At least one thousand slaughtered as British troops sack Delhi
20 September 1857
Today in 1857, after a week of fierce street fighting, British troops under General Sir Archdale Wilson finally obtained the surrender of the remaining pockets of Indian Mutineers still holding out in the city. Much of the city had already been sacked and many murdered in their homes [see 13 September 1857]. However, the British were not finished. They were determined to set a bloody example that the people of Delhi would never forget. An anonymous letter from the city, quoted at length in The Morning Chronicle, presented the subsequent orgy of killing as an understandable act of vengeance by soldiers who were ‘greatly annoyed.’ They had seen their comrades, ‘killed by natives, who kept up a random fire behind walls, and from the tops of houses.’ In other words, they had been shot by people who were defending their homes. These desperate acts of resistance by Delhi’s population infuriated ‘a (British) officer (who).. got together some troops and went in search of the cowards, no less than one thousand of whom bit the dust. We may now look upon the city,’ the letter concluded, ‘as completely cleared of ruffians.’1
The cry of vengeance was also a pretext for numerous acts of desecration and plunder. The historian Saul David recounts how Sikh troops, under British command, ‘celebrated (the capture of the city) by lighting fires in the sacred mosque,’ and how other troops ‘plundered to their hearts’ content, shooting any adult male they found.’2 Few in Britain ever learned the true extent of the indiscriminate violence inflicted on Delhi. Queen Victoria, however, was an exception. Lady Canning, who was well informed by private letters from her husband, India’s acting Governor General, informed the queen that there had been an ‘immense slaughter of men,’ adding that ‘the soldiers inflicted murderous retribution.’3
- ‘How the King of Delhi was taken and his sons shot,’ The Morning Chronicle, 1 December 1857, p. 6
- Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 332.
- Ibid., p. 346.
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