Maharaja Ranjit Singh
In June 1843, having recently given birth to Princess Alice, her third child in four years, Queen Victoria was cheered by yet more glad tidings from India: Major-General Sir Charles Napier, she was told, had ‘completely routed’ the rulers of Sind.
Sind was a large independent state to the north-west of British India; it straddled the Lower Indus River, which Calcutta had long considered ripe for commercial exploitation. A former province of the Mughal Empire, its million or so inhabitants were mostly Muslim and ruled by two amirs from the Baluchi Tulpur clan. This pair had allowed British troops to use Sind as a base of operations for the original invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. But British encroachment had steadily increased with the seizure of Karachi and the establishment of a chain of garrison towns along the route from Sukkir to Quetta. With rumours of an impending Sindian backlash, many of them hearsay, Ellenborough sent General Napier to the territory in the autumn of 1842 to secure an agreement that would, if granted, have reduced the amirs to little more than British clients. The hawkish Ellenborough was determined to secure this vital frontier zone: either by subjugating the amirs or, if they resisted, by conquering them and annexing Sind.
Sir Charles Napier, the man sent to do Ellenborough’s bidding, was a highly unorthodox soldier. A former Radical MP and cousin of the famous Whig politician Charles James Fox, Napier had once described the HEIC’s administrators as leeches sucking India’s lifeblood. He had even less time for the amirs of Sind, whom he regarded as brutal, untrustworthy and corrupt. A Bible-thumping Christian, he saw himself as an instrument of God and felt he had a divine mission to rid Sind of its wicked rulers. His appearance was no less eccentric than his views. One soldier described him wearing a helmet ‘the shape of a jockey’s cap with a white quilted cover’, a ‘blue frock coat’ covered in gold braid, and a pair of thigh-length brown leather boots. Of his face, only the nose and eyes were visible, the rest ‘being covered’ with a moustache, whiskers and beard, the last reaching down to his waist. Napier likened himself to Oliver Cromwell, another Soldier of the Lord, and their ascetic lifestyles were not dissimilar. Unlike most officers of the period, Napier campaigned with the bare necessities. A subordinate wrote: ‘His tent is but a small single poled one, same as a staff-sergeant’s. The furniture consists of a cotton floor-cloth; small Bengal hearth-rug; a cot about 2 feet high, worth a rupee, with a very scanty share of bedding; an old champagne case forms his only table & an empty brandy case his seat.’ Such frugality endeared him to his men, as did his impressive record of service in the Peninsular Wars and the American War of 1812.
Napier, however, was no diplomat, and he soon clashed with the senior political officer in Sind, Major James Outram, who contested his claim that the amirs were secretly plotting war. They were being driven to resist, said Outram, because of the soldier-envoy’s heavy-handedness. For Napier was not only demanding the cession of various towns, including Karachi and Sukkir; he also wanted the abolition of duties on Indus traffic and an acknowledgement that only the HEIC could settle disputes between the amirs. As if that was not enough, one of the amirs was also expected to hand over the large chunk of territory that the British had promised to the ruler of Bahawalpur in return for help during the recent Afghan War. Incredibly the amirs signed the one-sided treaty on 12 February 1843. But still Napier was not satisfied. The concentration of armed Baluchis near the southern stronghold of Hyderabad was, he felt, a sufficient provocation for him to invade Sind with a modest force of 3,000 men. The ensuing clash took place at Miani, seventeen miles south of Hyderabad, on 17 February.
Small-arms technology had undergone something of a minor revolution in recent years, with the British Army’s switch, in 1839, from the flintlock to the percussion ignition system. The flintlock had a slow discharge, often hanging fire for a few seconds, because of the delay between the flash of the priming powder in the pan and the explosion of the main charge in the barrel. Its flash also tended to obscure the firer’s view, as well as warn the intended target, and in rain the weapon was almost useless because the priming powder got wet and refused to ignite. The percussion ignition system – first developed by the Reverend Alexander Forsyth at the turn of the century and later refined by George Lovell, inspector of small arms – solved all these problems by using a sealed copper cap as its primer. The cap was ignited when struck by a hammer, which replaced the flintlock’s cock. In regimental trials the converted muskets – still of the same muzzle-loading Brown Bess design but with percussion cap locks – were not only far less prone to misfiring and hanging fire, they were also more accurate, with an effective range of up to 300 yards. But so low had the British Army’s store of weapons become, in the wake of post-war retrenchment, that it took many years to re-equip all the British (and HEIC) units serving abroad. Most of the regiments that fought in the Sind War, for example, were still armed with the old flintlock muskets.
