The Battle for Afghanistan: No Easy Place to Rule

The Battle for Afghanistan

In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G.R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors. It was, he wrote,

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, ended after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”


The last survivors of the 44th Foot were exposed and surrounded at dawn as they stood at the top of hill of Gandamak.

William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot – a group of ragged but doggedly determined soldiers on the hilltop of Gandamak standing encircled behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in – became one of the era’s most famous images, along with Remnants of an Army, Lady Butler’s oil of the alleged survivor, Dr. Brydon, arriving before the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag.

Lady Butler’s famous oil, The Remnants of an Army, which depicts Dr. Bryden’s exhausted arrival at the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag. 

It was just as the latest western invasion of Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour in the winter of 2006, that I had an idea of writing a new history of Britain’s first failed attempt at controlling Afghanistan. After an easy conquest and the successful installation of a pro-western puppet ruler, the regime was facing increasingly widespread resistance. History was beginning to repeat itself.

The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distant echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged based on doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare-in this case about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador wrote from Tehran in 1838:

“we should declare that he who is not with us is against us . . .We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus, was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The parallels between the two invasions I came to realize were not just anecdotal., they were substantive. The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.

In both cases the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict. Just as the British inability to cope with the rising of 1841 was a product not just of leadership failure within the British camp, but also of the breakdown of the strategic relationship between Macnaghten and Shah Shuja, so the uneasy relationship of the ISAF leadership with President Karzai has been a crucial factor in the failure of the latest imbroglio. Here the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to some extent played the role of Macnaghten.

When I visited Kabul in 2010, the then British Special Representative, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, described Holbrooke as “a bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went”- a description that would have served perfectly to sum up Macnaghten’s style 174 years previously. Sherard’s analysis of the failure of the current occupation in his memoirs, Cables from Kabul, read astonishingly like an analysis of that of Auckland and Macnaghten:

Getting in without having any real idea of how to get out

almost willful misdiagnosis of the nature of challenges

continually changing objectives, and no coherent or consistent plan

mission creep on a heroic scale

disunity of political and military command, also on a heroic scale

diversion of attention and resources [to Iraq in the current case, to the Opium Wars then] at a critical stage of the adventure

poor choice of local allies

weak political leadership.”

Then as now, the poverty of Afghanistan has meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation. Instead, the cost of policing such inaccessible territory has exhausted the occupier’s resources. Today the US is spending more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan: it costs more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the US is providing to the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance. In both cases the decision to withdraw troops has turned on factors with little relevance to Afghanistan, namely the state of the economy and the vagaries of politics back home.

We in the west may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not. Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: In 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Muhammad?”

As he rose to power, Mullah Omer deliberately modeled himself on Dost Muhammad, and like him removed the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad from its shrine in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it, declaring himself like his model, Amir al-Muminin, the Leader of the Faithful, a deliberate and direct re-enactment of the events of First Afghan War, whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghans.

History never repeats itself exactly, and it is true that there are some important differences between what is taking place in Afghanistan today and what took place during the 1840s. There is no unifying figure at the centre of resistance, recognized by all Afghans as a symbol of legitimacy and justice: Mullah Omar is no Dost Muhammad or Wazir Akbar Khan, and the tribes have not united behind him as they did in 1842. There are big and important distinctions to be made between the conservative and defensive tribal uprising that brought the Anglo-Sadozai rule to a close in the colonial period and armed Ikhwanist revolutionaries of the Taliban who wish to reimpose an imported ultra-Wahhabi ideology on the diverse religious cultures of Afghanistan. Most importantly, Karzai has tried to establish a broad based, democratically elected government which for all its flaws and prodigious corruption is still much more representative and popular than the Sadozai regime of Shah Shuja ever was.

Nevertheless due to the continuities of the region’s topography, economy, religious aspirations and social fabric, the failures of 170 years ago do still hold important warnings for us today. It s still not too late to learn some lessons from the mistakes of the British in 1842. Otherwise, the west’s fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them to terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.

As George Lawrence wrote to the London Times just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War thirty years later, ‘a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent an unhappy country . . . although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however,  successful in a military point o view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless . . . The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839-42.’

 Despite the central strategic significance of this region, good writing on Afghan history is surprisingly thin on the ground, and what there is invariably uses printed accounts in English or the much mined India Office Archives in London. Yet astonishingly, while most of the sources are well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan historians, and were used by them in the nationalists Dari-language histories they wrote between the 1950s and 1970s, not one of these accounts ever seems to have been used in any English language history of the war, and none is available in English translation, although an abridged translation of a few chapters of the Waqi’ at-i-Shah Shuja appeared in a Calcutta magazine in the 1840s and a full translation of the Siraj ul Twarikh is currently under preparation by Robert McChesney at Columbia University, to which I was generously given access. These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of. The British sources for example, are well informed when talking of the different factions in their army, but seem largely unaware of the tensions dividing the different groups of insurgents who made up the Afghan side.

The Afghan sources also present us with a mirror which allows us, in the words of Alexander Burne’s cousin Robbie Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us“. To Afghan eyes the western armies were remarkable for their heartlessness, for their lack of any of the basic values of chivalry and especially for their indifference to civilian casualties. ‘From their rancour and spite there will be burning houses and blazing walls,‘ Dost Muhammad warns Akbar Khan in the Akbarnama.

For such is how they show their strength
Terrorizing those who dare to resist them

As is their custom, they will subjugate the people
So that no one makes a claim to equality

It is moreover, a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went, and riding ‘the steed of their lust unbridled day and night’. The British in other words, are depicted in Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect the Afghans to look at us.

If the First Afghan War helped to consolidate the Afghan state, the question now is whether the current western intervention will contribute to its demise. at the time of writing, western troops are again poised to leave Afghanistan in the hands of a weak Popalzai run government. It is impossible to predict the fate of either that regime or the fractured and divided state of Afghanistan. But what Mirza ‘Ata wrote after 1842 remains equally true today:

‘it is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan.’

No Easy Place To Rule 
Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan — or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last millennia- had had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. For more often it had been ‘the places in between’ – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.

Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.

Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting the Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between the Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime – the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires – and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale.

The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of River Nieman. Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Nieman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of he Baltic.

The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Treaty of Tilsit.

 Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain’s wealth. This, of course, was his enemy’s richest possession, of India.

The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon’s, as of several previous French strategists. Almost nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. “Through Egypt we shall invade India,” he wrote. “We shall re-establish the old route through the Suez.” From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter’s pleas for help against the English.

At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon’s initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.

So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 59,000 French troops of the Grande Armee across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20, 000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile General Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s ambassador to St. Petersburg was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians.

But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express containing the outlines of the plan to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them were instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood and to negotiate alliances to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India.

Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not “beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France,” he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the very “active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.”

In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon’s armies. One was sent to Tehran to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah, Qajar of Persia, the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amir’s of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company’s service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.

Elphinstone sat scribbling in his diary, trying to make sense of the Afghan character in all its rich contradictions.

Their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy; on the other hand, they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious, and prudent.”

He was astute enough to note that success in battle in Afghanistan was rarely decided by straightforward military victory so much as by successfully negotiating a path through the shifting patterns of tribal allegiances. “The victory is usually decided by some chief going over to the enemy,” wrote Elphinstone, “on which the greater part of the army either follows his example or else takes flight.”

The same was often true in India. Clive’s ‘victories’ at Plassey and Buxar were more like successful negotiations between the British bankers and Indian power brokers than the triumphs of arms and valor that imperial propaganda later made them out to be.

The British were beginning to understand that Afghanistan was no easy place to rule. In the last two millennia there had been only very brief moments of strong central control when the different tribes had acknowledged the authority of a single ruler, and still briefer moments of anything approaching a unified political system. It was in many ways less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through Malik’s or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted. The tribes’ traditions were egalitarian and independent, and they had only ever submitted to authority on their own terms. Financial rewards might bring about cooperation, but rarely ensured loyalty: the individual Afghan soldier owed his allegiance first to the local chieftain who raised and paid him, not to the Durrani shahs in faraway Kabul or Peshawar.

Yet even tribal leaders had frequently been unable to guarantee obedience, for tribal authority was itself so elusive and diffuse. As the saying went: Behind every hillock there sits an emperor – pusht – e har teppe, yek padishah nehast (or alternatively: Every man is a khan – har saray khan dey).

In such a world, the state never had a monopoly on power, but was just one among a number of competing claimants on allegiance.

Many of the tribes had lived for centuries by  offering empires their services in return for the political equivalent of protection money: even at the height of the Mughal Empire, for example, the emperors in far away Delhi and Agra had realized that it was hopeless even to think of attempting to tax the Afghan tribes. Instead the only way to keep open communication with the Mughals’ Central Asian lands was for them to pay the tribes massive annual subsidies: during Aurangzeb’s rule 600,000 rupees a year was paid by the Mughal exchequer to Afghan tribal leaders to secure their loyalty, Rs. 125,000 going to the Afridi alone. Yet even so, Mughal control of Afghanistan was intermittent at best, and even the victorious Nadir Shah fresh from looting Delhi in 1739, paid the chiefs huge sums for providing him with safe passage through the Khyber, in both directions.

The British later learned the Mughal model. According to a piece of imperial doggerel it became British policy to “Thrash the Sindhis, make friends with the Baluch, but pay the Pathans.”

There were other options: The Afghans could be lured into accepting the authority of a leader if he tempted them with four-fifths share of the plunder and spoils of conquest as Ahmad Shah Abdali and Timur Shah had both done. But without a ruler with a full treasure chest, or the lure of plunder to cement the country’s different interest groups, Afghanistan almost always tended to fragment: its few moments of coherence were built on the success of its armies, never of its administration.


Featured image: Skinner’s Horse riding out to war

Courtesy of: William Dalrymple, Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury Publishing London


The Mughals and the Koh-i-Noor

In April 1526, Zahir-ud-din Babur, a dashing Turco-Mongol poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia, descended the Khyber Pass with a small army of handpicked followers. He brought with him some of the first cannon and muskets seen in northern India. With this new military technology, he defeated and killed the Delhi sultan Ibrahim Lodi, at the battle of Panipat; a year later, he crushed the Rajputs. He then established his capital at Agra, where he began to build a series of irrigated paradise gardens.

This was not Babur’s first conquest. He had spent much of his youth throneless, living with his companions day by day, rustling sheep and stealing food. Occasionally he would capture a town- he was fourteen years when he first took Samarkand and held it for four months. Generally he lived in a tent, a peripatetic existence that, although sanctioned by Timurid tradition, seemed to have little appeal to him. “It passed through my mind”, he wrote, “ that to wander from mountain to mountain, homeless and helpless, has little to recommend it”

Babur not only established the Mughal dynasty, which ruled northern India for 330 years, he also wrote one of the most fascinating diaries ever written by a great ruler: the Baburnama. In its pages, he opens his soul with a frankness and lack of inhibition similar to Pepys, comparing the fruits and animals of India and Afghanistan with as much inquisitiveness as he records his impressions of the differences between falling in love with men and with women, or the differing pleasures of opium and wine. Here he also makes reference to an extraordinary diamond that was among the wonderful richness of gems he had captured during his conquests.

As he noted in the Baburnama, when his son Humayun captured the family of Bikramjit, the rajah of Gwalior, who were in Agra at the time of Ibrahim Lodhi’s defeat,  “they made him a voluntary offering of a mass of jewels and valuables, amongst which was the famous diamond which [Sultan] Ala’ ud-Din [Khilji] must have brought. Its reputation is that every appraiser has estimated its value at two and half days’ food for the whole world. Apparently it weighs 8 missals”.

Another contemporary source, a small treatise on precious stones dedicated to Babur and Humayun also refers to Babur’s diamond:

No private individual has ever seen such a diamond, or heard of it, nor is there any mention of it in any book.”

These two mentions are often assumed to be early references to the Koh-i-Noor. They may well be- or not: the description is too vague to be certain, and there were clearly several very large diamonds circulating in India at this time.

Either way, Babur’s diamond soon left India. Babur died in 1530, only four years after his arrival in India and before he could consolidate his new conquests. His dreamy and somewhat feckless son, Humayun, shared his father’s poetic and cultural interests, but he had none of his military genius. He continued to build gardens and spent his days rapt in the study of astrology and mysticism, but his father’s conquests crumbled and in 1540, after less than ten years on the throne, Humayun was forced into exile in Persia.

Throughout his diaries, Babur had shown a mixture of pride and extreme irritation with regard to his brave and intelligent but unfocused, unambiguous and perennially unpunctual son; even an undertaking as important as the invasion of India was delayed by several weeks by Humayun failing to present himself on time in Kabul. He eventually turned up, three weeks late, which meant the invasion had to take place in the heat of the summer. Both in his rule and during his exile, Humayun demonstrated the same dreamy and unreliable nature.

Having lost his kingdom, and abandoned even his wives and infant son Akbar in his flight from India, the one asset Humayun kept with him was his glittering booty of gems from Agra. Rumours of this spread, and while passing through Rajasthan, the fleeing emperor was approached by an envoy of Raja Malden of Jodhpur, “an officer in the guise of a merchant”, who asked to buy his most valuable diamond. Humayun would have none of it, sending word to “this purchaser that the likes of this valuable jewel cannot be bought. Either it will fall into his hands by means of glittering sword coupled with sovereign mind, or it will come about through the favour of exalted kings.”

Yet even his diamonds were all he had left, Humayun still showed a bewildering absent mindedness, if not outright negligence with regard to them. In July 1544, on his way to seek asylum at the court of the Safavid emperor Shah Tahmasp, Humayun was saved from potentially catastrophic inattention by the quick thinking of a boy named January. Jauhar himself wrote many years later:

It was customary with his Majesty always to carry his valuable diamonds and rubies in a purse in his pocket. But when he was performing his ablutions, he generally laid them on one side. This time he had done so, and promptly forgot them: it so happened that when the king was gone, and the humble servant Jauhar was about to remount his horse, he saw a green flowered purse lying on the ground, and a pen case by the side of it: he immediately took them up, and as soon as he had overtaken the King, presented them. When his Majesty saw these articles he was amazed and astonished, and said, “Oh my boy, you have done me the greatest possible favour; if these had been lost, I should have been subject to the meanness [rezalet] of this Persian monarch: in future please take care of them.”

In due course, the diamonds saved Humayun. Though the staunchly Shi’a Shah Tahmasp initially gave the Sunni Humayun a cool reception, he was thrilled by the diamonds Humayun presented him with at their meeting. Jauhar recounts:

We remained several days encamped on the hunting grounds, during which time his Majesty ordered his rubies and diamonds to be brought to him; and having selected the largest diamond, placed it in a mother of pearl box; then he added several other diamonds and rubies; and having placed them on a tray, he gave them in charge of Byram Beg to present to the Persian monarch with the message, “that they were brought from Hindustan purposely for his Majesty”. When Shah Tahmasp saw these precious stones he was astonished, and sent for his jewellers to value them. The jewellers declared that they were above all price; on which the Persian signified his acceptance.

When Humayun eventually returned to India, he did so at the head of a cohort of Shah Tahmasp’s cavalry which enabled him to recover the throne.

For reasons that remain unclear, however, shortly afterwards, in 1547, Shah Tahmasp sent Babur’s diamond to his Indian Shia ally, the sultan of Ahmadnagar, one of the rulers of the Deccan. According to Khur Shah, the ambassador of the rival Sultanate of Golconda to the Persian court, it is notorious that a connoisseur of jewels valued this diamond at two and half days’ sustenance of the whole world. Its weight is 6 ½ misqals [slightly lower estimate than that given by Babur himself]. But in the eyes of his Majesty the Shah, it was not of such great value. At last he sent that diamond along with his envoy Mihtar Jamal, as a present to Nizam Shah [of Ahmadnagar], the ruler of the Deccan. It seems, however, that while the envoy delivered the shah’s letter, he failed to deliver the diamond, and the shah subsequently tried – and failed – to have his absconding envoy arrested.

