The Seige & Tragedy of Lucknow’s Residency – A History Lesson

On May 1, 1857 East India Company’s Sepoys (Indian Soldiers) belonging to 7th Oudh Irregular Infantry refused to bite the cartridges of the newly introduced Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket. The cartridges were allegedly greased with beef and pork fat. The musket drill involved biting the cartridge that violated sepoys’ religions. It did not help that the Company had recently annexed Awadh on the grounds of mal-administration and duly externed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta. On 10th May sepoys in Meerut revolted and marched to Delhi. First War of Indian Independence had started.

When Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the state of Awadh heard this, he summoned loyal infantry men and sepoys for the defence of the Residency. Residency was a group of buildings originally built in 1800 by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan and then served as the residence of the Chief Commissioner who was British representative in the court of the Nawab. Britishers from neighboring districts fearing for their safety started arriving in Residency to take refuge. Lawrence also started building defences and stocking up on ammunition and supplies. Rebellions broke out in neighboring Sitapur, Sultanpur and Faizabad. Nana Sahib led the mutiny in Kanpur.

Mute Testimony to the Tragedy

Mute Testimony to the Tragedy


Exactly 155 years ago, on a beautiful rainy day just like today, the light rain fell on the delicate blades of green grass. The gentle pitter-patter of the rain drops is shattered with the boom of canon shells and bang of musket shots. The date was 30th June 1857 – The Residency was under siege.

At that time the Residency housed about 1700 fighters of which 700 were Indian. There were also about 1800 non combatants including 600 women and children. The total number of inhabitants inside the Residency was about 3500. The strength of Sepoys in the beginning was about 6000 numbers. I am not sure if this incident took inspiration from the Battle of Alamo which was fought between the resident Texans & Mexican Army in 1836 – however, with differing results.

The mutineers dug in with field guns, canons and muskets. The siege lasted for about five months. Two relief attempts were made by the British forces. The heat & rains with associated diseases took terrible toll on the defenders and the besieging mutineers. It is said savage hand to hand combats with bayonets, axes and shovels were fought on the ground and in the tunnels dug by mutineers under the Residency.

The Tragedy

The Tragedy

The ferociousness of the siege can be gauged from the fact that 24 Victoria Crosses were awarded on the final day of the Second Relief. I am not sure if there were any Indian recipients from British side. On this day, Scottish Highlanders and Punjab Infantry from the British Army stormed the Secundra Bagh. It is said about 2000 mutineers were slaughtered on this day and were believed to be buried in the grounds. However, an iconic photo by Felice Beato taken few months after the seige showed skulls and human remains spread on the grounds.

At the end of the Second Relief, the mutineers were defeated and the Residency was finally evacuated. Only 1000 refugee inhabitants survived the seige. Lawrence died due to sharpnel injuries on 4th July in the initial days but the siege produced more British heroes like Outram, Havelock and Campbell. Since the history has been written by the British, research could not dig out any Indian names from mutineers’ side connected to the Residency seige. Of course, the First War of Independence produced heroes like Mangal Pandey, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope and Rani of Jhansi. Their heroic tales share history with equally ignominous treachery and betrayal tales at the hands of their own people.

Shell Shocked

Shell Shocked

The mutiny in Lucknow though suppressed, laid the ground for future struggles for Independence. Even though the mutineers numbered about 40000, the major reason for failure of the rebellion was attributed to the absence of unified command that could coordinate the attacks. The sepoys also happened to be ill-disciplined and acted more like a mob with no planning. While the British army was disciplined and superior militarily. The educated middle class did not join the mutiny as they believed British rule would help in modernisation of the country.

As you enter the main gate of Residency, the din of Lucknow city recedes until just the distant hum of traffic remains. It is a quite green oasis in the middle of cacophany that Lucknow is today. The pervading hush makes it hard to believe that this eerily quite place was witness to one of the bloodiest fights of Indian Mutiny of 1857. This is nature’s way of soothing the Residency with eternal balm and tranquility to anesthetize the tumultous past. The dewy green grass absorbs the shock of looking at the cannon scarred red brick walls. Most of the buildings are heavily damaged with few having roofs.

