logo Enthusiasms No 50
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Nena Sahib1. I am grateful to the Bodleian university library for permission to quote from its Allegro ballad archives and the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, for forwarding information. Details of the life of Nena Sahib and the mutiny come from websites. Steve Roud's database indicates that the Madden collection contains a few ballads on the Indian mutiny of 1857 but they do not expand the list as discussed below.1

In the article 'Bawlers' and the Bawled, which appeared on this site in the summer of 2004, reference was made to a character and a ballad connected with the Indian mutiny of 1857-1858 but the threads of the story were not susceptible to being drawn together.  A report on the Banbury Michaelmas Fair in 1857 had noted that:

… The martial character of past fairs was completely banished … if one excepts the “portraits” of Nena Sahib and the Indian Mutiny, the songs being such as the “Farmer's Boy,” and “Lily Dale.”  “Dr. Palmer the poisoner” seemed as entirely forgotten as the Russian war … 2. MT article 142. The newspaper report is from Banbury Guardian, 22nd October 1857, p.1 (I am indebted to Keith Chandler, South Leigh, Oxon, for drawing my attention to it). Palmer was hanged in 1856. The 'Russian' war was, of course, in the Crimea (1854-1856).2
Some expansion of the connection between event and ballad has been made even if no absolute tie-up has yet been achieved.

Nena Sahib (known also as Nana Sahib), whose real name was Dhundu Pant - born c.1821 - had been adopted by the last peshwa or hereditary prime minister of the Mahratta confederacy; and the adoptive father, Baji Rao II, had decreed his title and an £80,000 annual pension to Nena Sahib and requested that the British grant him the peshwa's title and pension.  However, Lord Dalhousie (1812-1860), the then governor-general of India (between 1847-1856), refused the Hindu nobleman and this seems to have exacerbated the tensions which led to one of the prominent acts of rebellion at Cawnpore (Kanpur).

Nena Sahib's presence there is a complex story.  Certainly he had been embittered by the refusal of the British government to grant him his hereditary rights but when the initial outbreak of the mutiny at Meerut took place he was on hand to offer aid to General Sir Hugh Wheeler, the commander of the garrison at Cawnpore.  Wheeler was then in his 70s, had lived in India for most of his life, was married to an Indian woman, and had unbounded faith in the loyalty of his sepoys.  He refused Nena Sahib's offer to look after the women and children of the garrison and suggested instead that Nena Sahib undertake the guarding of the treasury.  In early June 1857, when it became clear that some sort of rising was imminent, Wheeler and his European troops made for what was known as the entrenchment, an area that he had chosen in which to make a stand if there was an attack.  Almost simultaneously the sepoys rose, released convicts from the city's jail, brushed aside Nena Sahib's soldiers and looted the treasury and made off for Delhi.  Nena Sahib then somehow reappeared at the head of the rising.  Whether he had always been in league with the mutineers or whether this was an act of opportunism is not known.

The British in the entrenchment suffered great thirst and enfilading fire (which may not say much for Wheeler's skill as a soldier and strategist) and although they hoped for relief from Lucknow their situation grew so bad that when Nena Sahib sent to Wheeler offering safe conduct on the Ganges, Wheeler accepted.

The defenders made their way to the ghat, the steps at the river's edge where Hindus took their ritual baths, and boarded vessels provided by Nena Sahib.  Immediately they were on board the Indian boatmen jumped ship, the British apparently reacted by opening fire on them, and the sepoys fired back with grapeshot and musketry.  Some boats caught fire.  Indian cavalrymen waded into the river and cut at the wounded.  Only four men escaped to give the news.

The women and children - certainly over two hundred of them: one account gives a figure of four hundred - were taken into captivity, being then placed what was thought initially to have been a sort of safe house.  However, on July 15th a group of men armed with knives and hatchets entered the house and butchered the British women and children.  There were subsequent rumours that they had been sold as slaves but accounts, in general, favour the idea of slaughter.

Wheeler, shot through the leg on 28th June, died in Cawnpore.

One account of British revenge stated that this included the act of forcing captured sepoys to lick clean the blood-stained floors where the massacre had taken place.  It was also said that soldiers engaging the mutineers afterwards at other places advanced with cries of 'Cawnpore.  Cawnpore' - this could only have been at the tail-end of the mutiny.

The fate of Nena Sahib remains obscure.  One account claims that he was killed in battle.  Yet there is a photograph printed by The London Illustrated News which is supposed to be of him when he was captured by the Maharajah of Scindiah at Gwalior in 1874.  Other accounts suggest that he fled to Nepal and disappeared.  There were also various claims made of encounter with him in distant places.

