The Controversy of William Raikes Hodson

If the troops expected to find the king at the palace they were sorely mistaken. Bahadur Shah with his queen, Zeenat Mahal, a few sons and a retinue of some 100 people had left the palace 2 days earlier when Commander Bakht Khan had left Delhi. Unable to persuade the king to join him and his men on their march to Lucknow as the head of the army, the king had preferred to find refuge first at the Quta’b Minar and then moved to Humayun’s Tomb to await his fate. Some parties however were playing a different game. Zeenat Mahal had contacted Hodson on the 18th of September through Elahi Baksh (the father-in-law of the emperor’s eldest son) and Hakim Ahsan Ullah to negotiate the king’s surrender, provided he, she, her son Jawan Bakht and her father were guaranteed their lives. It would be Elahi Baksh who informed Hodson where to find not just the king but his sons in exchange for his life and a pension. As for Bakht Khan, he and 5000 sepoys had marched out of Delhi while the British were still sapping their way towards the Lahore Gate.

Hodson and the king

Humayun’s Tomb, 1858 (British Library)

The negotiations were so successful that General Wilson finally gave Captain Hodson orders to promise the Emperor his life and “freedom from personal indignity” and make whatever other terms he saw fit. With that, Hodson started with 50 men towards Humayun’s Tomb, some five miles from the city to capture Bahadur Shah.
The Emperor and his retinue had concealed themselves in some old buildings close to the gateway of the tomb. Hodson sent 2 emissaries to convey the message – the King’s life, that of Zeenat Mahal, her son and her father would be spared. The courtyard was filled with the king’s followers, all armed and willing to fight for their liege. After 2 hours of waiting, which Hodson found the most trying he had spent in his life, the answer finally came. They would deliver themselves up to Hodson alone on the condition he repeated the promise of the government directly to the king. Hodson then went out into the middle of the road in front of the gate and said he was ready to not only receive the captives but repeat the promise.
One after another they came out of the building, first Zeenat Mahal in a closed palanquin, then the king in a palkee. Hodson rode forward and demanded the king’s arms – at which Bahadur Shah asked if he was being addressed by Hodson Bahadur and if would he repeat the promise. Hodson answered he was and then solemnly repeated his life, that of his queen, her son and her father would be spared, adding most emphatically if any attempt was made to rescue him on the road back to Delhi, he would shoot him. Nodding, the old man gave up his arms to Hodson who handed them to his orderly and the same procedure was repeated with Jawan Bakht.
Then the march back to the city began, the longest five miles Hodson said he had ever ridden, as the palkees and palanquins could only travel at a foot pace. Hodson’s men surrounded them, followed, for most of the way, by a crowd of angry, armed retainers of the King. Anyone of them could have shot Hodson but gradually, as Delhi and the Lahore Gate came into view the crowd began to disperse – only a few followed the party up to the gate.
Hodson rode on ahead and ordered the gate to be opened. The officer on duty asked, as Hodson, prisoners and troops passed by, who was in the palkees. “Only the King of Delhi,” replied Hodson. The English guard, ready to sound a cheer, were quickly stopped by Hodson – he did not want the king to think the honour was for himself.
They continued up the Chandni Chowk to the palace gates where, met by Mr. Charles Saunders, the civil officer Hodson handed the Royal prisoners over to him. “By Jove, Hodson!” exclaimed Saunders, “they ought to make you Commander-in-Chief for this!”
Archdale Wilson’s reception of the captain was less enthusiastic.
“Well, I’m glad you have got him, but I never expected to see either him or you again,” he said. The other officers in the room loudly congratulated Hodson and as applause broke out, Wilson told him to select anything from the royal arms that had been given up to him to commemorate the adventure. Hodson selected two swords, one that had once been worn by Nadir Shah and the other, engraved with the seal of Jahangir upon it, which Hodson intended to present to Queen Victoria. As for the King, he slept that night in the Begum’s quarters of the palace, his former home was now his jail.
Not content with what was considered a brilliant exploit, Hodson urged Wilson to allow him to bring in the “villain princes” who had taken the lead in the Delhi massacres in May. Wilson refused. Word reached the dying John Nicholson who insisted on “stern and swift action” – only then could Wilson, most grudgingly replied to Hodson, “Go at once and take them if possible ; but for God’s sake do not bring them in, if you can help it, for I should not know what to do with them.” He further asserted he did not want to be bothered with them. Hodson assured him “that it was nothing but his own order which bothered him with the king, as I would rather have brought him into Delhi dead than living.”

Capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar by Captain Hodson from “The Indian Empire” by R.Montgomery Martin, 1860

The Princes

On the 21st of September, Lieutenant McDowell received a note from Hodson, “Come sharp, bring 100 men.” McDowell who was quite well acquainted with Hodson’s eccentricities, being his second-in-command (and commander of the regiment when Hodson was away doing duty as head of the Intelligence Department), organised the men as ordered and met Hodson at 6 in the morning on the 22nd. He quickly explained to McDowell that the – Shahzadahs, Mirza Moghul, Mirza Khizar Sultan (the King’s sons) and his grandson, Mirza Abubakar were hiding at Humayun’s Tomb and he intended to take them. At 8 o’clock in the morning, they rode off.

” I laid my plans,” writes Hodson, ” so as to cut off access to the tomb or escape from it, and then sent in one of the inferior scions of the royal family (purchased for the purpose by the promise of his life) and my one-eyed maulvi, Rajab Ali, to say that I had come to seize the Shahzadas for punishment, and intended to do so dead or alive. After two hours of wordy strife and very anxious suspense, they appeared and asked if their lives had been promised by the Government, to which I answered, ‘Most certainly not,’ and sent them away from the tomb towards the city under a guard.”

McDowell’s story, up to this point is similar to Hodson’s.

” In it were the princes and ‘ about 3000 Mussulman followers. In the suburb close by about 3000 more, all armed, so it was rather a ticklish bit of work. We halted half a mile from ‘the place and sent in to say the princes must give
‘themselves up unconditionally, or take the consequences.
A long half-hour elapsed, when a messenger came out to say the princes wished to know if their lives would be promised them if they came out. ” Unconditional surrender,” was the answer. Again we waited. It was a most anxious time. We dared not take them by force, or all ‘would have been lost, and we doubted their coming. We heard the shouts of the fanatics (as we found out afterwards) begging the princes to lead them on against us. And we had only one hundred men and were six miles from Delhi. At length, I suppose, imagining that sooner or later they must be taken, they resolved to give themselves up unconditionally, fancying, I suppose, as we had spared the King, we would spare them. So the messenger was sent to say they were coming. We sent ten men to meet them, and by Hodson’s order, I drew the troop up across the road, ready to receive them, and shoot them at once if there was any attempt at a rescue. Soon they appeared in a small Ruth or Hindoostanee cart drawn by bullocks, five troopers on each side. Behind them thronged about 2000 or 3000 (I am not exaggerating) Mussulmans. We met them, and at once Hodson and I rode up, leaving the men a little in the rear. They bowed as we came up, and Hodson, bowing, ordered the driver to move on. This was minute. The crowd behind made a movement. Hodson waved them back; I beckoned to the troop, which came up, and in an instant formed them up between the crowd and the cart. By Hodson’s order, I advanced at a walk on the people, who fell back sullenly and slowly at our approach. It was touch and go.
” Meanwhile Hodson galloped back and told the ‘ sowars to hurry the princes on along the road, while we showed a front and kept back the mob. They retired on Humayoon’s tomb, and step by step we followed them. Inside they went up the steps and formed up in the immense garden inside. The entrance to this was through an arch, up steps. Leaving the men outside, Hodson and myself (I stuck to him throughout), with four men, rode up the steps into the arch, when he called out to them to lay down their arms.”

A murmur when through the crowd but for some inexplicable reason, which even McDowell could not explain, they suddenly surrendered their arms.

“Now you see we didn’t want their arms, and under ordinary circumstances would not have risked our lives in so rash a way, but what we wanted was to gain time to get the princes away, for we could have done nothing had they attacked us, but cut our way back, and very little chance of doing even this successfully. Well, there we stayed for two hours, collecting their arms, and I assure you I thought every moment they would rush upon us. I said nothing, but smoked all the time, to show I was unconcerned; but at last, when it was all done, and all the arms collected, put in a cart, and started, Hodson turned to me and said, ” We’ll go, now.”