Babur’s diamond disappears from the record at this point, presumably locked in the treasury of some unknown merchant, noble or ruler in the Deccan: was it, for example, the exceptionally large diamond, “ the size of a small hen’s egg,” that Garcia da aorta heard had made its way to Vijaynagara? It is impossible to know; indeed it is unclear not only if this much admired and much travelled diamond of Babur is actually the Koh-i-Noor, but also if, when or how it may have re-entered the Mughal treasury.

What is certain is that if it did eventually return to Delhi, it did not do so for at least a generation. Abu’l Fazl, the friend and biographer of the greatest of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, in his 1596 account of the imperial treasury, writes explicitly that the largest diamond in the treasury at that time was a much smaller stone of 180 ratis(1 rati is 0.91 metric carats or 0.004 ounces)- around half the size of Babur’s diamond, which weighed around 320 ratis. It was not until much later that a massive diamond, of very similar weight to Babur’s, returned to Mughal hands.

The Mughals brought with them from Central Asia a very different set of ideas about gemstones to those then held in India. These ideas derived from the philosophy, aesthetics and literature of the Persianate world. Here it was not diamonds but “red stones of light” that were given pre-eminence. In Persian literature such stones were prized as symbols of the divine in metaphysics and of the highest reaches of the sublime in art, evoking the light of dusk – shafaq – that fills the sky immediately after the sun has set.

As Ferdowsi writes in his great Shah-Nama, or Book of Kings:

When the sun gave the world the colour of the spinel, Dark night set foot on the celestial vault.

Garcia da Orta is explicit that diamonds were not regarded as the pre-eminent gemstone by the Mughals -something which came as an enormous surprise to Europeans. In his Colloquies, da aorta has his interlocutor, Dr Roanoke, remark that diamonds “are the king of stones, for [they have] eminence over pearls and emeralds and rubies, if we believe Pliny.” Da Orta , however, corrects him:” In this country . . . they think more of an emerald or of a ruby, which have more value if they are perfect, and size for size, than of a diamond. But as they do find other stones when perfect and of good water so large as diamonds, it happens that they often fetch a higher price. The value of stones is no more than the will of buyers and the need for them.”

Abu’l Fazl also gives pride of place to beautifully coloured and transparent red stones in his description of Akbar’s imperial treasuries T the end of the sixteenth century:”The amount of revenues is so great,” he writes, “and the business so multifarious, that twelve treasuries are necessary for storing the money, nine for the different kinds of cash payments, and three for pre ious stones, gold and inlaid jewellery.” Rubies and spinels, divided into twelve classes, comes first; diamonds – of which there are half the quantity of spinels and rubies – second, and these kept mixed up with emeralds or blue corundum (sapphires), which the Mughals knew as blue yaquts. Pearls are in the third treasury: “If I were to speak of the quantity and quality of precious stones” possessed by the emperor, he writes “it would take me an age.”

The Mughals, perhaps more than any other Islamic dynasty, made their love of the arts and their aesthetic principles a central part of their identity as rulers. They consciously used jewellery and jewelled objects as they used their architecture, art, poetry, historiography and the dazzling brilliance of their court ceremonial – to make visible and manifest their imperial ideal, to give it a properly imperial splendour, and even a sheen of divine legitimacy. As Abu’l Fazl put it, “Kings are fond of external splendour, because they consider it an image of the Divine glory.”

Moreover, the Mughals were not just enthusiasts of the arts; by the time Akbar’s reign was at its height, they also had unrivalled resources with which to patronize them. They ruled over five times the population commanded by their only rivals, the Ottomans – some 100 million subjects, by the early seventeenth century controlling almost all of present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as eastern Afghanistan. Their capitals were the mega cities of their day.

Jahangir’s passion for gems was one he shared with, and passed on to, his eldest son, Prince Khurram, the future Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666). To his father’s delight, Khurram became one of the greatest connoisseurs of precious stones of his time. Over and again, Jahangir. Moments with pride on his son’s eye for gems calling him “the star in the forehead of accomplished desires, and the brilliancy in the brow of prosperity.” He offers as an example of this an occasion when Jahangir had been given an especially fine pearl and wanted to find a pair for it. Prince Khurram took one look at the pearl and immediately remembered an exact match he had seen several years earlier, which lay “in an old turban jewel and was of a weight and shape equal to this pearl. They produced the old sarpech (turban ornament) containing a royal pearl and indeed it was of exactly the same quality, weight and shape, lustre and brilliance; one might say they had been shed from the same mould. Placing the two pearls alongside the ruby, I bound them on my arm.”

In due course Shah Jahan’s love of beautiful and precious objects outshone even that of his father, as visitors noted. According to Edward Terry, Sir Thomas Roe’s chaplain, Shah Jahan was “the greatest and ri heat master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth.”
The Portuguese Friar Manrique reported that he was so fascinated by gems that even when there appeared before him after a banquet twelve dancing girls decked out in “lascivious and suggestive dress, immodest behaviour and posturing,” the Emperor hardly raised his eyes, but instead continued inspecting some fine jewels that had been brought to him by his brother-in-law, Asad Khan. It has recently emerged that after apparently damaging his eyes through excessive weeping over the death of. Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan even commissioned two pairs of bejewelled spectacles, one with lenses of diamonds, the other with lenses of emeralds.

It was not, however, just about beauty and luxury. Like the Mughals’ miniature-painting ateliers, under Shah Jahan the imperial jewellery workshops were expected to put their work to the service of imperial and dynastic propaganda. A newly discovered sardonyx hilted dagger that appeared recently on the London art market makes this particularly clear, giving a striking reflection of the imperial aspirations of Shah Jahan and his court: the cartouche reads unequivocally, “The dagger of the king of kings, the defender of religion and conqueror of the world. The Second Lord of Happy Conjunction, Shah Jahan, is like the new moon, it out of its shining triumphs, it makes the world shine eternally like the rays of the Sun.” To his subjects, Shah Jahan presented himself not just S the ruler; he wanted to be thought of as a centre of Divine Light, a sun king, in fact almost a sun god.

The largest diamond recorded as entering the Mughal treasury during the reign of Shah Jahan came as a gift from another of the great gem connoisseurs of the period. Mir Jumla was a Persian immigrant to the Deccan, who set himself as a merchant and gem dealer. According to the Venetian traveller Niccolao Manucci, “Mir Jumla initially went through the streets from door to door selling shoes; up fortune resolved to favour him, and little by little he rose to be a great merchant of much fame in the kingdom. Owing t9 his being very rich, with ships at sea, and also a man of much wisdom and very generous, he gained for himself many friends at court . . . [and soon] filled various honourable offices.”

He continued to rise – ultimately to the rank of prime minister of Golconda- by presenting to the king and other key nobles valuable gifts of gems, “jewels and diamonds which he extracted from the mines . . . During his government in the Karnatik, Mir Jumla gathered together the great treasures which then existed in that province, in the ancient temples of the Hindu idols. Besides these, others were discovered by his exertions in the said province, which for precious stones is very famous.”

The French diamond merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89) gives a wonderfully revealing-if. Billing-portrait of Mir Jumla at the peak of his power. Tavernier went to present his salaams one evening, and found Mir Jumla sitting in his tent at the centre of the camp in the Deccan countryside.

According to the custom of the country, the Nawab [governor] had the intervals between his toes full of letters, and he also held many between the fingers of his left hand. He drew them sometimes from his feet, and sometimes from his hand, and he sent replies through his two secretaries, writing also some himself. Although the secretaries had finished the letters, he made them read them; and then he affixed his seal himself, giving some to foot messengers, some to horsemen.

While all this was going on, four criminals were brought to the door of his tent. Mir Jumla paid no attention to them for half an hour, but then had them marched in, “and after having questioned them, and made them confess with their own mouths, he remained nearly an hour without saying anything, continuing to write and make his secretaries write,” as a succession of officers from the army came to pay their respects. At this point, a meal was brought in, so he turned his attention to the four prisoners, calmly ordering one to have his hands and feet cut off and to be left in a field to bleed to death, another to have “his stomach slit open and thrown in a drain” and the remaining two to be beheaded. “While all this passed, dinner was served.”

Throughout the 1650s, the Mughals increasingly focused on seizing the different kingdoms of the Deccan, at least in part so that they could possess the territory which produced the gems that were so obsessed with. In the words of the Shah Jahan Nama, the official history of the reign, “,” At the same time, Mir Jumla fell out of favour with the sultan of Golconda, as rumours spread of his having had an affair with the queen mother. He therefore took the opportunity presented by Mughal attack to defect to the service of Shah Jahan.

He sealed the pact, on 7 July 1656, presenting Shah Jahan, within the newly inaugurated Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, with what Manucci describes as “a large uncut diamond which weighed 360 carats”, and what the Shah Jahan Nama calls “an offering of exquisite gems, amongst which was a huge diamond weighing 216 ratis.” Tavernier later called this stone “that celebrated diamond which generally has been deemed unparalleled in size and beauty.” He said it was presented uncut at 900 ratis, or 787 metric carats, and added that it had come from the mines of Kollur (today Karnataka).

Centuries later, many Victorians commentators identified this diamond both with Babur’s diamond which had disappeared into the Deccan a hundred years earlier, and with the Koh-i-Noor, which had by then come to be seen as the greatest of all Indian diamonds. Yet there is no suggestion in any of these texts that Mir Jumla was claiming to return to the Mughals their greatest family diamond, which had been to them since the time of Humayun-a claim he certainly would have made if this were true, given how much he wished to ingratiate himself with his new patrons.

Instead, it sounds as if this huge diamond-which Tavernier explicitly says was presented uncut, and for which our three different sources give widely different but very high weights-was a new discovery, and an unprecedented addition to the Mughal treasury.

In 1628, at the height of his power, Shah Jahan brought the Mughal love affair with precious stones to its climax when he commissioned the most spectacular jewelled object ever made: the Peacock Throne.

Initially, it seems that the commission for a massive solid gold throne “covered with diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds” was given to a French jeweller at the Mughal court named Augustine Hiriart. Although the Mughals liked their diamonds cut differently from their contemporaries in the West-preferring to keep and celebrate the natural weight and shape of a stone rather than cutting to produce the smaller but more symmetrically cut gems favoured in Europe- at this stage in the seventeenth century European jewellers had established a slight technological edge on their Mughal rivals. There are references to emperors and other Indian rulers sending gems via the Jesuits to be cut in Goa, or even in the European merchant colony at Aleppo. Hiriart was by no means the only Western jeweller to have found work at the Mughal court: an Englishman named Peter Mutton was also taken into the imperial karkhana (atelier).

Shortly afterwards, however, Hiriart left Mughal service and headed off to Goa, so it was Sa’ida-yi-Gilani, an Iranian poet and calligrapher-turned goldsmith and jewel-master, who started work on the commission afresh. The finished Peacock Throne was finally inaugurated at New Year 1635, on the emperor’s return from his holidays in Kashmir.

The Jewelled Throne-as It was initially known-was an object of the greatest magnificence, designed to resemble and evoke the fabled throne of Solomon. The Mughals had long surrounded themselves with the aura of the ancient kings-both historical and mythical-of the Middle East and Iran whom they had read about in the Quran and in epic poems like the Shahnama. Drawing on these examples, the Mughals claimed that their divinely illuminated kingship and their just rule would bring to the world a golden age of prosperity and peace. For Shah Jahan in particular, Solomon, the exemplary Quranic ruler and prophet king, was both a role model and a figure of identification, and he had himself celebrated by his poets as a second Solomon; Murtaza Mahal, meanwhile, was praised as the new Queen of Sheba.

Accordingly, the Jewelled Throne was made so that anyone who knew their Quran would immediately see it as an echo of Solomon’s throne. It had four columns which carried a baldacchino (ceremonial canopy), on which were depicted flowering trees and peacocks in gemstones. The columns had the form of tapering balusters, which the Mughals called cypress shaped, and were covered with green enamel or emeralds, to augment their treelike character. Above this were perched either one or, in most accounts, two freestanding figures of peacocks, a reference to the seat of Solomon which according to both Jewish and Islamic texts was decorated with jewelled trees and birds.

The best contemporary account we have of the throne is by the official court chronicler, Ahmad Shah Lahore, in the Padshahnama:

In the course of years many valuable gems had come into the Imperial jewel-house, each of which might serve as an ear-drop for Venus, or would adorn the girdle of the Sun. Upon the accession of the Emperor, it occurred to his mind that, in the opinion of far-seeing men, the acquisition of such rare jewels and the keeping of such wonderful brilliants can only render one service, that of adorning the throne o& empire. They ought therefore to be put to such a use that beholders might share in and benefit by their splendour, and that Majesty might shine with increased brilliancy.

Lahori recounts how in addition to the jewels already stored in the imperial jewel-house, “rubies, garnets, diamonds, rich pearls and emeralds, to the value of 200 lakhs of rupees, should be brought for the inspection of the Emperor, and that they, with some exquisite jewels of great weight, exceeding 50,000 misskals, having been carefully selected, should be handed over to Bebadal Khan [Sa’ida-yi Gilani’s later title], the superintendent of the goldsmith’s department.”

The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work studded with gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garners, and other jewels, and it was to be supported by emerald columns. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks thick set with gems, and between each of the two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. The A’s ent was to consist of three steps, set with jewels of fine water. This Throne was completed in the course of seven years at a cost of 100 lakhs of rupees.

Given Mughal tastes, it is not surprising that the one stone that Lahore singled out for mention was not a diamond but a ruby:

Among the jewels set in this recess was a ruby worth a lake of rupees, which Shah ‘Abbas, the king of Iran, had presented to the Late Emperor Jahangir, who sent it to his present Majesty, the Sahib Kiran-i-sank, when he accomplished the conquest of the Dakhin. On it were engraved the names of Sahib kiran (Timur), Mir Shah Ruth, and Mirza Ulugh Beg. When in course of time it came into possession of Shah ‘Abbas, his name was added; and when Jahangir obtained it, he added the name of himself and of his father. Now it received the addition of the name of his most gracious Majesty Shah Jahan.

The ruby would under various names-the Timur Ruby, the Ayn al-Hur, Eye of the Houri, and the Fakhraj-shadow of the Koh-I-Noor and share it’s fate for the next two centuries. Only very much later, with changing tastes in the early nineteenth century, did the diamond come to be seen as more beautiful and significant than the ruby.

Shah Jahan’s reign came to a dramatically premature end in 1658. Late in 1657 the Emperor suffered a stroke, and his son Dara Shukoh took over effective governance. Initially believing their father to be dead, the four royal princes began military manoeuvres that led Aurangzeb, eventually, to stage a skilful coup d’état, deposing his father and imprisoning him in the Red Fort of Agra, in a set of apartments looking out over the Taj.

Aurangzeb had headed north from the Deccan with a battle-hardened army, and defeated his rival brother Dara Shukoh at Samugarh, a few miles from Agra. In 1659, he had had his brother murdered a few days after capturing him. According to Manucci, he then sent his father a reconciliation present. When the old man opened it, it was found to contain the head of Dara.

It was shortly after this that we get one last glimpse of the Mughal treasury in all its glory before the empire collapsed and the Koh-i-Noor left India. In 1665 Jean Baptiste Tavernier was given by Aurangzeb (1618-1707) the unprecedented honour of being shown the highlights of the Mughal treasury. Encouraged by Louis XIV, Tavernier had made five previous journeys to India between 1630 and 1668, with a view to understanding more about diamonds, which he calls “the most precious of all stones, and the article of trade to which I am most devoted. In order to acquire a thorough knowledge o& it, I resolved to visit all the mines and one of the two rivers where diamonds are found.”

