Eyewitness to an Era, Joseph Davey Cunningham

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One man who has fascinated me is Joseph Davey Cunningham( 1812-51).His ‘history of the Sikhs’ is a monumental book and deserves the highest praise. I for one have found it as an excellent source of reference. The book brings to the fore an exciting period in Indian history. Who was Cunningham ? People read his book, but know little about the man whose life was closely intertwined with the History of the Punjab at a tumultuous time in Indian History.

Early life

Cunningham was born at Lambeth in 1812 and showed a marked aptitude for mathematics.  Joseph’s father was advised to send the boy to Cambridge, but he preferred to join the Military. He joined the engineering branch of the British East India army and after passing out from Chatham he joined the Corps of Sappers and Miners in the Bengal Army. All this was mundane stuff, but his real rise was when he was appointed in 1837 as assistant to Colonel Sir Claude Wade, who was the political agent at Ludhiana and officer-in charge of British relations with the Punjab and with the chiefs of Afghanistan.

Political Agent

For the next 8 years he held various appointments under Colonel Wade and his successors, and was, at the time of the outbreak of the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1845, political agent in the state of Bahawalpur. He was present, as political officer, with the division of Sir Harry Smith at the battles of Baddoval and Aliwal. At Sabhraon, he served as an additional aid-de-camp to the Governor-General, Sir Henry Hardinge. His services earned him a brevet and appointment as political agent to the state of Bhopal. Thus Cunningham had first hand account of these battles.

Writing the history of the Sikhs

In 1849, appeared his ‘A History of the Sikhs which he had written while at Bhopal and which his brother had got published in London. His severe criticism, in the book, of Lord Harding’s Punjab policy led to his being removed from his political appointment and sent back to regimental duty. He took the disgrace to heart and, soon after his appointment to the Meerut division of Public Works; he died suddenly at Ambala in 1851

Analysis of the ‘History of the Sikhs’

‘A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej’,by Cunningham, is generally recognized as the first serious and sympathetic account of the Sikh people ever written by a foreigner. Cunningham spent considerable time and studied the available materials. In addition he acquainted himself with the Sikh scriptures and all connected manuscripts in Persian and Punjabi. Cunningham was   greatly influenced by Sikhism and as per him his main endeavor was “to give Sikhism its place in the general history of humanity, by showing its connection with the different creeds of India…”

His first four chapters cover the history of the Sikhs from its beginning to 1764. He traced the growth to their religious faith, which he inferred, was the main motive force of their history.  He felt that Sikhism appeared at a time in India when the historical situation needed it the most. He felt there was great excellence in  Guru Nanak’s message. An important feature of Sikhism, in Cunningham’s eyes, was its spirit of freedom and progress.

The last five chapters covered a period of which Cunningham was himself a witness. He made use official and secret records of the government of the East India Company for these chapters. A large part of these five chapters dealt with Ranjit Singh’s rise to power, his achievements and his relations with the British. Of these, the last chapter entitled “The War with the English,” was a scathing criticism of Governor-General Lord Hardinge who, as per Cunningham, had precipitated the war. He paid the price for that criticism.


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