Uda Devi: The Unsung Heroine Who Killed 32 British Soldiers in Sikandar Bagh in 1857
Like many unsung warriors of the Indian freedom movement, she finds no place in History text books. She played an instrumental role in the Indian war of independence in 1857. She led a troop of women sepoys against the British soldiers. A brave and witty warrior, she acted as a hidden sniper climbing onto a peepal tree unnoticed by the enemy soldiers. Positioning herself comfortably onto a branch, she started shooting at the advancing British soldiers in the battle of Sikandar Bagh. She shot dead 32 British soldiers and wounded many until a British soldier shot her and she fell down dead from the tree. She is Uda Devi.
Not much information is available about the birth and childhood of Uda Devi. She hailed from the rural region of Awadh, Uttar Pradesh. Since her childhood, she hated the British and wished to get trained to wage a war against the enemy and free the country. She approached Begum Hazrat Mahal, the second wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh for training. Hazrat Mahal had taken charge of the affairs of Awadh and seized control of Lucknow after her husband was exiled to Calcutta. The Begum facilitated Uda Devi’s training and she emerged a sharp shooter in no time. Devi was also entrusted to form a women battalion and train them in the use of arms.
Uda Devi inspired many women from her village to join her troop and herself trained them. Meanwhile, she got married to Makka Pasi, a soldier in the army of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Later he became a soldier in the Begum’s army.
The war of Independence in 1857 started in Meerut cantonment on May 10 where Indian sepoys with the help of local civilians killed 50 Britishers. This news spread like wild fire and many a son and daughter of Bharat Mata rose in revolt against the British across the country. Indian sepoys and civilians of Kanpur laid siege of the city within a month, i.e. in June 1857. The sepoy forces captured 120 British women and children, killed them, and threw their dead bodies in wells. This came to be known as the Bibighar Massacre. The incident drew hateful criticism amid the British in India and their home country. The angry British recaptured Kanpur and started widespread retaliation, killing and hanging captured sepoys and civilians.
In Lucknow, some 90 kilometers away from Kanpur, sepoys started their agitation against the British. They started with the siege of the British Residency in Lucknow including Sikandar Bagh. It was November 1857. Sikandar Bagh was a villa and garden spread over an area of 4.5 acres located in Lucknow. It was built as a summer residence during the first half of the 19th century by Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh. This villa had a fortified wall along the boundary on all four sides.
The British forces attacked Sikandar Bagh. There were around 2200 sepoys including Uda Devi with her women troop within the villa. The British were larger in numbers and were superior in ammunition strength. After several attempts, they were able to manage to make a hole in the fortified wall and enter the boundary walls. A fierce battle ensued. Colin Campbell led the British troops assisted by officers like Captain Dawson, Quaker Wallace, to name a few.
The British started storming the villa. Though the Indian sepoys retaliated, thousands of them were murdered under the orders of Colin Campbell. The British, remembering the Bibighar Massacre, were merciless in their killings. Makka Pasi including many others attained martyrdom in front of Uda Devi’s eyes. Uda Devi vowed to avenge his death. She devised a plan.
Advising her surviving troop to attack from different sides, Uda Devi herself climbed a banyan tree after she saw a handful of the British army approaching towards them. She was armed with a pair of heavy old-pattern cavalry pistols, one loaded in her arm and another, also loaded, perched in her belt. She carried a pouch full of ammunition that hung from her waist. She perched herself in a branch, hiding herself amid the dense leaves in such a height that she could easily take aim at the British soldiers passing beneath. She was dressed as a male soldier.
Uda Devi fired at the British soldiers one after another and their dead bodies piled up under the banyan tree. Captain Dawson, surprised at the sudden turn of events, as there were no freedom fighters nearby, asked Quaker Wallace to look up at the tree. He suspected of a hidden sniper positioned in it. Wallace was able to locate Uda Devi, whom he mistook for a man. He aimed at her and shot her dead. Uda Devi fell down with a thud. Colin Campbell and Captain Dawson were amazed to find a woman disguised as a man causing such a large number of fatalities among his men. He bowed his head over her dead body in respect in recognition of her brave feat.
William Forbes-Mitchell, a Sergeant with the Ninety-Third Sutherland Highlanders in British India, wrote about Uda Devi in his book Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny, which was first published in 1893: “In the centre of the inner court of the Secundrabâgh there was a large peepul tree with a very bushy top, round the foot of which were set a number of jars full of cool water. When the slaughter was almost over, many of our men went under the tree for the sake of its shade, and to quench their burning thirst with a draught of the cool water from the jars. A number however lay dead under this tree, both of the Fifty-Third and Ninety-Third, and the many bodies lying in that particular spot attracted the notice of Captain Dawson. After having carefully examined the wounds, he noticed that in every case the men had evidently been shot from above. He thereupon stepped out from beneath the tree, and called to Quaker Wallace to look up if he could see any one in the top of the tree, because all the dead under it had apparently been shot from above. Wallace had his rifle loaded, and stepping back he carefully scanned the top of the tree. He almost immediately called out, ‘I see him, sir!’ and cocking his rifle he … fired, and down fell a body dressed in a tight-fitting red jacket and tight-fitting rose-coloured silk trousers; and the breast of the jacket bursting open with the fall, showed that the wearer was a woman, She was armed with a pair of heavy old-pattern cavalry pistols, one of which was in her belt still loaded, and her pouch was still about half full of ammunition, while from her perch in the tree, which had been carefully prepared before the attack….”
By this time all opposition from the Indian sepoys and civilians ceased. All of the two thousand two hundred freedom fighters were martyred within the four walls of Sikandar Bagh, especially within the building and the centre court. In this battle, one hundred and eight British soldiers were killed and wounded.
My India My Glory salutes the valor and sacrifice of Uda Devi and all the 2200 freedom fighters martyred at Sikandar Bagh. Jai Hind!
1. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-59, by William Forbes-Mitchell
Featured image courtesy: Wikipedia.