In his earlier journeys, Tavernier had brought back enough diamonds to win a baronetcy from Louis but it was only on his final trip that Aurangzeb gave his permission for Tavernier to see his private collection. “On the first day of November 1665,” he wrote, “I went to the palace to take leave of the Emperor, but he said that he did not wish me to depart without having seen the jewels and witnessing the splendour of his fete.”

Shortly afterwards, Tavernier was summoned to the palace, where he did obeisance to the emperor, and was then ushered into a small apartment within sight of the Diwan-i-Khas.

I found in this apartment Akil Khan, chief of the jewel treasury, who, when he saw us, commanded four of the imperial eunuchs to bring jewels, which were carried in two large wooden trays lacquered with god leaf, and covered with small cloths made expressly for the purpose- one of red and the other of green brocaded velvet. After these trays were uncovered, and all the pieces had been counted three times over, a list was prepared by the three scribes who were present. For the indians do everything with great composure, and when they see anyone acting in a hurry or irritated, they stare at him in silence and laugh at him for being a fool.

Among the stones Tavernier was shown that day was the enormous gem he calls the Great Mughal Diamond and which he says was the gem given to Shah Jahan by Mir Jumla: “The first piece that Akil Khan (Chief Keeper of the King’s jewels) placed in my hands was the great diamond, which is rose cut, round a very high on one side. On the lower edge there is a slight crack, and a little flaw in it. Its water is fine, and weighs 286[metric]carats.” He also mentions that the stone had been badly cut since Mir Jumla gifted it, and that thanks to the incompetence of the man responsible, Hortensio Borgio, the stone had lost much of its original astonishing size. Tavernier also saw two other great diamonds, one of which was a flat, pink stone in a table cut, which he calls the Great Table Diamond, and which from his drawing is clearly the major portion of the Darya-i-Noor, now in Tehran.

Was the Great Mughal Diamond the Koh-i-Noor? In the nineteenth century it was assumed it must be, but most modern scholars are now convinced that the Great Mughal is actually the Orlov , which with its higher, more rounded dome looks much more like Tavernier’s sketch of the Great Mughal. Moreover, the Orlov and the Great Mughal have the same type of cut, and the same pattern of facets. None of the other stones seen by Tavernier looks at all like the Koh-i-Noor either.

How is it possible that Tavernier failed to see the Koh-i-Noor when the emperor explicitly gave permission for him to see his greatest gems? There are two possibilities. One is the Koh-i-Noor was at this stage still in the collection of Shah Jahan, who in 1665 remained under house arrest in his apartments in the Red Fort of Agra. It is known from several sources, including Manucci and the Shah Jahan Nama, that the deposed emperor had not handed over all his personal diamond collection to his usurping son; indeed Aurangzeb got his hands on Shah Japan’s favourite gems only after his death.

But more probably, if Marvi’s eyewitness account of Nader Shah’s seizure of the Peacock Throne in 1750 is to be believed, the Koh-i-Noor was not in the imperial treasury because it was already lodged beyond Tavernier’s close inspection, glittering on top of the Peacock Throne, attached to the head of one of the peacocks which surmounted it. Tavernier certainly saw the Peacock Throne from a distance, and he describes the diamonds which covered it, but it seems he did not get close enough to see the stupendous size of the gems on its roof.

Was the Koh-i-Noor Babur’s diamond? The weights are approximately right, and it looks on balance the most plausible and certainly the most seductive theory as to the origins of the Koh-i-Noor. However, given the absence of a full description of Babur’s diamond, or an account of the gem’s passage from the Deccan back into the Mughal treasury, until further evidence is uncovered in some forgotten Persian source, the mystery remains unsolved.Frustrating as it is, we simply do not know for sure the origin of the Koh-i-Noor and have no hard information about when, how or where it entered Mughal hands. We only know for sure it left.



 Kohinoor is a large, colourless diamond from the era of Wodiyar Kings of Mysore in Karnataka, India, possibly in the 13th century. According to legend, it first weighed 793 carats (158.6 g) uncut, although the earliest well-attested weight is 186 carats (37.2 g). The stone changed hands several times between various factions in Asia until ending up in the possession of Queen Victoria after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849.

 Quick Facts


In 1852, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, was unhappy with its dull and irregular appearance, and he ordered it cut down from 186 carats (37.2 g) by Coster Diamonds. It emerged 42 percent lighter as a dazzling oval-cut brilliant-weighing 105.6 carats (21.12 g) and measuring 3.6 cm x 3.2 cm x 1.3 cm. By modern standards, the cut is far from perfect, in that the culet is unusually broad, giving the impression of a black hole when the stone is viewed head-on; it is nevertheless regarded by gemmologists as being full of life. As the diamond’s history involves a great deal of fighting between men, the Koh-i-Noor acquired a reputation within the British royal family for bringing bad luck to any man who wears it. Since arriving in the country, it has only ever been worn by female members of the family.

Today, the diamond is set in the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown, part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, and is seen by millions of visitors to the Tower of London each year. The governments of India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have all claimed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor and demanded its return at various times in recent decades. The British government insists the gem was obtained legally under the terms of the Treaty of India.

Origin and early history

It is widely believed to have come from the KGF Mine in the Kolar District of present-day Karnataka India, during the reign of the Wodiyars rulers. It is however impossible to know where it was found. In the early 14th century, Alauddin Khalji, second ruler of the Turkic Khalji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, and his army began looting the kingdoms of southern India. Malik Kafur, Khalji’s general, made a successful raid on Warangal in 1310, when he possibly acquired the diamond.

It remained in the Khalji dynasty and later passed to the succeeding dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, until it came into the possession of Babur, a Turco-Mongol warlord, who invaded India and established the Mughal Empire in 1526. He called the stone the “Diamond of Babur” at the time, although it had been called by other names before it came into his possession. Both Babur and his son and successor, Humayun, mentioned the origins of this diamond in their memoirs, thought by many historians to be the earliest reliable reference to the Koh-i-Noor.

Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, had the stone placed into his ornate Peacock Throne. In 1658, his son and successor, Aurangzeb, confined the ailing emperor at nearby Agra Fort. While in the possession of Aurangzeb, it was allegedly cut by Hortenso Borgia, a Venetian lapidary, so clumsily that he reduced the weight of the stone from 793 carats (158.6 g) to 186 carats (37.2 g). For this carelessness, Borgia was reprimanded and fined 10,000 rupees. According to recent research the story of Borgia cutting the diamond is not correct, and most probably mixed up with the Orlov, part of Catherine the Great’s imperial Russian sceptre in the Kremlin.

Acquisition by Nader Shah

Nader Shah during the sacking of Delhi in the aftermath of his victory at the Battle of Karnal, 1739 

Following the 1739 invasion of Delhi by Nader Shah, the Afsharid Shah of Persia, the treasury of the Mughal Empire was looted by his army in an organised and thorough acquisition of the Mughal nobility’s wealth. Along with a host of valuable items, including the Daria-i-Noor, as well as the Peacock Throne, the Shah also carried away the Koh-i-Noor. He allegedly exclaimed Koh-i-Noor! (meaning “mountain of light”) when he finally managed to obtain the famous stone, and that is how the stone got its name.

The first valuation of the Koh-i-Noor is given in the legend that one of Nader Shah’s consorts apparently said, “If a strong man were to throw four stones, one north, one south, one east, one west, and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, all would not equal the value of the Koh-i-Noor”

It is estimated that the total worth of the treasures plundered came to 700 million rupees. This was roughly equivalent to £87.5 million sterling at the time, or approximately £12.8 billion in 2016’s money. The riches gained by the Afsharid Empire from the Indian campaign were so monumental that Nader Shah made a proclamation alleviating all subjects of the Empire from taxes for a total of three years.

After the assassination of Nader Shah in 1747 and the collapse of his empire, the stone came into the hands of one of his generals, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who later became the Emir of Afghanistan. One of Ahmed’s descendants, Shah Shujah Durrani, wore a bracelet containing the Koh-i-Noor on the occasion of Mountstuart Elphinstone‘s visit to Peshawar in 1808.

A year later, Shujah formed an alliance with the United Kingdom to help defend against a possible invasion of Afghanistan by Russia. He was quickly overthrown by his predecessor, Mahmud Shah, but managed to flee with the diamond. He went to Lahore, where the founder of the Sikh EmpireMaharaja Ranjit Singh, in return for his hospitality, insisted upon the gem being given to him, and he took possession of it in 1813.

Acquisition by the British

One of Maharaja Ranjit Singh‘s favourite horses with the head officer of his stables. His jewels are also shown, including the Koh-i-Noor (top centre) that he extorted from the Emir of Afghanistan. 

Its new owner, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, willed the diamond to the East India Company administered Hindu temple of Jagannath in Puri, in modern-day Odisha, India. However, after his death in 1839, his will was not executed. On 29 March 1849, following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the Kingdom of Punjab was formally annexed to Company rule, and the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed, officially ceding the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria and the Maharaja’s other assets to the company.

Article III of the treaty read:

The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.

The Governor-General in charge of the ratification of this treaty was the Marquess of Dalhousie. The manner of his aiding in the transfer of the diamond was criticized even by some of his contemporaries in Britain. Although some thought it should have been presented as a gift to Queen Victoria by the East India Company, it is clear that Dalhousie strongly believed the stone was a spoil of war, and treated it accordingly, ensuring that it was officially surrendered to her by Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh.

Writing to his friend Sir George Cooper in August 1849, he stated:

The Court [of the East India Company] you say, are ruffled up by my having caused the Maharajah to cede to the Queen the Koh-i-noor; while the Daily News and my Lord Ellenborough (Governor-General of India, 1841–44) are indignant because I did not confiscate everything to Her Majesty. The motive was simply this: that it was more for the honour of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror, than it should be presented to her as a gift—which is always a favour—by any joint-stock company among her subjects.

The presentation of the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur ruby by the East India Company to the queen was the latest in a long history of transfers of the stones as coveted spoils of war. Duleep Singh had been placed in the guardianship of Dr John Login (later Sir John Spencer Login), a surgeon in the British Army serving in the Presidency of Bengal, in India. Dr Login and his wife Lena both would later accompany Duleep Singh on his journey to England in 1854.

Diagrams of the pre-1852 cut of the Koh-i-Noor from different angles 

In due course, the Governor-General received the Koh-i-Noor from Dr. Login, who had been appointed Governor of the Citadel, with the Royal Treasury, which Dr Login valued at almost £1,000,000 (£95.2 million in 2016’s money), excluding the Koh-i-Noor, on 6 April 1848, under a receipt dated 7 December 1849, in the presence of the members of the Board of Administration for the affairs of the Punjab: Sir Henry Lawrence (President), C. G. Mansel, John Lawrence and Sir Henry Elliot (Secretary to the Government of India).

Legend in the Lawrence family has it that before the voyage, John Lawrence left the jewel in his waistcoat pocket when it was sent to be laundered, and was most grateful when it was returned promptly by the valet who found it.

On 1 February 1850, the jewel was sealed in a small iron safe inside a red dispatch box, both sealed with red tape and a wax seal and kept in a chest at Bombay Treasury awaiting a steamer ship from China. It was then sent to England for presentation to Queen Victoria in the care of Captain J. Ramsay and Brevet Lt. Col F. Mackeson under tight security arrangements, one of which was the placement of the dispatch box in a larger iron safe. They departed from Bombay on 6 April on board HMS Medea, captained by Captain Lockyer.

The ship had a difficult voyage: an outbreak of cholera on board when the ship was in Mauritius had the locals demanding its departure, and they asked their governor to open fire on the vessel and destroy it if there was no response. Shortly afterwards, the vessel was hit by a severe gale that blew for some 12 hours.

On arrival in Britain on 29 June, the passengers and mail were unloaded in Plymouth, but the Koh-i-Noor stayed on board until the ship reached Spithead, near Portsmouth, on 1 July. The next morning, Ramsay and Mackeson, in the company of Mr Onslow, the private secretary to the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the British East India Company, proceeded by train to East India House in the City of London and passed the diamond into the care of the chairman and deputy chairman of the East India Company. The Koh-i-Noor was formally presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July at Buckingham Palace by the deputy chairman of the East India Company. The date was chosen to coincide with the company’s 250th anniversary.

The Great Exhibition

In its original setting as part of the armlet given to Queen Victoria, 1851 


Crowds flocked to see the jewel at the Great Exhibition 

Members of the public were given a chance to see the Koh-i-Noor when The Great Exhibition was staged at Hyde Park, London, in 1851. It was displayed in the Works in Precious Metals, Jewellery, etc. part of the South Central Gallery, The Times reported:

The Koh-i-Noor is at present decidedly the lion of the Exhibition. A mysterious interest appears to be attached to it, and now that so many precautions have been resorted to, and so much difficulty attends its inspection, the crowd is enormously enhanced, and the policemen at either end of the covered entrance have much trouble in restraining the struggling and impatient multitude. For some hours yesterday, there were never less than a couple of hundred persons waiting their turn of admission, and yet, after all, the diamond does not satisfy. Either from the imperfect cutting or the difficulty of placing the lights advantageously, or the immovability of the stone itself, which should be made to revolve on its axis, few catch any of the brilliant rays it reflects when viewed at a particular angle.

A French writer gave a vivid description of the exhibit:

On Friday and Saturday it puts on its best dress; it is arrayed in a tent of red cloth, and the interior is supplied with a dozen little jets of gas, which throw their light on the god of the temple. Unhappily, the Koh-i-Noor does not sparkle even then. Thus, the most curious thing is not the divinity, but the worshippers. One places oneself in the file to go in at one side of the niche, looks at the golden calf, and goes out the other side. If the organs should chance to play at the same moment, the illusion is complete. The Koh-i-Noor is well secured; it is placed on a machine which causes it, on the slightest touch, to enter an iron box. It is thus put to bed every evening, and does not get up till towards noon. The procession of the faithful then commences, and only finishes at seven o’clock.

After these complaints, the diamond was put in a new shaded case to let the sunlight catch it better.

1852 re-cutting 

Disappointment in the appearance of the stone was not uncommon. After consulting various mineralogists, including Sir David Brewster, it was decided by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, with the consent of the government, to polish the Koh-i-Noor. One of the largest and most famous Dutch diamond merchants, Mozes Coster, was employed for the task. He sent to London one of his most experienced artisans, Levie Benjamin Voorzanger, and his assistants.

The 1852 re-cutting

On 17 July 1852, the cutting began at the factory of Garrard & Co. in Haymarket, using a steam-powered mill built specially for the job by Maudslay, Sons and Field.[33]Under the supervision of Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington, and the technical direction of the queen’s mineralogist, James Tennant, the cutting took 38 days. Albert had spent a total of £8,000 on the operation, which reduced the weight of the diamond by around 42 percent, from 186 carats (37.2 g) to its current 105.6 carats (21.12 g).

The great loss of weight is to some extent accounted for by the fact that Voorzanger discovered several flaws, one especially big, that he found it necessary to cut away. Although Prince Albert was dissatisfied with such a huge reduction, most experts agreed that Voorzanger had made the right decision and carried out his job with impeccable skill. When Queen Victoria showed the re-cut diamond to the young Maharaja Duleep Singh, the Koh-i-Noor’s last non-British owner, he was apparently unable to speak for several minutes afterwards.