Leaving the arms in charge of a small guard, Hodson and McDowell cautiously rode away, the crowd following. They finally came up on the princes, barely a mile outside Delhi, still surrounded by the guard. They were not having an easy time of it – a large and hostile crowd was pressing on them and only with difficulty were they managing to keep them off. Hodson said he rode up just in time as the mob were turning on the guard. Fearing his own men were wavering, Hodson rode in among them at a gallop, McDowell at his side. All around them, crowd continued to surge forward, hostile and menacing
“What shall we do with them ?” said Hodson to McDowell, “I think we had better shoot them here; we shall never
get them in.” Hodson halted the troop and placed five across the road behind and in front. He then turned to the crowd, saying these were the “butchers who had brutally used helpless women and children, and that the Government had now sent their punishment.” McDowell asserts,
“We had identified them by means of a nephew of ‘ the king’s whom we had with us, and who turned ‘king’s evidence. Besides, they acknowledged themselves to be the men. Their names were Mirza ‘Mogul, the king’s nephew and head of the whole ‘business; Mirza Kishere Sultamet, who was also one of the principal rebels, and had made himself notorious by murdering women and children; and Abu Bukt, the commander-in-chief nominally, and heir-apparent to the throne.” (This was incorrect – two of them were sons of the King and Abu Bakht was his grandson. Mirza Mogul was heir-apparent to the throne, as the eldest surviving legitimately born son of Bahadur Shah Zafar).

He ordered the princes to stip off their upper garments and then to get back in the cart. He then took a carabine from one of his men he “deliberately shot them one after the other.”

Before shooting them, Hodson “addressed our men, explaining who they were, and why they were to suffer death; the effect was marvellous, the Mussulmans seemed struck with a wholesome idea of retribution, and the Sikhs shouted with delight, while the mass moved off slowly and silently.”

The cart containing the bodies was taken into the city and dumped unceremoniously on the main square, where thus exposed on a stone slab outside the Kotwali, they remained for three days under guard, before being buried. Griffith, who like many others viewed the bodies, says he saw they had 2 small bullet wounds over the heart, the flesh singed with gunpowder, showing they had been shot at close range. Lieutenant Vibart who had been stationed at Delhi before the mutiny and had made his escape in May, recognised Mirza Mogul whom he used to meet “frequently at picnics and luncheon parties given by the officers of the Delhi garrison, and who often took part with us in rifle competitions and pigeon shooting.” Roberts was “rather startled” on seeing the lifeless bodies of the princes. Although he admitted the justice of the punishment, he regretted it was Hodson who had acted the part of the executioner.
The men of Gough’s regiment however had another thought altogether. While Gough was sorry that Hodson should have ” placed himself in a position unworthy of so brave a man…” the horsemen were jubilant.
“It is said,” wrote Gough,” there was an ancient prophecy among the Sikhs that Delhi should fall by their arms, and that her royal princes should be exposed in her public streets, and the men of ‘Hodson’s Horse,’ when they saw the bodies of these men exposed on the Kotwali of the city, fully believed the prophecy had been fulfilled.”

Capture and Death of the Shahzadahs – by G.F. Atkinson, Bengal Engineers from “The Campaing in India” As Atkinson was not present with Hodson and McDowell, this picture is can just as well be subtitled, “by one who was not there.”

The Controversy of William Raikes Hodson

As we have seen before, Hodson was not without his critics – in fact, he had more of those than he had friends. As we have already seen in “August in Delhi, ” there were those who felt he was only fit to lead Italian banditti – however, as a soldier, he was also considered the most “wide awake man” on the Ridge and his leadership of the fledgling Hodson’s Horse was without question exemplary. However, the past continued to haunt him.
He had assumed command of the Guides at the behest of Harry Burnett Lumsden, the man who had raised the corps in 1847 – Hodson had received the posting by the merit of his actions with the Guides and not as supposed favouritism. However, as John Lawrence pointed out, ” Hodson is, I believe, very unpopular, both in the Guides and with military men generally. I don’t know exactly why this is. It cannot be that he has got promotion too early, for, though a young soldier, he is almost a middle-aged man. He is an officer of first-rate ability and has received an
excellent education. He is gallant, zealous, and intelligent, and yet few men like him. It is the case of the famous Dr Fell, whom the young lady did not like, but could not tell why she did not do so.”

