Nana Saheb (19 May 1824 – 1859), born as Dhondu Pant, was an Indian Peshwa of the Maratha empire, aristocrat and fighter, who led the rebellion in Cawnpore (Kanpur) during the 1857 uprising. As the adopted son of the exiled Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao II, Nana Saheb believed that he was entitled to a pension from the East India Company, but the underlying contractual issues are rather murky. The Company's refusal to continue the pension after his father's death, as well as what he perceived as high-handed policies, compelled him to revolt and seek independence from company rule in India. He forced the British garrison in Cawnpore to surrender, then executed the survivors, gaining control of Cawnpore for a few days. He later disappeared, after his forces were defeated by a British force that recaptured Cawnpore. He went to the Nepal Hills in 1859, where he is thought to have died.
Nana was born on 19 May 1824 as Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, to Narayan Bhat and Ganga Bai.
After the Maratha defeat in the Third Maratha War, the East India Company had exiled Peshwa Baji Rao II to Bithoor near Cawnpore (now Kanpur), where he maintained a large establishment paid for in part out of a British pension. Nana's father, a well-educated Deccani Brahmin, had travelled with his family from the Western Ghats to become a court official of the former Peshwa at Bithoor. Lacking sons, Baji Rao adopted Nana Saheb and his younger brother in 1827. The mother of both children was a sister of one of the Peshwa's wives. Nana Saheb's childhood associates included Tatya Tope, Azimullah Khan and Manikarnika Tambe who later became famous as Rani Lakshmibai. Tatya Tope was the son of Pandurang Rao Tope, an important noble at the court of the Peshwa Baji Rao II. After Baji Rao II was exiled to Bithoor, Pandurang Rao and his family also shifted there. Tatya Tope was the fencing master to Nana Saheb. Azimullah Khan joined the court of Nana Saheb as Secretary, after the death of Baji Rao II in 1851. He later became the dewan in Nana Saheb's court.
The Doctrine of lapse was an annexation policy devised by Lord Dalhousie, who was the British Governor-General of India between 1848 and 1856. According to the Doctrine, any princely state or territory under the direct influence (paramountcy) of the British East India Company (the dominant imperial power in the subcontinent), as a vassal state under the British Subsidiary System, would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either "manifestly incompetent or died without a direct heir". The latter supplanted the long-established legal right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor. In addition, the British were to decide whether potential rulers were competent enough. The doctrine and its application were widely regarded by Indians as illegitimate. At that time, the Company had absolute, imperial administrative jurisdiction over many regions spread over the subcontinent. The company took over the princely states of Satara (1848), Jaipur and Sambalpur (1849), Baghat (1850), Nagpur (1853), and Jhansi (1854) using this doctrine. The British took over Awadh (Oudh) (1856) claiming that the local ruler was not ruling properly. The Company added about four million pounds sterling to its annual revenue by the use of this doctrine. With the increasing power of the East India Company, discontent simmered amongst sections of Indian society and the largely indigenous armed Jhansi forces; these joined with members of the deposed dynasties during the Indian rebellion of 1857.
Under the Peshwa's will Nana Saheb was, through his adoption, heir-presumptive to the Maratha's throne, and eligible for his adoptive father's continuing annual pension of £80,000 from the East India Company. However, after the death of Baji Rao II, the Company stopped the pension on the grounds that the Nana was not a natural born heir and that the kingdom no longer existed. The Nana, while still wealthy, was greatly offended by both the termination of the pension and by the suspension of various titles and grants that had been retained by Baji Rao in exile. Accordingly, Nana Saheb sent an envoy (Azimullah Khan) to England in 1853 to plead his case with the British Government. However, Azimullah Khan was unable to convince the British to resume the pension, and he returned to India in 1855.
Role in the 1857 uprising
Nana Saheb won the confidence of Charles Hillersdon, the Collector of Kanpur. It was planned that Nana Saheb would assemble a force of 1,500 soldiers to support the British, in case the rebellion spread to Cawnpore.
