Aitchison 150 years old in 2018, says Professor Yaqoob Bangash


People often think that history is static. Obviously how can things which have happened in the past change? But while events and facts of the past cannot change, their knowledge and interpretation can change, and such a change can then lead to a marked difference in the way we view the past.

In Pakistan, history is a very exciting discipline, as here it is not just a question of interpretation, we rarely even know the full narrative of events in history. Therefore, the first task of historians in Pakistan is to uncover the bare facts and only then an interpretation can be made.

In most of the world the best narratives of history are of ‘high politics’. The lives of the rich and mighty are well known as not only do they hold important positions, they have a vested interest in promoting a certain narrative of themselves. However, in Pakistan we know little about the high and mighty. For example, little has been written about our statesmen, and except for Jinnah, there are very few books on the others. The same is true for many of our institutions. We do not know exact details about many of them, and a lot of folklore, hearsay and assumptions then become the reality. Therefore, one must continually revisit, revise and reassess our long held beliefs in light of new knowledge, ideas and interpretation.

One such institution about which we have always been certain in Pakistan is the famed Aitchison College. The cradle of Pakistan’s educated elite, the Aitchison archives and history have always been the better preserved and catalogued and the several histories of the college attest to this. However, recently a chance investigation into the college have led to a more complicated story about its origins, which hitherto had been only traced back to 1886.

When the British annexed the Punjab proper in March 1849, several princely states which had made treaties with the British survived, but remained under British paramountcy. Since the Queen-Empress Victoria had promised non-interference in internal matters and non-annexation of any further princely states in India in her November 1858 proclamation, the focus of the government moved from direct control to influencing princely India, and other large chiefs and landholders, through education and grooming.

Therefore, beginning in the 1860s several Residents and Political Agents in the princely states began schools for younger children of rulers and leading families so that by the time they were of majority age, their lifestyle, thinking, and actions would be formed to conform with the expectations of the government. Therefore, beginning with Rajkumar College in Rajkot which was opened in 1868, several such ‘Chief’s Colleges’ were founded to educate and groom the princely and elite classes of India. The foundation of Aitchison College forms part of his legacy.

In the 1860s the Punjab had nearly forty princely states and several large landholdings, and therefore the education of the male children of these families was an immediate concern. Since there was no school for these elite children, a Wards School was started at Ambala (where the old Agency headquarters was), for the sons of mainly Sikh rulers and their relatives in 1868.

The Punjab Education Report (PER) for 1870-71 notes: “At Ambala is a school for the education of Government Wards. The sons of Sardars and Native gentlemen are admitted on the payment of moderate fees. The boys receive a good education, and are also taught to ride and shoot, as it is a special aim of this institution to accustom the young Sardars who attend it to manly pursuits. It is under the District Authorities, but it is customary for the Inspector to examine it annually.” (PER 1870-1, 32).

This new school excelled in its first few years so much that by 1872 the Lieutenant Governor hoped that it would begin accepting wards from other districts. The Lt. Governor’s report noted: “The Ambala School for Government Wards is reported on favorably, and the Lieutenant Governor thinks its usefulness might be increased by receiving Wards from other neighbouring districts of the Punjab—Jalandhar, Amritsar, Lahore and Karnal. The state of ignorance in which several minor Chiefs, now reaching their majority, have been left, owing to their education having been entrusted to native superintendents, is very deplorable, and some change in the present system by which the education of Government Wards may be secured is desirable.” (PER 1871-2, 12).

By 1872, Mr W. A. Robinson had also been brought in and made in charge of the ten wards at Ambala (PER 1871-2, 40). By the next year, the number of wards had increased to 11, with the inspector reporting good progress in both English and Persian. But there was one dire problem! The Lahore Circle Inspector noted that “Nothing is said of the way in which the boys amuse themselves out of school, but they do not now care to play cricket unless Mr. Robinson is with them.” (PER 1872-3, 42).

However, by 1873-4, the initial excitement over the school had run out and the Inspector was reporting serious problems with the wards. The Inspector wrote: “Much progress has not been made, and they are all very backward in rendering from English into their vernacular. They seem to have a smattering of most things, but to have learnt nothing thoroughly. I believe Mr Robinson has much difficulty in making them work steadily.” (PER 1873-4, 93).

Therefore, the government decided to increase the scope of the school and put it on a sounder footing by making it the primary school for the wards of chiefs and leading families from all over the Punjab, not just Ambala and its adjoining districts. With proper funding, organisation and resources, it was hoped, that the school would be able to make a critical mark on the lives of the future leaders of native royalty and gentry (See, PER 1874-5, 70-1).

By the early 1880s, a network of Chief’s Colleges had already spread throughout India. The Residency School established at Indore in Central India in 1870 had become the Daly College in 1882, while in 1875 Mayo College had been established at Ajmer. Therefore, it was felt that the time had come to upgrade the Wards School at Ambala to a Chief’s College. The Lieutenant Governor proposed in 1882-3, that the school should be enlarged to include sons of the native gentry “under a system of stricter discipline and control than has hitherto been in force. This institution will be placed under a management of a committee of English and Native gentlemen, and under the patronage of the Lieutenant Governor and the principal ruling chiefs of the east of the province.” (PER 1882-3, 7).

Due to its limited size and resources, by 1883-4 standards in the Wards School has further deteriorated and the Inspector noted: “The progress of the young Sardars was not considered satisfactory, and it appeared that out-door exercises and games received more of the attention of pupils than their books.” (PER 1884-5, 84). Hence the government initiated plans to move the school to Lahore, the provincial capital, and enlarge its scope, so that an institution could be established which would be “sort of Punjab Eton, to which only boys of good family shall be admitted, and at which education shall be thorough and the fees high.” (PER 1884-5, 84).

As a result of serious government interest in the project, and the staunch support of the native princes—who didn’t want to be left behind other princely states — a suitable site was found between the Government House and the Mian Meer Cantonment at Lahore, and the foundation stone of a Chiefs College — to be rechristened Aitchison College within ten days — was laid by the Viceroy on November 3, 1886. The Ambala School, founded in 1868, was then ‘incorporated’ into this institution with its twelve wards and Principal forming the ‘nucleus’. (PER 1884-5, 7, 74).The Principal of the Ambala Wards School, Mr. Robinson became the first Principal of Aitchison College, while the twelve wards became its first pupils.

Hence, when Aitchison College traces its roots, it should not simply trace it back to 1886 when its present site was occupied and buildings erected, but to the Wards School in Ambala founded in 1868, since the aim, scope and nature of the institution remained consistent throughout this period and only the jurisdiction of the institution kept changing from first the sons and relatives of the chiefs of Ambala in 1868, to the sons of the chiefs of the adjoining districts in 1872, and then to the sons of chiefs and native gentlemen from all of Punjab in 1886. This seamless connection to the Wards School at Ambala therefore dates Aitchison College, without doubt, to the year 1868.

Now this is certainly something which the college, its board and administration, and its various current and past pupils must think about!


The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.