A Peshawari Briton - Randolph Bezzant Holmes

A Peshawari Briton - Randolph Bezzant Holmes
Randolph Bezzant Holmes was born in the city of Peshawar of what was then British India on 14 January 1888. Holmes’ father William Dacia Holmes had established himself in Peshawar as a photographer and had accompanied the Zhob expedition by the British Indian army. The Holmes family resided in the British cantonment at 42, The Mall. In due course, Randolph would fill the shoes of his father and run the business his father had started. In 1919, during the Third Anglo-Afghan war which took place on the territory of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Randolph was appointed the official photographer to the British Indian forces. Much of the fighting took place in Waziristan, so we depict immediately below images from Waziristan.

Captioned ‘Waziri’ by RB Holmes

Business for Holmes was good, he produced small-sized photos as well as large albumen images of landscapes, peoples and portraits. His sister Gwendolyn added her artistic hand to render Holmes’ black and white images into far more exceptional colour artistic pieces. These colour oilbrom photos provide an excellent image of portraits of people from the first half of the twentieth century. The Holmes family conducted their business from their spacious two-kanal bungalow on The Mall.

This is how Holmes described the Third Anglo-Afghan war, in an unpublished manuscript that he wrote: “The Kabul folk thought it time that they restarted their Mughal glory. Border incidents followed, and workmen engaged in bringing water from the Bagh Springs were shot at and killed. The third Afghan war began on a sultry hot day the 11th May 1919 […] Divisions moved North rapidly, a double road was cut through the Khyber, and Peshawar became headquarters. There was plenty of excitement as the Khyber rifles had to be disbanded as they sympathised with Turkey and they sniped at our troops from the vantage points they held in all block houses overlooking the road through the Khyber pass. The disbanded tribesmen took to raiding Peshawar and gave us a hectic time with full scale battles in cantonments during those hot summer months of May and June 1919. Large camps were placed at Kacha Garhi, Jamrud, Ali Masjid, Landi Kotal and Dacca […]. I specially recall the battle of Khargali Ridge when the Afghan elephant battery was shot up near Bagh and the terrible time British troops had sealing the heights. Young lads later told me it seemed they would be wiped out at Dacca; so terrible was the Afghan onslaught.”

"The Mehsud" by RB Holmes (Image Credits - Farrukh Husain Collection)

“Then came the September Armistice when the funniest looking Generals, all dressed in helmets with waving plumes, came from the Afghan lines. I recall how annoyed Sir Hamilton Grant, the Chief Commissioner was when the Afghan delegates came a hour late at the official Durbar to decide the terms. English and Eastern time has never quite tallied! So he ordered the Persian carpets to be rolled up.”

By 1935, Holmes was able to add an estate in Murree to his property portfolio, which included flats he owned and still exist in Peshawar city. Holmes enjoyed stays in Murree in the summer and trips Srinagar and Gulmarg. Kashmir and Khyber-Pakthunkwa form the chief objects of Holmes photographic images.

Holmes describes his home city, “The city is full of great markets and shops mostly of Hindu and Sikh traders […] goldsmiths, silversmiths, money changers sitting in the open through fare and where even Alexander’s coins may be bought, bazaars of two storey buildings where each specialises in different manufacture; the fine wax work and fur shops; and that delight of the Pathan the gaily coloured bridal bed of startling lacquer work and gold-painted legs. Everywhere are fruit shops of Kabul melons, grapes and raisins displayed in bright basket, while coming to the copper smiths bazaar, its metal ware bowls, trays and chased work is most attractive. In my youth there was a slave market and till recently a street was laid out for dancing girls, given to easy virtue, these in gay clothes with painted lips sitting as sirens to catch the unwary youth.”
Holmes describes his Peshawar home and in particular his garden: “In April all the trees become dense and green and the mulberry tree, like a great umbrella, makes gracious shade for cattle, sheep and villager to hide from the midday sun"

Challenges to British rule through the Khudai Khidmatgar movement were afoot in 1930, and the British arrested the leaders of the movement, which resulted in street protests. Imperialism reacted with massacres. Holmes describes in vivid details what he heard about the Peshawar April 1930 massacre in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar, “The deputy commissioner […] proceeded towards the scene, escorted by three armoured cars. Near Kabuli gate he was informed that the two prisoners had given themselves up, and he thereupon ordered the cars to remain behind […] he walked to the police station where a violent crowd had gathered. The situation was soon out of hand, the officers being stoned. The D.C. then called up the armoured cars and entered the leading one which passed through the gate, the crowd giving way […] the DC was knocked senseless by a brick bat. Meanwhile the armoured cars were attacked and one was set on fire. The rioters with hatchets crow bars and stones, then attacked the second car and when the DC recovered consciousness he authorised the crew to fire a few short bursts. The crowd immediately fled.”

