LucknowThe British Residency

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

Some three thousand men, women and children were besieged in the British Residency of Lucknow during the Mutiny. After five months of fighting, a little under one thousand remained alive, although the death toll was less due to enemy action than the depredations of cholera, typhoid, tetanus and gangrene. The facts and figures lose some of their shock appeal when compared to the wholesale massacre at nearby Cawnpore; all the same, the details are far from pretty.

I take a long, lazy route there the next morning, stopping off first at the botanical gardens at Sikandrabagh, a haven of nurseries and rose gardens and manicured lawns, belying a very gory history, once again from the time of the Mutiny: hundreds of native sepoys had been butchered there by the infantrymen of the 93rd Highlanders, who, because of their kilts, were mistaken for the vengeful ghosts of the women slaughtered at Cawnpore. The nearby Shah Najaf Imambara was another place haunted by the events of the 1857 Mutiny, having been used as a stronghold by the native fighters. The British Residency compound is just a few minutes walk away.

"Would you mind taking our photograph?"

I am sitting on a bench outside the main Residency building, reading a book I bought from a local bookstore, a first-hand account of the siege. "The Mutiny records, rather than the Bhagavad Gita, should be your bible in this country," comments a character in Forster's A Passage to India. Those sentiments are a little dated now, but the account of the siege is certainly an interesting read, full of grim incident and written in a casual tone that made the whole thing quite chilling.

Tuesday, May 26th. The day passed quietly. In the evening I went to the Residency to see Mrs. Brien who had a child dying - poor Mrs. Brien was in great distress.

I have been reading for an hour straight, however, I need to stand and stretch my legs, and so no, I tell them, I don't mind taking their picture. I don't even object to the fact that they don't have a camera and expect me to use mine.

The couple pose in front of the sign identifying the Main Residency, with the building itself in the background, preserved just as it had been after the siege, a hulk of bricks scarred by cannon fire, the plasterwork blistered by bullet holes, the roof gone. They are a handsome couple, the man tidily dressed and the woman having a plumpness that suggests a certain level of affluence.

"How do you feel, being here?" the man asks. He is writing his name and address out for me on the back of a receipt for a local telephone call. His English is sharp, mannered, neatly-accented, though his handwriting leaves a lot to be desired. "Proud?" he suggests, handing me his address.

His tone is hard, challenging, and I wonder at his motives. I admit that I do, deep down somewhere, feel a small amount of pride. "Britain is not much of a world power these days," I explain, "although it keeps pretending to be. But during the days of the Raj, it was the biggest thing around."

"Yes," he says, "this is so. And do you think India is a world leader?" he asks me.

"Not yet," I say. "But it's getting there. The 21st century will, I'm sure, belong to India and China. Just as soon as they are better developed. Such great human resources at their disposal."

He smiles, pleased by this positive spin on the country's ever-burgeoning population. Or perhaps by the reversal of fortune - England's role diminished on the world stage and India a giant. Jai Paul (that is the name on the address slip he has written) becomes very effusive, swelling with a national pride I lack. It is a full five minutes before his girlfriend, who clearly does't speak English, grows bored and teases him away. He thanks me for taking the photograph, extracts from me a promise that I will forward it to him, turns and links arms with his girlfriend and leaves.

I spend several hours in the grounds of the Residency compound, charmed by its stillness and lush shades of silence. It is hard to believe that a city of coming on for two million people teems with activity just beyond its walls, harder still to credit the grisly events that had taken place here during the siege. I continue to read the account of those bygone times. It has some colourful and darkly interesting sections, in particular the descriptions of the early weeks of the siege and the morale of the residents, who had valiantly, and against all odds, managed to keep their upper lips stiff.

Saturday, July 4th. Firing had been going on all night and continued all day, but we were so engaged in kitchen duties we scarcely noticed it.

But there were undoubted moments of drama. Halfway through the siege a relief force had broken through. There had been hurrahs and celebration. But the relief force hadn't been able to break out again, and was itself besieged, along with those it would have rescued, until a second force, after taking Cawnpore, finally broke through some months and scores of deaths later and led everyone to safety. The first, failed relief effort did, in fact, serve some purpose, breaking the back of the rebellion in Lucknow and gaining time for the residents until the arrival of the second force.

I leave exploring the Residency compound till last, dawdling over it, enjoying the balm of its tranquillity to the utmost. Inside the Main Residency there is a rather cute map room, with a moth-eaten model of the compound itself, and also the very pleasant tykhanas, dusky underground rooms, built originally as escapes from the heat and used later to escape heated enemy gunfire. It is a place I would remember vividly later, when writing my novel Delhi Deadlines, using it as the setting for the opening scene.

Go back...

Read the previous article about the 1857 Mutiny.

It was at Kanpur, or Cawnpore as it had then been, that some of the worst outrages were committed during the 1857 Mutiny. After months of fighting, the besieged European residents finally agreed a truce and negotiated safe passage to Allahabad, only to be mown down by the forces of the princeling Nana Sahib as they boarded their boats. The women and children were spared, although it was to prove only a brief stay of execution.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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