Our concern, though, becomes less a matter of tracing the aftermath of the massacres at Cawnpore and Nena Sahib's eventual fate than it is of considering the ballads that were issued on the subject of the massacre.  The main events of the mutiny should, at this point, be called to mind because ballads tend to give a false impression of sequence.  Cawnpore was retaken on 16th July 1857, Delhi in September 1857 and Lucknow in November.  A peace treaty was signed in July 1858.  Some dozen ballads concerning war in India have so far been located, not all to do with 1857.3. These include a survey of the actions of Generals Sale and Harding in The Late India War from Ryle …  There are several copies in the Bodleian Allegro archive including one as Harding B 20(221) – note the alternative spelling of the printer's name given elsewhere. The two soldiers are also mentioned, along with General Gough, in The Battle of India (from Moss in Doncaster, found in the Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 11(178)). But these generals fought in the Sikh wars of 1845-1846.
For the remainder, see Notes below text.3  A few include reference to Cawnpore.  For example, one from Merry, Relief of Lucknow, praising Colin Campbell4. Details of the life of Colin Campbell are easily available on various websites.4 (see further below), claimed 'a noble victory' at Lucknow and hoped that:

… no such dreadful deeds again
Be done as at Cawnpore … 5. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(90).5
A ballad entitled Revenge On India, whilst not mentioning Nena Sahib, is nonetheless specific in its reference to Cawnpore.  Of the rebels, after their 'shrill cry of murder':
Shall it be said they have tarnish'd the glory,
     And humbled the pride of Britannia's son's, (sic)
and pertinently for our present purposes:
Brave hearts think of those whose body's (sic) lay gory,
     At Cawnpore and bleaching beneath the fierce sun …
The ballad asks if mercy will be shown and answers that:
They are gone gallant hearts for revenge is their watch-
And death to the rebel Sepoy is the cry …
And for the fallen Heaven is the reward.6. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(91).6

A piece entitled The Great India War contains references to Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore in that order and a further reference to Havelock - who came to the relief of Cawnpore as discussed below - but is otherwise unspecific.7. See Roy Palmer: The Rambling Soldier, pp.215-216 and notes on p.285.7 Three ballads mention Nena Sahib by name.  One is from Moore in Belfast and is concerned with the killing of five priests.8. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 26(423).8  It describes how of the five Catholic clergymen 'the wretched mutineers':

To wreck their deadly vengeance they took them one by one.
Like lambs unto the slaughter our clergy were led on:
Before that demon Nena Sahib, most heavenly made their stood
And thus the ground around them stood was dyed with human
The men were tortured, their limbs hacked off and their bodies thrown into a fire.  This detail has parallels in other ballads as one from 'Rial & Co.', The Horrors of the Indian Mutiny, without specifying an exact location, shows, describing how ladies begged for mercy but how the mutineers
… mangled their sweet bodies on the fatal
     ground so low … .9. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(80). The Horrors of the Indian Mutiny mentions no names of either personnel or engagements but, as the title and the quotation indicate, concentrates on the 'treachery' and 'villainy' of the mutineers.9
The Moore ballad about the clergymen introduces a dilemma.  Another copy of the ballad refers only to four clergymen: Reverend James Fitzgerald, Reverend John O'Hare, Father Thomas Morgan and a Father Smith …  Moore included the name of Rev Thomas Power.  Moore also has two extra stanzas - the one quoted above referring to 'excruciating tortures' and dismemberment; and another complaining of the 'murderous sepoys'.10. The other 'clergyman' copy, without imprint, entitled The Massacre Of Four Catholic Clergymen, is set alongside The Massacre in India (for more detail, see text below), also without imprint, in the Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(82).10

At least there is positive identification of an event.  Moore, it should be said, had also printed A new song called the Late Indian War in which he singled out Sir William McNaughton's 'tender wife and Ulster lady born' for mention.  Actually, though, the ballad refers to the Afghan war of 1841 when McNaughten was murdered.11. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 26(348). The ballad carries the legend that the piece was 'Composed by a soldier of H. M. 54th Regiment' but that regiment has proved difficult to identify in terms of association with the Afghan rising …  Sir William Hay McNaghten (an alternatively used spelling), born in 1793, was head of the British mission in Kabul at the time of his murder.11

Another ballad, without imprint, entitled The Massacre in India, despite its open title, was directly concerned with the events at Cawnpore and invokes the name of Nena Sahib.  Its opening lines adopted broadside convention:

Good people all, of each degree, I pray you lend an ear
To a tale of sorrow and of blood, I mean to let you hear.
How these wild savage Indians behaved at Cawnpore,
Men, women, and children, they have slaughter'd on India's
     distant shore. 
A thousand Europeans, the ballad claims, were killed 'by Nena Sahib's command'.  Officers, their ladies, soldiers and their wives, and 'children dear' all lost their lives.  'The cruelties of these Indians is fearful to relate'.  Limbs were severed, bodies 'mangled sore' and then burned.  Delhi is mentioned as being 'just as bad' - 'the children naked they did keep 'neath the sun till they went mad'.12. See Bodleian Allegro archive as 2806 c. 13(267) and as Firth c. 14(82) – the copy mentioned in footnote 9.12

However, 'Long live General Havelock' who eventually arrived with a relief column, followed by Sir Colin Campbell.  The ballad can be seen clearly to be retrospective, consequent not just upon the events at Cawnpore but on the succeeding process of putting down the mutiny.  General Colin Campbell (1792-1863) was the British commander-in-chief in India during the period that the mutiny was brought to an end.  His name crops up regularly in the ballad literature described here.  He was a career soldier who had retired more than once and had been offered the post of commander-in-chief by the then Prime minister, Palmerston, after Anson, the previous chief had died.  Campbell, famously, was on his way within twenty-four hours; and was then noted for his organising capability within the army as much as for his strictly military prowess.  By the time of Campbell's appointment both Delhi and Cawnpore had been recovered by the British.