Captioned ‘The Rogue’ By RB Holmes

However, Holmes writes on 23 April: “At night the KOYLI (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who had committed the massacre) were again rushed out in lorries, while it seemed outside gangs proposed dashing into cantonments […].Rumours became wilder on the 24th and everyone was fearful. The Garhwal Regiment had been disarmed and the KOYLI later brought in their rifles. The 25th was Friday and found all our workers were rather subdued, with whisperings…Akram said the villagers were infuriated because some of their own men had been shot in the city, one being mown in half by machine gun fire.”

Holmes describes his Peshawar home and in particular his garden: “In April all the trees become dense and green and the mulberry tree, like a great umbrella, makes gracious shade for cattle, sheep and villager to hide from the midday sun. When peach and pear blossoms wilt, with joy I turn to my cool bungalow sheltered far from the highways of turmoil and where grow all sorts of fancy shrubs and cactus brought from distant places. The light blue of acqueranda towers upwards and the great masses of largestremia give us a galaxy of colour, throughout the summer.”

“As I walk round this morning, heaps of black and white mulberries lie strewn under the heavily laden trees […] Today the unwanted fruit lies rotting and my thoughts go […] On the horizon is June 1948. Britain gives over power to her enemies, the seditionists, the disloyal Goondha, the Brahmin. […] when the mulberries fall next year what (then happens)?”

“As May closed the feeling everywhere was ominous and life as we knew it was rapidly changing. Yet in the compound of my bungalow in Peshawar as I lay under the open sky in bed - with the usual mosquito net - at 5am the doves cooed and sparrows set up a glee of joy, punctuated by grass crickets chirping away; a chorus of contented nature. Parrots screeched shrilly on the wing fleeting overhead; and crows with raucous caws added the bass notes. It was all one great song of contentment filling this green garden of trees.”

“I loved my Peshawar nowhere else does such a paen of glory ascend at dawn.”

Tensions in the city rose in 1947 between the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities. During March 1947, “a Muslim youth having taken to himself a Sikh bride, who is supposed to have made a public confession of conversion. How this connects with the Hazara (region) raids of the autumn I cannot quite follow, except that she was brought from there. Suffice it that the Congress Premier became involved when he separated the pair and had both placed in custody. The Muslim League came forward wanting to know under which holy writing such a course was taken. The villagers in righteous indignation flared up and trouble was afoot. They stormed the premier’s house, broke the windows, smashed two cars and carried the congress flag pole off in triumph. The rioters were gassed by the police but no shooting took place […] in view of the riots at Lahore, Multan, Jullundur and Pindi all following in a few days, it was ominous.”

Oilbroms by RB Holmes - on the left, "rock fortress" and on the right, "the sniper" - (Image Credits - Farrukh Husain Collection)

However, the cantonment was protected, “The perimeter set around the cantonment since (the third Anglo-Afghan war of) 1919 has proved invaluable […] The gates were now manned 24 hours and everyone coming in was scrutinised for weapons. From this period all the Sikhs and Hindus virtually became prisoners in their own houses. Two or three were stabbed each day as they ventured out in search of food.”

Hindu and Sikh property and lives were now at risk as Holmes describes the dire situation:

“The first fortnight in April […] some Hindus taking their luggage to the Railway station were accosted and at […] pistol point denuded of their goods […] Each morning the train had been filled to capacity with fleeing Sikhs and Hindus.”

