Above: National Army Museum, 1857 Display. Credit: Tiggy Allen
On 22nd of September, 1857, 4 months after the outbreak of the Great Rebellion of India 1857, Captain William Hodson of the irregular Hodson’s Horses regiment, captured Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Abu Bakr, three Mughal princes, outside the city gates of Delhi. In an act which was controversial even at the time, and despite their surrender, he ordered them to strip, took their weapons and jewellery, and shot them. Their deaths effectively destroyed future Mughal rule in India, ending the royal line. This moment in history, whilst over 150 years ago, still connects two museums today: the National Army Museum in London, and the Red Fort in Delhi. This intersection, one of many in British and Indian heritage, highlights the lasting and significant legacies of the colonial period for both nations, and the manners in which these legacies can be found in museum exhibitions to date.
This connection first became apparent when I was standing in front of a case of objects in the National Army Museum, London. Military collections like this one account for huge amounts of colonial memorabilia as soldiers and East India Company officers were collectors, bringing much back to the UK on their return from overseas postings, practices shaping the British heritage landscape to date. The case in question, pictured above, contains objects related to the Great Rebellion of 1857, including swords and daggers linked to the events outside of Delhi on the 22nd of September. Three of these are weapons are thought to belong to the Princes killed by Hodson (the khanjar dagger is pictured below), and sit alongside Hodson’s own sword which is also part of the National Army Museum’s 1857 collection.
Objects like this tell a number of stories, beyond the 50-100 words recorded on museum labels. They require contextualisation: in this case, the presence of Indian weapons from this era in British museums is common, and even accounts for entire museum collections such as the Indian weapons at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. This is because after suppressing the rebellion, the British government ordered the widespread disarmament of Indian people - melting down, transporting to the UK, or confiscating ceremonial and usable weapons. This disarmament was part of a wider policy of extraction, with Mughal and regional ruler’s treasuries raided by triumphant British forces as they retook Delhi and other major cities. There are reports of licensed looters employed by the British government to extract jewels, gold and other valuables from the city, and in particular, from the Red Fort (known in India as Lal Quila).
Delhi’s Lal Quila was built in the 17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Nearly two thirds of the fort was demolished during the recapture of Delhi in 1858, compounded by its deployment as British Army barracks afterwards. The fort was also infamously used for the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mughal King of Delhi, the father of the Princes killed by Hodson, in 1859. Today, the four British barracks in the centre of the fort site have been transformed into museums, one of which focuses on the Great Rebellion of 1857, and which also tells the story of the Princes, and their father, Bahadur Shah Jafar.
The exhibition tells the story of 1857 as one of nation-building and freedom fighting: opposing an oppressor as a unified group. The exhibition emphasises colonial atrocities, and also moves victors, into villages and rural areas of North India which were in the path of oncoming British forces, often experiencing much violence at their hands. The deaths of the princes at Hodson’s hand, and the capture of the Mughal Emperor, are considered in terms of the violence meted out by Hodson following surrender - see ‘in cold blood’, below - and also the larger context of the end of the Mughal line and the East India Company’s final victory over the rebels.
There are fewer historical objects linked to 1857 in the Red Fort exhibition than in the National Army Museum - which is itself a legacy of British extraction and looting - other than a sword of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s, and some newspapers. However, unlike the National Army Museum, the building in which the museum stands is itself an object of history. The barracks were built into the Red Fort following the demolition of much of the Emperor’s stronghold and widespread looting of the palaces and it's priceless contents. These barracks are therefore a symbol of a new era of British control over the Indian subcontinent, and of the end of Mughal rule in India, and their reclamation to tell stories of Indian resistance to British colonialism is an interesting one.
These two spaces, representing both national histories and trans-continental legacies of colonialism and rebellion, are therefore fundamentally connected by William Hodson, and his actions on September 22nd, 1857. This is just one example of the ways in which British India has had material and tangible impacts on heritage for both countries, meaning museums like the National Army Museum and the Red Fort contain stories of an era which has intertwined the fates of individuals across the world for over 150 years.
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Tiggy Allen is a British historian who has lived in Bangalore, South India, since 2015. She completed her MA in History at the University of Leeds, specialising in the colonial period, and is now on a mission to visit as many of India's museums and monuments as possible, pandemic permitting.