The much lighter but more dazzling stone was mounted in a brooch worn by the queen. At this time, it belonged to her personally, and was not yet part of the Crown Jewels. Although Victoria wore it often, she became uneasy about the way in which the diamond had been acquired. In a letter to her eldest daughter, Victoria, Princess Royal, she wrote in the 1870s: “No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know also how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor”.

The Crown Jewels

The Koh-i-Noor in the front cross of Queen Mary’s Crown 

After Queen Victoria’s death, the Koh-i-Noor was set in the Crown of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, that was used to crown her at their coronation in 1902. The diamond was transferred to Queen Mary’s Crown in 1911, and finally to The Queen Mother’s Crown in 1937. When the Queen Mother died in 2002, it was placed on top of her coffin for the lying-in-state and funeral.

All these crowns are on display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London with crystal replicas of the diamond set in the older crowns.  The original bracelet given to Queen Victoria can also be seen there. A glass model of the Koh-i-Noor shows visitors how it looked when it was brought to the United Kingdom. Replicas of the diamond in this and its re-cut forms can also be seen in the ‘Vault’ exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.

During the Second World War, the Crown Jewels were moved from their home at the Tower of London to Windsor Castle. In 1990, The Sunday Telegraph, citing a biography of the French army general, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, by his widow, Simonne, reported that George VI hid the Koh-i-Noor at the bottom of a pond or lake near Windsor Castle, about 32 km (20 miles) outside London, where it remained until after the war. The only people who knew of the hiding place were the king and his librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, who apparently revealed the secret to the general and his wife on their visit to England in 1949.

 Ownership dispute

The Government of India, believing the gem was rightfully theirs, first demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor as soon as independence was granted in 1947. A second request followed in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Each time, the British government rejected the claims, saying that ownership was non-negotiable.

In 1976, Pakistan asserted its ownership of the diamond, saying its return would be “a convincing demonstration of the spirit that moved Britain voluntarily to shed its imperial encumbrances and lead the process of decolonisation“. In a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, James Callaghan, wrote, “I need not remind you of the various hands through which the stone has passed over the past two centuries, nor that explicit provision for its transfer to the British crown was made in the peace treaty with the Maharajah of Lahore in 1849. I could not advise Her Majesty that it should be surrendered”.

In 2000, several members of the Indian Parliament signed a letter calling for the diamond to be given back to India, claiming it was taken illegally.  British officials said that a variety of claims meant it was impossible to establish the gem’s original owner. Later that year, the Taliban‘s foreign affairs spokesman, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, said the Koh-i-Noor was the legitimate property of Afghanistan, and demanded for it to be handed over to the regime as soon as possible. “The history of the diamond shows it was taken from us (Afghanistan) to India, and from there to Britain. We have a much better claim than the Indians”, he said.

In July 2010, while visiting India, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said of returning the diamond, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put“. On a subsequent visit in February 2013, he said, “They’re not having that back”.

In April 2016, the Indian Culture Ministry stated it would make “all possible efforts” to arrange the return of the Koh-i-Noor to India. It was despite the Indian Government earlier conceding that the diamond was a gift. The Solicitor General of India had made the announcement before the Supreme Court of India due to public interest litigation by a campaign group. He said “It was given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in the Sikh wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen object”.





Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862) at his coronation

Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862)
The elderly Mughal Emperor–eldest but not favourite son of the Emperor Akbar Shah II–was a calligrapher, Sufi, theologian, patron of painters of miniatures, creator of gardens and a very serious mystical poet. By the 1850s he held little real day-to-day power beyond the still potent mystique attached to the Mughal dynasty and was in many ways “a chessboard king.” Though he was initially horrified by the rough and desperate sepoys who barged into his palace on 11 May 1857, Zafar ultimately agreed to give his blessings to the Uprising, seeing it as the only way to save his great dynasty from extinction. It was a decision he later came to regret bitterly.


The Nawab Zinat Mahal Begum (1821-1882)
Zafar’s senior wife, and his only consort to come from an aristocratic background: when they married in 1840, she was nineteen while he was sixty-four. Having toppled her rival Taj Mahal Begum from the position of favourite wife and provided a son in the shape of Mirza Jawan Bakht, she worked single-mindedly to have her son–the fifteenth of Zafar’s sixteen boys–declared heir apparent. Zafar was widely regarded to be completely under her influence, but during 1857, the limits of her power over him became quickly apparent.

Taj Mahal Begum
The beautiful daughter of a humble court musician, Taj presided over the celebrations that accompanied Zafar’s accession to the throne in 1837 as his favourite wife and the head of his harem. Taj’s fall began when Zafar married the nineteen-year old Zinat Mahal in 1840. By 1857 she had been imprisoned for a suspected affair with Zafar’s nephew, Mirza Kamran, and remained bitterly alienated from both Zafar and Zinat Mahal.

Mirza Fakhru–aka Mirza Ghulam Fakhruddin (1818-1856)
When Zafar’s eldest son Mirza Dara Bakht, died from a fever in 1849, the British assumed that Zafar’s next son, Mirza Fakhru, would succeed him as heir apparent. Mirza Fakhru was a talented and popular poet and historian, but under the influence of Zinat Mahal, Zafar tried unsuccessfully to block his appointment as heir apparent in favour of Zinat’s fifteen-year old son, Mirza Jawan Bakht. Mirza Fakhru died in 1856, probably from cholera, but Palace gossip attributed the death to poisoning.

Mirza Mughal (1821-1857)
Zafar’s fifth son by a sayyida (descendant of the Prophet) of aristocratic birth named Sharaf ul-Mahal Sayyidani, who was a senior figure in Zafar’s harem. Mirza Mughal rose to prominence at court as a protege of Zinat Mahal after the disgrace of Mirza Fakhru in 1852 and was appointed qiladar (fort keeper). After the death of Mirza Fakhru in 1856 he was the oldest of Zafar’s surviving legitimate sons, and may at this point have contacted the discontented sepoys in the Company’s army. Certainly, from 12 May onwards he became the principal rebel leader in the royal family, and worked with great industry to keep the Delhi administration running amid the chaos of the Uprising and siege.

Mirza Khizr Sultan (1834-1857)
Zafar’s ninth son, the illegitimate child of a Palace concubine. Aged twenty-three in 1857, he was renowned for his physical beauty and had some capacity as a poet and marksman, but after throwing in his lot with the rebels in 1857, he did little to distinguish himself and ran away in fear from the battle of Badli Ki Serai, so causing a panic among the rebel troops. During the siege, he earned himself a reputation for corruption, and is frequently criticized in the sources for making arrests and collecting taxes from the town’s bankers without authority to do so.

Mirza Abu Bakr (died 1857)
Mirza Abu Bakr was the eldest son of Mirza Fakhru and Zafar’s oldest surviving legitimate grandson; he was also the principal badmash, or ruffian, in the imperial family. Within a few days of the outbreak, Mirza Abu Bakr began appearing in petitions and complaints to the Emperor, accused of whoring and drunkenness, whipping his servants, beating up watchmen, and casually attacking any policeman who tried to rein him in. He took nominal charge of the rebel cavalry, looting Gurgaon and various suburbs of Delhi, before leading the disastrous expedition to Meerut which ended in the rebel defeat at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May.

Mirza Jawan Bakht (1841-1884)
Zafar’s favourite son, and the only child he had by Zinat Mahal. Though he was the fifteenth of his sixteen male offsprings, Zafar was determined to try to make him heir apparent. Spoilt and selfish, Mirza Jawan Bakht had few supporters other than his parents, and took little interest in his studies. During the Uprising, he was kept away from the rebels by his mother, who hoped that after the sepoys’ defeat, her son’s succession would be assured.

Mirza Ilahe Bakhsh
Father-in-law of Mirza Fakhru, grandfather of Mirza Abu Bakr, and one of the leaders of the pro-British faction in the Palace, both before and after 1857. He was in close contact with William Hodson throughout the siege, and was instrumental in persuading Zafar to surrender after the fall of the city. In the weeks that followed, he was responsible for identifying which of his relatives had sympathised with the rebels, and having guaranteed his own life, at the cost of most of his family,. including his own grandson, he became known as the “Traitor of Delhi.”


Hakim Ahsanullah Khan
A highly intelligent, wily and cultured man. The Hakim was Zafar’s most trusted confidant and was appointed the prime minister and personal physician. Before 1857, the Hakim had an uneasy relationship with Zinat Mahal, but they made common cause during 1857, uniting against the rebel army and opening communication with the British. When his letters were discovered by the rebel sepoys, they tried to kill him, but he was protected by Zafar. The Hakim continued to press Zafar not to commit himself to the rebel cause, and to surrender himself to the British. When Zafar ultimately did so, the Hakim betrayed him by providing evidence against him at the trial, in return for his own pardon.

Mahbub Ali Khan (died 1857)
The Chief Eunuch of the Palace and Zinat Mahal’s notoriously ruthless “enforcer” beyond the walls of the zenana. Like his mistress, he was deeply suspicious of the Uprising, and he was a leading member of the pro-British faction in the Palace after the outbreak. His death on 14 June 1857 followed a prolonged illness, but was widely rumoured to be the result of poisoning.

Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” (1797-1869)
The greatest lyric poet in Urdu and from 1854–following the death of his rival Zauq–Poet Laureate of Mughal Delhi. A mystical Sufi by inclination, self consciously rakish and aristocratic by temperament, Ghalib in his writings provides some of the most sophisticated and melancholy records of the destruction of Mughal Delhi in the siege and fall of the city in 1857.

Zahir Dehlavi (1835-1911)
An attendant to Zafar at the Mughal court who had been working in the Fort since his thirteenth birthday. By 1857, he was twenty-two and had risen to the post of Darogah of the Mahi Maraatib, or Keeper of the Dynastic Fish Standard of the Mughals. A pupil of Zauq, he was a highly polished and cultured courtier and poet. His Dastan-i-Ghadr, which has never been previously translated or used in any English language account of the Uprising, gives the fullest and richly detailed surviving account of the course of the siege and Uprising from the point of view of the Palace.


General Bakht Khan
A subahdar of artillery prior to 1857, Bakht Khan was a much garlanded and battle-hardened veteran of the Afghan wars. A tall, portly and heavily built man with huge handlebar moustaches and sprouting sideburns, Bakht Khan had been elected general by the Bareilly troops and arrived in Delhi with a reputation as both an administrator and an effective military leader. When he arrived in Delhi halfway through the siege, on 2 July 1857, it initially looked as if Bakht Khan and his 3,000 men would bring a swift victory to the rebels, but the General’s tactless treatment of other rebel leaders–and particularly of Mirza Mughal–quickly made him enemies, as did his “Wahhabi” religious views. By the middle of August, his failure to dent the British defences led to his demotion from rebel Commander-in-Chief.

General Sudhari Singh and Brigade Major Hira Singh
The leaders of the Nimach Brigade and the principal rivals of Bakht Khan. They refused to accept the latter’s authority and worked to undermine his position, especially after he left their troops to their fate when ambushed by Nicholson’s column at Najafgarh on 25 August.

Brigade Major Gauri Shankar Sukul
Leader of the Haryana Regiment who became the most important British mole and agent provocateur within the rebel ranks.

Maulvi Sarfraz Ali
Bakht Khan’s spiritual mentor, the “Wahhabi” preacher, Maulvi was soon known as “the imam of the Mujahedin.” Prior to the Uprising, he had spent many years in Delhi and was well-connected to both the court and the city. He had been one of the first clerics to preach jihad against the British in the days leading up to the outbreak, and as the siege progressed and the number of jihadis increased, his influence as a rebel leader grew.


Munshi Jiwan Lal
Prior to the outbreak of the Uprising, Jiwan Lal had long been the hugely fat Mir Munshi (Chief Assistant) of Sir Thomas Metcalfe at the British Residency. Although restricted to the cellar of his house during much of the course of the siege, Jiwan Lal ran a highly effective intelligence operation from his hideaway, every day sending out “two Brahmins and two Jats for the purpose of obtaining news of the doings of the rebels from every quarter,” which he in due course passed on to William Hodson, the British chief of intelligence on the Ridge.

Mufti Sadruddin Khan –“Azurda” (died 1868)
Mufti Sadruddin Azurda was a close friend of both Zafar and Ghalib and played an important role as bridge between the British and Mughal elites in the early days of the British ascendancy in Delhi. For thirty years Azurda balanced his roles as chief Muslim judge (Sadr Amin) in Delhi, leading literary figure at court and prominent madrasa teacher with a mild Anglophilia. But, in 1857, alienated by the Company’s encouragement of missionaries, he threw in his lot with the rebels. A natural mediator, he was responsible for reconciling the jihadis, the court and the sepoys during the crisis over cow killing which took place during the ‘Id of 1 August 1857′, so avoiding a potential civil war within the rebel ranks.

Muinuddin Husain Khan
At the outbreak of the Uprising, Muinuddin Husain Khan was the Thanadar, or Head Police Officer at Paharganj police station, a little to the southwest of the walled city.

Sarvar ul-Mulk
A young Mughal nobleman, probably aged around twelve at the time of the outbreak. During the conflict, his Afghan tutor became a jihadi and his father had to defend the family house against the assaults of plundering sepoys. The family escaped from the city just after 14 September, and made it safely to Hyderabad, where Sarvar ul-Mulk eventually wrote a fine description of the siege in his autobiography, My Life.


The Metcalfes

Sir Charles Metcalfe (1785-1846)
The first of the Metcalfes to come to Delhi, in his first spell–initially as assistant to Sir David Ochterloney from 1806, and as Resident from 1811–Charles Metcalfe had fitted in with the tone set by his principal, building himself a house in the Mughal Shalimar Gardens and fathering three sons by a Sikh bibi who (according to family tradition), he married “by Indian rites.” By the time of his return to Delhi as Resident in 1826, Metcalfe had however jettisoned his bibi and begun to take a very different attitude to India and its Mughal rulers. “I have renounced my former allegiance to the house of Timur,” he announced to Lord Bentinck in a letter of 1832, shortly after he had left Delhi to take up position as Member of the Council in Calcutta.

Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853)
Sir Thomas arrived in Delhi in 1813 as assistant to his elder brother, Sir Charles Metcalfe, and stayed there for his entire career, rising to become Resident in 1835. A very particular and fastidious man, Metcalfe dedicated much of his professional life to negotiating a succession settlement that would allow the Company to expel the royal family from the Red Fort on the death of Zafar. He had some affection, but little real respect for the man he was determined should be the last of the Timurid line. Although to Zafar’s face he was always polite, in private, he was less generous. “Zafar is mild and talented,” he wrote, “but lamentably weak and vacillating, and impressed with a very erroneous notion of his own importance.” Having negotiated a succession agreement with Mirza Fakhru that entailed the Mughals leaving the Red Fort, Metcalfe died in 1853 from a digestive disorder that his doctors believed was caused by poison. His family believed the poison was administered on the orders of Zinat Mahal.

Sir Theophilus Metcalfe –“Theo” (1828-1883)
In 1857 Theo Metcalfe was a junior magistrate in the Company’s service, and a very different figure from his father: Where Sir Thomas was reserved and particular; Theo was sociable and expansive, and also, when he wished to be, extremely charming. If his father liked solitude and disliked the business of entertaining, Theo was noisy and convivial, and enjoyed parties, riding horses and dogs. If his father was resolutely self-disciplined and law abiding, Theo tended to cut corners and get into what his father described as “scrapes.” At the outbreak of the Uprising on 11 May 1857, Theo was one of the only British officials within the walls successfully to make his escape, and after joining the Delhi Field Force he took the lead in the bloodthirsty work of revenge.

