Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi


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In 1857, 4 years after the death of Gangadhar Rao, mutiny broke out among some sepoys of the Army. The mutiny was limited to the north of India, mainly the Gangetic Plain. It broke out first in Meerut on 10th May.

There were several instances of mutineers turning on their prisoners and the European women and children. There were many atrocities. Some British escaped with the aid of local people, often at no little risk to themselves.

Mutiny at Jhansi

Relevant source documents

When news of the mutiny in Meerut reached Jhansi, the Rani asked permission to raise a small bodyguard for her own protection, a measure to which Captain Skene readily agreed. Skene and the other British officers failed to take the Rani's lead to protect theselves against a possible mutiny.

On June 5th, some time after the mutiny broke out elsewhere, members of the Jhansi garrison mutinied, took the more important of the two forts in the town, killing two of the British officers and wounding another. They plundered the town, and released the prisoners from the gaol. The remaining British and Eurasians sheltered in the other fort, the Town Fort. There were 61 people, over half of them women and children. One or two others sheltered in the town and were able to escape with the aid of local people. The survivors in the Town Fort appealed to the Rani for help.

It is not obvious what she could do, she had a limited military force, the small bodyguard granted by the British at the outset of the mutiny, at her disposal, and no obvious political influence over the mutineers. They owed no allegiance to the Rani.

Her actual response is unknown, there are several versions. Antonia Fraser's favoured version is 'What can I do? ... If you wish to save yourself, abandon the fort, no-one will injure you'. I assume that at the time the mutineers were not acting against the fort, and that she was stating that the people of Jhansi would not harm them. In this respect she could grant them the implied safe conduct, but whatever she replied they choose to stay put.

On the 7th June, the Town Fort was besieged by the mutineers and the fort surrendered. Safe passage was granted by the mutineers, but just outside Jhansi, in the Jokan Bagh, one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths.

The Rani gave the mutineers money, by her own admission, but only under the threat of deposing her in favour of a relative of Gangadhar Rao's, Sadasheo Rao Narain, and, possibly, her own death. A Mr Thornton, the Deputy Collector of Jhansi, reported that she had given the money as payment for the massacre which had been entirely at her instigation. (Some British historians, subsequently pushed this further, or at least misinterpreted it, and made her responsible for the mutiny itself.) Thornton can at best have been reporting hearsay as he could not possibly have been a witness.

The mutineers then left for Agra and Delhi to join up with the main body of the rebellion on the 11th June.

The Rani Takes Control

Relevant source documents

On the 12th June the Rani wrote a letter to the British giving an account of what had happened, the steps she has taken to stabilise the situation and asking for help. To me this letter is quite emotional, showing an agitated state of mind. But notwithstanding that she is already taking control of the situation.

She wrote a second letter on the 14th June with a similar theme. She reported on the status of Jhansi, again asked the British for help and for orders. This letter is calmer and more business like and shows that she had been very busy in establishing a new administration in Jhansi.

The letters were sent to a Major Erskine, who was Commissioner at Sagar. He forwarded them to Calcutta with a note that the account given 'agreed with what I have heard from other sources'. On the 2nd July he replied asking her to manage Jhansi until a new superintendent could be sent. Erskine's initiative was not well received by Canning and he was sent a letter saying that the Governor General did not blame him for believing the Rani's account but that she would not be protected if her account was found to be false. Major Ellis had reported in a telegram that she had been forced to help the mutineers with guns, men and money. Despite evidence, other than the Rani's account, that the assistance had been extracted from her under duress, this view of her willing assistance seems to have coloured the official British view of her from thence forward.

Could it be that the word 'forced' in Ellis' telegram was misread or misreported at the British HQ? Without that word the telegram would suggest the Rani's complicity. The British would have no reason to refer back to it and correct the mistake. Could it be that all that followed pivoted on the one missing word?

The Rani took Erskine's request seriously, forming a government which included her father and stabilising the situation. Tapti Roy mentions that she wrote to Datia urging all chiefs 'to check the disturbances' and told representatives of both Datia and Orchha that 'measures should be taken at Jhansi that no disturbances would occur'.

