In 1842, in a catastrophic conclusion to the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838–1842, 4,500 British and Indian troops, with more than 10,000 civilians, servants, and women and children, accepted a treacherous offer of safe-passage and attempted to retreat from their fortified cantonment in Kabul to the garrison town of Jalalabad. The retreat became a panic, the panic a rout, a shocking defeat and a bloody shambles.
Among the civilians were Mrs Georgiana Mainwaring, wife of my first cousin five times removed, and her 3 month old son Edward.
One of the English gentlewomen captured in the retreat was a Lady Sale, who kept a diary of the catastrophe, which she published in 1843 as “A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841–42“. Mrs Mainwaring is mentioned several times. A second account, “The Military Operations at Cabul, which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842“, and also Prison Sketches, Comprising Portraits of the Cabul Prisoners, and Other Subjects, were published in 1843 by a British gunner, Lieutenant Vincent Eyre. Eyre lists Georgiana Mainwaring and her son among the ladies and children imprisoned by the Afghans. A later autobiography by the British officer Lieutenant General Colin Mackenzie, published posthumously in 1884 as “Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s life” also mentions Mrs Mainwaring several times.
On 17 September 1842, nine months after their internment by Afghan forces, the prisoners were rescued by a relief force under the command of Sir Richmond Shakespear.
Georgiana Mainwaring was born Georgiana Caroline Barbara Meiselbach on 6 November 1812 in West Bengal. Her father was a Prussian merchant trading with the Dutch and British East India Companies; her mother was the daughter of a merchant.
In 1831 she married George Byron, a lieutenant of the 48th Native Infantry (second cousin of the poet). Three years afterwards he died of fever. Their one son was educated at a school for military orphans.
In 1838 Georgiana re-married, to Edward Rowland Mainwaring Esq., 16th regiment Native Infantry. Edward, my first cousin five times removed, was the oldest son of Thomas Mainwaring, of the Bengal Civil Service. His 1868 obituary in the Illustrated London News records his early career:
… he entered the Bengal Army when only sixteen years of age [about 1823]. He served throughout the whole of the Affghan campaign from 1839 to 1842, including the assault and capture of Ghurnee. He was engaged at the night attack at Babookoorgch, and the destruction of Khoodawah. He was one of the garrison of Jellalabad; and, in the general action and
defeat of Akbar Khan, and the subsequent operations leading to the reoccupation of Cabul …
In 1839 the British occupied Kabul and restored the former ruler, Shah Shujah Durrani, as emir.
By 1841 the Mainwarings had moved to Kabul, where their son Edward Phillipson Mainwaring was born. At the end of 1841 Mainwaring, now promoted to captain, was stationed at Jalalabad. His wife and son remained in Kabul.
An uprising in Kabul forced the British commander, Major-General William Elphinstone, to fall back to the British garrison at Jalalabad, 90 miles (140 km) from Kabul. As the army and its dependents and camp followers began their march, it came under attack from Afghan tribesmen. Many in the column died of exposure, frostbite or starvation, or were killed during the fighting. The Afghans attacked the column again and again as it moved slowly through the winter snow. The British army lost 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians, including the families of Indian and British soldiers, workmen, servants and other followers.
Of the more than 16,000 people in the column commanded by Elphinstone, only one European (Assistant Surgeon William Brydon) and a few Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad. Over one hundred British prisoners and civilian hostages were captured, Georgiana Mainwaring and her infant son among them.
Lady Sale writes about the 8th of January 1842:
The ladies were mostly travelling in kajavas, and were mixed up with the baggage and column in the pass : here they were heavily fired on. Many camels were killed. On one camel were, in one kajava, Mrs. Boyd and her youngest boy Hugh ; and in the other Mrs. Mainwaring and her infant, scarcely three months old, and Mrs. Anderson's eldest child. This camel was shot. Mrs. Boyd got a horse to ride ; and her child was put on another behind a man, who being shortly after unfortunately killed, the child was carried off by the Affghans. Mrs. Mainwaring, less fortunate, took her own baby in her arms. Mary Anderson was carried off in the confusion. Meeting with a pony laden with treasure, Mrs. M. endeavoured to mount and sit on the boxes, but they upset ; and in the hurry pony and treasure were left behind ; and the unfortunate lady pursued her way on foot, until after a time an Affghan asked her if she was wounded, and told her to mount behind him. This apparently kind offer she declined, being fearful of treachery ; alleging as an excuse that she could not sit behind him on account of the difficulty of holding her child when so mounted. This man shortly after snatched her shawl off her shoulders, and left her to her fate. Mrs. M.'s sufferings were very great ; and she deserves much credit for having preserved her child through these dreadful scenes. She not only had to walk a considerable distance with her child in her arms through the deep snow, but had also to pick her way over the bodies of the dead, dying, and wounded, both men and cattle, and constantly to cross the streams of water, wet, up to the knees, pushed and shoved about by men and animals, the enemy keeping up a a sharp fire, and several persons being killed close to her. She, however, got safe to camp with her child, but had no opportunity to change her clothes ; and I know from experience that it was many days ere my wet habit became thawed, and can fully appreciate her discomforts.