His promotion to the command of the Guides had ruffled a few feathers, mainly those of men who felt their claims to the post were higher than his, including two officers in the Guides- One, Lieutenant Turner showed Hodson such enmity he was only too relieved when Turner transferred to the Punjab Cavalry. The rumours around Hodson continued – John Lawrence felt he was implementing changes within the regiment with too much haste. “I don’t think that Pathans can bear a very strict system of drill and setting up at any time. For all these reasons, therefore, I would introduce my reforms very slowly and carefully, carrying them out in a way as little vexatious as possible.” It is very likely that Hodson, in his zeal to impose his own characteristic ideas of military discipline had acted in a manner seen as ruthless by his superiors. One such case was that of Fathi Khan, a hot-headed sowar in the Guides, who even Lumsden admitted finding the “retired freebooter very hard to manage.” Described by Lawrence as “a perfect devil when his blood is up, and this is very often. At such a moment he would murder his nearest and dearest relative or
friend..” but it was Hodson who felt that Fathi Khan had no place in the Guides. He then infuriated his English subalterns by getting rid of many Pathans and Afridis as well, on grounds of finding them faithless. Yet it was the arrest of one Khadar Khan that sealed Hodson’s fate in the Guides.
Already under investigation for embezzling regimental funds, Hodson now arrested the border chieftain, Khadhar Khan on the charge of plotting the murder of Mackeson and the attack on Lieutenant Godby of the Guides. Frederick Mackeson had been the Deputy Commissioner at Peshawar and a personal friend of Hodsons when he was stabbed to death on his verandah by a religious fanatic. Although the assassin was caught and hung, Hodson believed there was a greater plot behind it and the attack on Lieutenant Godby only furthered Hodson’s thoughts. In spite of the evidence presented by Hodson at Khan’s trial, the chief was acquitted and all his property restored to him, which Hodson had confiscated.
As for Hodson, he was charged with the wrongful imprisonment of Khadar Khan and if that was not enough, it was recommended he should never hold another civil appointment again – a court of inquiry brought on by the allegations of Lieutenant Turner that Hodson had persistent falsified accounts and had in this matter, acted with gross negligence. Unfortunately, for Hodson, Turner also wasted no time in slandering him in Peshawar society and the rumours began to run. Although an exhaustive report was prepared by Reynell Taylor who had the very troublesome task of making sense of two years’ worth of Guide’s accounts, the conclusion he drew was the accounts had been handed over to Hodson in a chaotic state and although irregularly kept, once Taylor had completed the calculations could find no evidence to support the claims of fraud.
Unfortunately, his detractors continued their tales and fairly soon, it was understood that Hodson had lost command of the Guides because of faulty bookkeeping. He had been relieved due to the affair with Khadar Khan – a separate issue that rode on the same coattails. Taylor’s final report was virtually suppressed and Hodson’s reputation was ruined.

It cannot be denied there was a conspiracy against William Hodson led by people who had a dislike of the man for reasons of their own. Hodson’s own temperament did not help matters – although a brilliant soldier, he was often rash, domineering and arrogant. The qualities which he was remembered for by his friends are different who recalled his touching kindness, his consideration for their needs and his unfailing courtesy. On the field of battle, the fighting Hodson came out and when the circumstances called for it, he was the brutal soldier he was expected and needed to be. The times of William Raikes Hodson were cruel and unforgiving – he understood to lead men, like those of Hodson’s Horse, he could not do it with a sweet demeanour, he needed their respect and it had to be absolute, otherwise, he would not stand a chance of maintaining their loyalty. In their turn, they followed a man they looked upon as their unfailing leader. Strength of character is one thing Hodson did not lack; perhaps he had too much of it.
After the affair with the princes, Hodson faced another trial by public opinion.

” Strange,” wrote Hodson five months later, ” that some of those who are loudest against me for sparing the king are also crying out at my destroying his sons. . . . But, in point of fact, I am quite indifferent to clamour either way. I made up my mind at the time to be abused. I was convinced I was right, and when I prepared to run the great physical risk of the attempt, I was equally game for the moral risk of praise or blame. These have not been, and are not, times when a man who would serve his country dare hesitate as to the personal consequences to himself of what he thinks his duty.”

Wylie Norman begged to differ, (and it must be pointed out, Norman was not present with Hodson and McDowell and made his theory after the fact) stating,
“I never heard of this crowd at the time and I do not believe it. No mutineer troops had been left behind, and the multitude thronging the old buildings about Delhi were, for the most part, terrified townspeople who would easily have been dispersed by his sowars, ” adding, “I believe Hodson shot them because he believed they deserved death and was apprehensive if he brought them in alive their lives might be spared. n doing this he did what I think was in the highest degree wrong…I am bound to say, however, that many officers thought he did right and had displayed commendable vigour and resolution.”
The sowar who was brought in with half his ear missing might have disagreed with Wylie Norman regarding the unarmed crowd. Norman however might still have been close to the truth. Hodson wrote on the 23rd of September:

In twenty-four hours I disposed of the principal members of the House of Timour the Tartar. I am not cruel, but I confess, that I did rejoice in the opportunity of ridding the earth of these ruffians.”

