Tragic tales and vanishing memorials in Bannu’s history
After visiting the site of Gokhle Art Academy and the abandoned building of Sanatan Dharam High School with all the engraved marble plaques of the generous Hindu donors positioned outside the classrooms and listening to the enchanting stories of Saeed Khan, I thought that my exploratory trip to Bannu was over. But trust Saeed Khan, a proud Waziri from Bannu, to pull a few surprises. Consequently, there were other plaques to be seen in the city and more stories to write about.
It was afternoon when we stepped inside the elegant red-brick building of Saint George Church in Bannu cantonment. The present building of the church was built in 1852 by Bannu Church Mission. It is a treasure trove of history. On either corner of the front altar were two marble tablets with engraving to the memory of Brig Gen Charles Nicholson, deputy commissioner in Bannu in 1852, who died during the storming of Delhi in 1857. Nicholson’s comrades of the Punjab Irregular Force put up one of the plaques. The other one was etched by his close friend Herbert Edwardes. Nikal-Seyn, as he was popularly known among the locals, left behind a strong legacy in Bannu. Other metal plaques in the church were put up in the memory of officers who died while in service in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Saeed Khan drew my attention towards one such tablet, which was “in the loving memory of” two officers who had both served as deputy commissioners in Bannu. Both died the same year. Austin Herbert Gunter was killed by a fanatic in March 1900 in Peshawar and Arthur James Grant died of cholera in July 1900 at Bannu. Leaving their story for another time, we left Bannu for Peshawar.
On the way back, we took a left turn on the old road to Karak instead of taking the usual Indus Highway. Some 20 kilometres from Bannu, at a place known as Spin Tangi, there used to be a small obelisk with a metal plate embedded in it. Saeed had a story to tell about this metal plaque which he had last seen when he was in Grade 7. It was about the Waziri tribal code of honour and an obstinate will to avenge a wrong done to a proud tribal man. Waziris have sharp memories.
In his childhood, Saeed had heard a Pashto saying: “Sa Michan perangai kho-naye (you are not Michan Ferangi).” The put-down was used for a person who pretended to be very strict, short-tempered, rude, abusive and authoritative but could not be compared to the Englishman, Captain Michan, the Ferangi. For these traits, the poor captain paid a very heavy price.
Captain Richard Meacham is remembered as Michan Ferangi. In the Pashto language, a hand-grinding stone used for crushing wheat and maize grains into atta (flour) is called michan. This captain from an artillery regiment, a harsh disciplinarian, was in charge of the prison. For even minor mistakes, he would impose tough penalties. The hardest labour was tasking the erring prisoners to grind wheat for hours. So, Meacham became Michan Ferangi.
The metal plaque was stolen in the 1980s. Later, the obelisk also disappeared. Earlier, we were unable to trace the grave of Captain Richard Meacham in the Christian cemetery.
The story goes that Mohabbat Khan Wazir, an under-trial prisoner in Bannu jail, was accused of stealing some bread while working in the prison kitchen. For this Captain Meacham abused him verbally and awarded a few lashes. Mohabbat Wazir bore a grudge for the public humiliation.
After he was freed, he ambushed Captain Richard Meacham at the bank of the stream at Spin Tangi, killed him with his sword and mutilated the body. The riders accompanying Meacham made no concerted effort to save him. Mohabbat Wazir then narrowly avoided a posse sent to capture him and escaped into the nearby mountains. The tribal elders told him that he will receive only a prison sentence if he surrendered and he agreed. Wazir believed that he would be executed and walking back to Bannu amounted to suicide. Having agreed to surrender, he asked to be carried on a charpoy. The request was granted. As soon as the procession reached Bannu, Mohabbat Wazir was arrested and, after a brief trial, hanged to death.
After his death, Mohabbat Wazir was mourned as a hero. True to the tribal code of honour, he had avenged a personal insult and was gallant in death. Ballads were sung in the villages to pay tribute to his heroics which portrayed Captain Meacham and the maliks in a bad light. Saeed’s mother used to sing some of those for him. After her, there is hardly anybody left in the village to sing those ballads. Saeed said he had last heard the ballads about the chivalry of Mohabbat Wazir sung at a function by Shahbaz Khan, the famous Pashto folk singer from the Wazir tribe. Shahbaz Khan, considered a walking encyclopaedia of folklore, died in 1993.