Destroyed Astronomy Observatory

Destroyed Astronomy Observatory

Moss Covering the Red Bricks

Moss Covering the Red Bricks

Barring the green grass, it seems that the siege ended just yesterday. The shattered walls carry the echoes of tragedy, doom, valour, disease and gore. Walk the grounds and you are immediately transported to those turbulent days. Residency is a sprawling compound with neat manicured gardens. Signs indicate the names of various buildings. During the rains, the green moss covering the red brick broken walls lends an exquisite charm to the place. Spend some time in the museum. The church’s cemetry has the graves of about 2000 people including Lawrence. Visit Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s Tomb. Stay back for the light and sound show in the evening.

Lawrence’s Tombstone

Lawrence’s Tombstone

The Residency is a story of valour, courage and determination from both sides. Indians for the first time put up a brave effort to overthrow the Company. The Britishers on the other hand fought for their imperialistic prestige and to save the lives of people inside Residency.

Cycle of Life – Blight to Bloom

Cycle of Life – Blight to Bloom

At the end of the mutiny, East India Company was disbanded and India was ruled directly by the British Crown. It is reported that the Union Jack fluttering over the The Residency was never lowered; not even at sunset. The display of the flag was so important to the British psyche that when India’s independence was few hours away, the flag was carted off only to be unfurled on Windsor Castle.

Getting There: The Residency lies quite and mourning in the heart of Lucknow city.

24 Comments

  • SilentSoul says:

    Nirdesh… this is a good lesson in history with equally fascinating fotos. Yes the history was written by British, and we would never ever know what exactly happened there. I think Shashi Kapur’s movie Junoon has some glimpses of this war

    • Nirdesh says:

      Thanks SSji,

      Ok, I will try buying the movie CD. From what I remember from the Doordarshan days, it was based on the rebellion. Most of the movies financed by NFDC from those days being are relaunched after being digitally remastered.

  • Praveen Wadhwa says:

    Tatya Tope, (he was the cousin of Rani Lakshmi Bai) the Maratha leader in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and one of the rebel generals. He was a personal adherent of Nana Sahib of Bithur. He progressed with the Gwalior contingent after the British reoccupation of Kanpur and forced General Windham to retreat from Kanpur. Later on, he came to the relief of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and with her seized the city of Gwalior. However he was defeated by General Napier’s British Indian troops at Ranod and after a further defeat at Sikar abandoned the campaign. Finally he was betrayed by his trusted friend Man Singh. He was executed by the British Government at Shivpuri on 18 April 1859.

    Tatya Tope’s name was forgotten in India because he was instrumental in killing hundreds of Britishers and their families. He was forgotten and never remembered in India because after his acts, India became a colony of Britain and they took extreme revenge on India.
    They hanged hundreds of thousands Indians and they starved whole country.

    In that era hungry Indians went to South Africa, Fiji, Surinam and in other countries and lived in slavery like conditions there.

  • Praveen Wadhwa says:

    Well, I clicked the Submit button too early and missed to compliment you for this wonder post. Probably not many people (including me) know that we still have ruins of that Rebellion era. It is only amazing that whole India is getting filled up but some few historic ruins are still standing in the crowded city of Lucknow.

    Wow! Lawrence has a tombstone too.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Thanks Praveen for the appreciation and history nuggets.

      Yes, treachery has been a part of our culture which British took advantage of. If all princely states had combined their forces then the result would have been different. Rajasthan and Hyderabad kept quite while Punjab princely states supported the British. Yes, the uprising saw a lot of killing of British women and children in Kanpur. But we will never know for sure as the history could have been doctored.

      Yes the British did send a lot of indentured Indian labourers to Fiji, West Indies and Mauritius.

      Lucknow and Kanpur has lot of sites of the rebellion. And so does North Delhi. I plan to take that North Delhi ridge heritage walk soon.

      Thanks again!