Sir Edward Campbell (1822-1882)
Son-in-law of Sir Thomas Metcalfe and Prize Agent during the siege of Delhi. Campbell had been a protege of Sir Charles Napier, the former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India, with whom Sir Thomas Metcalfe had had a serious disagreement. Moreover, despite his title, Campbell was more or less penniless, all of which led Sir Thomas initially to try and block Campbell’s engagement to his daughter Georgina (known in the family as “GG”). Campbell’s regiment, the 60th Rifles, was one of the first to try out the new Enfield rifles; after his regiment mutinied, Campbell joined the Delhi Field Force on the Ridge and at the end of the siege was voted Prize Agent, responsible for administering the legalised looting of the captured city, a job for which his gentle and religious temperament was quite unsuited. 


Reverend Midgeley John Jennings (died 1857)
Padre Jennings had come out to India in 1832, and though initially posted to various quiet hill stations, had long dreamt of opening a mission in Delhi and getting stuck into some serious work as “Missionary to the Heathen.”  He finally got the job of chaplain in the Mughal capital in 1852 and moved straight into the front line, the Red Fort itself, having been invited to share the Lahore Gate lodgings of Captain Douglas, Commander of the Palace Guard. His unctuous yet tactless manner won him few friends, and he was regarded as a “bigot” by much of the British community in Delhi. The people of Delhi disliked him even more, especially after he succeeded in converting two prominent Delhi Hindus–Master Ramchandra and Chiman Lal–in 1852. Jennings was personally responsible for convincing many of the people of Delhi that the Company intended to convert them, by force if necessary.

Robert and Harriet Tytler

Robert and Harriet Tytler (Robert died 1872; Harriet died 1907)
Tytler was a veteran of the 38th Native Infantry and an officer of the old school who was close to his sepoys, concerned for their well-being and completely fluent in Hindustani. Tytler appears t have been a kind and sensitive man, a widower with two little children who had recently remarried, this time to the brisk and resilient Harriet. Harriet was half his age and as fluent in Hindustani as her husband. Together the two Tytlers pursued their amateur artistic enthusiasms, and unexpectedly for an army couple–became pioneering photographers. At the outbreak, the couple escaped from Delhi to Ambala, where they eventually joined the Delhi Field Force. Harriet’s memoirs are among the best sources on life on the Ridge during the siege of Delhi, and on the fate of the city after the fall.

Edward Vibart
In 1857 Edward Vibart of the 54th Bengal Native Infantry was a nineteen-year old company commander in Delhi, from an Indian army family: his father was a cavalry officer in Kanpur. During the Uprising, Vibart’s father was killed at the Kanpur massacre, while the son narrowly escaped from the city at the outbreak and survived to take part in the siege and recapture. His memoirs, and particularly his letters, are one of the best sources for the atrocities committed by the British during the taking of the city and during the extended reprisals that followed.


General Sir Archdale Wilson

General Sir Archdale Wilson (1803-1874)
A small, neat, cautious gentleman of fifty-four; Archdale Wilson was one of the station commanders at Meerut at the outbreak of the Mutiny, and later led a column from the garrison which defeated Mirza Abu Bakr at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May. He rendezvoused with the Delhi Field Force at Alipore shortly before the battle of Badli ki Serai on 8 June. Following the death of General Barnard and the resignation of General Reed, he took over command of British forces at the siege of Delhi from 17 July. He quickly put in place a defensive strategy, much criticised at the time but which successfully preserved British strength until reinforcements arrived shortly before the assault on 14 September. During the taking of the city, Wilson’s nerve finally failed him, and at one point John Nicholson threatened to shoot him if he should order a retreat.


Brigadier General John Nicholson

Brigadier General John Nicholson (1821-1857)
A taciturn Ulster Protestant, Nicholas was said to have personally decapitated a local robber chieftain, then kept the man’s head on his desk. He had “a commanding presence, some six feet, two inches in height, with a long black beard, dark grey eyes with black pupils which under excitement would dilate like a tiger’s. For reasons that remain unclear, Nicholson inspired a religious sect, the “Nikal Seyn,” who apparently regarded him as an incarnation of Vishnu.
During the Uprising Nicholson became a legend among the British in India. His mixture of piety, gravity and courage, combined with his merciless capacity for extreme brutality were exactly the qualities needed to put heart into the British troops on the Ridge. There were few who remained immune to the hero-worship of this great imperial psychopath. Shortly after his arrival at the siege, Nicholson led a forced march to ambush a column of sepoys at Najafgarh on 25 August. On 14 September he personally led the assault on the city and was mortally wounded the same day.


William Hodson

William Hodson (1821-1858)
Prior to 1857, William Hodson had been regarded by most of his colleagues as a black sheep. Hodson was the bright, university-educated son of a clergyman, and had risen rapidly to be Adjutant of the new Corps of Guides. His fall from grace was equally sudden. In 1854, Hodson was relieved of his command after an investigation declared that he had embezzled regimental funds. During the Uprising, he founded an irregular cavalry regiment known as Hodson’s Horse, and ran the remarkably efficient British intelligence service on the Delhi Ridge.
On his own authority he negotiated the surrender of Zafar and Zinat Mahal, and on 21 September he brought them captive into Delhi. The following day he went back to bring in princes Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Abu Bakr; then, having separated them from their followers, disarmed them. He told them to strip naked and shot all three dead at point-blank range. He was killed a few months later, in March 1858, at the siege of Lucknow.


Lord Canning (1821-1862)
Canning was a handsome and industrious–if somewhat reserved–Tory politician in his early forties, who had accepted the appointment of Governor General of India ony because of his frustration at his consistent failure to gain a senior Cabinet berth in London. Before his departure he had had no previous interest in India, and having only arrived there in February 1856 hadf yet to leave the heat and damp of Calcutta by the time of the outbreak. However, none of this prevented him from taking a confidently dismissive attitude towards “the farce of Mughal pretensions” and putting in place plans to depose the Mughals within a few weeks of his arrival. After the suppression of the Uprising, he attempted to limit the vindictiveness of the bloody British retribution, with mixed results.

Sir John Lawrence (1811-1879)
Younger brother of Sir Henry Lawrence, who in 1857 was Chief Commissioner in Avadh. Sir John was a former deputy of Sir Thomas Metcalfe in Delhi. John Lawrence had risen rapidly through the ranks of the Company’s civil service thanks to his reputation for hard work and efficiency, and in 1853, he was made Chief Commissioner of the newly conquered Punjab. He forbade his officers from going up to the hills for the hot weather, and made known his disapproval of “a cakery man,” by which he meant someone who, besides presumably liking cakes, “pretended to much elegance and refinement.” In 1857, he proved to be arguably the most capable of all the British officials in North India, disarming mutinous sepoys, raising new irregular regiments and quickly pacifying the Punjab so that the maximum number of troops could be sent to the Delhi Ridge. After the fall of the city, he worked hard to minimise the scale of the retribution, and personally saved Mughal Delhi from a plan to level the entire metropolis.

By courtesy:





Bahadur Shah II


At 4 P.M. on a hazy, humid winter’s afternoon in Rangoon in November 1862, soon after the end of the monsoon, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure. This enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon River, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Around the enclosure lay the newly constructed cantonment area of the port–an anchorage and pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier.

The bier of the State Prisoner–as the deceased was referred to–was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards. Nevertheless, one or two managed to break through the cordon to touch the shroud before it was lowered into the grave.

The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not that only the grave was already dug, but that quantities of lime were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited– no lamentations or panegyrics were allowed–the earth was thrown in over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or so no mark would remain to indicate the place of burial. A week later the British Commissioner, Captain H.N. Davies, wrote to London to report what had passed, adding:

In captivity clockwise: Former Empress Zinat Mahal; Jawan Bakht (son of Zinat Mahal) and son, Mirza Shah Abbas. Zinat Mahal in 1872 in captivity in Rangoon. 

Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners–the very scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct. None of the family appear much affected by the death of the bed-ridden old man. His death was evidently due to pure decrepitude and paralysis in the region of the throat. He expired at 5 o’ clock on the morning of the funeral. The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the population of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Mughals rests.

The State Prisoner Davies referred to was more properly known as Bahadur Shah II, known from his pen-name as Zafar, meaning “Victory”. Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and the descendant of the great world-conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur. His more immediate ancestor Zahir-ud-Din Babur (1483-1530), a young Turkish poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia had first descended the Khyber Pass into India in 1526 with only a small army of hand-picked followers. But with him he brought some of the first cannon seen in Hindustan*, and he used them to carve out a principality that his grandson Akbar (1542-1605) expanded to include most of northern India.

  • Hindustan refers to the region of northern India encompassing the modern Indian states of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where Hindustani is spoken. While the term “India” is relatively rarely used in nineteenth-century Urdu sources, thee is a strong consciousness of the existence of Hindustan as a unit, with Delhi as its political centre. This was the area that was most seriously convulsed in 1857.

The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history. For many, the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilization at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, raised in Agra in memory of his favourite Queen, or the fabulously intricate miniatures of the Padshahnama and the other great Mughal manuscripts.

The Mughals also define Islam at its most tolerant and pluralistic. Their Empire was built in coalition with India’s Hindu majority, particularly the Rajput clans of Rajasthan, who formed a large part of their army. Indeed, the Mughals succeeded almost as much through tact and conciliation as realpolitik was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the Empire’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.

This was particularly so of the Emperor Akbar. He issued an edict of sulh-i-kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.

At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome, Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, entrusted his army to his former enemy, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 By the mid-seventeenth century, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan (1592-1666) ruled an empire that covered most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan. Its army appeared near-invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many shrines quite literally glittered with gold.

But what was built by the tact and conciliation of the first five of the Great Mughals was destroyed by the harsh and repressive rule of the sixth. Shah Jehan’s son Aurangzeb was a ruler as bigoted as the best of his predecessors had been tolerant. The Islamic ‘ulama’ were given a free hand to impose the harshest strictures of sharia law. The playing of music was banned, as was wine-drinking, hashish smoking and prostitution. Hindu temples across the country were destroyed. Aurangzeb re-imposed the jizya tax on Hindus, and executed Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the great teachers of the Sikhs. The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened, literally tore the country in two. On his death in 1707, the Empire fragmented.

By the time Zafar was born in 1775, sixty-eight years after the burial of Aurangzeb, the days of the Mughal Imperium were long gone; but the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India, looking inwards from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime, however, Zafar lived to see his own dynasty finally reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from relatively vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.

Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-sixties, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this, he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi, a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a  profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage,  there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history. Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest lyric poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq–the Mughal Poet Laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart.

While the British progressively took over more and more of the Mughal Emperor’s power, removing his name from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in the obsessive pursuit of the most  cleverly turned ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia, Sufi devotions and visits to pirs, as literary and religious ambition replaced the political variety.

The most closely focused record of the Red Fort at this period is the court diary kept by a news writer for the British Resident, now in the National Archives of India, which contains a detailed day-by-day picture of Zafar’s life. The Last Emperor appears as a benign old man with impeccable manners–even when treated with extreme rudeness by the British. Daily he has olive oil rubbed into his feet to soothe his aches; occasionally he rouses himself to visit a garden, go on a hunting expedition or host a mushaira. Evenings were spent “enjoying the moonlight,” listening to singers or eating fresh mangoes. All the while the aged Emperor tries to contain the infidelities of his young concubines, one of whom becomes pregnant by the most distinguished of the court musicians.

Then, on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys* and cavalry men from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony an subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet Zafar was not a natural insurgent either.

*A sepoy is an Indian infantry private, in this case in the employ o he British East India Company. The word derives from sipahi, the Persian for soldier.

It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an Uprising that  he strongly suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officer less army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military  power, albeit one that had just lost the great majority of the Indian recruits to its Bengal army.

The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. No foreign army was in a position to intervene to support the rebels, and they had limited ammunition, no money and few supplies. The chaos and anarchy that erupted in the countryside proved far more effective at blockading Delhi than the efforts at besieging the city attempted by the British from their perch on the Ridge. The price of food escalated and supplies rapidly dwindled. Soon both the people of Delhi and the sepoys were on the edge of starvation.

The siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom would retreat. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides th combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla* alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1400 citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a nineteen-year old British officer.

It was literally murder . . . I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, we’re most painful . . .Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference . . .

A *muhalla is a distinct quarter or neighborhood of a Mughal city–i.e., a group of residential lanes usually entered through a single gate which would be locked at night.

Captain William Hodson

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then told to strip naked:

“In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,”

Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day.

“I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”

Zafar himself was put on show to visitors. Displayed “like beast in a cage,” according to one British officer. Among his visitors was the Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was told that the prisoner was the mastermind of the most serious armed act of resistance to Western colonialism. He was a “dim, wandering eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote Russell.

Was he, indeed, one who had conceived that vast plan of restoring a great empire, who had fomented the most gigantic mutiny in the history of the world? Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed . . .his eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age . . .Some heard him quoting verses of his own companions, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.

Russell was suitably sceptical of the charges being levelled against Zafar: “He was called ungrateful for rising against his benefactors,” he wrote.

He was no doubt a weak and cruel old man; but to talk of ingratitude on the part of one who saw that all the dominions of his ancestors had been gradually taken from him until he was left with an empty title, and more empty exchequer, and a palace full of penniless princesses, is perfectly preposterous . . .

Nevertheless, the following month Zafar was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved Delhi on a bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken-hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday, 7 November 1862, aged eighty-seven.

With Zafar’s departure, there was complete collapse of the fragile court culture he had faithfully nourished and exemplified. As Ghalib noted: “All things lasted only so long as the king reigned.” By the time of Zafar’s death, much of his palace, the Red Fort, had already been torn down along with great areas of the Mughal Delhi he loved and beautified. Meanwhile the great majority of its leading inhabitants and courtiers–poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars– had been hunted down and hanged, or else dispersed and exiled, many to the Raj’s new, specially constructed gulag in the Andaman Islands. Those who were spared were left in humiliating and conspicuous poverty. As Ghalib, one of the few survivors from the old court, lamented,

“The male descendants of the deposed King–such as survived the sword–draw allowances of five rupees a month. Th female descendants if old are bawds, and if young, are prostitutes.”
The city has become a desert . . . By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment. No Fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses . . . Four things kept Delhi alive– the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower- men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes, there was once a city of that name in the realm of India. . .

We smashed the wine cup and the flask;
What is it now to us
If all the rain that falls from heaven
Should turn to rose- red wine?

By courtesy:



A Life Well Spent On All Counts

The Testament of Mr. Jinnah 1876-1948 

Cigar in hand, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah looking on quizzically as he was being photographed at the Cecil Hotel, Simla, in 1944. | Photo: National Archives Islamabad

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have yet been resolved?

On August 11, 1947, when Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed the first democratically elected Constituent Assembly of his newly independent nation, he told Pakistan’s political leaders that

the first duty of government” was to maintain “law and order … so that the life, property, and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the state.”

Their “second duty,” he continued, was to prevent and punish

“bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down … as soon as possible.” Another “curse,” he added, “was black-marketing … a colossal crime against society, in our distressed condition, when we constantly face shortage of food.”
“If we want to make this great state of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor … If you will work … together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state … We are all citizens and equal citizens of one state.”

Mohammad Ali Jinnah devoted the last two decades of his life to the relentless struggle to realize his brilliant and beautiful dream of an independent state of Pakistan, born just 70 years ago out of the Muslim majority regions of partitioned British India.

Sent to London by his father to study business management, young Jinnah’s fascination with politics was ignited by the Congress Party’s president Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi whose campaign in the British parliament, demanding liberty, equality and justice for all Indians, lured Jinnah to work hard for him, helping Congress’s ‘Grand Old Man’ win his seat by only three votes, after which he was called ‘Mr. Narrow-Majority’.

