There is something deeply poignant about "last letters home" from those who die overseas in the service of country or empire. Emma Sophia Ewart, wife of Lt Col. John Ewart of the 1 Bengal Native Infantry, wrote three letters to her sister from Cawnpore at the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny. There is a striking sadness about these fragments, even before one begins to read the text. The flowing handwriting of a woman who had come to know India, to accept the service life of her husband and the duties that demanded of her, is compelling. As one reads, there is a growing sense of menace. The letters are full of her humanity, all the fears and hopes you'd expect from a community under siege, but they are also full of acute observation. These letters are also harrowing because the reader knows that she and the others will be killed. Her letters are full of detail about the oppressive heat, the commanders, and the scene at Cawnpore. They tell us a great deal about the beginnings of the Mutiny and its uncertainties. They remind the historian that the criticisms made of the British officers, who "failed to act swiftly enough", fail to take account of the fact that solid information and intelligence was almost impossible to come by. What these letters indicate is that only information they got at first were the rumours of atrocities, soon to overtake this beleaguered and ill-fated garrison itself.
A few words about those famous events may assist us here. On 23 April 1857, 85 men of the 3rd Bengal Cavalry refused to accept the new cartridges of the Enfield percussion lock rifle because it was alleged they were covered in the grease of pigs and cows and consequently would mean ritual defilement for anyone who touched them. earlier that ear, the 19th and 34th Bengal Infantry had been disbanded for failing to accept the new cartridge whilst Mangal Pande, a sepoy under the influence of bhang, had been executed for trying to shoot the Adjutant. The 85 cavalrymen were condemned to 10 years hard labour, but on 10 May, the British officers and their families were attacked during Church parade. Within hours, civilians had also joined in the looting and murder.
When news arrived of the outbreak at Meerut, Emma's husband went out to sleep amongst his men as proof of his unshakeable faith in them. She feared the worst, aware of the stories arriving from Delhi that massacres had occurred there, but was amazed to see him alive and well the next day. Precautions were taken only reluctantly so as not to alienate the men. However, six cannon were placed in front of the barracks and a number of British men, women and children began to accumulate at Cawnpore. The enclosure was soon overcrowded. Despite attempting to shelter in a tent, the heat compelled Emma to remain in their bungalow during the day, and therefore outside of the security of the barracks. She was impressed that proclamations were made to reassure local people and at first refused to believe that the stories of murder and looting could have involved the sepoys. She blamed "Goojurs: villains always on the look-out for rapine and plunder on such occasions." She wrote (15 May) of "Mrs Dawson - the poor lady who was living alone was killed by a butcher in a cruel manner." This, she related, had inspired Dawson's native servant, and his 'brethren', to revenge.
Emma was optimistic enough at first to write:
"We can never feel secure in the country. How fortunate for us that the people do not know how to combine sufficiently to subvert the empire. You see they have no leaders, no definite cause, no real patriotism; so that there is nothing likely to arise out of these disturbances but a great amount of mischief and temporary suspension of order."
She added that there were relief forces available, and that "it is wonderful that the electrical telegraph has not been destroyed". Later it was. In fact, 760 miles were destroyed; the poles burnt as firewood and the wire turned into ammunition.
On 27 May she reflected on how much risk here husband was taking by continuing to go out amongst his men. She said he "flinched not an instant from the performance of his duty" preferring to stay with his regiment whatever happened. This was particularly impressive because Emma relates how the Sepoys had been overheard discussing the "destruction of the officers". By now, the barracks she described had filled with people.
"Oh! Such a scene dear Fanny. Men, officers, women and children, beds and chairs all mingled together inside and out of the barracks, some talking and even laughing, some very frightened, some defiant, others despairing. those guns in front of our position and then behind a trench in course of foundation all round - such sickening sights these for peaceful women and then the miserable reflection that all this ghastly show is caused not by open foes, but by the treachery of those we have fed and pampered and honoured and trusted in for so many years - Oh!!! I cannot dwell upon the harrowing thoughts, I must pass on to events... "
Emma related how the Delhi garrison was holding out, but she could not have known that already most of the Europeans there were dead, despite gallant actions by British officers and men to stem the tide against them. However, Emma did report that Lieutenant Willoughby had held the magazine until the last minute then detonated it, taking his own life in the process. Then the letter becomes more fatalistic about her own position, reminding us that this was a family facing death.
