The Baron of Cawnpore

November 1, 2021

by — Posted in Personal Essays

I was at my grandfather’s home in the Civil Lines of Kanpur for my cousin’s wedding, booking a cab for Lucknow, when I found something odd. Google Maps was referring to the road adjacent to the house as ‘Baron Carlo Marochetti road’. I used to visit Kanpur every year for summer vacations and had always heard relatives refer to that road as ‘doodh wali gully’ or milk street, because of the cowshed where we used to get our milk from. I had expected it to have a formal name, but this was a surprise as it wasn’t Indian or British. What was it doing in Kanpur? It was European so it must have something to do with colonialism, I thought. I forgot about Lucknow and began looking for the Baron.

Baron Carlo Marochetti

When I searched his Wikipedia page for Kanpur, I found nothing. But a search for ‘Cawnpore’ led me to the ‘Cawnpore Memorial’ which began unravelling the story of the Baron’s connection with the city and the massacres that took place during the uprising of 1857.

In the summer of 1857, the British in Cawnpore were holed up in an entrenchment fighting rebels, disease and a lack of food. After three weeks when the British couldn’t bare the conditions any longer, their leader General Hugh Wheeler came to an agreement with the leader of the rebels – Nana Rao of Bithur. Nana Rao was the adopted heir of the Peshwa Baji Rao II who was exiled to Bithur. He became a disgruntled man leading up to 1857 because the East India Company refused to extend his father’s pension to him under the doctrine of lapse. As the uprising challenged the socio-political structure, Nana Rao saw new options opening up for him. The terms he offered the British were generous – they had to leave Cawnpore while Nana Rao would provide them with supplies and safe passage to British-controlled Allahabad through the Ganga.

The British had to make the journey from the entrenchment to Satichaura Ghat on foot, on bullock carts and on some elephants Nana Rao had provided. They had lost friends and family, hadn’t eaten well in days and their clothes were in tatters. Indians crowded around the road leading to the Ghat observed the procession pass in silence. For the first time the British looked worse off than they did.

At the Ghat, the Ganga flowed low and calm, reflecting the sluggishness of the hot afternoon. The river flowed in the direction of safety and seeing it must have relieved the British. They began boarding the boats that were meant to take them to Allahabad. The men boarded first. As the boats reached the middle of the river though, a few of the sepoys opened fire from the banks. Soon, all the sepoys and soldiers of Nana Rao were attacking the boats amidst the screams of the women and children standing on the Ghat. Sepoys charged into the shallow river on their horses, cutting down those who tried to swim to safety. Only three men survived the massacre because the Ganga had taken their boat further downstream. From that day onward, Satichaura Ghat came to known as Massacre Ghat.

The remaining seventy-three women and a hundred and twenty-four children were taken prisoner and placed in Bibighar – the house of ladies. They were kept in the care of Husseini Khanum, a courtesan of Nana Rao’s palace. Nana Rao had intended to bargain with the British when their regiments made their way to Kanpur under Henry Havelock and James Neill. Fifteen days later, as the forces of Havelock and Neill approached Cawnpore, it became clear that the bargaining ploy was not going to work. A decision was taken to kill all the remaining women and children at Bibighar. As rebel sepoys refused to carry out the orders, local butchers were hired to kill them and throw their mutilated bodies into the nearby well.

The decision to kill the women and children at Bibighar continues to be debated. As most Indians involved in the incident were either killed or fled, they left no record of their own. Most British accounts believe that it was Nana Rao who gave the orders. But over time, some Indian accounts have held Husseini Khanum responsible, suggesting that it was a decision she took without Nana Rao’s knowledge. The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, edited by Biswamoy Pati, states: “It is suspected that it was Hossaini who ordered the massacre of Bibighar, and when the sepoys proved reluctant, she fetched her lover Sarvur ( or Sirdar ) Khan, who was perhaps a Pathan.”