Jinnah joined the Congress as Dadabhai’s secretary, and enrolled in the City of London’s Lincoln’s Inn, deciding to study law instead of business. His portrait still hangs in that Inn’s hall, its only Asian-born barrister to become governor general of a Commonwealth nation. After he returned to India, Jinnah also joined the Muslim League, brilliantly drafting the Lucknow Pact in l9l6, which was adopted by both the Congress and the Muslim League, as their post-World War I demand for Dominion status in Britain’s Commonwealth.

He launched his singularly successful career as a barrister in Bombay, rather than in his smaller birthplace, Karachi, which was destined to become Pakistan’s first capital. Before the end of the War, Jinnah ‘s negotiating skills and wise moderation earned him the sobriquet, ‘Best Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’. Throughout World War I, both Jinnah and Gandhi had supported the British cause, as did the Indian princes. Brave Muslims of Punjab were recruited to help hold the Maginot Line in France, and to fight and die in Mesopotamia. Congress and the League had hoped that such loyal service would be rewarded with freedom at the end of the War, or at least the promise of Dominion status. Instead, India was forced to accept martial ‘law’ regulations, extended indefinitely, and a brutal massacre of unarmed Sikh peasants in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, leaving 400 innocents dead and over 1,200 wounded.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah enjoying a boat ride, possibly in Dhaka, in the early 1940s. Standing on the left [wearing sherwani] is Khawaja Nazimuddin, who was at the time the Premier of Bengal. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)
Jinnah immediately resigned from the prestigious ‘Muslim seat’ from Bombay he’d been elected to on the Governor General’s Council, arguing that the

fundamental principles of justice have been uprooted and the constitutional rights of the people have been violated at a time when there is no real danger to the state, by an over-fretful and incompetent bureaucracy which is neither responsible to the people nor in touch with real public opinion”.

Gandhi launched his first nationwide Satyagraha in response to Britain’s post-War ‘black acts’ and the Punjab murders. Jinnah, on his part, tried unsuccessfully to caution him against inciting Congress’s masses, who cheered the Mahatma’s revolutionary calls to boycott everything British, including all imported cotton goods from Britain’s midlands, and every British school as well as all commercial and legal institutions.

Jinnah cautioned Gandhi that his movement would lead to greater violence and disaster, but Gandhi insisted that non-violence (Ahimsa) was sacred to him, and Jinnah was booed out of Congress’s largest meeting for calling their Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi – “Mister” Gandhi. Jinnah felt obliged to resign from Congress, and returned to London to live, and practise law, in Hampstead with his sister, Fatima, and teen-aged daughter Dina. But soon Liaquat Ali Khan and other League stalwarts convinced him to return to India to revitalise the Muslim League, over which he would preside for the rest of his life.

“We must stand on our own inherent strength … It is no use blaming others,” Jinnah told the League in Karachi. “It is no use expecting our enemies to behave differently.”

To young Muslims who complained to him about the behaviour of inept League leaders, Jinnah replied, as he might admonish today’s youth: “It is your organisation … no use keeping out and finding faults with it. Come in, and … put it right.”

Faced with Congress’s revolutionary movement, from which most Muslim leaders were alienated, the British tried to win back mass support by holding provincial elections in 1937, devolving regional powers to popularly elected cabinets. Nehru campaigned most vigorously nationwide and led Congress to victory in seven of the 11 British Provinces. Jinnah’s Muslim League, however, faced with a number of competing Muslim regional parties, failed to capture even a single Province with a Muslim majority.

Young Nehru’s heady victory increased his arrogance and contempt for Jinnah, to whom he replied when Jinnah suggested joint cabinets for India’s large multi-ethnic provinces. “Line up!” Jawaharlal shouted. “There are only two parties” left in India, “Congress and the British”. Jinnah insisted, however, that there was a “Third Party; the Muslims!”

“Unless the parties learn to respect and fear each other,” Jinnah told the League, “there is no solid ground for any settlement. We have to organise our people, to build up the Muslim masses for a better world and for their immediate uplift, social and economic, and we have to formulate plans of a constructive and ameliorative character, to give immediate relief from the poverty and wretchedness from which they are suffering.”
Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Khawaja Nazimuddin during the former’s visit to Dhaka in April, 1948. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

Jinnah never again attempted to convince Nehru to agree to Congress-League cabinets, no longer wishing to link the League to Congress’s lumbering bullock-cart of a Party, insisting that the Congress

has now killed every hope of Hindu-Muslim settlement in the right royal fashion of Fascism … We Muslims want no gifts … no concessions. We Muslims of India have made up our mind to secure full rights, but we shall have them as rights … The Congress is nothing but a Hindu body.”

In Lucknow, in December 1937, wearing his black astrakhan Jinnah cap and long dark sherwani, instead of a British barrister’s suit, Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Jinnah presided over his League, assembled in the Raja of Mahmudabad’s garden.

Your foremost duty is to formulate a constructive programme of work for the people’s welfare … Equip yourselves as trained and disciplined soldiers. Create the feeling … of comradeship amongst yourselves. Work loyally, honestly and for the cause of your people and your country. No individual or people can achieve anything without industry, suffering and sacrifice. There are forces which may bully you, tyrannize over you … But it is by going through this crucible of the fire of persecution which may be levelled against you … that a nation will emerge, worthy of its past glory and history, and will live to make the future history greater and more glorious. Eighty millions of Musalmans in India have nothing to fear. They have their destiny in their hands, and as a well-knit, solid, organised, united force can face any danger to its united front and wishes.”

Throughout 1938 and 1939 Jinnah devoted himself to building the strength of the League, advancing it from a few thousand members at Lucknow to half-a-million by March, l940, when the League held its greatest meeting, demanding the creation of Pakistan, in the beautiful imperial Mughal Gardens of Punjab’s mighty capital.

“The Musalmans are a nation,”

Jinnah announced.

“The problem of India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” To “secure the peace and happiness of the people of this subcontinent,” Jinnah added, the British must divide India into “autonomous national states.” 

Pakistan was not mentioned in his speech, however, and every member of the press asked him the next day if he meant one or two new states, since Bengal’s Muslim leader, Fazlul Huq, had chaired the resolutions’ committee that proposed partition the day before Jinnah spoke.

Jinnah knew by then that his lungs were fatally afflicted with cigarette smoke, coughing up blood. He couldn’t wait for Congress and the British to agree to the birth of what later became Bangladesh. So he insisted that his League meant one Pakistan, though divided by a thousand miles of North India.

When the last British Viceroy, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, urged Jinnah to accept him as joint governor general of Pakistan as well as of independent India, the job Nehru offered Mountbatten, Jinnah refused, never charmed by the Royal Mountbattens, as was Nehru, insisting on serving himself as Pakistan’s governor general.

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have as yet been resolved? And of late senseless terrorist murders have been added to Pakistan’s list of dreadful crimes against its innocent, impoverished people, helpless women and children, as well as devout Muslims bent in their prayers even inside the most beautiful mosques of Karachi, Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere.

Jinnah worked tirelessly for Pakistan to become a great nation basking in the sunshine and joy of freedom, enriched by citizens of every faith – Parsis and Hindus, Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims of every sect – all working together, harmoniously helping each other to build this Land of the Pure into one of the world’s strongest, wisest, richest countries. That was what the Great Leader dreamed his nation could and would become long before Pakistan’s birth.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah smiling as he was welcomed at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Karachi in 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

 It would never be easy, he knew, yet Jinnah tried his best to remind his followers of what they needed to do, shortly before Pakistan’s birth, when he had little more than one year left to breathe, losing more blood every day from his diseased lungs.

Often asked by disciples, “What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at?”, Jinnah replied:

It is not theocracy – not for a theocratic state. Religion is there, and religion is dear to us. All the worldly goods are nothing to us when we talk of religion, but there are other things which are very vital – our social life, our economic life …We Muslims have got everything … brains, intelligence, capacity and courage – virtues that nations must possess … But two things are lacking, and I want you to concentrate your attention on these.
One thing is that foreign domination from without and Hindu domination here, particularly in our economic life, has caused a certain degeneration of these virtues in us. We have lost the fullness of our noble character. And what is character? The highest sense of honour and the highest sense of integrity, conviction, incorruptibility, readiness at any time to efface oneself for the collective good of the nation.”

His legacy of wisdom was worthy of the Quaid-i-Azam, who lived a life honouring justice and fair play. Every Pakistani must remember that Jinnah’s fearless integrity would never sanction any terrorist murder, nor the violent abuse of any man, woman or child in his noble Land of the Pure.


Feature Image: Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah autographs his portrait at a reception held in Karachi in December 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID) 

A life well spent on all counts by Stanley Wolpert. The writer is a historian and a well-known biographer, among others, of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Al Jinnah.

Courtesy of 







HBL has been an indelible part of the nation’s fabric since independence, enabling the dreams of millions of Pakistanis. At HBL, we salute the dreamers and dedicate the nation’s 70th anniversary to you. Jahan Khwab, Wahan HBL


Slavery under a different name

100 years since servitude. A century after India stopped sending migrants to work in European colonies, how have their descendants fared?

Mauritius: Dookhee Gungah, born of Indian migrants, began life in 1867 in a shed, and worked as a child cutting sugar cane. By his death in 1944, he was one of the island’s richest businessman. He is a notable example of how some indentured labourers prospered against the odds. Between the 1830s and 1917 around 2 million migrants signed up for ten-year terms (later cut to five) in European colonies. Most were from India, with smaller shares from China, South-East Asia and elsewhere. Some “coolies” were fleeing poverty and hunger; others were coerced or deceived. In British colonies from 1834, and in French and Dutch ones from later, they replaced freed African slaves on sugar and coffee plantations.

“Slavery under a different name” is how the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society described the indenture system in 1839. It had a point. Many migrants died enroute, and at first plantation owners, used to slaves, treated their new workers hardly any better. But conditions gradually improved. When the Indian Legislative Council finally ended indenture, a century ago, it did so because of pressure from Indian nationalists and declining profitability, rather than from humanitarian concerns.

The indentured labourers’ fortunes varied from place to place, according to their numbers, who else lived there, and laws about land tenure and race. But a shared post-colonial identity is now emerging, combining pride in India’s economic rise, religious and cultural traditions-and, increasingly, commemoration of their ancestors’ struggles to establish themselves.

Indo-Mauritians are among the richest and most politically powerful of those descendants. As a British colony, Mauritius took the greatest share of indentured migrants: some 450,000. Their descendants are now two-thirds of the island’s 1.26 million inhabitants. Many of the largest businesses are owned by Franco-Mauritians whose ancestors dated from the earlier French colonisation, though they make up just 2% of the population. But Indo-Mauritians dominate the public sector.

Dookhee Gungah with family, 3rd man from left around 1912

Local legend has it that Dookhee owed his meteoric rise to finding buried treasure. The true story, says his great-grandson, Swetam Gungah, is that “whatever little he had, he would put it aside.” Unlike slaves, indentured labourers were paid, and since most were unable to leave their plantations, they spent little.

Aged 21 Dookhee bought land and started growing sugar cane. “He was savvy enough to diversify. He planted an orchard, started a bakery and much more,” says Mr. Gungah. When the price of sugar plummeted in the 1880s most plantation owners went broke. Dookhee got richer. Other former indentured labourers were also able to buy broke colonists out.

By 1933 Indo-Mauritians owned almost two-fifths of all land planted with sugar cane.

South Africa: land also gave indentured labourers a start, where many were granted plots after their servitude. Koshir Kassie’s great grandfather arrived in the province of Natal and worked on a plantation and then in a gold mine. He saved enough to pay his employer to end his contract early, and bought land. But under apartheid many Indian South Africans, including Mr. Kassie’s family, were forced off their land and into Indian townships.

After indenture, Indians built themselves up,” says Mr. Kassie. “Then came apartheid and they had to start again.”

Many managed to rebuild. Today, Indian South Africans’ average income is three times higher than that of black South Africans, and they are nearly twice as likely to have finished high school. But these days they are politically marginalised. In the first democratic elections in 1994, two thirds voted for the National Party, which had previously defended apartheid. Those with less education particularly resent South Africa’s new system of racial preference in jobs and education for blacks.

Trinidad (seeds in fertile ground): indentured labourers were also granted land. That was less generous than it seems: much of it was ill-suited to growing sugar cane. The Indians, however, discovered it was perfect for rice. Many prospered. But in both places, though people of Indian origin are the largest ethnic group (35% and 40% respectively), they have struggled to gain the level of influence that Indo-Mauritians have. In Mauritius the departing British colonists regarded Indians as the heirs to power. In Trinidad, however, the mantle was passed to Afro-Trinidadians, who were settled decades before indentured labourers arrived. Politics and the public sector operated through a patronage system, which kept Afro-Trinidadians in charge. Even after independence in 1962, Indo-Trinidadians were largely excluded from government and public service tor jobs.
Today, politics is still divided on ethnic lines, with the People’s National Movement supported by Afro-Trinidadians and the People’s Partnership coalition supported by Indo-Trinidadians. But socially, the groups are mingling more-and increasingly intermarrying.

Nearly a quarter of the population identifies as mixed race.

Guyana (formerly British Guiana): ethnic divisions cut much deeper. Compared with Trinidad, its sheer size meant ethnic groups formed more segregated communities. A fragile inter-ethnic harmony, nonetheless, prevailed for the first half of the 20th century. That ended in 1964, when a pre-election conflict broke out between the largely Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress and the largely Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party.

The resulting violence led to hundreds of deaths and thousands fleeing abroad.

Ethnic divisions persisted after independence in 1966, and were worsened by economic hardship. Even as Trinidad boomed because of oil, disastrous left-wing policies reduced resource-rich Guyana to one of South America’s poorest countries. But in 2015 a multi-racial coalition came to power, promising unity. Although change is slow-the government is still mostly Afro-Guyanese and Mr. Ali says Indo-Guyanese who joined the coalition have been called traitors–elections in 2020 offer another glimmer of hope. Younger Guyanese are further distanced from the events of the 1960s.

The mixed-race population, now around 20%, is growing.

Fiji: indentured workers’ descendants have done least well where their ancestors could not own land, as in Fiji. Its indigenous population resented the new arrivals, and the British made promises about land ownership to their tribal chiefs. Many Indo-Fijians became tenant farmers, and for part of the 20th century did quite well, says Crispin Bates, who leads a project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled “Becoming Coolies“. But when their leases came to an end, starting in the 1980s, their status declined.

Sporadic attempts to improve their position after independence in 1970 ended with a coup in 1987. A new constitution reserved majority for ethnic Fijian in both houses of parliament. Over 10,000 Indo-Fijians left the island as a result. Two further coups centered their rights. Finally, in 2013 Indo-Fijians were given equal status in the constitution. And in 2014, in free elections, Frank Bainimarama (who led the most recent coup, in 2006) won with an anti-racist message. His task is considerable: though land has been made easier to lease,

holdings by ethnic Fijians still cannot be sold. Indo-Fijians are still excluded-and ethnic Fijian are newly aggrieved. Anti-Indian sentiment is rampant.

Pride and prejudice: in most places that took indentured labourers, racial animus persists. Their arrival was “a real trauma” for indigenous and former slave-populations, says Mr. Bates. In Trinidad and Guyana “coolie” is used as a slur (and the Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadians have plenty of racist terms for their compatriots of African original). In Fiji and the French Caribbean “z’Indiens” are stereotyped as money-grubbing, and mocked in expressions such as “fair con an coolie” (“weak as a coolie” in Guadeloupe creole). In the 1970s, a Fijian politician, Sakesai Butadroka, said in Parliament that “people of Indian origin” should be “repatriated back to India“. As recently as 2014 a popular song by the Zulu band, AmaCde, called on black Southern Africans to confront Indians and “send them home“.

