The year was 1857. The Sepoy mutiny had ravaged Delhi for over five months; citizens scrambled for provisions and desperately attempted to stay hidden as both British and Indian soldiers looted the city and unleashed terror on its inhabitants. The dead lined the streets in various stages of decomposition; the living spent day after eternal day in an inferno of ceaseless gunshots and cannon fire.
The Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, had fled with a few members of his family to Humayun’s Tomb, only to be captured and taken to his wife’s haveli to be displayed like a ‘beast in a cage’. British officers came to see him thus, and revelled in the despair of the last king of the Mughal Empire.
Following Zafar’s arrest, three princes were also captured from Humayun’s tomb and, after surrendering unconditionally, were piled onto a bullock cart to be taken to the Red Fort. A group of citizens followed their beloved princes, mourning the loss of their honour, dignity and legacy.
But as the princes approached the Khuni Darwaza – the Bloody Gate – they were stopped by the officer who captured them. This man was Major William Hodson.
William Hodson was the son of a clergyman who came to India to fight in the Sikh wars, but quickly rose in the ranks, dodging charges of corruption, embezzlement, and gross negligence. He was known for his excellent swordsmanship, and his reckless, impulsive nature. Widely unpopular among his men, Hodson was notorious for his penchant for killing, and once wrote to his sister, saying, “I never let my men take prisoners, but shoot them at once”.
His ruthlessness and unshakable self-confidence caught the attention of the Commander in Chief, and he was summoned to aid forces handling the Sepoy mutiny. He was given a small private army, later named Hodson’s Horse, and was tasked with riding to and from Meerut to re-establish communication with the regiments stranded there.
Later, he rose to become the Chief of Intelligence, and had a vast network of spies that was rumoured to be so effective that he was said to know what the rebels had for dinner very night.
It was Hodson who learned of Zafar fleeing to Humayun’s tomb – shockingly, one of his informants was Zafar’s wife – and devised a plan to capture him. When Zafar surrendered, Hodson loudly declared (so that all nearby could hear him) that Zafar would not suffer any dishonour. He then turned to his men and ordered them to shoot any of Zafar’s attendants who tried to move.
After capturing Zafar, Hodson came back to Humayun’s Tomb for the three princes there. When he stopped their bullock cart at the Khuni Darwaza, en route to the Red Fort, he claimed that the large crowd following the princes was ‘on the verge of rescuing them’. Other accounts state that it was only a small group of people who followed the princes, and they weren’t a threat at all.
But all accounts are unanimous on what happened next.
Hodson stopped the cart and ordered the princes to get out. He then stripped them naked and shot them dead one by one, at point blank range, in front of the crowd of horrified onlookers. He took the rings, armlets and bejewelled swords from the corpses, and left the bodies on display. After this monstrous atrocity, he wrote to his sister, saying, “I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches”
Three Mughal prices were thus cruelly murdered, and the Emperor was captured and tormented, slowly losing his sanity, until one day he would lose the ability to speak altogether. The Sepoy mutiny came to a gruesome end, and the British held a grand celebration for the man who had effectively destroyed the Mughal Empire.
Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal. Haryana: Penguin Random House India, 2007. Print.