The Fall of Lucknow
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of 19th century India was the brutal destruction of Lucknow, in the revolt of 1857. Considered by contemporary visitors to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world at the time and compared to Vienna and Paris, the city never regained its old beauty. Today, Lucknow is a bustling city rapidly growing, with motorways and info-tech parks. There is little memory of its past glory or its terrible destruction.
You will have to visit the ruins of the Lucknow Residency, located in the Qaisarbagh area of Lucknow, to see signs of the battle that saw an entire city rising in revolt for freedom.
The Residency at Lucknow was set up after the battle of Buxar which took place in 1764 CE. In the battle, the third Nawab of Awadh – Shuja-ud-Daula had formed an alliance with the then Nawab of Bengal – Mir Qasim and Mughal emperor Shah Alam against the British East India Company and lost badly. The British then appointed their representative called Resident General and his residence and office complex housed within a 33-acre plot in Lucknow, came to be known as the ‘Residency’.
Over time, the Resident-General became increasingly powerful. The British East India company forced a succession of treaties on the Nawabs of Awadh, forcing them to cede their power. Within 36 years of the Battle of Buxar, the Resident-General of Lucknow had become the quasi ruler of Awadh.
In 1798, Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II was chosen to sit on the throne of Awadh by the British and to show his appreciation he even ceded half of the Awadh Kingdom to the British, within three years of taking charge, in 1801. It was during his tenure that the Lucknow residency acquired grand proportions almost resembling a royal palace. Spread over 33 acres, it was a city within a city.
At the entrance was a massive Baily guard gate built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II in honour of John Bailey, the Lucknow Resident who had put him on the throne. The gate led into a massive complex of buildings that included a banquet hall, treasury, school, hospital, post office, horse stables, sheep house, cemetery, gardens and a brigade mess for the officers posted there.
In a bid to make a quick buck, Claude Martin, the French adventurer in the Lucknow court and the founder of the famous La Martiniere School of Lucknow, built a number of houses around the Residency and rented them out to Europeans. By this time, the complex had become a massive township.
The final move in the game of control came in 1856 when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was deposed and Awadh was annexed by the British. The Lucknow Residency now became the political and administrative headquarters of British Awadh. This also made it the target of deep anger and resentment. The people of Lucknow and Awadh saw the Residency as a symbol of British oppression.
In May 1857, the Indian soldiers in the British Indian army rebelled in Meerut followed by Delhi and other places in North India. As the news reached Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, the British Commissioner of Awadh realized the gravity of the situation and ordered all the Europeans in Lucknow to take refuge in the Residency. There were around 855 British officers and soldiers, 712 Indians and 1280 non-combatants inside the complex. These included the Principal and around 50 students of La Martiniere School. Lawrence also ordered stockpiling of food and ammunition in the Residency.
But then, anger was piling up outside. Around 8,000 sepoys of the British army had joined the rebellion in Lucknow and several hundred retainers of local landowners surrounded the Residency complex. There were several attempts to storm the defenses during the first weeks of the siege.
The famous siege of Lucknow Residency lasted from 25th May to 27th November 1857. Located on a high ground, the soldiers guarding the Residency complex managed to fend off attacks. Julia Selina, the wife of Major-General Sir John Eardley Inglis, kept a diary of her life during the siege which was published as The Siege of Lucknow: a Diary. It brings alive what was happening inside the Residency during the siege.
After 6 months of defending themselves and one attempt at unsuccessful relief, the British forces managed to evacuate the Residency by 19th November 1857. The following year, the British army recaptured the city with the help of the Gurkha troops from Nepal.
During the revolt of 1857-58, more than 1500 British, Europeans as well as Anglo Indians were killed across Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur, Jhansi and other parts of India. The worst killings took place in Kanpur first at Satichaura Ghat were 150 British had been massacred after a promise of safe passage, followed by the Bibighar massacre, where more than 50 women and children were killed. These killings had inflamed British passions and they were baying for revenge. In Delhi, Jhansi, Bithur and then at Lucknow, what followed after the recapture, was an orgy of death, looting and destruction.
Nowhere was the destruction more pronounced than in Lucknow. Hundreds of people were killed with bayonets, while many others were blown up with cannons. All the buildings were looted. Kaiserbagh palace, the palace of Wajid Ali Shah, once compared to Versailles, was simply demolished. Determined to ensure that such a revolt would never reoccur, large parts of the city were bulldozed and simply pulled down. The British were determined to obliterate any memory of past Indian glory or independence.
While similar destruction happened in Delhi, it regained some of its glory after it became the capital of British India in 1911. However, Lucknow never went back to its old glory days. The surviving old aristocracy retreated to their estates around Lucknow, occasionally visiting their Kothis or villas in the city. Lucknow was never the same again.
After 1857, the British never rebuilt the Residency but used it as a memorial. The flagpole at the Residency was the only place in the British Empire where the Union Jack was never lowered, even at night. The only time, it was lowered, was on the 14th August 1947, on the eve of India’s Independence. The flag that flew in Lucknow, amidst the ruins was sent to King George VI in England.
The British Residency of Lucknow is a famous historical landmark and has been declared as a monument of National importance by the Archaeological Survey of India. It today also houses a wonderful museum that takes you back, to 1857.
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