Workers Hammer No. 228

Fall 2014


Friedrich Engels: The sack of Lucknow

With the press tut-tutting daily about the brutality of the Islamic reactionaries in Iraq and the British rulers mouthing off about their humanitarian concern for the country and its people on whom their occupation has brought devastation, it is appropriate to recall the savagery with which the British colonial masters suppressed the 1857 uprising against their rule in India. In the article below, Friedrich Engels describes a succession of British atrocities in Lucknow: first the army took the city, then they pillaged it, and then stole the land of the people they had just conquered and massacred. A clearer example of “humanitarian” imperialism would be hard to find.

The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre — things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished — are a time-honored privilege, a vested right of the British soldier. The infamies committed for days together, after the storming of Badajos and San Sebastian, in the Peninsular war, are without a parallel in the annals of any other nation since the beginning of the French Revolution; and the medieval usage, proscribed everywhere else, of giving up to plunder a town taken by assault, is still the rule with the British. At Delhi imperious military considerations enforced an exception; but the army, though bought off by extra pay, grumbled, and now at Lucknow they have made up for what they missed at Delhi. For twelve days and nights there was no British army at Lucknow — nothing but a lawless, drunken, brutal rabble, dissolved into bands of robbers, far more lawless, violent and greedy than the Sepoys who had just been driven out of the place. The sack of Lucknow in 1858 will remain an everlasting disgrace to the British military service.

If the reckless soldiery, in their civilizing and humanizing progress through India, could rob the natives of their personal property only, the British Government steps in immediately afterward and strips them of their real estate as well. Talk of the first French Revolution confiscating the lands of the nobles and the church! Talk of Louis Napoleon confiscating the property of the Orleans family! Here comes Lord Canning, a British nobleman, mild in language, manners and feelings, and confiscates, by order of his superior, Viscount Palmerston, the lands of a whole people, every rood, perch and acre, over an extent of ten thousand square miles. A very nice bit of loot indeed for John Bull! And no sooner had Lord Ellenborough, in the name of the new Government, disapproved of this hitherto unexampled measure, than up rise The Times and a host of minor British papers to defend this wholesale robbery, and break a lance for the right of John Bull to confiscate everything he likes. But then, John is an exceptional being, and what is virtue in him, according to The Times, would be infamy in others.

— Friedrich Engels, “Details of the Attack on Lucknow”, 8 May 1858, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 15