Miani, therefore, was won by the traditional British tactic of closing with the enemy so that cold steel and volley fire could do their work. Outnumbered by more than three to one, Napier opened the battle with an artillery barrage that softened the Baluchi flank and enabled his infantry to advance on the main position. There the bayonets of the single British infantry regiment, the 22nd (Cheshire) Foot, proved decisive, though supporting units from the Bombay Army wavered for a time. Eventually the Baluchi matchlockmen were driven into a river bed, where they were shot down in their hundreds. With the battle won, Napier marched on to Hyderabad; there, on 20 February, he announced the summary deposition of the two amirs and the annexation of their lands. They kept up a limited resistance but were finally defeated in a one-sided battle near Hyderabad on 24 March. The famous brief punning dispatch – ‘Peccavi’ (‘I have sinned’) – that Napier is said to have sent to the governor-general after the Battle of Miani was in fact the invention of a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, Miss Catherine Winkworth.
Lord Ellenborough was delighted with the acquisition. Not so Peel’s government, which had forbidden the annexation of more Indian territory, or the directors of the HEIC, Ellenborough’s nominal bosses, who were horrified by the cost of garrisoning the unruly new province. In February 1844, backed by Outram’s claim that Napier had deliberately engineered an unnecessary war, the veteran campaigner Lord Ashley introduced a motion of censure into the House of Commons, describing the conflict as a ‘foul stain’ on Britain’s honour. Though the motion was defeated by 134 votes – with Benjamin Disraeli and his ‘Young England’ colleagues voting against the government – Ellenborough’s fate was sealed. He was recalled in April, with the HEIC directors criticizing his overbearing manner, warmongering and theatrical love of display. They were particularly alarmed by his ill-concealed desire to take advantage of the political chaos in the Punjab by launching another war of conquest.
The queen was strongly opposed to the sacking, telling Sir Robert Peel that she thought it ‘very unwise at this critical moment, and a very ungrateful return for the eminent services Lord Ellen-borough has rendered to the Company in India’. But the directors would not back down, and the returning governor-general had to be content with a GCB and an earldom.
Ellenborough was replaced by his former brother-in-law, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Hardinge. An experienced soldier, the 59-year-old Hardinge had served with distinction as a staff officer in the Peninsular Wars and had, as British commissioner to the Prussian Army, lost a hand at Ligny during the Waterloo campaign. Since becoming an MP in 1820, however, his energies had been largely devoted to politics, including two stints in government as secretary-at-war. He was still in the latter post, and loath to leave it, when Peel offered him the governor-generalship. Personal reasons were behind his unwillingness to go, notably his advanced age – he would become the oldest governor-general – and devotion to family and home. But three factors changed his mind: the prestige of the most powerful job in the British Empire, a far larger salary and his personal loyalty to Peel. Hardinge was not the first soldier–politician to become governor-general of India: recent predecessors included the marquess of Hastings and Lord William Bentinck. But he was the first not to hold the dual appointment of commander-in-chief. This, as we shall see, would put the actual commander-in-chief, General Sir Hugh Gough, in an invidious position in time of war: senior in military rank but under Hardinge’s political authority.
A paternalist Tory, Hardinge arrived in India in September 1844 full of good intentions. His achievements, during his four-year term of office, were many: advances in education, with more schools and universities, and promises of government employment for college-educated Indians; a massive public works programme, with construction begun on the Ganges Canal and a national railway network; and the extension of social reforms to the princely states, such as the discouragement of suttee, infanticide and human sacrifice. Yet it is for the first hard-fought war against the redoubtable Sikh nation of the Punjab that Hardinge’s governor-generalship is chiefly remembered.
