Was it Really You, Margaret? A Woman's Deathbed Confession and Cawnpore's Eternal Mystery
A half century after the Mutiny, a tantalising glimpse emerged'
Was it really you, Margaret?
Since 1907, this question lies unanswered.
In that year, a Catholic Christian priest of Cawnpore, today’s Kanpur, received the strangest request of his lifetime: an old Muslim woman wanted to record her confession and be buried by Christian rites after her death.
She identified herself as Margaret Wheeler, nicknamed Ulrica, claiming to be the daughter of Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler, who was in charge of the Cawnpore Garrison of the British East India Company during the Ghaddar or ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ in 1857.
Before 1907, all documents of the Company Raj said Wheeler, his Desi Muslim turned Christian biwi Frances (original name Marsdan), son Godfrey, and daughters Eliza and Margaret were killed by sowars or sepoys of Nana Saheb.
Even the Memorial of Victims of 1857 mentions Margaret’s name.
Suddenly, after 50 years she comes alive?
I don’t know how many times I visited Kanpur but this time I came here to do a little bit of historical sleuthing on Margaret Wheeler, believed killed at Bibighar, after she was captured at Satichawra Ghat.
Mystery of Kanpur
The reports on Margaret in contemporary English newspapers really seem like an action-packed two-act thriller. The enigma is that the official records of 1857 put her as dead but that old woman’s claim in 1907 indicates she survived the Bibighar Massacre. If she had really survived that Massacre, what prevented her after 1857 from disclosing that to the British?
Why did she conceal her whereabouts? Why did she refrain from disclosing that the Sowar who kidnapped her was now her husband?
Here plays the matter of heart . . . We will deal with it in the concluding section.
Sahab! That House is Haunted
In and around Satichawra Ghat, Bibighar and General Sir Hugh Wheeler’s Entrenchment (GSHWE) in Kanpur, you find several dilapidated ancient bungalows, some built in 1811.
Occupied by the British, most were destroyed in 1857. Many tourists would not know nearly 900 Firangis or British in those bungalows were butchered by the Sowars at GSHWE.
The local people dub some of these houses as Bhootaha Bangla: haunted by Firangi ghosts.
After wandering around the GSHWE, I found a chai-shop located near one such dilapidated two storied bungalow and asked the chaiwallah if he knew something about it.
“Wahan mat jao Mian… woh Bhootaha Bangla hai,” (Don’t go there, that place is haunted), his reply was quite frightening.
Curious, I pestered him for more information. He said nothing but pointed to a cycle shop standing at a little distance. Reaching there, I asked the owner busy mending punctured tube of a bicycle, if he knew something about that bungalow.
Affixing a chippi (round-shaped rubber) to the puncture in a tube, he looked at me and warned: “Marne ki harbari hai kya?” Are you in a hurry to die?
He threatened me. “Agar Firangi Bilsan Higgan chhor bhi de, Silia Madam tumhara gardan maror degi!” (Even if Wilson Higgins spares you, Cecilia Madam will twist your neck!)
When Arif Khan went there he was killed by Bilsan Higgan, Silia Memsaheb and Angela, the man warned me.
“San 1859 me! Ghaddar ke thik baad.” In 1859! Soon after the Sepoy Mutiny!
My impatience to know about Arif’s death reached its brink but the bicycle mechanic Haleem Khan had no time to spare. He asked me to come in lunchtime.
I have nearly two hours at my disposal. I could wander around the GSHWE to dig up some facts about the enigmatic Margaret.
A Muslim Woman Who Wanted a Christian Burial?
113 years ago, reports of a woman who claimed that she was Margaret appeared in various Indian and British newspapers, raising the question of her having survived the Bibighar Massacre.
The old Muslim lady, in her confession, claimed she married her kidnapper and was nicknamed Ulrica, daughter to General Wheeler.
Born a Christian, she had converted to Islam upon marrying her Muslim kidnapper and again wanted to die a Christian.
Quite a complex case but her life too was befittingly so!
In 1857, 1865 and 1907, Margaret’s name appeared repeatedly in the Cawnpore newspapers.
In 1857, reports say she was attacked by a cavalryman Nizam Ali Khan but fought, shot Nizam dead and committed suicide. The official records of the East India Company classified Margaret as dead and her is name mentioned in the Memorial erected for the massacred British.
In 1865, the local newspapers quoting Edward Leckey reported that Margaret was very much alive. Leckey, a Briton, informed the newspaper that he had seen Margaret in a bazaar in Cawnpore posing in Muslim dress. When Leckey enquired about the lady, the local people said she was the wife of Nizam, a cavalryman of the East India Company.
That is all they know!
Leckey had worked under General Wheeler and known his entire family including Margaret. He said his eyes could not betray him. It was Margaret, for certain.
Now an uneasy question crops up. Why didn’t Margaret, if she was alive, inform the British that she survived the Bibighar Massacre? Why did she hide her marriage to the cavalryman, Nizam her kidnapper?
Before we pry into this enigma, let us return to Arif, as Haleem Khan’s lunchtime has neared.
Sahab, a Firangi Ghost Killed Arif Khan!
As Haalim Mian took a little rest after lunch, he did not mind telling me how Baagi Arif was killed by the three Firangis: Higgan, Silia and little Angela.
Arif, supplying opium for 15-years to one of the richest opium exporters of Cawnpore, Wilson Higgins, had grown very close to him and his family.
A very rich man, Higgins lived in that bungalow with his wife Cecilia and their only daughter, nine year old Angela. He sent opium procured in Cawnpore in bulk regularly to Hong Kong, Canton, Nanking and Shanghai in China, even as the Second Opium War raged in 1856.
A few days before Cawnpore surrendered itself to Ghaddar, Higgins asked Arif if he should move to Shimla, Ranikhet or perhaps to Calcutta for the safety of his family. Arif replied that he would save the Sahib and his family, and perhaps shift them to his own house if situation turned bad.
Higgins trusting him blind stayed back in Cawnpore although a large number of Britons had quit the town. He knew Arif would protect him.
What Higgins did not know was that Arif had already become a Baagi, having joined the troop of Nana Saheb, the main leader of Ghaddar in Cawnpore.
On June 5, 1857 Ghaddar broke out. After two days, Arif was leading a column of 11 sepoys raiding the houses of the British and massacring them. They entered Higgins’ bungalow. At first Higgins thought Arif had come to rescue his family.
He asked Arif to come upstairs to his living room where hid Cecelia and Angela. Arif entered the room with another sepoy. No sooner than Higgins had entered the living room, Arif stabbed him in the back, while the other sepoy pierced his sword into the heart of Cecelia.
Finally, Arif stabbed Angela to death.
After about 18 months he returned to Cawnpore from his hideout in Shahjahanpur a clean shaven man, without a pagri (turban) and posing as a seller of ittar perfumes to hide his identity. He went on foot, accompanied by his friend Ramdeen Singh, also a Baagi of Shahjehanpur. He was also disguised as an ittar-wallah.
Arif, selling itre in General Sir Hugh Wheeler’s Entrenchment, was spying if the Firangi Fauj were still after him. Suddenly, he came near to that house. The gate was broken, the front door open and windows too wide open.
Initially, he avoided looking there. But some external force compelled him to look and raised his desire to step inside the gate. When Ramdeen asked where he was going he just signalled to him to wait, saying nothing.
And he stepped inside. And he took the steps leading to Higgins’ living room. Inside three oil paintings hung on the walls, though covered with dust. They were of Higgins, Cecelia and little Angela.
Although Arif had seen those paintings hundreds of times, this time he found them different. Suddenly, Arif felt three pairs of eyes – intently – looking at him. There were fires of fury inside them. They told him to take his dagger from his belt…
Finding Arif delayed, Ramdeen went upstairs and entered the room. Arif turned and looked at him. His eyes sere different, some sort of madness reflecting from his eyes. He said nothing to Ramdeen but flashed out a dagger and plunged it into his heart.
He was dead!
Ramdeen was the never the same again. He turned stark mad and was taken to Meerut jail as his identity as a Baagi was established.
Bilsan Higgan, Silia Madam and Angela took their revenge for betrayal.
A Matter of Heart
Hindustan came under Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s governance after the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858. The fire of Ghaddar still smouldered and Her Majesty’s Government came down very brutally on the mutineers and their helpers.
Nizam too was to be hanged if caught.
For Margaret, it was the best moment to take her revenge by handing over Nizam, the cavalryman, to the British government. What stopped her from doing that?
What stopped her from doing that was a matter of heart, whose answers are hardly found.
Margaret concealed herself from the contemporary British society of Cawnpore so that Nizam could live. Apparently, she began to love him.
On her deathbed, she perhaps wanted to tell British society that she was the same Margaret whom they had taken for dead. But we cannot say for sure.
The answer, which we still do not know… was it really you, Margaret?