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A Critique of Joseph Davey Cunningham(1812-51) and His ' History of the Sikhs'

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MG is an air warrior with a distinguished career and now a corporate advisor, writer, and intrepid traveler and novelist


Cunningham and the Sikhs

The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). The Sikhs have a checkered history. However, one man who studied Sikh history and deserves mention is Joseph Davey Cunningham ( 1812-51). He was the first foreigner to pen the history of the Sikhs. He wrote his ‘History of the Sikhs’ in the nineteenth century and since then it is considered the most authentic source of Sikh History. Cunningham loved the Sikhs and their religion and he wrote the ‘History of the Sikhs’ with great zeal. His is one of the most accurate accounts of the Sikhs during that period which was one of the most turbulent in the History of India.

Early life

Cunningham saw the light of the day in 1812 in England at Lambeth. He entered the school and excelled in mathematics. The teachers thus advised Cunningham’s father to make Joseph an engineer. Cambridge beckoned him, but Joseph joined the British East Indian Army. He joined the engineering corps and passed out from the academy at Chatham. He was commissioned in the Corps of Sappers and Miners in the Bengal Army.

Joseph reached India and worked diligently. He impressed his superiors and in 1837 at the young age of 25 was appointed as an aide to Colonel Sir Claude Wade, the political agent at Ludhiana. Sir Claude in addition was also an officer-in-charge of British relations with the Maharajah Ranjeet Singh of Punjab as well as the Emirs of Afghanistan. This is where Joseph cut his teeth and became acquainted with the Sikh religion.


Political Agent

From 1837-45 he continued to work under Colonel Wade and agents who succeeded him. During these nine years, he played a major part in the meeting between Lord Auckland and Maharaja Ranjeet Singh which led to the tri-party treaty. He also accompanied Wade in the expedition to the Khyber Pass which was captured in 1840.

Thus when the First Anglo-Sikh War broke out in 1845, Cunningham was very much in Punjab and had a first-hand account of the battles of this war. At that time he was the Political Officer at Bahawalpur. He also saw action along with the division of Sir Harry Smith at the battles of Baddoval and Aliwal. He also came into contact with Governor-General, Sir Henry Hardinge and was his aide–de–camp. He thus came to know the Governor-General and that association formed his opinion about him, which he brought out in his book. He served with the distinction that earned him a brevet. In addition at the end of the Anglo Sikh wars, he was appointed political agent to the state of Bhopal.

The grave at Ambala

The grave at Ambala

Writing the history of the Sikhs

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Cunningham had a flair for the pen and this he put to good use and wrote the 'A History of the Sikhs' during his tenure at Bhopal. This was in 1849. The book was published in England in 1851 by his brother. Cunningham in his book criticized Lord Harding’s Punjab policy and he brought out that Harding had precipitated the Anglo Sikh wars. This book created a furor in England and an angry governor-general removed Cunningham from his post at Bhopal and posted him to the Public works department at Meerut a city about 40 miles from Delhi. This perhaps was a shock to Joseph who took ill at Ambala close by and expired in 1851.

Analysis of the ‘History of the Sikhs’

Cunningham has earned recognition for writing the first authentic account of the Sikhs. His book’s History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej', is recognized as an authentic source of Sikh history and the religion as well.

Cunningham studied the Sikh religion and read all connected works which were written in Persian and Punjabi. He was greatly swayed by Sikh ethos and culture and it will not be wrong to say that Sikhism as a religion greatly influenced him. Cunningham has stated that he wanted to give Sikhism its rightful place in the general history of humanity,"

Cunningham’s book has 9 chapters. The first 4 chapters cover the Sikh Gurus and their history from 1469 to 1764. He was greatly appreciative of the Sikh religion and this is manifest in his writing.

The last five chapters cover Sikh History from the formation of the Sikh empire to the Anglo-Sikh wars of which Cunningham was a witness. The 9th chapter deals with the Anglo-Sikh wars and is a critique of Lord Harding the Governor-General. Cunningham was punished for writing this and he died soon after.

For writing his book, "A History of the Sikh", he studied the works of Malcolm's 'Sketch of the Sikhs', Lt. Colonel Lawrence's 'Adventures in Punjab', Murry's 'History of Ranjit Singh', Colonel Steinbeck's 'The Punjab', and Captain Osbourne's, 'Court and Camp of Ranjit Singh'.

To imbibe the knowledge of his subject, he studied the 'Adi Granth‘, Guru Gobind Singh's 'Dasam Granth', and Bhai Mani Singh's 'Gur Ratnawali' and translations of some Persian works like 'Dabistan' and 'Siyas-ul-Mutakharin', as well as Jahangir's Memoirs. For clarity of his subject, he took four years to produce his work.

Sikhs won

Sikhs won

Last word

Cunningham is of the view that the British came close to losing the wars with the Sikhs. This is now borne out by later research. At the battle at Mudki(1845) and Chillianwala (1849) the British had the worst of the exchanges with the Sikhs. The East India Company army consisting mostly of pure English soldiers suffered a catastrophic defeat at Chillianwala resulting in the removal of General Lord Gough as the commander of the British army.

As per Cunningham, the Sikhs lost only because of treachery in their own ranks with the 3 most important leaders of the Punjab Raja Labh, Raja Tej Singh, the commander-in-chief, and Raja Gulab Singh, all in league with the British. Cunningham was appreciative of the fighting qualities of the Sikh soldiers and this was borne out when the British classified them as a martial race. His grave is still there in Ambala Christian cemetery. Well, many would like to know about his marriage or personal relationship. From all accounts, he was a bachelor except for a rumored relationship with a Sikh noblewoman.


History of the Sikhs from the origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej- JD Cunningham Oxford press ( originally published 1849)

Joseph Davey Cunningham.

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