This volume is subtitled “The Victims of the Cawnpore Massacre During the Indian Mutiny” which is what attracted my eye in the first place. Most people will have heard of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) and the violence in 1857 during the Indian Rising there. Some may have seen lurid films of the attempted heroic escape down the river, knowing that the women and children who survived would be butchered and thrown down the Bibighar well. But knowledge of details beyond that might have been lacking.

Bancroft makes it clear from the start in the book that he has been researching into the victims of Cawnpore in 1857 for 40 years and that what is presented here is a resume of his detailed research notes. But by laying out the statement that the book is about the people, he has presented himself with a difficult task as he tries to integrate the progress of the events, the sources of his information and the details of the individuals into a coherent and readable whole.

He gives a resume of the town itself and the types and zones of non-native settlement and occupation within it. From the various threads of his text the reader can deduce the scale and nature of the military presence there. The lack of military structures and defences also becomes clearer as the story progresses. The relationship of the East Indian Company and its individual roles and functions are harder to unravel – a clearer exposition for the non-specialist reader would have been welcome. But the reference to the industries and the “new build” around the railway is useful, not least because it indicates what drew many of the Europeans to this second largest British immigrant community in the Indian sub-continent.

The events are plotted as they unfolded, but without the detailed knowledge of the background of places or military organisation are harder to follow. But then details of the individual people are interleaved through the general text. It has been possible to build the names of whole families particularly if they are officer class or from established military families. The fuller texts/listings are ironically sometimes the hardest to absorb although showing the range and extent of British presence in India. Families of “ranks” who might be mixed race are referred to occasionally, but possibly missed as this concept is not really explored in detail in spite of being critical to survival or not. But disappointingly collective analysis of the people and their life in India is almost lacking.

It should be said that by naming the people, giving details of their families and children, they become more real and the scale of the disaster for them all (and their surviving families) made much more vivid. It becomes less of an international “incident” and a dreadful place that they have encountered almost at random. Unless of course one remembers the lack of military preparation even after the Kabul catastrophe of 1841 that a few of the military people may have previously survived. The lack of official preparation and care makes the whole situation more poignant – the acts of individual bravery listed cannot alter this.

Bancroft then places information sources – medal lists and memorials – at the back of the book. These are important research resources to those rapidly seeking individual names but not otherwise fully integrated. There is a review of some contemporary press reports and other possible documents. Together this seems a little “clunky” but not aiding a smooth read.

My overall impression is that this might be a useful starting point if you are interested in building your basic understanding of the “massacre” and the reality of what did happen behind the myth. But if you want detailed knowledge of all the people involved then you need to await more detailed research elsewhere.

Hilary White 3/3

The Devil’s Trap by James W. Bancroft
Frontline Books 9781526718013 hbk Aug 2019