The Baron of ‘Cawnpore’

I was at my grandfather’s home in Civil Lines in Kanpur for my cousin’s wedding, booking a cab for Lucknow, when I found something odd. Google Maps was referring to the road adjacent to the house as ‘Baron Carlo Marochetti road’.

I used to visit Kanpur every year for summer vacations and had always heard relatives refer to that road as ‘doodh wali galli’ or milk street, because of the cowshed where we used to get our milk from. I had expected it to have a formal name, but this was a surprise as it was neither Indian nor British. What was it doing in Kanpur then? It was definitely European, so it must have something to do with colonialism, I thought. I forgot about Lucknow and began looking for the Baron.

When I searched Kanpur on his Wikipedia page, I found nothing, but a search for ‘Cawnpore’ led me to the ‘Cawnpore Memorial’ which began unravelling the story of Baron’s connection with the city and the massacres that took place during the uprising of 1857.

In the summer of 1857, around 300 British men were killed after they boarded boats that were meant to take them to Allahabad by Nana Rao’s rebels at Satichaura Ghat. Nana Rao was the adopted heir of the Peshwa Baji Rao II who was exiled to Bithur. He became a disgruntled man leading up to 1857 because the East India Company refused to extend his father’s pension to him under the doctrine of lapse. As the uprising challenged the socio-political structure, Nana Rao saw new options opening up for him. Satichaura Ghat came to be known as Massacre Ghat.

The remaining 73 women and 124 children were imprisoned in Bibighar – the house of ladies. Nana Rao had intended to bargain with the British when their regiments made their way to Cawnpore under Henry Havelock and James Neill (both British soldiers). Fifteen days later, as the forces of Havelock and Neill approached Cawnpore, a decision was taken to kill all the remaining women and children at Bibighar. The bargaining ploy was not going to work. As rebel sepoys refused to carry out the orders, local butchers were hired to kill them and throw their mutilated bodies into the nearby well.

Also read: A Forgotten Past: On Stumbling Upon William Hodson’s Grave at a School

When Havelock and Neill’s soldiers reached Cawnpore, they expected to relieve the women and children. Instead, they found remnants of gruesome death in the house and their final resting place in the well. The massacre at Bibigarh traumatised the British more than any other incident during the mutiny. Soldiers knelt beside the Bibighar and swore oaths to avenge the dead. Looking for revenge, the rule of law was suspended and people were hanged and shot without trial; thousands were killed. Suspects were made to lick the floor of the Bibighar – brown with caked blood of the British – before being hanged beside the well. “Remember Cawnpore” became a slogan and justification for ruthlessly quelling the uprising across the Gangetic plains. It influenced subsequent literature based on the Raj.

The well at Bibighar was sealed and a cross was placed on it. It bore the text, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. Lady Canning, wife of the Governor General Lord Canning, wanted the site of the well to be consecrated as sacred ground and for a memorial to be built. They decided it would be a sculpture and had an artist in mind. As children in Paris in the 1820s, they had played with a girl named Camille de Maussion. Camille would go on to marry the sculptor Carlo Marochetti.

With inputs from Lady Canning and her sister, Marochetti sculpted an angel of resurrection made out of white marble. The seraph held palm leaves in each hand and looked down mournfully upon the well. The carved screen erected around it and the angel at the centre were together known as the ‘Cawnpore Memorial’. The cost for building the memorial was borne by the people of Cawnpore, who paid 30,000 pounds in punitive taxes. In 19th century, more Europeans came to see the Cawnpore Memorial than the Taj Mahal. It is said that, “every tourist sketched it and every traveler’s book described it”.

Indians, however, were not allowed entry. In sequestering the symbol of their dead from the eyes of Indians, the Cawnpore Memorial became an imperial symbol of the Raj and its power. The Memorial was not meant for everyone to come to terms with what had happened. It was a place where grief fused with triumph to provide sustenance for the Raj.

By the time India became independent in 1947, the uprising of 1857 had become the first war of independence. Among the first things the people of Kanpur did was to enter the area and reclaim the space. The Cawnpore Memorial was shifted to the All Souls Church in the Cantonment, where it stands today, out of sight and largely forgotten.

Bibighar was pulled down by the British. The remains of the murdered women and children are now a part of Nana Rao park, named after the man who ordered their deaths, as he joined the pantheon of India’s first freedom fighters.

As a part of decolonisation, Cawnpore became Kanpur, the memorial was moved, and the park was renamed. But a road with an Italian sounding name slipped under the radar. And so, a road in Kanpur bears the name of Baron Carlo Marochetti because his wife played with Lady Canning and her sister when they were children in Paris.

I hope the name stays, and every now and then, asks us to remember Cawnpore.

Ayush Khanna is a Data Scientist from Bangalore who writes on history and politics.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Thomas Fisher Library