The Devil’s Trap, by James W Bancroft

The Devil’s Trap: The Victims of the Cawnpore Massacre During the Indian Mutiny, by James W Bancroft (2019), tells the story of a notorious incident in 1857.  Stationed at the East India Company’s garrison at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), a strategic position on the banks of the Ganges, were three native regiments led by British officers.  The British contingent lived there with their families.  In June 1857 the Indian soldiers, with local support, revolted, and a protracted siege took place.

Initially the defenders thought help would arrive, but this did not materialise.  Eventually they surrendered on the promise of safe passage, but the attackers under the command of Nana Sahib reneged on the agreement as the soldiers and civilians were attempting to evacuate by boat, and many – men, women and children – were massacred.  The survivors were kept captive in squalid conditions and deaths occurred from disease.  Then, with the British army closing in and bent on revenge, Nana Sahib ordered the murder of those who were left, and the corpses were dumped in a well.   There were only four survivors.

Bancroft, editor of a book of Romanian paranormal anecdotes, has done sterling work researching the massacre, delving into archives and interviewing descendants.  He has also utilised what he grandly refers to as the ‘JWB Historical Library’, which I think means he owns a lot of books.  There is information on the town, and the relationships between the British and Indian soldiers, and the imperialist power and the local political establishment.

That Bancroft is not an academic historian can be seen in his language, at times slack even for a text aimed at a popular audience.  He is prone to cliché and occasional statements of the obvious (Bath has a Roman spa, apparently).  In terms of organisation, while he has been assiduous in following up genealogical information he dumps biographical snippets into the narrative, which impedes its flow.

He provides an odd trigger warning, stating ‘It was inhumanity at its worst, the Devil himself could not devise a more spine-chilling scenario, and people of a sensitive disposition must not read on,’ a dubious claim guaranteed to get the ghoulish turning the pages.  His indignation at the brutality of the rebels descends into purplish prose, and he again manages to equate the uprising with the forces of darkness, claiming breathlessly and disregarding punctuation that ‘The culprits of this disturbing atrocity were not of the human race they were representatives of Satan.’ 

More seriously, he fails to interrogate the presence of the British and the social and economic structures they imposed.  Expressing outrage at the behaviour of the Indians, he does not question the role of the occupying power.  True, the book’s subtitle emphasises the victims, but the events can only be understood in the broader context of occupation.  He skates over the part the East India Company played in the administration of the Indian possessions and does not examine the complacency and ineptitude that allowed the Cawnpore tragedy to occur, a mindset that clearly underestimated the likely consequences of official actions.

There is a lot more that could be said about this inglorious incident, but it would take an impartial historian to do it justice.  Bancroft is too close to his material and does not treat it dispassionately.  Still, he does provide the background and commemorates the victims, who were so brutally treated, with compassion.  The collection of information on their lives, before and, where appropriate, after, was obviously a labour of love.  Those wishing to dig deeper will find the bibliography a useful place to start.

Update 15 May 2023:

Mr Bancroft has written to inform me that contrary to my assumption based on its name, the ‘JWB Historical Library’ does not contain any books.  Rather, it is a collection of documents and correspondence dealing with British military history, destined eventually for the National Army Museum in London (pers. comm. 14 May 2023).  I think that makes it an archive rather than a library, but I am grateful to have had the nature of its contents clarified.


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