On 6 June 1857, at the time of the rebellion by forces of the East India Company at Cawnpore, the British contingent had taken refuge at an entrenchment in the northern part of the town. Amid the prevailing chaos in Cawnpore, Nana and his forces entered the British magazine situated in the northern part of the town. The soldiers of the 53rd Native Infantry, who were guarding the magazine, thought that Nana had come to guard the magazine on behalf of the Company. However, once he entered the magazine, Nana Saheb announced that he was a participant in the rebellion against the Company, and intended to be a vassal of Bahadur Shah II.
After taking possession of the Company treasury, Nana advanced up the Grand Trunk Road stating that he wanted to restore the Maratha confederacy under the Peshwa tradition, and decided to capture Kanpur. On his way, Nana met the rebel Company soldiers at Kalyanpur. The soldiers were on their way to Delhi, to meet Bahadur Shah II. Nana wanted them to go back to Cawnpore, and help him defeat the British. The soldiers were reluctant at first, but decided to join Nana when he promised to double their pay and reward them with gold, if they were to destroy the British entrenchment.
Attack on Wheeler's entrenchment
On 5 June 1857, Nana Saheb sent a letter to General Wheeler informing him to expect an attack next morning at 10 am. On 6 June, his forces (including the rebel soldiers) attacked the Company entrenchment at 10:30 am The Company forces were not adequately prepared for the attack but managed to defend themselves as the attacking forces were reluctant to enter the entrenchment. The Indian forces had been led to believe that the entrenchment had gunpowder-filled trenches that would explode if they got closer. The Company side held out in their makeshift fort for three weeks with little water and food supplies, and lost many lives due to sunstroke and lack of water.
As the news of advances over the British garrison spread, more rebel sepoys joined Nana Saheb. By 10 June, he was believed to be leading around twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Indian soldiers. During the first week of the siege, Nana Saheb's forces encircled the attachment, created loopholes and established firing positions from the surrounding buildings. The defending Captain John Moore retaliated and launched night-time sorties. Nana Saheb then withdrew his headquarters to Savada House (or Savada Kothi), which was situated around two miles away. In response to Moore's sorties, Nana Saheb decided to attempt a direct assault on the British entrenchment, but the rebel soldiers displayed a lack of enthusiasm.
The sniper fire and the bombardment continued until 23 June 1857, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey. The Battle of Plassey, which took place on 23 June 1757, was one of the pivotal battles leading to the expansion of the East India Company rule in India. One of the driving forces of the rebellion by sepoys, was a prophecy that predicted the downfall of East India Company rule exactly one hundred years after this battle. This prompted the rebel soldiers under Nana Saheb to launch a major attack on the entrenchment on 23 June 1857. However, they were unable to gain an entry into the entrenchment by the end of the day.
The entrenchment had been steadily losing its soldiers and civilians to successive bombardments, sniper fire, and assaults from the attackers. It was also suffering from disease and low supplies of food, water and medicine. General Wheeler's personal morale had been low, after his son Lieutenant Gordon Wheeler was decapitated in an assault on the barracks.
Nana Saheb and his advisers came up with a plan to end the deadlock. On 24 June, he sent a female European prisoner, Rose Greenway, to the entrenchment to convey their message. In return for a surrender, he promised the safe passage of the Europeans to the Satichaura Ghat, a dock on the Ganges from which they could depart for Allahabad. General Wheeler rejected the offer, because it had not been signed, and there was no guarantee that the offer was made by Nana Saheb himself.
Next day, on 25 June, Nana Saheb sent a second note, signed by himself, through another female prisoner, Mrs.Jacobi. The entrenchment divided into two groups with different opinions—one group was in favour of continuing the defence, while the second group was willing to accept the offer. During the next day, there was no bombardment from Nana Saheb's forces. Finally, Wheeler decided to surrender, in return for a safe passage to Allahabad. After a day of preparation and burying their dead, the Europeans decided to leave for Allahabad on the morning of 27 June 1857.
