Robert Cornelis Napier, first Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890), had a distinguished career as an officer in the Indian army and contributed to a number of important engineering projects throughout India, building roads, cantonments, public buildings and frontier defences.
He served with distinction in the first and second Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49 and afterwards was appointed civil engineer to the board of administration of the annexed province of the Punjab, carrying out a series of important public works, including the construction of a 275 mile high road from Lahore to Peshawar.
The outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in May 1857 led to his appointment as Military Secretary and Chief of the Adjutant-General's department under General Sir James Outram. Napier played an important role in the relief of Lucknow but was seriously wounded and remained in hospital for several weeks before returning to assist in the capture of Lucknow in March 1858. He became second in command to Sir Hugh Rose of the Central India field force after the mutineers took possession of the stronghold at Gwalior. Following its recapture, he pursued the 12,000 strong force led by Tantia Topi, capturing his guns, ammunition and baggage, with only 700 men.
His crowning achievement came with his skillful handling of the expedition to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in January 1868, whereupon he embarked on a 420 mile march to Magdala (Amba Mariam), defeated the opposing force and released the British prisoners held captive there by Tewodros II. Napier had proved himself to be an outstanding commander and he returned to Britain to great acclaim, being awarded the title of Lord Napier of Magdala in July 1868. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India in January 1870, a post he held until 1876 when he finally left India after forty-eight years’ service.
A selection of Napier’s correspondence and official papers (MS 1162), providing a valuable insight into his career and life in India during the 19th century, can be viewed on our online archive collections catalogue.
Account of siege and defence of Lucknow, 1857
Manuscript copy of account of siege and defence of Lucknow written by Colonel Napier, Military Secretary to Major General Sir James Outram. One of the key events of the Indian Mutiny, the siege began soon after the initial uprising at Meerut in May 1857 and lasted 90 days. By the time a relief column led by Sir Henry Havelock and Sir James Outram arrived in September, British forces had been severely depleted by constant attacks from the mutineers. This extract by Napier reveals his attempts to take an enemy battery in the south of the city on the 5th October 1857. He secured this the next day before destroying the battery and the enemy guns. This account is typical of the close fighting which took place in the effort to relieve the troops inside the Residency compound. This was successfully achieved on 17th November 1857.
Detail of map showing line of march of British army during expedition to Abyssinia, 1868
The British force landed at Annesley Bay in October 1867 and after establishing a base and supply lines began the arduous 420 mile march over mountainous terrain to Magdala (in central Ethiopia). The emperor Tewodros II had made repeated requests to the British government for their help in defending his country against the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. When this met with no response and plans were announced to withdraw the British consul from Abyssinia he took offence and imprisoned the members of the consul. The march to the fortress at Magdala took 3 months and proved a stern test of Napier’s engineering and planning skills. The defeat of the defending forces was completed successfully in April 1868 and the prisoners released, restoring British pride and cementing Napier’s reputation as a brilliant officer and engineer.
Account of the siege and plan of the city of Delhi, from the Aberdeen Herald, 19 September 1857
The events at Delhi, the focal point of the mutiny, were covered in great detail in the local and national press. The British troops stationed at Delhi had been unprepared for the speed and determination shown by the mutineers in the capture of the city in May 1857. The fierce fighting which followed as British forces attempted to reclaim the city was constant front page news.
The British troops were stationed just outside Delhi (towards the top right of the picture). Despite initial setbacks and poor morale, British forces were able to regroup and launched a major attack on the city in the early hours of 14th September 1857, entering through breaches in the city walls. Much of the fighting took place at the major entrances to the city and in the narrow lanes nearby, but after the capture of the magazine and the palace victory was declared on the 21 September 1857.
Sir Henry Yule (1820-1889) was a lifelong friend of Napier and they worked together on the restoration and development of the irrigation system in the North-West Provinces between 1843 and 1849. His brother, Robert, was killed in action outside Delhi on 19th June 1857 while leading his regiment, the 9th lancers, in action against Sepoy troops. Henry Yule’s papers are kept with those of Napier of Magdala (MS 1162).
[This map is from the family papers of Alexander Wallace Chalmers of Aberdeen (MS 2884). His sons, Samuel and John, both took part in the mutiny, the latter as a Lieutenant in the Bengal Native Infantry.]
Series of photographs, c.1860-1870, showing soldiers from various regiments
The Indian army post 1857 was a collective term for the armies of the three presidencies (the Bengal, Madras and Bombay Army) and contained members of all the major religious groups in India: Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims. Napier was military member of the council of the viceroy from January 1861 and helped to organise the restructuring of the India army during this period.
[From the papers of James Grant (MS 3272), Sergeant Major in the Royal Engineers of the Indian Army]