  • Abheeruchi says:

    Hi,

    Nice post and nice pic. Unfortunately I am very bad in History, thus liked pictures more in your post :)

    Keep Travelling,keep writing

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Abhee,

      Thanks! History is amazing and if you combine sight-seeing with history, you literally go back to those times and relive it.

  • Gita AM says:

    That is a very well narrated history lesson with beautiful pics.

    “it seems that the siege ended just yesterday. The shattered walls carry the echoes of tragedy, doom, valour, disease and gore. Walk the grounds and you are immediately transported to those turbulent days”

    We are immediately transported to those turbulent days with your descriptions.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Gita,

      Thanks!

      There are some historical locations even not knowing the history behind them; it seems the walls speak to you. They tell you stories. Residency seems to talk to you if you just listen.

      • Gita AM says:

        “the walls speak to you. They tell you stories. Residency seems to talk to you if you just listen”

        A lot of ancient and historical places have that effect but you have expressed it so well!

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks, Nirdesh, for the slice of history. I especially liked your comparison of the seige of the Lucknow Residency with the Battle of Alamo. The pics were awesome and your vivid description made the history of the place really come alive. Simply superb.

    At school, we were taught the British version of the events of 1857 even though India was already independent at that time, since the syllabus was not yet revised. We were taught to despise our own heroes who were portrayed as despicable villains. The first war of Independence was called a mutiny. I would prefer to call it an uprising since it was neither just a mutiny nor was it a full-fledged war. The Sikhs and the Nizam of Hyderabad, among others, were solidly behind the British. If the British did not get local support, they would have been wiped out. Maybe it was all for the good since the British, for all their faults, did play a major role in ushering in the modern age in our ancient land.

    While the aftermath of these events saw the transfer of power from the East India company to the British Crown, the company was not disbanded immediately. The dissolution took place over a decade later by an act of dissolution passed by the British parliament.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi DL,

      Thanks!

      Yes people at NCERT do need to work for a change. I am currently reading Nehru’s Discovery of India. The tragedy is that even he has given references of books about ancient India written by Britishers and published by Britishers.

      Even during the siege, Britishers kept getting support from locals about the formation and strength of the sepoys! The uprising was limited to UP and Bihar. If Rajasthan and Hyderabad had participated, history would have been different.

      Well I dont agree with the British contribution part. Countries like Japan and Germany became superpowers (technologically and militarily) without any occupation. And look at Africa: practically every European country came and plundered and they are still fighting. We were doing pretty good even before the British came – why would Ghori and Ghazni and Taimur and Nadir Shah kept coming and walking out with all the goodies. Our cities like Vijaynagar and later Lucknow drew comparisons to Rome and Constantinople. Certain accounts say that the Nawabs were not that bad after all. It was all part of British propaganda to malign them and grab their provinces.

      Thanks again for reading and for your insights.

      • D.L.Narayan says:

        Thanks, Nirdesh for your kind response. Well, when I was in school, the NCERT was in the nascent stage and our text books were the same as those prescribed during the British Raj.

        Regarding the British, I did not mean to imply that they were the best thing that happened to us. They stole our wealth, impoverished us and wrecked our economy. During the Mughal era, we accounted for over 25 % of the global GDP and we were the largest economy in the world. When the British loot ended and we became independent, we accounted for barely 2%.

        Having said that, we must realise that after Aurangzeb died in 1707, the political scenario became chaotic and there were frequent invasions, wars and widespread famines. The French and British fought their wars on our soil and the economy was on the verge of a collapse. There was a political vacuum and the British made use of this opportunity afforded by history. In spite of all their economic rapacity, they had introduced modern governance, jurisprudence and education. They also introduced modern technology in the form of the railways, even if it was for their own benefit. In the final analysis, the balance tilts slightly towards the positive side. I shudder to even think of what course our history would have taken had the British not stepped in at that point in our history.

  • Dear Nirdesh,

    If our history teacher had been half as good as you seem to be, I wouldn’t have scored so poorly in the subject of history and geography. They made it look like something we must gulp down our throat however bad it tasted. Just countless names and dates to be remembered unnecessarily. If a student is able to look at a place, person or an event as real and not as a mass of text or some bw pictures of some alien faces printed on a newprint quality paper of our NCERT textbooks, he wouldn’t need to cram everything into his memory merely to vomit at the examination hall !

