By Som Benegal
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This enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon river, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Around the enclosure lay the newly constructed cantonment area of the port – an anchorage and pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier. The bier of the State Prisoner – as the deceased was referred to – was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards.
What was even more exciting was the street-level nature of much of the material. Although the documents were collected by the victorious British from the Palace and the army camp, they contained huge quantities of petitions and requests from the ordinary citizens of Delhi – potters and courtesans, sweetmeat makers and overworked water carriers – exactly the sort of people who usually escape the historian’s net. 18 We meet people like Hasni the dancer, who uses a British attack on the Idgah to escape from the serai where she is staying with her husband and run off with her lover.
Following the death of General Barnard and the resignation of General Reed, he took over command of British forces at the siege of Delhi from 17 July. He quickly put in place a defensive strategy, much criticised at the time but which successfully preserved British strength until reinforcements arrived shortly before the assault on 14 September. During the taking of the city Wilson’s nerve finally failed him, and at one point John Nicholson threatened to shoot him if he should order a retreat. Brigadier General John Nicholson (1821–57) A taciturn Ulster Protestant, Nicholson was said to have personally decapitated a local robber chieftain, then kept the man’s head on his desk.