“Several times the train had to stop because of Muslim Leaguers lying on the lines; so the train after a time […] came back to the cantonment station. Recently the Government of Dr Khan Sahib’s Government had decided to put up with no more nonsense from the Muslim League so the train was ordered to halt for no one. Thus it happened that, when the women folk in ghostly ‘burquas’ took out a procession by the city and decorated the rail lines with their lovely persons, there was a fearful scramble when the train refused to stop and wild rumours spread that three had been killed and umpteen injured in (attempting) to get out of the engine’s way! The mob wild and furious descended on the city outskirts and set fire to a Sikh cinema near the fort […] City folk of all ages smashed down the doors and windows and up went the Cinema ablaze […] it was just unbelievable. The charred remains of the Rose Cinema alone acclaimed it was true. Thus has it happened Mansehra, Kohat and the jail, Peshawar. On the 16th of April Dera Ishmael Khan went up in smoke.

The days in mid-April were more hectic. The bazaars were deserted. Peshawar was a city of the dead. The perimeter gates were being left open without guards after weeks of careful checking, maybe because the Governor, driving round, saw a host of village folk penned in waiting to go home.”
Holmes had hoped to stay on and continue to live in his home city after his countrymen lowered their Union Jack and fled back to their cold foggy Island home. Holmes, after all, was born in and lived his life into his 60th year in Peshawar and wanted to live amongst his Pakhtun friends. However, a British officer warned him against staying

Tara Singh declares that Punjab will not be Muslim, drawing his Kirpan on the steps of the provincial assembly theatrically slices a Muslim League flag in two declaring “’One Sikh could account for a hundred Mussalmans’ […]. So this doughty hero, breathing forth fire and brim stone, looked like getting what he asked for […] the Pathans swore to die than be ruled by either Sikh or Hindu […] A fusillade of shots at the top of the Mall brought a host of military lorries and two ambulances out. A bungalow in which Sikh officers lived was attacked and fired into by Pathans, results nil, though the word passed from lip to lip was that all the Sikhs had been killed. A terrific hatred against the Sikhs flared up, implacable and ungovernable. I was standing at my gate later when Akram pointed out some twelve village Pathans walking down the road. These were from Taikal, and like Jackals were hunting for loot.”

“That evening it was a deserted Mall I cycled on. A dead cow lay at the junction of Arbab Road while a crowd of forlorn bazaar folk gazed towards Saddar (in hope of customers). Friday 11th April, 1947 opened like a day of doom. Cavalry set off in their tanks, making a din and roar down the South Circular road as they sped towards the city. Military guards had taken over from the police. Those at the gates used to say ‘Come in if you have something to protect yourselves with, stay out otherwise!’ And this little pleasantry to their Muslim brethren added fuel to the hidden fire.”

“The 14th was the second day of curfew and I cycled out at 6.30 for a reconnaissance. At the post office it was said that no mail had gone for days as the ‘babus’ had not come to work [...] All shops were still closed and the Sikhs properly beleaguered in their homes, 17 who ventured forth paid with their lives. What a shocking state for law abiding citizens to come to.”

“Peshawar cantonment was like a bee’s hive that had been disturbed! The week had been one of trial, no one knowing what might develop. Like a sinister shadow dominating the uproar came the name of Manki, with 20,000 followers, here, there and everywhere."

Captioned on left "the Pathan Grey beard," and on the right, "the old Mohmand" (Image Credits - Farrukh Husain Collection)

“There was a whisper ‘let the British just get over the Indus in June 1948, and we will let the Hindus see what can be done.’”

“One evening in May going late into Saddar Bazaar, I found a huge crowd blocking the Road junction, and sitting in the centre was a host of ghost figures swathed in white holding forth on political issues. Later they stood up in their phantom garb and addressed the gathered crowd. After half an hour of exciting talk […] the dear dainty ghosts started off shouting:

‘We will have Pakistan -

With force we will get it.

We will have Pakistan -

with our blood

We will have Pakistan -

By the sword.’

Here I thought was a real gunpowder magazine. Fancy dear little things in burqua inflaming their menfolk! It had never happened thus in Peshawar before. The crowd of men looking on took up the cry ‘Pakistan’ in chorus. While the women added the dynamite:-

‘By force will take it -

Pakistan (shouted the men)

By blood will take it


By sword will take it


The temperature was 100 degrees on a sultry May evening, and to get the Pathan blood up like this struck me as silly and extreme.

