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James Abbott (Indian Army officer)

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General Sir James Abbott, KCB (12 March 1807 – 6 October 1896), was a British army officer and administrator in colonial India. The Pakistani city of Abbottabad was founded by and named after him.

Sir James Abbott
Sir James Abbott von B Baldwin.jpg
James Abbott in Afghan dress. (B. Baldwin, 1841)
Born(1807-03-12)12 March 1807
Kent, England
Died6 October 1896(1896-10-06) (aged 89)
Isle of Wight, England
Guildford Cemetery, Guildford, Surrey, England
AllegianceFlag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Service/branch British Indian Army
UnitBengal Artillery
Battles/warsFirst Anglo-Sikh War
Second Anglo-Sikh War
RelationsMajor General Augustus Abbott
Major General Sir Frederick Abbott
Major General Saunders Alexius Abbott
Keith Edward Abbott
Other workColonial administrator

Early lifeEdit

James Abbott was the 3rd son of Henry Alexius Abbott, a retired Calcutta merchant of Blackheath, Kent,[1] and his wife Margaret Welsh, the daughter of William Welsh of Edinburgh. Abbott was educated at a school in Eliot Place, Blackheath and at the East India Company Military Seminary in Addiscombe, Surrey.[2]

A number of his siblings would achieve distinction, notably Augustus Abbott, Sir Frederick Abbott, Saunders Alexius Abbott and Keith Edward Abbott.

Early career in IndiaEdit

He was commissioned as a cadet in the Bengal Artillery at the age of sixteen, arriving in India in 1823.[3] He first saw action at the Siege of Bharatpur under the command of his older brother Augustus. In 1827 he was promoted to lieutenant and made adjutant to the Sirhind division of artillery. During this period he saw little action, and between 1835 and 1836 was assigned to the revenue surveys in Gorakhpur and later Bareilly.[4] In June 1838 he was promoted to brevet captain.[4]

The Great GameEdit

In November 1838, Abbott served in the army of Sir John Keane, who had been tasked with supporting Shuja Shah Durrani in his bid to wrest power from Dost Mohammad Khan in Afghanistan. The British had been eager to secure Afghanistan, the gateway to India, in light of increasing Russian influence in the central Asia.[4]

In 1839 the British learned that Russia was planning an invasion of the Khanate of Khiva. In December 1839 acting Captain Abbott was sent from Herat to Khiva in an attempt to negotiate the release of Russian slaves and thereby deny the Russians a pretext for invasion. If war had already broken out, Abbott was instructed to attempt to negotiate a settlement. Abbott reached Khiva in late January, a week or so before the Russians were forced to turn back due to an unusually cold winter. The Khivans knew little of Britain and he was hampered by a lack of understanding of Khivan language and culture. The attempt to release Russian slaves failed. He did agree with the Khivan ruler, Allah Quli Khan, to establish a British agent in Khiva and to travel to Russia to negotiate between the two powers. He had no authorisation to serve as the Khan's agent, but had no way to communicate with his superiors in India. In March 1840 Abbott set off from Khiva to Fort Alexandrovsk on the Caspian Sea. His caravan was attacked by Kazakhs and he was wounded in the hand and taken hostage, but he and his party were released because they feared retribution. He reached St Petersburg but the attempt at mediation failed. His bravery was recognised through promotion to full Captain.[5]

In May 1840 Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear of the Bengal Artillery went from Herat via Merv to Khiva. He was successful and escorted 416 Russian captives to the Caspian.[6] Shakespear was knighted for this undertaking.

The Paladins of the PunjaubEdit

In 1841, Abbott returned from Britain to India. He first held a post with a local battalion in Mewar before becoming assistant to the Resident in Indore in 1842. Following the conclusion of the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, Abbott was hand picked to become one of Sir Henry Lawrence's "Young Men", also known as The Paladins of the Punjaub. These were East India Company officers sent to act as "advisers" to the Sikh ruler.[7]

Sir Henry Lawrence remarked of him:[8]

Made of stuff of the true knight errant, gentle as a girl in thought, word and deed, overflowing with warm affection, and ready at all times to sacrifice himself for his country or his friend. He is at the same time a brave, scientific and energetic soldier, with a peculiar power for attracting others, especially Asiatics to his person.

As part of the terms of the Treaty of Lahore signed after the defeat of the Sikhs in the First Sikh War, Hazara and Kashmir were to be transferred to Raja Gulab Singh; Hazara, however, proved an intractable charge and was returned to the Lahore government by Gulab Singh in January 1847, in exchange for Jammu.[9] Abbott was appointed assistant to Chattar Singh Attariwalla to quell unrest and undertake a survey of revenues.[4] Abbott succeeded in this by learning the language, culture and religion of the local people and promoting their social and economic interests.[4] He made himself popular with Pashtun elders by permitting the call to prayer, which had been banned by the Sikhs.[10]

During the Second Anglo-Sikh War, cut off from all communication with British troops, and dependent upon his own resources, Abbott held the Margalla pass with a vastly inferior force until the conclusion of the war, a feat for which he was thanked by the Governor-General, The Earl of Dalhousie:[4][11]

It is a gratifying spectacle to witness the intrepid bearing of this officer in the midst of difficulties of no ordinary kind, not merely maintaining his position, but offering a bold front, at one time to the Sikhs at another to the Afghans. He must have secured the attachment of the wild people amongst whom he was thrown by his mild and conciliatory demeanour in times of peace, as well as by his gallantry as their leader in action, thus enhancing the credit of our national character.

