3 April 1858
On 3 April 1858, redcoats, under the command of General Sir Hugh Rose, stormed the Indian city of Jhansi, where the 22 year old Rani Lakshmibai, the legendary warrior-queen, was leading a rebellion against British rule. Rose later proudly acknowledged that he had avenged an earlier massacre of British officers and their families by the rebels a thousand times over, a shameless admission that he had personally ordered the merciless butchery of every adult male.1
Soldiers’ letters home describe the Jhansi bloodbath
As British troops advanced through the streets, many of the desperate inhabitants threw themselves and their wives and children down wells, but they were dragged out and the men bayoneted.2 Yet somehow, amid the mayhem, Rani Lakshmibai managed to elude capture, slipping through the British lines with a few of her retainers; her audacious escape further infuriating the victors, who were already determined on a murderous mission of vengeance. Private John McLachlan of the Royal Artillery described his feelings at the scale of the bloodbath in a letter to his Scottish parents –
‘When the 86th Regiment entered the fort, the slaughter was terrible for two hours. I could hear nothing but the shouts of victory, and the savage yells of the dying heathen. My heart almost melted when I saw hundreds upon hundreds weltering in their own blood, and calling upon their gods of wood and stone to save them. But revenge is due to us, and revenge we must have.’3
Another sobering account was given by Lieutenant Wellington Rose of Kilravock in a letter to his friends in Inverness. He confessed that ‘the slaughter of the rebels in the town and vicinity has been something tremendous…. including inhabitants of the town, who may have had nothing to do with the revolt… Almost every man found was killed…. and to hear the bitter lamentation and weeping for husbands and brothers &c., gives one too truthful idea of the horrors of war. I never wish to see such a painful scene again.’ He added that a large area of the city had been burnt, and that ‘the bodies of the dead are lying about in all directions.’4
The Morning Advertiser, then one of Britain’s highest circulation newspapers, boasted that, ‘although the Jezebel, calling herself the Ranee (Queen) of the city, contrived to elude the soldiery, her soldiers have been nearly exterminated. the lowest count of the slain makes them 5,000 in number, while our correspondent asserts that 8,000 bodies were found in the palace and town alone.’5 Other rebels were mercilessly cornered and cut down outside the city as they tried to flee.
A Brahmin Priest’s account of the killings
A Brahmin priest, Vishnubhat Godse, recalled in horrific detail how for four days following the storming of Jhansi, the city was subjected to arson, pillage, looting and indiscriminate murder. By the last day, ‘every square blazed with burning bodies and the city looked like one vast burning ground … It became difficult to breathe as the air stank with the odour of burning human flesh and the stench of rotting animals in the streets.’6
Godse escaped by hiding inside a hollowed out wall of a house. Others were not so lucky. He recalled that British soldiers ‘broke into houses and hunted out people hidden in barns, rafters and obscure, dark corners’ and that ‘at the sight of white soldiers some people tried to hide in haystacks (in their courtyards) but the pitiless demons did not leave them alone there. They set the haystacks on fire and hundreds were burnt alive.’7
The priest’s account can be corroborated not only by the soldiers letters referred to earlier, but also by Dr. Thomas Lowe of the Bombay Engineers, who recalled that ‘no quarter was awarded them (the adult male inhabitants) as a word of warning to others. I exaggerate not when I say I saw the streets stained with blood… It was an awful sight to see ( women and children ) follow out of their houses some rebel husband, brother or son who was at once shot.’8
Throughout the massacre, British and British led Indian troops continued to help themselves to anything of value. Godse describes how they ‘took away even hinges and bolts on doors and windows’ as well as ‘clothing of every description’ and ‘all variety of cereals – rice, wheat, maize, rye, lentils etc. They had brought with them a team of bullocks and huge sacks which they filled with the contents of bins and jars in which the people had stored their food.’9
- Mahasweta Devi, The Queen of Jhansi, Calcutta, Seagull, 2000, p191 and Mudhsree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, Basic Books, pp xxii-xxiii
- Thomas Lowe, Central India During the Rebellion of 1857 and 1858, Longman, London, 1860 p. 259.
- Letter from Private John McLachlan to his parents in Knockando in ‘Letter from India: The Capture of Jhansi,’ The Elgin and Morayshire Courier, 18 June 1858, p. 2.
- Letter from Lieutenant Wellington Rose of Kilravock in ‘The Storming of Jhansi,’ The Inverness Courier, 27 May 1878, p. 5.
- ‘Jhansi,’ The Morning Advertiser, 20 May 1858, p. 6.
- Mrindal Pande (translator), Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar, 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising, Harper Perennial, New York and New Delhi, 2011.
- Thomas Lowe, Central India During the Rebellion of 1857 and 1858, Longman, London, 1860 p. 262.
- D. V. Tahmankar, The Ranee of Jhansi, MacGibbon and Kee, London, accessed online at archive.org url https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.462220/2015.462220.The-Ranee_djvu.txt
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