Flagstaff Tower, Delhi. Felice Beato, albumen print, 1858-9, 254 x 304 mm. The Delhi Ridge lies between Flagstaff Tower and Hindu Rao’s House. European survivors of the Delhi massacres assembled in the Tower in May 1857. The building still exists, and has not altered in appearance since this photograph was taken. It is now within the campus of Delhi University, close to the Vice-Chancellor’s residence.

It is hard to believe that this fenced-in park, with its odd combination of leafy greenery and tarred pathways, families of monkeys and families of evening walkers – many of whom carry stout sticks to ward off the unwanted attentions of said simians – is the same stretch of the Delhi Ridge which historian Percival Spear described as “bare, a stony furnace in the hot weather, and a mirror of heat for civilians and soldiers on either side.” It becomes a little easier to imagine if you read Lucy Peck, who points out that the Ridge in the nineteenth century was covered in nothing more than low scrub – afforestation began only in the twentieth century.
The low-level, sparse vegetation was also the reason why this high point of the Ridge was a perfect site to locate a signal tower, which is what the Flagstaff originally was. High visibility apart, Spear argues that the Flagstaff, firmly planted at the top of the most difficult terrain in the region, was a concrete symbol of British determination to remain in possession of Delhi. The reason why the tower was one of Beato’s chosen sites, however, was the fact that during the course of the fateful day of May 11, 1857, it had become the gathering point for all the British families that had managed to escape with their lives from the cantonment and Civil Lines. 

“The single interior room of the tower was only 18 feet in diameter, windowless and stuffy at the best of times; at the height of the hot season it was like an oven,” writes William Dalrymple in his detailed account of the day’s events. Many of the women massed inside were sent up a suffocating interior staircase, and several fainted, partly from lack of air and partly from the shock of the news that their husbands, brothers or sons had been killed. The young Florence Wagentrieber, one of those present, later described the scene, “There was not a tree near the tower to shelter it from the hot sun… the heat was unbearable, and the children were stripped of every garment.” Eventually, realizing (as Dalrymple puts it) that “this isolated tower was quite indefensible, and that to mass the women and children in such a spot was to invite a further and much larger massacre than that which had already taken place within the walls of the city,” and shocked by the appearance of a creaking bullock cart filled with the bodies of British officers who had been killed earlier that morning, the gathered crowd piled into whatever carriages they had and set off on the Grand Trunk Road towards or Panipat, Karnal and Ambala. 

The British returned to the Ridge a month later, after defeating the rebel troops at the battle of Badli on June 8. The troops started to march from their camp at Alipore, 8 miles north of Delhi, at 1am. According to Zahir Dehalvi, an attendant to Bahadur Shah Zafar who was watching from the city walls, “When the English reached the cantonments, they saw that all the entrenchments were completely quiet. So they went up and occupied these posts, burnt the rebel camps and turned the abandoned cannon towards the city.” By 5pm that evening, the Ridge was in British hands. But they soon realized that though their intention was to besiege the city (and they had partly succeeded), they were now themselves besieged. Not having the numbers to actually capture the city, the British had no option but to remain where they were and “somehow to cling on and endure whatever the rebels threw at them until such time as relief came.” Apart from the daily bombardment from the city, conditions on the Ridge were terrible – water was scarce, sewage arrangements minimal, and the rotting corpses of men and animals led to an epidemic of flies. Charles John Griffiths wrote of the lack of shelter from the unrelenting heat, so that many of the troops “died from apoplexy and sunstroke, their faces turning quite black in a couple of minutes.” As you look around Flagstaff Tower today, at the neatly-planted rows of trees in every direction, it seems only natural to wonder whether the 1912 Town Planning Committee’s decision to thus domesticate the Ridge had something to do with the traumatic four months the British spent camped in the inhospitable, treeless expanse that it then was. 

Within the city, too, the months of June, July and August 1857 were a miserable time. Unlike the British, who at least had an unceasing supply of food and provisions, and were in a position to pay good prices for them, the citizens of Delhi suffered greatly from shortages. The large numbers of troops now massed in the city greatly increased the demand for foodstuffs and other goods, but their salaries were irregular and insufficient. As a result, there were constant complaints of civilians being looted by bands of soldiers, often based on the convenient belief that the citizen concerned, who had supplies of money or food, was a British sympathizer. For the mercantile class, both Muslim and Hindu, wrote Percival Spear, “the whole period was a long nightmare of forced loans, extortions and domiciliary visits, of insult and indignity… (while) the clerical class, mainly Hindu, tinctured with the new learning and British sympathies, lived in fear of denunciation as ‘friends of the English’.”

On the morning of September 11, the British marched down from the Ridge and advanced on the city in four separate columns. The Kashmiri Gate was the site of the first successful breach in the city walls, and thus became the emblem of the British takeover of Delhi. In November 1857, Governor-General Canning offered “a tribute of admiration and thanks to the brave soldiers… who accomplished the desperate task”. But the commemorative plaque that currently stands outside the gate was placed there by Lord Napier, the then Commander in Chief of the forces, a full twenty years afterwards, in 1876. It is not clear why the inscription took so long to come up, or why it was set up in 1876. Historian Nayanjot Lahiri has recently suggested that it may have been occasioned by the visit of the Prince of Wales to Delhi in January 1876, or more likely, as part of the preparations for the first Imperial Assemblage, which was also held in the city in 1877.