Read Part 1 here! My great grandfather’s cousin Robert Jenkins served in the 2nd Bengal Light Cavalry. He cut his campaign teeth as a cadet on the siege of Multan in 1849 and by 1857 was stationed at Cawnpore, having risen to the rank of captain. Major-General Hugh Wheeler (a cousin of my 3x great grandmother Matilda Frances Massy), officer in command at Cawnpore, was married to a high caste local woman; he had learned the local customs and language too, and felt relatively safe from the violent acts of rebellion which were breaking out amongst Sepoy troops elsewhere in India that year. But tensions rose, and on the evening of 2nd June 1857 it only took one drunken British officer, Lieutenant Cox, firing off a shot at one of his own Sepoy men, to spark the revolt.
Jenkins’ own unit, the 2nd Bengal Cavalry, was the first to rise up. Joined by other Indian troops their action escalated into a siege of the British community in barracks on the south of Cawnpore. It was a poor position, with only one unprotected well, but Wheeler was relying on early relief from other British units. After three insanitary weeks at the height of summer, the British strength trapped at Cawnpore had been reduced by a third and supplies were almost exhausted. On 25th June Nana Sahib, commander of the besieging forces, offered Wheeler and the entire surviving British community safe passage to Allahabad downriver from Cawnpore. Wheeler had no choice but to accept.
Jenkins, who had survived the siege while a hundred of his comrades had fallen, led one of the last sorties before Wheeler’s surrender, possibly to retrieve water from the well. A fallen Sepoy who seemed dead mustered enough strength to fire off a shot at him, which struck him full in the jaw. He died of his wound two days later, as the British were preparing to be escorted to the river for their journey to Allahabad.
The hospital in General Wheeler’s entrenchment, in which Robert Jenkins and many others died during the Siege of Cawnpore, photographed in 1858, the year after his death (photograph by Dr John Murray)
He was buried rather hurriedly by the departing survivors, along with all the other British dead of the siege, in the only available grave for such a large number: the well. Later a cross was raised over the well, with the inscription
“In a well under this cross were laid by ye hands of their fellows in suffering, ye bodies of men, women, and children, who died hard by during ye heroic defence of Wheeler's Entrenchment when beleaguered by ye rebel Nana, June 6th to 27th, A.D. MDCCCLVII.”
There are individual memorials to some of the soldiers, and Jenkins’ reads
“In memory of Captain Robert Urquhart Jenkins of the 2nd Light Cavalry, who died from wounds received shortly before the surrender of the Garrison of Cawnpore and was buried in this well with many others.”
I don’t know exactly what happened to Robert Urquhart Jenkins’ wife. She may have died before him during the siege, and if so it was a kinder death than it might have been. As General Wheeler led the convoy of exhausted British to the river bank, a bugle call from one of their captors signalled a treacherous attack by sword and gun from the Sepoy rebels. Injured stragglers and Sepoys who had remained loyal to Wheeler were cut down, and any boats that managed to get away were pulled back to shore and set on fire. Any who tried to escape in the water were slaughtered by Indian cavalrymen. All the surviving men were rounded up and shot. Wheeler died here. His son, serving alongside him, had died during the siege.
Of the 900-strong British community of Cawnpore, only four men managed to escape downriver. 206 women and children and five men were held as hostages in a nearby house, the Bibigarh. After two weeks it became clear that the British would retake Cawnpore, and – perhaps in a clumsy bid to hide the evidence of their involvement in the siege – the captors sent in hired men with hatchets and meat cleavers to kill all their prisoners. The scene is unimaginable. To conceal their crime, the rebels threw the living, the dying and the remains of the dead down the Bibigarh’s well. There wasn’t room in the fifty-foot shaft for all of them, and the rest were tossed into the Ganges. Wheeler's wife and two daughters were among them.
Memorial raised in 1860 over the Bibigarh Well
As Britain regained the upper hand in India, its revenge was swift and merciless. The British public was particularly horrified by the Cawnpore Massacre, and “Remember Cawnpore!” became a battle cry. The East India Company was dissolved in 1858, and the British Crown took back direct control of the region which it had granted to the Company in 1600.