THE SACKING OF MULTAN – 2 JANUARY 1849
On 2 January 1849, British redcoats, under the command of Brigadier-General the Honourable Henry Dundas, raped, pillaged and murdered hundreds of civilians, after fighting their way into the city of Multan, located in what is today the province of Punjab in Pakistan. Historian Saul David comments that ‘the brutal treatment of innocent citizens did the assaulting troops little credit.’1
The bloody rampage across the city, came after Britain’s East India Company had provoked an uprising, by installing a puppet ruler, Sardar Khan Singh, leading to the Second Anglo-Sikh war. The Times found it difficult to comprehend that the citizens of Multan might have any right to live independently of British control, and ascribed such a reluctance to ‘that ungovernable impulse to rebellion which certain conditions never fail to generate in the Asiatic mind.’2 No doubt there were British officials who believed that the cure for such ‘an impulse’ was to inflict an unforgettable lesson on the population, and, whether planned or not, that it what occurred.
One British corporal recalled that ‘every one was plundered whom our men could lay their hands upon, regardless of their pitiful cry, and in some instances were women and children shot down amongst the men.’ He added that he saw one soldier shoot ‘a poor, grey-headed old man, while he was begging that he would spare, and not hurt, his wife and daughters and of another who ‘went into a room, and took a young girl from her mother’s side, and perpetrated the offence, for which he has to answer before the God who heard that poor girl’s cries and petitions.’3
THE PRESS DEPICTS THE MULTAN SIEGE AS “A GALLANT EXPLOIT”
In Britain, the public remained mostly unaware of such atrocities, although the London Daily News couldn’t resist citing a report in the Bombay Times that Multan’s bankers had offered £30,000 if British troops would ‘leave their establishments alone,’ while the Morning Chronicle‘s correspondent let slip that the city’s streets were ‘literally choked with the killed.’
Despite such occasional hint at the real horrors during the city’s capture, the adjective most commonly used in the newspapers reports was ‘gallant,’ implying that it was a heroic and chivalrous operation. The Times trumpeted that ‘Mooltan (Multan) has fallen and, on this occasion, the gratification derivable from a gallant exploit will not be qualified by any reflections on the cost incurred.’ That cost referred to the ‘extremely light’ losses among ‘our troops,’ rather than the numerous enemy and civilian corpses which received no mention.5
A report in an Ulster newspaper typified the reporting, lauding the storming of Multan and declaring that British troops had ‘behaved most gallantly,’ while the popular Sunday weekly, Lloyds Illustrated, claimed that ‘the suburbs were carried by the bayonet in the most dashing manner.’6 Such patriotic ebullience was equally apparent in parliament where Lord Stanley declared that ‘we may congratulate ourselves, the country and those gallant men, as their cause was one of justice,’ while fellow members shouted ‘hear, hear.’7 Among the public, the general mood was also one of exuberant self-congratulation and celebration and in London, reenactments of the ‘storming of Mooltan,’ with ‘pyrotechnic effects’, were staged daily ‘at the request of numerous families of distinction.’8
DISSENT EXPRESSED BY A MANCHESTER NEWSPAPER
Amid the fervour of the patriotic propaganda, there was a lone voice of dissent from the Manchester Examiner and Times, a newspaper edited by the Scottish political radical Archibald Prentice, who was determined not to allow jingoist sentiments to outweigh fundamental ethics.
‘We cannot,’ his paper reasoned, ‘… congratulate our readers either upon the exploits of the siege or the success of the besiegers. The consummate art and ability with which such operations are conducted, does not, to our minds, relieve the bloody details from the horrors which lie behind such narratives. British troops, some twelve or fourteen thousand miles from the land of their birth, are slaughtering the natives of a soil who have, at any rate, a better title to defend it from our aggressions, than we have to invade it.’9
- Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 123.
- ‘It is of the highest importance…,’ The Times, 16 March 1849, p. 5.
- Quoted in Saul David, Op. cit. p. 124.
- ‘India… Capture of Mooltan,’ The Daily News, 22 February 1849, p. 5. and ‘The Overland Mail… Capture of Moultan,’ The Morning Chronicle, 22 February 1849, p.5
- ‘The Indian mail has…,’ The Times, 23 February 1849, p. 5.
- ‘Capture of the City of Mooltan,’ Downpatrick Recorder, 3 March 1849, p. 1 and ‘Overland Mail from Indai… Capture of Mooltan,’ Lloyds Illustrated Newspaper, 25 February 1849, p. 2.
- ‘Thanks to the Army in India,’ The Morning Post, 25 April 1849 p. 2.
- ‘Storming of Mooltan,’ The Morning Advertiser, 14 June 1849, p. 1.
- ‘The War in the Punjaub – Capture of Mooltan,’ The Manchester Examiner and Times, 24 February 1849, p. 4.
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