So I’m reading a book called The Great Mutiny: India 1857, which is about a rebellion of native Indian troops against their British masters. Like most rebellions, there were several underlying causes, but the impetus of the rebellion – the spark if you will – was when the British tried to introduce a new type of rifle cartridge that was supposedly covered in both tallow and lard, which offended both the Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the East India Company’s army.
I was struck by one passage in particular, which discusses what the British did to some of the rebels when they were finally tracked down:
Only those with the strongest stomachs, however, could remain unaffected when prisoners were blown away from the mouths of cannon, a punishment inflicted in the days of the Moghul emperors and subsequently adopted by the British in India…. The victim was lashed to a gun, the small of his back or pit of his stomach against the muzzle, then ‘smeared with blood of someone murdered by a member of his own race if such could be procured’. When the gun was fired the man’s body was dismembered. Usually the head, scarcely disfigured, would fly off through the smoke, the fall to earth, slightly blackened, followed by the arms and legs. The trunk would be shattered, giving off ‘a beastly smell’, and pieces of flesh and intestines and gouts of blood would be splashed not only over the gunners but also any spectators who stood too close. Vultures would hover overhead and with grisly dexterity catch lumps of flesh in their beaks.
It’s not that the actual method of execution is so cruel. I’m sure if you were unlucky enough to be strapped to the cannon, all you’d see would be a flash of light and it would be over. But what a message such an execution method sends! Don’t mess with John Bull, eh?