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«AUTHOR’S INTRODUCTION O thou that buttest the high mountain, seeking to dislodge it with thy horns, take pity, not on the mountain but on thy head ...»

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There is an air of candour and veracity about all he says. We honour Captain Cunningham’s sin-cerity and plain-speaking whilst we deplore his occasional misdirection. He has been led astray by an over-whelming anxiety to do justice to our enemies. But while he has done them more than justice, he has done the English less than Justice. He is the apologist of the Khalsa; he has written the history of the Sikhs, for most part as a Sikh historian would write it. To Captain Cunningham’s inde-fatigable industry we bear willing testimony. He has con-sulted every published authority and many others unpub-lished.”16 Cunningham had lived with the Sikh people for eight years. He was present at the meeting between Ranjit Singh and Lord Auckland and was not only eye witness to most of the events, but had access to many official secret des-patches. The Editor of Calcutta Review finds fault with 32 his literary style and calls it “a style, that either halts upon crutches or strides upon stills - wants ease and fluency -moves on laboriously with nothing spontaneous about it -nothing animated. It is artificial and constrained.”17 Calcutta Review high-lights four features of the his-torical contents of Cunningham’s book, which offended the British Imperialistic policy of liquidating Sikhs and Sikhism, and quotes profusely from Cunningham’s books before he comments on his confirmed views.


The following passage of Cunningham is brought into focus:

“It would be idle to suppose that he (Guru Nanak) speculated upon Being, or upon the material world, after the manner of Plato or Vyasa, and it would be unreason-able to condemn him, because he proposed the doctrine of a succession of habiliments, and the possible purifica-tion of the most sinful soul, to the resurrection of the same body and the pains of eternal fire. Nanak also re-ferred to the Arabian prophet and to the Hindu incarna-tions, not as impostors and the diffusers of evil, but as having truly been sent by God to instruct mankind, and he lamented that sin should nevertheless prevail. He rendered his mission applicable to all times and all places.”18

Commenting on this the Editor of Calcutta Review writes:

“Captain Cunningham goes most unnecessarily out of the way to introduce a flippant and offensive comparison (with Christianity). His caprice of writing as a Sikh, is here carried beyond the bonds of decency and good sense. It remains to be proved that Nanak ever heard of the Christian doctrine, which it has pleased Captain Cunningham to caricature; and if he had, it would be in the highest degree reasonable to condemn him or anyone, who could prefer the senseless and licentious doctrine of transmigration. But Capt Cunningham’s account of the system of Nanak seems merely drawn up ad Captandum; it is unworthy of serious criticism and unworthy of his own high character and remarkable abilities. In 33 questionable hero-worship it is not given to every man to bend the bow of Carlyle. The same remark will apply to his vague and bombastic account of the influence of Govind.”19



The second feature that hurt British Imperialistic was designs of denigrating Guru Gobind Singh, the creator of Khalsa Holy Order. The Editor of Calcutta Review quotes what he considers the most offensive passage that upsets Imperialistic political and cultural strategy. Cunningham says, “The last Apostle of the Sikhs (Guru Gobind Singh) did not live to see his own ends accomplished, but he effectively roused the dormant energies of a vanquished people, and filled them with a lofty although fitful longing for social freedom and national ascendency, the proper adjuncts of that purity of worship which had been preached by Nanak. Govind saw what was yet vital, and he relumed it with Promethean fire. A living spirit possessed the whole people, and the impress of Govind has not only elevated and altered the constitution of their minds, but has oper-ated materially, and given amplitude to their physical frames; the features and external forms of a whole people have been modified; and a Sikh chief is not more distin-guishable by his stately person and free and manly bear-ing, than a minister of his faith is by a lofty thoughtful-ness of look, which marks the fervour of his soul, and his persuation of the near presence of the Divinity. Govind did not fetter his disciples with political systems or codes of municipal laws; yet in religious faith and worldly aspi-rations, they are wholly different from the Indians; and they are bound together by a community of inward senti-ments and outward object unknown elsewhere.”20 This is what the British Imperialists could not digest. Such authentic writings by Sikhs and non-Sikhs still continue to upset the digestion of the Delhi Rulers of Independent India, who wish to uphold their power and so called political integrity by subjecting the Sikhs to unprecedented suspicion, persecution and subsequent enslavement.



Cunningham paid a glowing tribute to the Sikhs as disciplined soldiers. He says, “The Sikh owes his excel-lence as a soldier to his own hardihood of character, to the spirit of adaptation which distinguishes every new people, and to that feeling of a common interest and destiny implanted in him, by his great teachers. The Rajputs and Pathans are valiant and high-minded warriors, but their pride and their courage are personal only, and concern them, as men of ancient family and lineage; they will do nothing unworthy of their birth, but they are in-different to the political advancement of their race. The efforts of Marathas in emancipating themselves from a foreign yoke, were neither graded nor strengthened by any of distinct hope or desire. They became free but did not know how to remain independent; and they allowed a crafty Brahmin to turn their aimless aspirations to his own profit, and found a dynasty of Peshwas on the achieve-ments of unlettered Shudras. Similar remarks apply to the Gorkhas and other Indian peoples... The Sikh looks before him only; the ductility of his youthful intellect readily recieves the most useful impression or takes the most advantageous forms; and religious faith is ever-present to sustain him under any adversity, and to assure him of an ultimate triumph.”21 Cunningham had access to many important des-patches and documents on the basis of which he brings out the sycophancy, duplicity and betrayal of trust of his government.