Satichaura Ghat massacre
On the morning of the 27 June, a large column led by Wheeler emerged from the entrenchment. Nana sent a number of carts, dolis and elephants to enable the women, the children and the sick to proceed to the river banks. The Company officers and military men were allowed to take their arms and ammunition with them, and were escorted by nearly the whole of the rebel army. They reached the Satichaura Ghat by 8 am. At this ghat, Nana Saheb had arranged around 40 boats, belonging to a boatman called Hardev Mallah, for their departure to Allahabad. The Ganges river was unusually dry at the Satichaura Ghat, and the Europeans found it difficult to drift the boats away. Along the flight of steps going down to the river and also on the high banks on either side of the ghat was filled with people who had assembled in large numbers to see their erstwhile masters leaving. Standing with the throng of people along the banks were also sepoys of 6th Native Infantry from Allahabad and 37th from Benares. Both these battalions had been driven away from their stations by James George Smith Neill column. They were assembled on parade and ordered to lay down their arms and after doing so, were fired upon mercilessly by British troops. Those who were lucky to escape returned to their villages only to hear the brutality of Neills column in sacking entire villages that lay in the path of his march. These soldiers, who had come to Cawnpore to vent their anger with high hopes of participating in the assault on Entrenchment were also watching the proceedings at the Satichaura ghat. Wheeler and his party were the first aboard and the first to manage to set their boat adrift. At this point a shot was fired possibly from the high banks and the Indian boatmen jumped overboard and started swimming toward the banks. During their jump, some of the cooking fires were knocked off, setting some of the boats ablaze. Though controversy surrounds what exactly happened next at the Satichaura Ghat, and it is unknown who fired the first shot, the departing European were attacked by the rebel sepoys, and most either killed or captured.
Some of the Company officers later claimed that Nana had placed the boats as high in the mud as possible, on purpose to cause delay. They also claimed that Nana had previously arranged for the rebels to fire upon and kill all the Europeans. Although the East India Company later accused Nana of betrayal and murder of innocent people, no definitive evidence has ever been found to prove that Nana had pre-planned or ordered the massacre. Some historians believe that the Satichaura Ghat massacre was the result of confusion, and not of any plan implemented by Nana and his associates. Nevertheless, the fact that sniper fire from cannons pre-positioned along the riverbank was reported on the scene might suggest pre-planning.
Whatever the case, amid the prevailing confusion at the Satichaura Ghat, Nana's general Tatya Tope allegedly ordered the 2nd Bengal Cavalry unit and some artillery units to open fire on the Europeans. The rebel cavalry sowars moved into the water to kill the remaining Company soldiers with swords and pistols. The surviving men were killed, while women and children were captured, as Nana did not approve of their killing. Around 120 women and children were taken prisoner and escorted to Savada House, Nana Saheb's headquarters during the siege.
The rebel soldiers also pursued Wheeler's boat, which was slowly drifting to safer waters. After some firing, the European men on the boat decided to fly the white flag. They were escorted off the boat and taken back to Savada house. The surviving men were seated on the ground, as Nana's soldiers got ready to kill them. The women insisted that they would die with their husbands, but were pulled away. Nana granted the British chaplain Moncrieff's request to read prayers before they were killed. The British were initially wounded with the guns, and then killed with the swords. The women and children were taken to Savada House to be reunited with their remaining colleagues.
The surviving women and children, around 120 in number, were moved from the Savada House to Bibighar ("the House of the Ladies"), a villa-type house in Cawnpore. They were later joined by some other women and children, the survivors from Wheeler's boat. Another group of women and children from Fatehgarh, and some other captive women were also confined in Bibighar. In total, there were around 200 women and children there.
Nana Saheb deputed a tawaif (nautch girl) called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum) to care for these survivors. He decided to use these prisoners in bargaining with the East India Company. The Company forces consisting of around 1,000 British, 150 Sikh soldiers and 30 irregular cavalry had set out from Allahabad, under the command of General Henry Havelock, to retake Cawnpore and Lucknow. Havelock's forces were later joined by the forces under the command of Major Renaud and James Neill. Nana demanded that the East India Company forces under Havelock and Neill retreat to Allahabad. However, the Company forces advanced relentlessly towards Cawnpore. Nana sent an army to check their advance, and the two armies met at Fattehpore on 12 July, where General Havelock's forces emerged victorious and captured the town.