SS Thornburn, who was the deputy commissioner in Bannu in 1869, wrote a book, Bannu or Our Afghan Frontier, in which he mentions Captain Richard Meacham’s incident. However, some of the details differ from the local legend. According to him, “Captain Meacham of the Artillery” was ambushed and killed in November 1859 while travelling from Bannu to Kohat “at a spot fourteen miles (22 kilometres) from Duleepgarh (Bannu) on the boundary between the two districts.” The murderers were given asylum by Kabul-khel Waziris of that area. In 1860, soon after a punitive expedition against the Mahsuds which resulted in a lot of bloodshed and material losses for the tribesmen, a smaller expedition was launched against the Kabul-khel Waziris. This “expedition was crowned with complete success, and Meacham’s chief murderer was given up and hanged on the spot where he had killed his victim.”
Thornburn does not give any reasons for this murder. He just mentions that the “murderers were given asylum” and that “the chief murderer was hanged at the spot” where the crime was committed. It seems that the chief murderer, Mohabbat Wazir, was not a lone assassin but was accompanied by other members of his clan. The story about being carried on a charpoy to avoid the stigma of suicide appears to have been concocted to glorify chivalry. He was apparently surrendered by the maliks to avoid punitive action against the tribe. This prevented the kind of bloodshed witnessed earlier that year in the Mahsud area. Due to the gruesome nature of the crime, Mohabbat Wazir was not afforded a regular trial. Instead, there was a summary execution at the site of the crime.
The Meacham family, now settled in Australia, had kept family records that provided some details about Captain Meacham. He was born in July 1826 at Loughborough, a market town in Leicestershire, England, and was the eldest of three brothers. His other brother, Commander George Frederick Meacham of the Royal Navy, led the Arctic explorations in 1853-4, discovered Prince Patrick and Eglington Islands, and set records for sledge journeys. The youngest brother Captain Clifford Henry Meacham of Madras Staff Corps (Hodson’s Horse), fought through the Lucknow siege in 1857. He died at Kalka in 1865 and was buried in Ambala cemetery. The Meacham brothers both died at the age of 33.
It so happened that Captain Richard Meacham became very ill in Bannu and it was decided to transport him to Kohat for better medical treatment. On the evening of November 5, 1859, he was ambushed while being carried from Bannu. Due to his frail physical condition, he was unable to put up resistance and was brutally murdered by a gang of Darwesh-khel Waziri robbers. The next morning, he was buried at the Bannu cemetery. His chief murderer was later hanged at the site of the crime. A monument was erected at the site by his younger brother Captain Clifford Henry Meacham, which read, “Near this spot was murdered on the night of November 5, 1859, by Waizree robbers Meacham, Captain Bengal Artillery, being cowardly deserted by his police escort. This tribute is erected by his brother Clifford Henry Meacham, Captain Madras Army, on visiting the spot.”
Saeed Khan stopped the car a little short of the bridge over the stream near Spin Tangi. The sky was blanketed by dark clouds and on stepping out of the car, we were greeted by a slight drizzle and a cool breeze. Saeed Khan remembered that the weather had been quite different when he first visited this place as a Grade 7 student. It was a hot sunny noon when his uncle brought him to this place on a motorbike. The tablet, he said, had brief information about the murdered Captain Richard Meacham and referred to the cowardice of the local sowars who made no attempt to save poor Meacham. We stood silently, deliberating the events 164 years ago. Captain Meacham was murdered, his murderer Mohabbat Wazir was hanged to death, an obelisk with a metal plaque honouring the memory of Captain Meachamwas put up at this spot by his brother. Saeed Khan’s story ended on a sad note. The metal plaque was stolen in the 1980s. Later, the obelisk, too, disappeared. Earlier, we had been unable to trace the grave of Captain Richard Meacham in the Christian cemetery. The tombstone had probably been vandalised and disappeared. Thus the ill-fated Captain Richard Meacham had faded away from the memories of the Bannuchis. Now his name figures only in the ballads sung to the heroics of Mohabbat Wazir or in the Pushto saying: “Sa Michan perangai kho-naye” - you are not Michan Ferangi.
The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and an animal rights activist. He may be reached at email@example.com