    As regards history doctored by British historians and considered sacred by our leftist ‘historians’, it is one more reason why students find it distasteful. If our own freedom struggle is coined as mutiny in our own books, what impression our young generation is going to form about its past? We have become a society which despises its own past, its own heroes, its own culture and takes pride in everything handed down to us by the British – be it the bread, butter and jam OR the perspective to see ourselves from the eyes of Britishers. Our Nehru ‘CHACHA JI’ was the biggest culprit for this pathological state of affairs in post independence era. He had described himself once, “I am Muslim by culture, British by education and Hindu by accident !

  • Like PW, I also pressed the Submit button too early. Even though your narration and pictures refer to a bygone era known as history, I felt within me a desire to know more about that period, to see it myself. You have taken great pains to compile everything and have put it up before us very nicely. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nirdesh says:

    Hi Sushantji,

    Thanks a lot for your appreciation. Yes, it did take a lot of time to trawl the net for the information related to Residency. All i could find was a number of British accounts and that were really biased. Like PW said the British really went medieval on the mutineers. They were sad days.

    You are so right. After my recent visits to Lothal, Warangal, Hampi, Mandu, Lucknow, Aurangabad, I too have realised that History is the most beautiful subject. But the way it was taught, it used to be medieval torture and how we would call our history teacher Bahmani after the Bahmani kingdom. That time there was no perspective to the teaching methods. It was all ratta and vomit. Like you said, in a country like India history subject can be the most interesting only if NCERT stops photocopying and uses their brains.

    My next stop is Delhi University area which houses Mutiny Memorial, Flagstaff and Chauburj.

    By the way, just to rub it in I got highest marks in History and Geography in 10th in my school. I wish I had taken Arts after that.

    Thanks Again!

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Though I have been to this place, after reading your narration it looks like a different place altogether. If I remember correctly, it was a summer afternoon. A few of us wanted to kill few hours since our flight back home was in evening and we have been to other usual suspects of Lucknow.

    I remember the green, the tomb and the museum. Probably one of the few museums which is in the basement and that generates one more layer of mysticism. Thank you Nirdesh for the history lessor, for the insights and for transporting us to the siege scene. What you wrote , triggered commenters like SS, PW, DL and Sushant to further enrich the whole offering.

    To do a little value-add, the famous ‘Dastarkhan’ (Hope I am getting it correct) street selling some mouth watering kebabs and all things meat, is close-by.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Thanks Nandan!

      I am not much of a foodie and since I had a few near death experiences owing to food poisoning, I stay away from street food. And also a vegetarian so Lucknow Dastarkhan does not hold a lot of attraction.

      Yes, the museum is in the basement where most of the British women and children holed in during the siege.

      Also thanks to SS PQ DL and Sushantji as always.

  • Hi Nirdesh…very nice post indeed.
    Rest, it is only pleasure for us to go down memory lane through you, as well as through all our friends.

    As we will be visiting Lucknow very soon for few days, hope to see some of the places you already covered recently.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Amitava,

      Thanks. And do visit the Ambedkar Park also. It is incredible. The polished marble gives the feeling as if you are walking on a pool of water.

  • ashok sharma says:

    very good post.

  • Nirdesh says:

    Thanks Ashok!

    I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Thanks really for this historical discourse on Lucknow (1857). Your article, certainly, is a guiding light to writers of history lessons in students’ textbooks.

    And I would also credit you for discovering the link between Lucknow and Port Blair. Having spent some time in those islands, I never bothered about origin of names of ISLANDS around Port Blair, like Havelock/ Campbell/Outram….till here, reading your statement……

    ” British heroes like Outram, Havelock and Campbell…..”

    Enjoyed,

    Auro.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Auro,

      Thanks for appreciating.

      And for bringing out the link between Residency and Andamans.

      The Residency siege was a huge prestige issue for the British. No wonder the guys got islands named after them!

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