Abbottabad and later lifeEdit

After the British had annexed the Punjab in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, Abbott was promoted to brevet major and appointed First Deputy Commissioner of Hazara. In 1852, he successfully commanded an expedition to the Black Mountain following the murder of Mr Carne and Mr Tapp, collector and sub-collector of the salt tax by a party of sixty Hussunzyes.[11]

Abbott's original seat of government in the Hazara was at Haripur but he eventually decided to shift this up into the hills for climatic and strategic reasons.[12] Thus, a site was selected and acquired in late 1852, and Abbott thereafter shifted his headquarters there in January 1853, founding a small town and military cantonment which was to grow over time. Abbott himself could not long witness the growth of his town, which was later named after him by his colleague Herbert Benjamin Edwardes. In April 1853 he was removed from his post and transferred back to the Bengal Army, where he was placed in charge of a gunpowder factory in Calcutta.[13] His transfer came amid concerns from Lahore over the methods of his governance, fears of divided loyalty, and antagonistic relationships with certain fellow officers.[13]

His last public act as Deputy Commissioner was to invite every person in the district to a party he was holding at Nara Hills. The party lasted three days and nights and was attended by 'a large and lamenting crowd of people'.[14] Abbott reportedly spent all of his savings on the party save for one month's pay.[13] His affection for the local Hazara's was noted by his successor Herbert Edwardes who wrote:[13]

He had literally lived among them as their patriarch – an out of the door, under tree life. Every man, woman and child in the country knew him personally, and hastened from their occupations to salute him as he came their way. The children especially were his favourites. They used to go to "Kaka Abbott" whenever their mouths watered for fruit or sugar plums. He spent all his substance on the people.

Before he left he also penned an ode to his new settlement:

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air
The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show
To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream
The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss
And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right
And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon
Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your wind's sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart.

In 1857, Abbott was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, made a Companion of the Order of the Bath on 24 May 1873 and a general on his retirement in 1877. He settled in Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1890 and was made a Knight Commander on 26 May 1894. He died on the Isle of Wight in 1896.[15] He is buried with his second wife in Guildford, Surrey.[16]

Personal lifeEdit

Abbott married Margaret Anne Harriet in 1844 which produced a daughter Margaret but resulted in the death of his wife. He later married, Anna Matilda de Montmorency in 1868, however his second wife died shortly after having given birth to a son, James Reymond de Montmorency Abbott.[4]


The Pakistani city of Abbottabad[7] as well as the district is named after him.[17]

A portrait of James Abbott dressed as an Afghan noble and relating to his Central Asian journey, was painted in watercolour in 1841 by B. Baldwin (see illustration), now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, though it is not currently on display.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Biog. Of Henry Alexius Abbot per the obituaries of his prominent sons
  2. ^ Nicholas Storey, Great British Adventurers, 2012, Casemate Publishers, page 29
  3. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 2
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Nicholas Storey, Great British Adventurers, 2012, Casemate Publishers, page 30
  5. ^ Great British Adventurers by Nicholas Storey. Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Yorkshire, UK, 2012. ISBN 9781844681303 p29-32
  6. ^ Notes on Western Turkistan: Some Notes on the Situation in Western Turkistan By George Aberigh-Mackay. Thack, Spink & Co, Calcutta, 1875. p42
  7. ^ a b Isobel Shaw, Pakistan Handbook, Hong Kong, Local Colour Limited, (1998) p.519
  8. ^ H. Allen, Narrative of a Journey from Heraut To Khiva, Moscow and St. Petersburgh, During the Late Russian Invasion of Khiva; with Some Account of the Court of Khiva and the Kingdom of Khaurism
  9. ^ The Hazara District Gazetteer, 1883-84, Pub. by the Government of the Punjab, Lahore, 1884, pp.41-47
  10. ^ David Loyn, Butcher and Bolt, Random House, 27 May 2009, page 88
  11. ^ a b Abbott, Augustus, Low, Charles Rathbone, The Afghan war, 1838-1842 : from the journal and correspondence of the late Major - General Augustus Abbott, 1879, London : R. Bentley and son
  12. ^ Omer Tarin and SD Najmuddin, "Five Early Military Graves at the Old Christian Cemetery, Abbottabad, c 1853-1888", in the 'Kipling Journal', December 2010, Vol 84 No 339, p.37 ISSN 0023-1738
  13. ^ a b c d Charles Allen, Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier, Hachette UK, 21 Jun 2012
  14. ^ Nicholas Storey, Great British Adventurers, 2012, Casemate Publishers, page 32
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-17. Retrieved 2011-05-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ "Sir James Abbott". Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  17. ^ "About Abbottabad - Abbottabad District website". Archived from the original on 2010-01-24. Retrieved 2010-09-10.

External linksEdit