Lucknow: The Topic is Not Guns

Downton Abbey DVDsWe were immersed in an episode of Downton Abbey when a slighting reference was made to one of the titled ladies of the neighborhood.

Granny–Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, was leaving the room when she turned her head and said with the significance of having the last word in an argument, “She loaded the guns at Lucknow.”

No other reference was made to Lucknow during the episode, but the line stuck in my mind, so I went looking for its meaning.

The Siege of Lucknow was part of the mutiny by Indian citizens against the exploitive British rule in 1857. Like most invaders, the British had been sacking the country for its wealth, insisting on establishing their own culture, and governing without regard for the citizens, who eventually fought back.

British troops and citizens, including men, women and children, took refuge from angry Indians in British governmental headquarters, which included a number of buildings which were vulnerable to sniper fire from many directions. From May 25 to November 27, 1857, with dwindling supplies and ammunition, the British fortunate enough to reach the site remained in the headquarters while the Indians massacred other Brits all over the country. About 5,000 Indians were thought to be in the initial attacking force, which eventually numbered 50,000, against about 1,729 British soldiers. About 7000 more English troops and their civilian charges were driven toward the location and joined the fight.

The story is complex and riveting, and at least a couple diaries written by women who were in the besieged force survive. In the reports I read, British losses were estimated at 2,500 killed, wounded and missing “while rebel losses are not known,” seeming to indicate that after the battles, the two sides didn’t even cooperate enough to count Indian losses. At this point in the Downton Abbey story, the British were just beginning to realize they were not going to be able to run the entire world.

Lucknow Books

Still, the point made by the Dowager Countess is significant: a woman who might not seem important or courageous in daily life showed fortitude in a situation that might have driven an ordinary woman to despair. Her heritage trained her to wear corsets, defer to men and be decorative, but she learned to stand with the fighters, to load guns while people were trying to kill her.

Imagine what it was like for women who had been raised to expect calm lives, their every need attended to be servants, to have almost nothing to eat or drink, to wear the same clothes day after day. And to stand near a window loading a rifle knowing that a sniper was ready to fire at any movement.

Lucknow Siege - steel engraving circa 1860 - unknown artistAnd loading those rifles wasn’t just a matter of slapping a bullet into the chamber. New cartridges had been issued for the Enfield rifle in February, 1857. To load his rifle, a soldier had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle’s muzzle, then stuff the paper cartridge into the musket as wadding. Then a ramrod was inserted in the rifle muzzle and driven downward to lodge the ball and powder against the firing mechanism. The paper cartridge was overlaid with a thin coating of beeswax and mutton tallow for waterproofing. Only then could the rifle be raised into firing position, cocked, and fired.

When the rumor spread that the cartridges were made from cow and pig fat, both Hindu and Muslim soldiers who were part of the British army were furious since Hindus consider cows holy while Muslims consider pigs unclean. Adding this rumor to the widespread dissatisfaction with the way the British treated India’s citizens was the final spark that ignited revolution.

I believe this will be one of those phrases that sticks in my mind and that I find myself applying often to those women who are the unsung heroines of our daily lives. I probably won’t use it aloud, since doing so would require this lengthy explanation.

These are the women who quietly do whatever is necessary for the common good, whether it’s cooking lunch or loading a rifle. Surely that is a worthy goal, to be a woman who is not acting for attention, fame, or money, but doing the job that most needs doing. Loading the guns at Lucknow.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Here’s a modern muzzle-loading enthusiast demonstrating and explaining how to load a rifle of the type that was doubtless used by the British in the Seige of Lucknow. During years and years as a buckskinner– that is, a muzzle-loading enthusiast who camped with others portraying the early fur trade days in America– I loaded my rifle like this many times, and can testify that he accomplishes the task about as quickly as it could be done. In conditions where someone was shooting back, many folks firing muzzle-loaders omitted steps like the wadding around the cartridges, and might keep the balls in their mouths so they could be spit down the barrel instead of withdrawn from a bag.
(This YouTube video is just over one-minute long.)

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Lucknow: The Topic is Not Guns

  1. Hi, Linda,
    For an interesting glimpse into life during the raj just as the Indian population began to rebel, watch Indian Summers, a series on PBS.

  2. Thank you, Linda, for this informative and inspirational article. I read it aloud to my mother, since we have been re-watching Downtown Abbey in the evenings. We both remembered the Dowager Countess making this remark, and were chagrined to realize we should have taken time to look it up. Thank you for doing so! I know this phrase will now be etched in my heart, since in my mind my mother, who cared for my father with Parkinson’s Disease for over twenty years, loaded the rifles every single day.

    • Martha, that is PRECISELY the kind of woman I had in mind. Please tell your mother that in my mind, she is wearing a medal especially designed for her. And the Dowager Countess is pronouncing her a hero in that impossible-to-imitate voice of pure aristocracy.

  3. This was fascinating, Linda. Thank you! I recall the reference and even noted it so I could look it up. But I didn’t. (Reminded of the time someone mentioned the wreck of the Hesparis, and we checked that out. Another interesting story. Thank you for your essays. I always enjoy them.

  4. Linda, my writer friend Lisa and I have been having an email discussion recently about the obsession with “story” in nonfiction writing, which, to me, comes across as a bias against exposition and/or a preference for cinematic devices such as scene and dialogue. Your piece here shows exactly why exposition–call it backstory, context, whatever–matters. Sometimes the author serves the reader by providing relevant background details and directing their attention explicitly. Thanks.

    • Glad to help, Andrea; to my mind, the difficulty is in guessing what the reader knows so that you can calculate how much backstory or setting to provide. In this instance, in the Downton Abbey program, the Dowager Countess is often given significant lines which she delivers with consummate skill. And often her lines cause me to think, or to take a note, I would guess that very few Americans who heard that line knew its importance, but surely an English audience, many of whom may have had ancestors who were in Indian service, might have recognized it. I had only a vague memory of Lucknow and couldn’t stand not knowing. Now I wonder how many other Americans had to look it up– and did. Maybe only a few writers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s