 In her book on courtesans of North India called ‘Tawaifnama’, Saba Dewan writes about the active role courtesans played in the mutiny of 1857. The British had challenged their right to adopt children, had little appreciation for their art and didn’t often make the distinction between prostitutes and courtesans. They also sympathised with the grievances felt by their landholder patrons that prompted them to join the rebellion. But Dewan also writes about the impact of the national movement that gathered momentum in the early 20th century on courtesans. The movement carried within it a puritanical moral streak that condemned the courtesans and their art. This began to change the outlook of the urban elite towards them and the condemnation informed a new generation of people who grew up in the heydays of Gandhian mobilisation. Decades later when nationalist historians wrote using the mores imbibed then, courtesans were written out of their histories.
The ambiguity of what happened in Bibighar that day and the absence of first-hand Indian accounts opens up the possibility of incriminating the Muslim courtesan to exonerate her Hindu master. The narrative that it was Husseini Khanum who ordered the deaths of the women and children that day has many takers, but it is a difficult one to believe. Although the bonds of patriarchy worked differently on courtesans compared to other women, it is very unlikely that she would have had the agency to take such a decision without Nana Rao weighing in even if she were a man. It is a near-certainty that it was Nana Rao who gave Husseini the orders that day, as he had always done. Indian and British sources agree however, that after chiding the rebel sepoys for their cowardice in refusing to carry out the order, it was Husseini along with her lover Sarvar Khan, who found butchers to execute the captives. Husseini Khanum vanished from Cawnpore and the historical record after what happened at Bibighar. We don’t know whether she had had a bitter experience with the white folk as a courtesan earlier or whether she repented later. The massacre she left in her wake as she fled the city awaited the approaching troops sent to relieve Cawnpore.

When Havelock and Neill’s soldiers arrived, they expected to relieve the women and children. Instead, they found remnants of gruesome death in the house and learnt of their final resting place in the well. The massacre at Bibigarh traumatised the British more than any other incident during the mutiny. Captain Garnet Wolseley told his brother that he made the vow “most soldiers made there – of vengeance and of having blood for blood, not drop for drop but barrels and barrels which flows in these nigger’s veins for every drop of blood that marked that fearful house”.  The rule of law was suspended, and people were hanged and shot without trial. Thousands were killed in this way. Hindus and Muslims were force-fed beef and pork respectively before being killed so that they would die impure. Suspects were made to lick the floor of the Bibighar -brown with caked blood of the victims – before being hanged beside the well.  

Remember Cawnpore” became their slogan and justification for ruthlessly quelling the uprising across the Gangetic plains.

The Bibighar Well

The well at Bibighar was sealed and a cross was placed on it. It bore the text, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. Lady Canning – wife of the Governor General Lord Canning – wanted the site of the well to be consecrated as sacred ground and for a memorial to be built. She decided it would be a sculpture and had an artist in mind. As children in the Paris of the 1820s Lady Canning and her sister had played with a girl named Camille de Maussion. Camille would go on to marry the sculptor Carlo Marochetti.

Lady Canning and her sister Louisa

With inputs from Lady Canning and her sister, Marochetti sculpted an angel of resurrection made out of white marble. The seraph held palm leaves in each hand and looked down mournfully upon the well. The carved screen erected around it and the angel at the centre were together known as the ‘Cawnpore Memorial’. The cost for building the memorial was borne by the people of Cawnpore who paid thirty thousand pounds in punitive taxes.  In the 19th century, more Europeans came to see the Cawnpore Memorial than the Taj Mahal. It is said that, “every tourist sketched it and every traveler’s book described it”.

The Memorial during the Raj

Indians were not allowed entry. In sequestering the symbol of their dead from the eyes of Indians, the Cawnpore Memorial became an imperial symbol of the Raj and its power. The Memorial was not meant for everyone to come to terms with what had happened. It was a place where grief fused with triumph to provide sustenance for the Raj.

By the time India became independent in 1947, the uprising of 1857 had become the first war of independence. Among the first things the people of Kanpur did was to enter the area and reclaim the space. The Cawnpore Memorial was shifted to the All Souls Church in the Cantonment where it stands today, out of sight and largely forgotten. The Bibighar was pulled down by the British. The remains of the murdered women and children are now a part of Nana Rao park, named after the man who ordered their deaths, as he joined the pantheon of India’s first freedom fighters.

All Souls Church in Kanpur

As a part of decolonisation, Canwpore became Kanpur, the memorial was moved, the park was renamed but a road with an Italian sounding name slipped under the radar.

And so, a road in Kanpur bears the name of Baron Carlo Marochetti because his wife played with Lady Canning and her sister when they were children in the Paris of the 1820s. I hope the name stays, and every now and then, asks us to remember Cawnpore.

image credit: victoria web

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