This hurt every British administrator from Governor-General Hardinge and Dalhousie to junior of-ficers.

The learned Editor of Calcutta Review aptly sums up the reaction saying. “Captain Cunningham is the apologist of the Sikhs. His heart seems to be with them., He is almost one of the Khalsa Gospel. He sees things as they 35 are seen at Lahore, and not as they are seen on our side of the Sutlej or, as they would be seen on a summit of infallibility, above the mists of local influences. He justifies, or seems to justify, the Sikh invasion of 1845-46 on the score of provocation given. This is a new reading of recent Indian history, which coming from a British officer, from a man of unquestionable ability - a clever member of a clever family.”22 The climax of Cunningham’s sincere appreciation of the character and psyche of the Sikh soldiers is revealed in his comments on the dignified demeanour of the Sikh armymen when they were ordered to surrender and were disbanded.

He writes: “The soldiers showed neither the despondency of mutinous rebels, nor the effrontery and indifference of mercenaries, and their manly deportment added lustre to that valour, which the victors had dearly felt and generously extolled.

The men talked of their defeat as the chance of war, or they would say that they were mere imitators of unapproachable Masters. But amid all their humiliation, they inwardly dwelt upon their fu-ture destiny with unabated confidence, and, while gaily calling themselves inapt and youthful scholars, they would sometimes add, with a significant and sardonic smile, that the “Khalsa” itself was yet a child, and that as the Com-monwealth of Sikhs grew in stature, Govind would clothe his disciples with irresistable might and guide them with unequalled skill.

Thus brave men sought consolation; and the spirit of progress, which collectively animated them, yielded with a murmur to the superior genius of England and ‘civilization, to be chastened by the rough hand of power, and perhaps to be moulded to the noblest pur-poses by the informing touch of knowledge and philoso-phy.”23 This passage is also quoted by Editor of Calcutta Review as views offending the Imperial policy of the new British Rulers.

Any authentic history, any honest opinion, any genuine appreciation of the Sikhs, their religion and national character was intolerable to the British Rulers.

36 This young and remarkable English historian became a helpless victim of the ruthlessness of his own government which he had served with such devotion, sincerity, loyalty and distiction.

When a storm was raised against him in official circles, Cunningham was prepared to change some sen-tences relating to Anglo-Sikh wars on the basis of factual position, but he refused to change a single word of his sincere and authenticated work on Sikh ism and character of the Sikhs. Lord Dalhousie wrote to Hobhouse on 6 September 1849, “Captain Cunningham, as you are already aware has been dismissed, very justly for his stupid-ity (without anything else) deserve it;

and it is all the more provoking because he is an able and useful officer. It was easy to foresee that his dismissal would be misrep-resented. I did all I could to prevent this result, by insert-ing the reason of his dismissal (though it is unusual to do so) in the Gazette; distinctly declaring that he was re-moved for making unauthorized use of official documents entrusted to his charge. The Press of course have all said, “at all events this is clear. Normally Captain Cunningham is dismissed for using official papers without leave in his book - because his book says disagreeable things of the Government.” Further they have said, “all Captain Cunningham has said, we know, is based on authentic public papers, therefore, it must be true;” thus they derive authority for his opinions and aspersions, so well as for his proved facts.”24 On 22 September 1849 Lord Dalhousie wrote: “Captain Cunningham has asked me to support a memorial for restriction. I have sent the Memorial and refused support, but have thought it just to add that his conduct of political affairs in Bhopal is laudable.”25 John Lawrence wished to write an angry comment on the book but Lord Dalhousie cautioned him against challenging such a powerful scholar whose work was well researched.

This dismissal of a sensitive and conscientious genius came as a great blow to him. He prepared a slightly revised 37 edition and sent it to his brother Peter Cunningham; a writer and scholar by his own right, whose work on English poetry I read in College. In the preface to this second Edition Peter

Cunningham writes:

“The sheets of this Edition were seen and corrected by their Author, (J.D. Cunningham) were ready for pub-lication several months previous to his death, in February,

1851. The reasons - of a painful, though temporary char-acter - for the delay in the appearance of the work will be found in a Memoir already written and to be published hereafter, when regard for the living will no longer inter-fere with the truth of History.” “The author fell a victim to the truth related in this book.

He wrote History in advance of his time, and suf-fered for it;

but posterity will, I feel assured, do justice to his memory.” “My brother’s anxiety to be correct was evinced in the unceasing labour he took to obtain the most minute information.

Wherever he has been proved to be wrong, -and this has been in very few instances, - he has, with ready frankness, admitted and corrected his error. In matters of opinion he made no change - not from obsti-nacy, but from a firm conviction that he was right.” “The new notes to this Edition are distinguished by square brack-ets; some contain information of the moment, contrib-uted by Lord Gough, Sir Charles Napier, and others, and all received my brother’s sanction. In matters of private life, some tenderness may be shown to individual sensi-tiveness, but history, to be of any value, should be written by one superior to the influences of private or personal feelings. What Gibbon calls “truth, naked, unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history,” should alone direct the pen of the historian, ‘and truth alone influ-enced the mind and guided the pen of the Author of this book. “26 After the Mutiny of 1857, there was some change in British attitude towards the Sikhs, though the missionar-ies became revengeful for some time as Christian mission 38 centres in Ludhiana, Lahore and many other places were burnt and razed to the ground. Christian missionary theo-ries like Christ taking over everyone’s sins as soon as he became Christain, did not appeal either to Hindus or Muslims. The upper class Hindus said that they could sin as much as they liked and could get rid of them by one dip in the holy Ganga.

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