Surprising Indian history in Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral from the air

Scratch the surface of British history in almost any situation and traces of colonialism will appear. On a Bank Holiday weekend trip to Canterbury Cathedral, I was surprised to discover not the spectres of Thomas Becket and the Black Prince, but the ghosts of the Sutlej campaign – one of the most mercenary missions by the East India Company in the quest to seize control of India.

Navigating the medieval stairways and stacked stone levels of Canterbury’s World Heritage-listed cathedral, I spotted a string of memorials to sons of empire amongst the tombs of ruff-collared 17th-century nobles. Men such as Colonel Bolton and Captain Willes, killed in the battle of Mudki, and Major Baldwin, fatally wounded in combat at Feroze Shah in the Indian Punjab.

Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial, listing battles from Indian history
Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial © Joe Bindloss

The majority of the colonial-era memorials inside Canterbury Cathedral date from the 1840s and the notorious Sutlej campaign, or First Anglo-Sikh War. This largely forgotten piece of Indian history lined up the chess pieces for some of the most bloody events during the Partition of India.

The Mughals were just one of many adversaries opposed to the British conquest of India, and the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh presented a major obstacle to the expansion of the empire into modern-day Pakistan. Despite cordial early relations, with the Great Game afoot, it was only a matter of time before the British pressed for an advantage.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral
Aliwal memorial at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Following the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh kingdom started to fracture, and the East India Company saw an opportunity to push westwards into the Punjab, which at the time was part of a kingdom extending as far as Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier.

After a string of now forgotten battles – at locations such as Mudki, Feroze Shah, Aliwal and Sobraon, in the little-touristed hinterland west of Ludhiana – the Sikhs were forced to sign the Treaty of Lahore, ceding Kashmir and the territory between the Beas and Sutlej rivers to the British.

Armoured gateway at Faridkot
Fearsome armour on a royal gateway in Faridkot © Joe Bindloss

Visiting this sleepy corner of Punjab today, with its dry farmland, wandering cow herds, dusty townships and immaculate, white gurdwaras, its hard to imagine any significant events happening here. But for a few brief years in the 19th century this was the front line in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.

Dotted around the countryside, in backwater towns such as Faridkot and Bathinda, are the time-ravaged fortresses from which Sikh regiments marched out to face the superior weaponry and rapacious ambition of the British empire. Indian history still bears the scars.

The East India Company later sold Kashmir back to the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, a piece of political chicanery that left a Muslim-majority province under the control of a Sikh maharaja, prompting communal resentment that spilled over with deadly consequences during the Partition of India in 1947.

After the Treaty of Lahore, the diminished Sikh kingdom limped on for a few more years, until the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848, when Lord Dalhousie annexed the whole of Punjab for the East India Company, placing all of the territory between Chandigarh and the Northwest Frontier under British control.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral, recalling battles from Indian history
Memorial in Canterbury Cathedral to Frederick Mackeson © Joe Bindloss

Because of the number of Kent-born soldiers who served in globe-trotting regiments during the colonial period, the country has long ties to Indian history. A carved marble slab inside Canterbury Cathedral recalls the death of Frederick Mackeson, commissioner of Peshawar, born in Hythe and killed, to quote his memorial, by ‘a Mahometan fanatic’ and ‘foul assassin’, as the East India Company tried to extend its control over the Northwest Frontier in modern-day Pakistan.

Hythe still has links to the subcontinent today, thanks to the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who have been based at Shorncliffe Army Camp near Cheriton since 2001. The Major of Hythe is a regular speaker at events in the Nepal Embassy in London, recalling over a century of ties between the UK and the only nation in South Asia to evade the clutches of the British Empire.

A carved wooden door panel at Canterbury Cathedral
Moorish gate at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Leaving Canterbury Cathedral after admiring the mesmerising stained glass, I spotted another incongruous carving: a time-worn wooden door plaque, with four faces divided by the cross of Saint George, immediately reminiscent of the flags of Sardinia and Corsica. With the family dragging me on towards a pub lunch, I made a mental note to start researching the links between Canterbury and the Four Moors, a symbol of the Crown of Aragon since the 14th century.

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