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William Hodson – Indian Perspective

Volume: 11, No: 08 ; August-2017

The son of a clergyman, William Hodson had a good education. He was at school at Rugby, followed by Trinity College at Cambridge, but he was less interested in books and more in his vocation as a ‘Christian Soldier’.

Soon after he came to India, he fought in the Sikh wars. Latter, he became the district commissioner at Amritsar, from where he moved on to the North West Frontier to take up the position of the Deputy Commissioner of the Yusufzai tribal areas and adjutant of the new Corps of guides. However, Hodson found himself disgraced. In 1854, he was relieved of his command for falsification of regimental account and embezzling funds. He had also falsely accused and illegally imprisoned tribal leaders. Soon after, he killed a Subedar for being involved in the mutiny, but it is more likely, because Hodson, owed this man, money, which he had no intension of returning. William Dalrymple quotes a writer saying that Hodson ‘was too unscrupulous to be a good soldier and was really fit only to lead Italian banditti’.

While he was pressing for an enquiry to exonerate him, the rebellion broke out and this made all the difference to him. His energy and his ruthlessness had come to the attention of the Commissioner-in-Chief and he was permitted to raise a new regiment of irregular cavalry, comprising mainly of Sikhs. This was called Hodson’s Horse. Hodson was also given the task to gather intelligence in and around Delhi. In his operations, Hodson, like Nicholson, seldom bothered with legal niceties. Charles Allan quotes him as saying, ‘I never like my men take prisoners, but shoot them all at once.’ What is worse is that he took a sadistic pleasure in killing.

Hodson became an efficient intelligence chief. With the help of a one-eyed ‘maulvi’, Rajab Ali, he set up an extensive network of spies in Delhi and even enlisted informants in the rebel army, who fed vital information to the Britis, including rebel positions, gun placements, and the weak spots in fortifications. The rebels had no such reliable information about the British and this must have influenced the final outcome at Delhi.

As enemy troops advanced into the capital, the rebels fought fiercely. They fought for every street and every house, and even on the first day, a third of the British force had been killed in the fighting. Hodson was, to quote him, ‘horrified by the speed with which both the discipline and the morale of the army seemed to collapse’. But they regrouped and inch by inch, the British advanced and, after six days of intense fighting, the British flag was hoisted at the Red Fort.

After that the killing and the looting started. In comparison Nadir Shad’s massacre paled into insignificance. When he raised the arm with the sword, the massacre started, but a few hours later, he lowered his arm and it stopped. The British killing and plundering went on day after day making Delhi one big mass grave.

Hodson was an expert looter. His driving force was the desire to loot and he went about making his fortune. The historian Holmes calls Hodson ‘the most notorious looter in the whole army’.

Meanwhile, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Zeenat Mahal had escaped to Humanyun’s tomb.  The British wanted Bahadur Shah and his family captured. The man given this job was Hodson. Through his spy network he was in touch with Zeenat Mahal. At the tomb, Maulvi Rajab Ali, Hodson’s henchman, went in and negotiated with the emperor, while  Hodson and his escort hid in the ruins. The emperor’s life and dignity was guaranteed and other terms settled, after which he and his queen surrendered. The road back to the Capital was lined by thousands, and some walked behind the royal couple. It was a sad journey – The Emperor came back a prisoner.

The next day, Hodson persuaded the General to let him go again to Humanyun’s tomb in order to capture the three princes, Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan, and Abu Baker. Hodson rode out with an escort of 100 sawars (horse-riders) and again sent in the negotiator Rajab Ali.  The princes were given no guarantee, but seeing that the emperor had been spared, they assumed that they also would escape death. They were at the Khuni Darwaza near the city walls of Delhi, where according to Hodson’s version; a large threatening crowd seemed to be preparing to rescue the princes. Another officer, however, states that was only a small number of people and there was no threat. This latter version is also confirmed in a later account by Hodson’s own orderly. Hodson’s next action was horrific. He stopped the cart in which the princes were travelling and ordered them to get out and strip naked. He then shot them dead in cold blood. The Brazen plunderer that he was, he then stripped the corpses of their rings and their bejeweled swords. The next day, he wrote to his sister saying, ‘In 24 hours, I disposed off the principal members of the family of Timur, the Tartar. I must confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches’. The corpses were put on public display and Hodson was warmly congratulated by all Europeans who also added, ‘Hope you bag many more’. No enquiry was ordered into Hodson’s action.

Soon after, in March 1858, Hodson was shot dead when he was entering a palace in Lucknow looking for the booty of loot. The regiment of irregular cavalry raised by Hodson did well during his life time, but later it was accused of cowardly behaviour, on more than one occasion, during the campaign for the pacification of Oudh (Awadh). The regiment Hodson’s Horse, still exists in the Indian Army.


Hodson is buried in Lucknow and as a part of our special tour ‘Revisiting Lucknow of 1857-58‘ a visit to his grave is included along with sharing of some more facts about the soldier.  Of course the British versions is quite different and as a part of this tour both versions are presented. 

Credits : Excerpt from 'The Greased Cartridge' by E. Jaiwant Paul


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