Nana then sent another force under the command of his brother, Bala Rao. On 15 July, the British forces under General Havelock defeated Bala Rao's army in the Battle of Aong. On 16 July, Havelock's forces started advancing to Cawnpore. During the Battle of Aong, Havelock was able to capture some of the rebel soldiers, who informed him that there was an army of 5,000 rebel soldiers with 8 artillery pieces further up the road. Havelock decided to launch a flank attack on this army, but the rebel soldiers spotted the flanking manoeuvre and opened fire. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but cleared the road to Cawnpore for the Company forces.
By this time, it became clear that the Company forces were approaching Cawnpore, and Nana's bargaining attempts had failed. Nana was informed that the British troops led by Havelock and Neill were committing violence against the Indian villagers. Nana, and his associates, including Tatya Tope and Azimullah Khan, debated about what to do with the captives at Bibighar. Some of Nana's advisers had already decided to kill the captives at Bibighar, as revenge for the murders of Indians by the advancing British forces. The women of Nana's household opposed the decision and went on a hunger strike, but their efforts were in vain.
Finally, on 15 July, an order was given to kill the women and children imprisoned at Bibighar. Although some Company historians stated that the order for the massacre was given by Nana, the details of the incident, such as who ordered the massacre, remain unclear. According to some sources, Azimullah Khan ordered the killings of women and children at Bibighar, while some believe a Begum or slave-girl or mistress of Nana ordered the killings.
At first, the rebel sepoys refused to obey the order to kill women and children. When they were threatened with execution for dereliction of duty some of them agreed to remove the women and children from the courtyard. Nana left the building because he did not want to be a witness to the unfolding massacre. The women and children were ordered to come out of the assembly rooms, but they refused to do so. The rebel soldiers then started firing through the holes in the boarded windows. After the first round of firing, the soldiers were disturbed by the cries of the captives, and adamantly refused to fire at the women and children.
An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum termed the sepoys' act as cowardice, and asked her lover Sarvur Khan to finish the job of killing the captives. Sarvur Khan hired some butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. The butchers left, when it seemed that all the captives had been killed. However, a few women and children had managed to survive by hiding under the other dead bodies. It was agreed that the bodies of the victims would be thrown down a dry well by some sweepers. The next morning, when the rebels arrived to dispose of the bodies, they found that three women and three children aged between four and seven years old were still alive. The surviving women were cast into the well by the sweepers who had also been told to strip the bodies of the murder victims. The sweepers then threw the three little boys into the well one at a time, the youngest first. Some victims, among them small children, were therefore buried alive in a heap of corpses.
Recapture of Cawnpore by the British
The Company forces reached Cawnpore on 16 July 1857. General Havelock was informed that Saheb had taken up a position at the Ahirwa village. His forces launched an attack on Nana's forces, and emerged victorious. Nana then blew up the Cawnpore magazine, abandoned the place, and retreated to Bithoor. When the British soldiers came to know about the Bibighar massacre, they indulged in retaliatory violence, including looting and burning of houses.
On 19 July, General Havelock resumed operations at Bithoor, but Nana Saheb had already escaped. British forces murdered all the villagers of the Bithoor mercilessly. They murdered men and women, they murdered young children and old adults. Nana's palace at Bithoor was occupied without resistance. The British troops seized guns, elephants and camels, and set fire to Nana's palace. Very few relics of Nana Saheb are known but a silver mounted sword seems to be one of the more interesting. Many British search parties tried to capture Nana Saheb but all failed to prevent his escape. A detachment of the 7th Bengal Infantry came very near to capturing him but he managed to escape just in time. In his hurry he left this sword on the table where he had been dining. Major Templer (later Major General) of the 7th Bengal Infantry brought home the sword. In the 1920s the family loaned it to the Exeter Museum, until 1992 when it was sold at auction. The present whereabouts of this sword are unknown.