"My prayer is that she [baby] may be spared much suffering - the bitterness of death has been tasted by us many, many times during the last fortnight, should the reality come I hope we may find strength to meet it with a truly Christian courage. It is not hard to die oneself but to see a dear child suffer and perish, that is the hard, the b itter trial, the cup which I must must drink should God not deem it fit that it pass from me... Let us hope for the best, do our duty, and trust in God above all things - Should I be spared I shall write to you by the latest date - I only send this now lest any fresh hindrance should arise..."
"We must not give way to despondency for at the worst we know we are in God's hands and He does not for an instant forsake us. He will be with us in the valley of the shadow of death also and we need fear no evil. God bless you, Yours loving sister, Emma S Ewart."
Emma never lost hope of a relief force, but noted that soldiers arrived in groups of no more than twenty or thirty at a time; too few to hold a position where the women and children outnumbered the men by ten to one, and there were not enough weapons even then. The arrival of troops from a 'sympathetic' rajah, the treacherous Nana Sahib, had at first encouraged Emma to believe that the rebellion might not spread. (She had related how a Sepoy guard had fought off a body of mutineer horsemen two weeks before). However, she seemed very anxious about the presence of the native troops. She clearly no longer trusted any of them. She was critical too of the Commander in chief, and she was not alone in feeling depressed when news arrived that Anson had died en route, but also had had been unable to strike decisively because of too few men. Having said that, she charitably noted that she could not know what difficulties he faced, and wrote that, by the standards of what those nearer Delhi had to put up with, their conditions weren't that bad. She felt compelled to mention that her husband, apparently joined by other officers continued to sleep alongside their men which "has had a wonderful effect of sustaining them." Then she wrote "but it cannot last." She was exhausted, complaining that the frequent alarms left them on edge but that she had fallen into a 'stupefaction', praising her friend Mrs Hillersdon for calming her baby and walking her on that hot night to give Emma some rest.
In her final letter, dated 1st June, 1857, Emma closes with the following:
"If these are my last words to you dearest Fanny you will remember them lovingly and always bear in mind that your affection and the love we have had for each other is an ingredient of comfort in these biter times.
Your loving sister, Emma. S. Ewart."
On 4 June 1857, the Cawnpore garrison rose and Nana Sahib's men threw in their lot with the mutineers. There has been much criticism of the so called complacency of this garrison and General Wheeler's (the commander) naivete but this fails to take account of the knowledge the British had of what was happening, and the clear idea from Emma's letters that they hoped to avert a crisis by showing confidence in the Indian troops. What decided the issue for the sepoys though was the rebellion of the Lucknow garrison.
There were no more letters from Emma. If she wrote any, they may have been intercepted. Her fate was recorded by others who survived the ordeals to follow. From the 6 to 27 June, Wheeler and the tiny garrison sheltered in trenches barely 18 inches deep under constant fire from seven batteries. Many were killed in the bombardment and the incessant sniping. Even reaching a well at the centre of the position became a hazard few survived. The haet, dwindling rations (they ate horse soup for their last meals) and lack of ammunition were bad enough, but it was hard to imagine a relief could arrive in time. The women tore up their dresses for bandages, the soldiers manned the perimeter as best they could. It was 115 Fahrenheit in the shade. Cries from the wounded, and those who had lost their reason, must have been unbearable. The hospital which had been set up was struck by a shell and caught fire, but the garrison were unable to save several and they died in the flames. Eventually, Wheeler took the painful decision to accept terms of surrender, which was unpopular with the troops who knew of the Nana Sahib's brutal reputation. Nevertheless, the temporary truce was a relief. Some of the soldiers even got up some singing entertainment for the children. Emma had survived, although her husband was wounded.
The British garrison was led away to the river, the sick being beaten as they trailed mournfully along. It was at this point that Emma and the Colonel died. Straggling behind, Emma no doubt assisting her husband as best she could, they were clubbed and shot by the mutineers. There is no record of her baby's fate.
Within hours, the rest had either been led onto boats and shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death, had drowned as boats had been set alight, or were hauled away to one of the Nana Sahib's houses in the city. That final group, which included many of the children, was butchered by the Nana Sahib's men on Wednesday 5 July. These massacres, rather than the isolated atrocities across the countryside, did more than anything else to turn the Mutiny into what William Forbes Mitchell of the 93rd called 'guerre a al Mort.' Emma Ewart's letters give a tragic insight into those early days of the Mutiny, and an interesting new angle on the decisions surrounding the Cawnpore garrison.
Emma Ewart's letters can be seen in the India Office Library, British Library, reference Mss Eur B 267.