Colin Mackenzie’s account of the same day describes Mrs Mainwaring as “a young merry girl” and kind-hearted:
Towards the end of the pass the hills close in considerably, at this part the Afghans had erected on each side small stone breastworks, behind which they lay, dealing out death, with perfect impunity to themselves. Those ladies who were on camels could do no more than crawl along at the slow rate of about two miles an hour. How can we sufficiently admire the behaviour of the Hindustanis who unflinchingly remained at their posts, and led the camels through the murderous fire ! Mrs. Vincent Eyre was the first lady who cleared the pass, owing to her horse taking fright and running away with her. Captain Anderson's eldest girl and Captain Boyd's youngest boy fell into the hands of the Afghans. Neither of these poor babes was five years old ; they had been placed in camel-panniers, the boy with his mother on one side, and the girl on the other, under the charge of Mrs. Mainwaring, a young merry girl, whose husband was at Jellalabad; although she had an infant ten weeks old of her own in her arms, generously volunteered this charitable office, seeing that Mrs. Anderson had another child, a baby, to take care of. The camel on which the above little party were was shot ; it lay down, leaving its helpless freight a stationary mark for the bullets of the Afghans. A Hindustani sawar took Mrs. Boyd on his horse and carried her through in safety. The kind-hearted Mrs. Mainwaring was nearly meeting a more wretched fate.She had just contrived to dismount with her own infant from the fallen camel, when an Afghan horseman rode up, threatening her with his sword, and desiring her to 'give him the shawl she wore. "While she was urging some vain remonstrance, a grenadier Sepoy of the 54th contrived to force his way to her rescue, and discharged the contents of his musket into the body of the Afghan. He then gave his arm to his fair protegee and supported her failing steps to near the exit from the pass, where, poor fellow, he fell by a bullet from one of the stone breastworks.
On 9 January 1842 the Afghan leader Akbar Khan persuaded General Elphinstone to hand over the women, children and wounded officers hostages in return for supplies and a safe escort for his army. Though Akbar Khan had broken all his previous promises, this arrangement was seen as the only way to protect the women and children from further suffering on the march. Four officers, ten women and twenty-two children were escorted to Khoord-Kabul fort where they joined the three officers taken the day before. They were then taken by stages to Badiabad Fort in the Lughman District, which they reached on 17 January.
Colin Mackenzie’s account of 15 January:
One ruffian nearly frightened poor Mrs. Mainwaring to death. She had unfortunately fallen from her pony, and was seated by the roadside with her baby in her arms crying, when Captain Lawrence overtook her, put her up again, and rode by her till they rejoined the column.
Later in his account Captain Colin McKenzie recorded how “young Mrs. Mainwaring, who, on receiving a box of useful articles from her husband at Jellalabad, most liberally distributed the contents among the other ladies, who were much in need”. Other captives, it is said, were not so willing to share.
From April until August the captives were held at Shewukee (Shewaki), 12 miles (20 km) south of Kabul. In her diary entry of 21 August 1824 Lady Sale wrote:
… Lady Macnaghten, Mrs. Mainwaring, Mrs. Boyd, Mrs. Sturt, and I, occupy the same apartment. Capt. Boyd makes his bed on the landing-place of the stairs, or on the roof of the house ; so that we have no man-kind amongst us, except the Boyds' two little boys, and Mrs. Mainwaring's baby. This little fellow was born just before the insurrection broke out in Cabul (in October) : his father had gone with Sale's brigade ; and we always call him Jung-i-Bahadur.
An Army of Retribution was formed, led by Sir George Pollock. As this force approached through the Khyber Pass, the hostages were moved and moved again by their Afghan captors. In August they managed to bribe their way to freedom. Reaching the Kalu Pass on 16 September the tattered remnants were met by Sir Richmond Shakespear and 600 cavalry and escorted from there to Kabul, nearly 90 miles (140 km) to the east. They had been prisoners of the Afghans for nine months.
Georgiana and Edward Mainwaring were reunited. They had two more children born in India: Emily born 1844 in Cawnpore and Francis born in 1851 in Deyrah.
Edward died in 1868 in Madras. By 1871 Georgiana had returned to England, where in 1881 she died at her daughter’s house in West Teignmouth and was buried in Teignmouth cemetery. The inscription on her headstone describes Georgiana as “the last of the lady hostages …. Cabul disaster, Jan 1842”.
Related posts and further reading
- Georgiana Caroline Barbara Mainwaring which was reposting a 2017 post by the Friends of the Old Teignmouth Cemetery Georgiana Caroline Barbara Mainwaring
- Florentia Lady Sale (1790-1853) – kept a diary and published an account
- Sale, Florentia (1843). A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan, 1841–42. London: John Murray. Retrieved through archive.org
- Lieutenant Vincent Eyre (1811-1881) – kept a diary and published an account, also published his sketches of the event. He was among the prisoners as a wounded officer.
- Eyre, Vincent (1842). The Military Operations at Cabul, which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842 (1 ed.). London: John Murray. Retrieved through the Wellcome Collection
- ———— (1843). The Military Operations at Cabul, which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842 (2 ed.). London: John Murray. Retrieved through archive.org
- ———— (1843). Prison Sketches, Comprising Portraits of the Cabul Prisoners, and Other Subjects. London: Dickinson & Son. Retrieved through Library of Congress
- Mackenzie, Helen (Douglas). “Storms and sunshine of a soldier’s life : Colin Mackenzie, 1825-1881.” Edinburgh : D. Douglas, 1884, retrieved through archive.org also includes an account of the first Afghan War by Colin Mackenzie (1806-1881). Account of retreat from page 256
- Macrory, Patrick Arthur. “Kabul Catastrophe : the Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul, 1842” (a reprint of the 1966 Signal Catastrophe). Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1986. Can be read online through the internet archive (you need to log on)
- Families in British India Society (FIBIS) Captivity of the Hostages includes timeline and names
- Georgiana Carolina Barbara (Meiselbach) Mainwaring (1812 – 1881)
- Edward Phillipson Mainwaring (1841 – 1922)
- Edward Rowland Mainwaring (1807 – 1868)
- Wikitree page on 1842 Retreat from Kabul – work in progress but includes links to profiles of some of those involved