Scarce images of the Cawnpore massacres
Interior of the house at Cawnpore where the ladies and children were massacred.
[with] The Well at Cawnpore. [Calcutta] lith[ographe]d at the Comus Press August 15th, 1857, & [August], 1857
Two lithographed prints: each on a single sheet of thin paper; the first measuring 26.5 x 34 cm and the second measuring 22.5 x 28.5 cm; each with detailed caption. The first lithograph with several short marginal tears, one longer tear to lower edge touching caption. The second with fold marks and one long, neatly repaired tear. Overall, both in very good condition.
We locate no institutional copies of either lithograph. A copy of the first lithograph, bound in an album of photographs by Felice Beato, was sold at Christie's, Lot 253, 19 June 1998.
These two vivid prints, after drawings by Sidney Pearce, are almost certainly the earliest images of the Cawnpore massacre published. Pearce, an officer in the Calcutta Volunteer Guards, reached Cawnpore shortly after its recapture by Sir Henry Havelock on 17 July 1857, a day too late to prevent the slaughter of two hundred surviving European and Anglo-Indian women and children. Pearce drew the bloody interior of the Bibighar, a prison house in which the massacre occurred. The sight shocked him: "The floors were slippery with blood, and the walls daubed with it. The courtyard was soaking; and in dragging the bodies across it the sand and blood had formed a sort of red paste." His drawing shows dark smears of blood, pathetic handprints on the wall, bonnets, a book, and even a child's severed foot. The second print depicts the well beside the Bibighar, into which the corpses were thrown. Pearce's caption is baldly brutal: "Blood and hair were visible all along the path. The gallows is seen on the right and scores of murderers have already expiated their crimes upon it." The drawing shows blood and hair smeared along the edge of the well, as well as the path. The gallows illustrated by Pearce barely hints at the scale of British reprisals in Cawnpore, which stretched beyond ritual humiliation and torture to mass executions. They were printed on the Press of the Comus, a short-lived magazine published at Calcutta from March, 1857, to April, 1858. A third print depicting the Bibighar's facade is in the collection of the National Army Museum. The Calcutta Volunteer Guards were a civilian militia raised in response to the unrest of 1857: some members rode as escorts for the British supply lines to Cawnpore in July and August of 1857. Sidney Pearce's publication of these images in August would have had an inflammatory effect on European popular sentiment. The events of the summer had left the British embattled and insecure as week by week news of further uprisings and losses had reached Calcutta. The Governor-General had promulgated legislation for the control of the English-language press on 13 June, 1857, to prevent panic. These brutal images would have bolstered support for the savage reprisals inflicted on Indian civilians by British troops and militia and increased criticism of the Governor-General's "conciliatory" approach. The Bibighar and well were left in their bloody state for British officers and soldiers to see: these images brought that violent view to a wider audience. These two lithographs which preceded the well-known photographs of Felice Beato by almost six months are remarkable survivals. They are rare enough to suggest that they may have been suppressed under the June legislation.