We 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.
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.
And 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
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