Nana disappeared after the Company's recapture of Cawnpore. His general, Tatya Tope, tried to recapture Cawnpore in November 1857, after gathering a large army, mainly consisting of the rebel soldiers from the Gwalior contingent. He managed to take control of all the routes west and north-west of Cawnpore, but was later defeated in the Second Battle of Cawnpore.
In September 1857, Nana was reported to have fallen to malarious fever; however, this is doubtful. Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Rao Saheb (Nana Saheb's close confidante) proclaimed Nana Saheb as their Peshwa in June 1858 at Gwalior.
By 1859, Nana was reported to have fled to Nepal. Perceval Landon recorded that Nana Sahib lived out his days in western Nepal, in Thapa Téli, near Ririthang, under the protection of Sir Jang Bahadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal. His family also received protection, but in Dhangara, eastern Nepal, in exchange for precious jewels. In February 1860, the British were informed that Nana's wives had taken refuge in Nepal, where they resided in a house close to Thapathali. Nana himself was reported to be living in the interior of Nepal. Some early government records maintained that he died in Nepal after a tiger attacked him during a hunt in September 1859 but other record differs on the matter. Nana's ultimate fate was never known.
Venkateshwar, a Brahmin interrogated by the British, disclosed that he met Nana Saheb in Nepal in 1861. Up until 1888 there were rumours and reports that he had been captured and a number of individuals turned themselves in to the British claiming to be the aged Nana. As these reports turned out to be untrue further attempts at apprehending him were abandoned. There were also reports of him being spotted in Constantinople.
Two letters and a diary retrieved in the 1970s accounted that he lived as an ascetic, Yogindra Dayanand Maharaj, in Sihor in coastal Gujarat until his death in 1903. Harshram Mehta, the Sanskrit teacher of Nana Saheb, was addressed in the two letters probably written by him in Old Marathi and in black ink dated 1856 and signed Baloo Nana. The third document is the diary of Kalyanji Mehta, brother of Harshram. In Old Gujarati, the diary records arrival of Nana Saheb to Sihor with his colleagues after failure of rebellion. Kalyanji had raised Shridhar, son of Nana Saheb changing his name to Giridhar, as his own son and got him married in Sihori Brahmin family. His diary also records death of Nana Saheb in 1903 in Dave Sheri, Kalyanji's house in Sihor. The place still displays some articles of him. Keshavlal Mehta, son of Giridhar, recovered these documents in the 1970s and his descendants still live in town.
The authenticity of documents was accepted by G.N. Pant, former director of the National Museum, in 1992 but the official recognition was never given.
K. V. Belsare's book on the Maharashtrian saint Brahma Chaitanya claims that after the lost battle, Nana Saheb went to Naimisharanya, the Naimisha Forest in the vicinity of Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh where he met Brahma Chaitanya who assured him safety. He lived there from 1860 until his death in 1906. According to the book, he died between 30 October to 1 November 1906 and Brahma Chaitanya performed his last rites. The authenticity of the claims in the book is not established.
After the independence of India in 1947, Nana was hailed as a freedom fighter, and the Nana Rao Park in Kanpur was constructed in honour of Nana and his brother, Bala Rao.
Nana Sahib (based on Captain Nemo) is the principal character of the 1975 Soviet film Captain Nemo, his role is played by Vladislav Dvorzhetsky. He is also seen in Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties as Nanib Sahir.
Jules Verne's novel The End of Nana Sahib (also published under the name "The Steam House"), taking place in India ten years after the 1857 events, is based on these rumours, and not historically accurate - for example, the novel claims Nana Saheb had been married to Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. In The Devil's Wind, Manohar Malgonkar gives a sympathetic reconstruction of Nana Saheb's life before, during and after the mutiny as told in his own words.
Another novel Recalcitrance published in 2008 the 150th anniversary year of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and written by Anurag Kumar shows a character similar to Sahib receiving blessings from an Indian sage who also gives him a special boon connected to his life and the battle of 1857.
The character of Surat Khan in the 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade seems to be loosely based on Nana Saheb.