Contrary to what it sounds like, this isn’t a memorial to Punch or The Economist or any other glossy periodic publication. The word ‘magazine‘ also refers to a store of arms, ammunition and explosives for military use; and has a very interesting etymology. It comes originally from the Arabic ‘khazana‘ (meaning ‘to store up’), which is also where we get the Hindi/Urdu ‘khazaana‘ (‘treasure’). A place where something is stored was called a ‘makhzan‘ or ‘makhzin‘ in Arabic, which eventually led to the Italian ‘magazzino‘, and then to French ‘magasin‘, before finding its way into English as ‘magazine‘ in the late 1500s. The term originally referred to a store and was used from the mid-1600s in titles of various books and publications in England as the publishers felt it was a storehouse or treasure of information, and that’s how the word caught on.
khazana –> makhzin –> magazzino –> magasin –> magazine(Arabic –> Arabic –> Italian –> French –> English)
Coming back to this magazine, I’ll have to give a bit of a backdrop before I talk about what the memorial commemorates. When the British first captured Delhi in 1803, after their victory in the Battle of Delhi (to which a memorial exists in the greens of the Noida Golf Course today) in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1805), they found the walls of the old city of Delhi (Shahjahanabad) in disrepair after the siege by Maratha forces. Having partly reinforced the walls, they gradually set up their residential estates north of the old city, in the newly built Civil Lines area, a mile north of Kashmere Gate (the area near Kashmere Gate was once home to houses of the nobility of the Mughal court).
As they strengthened their position in Delhi and expanded further northwards to where the North Campus of the University of Delhi lies today, they built a magazine (a store to keep arms, ammunition and explosives), just outside the northeastern boundary of the walled city of Old Delhi near Mori Gate. The year 1857 saw a major but ultimately unsuccessful uprising in India against the rule of the British East India Company, that started in the form of a mutiny of Indian soldiers in the army of the East India Company in the town of Meerut, forty miles northeast of Delhi. This rebellion quickly spread across northern India, and Delhi too was the site of major action.
Delhi was then the capital of the Mughal Empire, reduced to insignificance over the past century, controlled by the 82-year-old emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had been informed by the Company that the title would die with him.
On the morning of 11 May 1857, revolting Indian soldiers from Meerut arrived in Delhi, crossing the Yamuna river. They halted at the Red Fort and appealed to the Mughal emperor to lead the attack. The emperor, in no mood to fight, asked them to go to another palace outside the city, where their case would be heard later. As Company soldiers failed in their attempt to stop the Indian rebel soldiers from entering the city, the Indian soldiers were quickly joined by mobs in the Old City that started to go after Company officials.
Some Company officers and civilians tried to take refuge in the Main Guard near Kashmere Gate, but the sepoys stationed there joined the revolt and killed them. As Company officers were awaiting reinforcements, nine officers of the Ordnance Corps, led by a man named George Willoughby were attempting to defend the aforementioned magazine, full of stocks of firearm and ammunition, near Mori Gate. After five hours of fighting, they ran out of ammunition. Not wanting the rebel sepoys to take control of the magazine, they lay a train of gunpowder; and on Willoughby’s signal (raising his hat from his head), they took a lighted fuse into the magazine, causing the whole thing to blow up, killing five of them in the act. Lt Willoughby managed to escape alive, but was killed two days later while he was trying to reach Meerut.
The Company eventually recaptured Delhi in what has been called the ‘1857 Siege of Delhi’, and the revolt of 1857 (or the First War of Independence) eventually came to an end in a year. The revolt was an important watershed moment in history of India and of the British Empire. It led to the end of the Mughal empire, the dissolution of the British East India Company, and compelled the British to reorganise Indian administration through passage of the Government of India Act of 1858, as per which India was then governed directly by the British government – an arrangement that continued till 1947, when India finally became independent.
The British Magazine Memorial still stands today at Lothian Road in the Mori Gate area, right opposite the General Post Office. It can be accessed by the Lal Qila metro station (violet line) and the Kashmere Gate metro station (red, yellow and violet lines) on the Delhi Metro network.