How a massive explosion on this day in 1857 signaled to the British that Delhi was taken

British forces were only able to recapture the city in September, after a three-month siege of Delhi.
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HISTORY REVISITED

How a massive explosion on this day in 1857 signaled to the British that Delhi was taken

British forces were only able to recapture the city in September, after a three-month siege of Delhi.

by  Rana Safvi

Published May 11, 2016 · 06:30 am

The recapture of Delhi via Kashmere Gate by the British in September, 1857. | By Coloured lithograph by Bequet Freres after R de Moraine, published by E Morier, Paris, 1858 (c). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Musalmaan, Jihadi, Hunoodan hamah
Jama har sah gushtand az an gah o mah

The Musalmaans, mujahideen, Hindus –

Each of the three classes having revolted, all high and low caste came together

— Francis Godlieu Quins “Frasoo”.

The month of May in 1857 happened to also be the Muslim holy month of Ramzan. In the intense heat and dust, the faithful in Delhi were fasting during the day and feasting through the nights till the onset of the next day. It was a normal routine much as is followed today. They were blissfully unaware of what was happening in nearby Meerut where 85 native officers had been imprisoned for 10 years on May 6 for refusing to bite off the tips of the cartridges of the newly-introduced Enfield Rifles (as they were required to do so to load their weapons). The Indian soldiers believed the cartridges had been greased with the fat of pigs and cows – the consumption of whose flesh is taboo for Muslims and Hindus respectively.

On May 10, Indian soldiers of the two infantry regiments and one cavalry unit in Meerut turned their guns on their British officers. Shouting “Maro firangi ko”, kill all foreigners, they attacked any European in sight. They set fire to the officer’s quarters, released the 85 imprisoned soldiers as well as 800 other prisoners, and set off towards Delhi, 48 km away.

A sawar or rider was dispatched from Meerut with a letter to the Commissioner of Delhi, Simon Fraser, to inform him of the events. There are many accounts of why Fraser didn’t read the letter and prevent the sepoys from entering Delhi. Some accounts narrate that he had had a good dinner and was sleeping in his chair when the sawar came, so he put the letter in his pocket and went back to sleep. Others say that his servants, who knew that he didn’t like being disturbed, refused to wake him up and hand him the epistle. Be that as may, it was a costly mistake for Fraser.

Meerut to Delhi

In the early morning of May 11, Bahadur Shah II, the 82-year-old emperor was at the Musammam Burj, or tower, in the Qila-e-Moalla (as the Red Fort was then called), and was reciting his rosary. It was time for the customary jharoka darshan – a tradition that Akbar started in which the emperor would show himself at the window after dawn prayers every day to give the common people an audience.

A crowd had gathered at the banks of the Yamuna for a ritual bath and for darshan of the emperor when shouts were heard. A toll house beyond Salim Garh Fort on the banks of the river had been set on fire, and the European toll collector shot dead. There were reports that a group of soldiers were making their way to the Red Fort.

The sepoys came up to the Musammam Burj and urged the Emperor to let them fight against the firangis who were hell-bent on corrupting their religion by making them bite cartridges greased with the fat of pigs and cows. The Emperor was old, and a pensioner of the British. He sent for the British Resident and the Commander of the Qila. The Qiledar and Resident tried to reason with the sepoys but they were beyond reason. The two British officers then rushed to secure the Calcutta and Nigambodh Darwazas, which were the nearest to the Qila, and provided entry into the walled city of Shahjahanabad. They were unsuccessful – the Meerut sepoys entered from Rajghat Darwaza with the help of sympathisers amongst the local Indian soldiers.

Chaos in the city

Around 8 am, the city of Shahjahanabad was buzzing with the news of the arrival of the sepoys from Meerut. The sepoys and the badmashes (as they were then referred to) accompanying them were said to be looting and plundering the bazaar and killing people. This was hardly surprising as 800 ordinary criminals whom they had freed from prison in Meerut accompanied the sepoys. With more prisoners being set free in Delhi too, local scoundrels too joined in the looting.

When the Joint Magistrate, Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, heard of the morning’s troubles, he threw off the clothes that set him apart, escaping Delhi on a horse, dressed in only his shirt and underdrawers. He later took a native dress from one of the thanedars (police sergeant). His house was looted but Indians loyal to the British aided his escape and he reached the safe environs of Jhajjar the next day.

A doctor who had converted to Christianity was not so lucky. The doctor, Chiman Lal, was attending to his patients at his Daryaganj dispensary as was his custom, when he was shot at point blank range. A plaque to his memory is in the St James Church near Kashmiri Gate. You will find a number of plaques commemorating the British and Indian Christians killed on May 11, 1857, in that church.

At the Calcutta Darwaza, Sessions Judge Charles Le Bas joined the Commissioner of Delhi, Simon Fraser, and Commander of the Fort, Captain Douglas. They could clearly see the burning toll house of Salim Garh Fort and the Meerut sepoys, but no signs of any European reinforcements. The Magistrate, a Mr Henderson joined them. When five Meerut cavalrymen came upon them, Le Bas and Henderson fled. Douglas received injuries on his foot from a gunshot, and Fraser hid in a sentry box inside the bastion and managed to kill one of the cavalrymen with his musket.

Fraser asked one of his orderlies to ride post-haste to the agent of Nawab of Jhajjhar and request for help.

