The 200-year-old Meerut cemetery where nine British soldiers lie

The oldest grave here dates back to 1810

May 26, 2018 04:25 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

 A sketch depicting the death of Col. John Finnis in Meerut in Illustrated London News, 1857.

A sketch depicting the death of Col. John Finnis in Meerut in Illustrated London News, 1857.

Robert Robinson, 56, lives in a graveyard, in a one-room structure, with little walking space left between his bed and fridge. In white pants that have yellowed a bit, Robinson meets me at the gate but is reluctant to let me in.

“You need to get permission,” he says, but eventually opens the gate for me and even walks me through the cemetery. The recent ‘thunderstorms’ have uprooted dozens of trees and they lie supine on the graves. The air is thick with the fragrance of seasonal flowers, the ground infested with snakes. There is so much goat and nilgai dropping, it is difficult to walk.

I am at the vast, 200-year-old St. John’s Cemetery in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where dotted within the foliage are thousands of graves, of which nine are of British casualties in the 1857 uprising. Robinson is the caretaker here. On one side of the cemetery are the graves of the British, on the other side are those of Indians. The graves are an amalgam of Mughal and colonial architecture, many with domes. In some, the inscriptions are still startlingly clear, as are the motifs and sculptures.

“Look there, by the yellow tomb. That’s the oldest grave here — dates back to 1810,” says Robinson. He then points to the grave of Colonel John Finnis, the first British officer killed in 1857 on May 10, the first day of the uprising. His gravestone reads: ‘Colonel Finnis, who fell while endeavouring to quell the mutiny in the 20th regiment, May 10, 1857, 53 years.’

 Graves at the 200-year-old cemetery.

Graves at the 200-year-old cemetery.

Vincent Trecar, 48, was killed on the same day, as was John Henry George Taylor, the 57-year-old captain. Both their graves are here.

‘Captain of the 20th regiment who was killed by his own men on the 10th of May 1857, 35 years, with his wife Louisa Sophia aged 30 years, who was barbarously murdered the same night while trying to make her escape with her three infants from her burning house to the European Line,’ reads the gravestone of Donald Macdonald.

There is a tall memorial gravestone with more than 100 names of European soldiers carved on it — soldiers who died between 1888 and 1905, during their service in India.

I ask Robinson if the families of these officers ever visit these graves. He hands me a visitor’s register where I see no entries in the last three months. “Who has time these days?” he asks.

Amit Pathak, a Meerut-based historian, a radiologist, and author of 1857: A Living History , who conducts tours of the 1857 uprising-related sites in the city, has a particular attachment to St. John’s Cemetery.

 The 200-year-old St. John’s Cemetery in Meerut.

The 200-year-old St. John’s Cemetery in Meerut.

Entire villages were burnt down by the British army in and around Meerut. Of the 50 British army personnel killed during the mayhem here at that time, 32 were buried at the cemetery, says Pathak. “But we could trace only nine graves, those that were cemented. The rest were made of mud and lost with the time.” Graves of British men who died in 1857 can be found in Delhi and Lucknow as well.

The historian recounts the particularly tragic story of Louisa Sophia, the wife of Donald Macdonald, a British officer who was killed. “She was at home when one of her servants helped her escape by covering her in a burkha along with other women of his family. But while escaping from the backdoor, they were caught. She was asked to identify herself, and when she said “ Hum hain ” (It is I) in Hindi, she was gunned down.”

Her English accent had given her away.

The writer is a U.P.-based crime and political journalist with a penchant for human-interest stories.

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