When you think of India’s freedom struggle, Kanpur is not one of the first cities that springs to mind. But it is. It was here that key events around India’s first battle for independence, the Revolt of 1857 took place and it is also here that almost every revolutionary freedom fighter, from Bhagat Singh to Chandra Shekhar Azad, interestingly came, while planning their battles against the British.
In fact, Kanpur is dotted with historical sites where blood was shed and pitched battles were fought between rebel soldiers and the British Indian Army in 1857. People were massacred on both sides. Kanpur’s Satichaura Ghat, on the banks of the Ganga, was even renamed Massacre Ghat after one such brutal incident, during the Uprising of 1857.
From Myth to Medieval Times
In Indian mythology, Brahma is believed to have finished creating the universe in present-day Bithoor town in Kanpur district. The city also finds mention in the Ramayana, and it is here that the Valmiki Ashram where Ram’s wife Sita gave birth to her twin sons, Luv and Kush, is believed to have been situated. In the epics, Kanpur (referred to as Jajmau) was ruled by King Yayati, who is credited with building a fort that still stands – in a dilapidated condition – on the banks of the Ganga here. Kanpur, therefore, has always been a site of immense religious significance.
Beyond the myths and legends, in medieval times, the city was part of the Kannauj region, ruled by King Jaichand of the Gahadavala Dynasty. In 1192 CE, King Jaichand was defeated by the Afghan invader Muhammad Ghori and, as a result, all of Kannauj came under the control of the Delhi Sultanate. It would then pass to the Mughals and later the Nawabs of Awadh.
In the 18th century, Kanpur was conquered by the Marathas. After their loss to the Afghans and the Awadh King Shuja-ud-Daulah in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, the city came under Awadh control again. The rulers of Oudh could not retain complete control of the city and ultimately surrendered it to the East India Company, in 1801. The Company’s grip further tightened once it delivered its fatal blow to the Maratha Empire in the Third Anglo-Maratha War, in 1818.
The Massacre Ghat Incident
After the Third Anglo-Maratha War, the Maratha ruler Peshwa Bajirao II was exiled to Bithoor. The Peshwa had no son of his own and had adopted a young boy named Nana Dhondu Pant, son of a Deccani Brahmin court official and named him his successor. When the Peshwa died in 1851/52, however, the Company applied the infamous Doctrine of Lapse and refused to recognise Nana Dhondu Pant (later known as Nana Saheb Peshwa) as his heir.
By this time the East India Company had interfered in matters of succession in this way in various kingdoms. In fact, many consider this policy referred to as the Doctrine of Lapse the spark that ignited what would become the First War of Independence, in 1857. This was a nefarious policy implemented by the British whereby any princely kingdom where the ruler was declared ‘incompetent’ or where they died without an heir, would automatically lapse and be annexed by the British Empire.
With so many rulers holding onto titles that already meant so little –and already serving at the pleasure of the Company – the idea that even this could not safely be passed on to a chosen heir became a matter of great unrest among the still rich and powerful rulers of these small kingdoms, and contributed to the growing unrest and the idea that it was time to act.
Nana Saheb, who should by now have been Peshwa, was one of those who decided he wouldn’t take it lying down. He decided to claim his rightful title by force – since that seemed to be his only remaining option – and started gathering an army. It is believed that rotis were sent out to Indian soldiers to remind them of their roots, evoke a national feeling, and appeal to them to join the war.
The Company was unaware of the brewing mutiny. It is believed, in fact, that a key reason that the Uprising of 1857 was so widespread is that the Indians were driven by their various very real grievances, while the British had become lulled into what would turn out to be a false notion of the hold they had over the country. It is believed that Major-General Hugh Wheeler, then commanding officer of Kanpur, for instance, was so confident of his position that he sent substantial forces to Lucknow when the revolt first erupted in May 1857. This would prove to be a big mistake.
