THE RICHES OF DELHI
The riches of the city of Delhi and the opulence of its Princes and merchants had been celebrated in Hindostan from time immemorial. For ages it had been the capital of an empire extending from the snows of the Himalayas to Cape Comorin; and to Delhi, as to a centre, gravitated the wealth of the richest country in the world. Fabulous reports had reached us of the booty carried away to distant regions by the numerous warriors who burst like a torrent over Hindostan, making that city the goal of their conquests and the scene of their predatory forays. During the nineteenth century Delhi, since its capture by Lord Lake in 1803, had remained in the hands of the British, the city owing a nominal allegiance to the King, who, to all intents and purposes a State prisoner, was a pensioner of our Government up to 1857, holding a Court (consisting for the most part of wretched dependents and ragamuffins) in the Palace of the Great Mogul.
The quiet which reigned during that period had a salutary effect on the prosperity of Delhi; its merchants and storekeepers, trading with the inhabitants of the richly-cultivated Dooab and with more distant countries, became rich and prosperous, accumulating vast treasures, while the people, with the instinct of a penurious race, converted their ready-money into jewels and gold and silver ornaments, and safely stowed them away in hidden receptacles within their houses.
The numerous races of India - and notably the Sikhs - burning for an opportunity to plunder the imperial city, cast longing eyes towards these hidden treasures, the fame of which had spread far and wide; and to this desire may be attributed, as much as any other reason, the willingness of that warlike people to help us during the Mutiny.
While the siege was progressing, even at a time when clouded with anxiety as to the future, men's minds were full of the uncertain issue of the fight; the thoughts of all in camp turned involuntarily to the rich harvest awaiting the army should Delhi fall into our hands. To all of us (putting aside the morality of the question), the loot of the city was to be a fitting recompense for the toils and privations we had undergone; nor did the questionable character of the transaction weigh for one moment with us against the recognized military law - "that a city taken by assault belonged as prize to the conquerors." During the actual bombardment, when the end seemed at hand, this subject of prize was the topic of conversation among both officers and men; and soon we learnt with satisfaction that the General in command, after consulting with others in authority, had settled on the course to be pursued.
On September 7 a notice appeared in "orders" in which General Wilson thanked the army for the courage and devotion displayed during the long months of the siege. He recapitulated the dangers through which the force had passed, and looked forward hopefully to the future when, Providence favouring us, a few short days would see the enemy's stronghold pass into our hands. Instructions the most peremptory were laid down as to the absolute necessity for the troops keeping well together on the day of assault, and not dispersing in scattered bands or alone through the streets of the city in pursuit of plunder. Great danger and possible annihilation of the small army would result were these precautions overlooked, rendering the force liable to be cut up in detail by the large bodies of rebels then occupying the streets and houses of Delhi. Lastly, as a reward and incentive to all engaged, the General gave his word, promising that all property captured in the city would be placed in one common fund, to be distributed as prize according to the rules of war in such cases. The commanding officer, as well as all in the army, knew that it would be impossible to prevent looting altogether, but it was hoped that the above order would have a good effect by urging on the soldiers, for their welfare and advantage, the necessity of obeying the instructions therein laid down.
This order, as I have said, appeared on September 7; nor, from the promises given, had any of us the slightest doubt but that its provisions with regard to prize-money would be carried into effect in due course. Delhi was taken, but as time passed by, and months elapsed without any notification on the subject being received from the Supreme Government, the army began to feel anxious, and murmurs arose as to the non-fulfilment of the pledge given by General Wilson. At length, at the end of the year, the Governor-General, with the advice of his Executive Council, promulgated his decision that there was an objection to the troops receiving the Delhi prize-money, and in lieu thereof granted as a recompense for their arduous labours and patient endurance in the field the "magnificent" sum of six months' batta.
Lord Canning, his Council and law advisers, all civilians sitting quietly at Calcutta, living in ease and comfort far from the dangers of war, thought, forsooth, that the Delhi army, struggling for existence for months, fighting to uphold British rule in India - nay, for the very lives and safety of these civilian judges - and at last victorious in the contest, would rest content with their decision.
It is needless to say that this roused a storm of indignation not only amongst the Delhi force, but throughout the British army in India - a burst of resentment which, reaching the Governor-General, made him pause and reconsider his ill-timed and unjust decision. Suffice it to say that the order was rescinded, and that the prize-money, in addition to six months' batta, was granted to all engaged.