Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, Joseph Davey

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CUNNINGHAM, JOSEPH DAVEY (1812–1851), historian of the Sikhs, eldest son of Allan Cunningham, the well-known author (1784–1842) [q. v.], was born in Lambeth on 9 June 1812. He was educated at different private schools in London, and showed such aptitude for mathematics that his father was strongly advised to send him to Cambridge. But the boy wished to be a soldier; and, at his father's request, Sir Walter Scott procured him a cadetship in the East India Company's army. He proceeded to Addiscombe, where his career was very brilliant, and he passed out of that college first, obtaining the first prize for mathematics, the sword for good conduct, and the first nomination to the Bengal engineers in 1831. He then went to Chatham, where he passed through the course of professional training given to the young officers of the royal engineers, and where he received the highest praise from his instructors, Colonels Pasley and Jebb. He sailed for India in February 1834 with strong letters of introduction to the many Scotchmen then filling high employments in India. On reaching India he was appointed to the staff of General Macleod, then chief engineer in the Bengal presidency, and in 1837 he was selected, entirely without solicitation from himself, by Lord Auckland to join Colonel (afterwards Sir) Claud Wade, who was then the political agent upon the Sikh frontier, as assistant, with the special duty of fortifying Firozpur, the agent's headquarters. This appointment brought him into close connection with the Sikhs, and, as he spent the next eight years of his life in political employments in this part of India, he was able to obtain that thorough knowledge of their manners and customs which makes his ‘History of the Sikhs’ one of the most valuable books ever published in connection with Indian history. In 1838 he was present at the interview between Lord Auckland and Runjeet Singh, the great Sikh chieftain; in 1839 he accompanied Colonel Wade when he forced the Khyber Pass, and he was promoted first lieutenant on 20 May in that year; in 1840 he was placed in charge of Ludhiana, under G. Russell Clerk, Colonel Wade's successor, and as political officer accompanied Brigadier-general Shelton and his army through the Sikh territory to Peshawur on his way to Cabul, and then accompanied Colonel Wheeler and Dost Muhammad, the deposed ameer of Afghanistan, back to British territory; in 1841 he was sent on a special mission to the principality of Jammu; in 1842 he was present at the interview between Lord Ellenborough and Dost Muhammad and the Sikhs; in 1843 he was assistant to Colonel Richmond, Mr. Clerk's successor, and in 1844 and 1845 he was British agent to the native state of Baháwalpur. These numerous appointments had made him thoroughly conversant with Sikh character, and when the first Sikh war broke out he was attached first to the headquarters of Sir Charles Napier in Scinde, and then to that of Sir Hugh Gough, the general commanding the army in the field. Sir Hugh Gough on 16 Jan. 1846 detached Cunningham to act as political officer with the division under the command of Sir Harry Smith [q. v.] With Sir Harry he was present at the skirmish of Buddawal and the battle of Aliwal. When Sir Harry Smith joined the main army, Cunningham was attached to the staff of Sir Henry Hardinge, to whom he acted as additional aide-de-camp at the battle of Sobraon. For his services he was promoted captain by brevet on 10 Dec. 1845, and was on the conclusion of the war appointed by Sir Henry Hardinge to the lucrative appointment of political agent at Bhopal. Cunningham was thus singularly fortunate for so young an officer, and, having now comparative leisure, he devoted himself to historical research. His earliest works were chiefly connected with archæological and antiquarian studies, in connection with which his brother Major-general Sir Alexander Cunningham has become famous; but he soon settled down, at his father's recommendation, to write his great work, the ‘History of the Sikhs.’ He spent four years on this book, and on its publication in 1849 it was received with the greatest favour by the English press, a verdict which posterity has ratified, for it is universally recognised as the one authority upon the subject. But though this history made his name as an historian, it brought him into deep disgrace with his superiors. In his last chapter he treated of the history of the first Sikh war, and in it he made use of the knowledge he had obtained while acting as political agent with the army in the field, and distinctly asserted that two of the Sikh generals, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, were bought. Both Lord Hardinge and Colonel (afterwards Sir) Henry Lawrence, who had acted as political agent after the death of Major Broadfoot, asserted that there had been no private negotiations with any of the Sikh leaders; but the confidential position which Cunningham had held, and still more his disgrace which followed, are strong arguments that such negotiations did pass, in which other individuals than the two alluded to were concerned. It was surmised at the time that Mr. Currie, who was created a baronet for his political services at the conclusion of the Sikh war, knew more of the matter than Hardinge or Lawrence, but the truth or falsity of Cunningham's statements has not yet been proved. As has been said, their truth seems probable from the prompt disgrace which fell upon the author, for in 1850 Cunningham was removed from his agency, and ordered to go on ordinary regimental duty. This meant a reduction of his income to about one-fourth, besides the certainty of never being again employed in the political service, and the nominal cause of his disgrace was the disclosure of documents only known to him in his confidential, political capacity. The disgrace undoubtedly broke his heart, though he made no open or public complaint of his treatment. Cunningham had been promoted captain in the Bengal engineers on 13 Nov. 1849, and he had just been appointed to the Meerut division of public works when he died suddenly near Umballa on 28 Feb. 1851, before attaining his fortieth year.

[Sketch of his career written by himself as a preface to his History of the Sikhs; Gent. Mag. May 1851; Higginbotham's Men whom India has known.]

H. M. S.