The Punjab – or ‘Land of the Five Rivers’ – was a largely flat territory, triangular in shape, which extended from its north-east base in the foothills of the Himalayas to near the confluence of the Indus and Sutlej Rivers in the south-west. The land in between was intersected by the remaining four great rivers that fed the Indus (from south to north): the Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. The ethnic make-up of the territory was a mixture of Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Hindus and the dominant minority group, Sikhs, who made up about a sixth of the population. The Sikhs (or ‘Disciples’) had been formed as a peaceful religious sect amongst the Hindu Jat community of the Punjab by the first guru Nanak in the late fifteenth century. Nanak rejected the rigid caste system and polytheism of Hinduism, preferring to worship the one invisible God and to uphold the principle of universal toleration and social equality. By the late seventeenth century, however, the threat of Muslim persecution had forced Govind Singh, the tenth and last guru, to transform the Sikhs into a military order known as the Khalsa (or ‘Army of the Free’). His intention was to create a loosely democratic organization in which all men were equal. Its rules were known as the ‘five Ks’, after the initial letter of the Punjabi words denoting them: no man was to cut his hair or beard; shorts and a steel bangle (on the right wrist) were to be worn; and a comb and sword (or short dagger) always carried. All members, in addition, were to adopt the last name of ‘singh’ (lion).
The beginning of the Sikh rise to prominence was the Khalsa’s defeat of its Afghan overlords in 1763, giving the Sikhs control of the territory between the Sutlej and Jumna Rivers (later known as the Cis-Sutlej States). More victories over the Afghans left the Sikhs, by 1793, undisputed masters of the whole of the Punjab proper. But it was under the leadership of Ranjit Singh, the son of a minor chieftain who had made his name fighting the Afghans, that the Sikhs reached the zenith of their power. An unimpressive-looking man, blind in one eye and illiterate, Ranjit was nevertheless a fine horseman and a charismatic leader. He was also a notorious drinker, drug-taker and womanizer, excesses guaranteed to endear him to his macho male subjects. In 1801 Ranjit took the first step towards creating a unified Sikh state when he declared himself maharaja of Lahore. His second was the creation of a large standing army on the European model, which he achieved by hiring military advisers from across Europe and the United States, but particularly Frenchmen and Italians who had served under Napoleon. By the late 1830s these men had built up a modern, well-trained regular army of 70,000 men, comprised of tactically flexible all-arms brigades. Though Sikhs were in a majority, the army also contained Hindu, Muslim and even Gurkha units. Half of all the artillerymen, for example, were Muslim. In time of war the regulars could be joined by up to 16,000 irregular cavalrymen, or goracharras, bringing the grand total to nearer 85,000 men.
Even as Ranjit was plotting the extension of his military and political influence, he was wily enough to come to terms with the British as the dominant power in the region. In 1809, for example, he signed a treaty confirming a British protectorate over the Sikh states of Malwa, to the south of the Punjab, enabling the British to establish garrisons at Ferozepur, Ludhiana and Ambala. This left him free to expand his domain north of the Sutlej with a series of campaigns that won him the valuable provinces of Kashmir, Multan and Peshawar, and the sobriquet ‘Lion of the Punjab’. At its height the Sikh state covered more than 8,000 square miles, with a population of five million and an annual revenue of between £2m and £3m.