Strangers in strange lands, indentured labourers and their descendants preserved some traditions, from caste practices to recipes. From the 1880s the Arya Samaj, a religious group, attempted to reinstate Hindu culture in the diaspora–which rallied in turn, behind Gandhi’s Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. During periods of ethnic strife in the 20th century hyphenated-Indian communities turned inwards for self-protection.

In recent years, though a new kind of “Indian pride” has begun to take form. Mauritius has had strong links with India since post-independence, tax and trade deals. But of a recent visit to Mauritius, Ashutosh Kumar, the author of a new book about indenture, ” Coolies of the Empire“, says “the way Mauritian were discussing Indian politics: it was like I was back home in India.”

In Trinidad, which got its first Indo-Trinidadian prime minister in 1995, there is “a new sense of Indian cultural pride“, says Andil Gosine, an Indo-Trinidadian academic in Canada. “When I go back now I see loads of people wearing saris which they wouldn’t have done before.”

This cultural really revivalism is, to some extent, the work of Hindu nationalists, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Prasad (World Hindu Council). It has recently devoted more attention to the diaspora-which stirred up tensions between Hindus and Muslims. More is due to India’s rise as an economic power. Diaspora Indians are seeking to “bask in the reflected glory of their motherland”, says Mr. Kumar.

Khal Torabully, a Mauritian poet of mixed Indian descent, has coined the word “coolitude” for a new identity, which mixes heritage from India and the other sending countries with a century of history in racially diverse former colonies. Acknowledging their ancestors’ servitude as part of that can be uncomfortable. Indian South Africans are “proud to be an Indian“, says Mr. Kassie, but “don’t like to talk about indenture much”.

Making sense of displacement and difference, struggle and success, is also a work in progress for host countries. But some have started to weave the history of indentured labourers into their national narratives. In 2006 Aapravasi Ghat, where they first arrived in Mauritius, was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. In the same year the Indian Caribbean Museum opened in Waterloo, Trinidad. Last year the 1860 Indian Museum, dedicated to indenture, opened in Durban.

We still have a lot of problems to think of ourselves as Mauritians,” says Mr. Torabully. “But remembering indenture, just as we remember slavery, is at the heart of that identity.”
2017-09-10 18.39.00 (1)
Indentured Labour in the Age of Imperialism

 By courtesy: The Economist Sept. 2, 2017

The Indian Crowd and Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Sometimes in the early 1820s a sailor from Devon in south-west England arrived in Calcutta to work as a river pilot. He met an English girl and they married in Calcutta Cathedral. John and Julia started a family that stayed in India until Indian opposition to British rule forced them to leave. The Indian careers of its members allowed the Dyer family to climb the social ladder. The couple’s three sons became technicians and surveyors. Their four daughters married into East India Company service families. Their second son was on track to become an engineer before he noticed the demand for beer from European soldiers. At Kassauli, a military town in the foothills of the Himalayas, Edward Dyer founded India’s first modern brewery, two years before the great insurrection of 1857. There, he made the beer that would-be India’s best seller for a century, naming it ‘Lion’ after the animal which symbolized British power.

Edward’s children continued he pattern of becoming ancillary staff to the imperial regime, building careers based on positions based on positions of small-scale domination over local Indian populations. Some became engineers. Most joined the army. So, when John Dyer’s grandson Reginald arrived to violent protests in Amritsar on 11 April 1919, he faced a challenge to his family’s way of life, not just a movement resisting the British state.

The First World War had left India in a state of economic crisis and political upheaval. To suppress dissent, the government extended wartime restrictions on civil liberties. The Indian National Congress declared a general strike. Indian leaders called for protests to be peaceful, but, as demonstrators were killed and arrested, rioting started to spread.

Imperial troops fired on crowds in Delhi on 30 March.
Aircraft machine- gunned people from the air at Gujranwala the following week.
At Ahmedabad rioters killed European officers and crowds were fired on.

Dyerism:  The worst violence, on both sides, occurred in the city of Amritsar in Punjab. Motivated by economic hardship and the government’s anxious suppression of dissent, crowds gathered to protest everything from the refusal of the railways to allow platform tickets to the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire. At the beginning of April 1919, the imperial authorities accused Congress activists of bringing

‘the Government established by law in British India into hatred and contempt’.

Police arrested two of the most prominent Congress leaders.

  • The newly famous political leader M.K. Gandhi was blocked from travelling to Punjab.
  • Violent protests spread through the city.
  • On 10 April, public buildings were stormed and gutted.
  • Two banks and a missionary school were looted.
  • Five Englishmen and ten Indian protesters were killed.
  • A crowd pushed a female missionary off her bicycle, beat her and left her for dead.

Europeans retreated to the enclaves of the city’s fort and cantonment but enemies of British rule ran riot in the rest of the city. On the evening of 11 April, hundreds gathered at a public meeting declaring that

‘the British Government had been overthrown’,
and decided to cut the railway line. Posters appeared calling on ‘the Indian nation’ to ‘Kill and be killed’ and ‘Conquer the English monkeys with bravery’.

Reginald Dyer was born near his father’s brewery in Punjab. Dyer spent the first eleven years of his life in India, but was sent to school in Ireland to preserve a sense of his separateness from Indian society. From there, he joined the army, helped suppress riots in Belfast and ended up back in India in 1887. By 1919 he had risen to become a temporary brigadier general, and had charge of the Jalandhar division of the imperial army. On 11 April, the city’s civilian Deputy Commissioner authorized General Dyer to use whatever force was needed to impose British order on a city which had been taken over by crowds. Two days later, just before noon, Dyer’s troops marched around the city announcing by drumbeat that all public meetings were banned. Early the same afternoon, Dyer learnt that a crowd had gathered at the public waste ground where many of the ‘seditious’ public meetings of the past few months has been held, the Jallianwalla Bagh. It was a mixed crowd of between 10,000 and 20,000. Some were there for a protest meeting, others for the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

General Dyer entered the ground with

  • fifty Indian soldiers carrying .303 rifles,
  • forty Gurkhas armed only with swords, and
  • the European chief of police.

With no warning, his troops started shooting, firing 1,650 rounds into the crowd. Official figures said

  • 379 people died.
  • The Congress inquiry into the shooting counted more than 1,000.

By a long way, this was the worst use of military force against a civilian crowd in British history. Dyer was briefly lauded his superiors in Punjab for quickly stopping the collapse of imperial power, and was sent to command troops in Afghanistan.

‘Your action correct and Lieutenant-Governor approves’,

Dyer was told when he first reported his action to the head of Punjab’s government. But as news of Amritsar killings spread to London his conduct began to be criticized by his compatriots. The British government’s liberal Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montague, insisted on a public investigation into the Punjab violence. Within months, Dyer was summoned to appear before a Disorders Inquiry Committee in the Punjab’s capital of Lahore. The committee consisted of a mild-mannered Scottish judge, Lord William Hunter, four other Britons and three Indian lawyers. The commission’s proceedings were irritable and anxious. Dyer and its British members agreed

  • that coercion was needed in Punjab.
  • The arrest of 3,200 ‘rebels‘, the shooting of massed gatherings and bombing from the air were difficult‘ but necessary nonetheless to ‘hold on’ to British imperial power if done in the right way.
The committee approved of thirty-seven cases of firing and censured only one. Their belief in the use of violence to preserve British power placed the Britons at odds with their Indian colleagues, essentially leading to a total breakdown between the two sides.
‘You people want to drive the British out of the country,’ 

Hunter shouted at C.H. Setalvad, a moderate lawyer on the inquiry committee, in one particularly tense exchange.

The Hunter inquiry marked the arrival of a new force in Indian politics: the crowd. Up until 1919, British officers thought about Indian politics in terms of

  • potentially seditious political leaders.
  • The mass of India’s population existed off-stage.

As passive subjects, they were the occasional target of government action.

In government reports, the ‘mob’ was sometimes described as

  • being brought into play by scheming political leaders,
  • sporadically excited by religious passion, but
  • the masses had no political life of their own.

From the events in Punjab in 1919 onwards, ‘the crowds’ began to be seen as a political actor in its own right. The Indian government’s report on the disturbances used the word ‘crowd’ 150 times in seventy pages; the Hunter Report 280 times in 175 pages, and the text’s narrative began with a mass ‘outbreak’. The fear, throughout, was that the escalation of crowd violence might cause the collapse of the Raj’s power. Hunter was not sure middle-class revolutionaries were a great threat, but the report’s authors feared that

 ‘a movement which had started in rioting and become a rebellion might have rapidly become a revolution’.
  • Dyer and his British critics disagreed about the best response to this new politics of spontaneous crowd violence.
  • The government in London and the Viceroy believed the quick and firm use of force against rioting needed to be accompanied by concessions to India’s political elites.
  • They wanted Indian nationalists to help them control the crowd.
  • They had started to believe that British sovereignty in India relied on conceding pockets of power to Indians in an otherwise despotic regime.

By 1919, the British government ha started to frame reforms to include a liberal element in India’s autocratic constitution. Dyer by contrast, thought any act of retreat would quickly cause the Raj to unravel. For him, British power in India was based on conquest, and conquest could only be maintained if violence was continually asserted against a population which could quickly turn into a mob. Any kind of equality entailed a dangerous lack of respect for India’s conquerors. After a crisis, such as those of 1857 or 1919, authority could only be restored if Indians were forced to submit themselves, sometimes humiliatingly, before their masters. So, after the initial disorders in Punjab,

barristers in Amritsar were forced to do menial work.
Every resident of Gujranwala was ordered to salute and salaam when they passed a British officer.
Any Indian passing along the street where the missionary Miss Sherwood had been attacked was commanded by Dyer to crawl on their bellies.

Given a packed Lahore assembly hall in November 1919, Dyer’s testimony before the Hunter Commission used the language of personal triumph and humiliation. Dyer treated his cross-examination as a series of insults and slights. He often lost his temper. The ‘rebel’ meeting at the Jallianwalla Bagh was, he argued, an act

‘of defiance’

against his authority that needed to be

‘punished’. ‘It was’,

Dyer famously argued,

‘no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd.’

The shooting was calculated to produce

‘a moral effect’,

to reduce

‘the morale of the rebels’,

and in the process, force Indian subjects to submit. Dyer’s response to riots in Amritsar was a retaliation to an existential challenge. The way of life he had been brought up in was wrapped up with the idea of Indian obedience to British commands. If those commands were not obeyed, Dyer would not be able to consider himself a dignified human being. When asked why he did not just shoot to disperse the crowd, Dyer said the who gathered

 ‘would all come back and laugh at me.’

Without the killing, he said,

‘I considered I would be making myself a fool’.

Dismissed quickly by his Commander- in-Chief, in poor physical and mental health, Dyer travelled to Bombay without a hotel reservation and was forced to stay in a dirty dormitory before taking a troopship back to England. The Army Council banned him from any further employment in the armed forces.

Back in Britain support for him grew in some quarters, and his actions at Amritsar were debated in Parliament. There Dyer became a political cause célèbre for die- hard. Tory and Unionist politicians who believed Britain’s global power was acquired and retained by conquest not partnership; they saw every act of concession as a humiliating desertion of the embattled bastions of imperial power before the insurgent crowd. The Irish Unionist, one-time First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and staunch opponent of Irish nationalism, Sir Edward Carson, was Dyer’s most fervent advocate. In his speech before the House of Commons, Carson portrayed Dyer as the defender of the English values and imperial power against the international revolutionaries manipulating crowd violence in Egypt, Ireland, Russia and India.

‘It is all one conspiracy, it is all engineered in the same way, it has the same object– to destroy our sea power an drive us out of Asia.’

Dyer’s British defenders and critics were united in their desire to sustain British sovereignty in India against new forces of resistance and rebellion. Theirs was a passionate, sometimes vicious debate: some of Dyer’s critics accused him of being ‘unBritish’ and on the verge of insanity; some of his defenders accused the Jewish Secretary of State of being part of a global conspiracy of Jews against British power.

The intensity of these arguments was partially caused by the deep- rooted commitment which the everyday operators of imperial power had long felt towards empire. But it was partly caused, too, by the fact that empire in India had recently become important to Britain in a new way. In 1919, India was no longer merely a self-sustaining, self-justifying outpost of British power that mattered only to families like the Dyers who ruled it. The First World War briefly turned British India into a vita source of British geopolitical power, a recruiting ground for soldiers and a base for materials and cash. World war forced Britain’s political leaders to adopt a more liberal attitude towards the Government of India. But it also created forces that ensured liberal imperialism could not last.

By courtesy of : The Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson, published by Public Affairs 2016 in the US

 Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer CB (9 October 1864 – 23 July 1927) was an officer of the British Indian Army who, as a temporary brigadier general, was responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (in the province of Punjab). Dyer was removed from duty; he was criticized both in Britain and India, but he became a celebrated hero among people with connections to the British Raj. Some historians argue the episode was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.

Early life and assignments


Dyer 1
Major Reginald Dyer at the Delhi Durbar of 1903
 Dyer was born in Murree, in the Punjab province of British India, which is now in Pakistan. He was the son of a brewer who managed the Murree Brewery. He spent his childhood in Murree and Simla and received his early education at the Lawrence College Ghora Gali, Murree and Bishop Cotton School in Simla. He attended Middleton College, County Cork, Ireland between 1875 and 1881.

Background: In 1919 the European population in Punjab feared the locals would overthrow British rule. A nationwide hartal (strike action) which was called on 30 March (later changed to 6 April) by Mahatma Gandhi, had turned violent in some areas.

Authorities were also becoming concerned by displays of Hindu-Muslim unity. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, decided to deport major agitators from the province. One of those targeted was Dr. Satyapal, a Hindu who had served with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. He advocated non-violent civil disobedience and was forbidden by the authorities to speak publicly. Another agitator was Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, a Muslim barrister who wanted political change and also preached non-violence.

The district magistrate, acting on orders from the Punjab government, had the two leaders arrested. On 9 April 1919, crowds soon gathered at a bridge leading into the Civil Lines, where the British lived, demanding a release of the two men. Unable to hold the crowd back, troops panicked and began firing, killing several protesters. The shooting of protesters resulted in a mob forming and returning to the city centre, setting fire to government buildings and attacking Europeans in the city. Three British bank employees were beaten to death, and Miss Marcella Sherwood, who supervised the Mission Day School for Girls, was cycling around the city to close her schools when she was assaulted by a mob in a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan. Sherwood was rescued from the mob by locals. They hid the teacher, who was hurt in the beating, before moving her to the fort.

Dyer, who was the commandant of the infantry brigade in Jalandhar, decided to take action. He arrived on 11 April to assume command, then instructed the troops of the garrison regarding reprisals against the population.

Though authorities initially claimed that the massacre was triggered by the assault on Sherwood, regimental diaries reveal that this was merely a pretext. Instead, Dyer and O’Dwyer feared an imminent mutiny in Punjab like the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Amritsar massacre: Dyer is infamous for the orders that he gave on 13 April 1919 in Amritsar. It was by his command that 50 troops, including 25 Gurkhas of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles (1st battalion, 9th Gurkha Rifles), 25 Pathans and Baluch, 54th Sikhs and 59th Sindh Rifles, all armed with .303 Lee–Enfield rifles opened fire on a non-violent gathering of unarmed civilians, men, women and children at the Jallianwalla Bagh in what later came to be known as the Amritsar massacre.