Trouble in Kanpur
Kanpur erupted not long after, on June 4, 1857. Nana Saheb’s attack caught the Company completely unaware. His army first looted the Company treasury, then proceeded to attack Wheeler’s forces directly. The action went on for weeks. On June 23, Nana Saheb decided to launch a major attack. Adding a twist to the events was a tale - a rumour that had rapidly spread across North India that a prophecy had been made that the British East India Company rule in India would end on that date, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey.
Nana Saheb fought valorously, leaving Wheeler with a small force of 250 soldiers to defend over 1,000 British civilians. Heavily outnumbered, the Company was forced to take shelter at the All Souls’ Church, along with their women and children.
Nana Saheb’s army enforced a blockade, no supplies could get through, and the Company was forced to surrender its position on June 24/25. Wheeler had already lost a son to the revolt. When Nana Saheb offered safe passage, those gathered in the church eventually agreed. It was decided that the Englishmen and their families would leave for Allahabad on June 27, by boat, via the Ganga. Nana Saheb instructed his army that no one was to be harmed.
As the Englishmen boarded their boats at Satichaura Ghat, news arrived that Lt General James Neill, the commander of the British army that had been sent to recapture Lucknow, had massacred innocent Indians in Banaras. Enraged, the Indian rebels began firing at the fleeing Englishmen in the boats. Those that survived the bullets were slaughtered with swords. Along with the men, women and children were killed too. This Ghat would later be renamed Massacre Ghat.
When news of the carnage reached Nana Saheb, he rushed to the spot and managed to rescue some of the women and children. They were taken to Nana Saheb’s own headquarters, a mansion called Savada Kothi, and were later moved to cantonment quarters at Bibighar.
The following month, July 1857, Nana Saheb was officially crowned Peshwa.
Backlash from the Company
The Company did not take what had happened in Kanpur lying down. They regrouped under the leadership of British commander, Major-General Henry Havelock. Nana Saheb’s army was forced into retreat. The attack by Havelock so angered them that, in retaliation, the Indian rebels killed the English occupants still housed at Bibighar, and threw their bodies into a well. This came to be known as the Bibighar Massacre.
Meanwhile, the Company kept up its attacks on Nana Saheb. They burnt Savada Kothi to the ground, along with its inhabitants, which included Nana’s daughter, Mainawati. The Company then seized his treasury, worth an estimated Rs 1 crore at the time. With this win, the British had cemented their control over Kanpur once again. Nana Saheb was forced to flee. His supporters, including Pandurang Nana Rao (his nephew) and Tatya Tope (his general), were hanged. In fact, over 144 Indian soldiers were hanged on a single, massive banyan tree that stood on the Bibighar premises.
Colonel Neill made the captured revolutionaries lick the bloodied floor of Bibighar and forced them to eat beef (if Hindu) or pork (if Muslim), before they were hanged. Muslims were sown into pig skins too, to humiliate the soldiers, and send a signal to others who may have had mutiny on their minds.
After the uprising, control of India was vested with the British Crown. The series of events was seen as so embarrassing that England could no longer ignore the fact that this experiment – of a colony ruled by a corporation – had failed.
In India, the British began picking up the pieces. Satichaura Ghat was renamed Massacre Ghat, to honour the memory of those killed there. Bibighar was razed and in its place a memorial garden was established.
After independence, the memorial garden was renamed again; it is now Nana Rao Park. The massive banyan tree where the 144 Indians had been hanged, died in 2010, but a plaque has been erected to preserve the memory of what happened here.
The Revolt of 1857 lit the spark of Indian freedom. Though the British would boast that they would now hold India for centuries, 90 years later, India would finally be free. And yet, when one talks of where the seeds were sown, one thinks of Bengal, Allahabad, Delhi, Punjab – rarely, if ever, Kanpur, where so many paid the price.
Swapnil Tripathi is a practising advocate. He hails from the city of Kanpur and takes a keen interest in Indian history.
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