After the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh rule in Punjab was in doldrums due to palace intrigues and infighting. However, it continued to expand from Amritsar to Peshawar on account of a strong and professional army that it had at its command. One feature of this army was the many European Generals whom Ranjit Singh had acquired after the 1815 battle of Waterloo, following which, these Generals had migrated to Iran and further east. These Generals trained Ranjit Singh's army on modern warfare, especially his 'Fauj i Khaas' brigade, which can be compared to some sort of a special services group. General Jean-Baptiste Ventura was among those European Generals, and for those who do not know, he used to reside in what is now the Chief Secretary's office in Civil Secretariat Lahore.
Peshawar was also under the control of Sikhs, with Italian General Paolo Avitabile (known as Abu Tabela) residing at the site of Gor Khatri. He ruled the city by throwing people off the minarets of Masjid Mahabat Khan as a mark of terror. At that time, communities of various tribes were settled around Peshawar and Sikh forces were stationed some 30 or so kilometres from it at the Shabqadar fort in Mohmand agency. They were also tasked with controlling the tribal factions and communities. One night, in the year 1840, tribesmen from Mohmand attacked the fort and were able to break the huge wooden gates at its main entrance. This was followed by a slaughter of Sikh forces that were stationed at the fort after which the tribesmen withdrew from the battleground.
Lahore Darbar was infuriated, so a court was established under the leadership of General Maan Singh and General Ventura to fix responsibility for the disastrous breach. The two conducted an investigation for two days and concluded that it was the criminal negligence of the wooden gates that led to the disaster.
The Sikh General assisted by General Ventura decreed a hundred-year imprisonment to the huge willow gates for dereliction of duty. The gates were plank-cuffed with heavy chains to the main observation tower at the fort. The gates' punishment legally ended in 1940 but no one relieved them and they remain chained to this date.
It is rumored that when Bhutto visited the fort in the 1970s, he tried to prevail as prime minister for the release of the condemned gates but to no avail.
Shabqadar is a small town an hour out of Peshawar and on the borders of Mohmand. It is regarded as a region that has always held strategic value when it comes to keeping peace in Peshawar. Along with it come the various tribes who have historically been independent-minded and governments have had to maintain peace through a policy of continuous negotiations with them. And as the Sikhs and later the British ruled the area, they established many forts in the region in order to gain some space to prepare at the time of attacks.
Shabqadar fort was one such fort established by the Sikhs in Mohmand in 1837. The fort today works as a training centre for the Frontier Constabulary and is maintained well by the forces deployed there. It is an efficient location from an operational point of view and the FC has also been able to preserve its historic character.
As we entered the fort, the friendly hosts took as to 'Churchill's room', where Winston Churchill spent few days as a war correspondent in 1897 during the great tribal uprising. The room features Churchill's bed and room chairs. There is also an old manual sheet fan. And the walls adorn photographs from the time and some artefacts.
The fort also boasts a small museum with artefacts from the last two hundred years. These are mainly military equipment, including gazails (ancient rifles), binoculars, mortar guns etc. Such museums and places have the unique capacity to transport you into those bygone eras and make you wonder how tough life must have been at the time for all parties.
Next we found ourselves standing before the good old condemned willow gate under arrest since 1840. The three-metre-high black door leans against the observation tower in the middle of the fort, telling a story of 200 years, of the rule of Sikhs, British and now of Muslims. Nothing much has changed for the condemned gates. The tablet next to the gates reads: "The weeping willows: In the winter of 1840, a Mohmand Lashkar (war party) succeeded in breaking down these gates. The then Sikh Maharaja Sher Singh (Ranjit Singh son) had them court martialed for treason. The French General Jean Ventura headed the proceedings which lasted two days, having found them guilty as charged, the gates were sentenced to 100 years' imprisonment. They are languishing enchained ever since."
At the time, the tall observation tower was used to monitor the surroundings and perhaps functioned as a great source of information for impending attacks from the tribesmen. The tower adorns many commemorative plaques from colonial times, celebrating fallen comrades, mostly the ones who died from cholera or sunstroke.
We walked from the observation tower to FC's officers' mess. The messes of these historic units are always a treat to explore as they give you a history lesson of the establishment in 10 minutes. The walls of the mess displayed antique guns and other memorabilia but the most fascinating part was the pictures of leaders and celebrities who visited the fort at some point. These include Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Ayub Khan, General Zia, and many others.
The visitors book at the fort made for an interesting read, although, I could only see the one kept since 1950s. It showed that Iskandar Mirza visited the fort on October 3, 1957, along with Akhtar Hussain and Sardar Abdur Rashid Khan. Mirza was the country's president at the time, Hussain was governor of then West Pakistan and Khan was West Pakistan's chief minister.
However, for me, the most interesting entry was that from famous Parsi journalist and businessman Ardsher Cowasjee and his wife Nancy Cowasjee. They visited the fort on February 6, 1960, some 60 years ago.
Shabqadar fort is definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the region's Sikh history and colonial rule. In order to make the most out of its historic value, the government should devise a plan in collaboration with law enforcement agencies to allow a limited number of visitors to be able to explore these gems spread all across our northwestern border. Other similar places include the Balahisar fort, and the Shabqadar, Jamrud, Kharlachi and Alexandra forts, to name a few. The government should also consider opening up other historical places tied to the region's martial history so the public is able to learn more about the stories of our northwestern frontier.
All photos by author.