Hodson however put forward another explanation:

“But why execute them with his own hand? is the question often asked. … I will give Hodson’s own reply to this question as he gave it to me. (to Charles Thomason, a personal friend of Hodson) “The blood of the innocent women and children who had been the victims of the ferocity of these scoundrels seemed to cry aloud to me as their countryman sent by Providence to avenge their wrongs; and if I had hesitated for an instant in performing with my own hands what I considered a sacred duty, I should never again have been able to look an Englishman in the face.

There was of course the problem with Wilson and his garbled orders. The princes’ lives had never been guaranteed by Wilson or by anyone else and he further stated he did not want to be bothered by them. Whether that meant Hodson should summarily execute them or he should simply hand them over to the civilian authorities, it can only be reasoned that Wilson did not disagree with Hodson regarding the final outcome.

” Three of the Shahzadas “—to quote from Wilson’s own despatch of September 22—“who are known to have taken a prominent part in the atrocities attending the insurrection, have been this day captured by Captain Hodson and shot on the spot. Thus has the important duty committed to this force been accomplished, and its object attained, Delhi, the focus of rebellion and insurrection, and the scene of so much horrible cruelty, taken and made desolate; the king, a prisoner in our hands and the mutineers, notwithstanding their great numerical superiority and their vast resources in ordnance and all the munition and appliances of war, defeated on every occasion of engagement with our troops, are now driven with slaughter, in confusion and dismay, from their boasted stronghold.”

If anyone was aware of the cruelty perpetrated on the women and children on the 11th of May, it was Hodson, who in his capacity as head of the intelligence department had undoubtedly been privy to information which he received from his spies. However, how much of this information was truthful is a matter of conjecture. The killings at Delhi on the 11th of May were horrible but not as debauched as many of the stories were. McDowell believed the ladies had been forced to drink their children’s blood before being put to death while a young man named Clifford went to the grave thinking his sister had been paraded naked through the streets, raped repeatedly and then crucified on the city walls. There is no doubt that these tales fed the vengeful spirit of the Europeans and caused terrible, unwarranted suffering. However, the men, women and children who were held captive within the walls of Delhi on the 11th of May could have been saved by a sterner king instead of being butchered at the behest of his sons. The fact remains, the princes were caught, tried and executed without a jury or a hangman. They were shot in the back of a cart and thrown in the streets without dignity or remorse, an end which in the eyes of many of Hodson’s supporters, was a fitting end to men who were the heart of the revolt in Delhi that had been the scene of so much misery.

Hodson has been condemned by history and his reputation remains tarnished. That he deserved blame is unquestionable, but in the context of his times, it is hardly surprising his actions matched the situation. That two other sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar were caught, tried and shot in Delhi in September and their bodies were thrown in the river, passed through the passages of time with little remark – those executions were considered fair, the sentence just and the punishment fitting. It also leaves little in the pages of the retribution carried out in Delhi, of the summary hanging of anyone found to be objectional with or without proof, (in the words of Edward Vibart, to “instil terror in the minds of the wavering and those still bent on defying authority”) nor does it leave room to explore the princes themselves. Their part in the atrocities perpetrated against the civilians of Delhi during the siege has been overshadowed by their execution by William Raikes Hodson.

Twelve Years of a Soldier’s Life in India, being extracts from letters of the late Major W.S.R. Hodson B.A. – Rev. George H. Hodson (1859)
From Cadet to Colonel Vol.II – Major-General Sir Thomas Seaton K.C.B. (1866)
A Histoy of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858, Vol III -John William Kaye F.R.S. (1876)
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T.R.E. Holmes (1891)
Old Memories – General Sir Hugh Gough (1897)
Forty-One Years in India, from Subaltern to Commander-in-Chief Vol. I – Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar (1897)
Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi, Translated from the Originals by the late Charles Theophilus Metcalfe (1898)
The Sepoy Mutiny as seen by a Subaltern from Delhi to Lucknow – Colonel Edward Vibart (1898)
A Leader of Light Horse – Life of Hodson of Hodson’s Horse – Captain Lionel J. Trotter (1901)
Memiors of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wylie Norman – Sir William Lee-Warner K.C.S.I. (1908)
The Indian Mutiny – Julian Spilsbury (2007)