then came news – a man on a galloping sweat-addled horse – that the mutineers were coming back and that the British were preparing for a siege.  I looked at a calendar, June 5th; ‘know your dates,’ Mrs Emily Graves had always impressed on me. ‘Why?’ I asked. She laughed and said, ‘It gives us British a ludicrous sense of order. Of course, it is all bunkum, but still… It gives a woman something to hold on to, I suppose.’

That night, Aja Khan moved us across the river, to another house, away from the fighting. He fed the mutineers from his stores (what else could he do) but offered no other support. We sat in the shade of the lattices and watched the cannons begin to fire the next day, the 6th. We heard the crump of shells and thought that misery must live down there. It was very hot and Aja Khan said the British must be suffering because there was only one well.

On June 13th we heard the defenders had lost their hospital. I hoped that Mrs Emily Graves had not been working in there when the shells exploded through the roof. I thought and thought and thought about it and would not eat.  I was convinced she was dead for surely she would have been helping the wounded.

And now I hope that I was right and that she died that day.

Days and days of madness. The British had repulsed an attack, the sepoys had won, no, they had not. We heard that Nana Sahib had moved away from near the attacks because he did not want to be captured, we heard he was a coward, we heard that General Wheeler’s son was dead. Smoke hung over the town. People were dying. Our food was rationed, even here away from where death dwelled.

On the 25th June Aja Khan told us that the British had surrendered, with the promise of safe passage to Allahabad. We did not know if it was true but the guns had fallen silent.

And this I remember, on the morning of June 27, all the men, thin, pale, dishevelled but with British pride, loaded on to boats that had to be pulled close in because the river was low. And even now I cannot say what happened; who fired first, was it a sepoy or an officer? Did it come from near the ghat or up on the bank, was it cannon or musket? And then it was all firing and the men floundering in boats that had begun somehow to burn on the river, and blood in the water and the women on the bank wailing. Madness. Some boats, I think, floating down the river carrying a cargo of dead.

They took the women, I do not know if Mrs Emily Graves was among them, I hope not, to the Bibighar. There were children too. I did not know any of them too well; Mrs Emily Graves had been childless. ‘What will happen to them,’ I asked Aja Khan.

‘I suppose that when the British come they will find them at the Bibighar,’ he predicted.

‘Are they coming?’

‘Yes. And Nana Sahib knows it; he will not harm the women and children; at least that will be something in his favour, when it comes time to pay for all this.’

He used the women and children to try to buy favour and time from the British. Nana Sahib, I mean.

Who can talk of evil calmly? Not I. What madness prompted the final unspeakable act? The bargaining chips that had been women and children became worthless. Orders were given to kill them all; I heard that men refused and were threatened in their turn with death. Bullets hissed down but the madness grew too much even for these rebels.

They brought in the butchers, with cleavers. Bodies were hacked into insensible wreckage. Pieces were thrown down the well. They sent in the dogs to try to clean away the carnage– I saw it with my own eyes. I suppose there were too few dogs because many had been eaten during the siege.

Later, when the British came and took their brutal payment for rebellion, rebels were made to lick the floors before they were hanged. ‘CAWNPORE DOGS,’ read the signs hung around the hanged men’s necks. I am still not sure who were the dogs and who were not.

Rani Bheikeji Cama

Delhi, July 1882

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