He received his military training at Addiscombe and professional training in engineering at Chatham. Towards the end of 1832, he reached Delhi and joined the Corps of Sappers and Miners in the Bengal Army. In 1837, he was appointed assistant to Colonel (afterwards Sir) Claude Wade, the political agent at Ludhiana and officer in charge of British relations with the Punjab and with the chiefs of Afghanistan. For the next eight years he held various appointments under Colonel Wade and his successors, and was, at the time of the outbreak of the first Anglo Sikh war in 1845, political agent in the state of Bahawalpur.
He was summoned to the battlefront and attached first to the staff of Sir Charles Napier and then to that of Sir Hugh Cough. He was present, as political officer, with the division of Sir Harry Smith at the battles of Baddoval and `Aliwal. At Sabhraori, he served as an additional aiddecamp to the Governor General, Sir Henry Harding. His services earned him a brevet and appointment as political agent to the state of Bhopal. In 1849, appeared his A History of the Sikhs which he had written while at Bhopal and which his brother had got published in London. His severe criticism, in the book, of Lord Hardinge`s Punjab policy brought upon him the wrath of his superiors.
He was removed from his political appointment and sent back to regimental duty. He took the disgrace to heart and, soon after his appointment to the Meerut division of Public Works, he died suddenly at Ambala in 1851. A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej, by Cunningham, is the first serious and sympathetic account of the Sikh people ever written of them by a foreigner. Cunningham explored the available materials with the rneticulousness of a scholar. Besides official despatches and documents and the earlier English accounts, he went to the original sources and acquainted himself with the Sikh scriptures as well as with relevant manuscripts in Persian and Punjabi.
The emphasis in Cunningham`s History shifted from his predecessors` concern with the assessment of Sikhs` political and military strength or the description of the manner of their court to the identification of the ingredients of their moral and religious inspiration and of the driving force behind their rise from a religious sect to nationhood. The book is also significant for its account of the geography and economy of the Punjab and for its analysis of the social milieu in which Sikhism was born. Elaborate footnotes and appendices show the minuteness and range of Cunningham`s learning.
Cunningham had aimed at achieving two objectives in writing his History. His main endeavour was "to give Sikhism its place in the general history of humanity, by showing its connection with the different creeds of India..." Secondly, he wished "to give some account of the connexion of the English with the Sikhs, and in part with the Afghans ..." His first four chapters, covering the history of the Sikhs from its beginning to 1764, traced the growth of "a nation" animated by a living faith. Their religious faith, he inferred, was the main motive force of their history. That was both because it had appeared at a time when the historical situation needed it the most and because of the "excellence" of Guru Nanak`s message.
An important feature of Sikhism, in Cunningham`s eyes, was its spirit of freedom and progress. The last five chapters were a contemporary history of Cunningham`s own times, based on the official and secret records of the government of the East India Company. A large part of these five chapters dealt witli Ranjit Singh`s rise to power, his achievements and his relations with the British. Of these, the last chapter entitled "The War with the English," which detailed the immediate circumstances leading to the AngloSikh war of 184546 was, however, a scathing criticism of Governor General Lord Harding who, said Cunningham, had done nothing to prevent the earlier mistakes from continuing to add to the distrust of the Sikh army from feeling suspicious of British intentions, in which situation the war was an inevitability.
According to Cunningham`s analysis, the British won the war they had precipitated but could have as well lost it. What really contributed to the success of the British was the treachery of the Lahore leaders who had instigated it. Raja Lal Singh, Raja Tej Singh, the commanderin chief and Raja Gulab Singh had played a treacherous role and betrayed their own army in varying degree. Besides having Cunningham dismissed from the political service, Harding who had taken grave umbrage at the publication of the book, prevailed upon J.W. Kaye, an acknowledged authority on Indian history, to write a detailed review of it. This review, published in The Ca]cutta Review, mostly attempted to rebut Cunningham`s thesis. Kaye`s review started a controversy which continued throughout the nineteenth century. Some looked upon the book as the outpourings of "the apologist of the Khalsa." But today Cunningham`s History is commonly recognized as a standard, responsible work.
1. Fauja Singh, ed.. Historians and Historiography of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1978
2. Khurana, Gianeshwar, British Historiography on the Sikh Power in Punjab. Delhi, 1985
3. Darshan Singh, Western Perspective on the Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1991
4. Grewal, LS., From Guru Nanak to Maharaja Ranjit Singh; Essays in Sikh History. Amritsar, 1972