Almost immediately she had to deal with a rival claimant to the Raja's throne, and estate. Shortly after the mutineers left Jhansi, Sadasheo Rao Narain attempted a coup, but was easily foiled, and taken prisoner. He was taken by the British and sent in to exile and his property confiscated after they retook Jhansi (not executed as some say), and released in about 1877.

She defended Jhansi against attacks by Orchha and Datia. The forces of Orchha laid siege to Jhansi between the 3rd and 22nd of October whilst claiming to be acting for the British. The British ignored her pleas for help in defending Jhansi.

As a consequence of these actions against Jhansi, Lakshmibai was learning the art of generalship and improving the army and defences of Jhansi. It also obliged her to have contact with the rebels who were the only force who could provide her with the military aid she needed. Events were preparing her for the final confrontation with the British, and, it seems, both unwittingly and unwillingly.

Away from the battlefield and court, she restored the library of her late husband and encouraged plays at the court, the theatre having been her late husband's prime interest.

The British Return

Relevant source documents

By the end of 1857 the British had dealt with the bigger problems of Delhi and Oudh enabling them to turn their attention on the smaller ones, like Jhansi. The Rani had received no further communications from the British. On the 1 January 1858 she wrote to Sir Robert Hamilton to clarify the position of Jhansi. He made no reply to this communication either.

On the 6th of January, a British force under Sir Hugh Rose, accompanied by Hamilton, marched northwards towards Jhansi, mopping up as they went. Having received no clarification, and knowing of this force advancing towards her, the Rani could only assume, and prepare for, the worst.

The force approaching Jhansi was not doing so with the intention of simply replacing the murdered officials. The inhabitants would have known of how other towns and cities like Delhi and Lucknow had been treated by the British, not to mention the many anonymous villages on their path. They had been executing all the mutineers they had captured, as well as anyone they so much as suspected of being a rebel. Trials, if they were held, were cursory. Many others had simply been murdered out of hand. Plundering had been extensive, even at times taking precedence, for some at least, over military and humane necessity; British wounded being left to die while plunder was taken. Any who objected to this behaviour were ignored. Those objecting included Lord Canning, the Governor General, and Queen Victoria. Dr Thomas Lowe who was the Medical Officer with Rose's force at Jhansi dismissed such considerations as 'mawkish sentimentality'. Lowe's opinion of Lakshmibai was typical of many British, she was 'the Jezebel of India ... the young, energetic, proud, uncompromising Ranee, and upon her head rested the blood of the [British] slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her'. (Even Lowe couldn't help but testify to her character.)

Rose's policy towards the rebels is illustrated by this comment by a Lt. J Bonus in a letter to his parents dated Saugor 13th Feb 1858:-

"I see by the home papers that people think Canning too lenient, we too think so, but there is no leniency here. Sir Hugh knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says. His first question is 'Was this man taken with arms in his hands?' If the answer is 'yes', 'Then shoot him' says Sir Hugh."

Hugh Rose was dogged for a while by controversy over the trial and subsequent execution of 149 mutineers at Sehore. About 650 men had mutinied but had returned to barracks. They were disarmed and the 149 taken for trial. The trial itself was summary and the men were almost immediately executed by being lined up and shot by a firing squad of 150. Some shots failed to kill outright, others missed, requiring survivors to be killed by further shootings and by sabre.

Lakshmibai, whatever her previous position had been, had little choice but to prepare for the worst. She raised a force of 14,000 volunteers from the population and 1,500 sepoys, made contact with the rebels, strengthened the defences and otherwise prepared for the arrival of the British. An intelligence report (quoting from Paul) dated the 7th Feb 1858 from Sir Robert Hamilton says that:-

Although the Rani proposes not to fight the British government yet she makes every hostile arrangement. Six new large guns have been manufactured, carriages for these and old guns are in the course of construction. About 200 maunds of saltpetre being purchased in the Gwalior district had been bought into the fort. Gunpowder is daily made within the fort. Eight gunners from the Moorar rebels were sent from Kalpi and have been taken into service. They superintend the manufacturing of brass balls...

It should be noted that even without the approaching British force, the Rani had every reason to prepare Jhansi's defences not against the British, but against Jhansi's more aggressive neighbours, Orchha in particular.

On Feb 14th a proclamation was issued in the Rani's name calling on Raja's of both Hindu and Moslem faiths to rebel against the British. If this was authorised by the Rani, and it seems doubtful, then this is the first definite statement of rebellion from her. However according to British intelligence reports she had not made up her mind to definitely oppose them as late as the 15th March. Her advisors were split, significantly her own father was for resisting the British force, but she hesitated.

So, irrespective of her own feelings, Lakshmibai was at the nexus of a set of forces propelling her to rebellion:-

  • The British were convinced of her guilt, and in any case were intent on punishing Jhansi.
  • The townspeople had tasted British rule and were better off under their own rulers. In addition the British had failed to respect their customs. They were to say the least unwelcome guests.
  • Her army, originally raised to defend Jhansi against Orchha, was predominantly composed of rebels and mutineers for whom surrender meant death.
  • More personally, it would seem that her father had ambitions to recover the Jhansi throne for her.

She had little choice.

The Siege of Jhansi

Relevant source documents

On 21 March 1858 the British forces started the siege of Jhansi. See Rose's account of the siege, also Godse's account. The town was given the opportunity to surrender but Lakshmibai had little choice and with the support of the people, refused. The sepoys she had recruited were mutineers and would have been executed. It is likely that so would Lakshmibai and anyone else considered to be a rebel by the British. Further, the people had gained confidence from the defeat of the siege of the city in October of the year before, and would have looked forward to aid from the rebels.

There is a suggestion of negotiations from two sources. Godse mentions a letter that was sent to the Rani requiring that she and her principal ministers should go to meet 'the Captain' (presumable Rose) unarmed and unaccompanied. Not unreasonably the Rani declined offering instead to send the Prime Minister with an armed escort. From the other side the Aide de Camp to General Rose, a Lieutenant (later General) Lyster mentions negotiations between the Rani and Sir Robert Hamilton for the surrender of Jhansi and that Rose was dissatisfied with progress. If there were such negotiations, and it would be surprising if there were not, the British left no record of them.

The level of support for Lakshmibai is shown by the number of volunteers, 14,000, from a population of 250,000. When one considers the number of families involved, say dividing by six to give a figure of 42,000, there was a volunteer from at least one in three families. She also organised the women to keep the troops supplied at the front line; there must have been many casualties among them. The British officers observed an enthusiasm and energy in the defending troops that they had never been able to obtain from their own native soldiers. Sadly, enthusiasm is no substitute for training, discipline, weaponry and leadership in the form of qualified officers. Numerically the British were greatly outnumbered, but militarily they had the advantage.

For 10 days the British bombarded Jhansi with artillery and maintained a constant fire from the infantry. The bombardment is said to have been intense, as was the return fire. In actions prior to this one, the rebels had been able to make good their escape and Rose was determined that that should not happen this time and had entirely surrounded Jhansi.

On the 30th March a breach was forced in the town wall, but before the British could enter the town, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived. Rose split his forces and met and defeated the rebel force at the Betwa river a few miles east of Jhansi and north of Orchha. The rebels lost hundreds, the British less than one hundred. It was said by a British officer that the rebels neither asked for quarter nor given quarter. I suspect more the latter than the former. The rebels would know that the British if they took prisoners, it was only to execute them, and I doubt that the British were taking prisoners in any case.

A question arises here as to why Lakshmibai did not order a sally from the fort and so attack the weakened British besiegers. Although by splitting his force Rose faced Tope with a weakened force it meant he was able to maintain the siege and also lauched a feint on the north of the city. In a letter to his wife by Major Gall who was in charge of the feint attack gives this brief account:

"I was not involved in this action [against Tope], being occupied from daybreak until seven o'clock in attacking with a nine pounder and a howitzer that part of the city wall opposite my post, and driving back into the city a party that seemed disposed to come out."

Rose also took the precaution of withdrawing the forces to meet Tope under cover of darkness. The defenders of Jhansi may not have even realised they had gone.

With the defeat of rebel relief force Rose was able turn his attention back to Jhansi by the 2nd April. At 3am the next morning, the 3rd April, British troops stormed into Jhansi. The fighting is said to have been intense with the Rani in the thick of it, as she had been during the siege when she, with her ladies, was often visible to the British, directing and encouraging the resistance. At some point she decided to leave Jhansi. Despite Rose's precautions, during the night of the 3rd and 4th April she was able to make her escape with a small party which included her father. Legend has it that she rode with Damodar tied to her back. How she and her party managed to get through the British lines is uncertain. Some have it that it was a deliberate ploy by Rose (she was a bigger danger inside the fort than out), treachery by some of the Indian soldiers employed by the British, negligence by the British soldiers who had left their post to loot, sheer audaciousness on the part of Lakshmibai (she pretended to be leading a party British cavalry and simply rode past them).

Another audacious young woman, Jhalkari Korin, is said to have masqueraded as the Rani and was captured as such by the British. She was unmasked only when she was bought before Rose. Her fate is uncertain. Devi has it that Rose ordered her execution, whilst Lebra-Chapman makes no comment on it. More happily in the notes in the appendix to his fictionalised biography of the Rani, Vrindavan Lal Varma writes:-

    That the Unnao Darawaza was being defended by the members of the Kori caste under the leadership of Puran Kori is borne out by history. I verified the truth of this event from Puran Kori's grandson, who also recounted the story of Jhalkari's daring and audacious scheme. On the 4th April 1858, she set out for General Rose's camp and on reaching there declared with grand aplomb that she was indeed the Rani and the English were merely wasting their time by looking for her. Though I did not have the good fortune of meeting her, Jhalkari Korin died a very old woman...

Rafael Waldburg-Zeil has pointed out that the strength of the defence of Jhansi may be measured by the number of Victoria Crosses awarded. The highest British award for valour, seven were won at Jhansi, six of them on the 3rd April when the town was stormed. The Chapter One Victoria Cross site shows the following awards:-

A total of 14 out of 1354 awarded to date. Note that this does not include any that may have been awarded in other actions of the Central India Campaign.

To quote a private correspondence from Rafael: "the assault of the city was not a weekend-walk as we say here and I think it honors well the heroism of the people of Jhansi and their desperate fight." In effect, one can judge the quality of a people by the deeds of their enemy.

The Real Jhansi Massacre

In Jhansi, the slaughter continued. All the next day the street fighting, looting, destruction and murder continued, the British soldiers "eagerly exceeding their orders'' (Hibbert). A Hindu priest, Vishnu Godse, who was there and wrote of his experiences, 'recalled four days of fire, pillage, murder and looting without distinction' (Fraser). Rose had instructed his troops to 'spare no one over sixteen - except women of course'. Some of those who could not escape threw themselves with their wives and children down the wells of the town. Some to be dragged out again to be bayoneted. In the words of Godse:

[After the massacre and looting had finished] In the squares of the city ... hundreds of corpses [were collected] in large heaps and covered with wood, floorboards and anything that came handy and set on fire. Now every square blazed with burning bodies and the city looked like one vast burning ground ... It became difficult to breathe as the air stank with the odour of burning human flesh and the stench of rotting animals in the streets.

And according to Dr Lowe they were killed 'in their puffed up thousands ... such was the retribution meted out to this Jezebel Ranee and her people'. Unfortunately the crime for which this retribution was so enthusiastically meted out, the massacre of nearly a year previous, had been committed by a handful of men who had left Jhansi almost immediately, men who had nothing to do with Jhansi other than that they had been stationed there by the British. Apart from the 1500 sepoys recruited to help defend the town, none of those 'punished' had actually committed a crime against the British. In return for the murder of 61 by, say, a dozen mutineers, the British murdered, according to their own figures, 4-5,000. Whilst the British claim that they died in battle, it is worth comparing that figure with the number of British casualties for the siege, storming and capture of Jhansi - about 100 killed and 250 wounded.

Whilst Godse's account corroborates the British claim that they killed only the men, the deaths of women occuring more or less accidentally in general, he reports four days of indiscriminate slaughter of the men and systematic looting.

(The original mutineers of Jhansi, the 12th Bengal Native Infantry, were actually in Lohari which part of Rose's force took on the 2nd May. All were killed defending the fort.)

The Rani's Escape

In the meanwhile, the Rani's escape was not without incident.

I have two accounts of British encounters with the Rani during her flight. The more famous is that of Lieutenant Dowker who by his own account pursued her until a shot, possibly fired by the Rani herself, disabled him. Other, Indian, sources have him wounded in a sword fight with the Rani at a village called Bhander. The second account, from Cornet Combe is set in the village of Banda which I assume is Combe's spelling of Bhander:-

'We sent all over the country in pursuit [of the Rani] and one of our troops overtook her at a placed called Banda, 20 miles off. Her escort made a hard fight of it, and though our fellows did their utmost and killed every man she got away, her smart saddle falling into our hands."

She rode the 100 miles to Kalpi in 24 hours and was given a parade of honour on her arrival.

Her father, among others, was not so fortunate, he was wounded leaving Jhansi, managed to reach Datia but there he was handed over to the British and hanged in Jokhan Bagh.

The Final Acts of the Rebellion and the Death of a Rani

Relevant source documents

A rebel force under Tatya Tope went to Koonch where Rose, after a delay of 3 weeks to re-supply, went on to meet and defeat them on 6th May. Rose then advanced on Kalpi. The rebels there were at a low ebb, but were heartened by the arrival of the Nawab of Banda, and the nephew of Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib. Encouraged by the reinforcements and Lakshmibai's promise to fight with them to the end, on the 22nd of May they attacked the British. Despite being considerably weakened by the heat and having to fight under the midday sun, the British were able to defeat the rebels who were forced to retreat again. This time they went to Godalpur outside of Gwalior. There, rather than disbanding as the British expected they audaciously decided to take Gwalior. The fort at Gwalior was considered to be the strongest in India and virtually impregnable. The ruler, the Maharaja Sindia had maintained a pro-British stance throughout the Rebellion. If successful the hope of the rebels was that this would encourage others to throw in their lot with them.

The rebels advanced on Gwalior with 11,000 men and were met at Morar by Maharaja Sindia. After the first shots were fired, the bulk of the Maharaja's army defected to the rebels, and the Maharaja left for the safety of Agra. Rao Sahib was crowned at Gwalior and Lakshmibai was famously given a priceless pearl necklace from the Gwalior Treasury.

Rose now took his force towards Gwalior. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, the most difficult to defend, and met the British at Kotah-ki-Serai on the 17th June. She 'dressed as a man', that is she dressed as someone going into battle, but not totally, she also wore her bangles and the pearl necklace. To me this is a wonderful gesture: to wear a pearl necklace into battle, no wonder her troops loved her. How she dies, and where, and when, is uncertain - there are several accounts. Some have her killed on the parapets of Gwalior in a hail of gunfire at the beginning of the siege, others at Kotah-ki-Serai. Lord Canning gave the following account in his papers, and this seems to be considered the most credible:-

Ranee of Jhansi. Killed by a trooper of the 8th Hussars who was never discovered. Shot in the back, her horse baulked. She then fired at the man, and he passed his sword through her. She used to dress like a man (with a turban) and rode like one ... Not pretty, & pockmarked with smallpox, but beautiful eyes and figure. She used to wear gold anklets, and Sindia's pearl necklace, plundered from Gwalior (Sindia says its value is untold). These when dying she distributed among the soldiery when taken to die under the mango clump... The infantry attacked the cavalry for allowing her to be killed. The cavalry said she rode too far in front. Her tent was very coquettish.... Two maids of honour rode with her. One was killed, and in her agony stripped off her clothes. Said to have been most beautiful. ... The army mourned [the Rani] for two days.

