James Abbott and Abbottabad

Abbottabad has been all over the news for all the wrong reasons, thanks to someone called Ossama Bin Laden. The town on the Indian subcontinent is a purely British invention. These days, it forms part of Pakistan. 



Abbottabad is a small town in Pakistan’s Northwest Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) situated in the hills 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital Islamabad. Due to its elevation at 1,260 m (4,100 ft), it has a pleasant climate; the area is also very beautiful. The town has many schools and colleges and can be recommended as one of the best places to live in within Pakistan. 


The founder of this pleasant town was James Abbott; he hadn't so much intended to found a town, he rather built a hill fort for his administration in a climate more amenable to Europeans than the hot Punjabi plains where they had been located previously at Haripur. 


James Abbott was born in 1807 in Kent to a retired merchant from Calcutta. He went to school at Higham Hill in Walthamstow at the same time Benjamin Disraeli was there as well. After that, he got a military education at Addiscombe College. In 1823, he joined the Bengal Artillery as a lieutenant and took part in the conquest of Bharatpur in 1826. 


In 1839 and meanwhile promoted to major, he was sent to the Khanate of Khiva to serve as an adviser and emissary to Khan Allah Quli Bahadur. The Khan found himself under mounting pressure from Russia. The Tsar wanted to secure his southern border; funnily enough, he also objected to the Khan’s main source of income: Russian slaves taken in raids over the border. The Khan decided to make use of the Brit loitering at his court and sent him as an emissary carrying letters to the court at St Petersburg. 


Abbott’s mission was a total failure; it started out with him being taken prisoner by robbers before ever reaching Russian soil. He was eventually released across the Russian border and continued his travel across the continent. Arriving in St Petersburg, all his proposals as to Russian relations with the Khanate were roundly rebuffed. Via England, he returned to India in 1841. 


After the First Sikh War in 1846, he was one of Sir Henry Lawrence’s young men stationed at the court of Raja Gulab Singh as ‘ advisers’ cum spies. Part of the horse dealing ending the First Sikh War as set out in the treaties of Lahore saw Kashmir and Hazara pass to Gulab Singh. The latter found Hazara unsatisfactory and its population intractable; he returned it to the government in Lahore in exchange for Jammu. 


The Lahore government appointed Sardar Chatar Singh as Nazim (administrator) for Hazara and sent in Abbott as his assistant. When the Honorable East India Company annexed the Punjab after the Second Sikh War, Abbott was appointed Deputy Commissioner. It was then that he decided that the climate in the plains of the Punjab did not agree with his health. He founded Abbottabad in 1852 and moved his headquarters there early in 1853. He didn't see the town’s further evolution as he was posted away the same year. 


He retired in 1877 and received the rank of General in recognition of his achievements. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1894. Like many another nabob retiring from the services of the Raj, he made his retirement home on the Isle of Wight. He died in Ryde in 1896. Before he died, though, he spent time on his hobby, namely producing atrociously bad poetry.


Further reading
1608: Walking from Somerset to India
Naga Queen
The Transvestite Surgeon