The Victoria Cross awarded to an Irish civilian who slipped from the besieged Residency in Lucknow in disguise during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to guide a British relief force is going up for sale.
The medal awarded to “Lucknow Kavanagh”, who jostled past armed rebels while sporting a turban and a chintz sheet, will go under the hammer at Noonans in London on September 14 at an estimate of £300,000-£400,000. It is the earliest of five VCs awarded to civilians who were eligible for the highest military bravery medal because they acted under military command.
Thomas Henry Kavanagh was born in 1821, in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, the son of a British Army bandmaster. He entered the East India Company’s civil service while in his teens and was stationed in Lucknow as a clerk when the Indian Rebellion, or Mutiny, broke out in May 1857. The Dictionary of Irish Biography points out that Kavanagh was under threat of dismissal due to his indebtedness to Indian moneylenders when events changed the course of his career.
From June 30, the Residency, the British headquarters in the city, came under siege from rebel soldiers angry at their treatment in the East India Company’s army and by wider British policy. A relief force under Generals Outram and Havelock fought its way through the city on September 26, intending to rescue the garrison of British and Indian troops along with hundreds of civilians. However, the soldiers sustained heavy losses and could only join the defenders. During this time, Kavanagh, who was in the Residency with his wife and several of their children, served with other civilians in a mobile reserve, manning field mortars and tunnelling to intercept enemy sappers seeking to lay mines.
By November, with the situation critical, the defenders learned from an Indian spy, Kanouji Lal, that a second relief force was on its way under the command of Sir Colin Campbell. Kavanagh believed Campbell’s column would stand a better chance if it was accompanied by someone with current local knowledge and volunteered to slip through the lines with Kanouji Lal in Indian dress to join Campbell.
“I jostled against several armed men in the street without being spoken to”Thomas Kavanagh
Having volunteered in haste, Kavanagh later claimed that he then sought a quiet spot where his heart beat violently in his side and he wept while contemplating the awfulness of death. “I was impelled to the step I now took only by a sense of DUTY,” he wrote in his 1860 memoir, How I Won The Victoria Cross.
Kavanagh, who was over 6ft tall with striking reddish fair hair, proceeded to disguise himself as an Indian freebooter “with sword and shield, native-made shoes, tight trousers, a yellow silk koortah [kurta] over a tight-fitting white muslin shirt, a yellow-coloured chintz sheet thrown round my shoulders, a cream-coloured turban, and a white waistband or kumurbund [cummerbund]. My face down to the shoulders, and my hands to the wrists were coloured with lamp black, the cork used being dipped in oil to cause the colour to adhere a little.”
The Irishman, who had told his wife that he was needed for his usual reserve duties, slipped through the British lines with Kanouji Lal at about 8.30pm. They had to first swim across the River Gomti with their clothes bundled on their heads. Once across, and dressed, Kanouji Lal convinced a rebel officer that they were local men going to their homes. They passed through central Lucknow, where, Kavanagh claimed: “I jostled against several armed men in the street without being spoken to, and only met one guard of seven sepoys who were amusing themselves with women of pleasure.”
According to Kavanagh, the pair talked their way past more rebel sentries in the moonlight, forded deep rivers, tramped waist-deep through swamps and narrowly avoided capture after startling a farmer who raised the alarm. On finally reaching a British cavalry outpost after this 15-mile odyssey, Kavanagh delivered a message from Outram to Campbell and went on to guide his column to the relief of the Residency. The rebellion was defeated the following year.
In his memoir, Kavanagh compared the daring of his mission favourably to the exploits of ancient heroes such as Horatius Cocles who was said to have saved Rome by holding a bridge against the forces of the Etruscan king Lars Porsena of Clusium. He gave joint credit to Kanouji Lal, without whom, he acknowledged, the mission could never have succeeded. And he added: “I grieve to say that his good services upon this and upon several other occasions have been inadequately rewarded.”
The Siege of Lucknow left thousands of dead and took a heavy personal toll on Kavanagh’s family. His wife was badly wounded by artillery fire and his youngest child died.
Oliver Pepys, auctioneer and medal specialist at Noonans, said: “Kavanagh was decorated with the highest honour for undertaking an epic quest to escape the surrounded Residency at night, crossing enemy lines, making contact with the camp of the commander-in-chief, and then using his local knowledge to guide the relieving force through the city to the beleaguered garrison by the safest route.
“The first of just five civilians to have been awarded the VC, he was further rewarded with promotion to the gazetted post of Assistant Commissioner of Oudh and was presented with his Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria in a special ceremony at Windsor Castle. A tour of England and Ireland further enhanced his celebrity while the publication of his account of the siege and Orlando Norrie’s painting of him donning his Indian disguise — one of the truly iconic images of the defence of Lucknow — ensured that he became a Victorian legend, indeed few histories of the conflict are without an image of ‘Lucknow Kavanagh’.”
Despite his promotion, Kavanagh felt bitter about his treatment by the authorities. In 1860 he wrote in a letter to The Times: “I am justified in asserting that the promotion awarded was no more than would have been given had I never gone out in disguise to assist Sir Colin Campbell.”
In his memoir, he commented on underlying reasons for the Rebellion, which was ostensibly triggered by Indian soldiers’ anger at being issued with new cartridges that were rumoured to be greased with lard or beef tallow and therefore offensive to Muslims and Hindus. He wrote: “The white man arrogantly dwells in a strange land as if it was his, unmindful that force subdues but cannot attach a people; which is the only security for peace and prosperity. Europeans in India know little of the country in which they dwell, and less of the peculiarities of the people. Haughtiness alike alienates the wise and the simple; and this was one of the stimulating causes of the troubles of 1857 [ . . . ]”
“In all things the interest of the State was considered to be of greater importance than the welfare of the people, who were, almost without exception, treated as rogues and liars. This was another cause of the discontent of 1857.”
Nevertheless, rather than opposing imperialism per se, Kavanagh argued for the “planting” of white settlers in order to impart what he called the knowledge and prosperity of Europe “to the gentle and intelligent people of the East”.
The top image, depicting Kavanagh getting into his disguise, is an oil painting by Louis William Desanges from 1860. It is one of several objects associated with Kavanagh held by The National Army Museum © The National Army Museum.