Campbell was buried in Westminster Abbey and there is a statue in George's Square, Glasgow.

Sir Henry Havelock (1792-1857) was also celebrated - in a ballad entitled Havelock To His Warrior Band.  There is, on reflection, a profusion of streets and squares named after him in Britain (a statue in his memory stands in Trafalgar Square) although since he died through the effects of an attack of dysentry just after the siege of Lucknow was lifted he would not have been aware of this and his then heroic stature.

At any rate, the ballad begins:

Hark! Hark! 'tis the shriek of the children,
     And the wives of the brave who were slain,
Who in cold blood were brutally slaughtered,
     While pleading for mercy in vain …
Cawnpore 'with victims' was 'piled'.  Havelock urged his troops to vengeance - although the outcome is not described: the battles were still raging.13. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 11(2617) - a Harkness printing - and, same source, without imprint, as Firth c. 14(89). Havelock is also mentioned in The Soldier's Return - see Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(162) - which echoes the familiar tale of The Plains of Waterloo save that the soldier is returning to his mother.13

A Lindsay ballad, The Indian War, And Fall of Delhi, is the third one directly concerned with Nena Sahib.  It begins by explaining that:

Sad news have reached the British shore,
From Delhi, Lucknow, & Cawnpore …
Men, women and children had all been murdered by the mutineers:
While in their blind and savage rage,
Their fury nothing could assuage,
But their officers they did engage,
     And slaughtered them in India.
Cruel Nena Sahib their king to please
All the British they could seize
Were tied in hundreds to the trees,
     And murdered in India.
The women had begged unsuccessfully for mercy and the children had gone mad through being kept in the 'burning sun'.  'Our females' had undergone 'Most dreadful torture':
And streams of innocent blood did pour
     From British hearts in India.
The saviour in this ballad was to be Sir Colin Campbell 'brave & true' - which can only, again, refer to the later events of the mutiny such as the lifting of the siege at Lucknow.  In the ballad, Delhi had already capitulated 'To the British power in India'.  Lucknow and Cawnpore were bound to follow (one recalls the actual sequence as given above) - and in an echo of some Nelson ballads as discussed elsewhere on this site, this one concludes as follows:
And soon may those cruel wars cease,
And men like brothers live in peace,
Then trade and plenty will increase
     When we have conquered India.
The sentiments, overall, are typically Imperial in tone.14. The Nena Sahib ballad was put out by James Lindsay in Glasgow - see Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c. 14(84) - and was written by a John Wilson.14  Merry's Relief of Lucknow, incidentally, has a similar ending:
And when the scene of war is o'er
     And peace again obtained,
May India better governed be,
     And equal rights maintained.
May Christian rule the land pervade,
     Protect each as a brother,
The country prosper, people bear
     Good will to one another.
This, then, is the somewhat meagre evidence of ballads doing the rounds - perhaps at fairs as found in the newspaper report at the head of this brief survey.  It would still have been enough to occasion selling and, probably, singing although, as in the case of the wrecking of Princess Alice and a circulating ballad, another subject referred to in 'Bawlers' and the Bawled and described elsewhere on this site15. See Enthusiasms 49.15, at this distance there is no surety as to which ballad was heard.  Neither is there any evidence that ballads concerned with Nena Sahib survived any length of time either as printings or in sung repertoire.  These ballads, like so many others concerned with particular events and personalities, disappeared from view as fresh heroes or persons of notoriety gained news value.  This much was implicit in the newspaper report quoted at the head of this piece - the Russian war quite forgot.  Whenever a hero kept on surfacing it was an unusual survival.  Thus Nelson, as has been seen on this site, and to an even greater degree Napoleon, were exceptional characters.  In sung repertoire during the early years of the twentieth century, where connections with nineteenth century broadside balladry can sometimes be made, it is much more often the time-honoured ballads of broadside theme, image and archetype that can be found - the sailor saying farewell to his girl, the countryman outwitting his town cousins, the true lovers finding ways round their parents' opposition to their union …  The variety far outstrips ballads 'on a subject' (as Mayhew had it) however important was the particular moment.16. Nonetheless, reference must be made again to the songs The Indian War and The Great India War, as printed by Roy Palmer, since they both survived in sung repertoire (Roy Palmer, op cit, where the singers, Peter Pratt in the Orkneys and a Mr Smith in Combe Bissett, Wiltshire, are cited).16

Roly Brown - 26.11.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France



Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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