The civilians had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh to participate in the annual Baisakhi celebrations which are both a religious and a cultural festival of the Punjabis. Coming from outside the city, they may have been unaware of the martial law that had been imposed. The Bagh-space comprised 6 to 7 acres (28,000 m2) and was walled on all sides except for five entrances. Four of these entrances were very narrow, admitting only a few people at a time. The fifth entrance was blocked by the armed soldiers, as well as by two armoured cars with machine guns (these vehicles were unable to pass through the entrance).

Upon entering the park, the general ordered the troops to shoot directly into the gathering. Shooting continued until his troops’ supply of 1,650 rounds of ammunition was almost exhausted. The shooting continued unabated for about 10 minutes. Dyer is reported to have, from time to time, “checked his fire and directed it upon places where the crowd was thickest“; he did this not because the crowd was slow to disperse, but because he (the general) “had made up his mind to punish them for having assembled there.”  Some of the soldiers initially shot into the air, at which General Dyer shouted: “Fire low. What have you been brought here for?”  Later, Dyer’s own testimony revealed that the crowd was not given any warning to disperse and he was not remorseful for having ordered his troops to shoot.

The worst part of the whole thing was that the firing was directed towards the exit gates through which the people were running out. There were 3 or 4 small outlets in all and bullets were rained over the people at all these gates… and many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds and thus lost their lives… even those who lay flat on the ground were fired upon.

The official reports quote 379 dead and over 1,000 injured. However, public enquiry estimates, from Government civil servants in the city (commissioned by the Punjab Sub-committee of Indian National Congress) as well as counts from the Home Political cite numbers well over a thousand dead. According to a Home Political Deposit report, the number was more than 1,000, with more than 1,200 wounded. Dr. Smith, a British civil surgeon at Amritsar, indicated over 1,800 casualties. The deliberate infliction of these casualties earned General Dyer the epithet of the “Butcher of Amritsar” in India.

Threatening language: The day after the massacre Kitchin, the Commissioner of Lahore as well as General Dyer, both used threatening language. The following is the English translation of Dyer’s Urdu statement directed at the residents of Amritsar on the afternoon of 14 April 1919, a day after the Amritsar massacre:

You people know well that I am a Sepoy and soldier. Do you want war or peace? If you wish for a war, the Government is prepared for it, and if you want peace, then obey my orders and open all your shops; else I will shoot. For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same. I am a military man and I will go straight. Neither shall I move to the right nor to the left. Speak up, if you want war? In case there is to be peace, my order is to open all shops at once. You people talk against the Government and persons educated in Germany and Bengal talk sedition. I shall report all these. Obey my orders. I do not wish to have anything else. I have served in the military for over 30 years. I understand the Indian Sepoy and Sikh people very well. You will have to obey my orders and observe peace. Otherwise the shops will be opened by force and Rifles. You will have to report to me of the Badmash. I will shoot them. Obey my orders and open shops. Speak up if you want war? You have committed a bad act in killing the English. The revenge will be taken upon you and upon your children.

 Crawling order: Brigadier Dyer designated the spot where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted sacred. Daytime pickets were placed at either end of the street. Anyone wishing to proceed in the street between 6 am and 8 pm was made to crawl the 200 yards (180 m) on all fours, lying flat on their bellies. The order was not required at night due to a curfew. The order effectively closed the street. The houses did not have any back doors and the inhabitants could not go out without climbing down from their roofs. This order was in effect from 19 April until 25 April 1919. No doctor or supplier was allowed in, resulting in the sick being unattended.

Reaction in Britain and British India: Reaction to the massacre varied. A large section of the British population in India condoned it while many Indians were outraged. A Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Lord Hunter, was established to investigate the massacre. The committee’s report criticized Dyer,

arguing that in “continuing firing as long as he did, it appears to us that General Dyer committed a grave error.”

Dissenting members argued that the martial law regime’s use of force was wholly unjustified.

“General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O’Dwyer was of the same view,”

they wrote

“(but) there was no rebellion which required to be crushed.”

 He was met by Lieutenant-General Sir Havelock Hudson, who told him that he was relieved of his command. He was told later by the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Sir Charles Monroe, to resign his post and that he would not be reemployed.

General Dyer tried to win over the Sikhs as best as he could. He forced the manager of the Golden Temple and Sunder Singh Majithia to use their influence over the Sikhs, in favour of the government. As a result, priests of the Golden Temple invited General Dyer to the sacred shrine and presented him with a Siropa (turban and sword).

A significant number of ordinary Britons supported General Dyer.

Rudyard Kipling, who claimed Dyer was “the man who saved India“, is alleged to have started a benefit fund which raised over £26,000 sterling, including £50 contributed by Kipling himself for Dyer.

Subhash Chopra in his book Kipling Sahib – the Raj Patriot (2006), writes that the benefit fund was started by the Morning Post newspaper and not by Kipling and that Kipling made no contribution to the Dyer fund. His name was conspicuously absent among the list of donors as published in the Morning Post. But Kipling did admire Dyer.

The debate over the conduct of Gen Dyer following the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar, British India, sharply divided the British political class inside parliament and outside in the press. Curiously enough Rudyard Kipling was not one of the leading lights of Dyer’s frontline supporters who battled unsuccessfully for his promotion from the rank of Colonel to honorary Brigadier-General in retirement for ‘saving the empire’ in India.

  • Hailed by London’s Tory Morning Post as ‘The Man who saved India’ and popularly honoured as Brigadier-General, the massacre man remained a Colonel till the end of his life in 1927.
  • More specifically, while Kipling did not contribute the first £50 or anything to Dyer’s Benefit Fund, his friend Sir Michael O’Dwyer, former Lt- Governor of the Punjab, under whose jurisdiction Dyer carried out the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, did, of course, contribute £20 to the benefit fund. The fund raised £26,317,1s 10d when it was closed in December 1920.

Nevertheless, Kipling did pay his tribute to Gen Dyer at least twice, with brief but definitive words of edification. The first simply read:

 ‘He did his duty as he saw it.’— This tribute was inscribed on the card accompanying Kipling’s wreath at the funeral service for Gen Dyer at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

The second relating to a hospital project read:

 “These (hospital) beds have been endowed as a lasting memorial to Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer, a brave man who in the face of a great peril did his duty as he saw it — ‘he that observeth the clouds shall not reap’. The ‘hospital’ tribute is a dedication penned by Kipling at the request of the Dyer Memorial Committee which had hoped to donate a few beds or even a ward at the Walker Hospital in Simla. The man behind the hospital memorial campaign was none other than O’Dwyer. The rather modest size Walker Hospital itself had been built as a memorial to Sir J. Walker, once a partner of Dyer’s father Edward in his brewery business.

But O’Dwyer’s project in memory of his friend and co-servant of the Empire in Punjab failed to take off because of Walker Hospital’s ex-officio link with the New Delhi Government of India, which refused to be associated with any Dyer memorial in view of the damage it could do to the forthcoming visit of the Prince of Wales to India, where passions were running high against Dyer.

Dyer was heavily criticized both in Britain and India. Several senior and influential British government officials and Indians spoke out against him, including:

    • Pandit Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who called the massacre the “saddest and most revealing of all”.
    • Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate and distinguished Indian educator, who renounced his knighthood in protest the massacre and said, “a great crime has been done in the name of law in the Punjab“.
    • Sir Shankaran Nair, who resigned his membership of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in the Legislative Council of Punjab in protest at the massacre.
    • Punjab Legislative Council members Nawab Din Murad and Kartar Singh, who described the massacre as “neither just nor humane.”
  • Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican priest and friend of Gandhi, who termed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as “cold-blooded massacre and inhumane.”
  • Brigadier-General Surtees, who stated in the Dyer debate that “we hold India by force – undoubtedly by force”.
  • Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, who called it “a grave error in judgement”. In a debate in the House of Commons, he asked,
Are you going to keep your hold on India by terrorism, racial humiliation, subordination and frightfulness, or are you going to rest it upon the goodwill and the growing goodwill of the people of your Indian Empire?
  • Winston Churchill, at the time Britain’s Secretary of State for War, who called the massacre
 “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking”

during a debate in the House of Commons. In a letter to the leader of the Liberals and former Secretary of State for India, the Marquess of Crewe, he wrote,

“My own opinion is that the offence amounted to murder, or alternatively manslaughter.”
  • Former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party H. H. Asquith, who observed:
There has never been such an incident in the whole annals of Anglo-Indian history, nor, I believe, in the history of our empire since its very inception down to present day. It is one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”
  • B. G. Horniman, who observed: “No event within living memory, probably, has made so deep and painful impression on the mind of the public in this country [England] as what came to be known as the Amritsar massacre.”

The era of Michael O’Dwyer and Dyer has been deemed

“an era of misdeeds of British administration in India”.

During the Dyer debates in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, there was both praise and condemnation of Dyer.  In 1920, the British Labour Party Conference at Scarborough unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Amritsar massacre as a “cruel and barbarous action” of British officers in Punjab and called for their trial, recall of Michael O’Dwyer and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, and the repealing of repressive legislation.

Return to Britain: Churchill, the then Secretary of State for War, preferred for disciplining of General Dyer, but the Army Council headed by him decided to allow Dyer to resign with no plan for further punishment. Following Churchill’s speech defending the council’s action and debate in the parliament on 8 July 1920, MPs voted for the government, 247 to 37 and motion for mild approval of Dyer was defeated 230 to 129.

On his return to Britain, Brigadier Dyer was presented with a purse of £26,000 sterling, a huge sum in those days, (approximately £1,000,000 in terms of 2013 PPP) which emerged from a fund set up on his behalf by the Morning Post, a conservative, pro-imperialist newspaper, which later merged with the Daily Telegraph. A “Thirteen Women Committee” was constituted to present

 “the Saviour of the Punjab with the sword of honour and a purse”.

 Large contributions to the fund were made by civil servants and by British Army and Indian Army officers, although serving members of the military were not allowed to donate to political funds under the King’s Regulations (para. 443). The Morning Post had supported Dyer’s action on grounds stating that the massacre was necessary to

 “Protect the honour of European Women“.

The Morning Post blamed Montagu, Secretary of State (India), and not General Dyer for the massacre and asked for his court trial. Montagu, on the other hand, in a long letter to the Viceroy, passed the blame to Michael O’Dwyer and admitted

 “I feel that O’Dwyer represents a regime that is doomed.”

Many Indians, including Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, were outraged by the fund for Dyer, particularly the families of the victims killed at the Jallianwala Bagh, who were still fighting for government compensation. In the end, they received Rs 500 (then equal to £37.10s.0d; approximately £1,459 in terms of 2013 PPP) for each victim.

Dyer’s response and motivation: General Dyer made a series of three conflicting sets of statements about his motives and actions.

  • At first, immediately after he carried out the massacre, he made a series of partial but slightly varying explanations with the aim of exonerating him from any blame.
  • Later, after receiving approval for his actions from all his superiors in India, both civil and military, Dyer stated, that his actions were a deliberate attempt to punish people he believed were rebels and to make an example for the rest of the Punjab that would stop what he regarded as a rebellion.
  • Finally, on his return to England in disgrace in 1920, Dyer’s lawyers argued that his actions though deliberate & premeditated were justified because he was facing an insurrection and that, on those grounds, any amount of firing was permissible.

Dyer wrote an article in the Globe of 21 January 1921, titled, “The Peril to the Empire.” It commenced with “India does not want self-government. She does not understand it.” He wrote later that:

  • It is only to an enlightened people that free speech and a free press can be extended. The Indian people want no such enlightenment.
  • There should be an eleventh commandment in India, “Thou shalt not agitate”.
  • The time will come to India when a strong hand will be exerted against malice and ‘perversion’ of good order.
  • Gandhi will not lead India to capable self-government. The British Raj must continue, firm and unshaken in its administration of justice to all men.

In his official response to the Hunter commission that enquired into the shooting, Dyer was unremorseful and stated:

I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.

However, in his account of the massacre Nick Lloyd claims that Although Dyer later claimed to have undertaken the massacre to

 ‘save’ British India, he had had no such idea in his mind that fateful afternoon. As well as being ‘dazed and shaken up’ – hardly the response of a soldier who had had murder in his mind – all the witnesses recall how Dyer ‘was unnerved and deeply upset about what had happened’.

One witness described him as ‘distraught’, and he told a friend six month afterwards:

‘I haven’t had a night’s sleep since that happened. I keep on seeing it over again.’

Nigel Collett – author of biographical book The Butcher of Amritsaris convinced that, the Amritsar massacre preyed on Dyer’s mind from the very day he opened fire “He spent the rest of his life trying to justify himself. He persuaded himself it had been his duty to act as he did, but he could not persuade his soul that he had done right. It rotted his mind and, I am guessing here, added to his sickness.”

Collett, in his book, portrays Dyer as a man, who, got on extremely well with his men and his juniors, while his contemporaries and seniors were always wary of him and as a person, who when he approached a complex political problem:

  • his one thought was to have order;
  • his one tool to get it was the gun.

He notes that, at the time of the Amritsar massacre, Dyer was racked by ill-health and separated from his beloved family – and speculates that – perhaps, this encouraged his extreme view that the Punjab was on the brink of rebellion, the empire about to collapse and feared a mutiny like that of 1857. The solution, he decided, was not just to restore order but to show that the state was in charge. It was not enough to have shops and businesses reopen in Amritsar – an example was needed of the consequences of insubordination.

Collett quotes Dyer himself on the motivations that drove him to act as he did“…

It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity. The mutineers had thrown out the challenge and the punishment, if administered at all, must be complete, unhesitating and immediate.”

Death: Dyer suffered a series of strokes during the last years of his life and he became increasingly isolated due to the paralysis and speechlessness inflicted by his strokes. He died of cerebral hemorrhage and arteriosclerosis in 1927. On his deathbed, Dyer reportedly said:

So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right…but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer by Nigel Collett

The Morning Post remembered him in an article titled

 “The Man Who Saved India” and “He Did His Duty”

but the Westminster Gazette wrote a contrary opinion:

No British action, during the whole course of our history in India, has struck a severer blow to Indian faith in British justice than the massacre at Amritsar.”

Noted historian Gordon Johnson commented that

 “…Dyer’s actions ran counter to Army regulations. These required that force should be constrained by what was reasonable to achieve an immediate objective; minimum, not maximum, force should be deployed. Moreover, proper warning had to be given. On April 13, 1919, as demonstrated by Collett, Dyer ignored this. While he may have believed the Raj was threatened, and may have thought the mob was out to attack him and his soldiers, this does not justify his cavalier abuse of procedure and his indifference to Indian suffering. In so behaving, he brought not only death to the innocent but also destroyed himself and undermined the empire in which he took so much pride.

Popular culture: Dyer is played by Edward Fox in the 1982 film Gandhi. Dyer’s scenes in the film depict the massacre as well as Dyer’s testimony to the inquisition panel.

A fictionalized account of Dyer’s actions in Amritsar is contained in the 1981 prize winning novel Midnight’s Children, by author Salman Rushdie, and movingly depicted in Shashi Tharoor’s 1989 “The Great Indian Novel“.

Role of Michael O’Dwyer

Sir Michael O’Dwyer
Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab from 1912 to 1919, endorsed General Dyer and called the massacre a “correct” action.  Some historians now believe he premeditated the massacre and set Dyer to work. Many Indians blamed O’Dwyer, and while Dyer was never assaulted, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London in 1940 by Udham Singh in retaliation for his role in the massacre.


Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Nickname(s) The Butcher of Amritsar General Dyer
Born 9 October 1864 Murree, Punjab, British India
Died 24 July 1927 (aged 62) Long Ashton, Somerset, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1885–1920
Rank Colonel
Commands held Seistan Force 25th Punjabis
Battles/wars Third Anglo-Burmese War Chitral Expedition First World War
Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath Mentioned in Despatches (2)
Spouse(s) Anne Dyer (1904–1938+)

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