Yet Ranjit’s death in 1839 – from a stroke brought on by excessive drinking – left the ship of state rudderless. None of his many reputed sons had the strength of character and prestige required to hold the country together. So began a vicious power struggle, with Ranjit’s successors succumbing, one by one, to assassination and suspicious death. Into this power vacuum stepped the Khalsa. The in-fighting at court had left the country’s finances in chaos, and the army was owed several months of back-pay. The ordinary soldiers responded by electing five-man committees – or panches – to uphold their interests, which were, in effect, substantial and regular pay. The panches, in turn, sent representatives to an army council, which replaced the generals as the effective head of the Khalsa. The army council soon became the dominant force in Punjabi politics and, in December 1844, supported the regency of Maharani (or Rani) Jindan, the mother of six-year-old Dalip Singh, the fourth and last of Ranjit’s acknowledged sons. The daughter of a kennel-keeper, Jindan had come to Ranjit’s notice as a dancing girl. The maharaja maintained scores of dancing girls, many of them Kashmiri, whom he organized, along with his favourite catamites, into a faux royal bodyguard complete with tinsel armour and toy bows. Jindan was his favourite and just twenty-one when Dalip was born in September 1838. Yet she was notoriously licentious – described by Hardinge as ‘a handsome debauched woman of 33, very indiscriminate in her affections, an eater of opium’ – and there is no guarantee that Ranjit was Dalip’s real father. The maharaja believed himself to be so, however, and that was all that mattered. At Ranjit’s funeral, Jindan wisely chose not to join the four wives and five dancing girls who, in accordance with the rites of suttee, which would not be outlawed in the Punjab until 1847, threw themselves on to the pyre. She had the dynastic claims of her ten-month-old son to consider.
During the early part of 1845, with the Khalsa’s backing, Jindan ruled supreme in Lahore. But the state treasury was empty – thanks, in no small part, to official corruption and recent hikes in army pay – and there was a growing conviction within the Khalsa that a war with the British might offer a solution. Many Sikhs regarded such a war, in the light of recent British disasters in Afghanistan and the annexation of neighbouring Sind, as not only inevitable but winnable. First, however, the backbone of the Lahore government needed to be stiffened. The weakest link was considered to be Jawahir Singh, Jindan’s brother, who had been appointed vizier. Jawahir was a vicious, corrupt individual who was every bit as debauched as his sister; he was wont to dress as a dancing girl and was implicated in a number of courtly assassinations. The reckoning came on 21 September 1845, when the army council summoned Jindan, her son and Jawahir to a meeting at the Mian Mir Parade Ground on the outskirts of Lahore. Flanked by 400 horsemen, Jindan and her brother arrived on separate elephants, the latter holding Dalip Singh in his arms. They found regiment after regiment of the Khalsa drawn up in immaculate order. On the council’s instructions, troops advanced to remove the royal escort and surround the two elephants. Jindan was then instructed to get down from her howdah. What happened next was related by Alexander Gardner, an American-born adventurer who had joined Ranjit’s army as an artillery adviser in 1832. Now sixty, the son of a Scottish surgeon who had fought against the British during the American War of Independence, Gardner (or ‘Gurdana Khan’, as the Sikhs called him) was an eccentric figure who often wore a suit and turban made from the tartan of the 79th Highlanders. He recorded:
The Rani was dragged away, shrieking to the army to spare her brother. Jawahir Singh was next ordered to descend from his elephant. A tall Sikh slapped his face and took the boy from his arms, asking how he dared to disobey the Khalsa. Duleep Singh was placed in his mother’s arms, and she, hiding herself behind the walls of her tent, held the child up above them in view of the army, crying for mercy for her brother in the name of her son. She flung the child away in an agony of grief and rage… he was caught by a soldier. A soldier had gone up the ladder placed by Jawahir Singh’s elephant, stabbed him with his bayonet, and flung him upon the ground, where he was despatched in a moment with fifty more.
Jawahir’s brutal assassination was the beginning of the end for the Khalsa. Thereafter, fearful of its power, the Lahore durbar† made little effort to curb the dogs of war. Far from it: there is strong evidence to suggest that the new vizier, Lal Singh, who also happened to be Jindan’s lover, and Tej Singh, a leading sirdar‡ who had gained the confidence of the Khalsa, deliberately encouraged the army to fight a pre-emptive war in the expectation that it would be defeated. By contributing to that defeat, by means of treasonable communications with the British, they would not only remove the Khalsa from Punjabi politics but would also ensure their prominence in any post-war Lahore government. If, on the other hand, the Khalsa was victorious, then they and the rani would at least have the consolation of ruling, however tenuously, over a much more powerful Sikh state. That, at least, was the plan.