A friendly Muslim said, ‘Light is dawning on the people.’

‘My friend’ I retorted, ‘Satan’s darkness is falling over this land.’”

Then, like the orientalist that he is Holmes adds: “I must say there is nothing quite as intriguing as a burqua figure because it leaves you guessing as to what is in those voluminous folds of drapery.”

“Life for the common Hindu or Sikh in Peshawar was becoming scary, I met Brij Lal, a Hindu who used to do our typing. His eyes brightened for he hoped there might be asylum in our bungalow for his wife and children, but I sadly had to admit that there was nothing I could do. Then the Sikh jemadar peon drew me aside with awe in his eyes.

‘Yesterday in the city three Sikhs were killed and one Hindu’ he told me. ‘Where can I go? The trains have stopped and I haven’t the money for an air passage.’

I consoled them all and advised them to stay quietly at their posts.”

Captioned "The Pathan Woman" by RB Holmes (Image Credits - Farrukh Husain Collection)

Then Holmes thinks of his own plight: “My own house had to be sold, but where were the buyers now that the Hindus had fled?”

Holmes had hoped to stay on and continue to live in his home city after his countrymen lowered their Union Jack and fled back to their cold foggy Island home. Holmes, after all, was born in and lived his life into his 60th year in Peshawar and wanted to live amongst his Pakhtun friends. However, a British officer warned him against staying, stating that they would not want to have to come back and dig him out of trouble, “Don’t give district Headquarters the job of digging you out,” were his last words that rang in my ears months afterwards, for like many another fool I wanted help from no one and proposed to live with my Pathan friends. I forgot the Union Jack would not be there!”

Nor did Holmes hold out much hope for this Pakhtun friends: “I remember telling my Indian friends that affairs would soon cascade back into the sixteenth century; that roads would get into ruts unmetalled; that bridges which fell would remain so; that the poor would suffer and no one would hear their cry, while the rich grasped everything. Above all I looked to my Pathan friends’ pleasant mud walled villages I said: ‘I said I feel more sorry for you for your daughters and wives will suffer in the coming days’.”

By January 1948, as the sun had set on the British Raj, Holmes had reached the ripe old age of 60, only to become a stranger in the city of his birth, shorn of the British military that his business had relied on. Holmes found the lack of white faces in the Peshawar Club disconcerting. Holmes was also shocked to find the lack of diversity which had been a feature of Peshawari city life, since the Hindus and Sikhs had by and large fled the city for safer pastures in Hindustan. Holmes sold his home for Rs 20,000 to Colonel Khushwaqt-Ul-Mulk scion of the Chitrali Mehtar’s family.

Today the Bungalow at 42 The Mall is no more, demolished to make way for four houses in place of the one that had existed and given happiness to Briton and Chitrali alike. In many ways, the destruction of 42 The Mall serves as a metaphor for Partition.

"The Ghilzai" by RB Holmes (Image Credits - Farrukh Husain Collection)

While Holmes felt there was no place for him in Pakistan, nor did Pakistan did preserve his home, the least that Pakistan can do is to rise to the challenge to conserve and display the fine work of this man in the Peshawar museum. Holmes’ work celebrates Pakhtun culture, and it is open to question as to whether the Peshawar museum can become a museum for the people of the region or merely serve as a repository largely for the Buddhist past. We as a people need to have respect for our own culture and consider it fit for being in a museum. Only then can we learn to live with pride in our own heritage.

Holmes’ life exemplifies how our nation fails to accommodate others who may have been born and lived their whole lives with us. In our own times, we have seen ‘Afghans’ born and raised in Pakistan forced to return to the country of their parents’ origin. While Partition certainly led to the displacement of many, the experience of displacement of Britons like Holmes who regarded Peshawar as their home is often not considered. Nor for that matter is the experience of our Afghan brethren pushed out of the City of Flowers and across the Durand Line. Since we talk of Afghanistan, let our last Holmes be a Ghilzai.

As a diaspora Pakistani, I see my task as one of preserving our cultural heritage, hence I share my photographic collection images with you, and hope one day to display the same as part of an exhibition in our country for a wider audience to enjoy, since here I tantalisingly share only some of the photos in my possession.

The writer is the author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires