In 1907, an elderly Muslim woman in northern India made a deathbed confession to a Roman Catholic priest. She was, she claimed, Ulrica, daughter of General Wheeler of Cawnpore.
General Hugh Massy Wheeler (1789-1857)
I’ve written here before now of the Cawnpore Massacre. In 1857 all but four of the 900-strong European population of the Cawnpore garrison in northern India were killed in one of the early atrocities of the Indian Mutiny. My cousin Captain Robert Jenkins was among the dead, as was another cousin, General Hugh Massy Wheeler who commanded the garrison.
General Wheeler’s wife Frances was also killed, and Eliza one of his daughters, and a son Godfrey who was serving in the Bengal Army alongside him. Another daughter, Margaret, was with the family as her father led the garrison to the Satichaura Ghat, the steps at the edge of the river Ganges from which they had been promised safe conduct.
Massacre at the Satichaura Ghat, 27th June 1857
As the mutineers began instead to slaughter those whose safety they had guaranteed, Margaret was grabbed by a sowar, one of the rebellious Indian soldiers. It was assumed that she too died in the ensuing slaughter (by local butchers using meat cleavers) of the women and children of the garrison. Her name still appears on the memorial to these victims.
Soon after the event the story began to circulate that she had defended herself fiercely with sabre and pistol, killing four of her captors before throwing herself down a well to preserve her honour from violation. It was a gruesome end, but a satisfyingly heroic one, which upheld the high moral principles of the British imperial elite.
Miss Wheeler Defending Herself Against The Sepoys At Cawnpore
(a contemporary engraving from The History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball)
In fact, Margaret Wheeler, also known as Ulrica, survived. Whether the sowar rescued or simply captured for himself the twenty-year old Ulrica is not clear. She was seen, claimed Edward Leckey writing only the year after the massacre, riding side-saddle in the English fashion and wearing a veil. By 1865 it was known that she was not only still alive but had married the man who saved her life, Ali Khan.
This news was greeted not with joy but with a shocking display of imperial racism. Lady Wheeler, Ulrica’s mother who died at Cawnpore, was of mixed race; this was not uncommon in Indian colonial society. Having celebrated the manner of her honourable English death, Ulrica’s survival now was because she was “by no means of pure English blood,” according to historian G.O. Trevelyan writing in 1865. The implication was that a proper pure-bred Englishwoman would have behaved as Margaret was supposed to have – either dying to protect her honour or, having lost it, committed suicide.
George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928), historian and politician, author of Cawnpore (Macmillan & Co, 1865)
Ulrica became a Muslim and with looks inherited from her mother she disappeared into Cawnpore’s Indian community. Was it an early case of Stockholm Syndrome? Or did she just want no further part of an imperial power which could be so two-faced about one person in death and in life?
For more on Ulrica Wheeler, her treatment and colonial life in general, Clare Anderson's book Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World 1790-1920 is detailed, readable and insightful.