The Emperor capitulates

Having secured the Calcutta Darwaza by setting up guns there, Fraser and Douglas returned to the Red Fort. On the way, the Meerut sepoys shot at them and when Fraser ordered his bodyguards to return fire they refused. The duo made it in one piece till Lahore Gate, where Douglas lived. Fraser summoned the Emperor’s minister and asked for guards to protect them and palkis for the ladies so that they could be safely escorted to the palace zenana. The daughter of Reverend Jennings lived with her father in the quarters above Lahore Darwaza. A friend of hers, Miss Clifford, and two other married ladies and were also with her.

The Emperor immediately gave orders for guards and palkis to be sent but by now none of the employees of the Fort were in a mood to protect the British.

The Indian infantry troops defending Lahore Darwaza refused to listen to Fraser when he ordered them to fire at the sepoys. Two men, Karlik Beg and Moghal Beg, referred to as badmashes by contemporary writers, attacked Fraser with swords. The sepoys, as well as some locals who had joined them, soon murdered all those present there.

With the Resident and the Commander of the Fort out of the way, the sepoys, now nearly 50 in number, forced their way to the Diwan-i-Khas and loudly proclaimed their arrival in these words, “We have come to fight for our religion and to pay our respect to His Majesty”. The soldiers entered unceremoniously and did not take off their shoes or dismount from their horses. They yelled for the Emperor instead of speaking to him with decorum.

A shocked and shaken Hakim Ahsunullah, the Prime Minister, pleaded helplessness. “The Emperor has neither troops, magazine or treasury, and he is not in a position to pay you,” he said. “You are used to regular British salary.” The sepoys said: “We will bring you the treasury of the entire country, just lend us the legitimacy of the Emperor’s name.” The Emperor agreed and though he was reluctant at first, he later joined in with great enthusiasm.

Signalling trouble

In the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the local tradesmen had closed their shops, the residents had barricaded themselves inside their houses and the sepoys and badmashes could be seen staggering around with loot they had plundered. At that point, the local residents had no idea of what had happened and were hostile to the rough purbias (soldiers from eastern UP and Bihar who comprised the majority of the British army).

Some people reported seeing two men riding on camels dressed in green with red turbans come into the city proclaiming: “Hear ye people, the drum of religion has sounded.” No one knew who they were or where they went after that but the excited and terrified crowd believed them to be heavenly messengers.

Convicts were released from jail and they stormed the police station near the modern day Gurdwara Sisganj. The kotwal (police officer) and his subordinate escaped by jumping over the walls into the Sunehri Masjid adjoining it.

The story of Delhi in 1857 may have been very different had it not been for the quick thinking of two young signalmen William Bendish and IW Pilkington posted in the Telegraph office on Lothian Road, near St James Church in Old Delhi. Before fleeing they managed to send a brief warning of the disaster to Umballa (Ambala) late in the afternoon. The signallers were able to report only that Europeans “had been killed” before they signed off with the cryptic sentence, “We are off.”

News of the events unfolding in Delhi were quickly sent by the British to their cantonments in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar in the Punjab, and to a few other cantonments in northern India, thus spreading word of the upheaval. A relief army was sent to defend Delhi.

A memorial called the Telegraph Memorial was put up to commemorate the quick thinking of the staff of the Telegraph Office. Erected in 1902, the memorial mentions the role of the signallers Bendish and Pilkington and has the words of Sir Robert Montgomery below that saying: “The Electric Telegraph has saved India.”

Meanwhile, though many British officers including Theophilus Metcalfe and women and children managed to escape, the marauding sepoys killed several others. Some women and children took shelter in the Flagstaff Tower on the Ridge.

George Beresford, who had started a bank in the erstwhile palace of Begum Samru in Chandini Chowk was at the bank along with his family and a few clerks on the morning of May 11. The Meerut sepoys, accompanied by the local riffraff as well as the Meerut criminals, attacked the bank. Despite fierce resistance from Beresford and his wife, they were both killed along with five others. They are also buried in the St James Church and a plaque has been put up in their memory.

Delhi is taken

On Lothian Road, the remains of a munitions magazine is still visible. Its two gates are opposite the Telegraph Office. This area saw great excitement and bloodshed at around 4pm on that day.

Metcalfe had asked Lieutenant George Willoughby, the officer in charge to secure the main munitions magazine and under no circumstance let it fall in the hands of the sepoys. At around 4pm when Willoughby realised that the sepoys had brought ladders to scale the walls after having failed to batter the gates down, he gave orders for the munitions to be blown up. A spectacular display of fireworks soon lit up the Delhi sky. The British officers watching from the Ridge knew that Delhi was lost. The Indian sepoys were angry at being deprived of ammunition, though another smaller magazine had fallen into their hands.

The Emperor and the courtiers in the Fort were shaken up since as pensioners of the British they had not seen any action before this.

When the magazine exploded with all its ammunition, around 25 sepoys, 400 onlookers and nearby residents were among those killed – there was flesh flying everywhere. But Willoughby and two of his fellow officers miraculously escaped. Some European women and children sheltering in the magazine also survived but were taken prisoners by the sepoys and taken to the Qila where the Emperor ordered them to be handed over to his custody.

The residents of various mohallas (localities) in the walled city formed their own patrols to safeguard themselves. Many had given shelter to Europeans in the cellars of their houses and were frightened of being found out by the sepoys.

The poet Mirza Ghalib wrote in Dastanbu, a diary he kept:

Somehow this long and terrible day came to an end and darkness fell.
The black-hearted, cruel killers made camp throughout the city;
they stabled their horses in the Qila and took Royal Chambers as their sleeping quarters.

The confusion and disarray in the army ranks as well as the chaos in the city as described by Ghalib led to the recapture of Delhi by the British on September 20 after a three-month-long siege.

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