The sights, sounds and tastes of India bewitched many of the Britons that visited or served there during the Georgian and Victorian periods. The cultures they discovered were vastly different to their own back home and many aspects of Indian dress, cuisine, and art and design became fashionable across the British Empire. Some Indians even held prominent positions in Britain itself such as Queen Victoria’s beloved assistant Abdul Karim who not only taught her languages but also acted as a close advisor.
In the early 1800s, the Subcontinent was still a land divided, with vigorous warfare occurring between the many religions, princes and states. Inevitably, it came to be viewed as a place of adventure and exoticism for young British men and service in the Army and the East India Company was an ideal way of experiencing this vibrant society at first hand.
Of course, with the strong martial attitudes of the time there were plenty of opportunities for the British to inspect and use the native weaponry and, naturally, many comparisons with their own arms were made. To the European, perhaps the most recognisable of Indian weapons was the tulwar, and this curiously-hilted sword became noted as both a symbol of beauty and a formidable tool.
“The tulwar is a fearful weapon in skilful hands. It is very much curved from the centre up, broad, well tempered, and keen as a razor. The scabbard is always wood or leather, as a metal one would dull the edge. Its shape not being adapted for thrusting, the point is never used, but a drawing cut invariably given, to assist which the grip is small and the handle narrow, lest it might turn in the hand. The natives are generally much more skilful in its use than our men, and sometimes wield it with an effect too terrible to be believed except by those who have witnessed it. I have several times seen a hand lopped away clean from the wrist, or a head cut off by a single blow.” —Peter Parley, 1869.
From 1822 until 1892, the British infantry officer carried a brass-hilted sabre into combat. This was a cut and thrust weapon—single-edged and with a shallow curve to its geometry. While elegant (and often produced to a very high standard) it was a weapon of compromise and like all compromises it did none of its jobs as well as specialised thrusting or cutting weapons could. Although this sabre was generally a good sword, the value of the tulwar made some officers think hard about their choice of weapon when ‘in the field’ and with the British working so closely with Indian irregulars and the importance that Indians, in particular the Sikh warriors, placed on weaponry, the effectiveness of the tulwar was witnessed time and time again:
“—when a Sikh who happened to be near, with a whistling stroke of his sabre cut off the Gazee’s head at one blow, as if it had been the bulb of a poppy!” —William Russell of The Times, 1857.
“He had a narrow escape; a matchlock was levelled directly at his face when a ressaldar made a cut at it with his sword, severing the barrel at a blow.” —Telegraph and Courier, 1857.
“Whoever is struck on the head by these Indian blades is cleft to the waist; and if the cut is on the body, he is divided into two parts.” —Ma’asir ul-Umara e Timuriyah, 1780.
“Objectionable, however, as this form of hilt may be, it is one cause, coupled with the keenness of the blades themselves, which enables the wielder of the Indian tulwar to deal with it such terrific strokes. During the Burman War, it was my lot to witness the trenchant power of the Indian sword. The gory head of one unfortunate Burman, sliced from his shoulders clean as a whistle by the blade of an irregular horseman, is still before me in all its horrible distinctness.” —Asiatic Journal, 1844.
As was the fighting credentials of the Sikhs who wielded these tulwars:
“—the fight was very close and desperate for some time; but the strength of the 93rd and the fury of the Sikhs carried everything before it.” —William Russell of The Times, 1857.
These contemporary quotes give us many precious insights into the very real, and often shocking to our modern eyes, applications of the tulwar as an instrument of combat. It is easy to see why some individuals chose to purchase and carry tulwars against Army regulations. The following quote, although about enlisted men’s swords and not those of officers, goes some way to illustrate another side of this and echoes some of the stories of sword inadequacies from the Crimean War:
“Even this slight affair [a skirmish at Charikar] afforded another proof of the total inefficiency of the regulation sword in the hands of the a native; for though cut at several times their blows appeared to fall almost harmless on the Khyberries, while the irregular trooper with one blow of his tulwar almost severed their heads from the body, and otherwise inflicting fearful wounds.”
Although photography was in its infancy during the mid-to-late Victorian period several photos exist of British officers sporting tulwars—they are difficult to see but the disk pommels help.
While the British men that lived in India in the earlier decades of the 1800s assimilated more with the native culture than those that came later, a desire to integrate into the culture is not enough by itself to explain all individuals’ adoption of the tulwar, especially as some also spent time studying Indian swordsmanship in order to perfect these deadly draw and push cuts. Today, owning and researching antique tulwars provides the collector with an opportunity to appreciate not just the high standards of Indian craftsmanship but also an historical and religiously important form of weaponry, often at a more affordable cost to European arms of the same age.
Sources and Further Reading
· The Victorian and Edwardian Army from Old Photographs by Fabb and Carman
· The Extermination of a British Army: The Retreat from Cabul by Terence Blackburn
· A Cavalry Officer during the Sepoy Revolt by ARD Mackenzie
· Swordsmen of the British Empire by DA Kinsley
· The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes by Max Hastings
· Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire by Saul David
· The Afghan Wars by TA Heathcote