For the British, the butchering of seventy-three women and 124 children at Cawnpore in July was the single most traumatic episode of the uprisings of 1857. When the rebels were defeated and the atrocity discovered, it provoked a dreadful and indiscriminate revenge, and continued to reverberate in the British consciousness for many years to come. The sympathy that it aroused found expression in a monument, originally raised over the well itself, displaying an angel with lowered eyes. This was guarded by a stone screen reminiscent of church architecture – and thus of Christian civilisation in general. In this way, the monument as a whole served as a rebuke and a justification of empire as well as a memorial.
The Victorian Web: An Icon of Empire. The Angel at the Cawnpore Memorial, by Baron Marochetti (1805-1867)
After the revolt was suppressed, the British dismantled Bibighar. They raised a memorial railing and cross at the site of the well in which the bodies of the British women and children had been dumped. Meanwhile, the British forces conducted a punitive action under the lead of General Autrum by blowing down Nana Sahib’s palace in Bithoor with cannons, in which Indian women and children including Nana Sahib’s young daughter Mainavati were burned alive. Also, the inhabitants of Cawnpore were forced to pay £30,000 for the creation of the memorial as a ‘punishment’ for not coming to the aid of the British women and children in Bibighar. The Angel of the Resurrection was created by Baron Carlo Marochetti and completed in 1865. It has been called by various names throughout the centuries and came to be the most visited statue of British India. The chief proponent and private funder was Charlotte, Countess Canning, wife of the first Viceroy of India, Earl Canning. She approached her childhood friend, Marochetti, for models. In turn, Marochetti suggested that other sculptors be invited. Following the Countess’s death, Earl Canning took over the commission. Canning rejected a number of designs accepting, in the end, a version of Marochetti’s Crimean War memorial at Scutari, Turkey. The understated figure is an angel holding two branches of palm fronds across her chest. Despite assurances, ‘The Angel’ had some damage during the Independence celebrations of 1947 and she was later moved from her original site over the Bibi Ghar well to a garden at the side of All Soul’s Church, Kanpore (Kanpur Memorial Church).
The remains of a circular ridge of the well can still be seen at the Nana Rao Park, built after Indian independence. The British also erected the All Souls Memorial Church, in memory of the victims. An enclosed pavement outside the church marks the graves of over 70 British men captured and executed on 1 July 1857, four days after the Satichaura Ghat massacre. The marble Gothic screen with “mournful seraph” was transferred to the churchyard of the All Souls Church after Indian independence in 1947. The memorial to the British victims was replaced with a bust of Tatya Tope.
At the centre of the north Indian city of Kanpur sit fifty acres of urban green space. Surrounded by a brightly painted iron railing, this city-owned oasis within the bustling industrial metropolis is Nana Rao Park. Like many civic spaces, it contains a commemorative statue: in this case it is a likeness of the brilliant leader of Sepoy rebels during the 1857 uprising, Tantia Topi. This statue is relatively new, barely fifty years old; the park is much older, first laid out over 145 years ago. The statue is surrounded by four marble frogs, and stands overlooking a large, empty, sandstone circle. Without prior knowledge, a visitor to this park today, and indeed perhaps most of the current residents of the city, would have no inkling that the blank sandstone circle within this pleasant but otherwise non-descript civic oasis was once the most venerated locale of the British raj. Nano Rao Park was, before 1949, the Cawnpore Memorial Gardens, and the sandstone circle overlooked by the Tantia Topi statue is all that is now left of the memorial well monument, built on the site of the final resting place of over 125 British women and children killed in Cawnpore on 15 July 1857, amidst the upheaval of the 1857–58 “Mutiny.”
Angel of Empire: The Cawnpore Memorial Well as a British Site of Imperial Remembrance (behind paywall)
Memorial Well Interior, Cawnpore
Publisher: Moorli Dhur & Sons