In May 1857 a mutiny began among native soldiers in the army of the British East India Company. The rebels captured large parts of the northern plains of the subcontinent, including the province of Oudh and the city of Delhi, where they installed the Mughal king as their ruler. The war was characterized by great cruelty on both sides. In June 1857, the Indian rebels laid a siege on the British settlement at Kanpur – “Cawnpore” to the British – but after three weeks, with very little food left, the Europeans settlers accepted an offer of a safe passage. As they made themselves ready to depart, however, the men were all butchered. While women and children first were spared, they were later hacked to death and their bodies thrown into a well – the notorious “well of Cawnpore” – which, the story goes, “filled up to within 6 feet of the top.”
The acts of retribution meted out by the British army were every bit as savage as the acts committed by the rebels. On the suspicion of harboring pro-rebel sympathies, the British commanders ordered entire villages to be burned and the villagers to be killed. A favorite method of execution was to tie the rebels before the mouths of cannons and to blow them to pieces. As Charles Dickens’ weekly, Household Words, assured its readers in a graphic account of this practice, this way of punishing mutineers “is one of the institutions of Hindustan.” While it may seem barbarian to us, it is in fact “one of the easiest methods of passing into eternity.”
As for the British public it was largely supportive of such cruelties. Many felt betrayed by the mutineers who, an important strand of opinion argued, always had been benevolently treated by the East India Company. In general – and as newspaper proprietors soon discovered – the British public loved reading about atrocities committed against their own countrymen. The gorier the details, the more titillating; and a particular favorite were accounts of fair English maidens being raped by low-browed, brown, men. Given such heinous crimes, the justice of the British retribution was never in doubt.