[With respect to the dead maid of honour see Hamilton's account below.

Another similar version by J. Henry Sylvester, who was at Gwalior, says 'the gallant Queen of Jhansi fell from a carbine wound, and was carried to the rear, where she expired, and was burnt according to the custom of the Hindoos'.

Saul David in his Indian Mutiny 1857 draws on the diary of Edward Grey, Veterinary Surgeon, 8th Hussars, for this account:-

The Rani was on horseback ... when the British cavalry [8th Hussars] made their surprise appearance, causing her escort to scatter ... she boldly 'attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded', possibly by a sabre cut. A short while later as the British retired ... she recognised her former assailant as she sat bleeding by the roadside and fired at him with her pistol. Unfortunately she missed and he 'dispatched the young lady with his carbine'. But because she was 'dressed as a sowar', the trooper never realised 'that he had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny, tht there was a reward of a lac [lakh] on his victim's head, or that at that moment she was wearing jewels worth a crore of rupees'.

Whilst this account is similar to others and it is entirely possible for Grey to have been aware of the Rani's identity, it is not obvious how he knew that she was wearing 'jewels worth a crore of rupees'. Perhaps in that detail he was repeating rumour.

On the other hand, Sir Robert Hamilton gives this account of her death in a letter to Sir John Kaye dated 27th Aug 1860:-

She was killed at Gwalior in the corner of the Parade in the [missing], whereon a cluster of [missing] were seen. I had always desired that the Enfield Rifle might fire at them. In this way, a group came on the Parade, at a Tukeeah whilst the battle was raging but quite out of shot, however some rifles let drive at them and they dispersed; two shots had taken effect, one on the Ranee the other on her attendant. The Ranee died almost before she was put on a Palkee and hurried off to a Mundil on the other side of the town ... I went to the spot with Dr. Christison and collected bits of bone from the ashes - which he preserved, the attendant was a Masalmanee, and I had her exhumed, both were shot in the breast and fatal wounds.

Then there is another account given by a Mr Martin, quite possibly taken from the remembrances of Damodar Rao, in these extracts from some letters written in 1897.

Mahasweti Devi reports the brief remembrances of Damodar who was a 10 year old child at the time. One in particular tells of how one 'evening in Gwalior came back to his mind over and over again when a loving glance from a pair of enormous eyes seemed to reach out towards him and then move far off - it was as if his mother was going far away, where one could no longer touch her.'

Understandably the Rani's funeral was carried out very quickly after her death since none could guarantee that she would be dealt with proper respect if they delayed. In Sir Hugh Rose's report he mentions her funeral and that she was buried 'with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior where I saw her bones and ashes'.

Lakshmibai had two 'maids of honour' who accompanied her from Jhansi; we know little more than their names, Mandar and Kashi Kumbin. Mandar is said to have been a childhood friend of Lakshmibai and was killed in the same incident in which Lakshmibai was fatally wounded, whilst Kashi had stayed behind to look after Damodar. It was Kashi, according to Devi, who prepared the Rani for her funeral pyre and who with another close attendant of the Rani's looked after Damodar for two years before surrendering him to the British with the promise of safety. She then disappears from history. One has to be impressed by their loyalty and courage. But then there were many such people even more anonymous, their acts unknown to history. We can only acknowledge the deeds of a few, and they must also stand for all these others.

Two days later the rebels left Gwalior making no attempt to hold what was a virtually impregnable position. The death of Lakshmibai seems to have utterly demoralised them. The 'impregnable' fort of Gwalior was easily retaken by the British. To all intents and purposes the rebellion was over.

Her name is so sacred we sing it only in the early hours of dawn.

(From a song sung by Nagpuri women and quoted by Joyce Lebra.)

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Last modified: 2006-05-01 15:35:12.000000000