The founder of the Sikh religion was Nanak, son of a petty Hindu trader named Kalu. Nanak was born in the vicinity of Lahor in the year 1469. A youth much given to reflection, he devoted himself at an early period of his life to a study of the rival creeds then prevailing in India, the Hindu and the Muhammadan. Neither satisfied him. Though his first teacher had been a learned professor of the latter faith, the simple mind of Nanak could find no resting-place in a religion in which the worldly element so largely predominated; nor was he more content with the specious abstractions of Hinduism.
After wandering through many lands in search of a satisfying truth, Nanak returned to his native country with the conviction that he had failed. He had found, he said, many scriptures and many creeds; but he had not found God. Casting off his habit of an ascetic, he resumed his father’s trade, married, became the father of a family, and passed the remainder of his life in preaching the doctrine of the unity of one invisible God, of the necessity of living virtuously, and of practising toleration towards others. He died in 1539, leaving behind him a reputation without spot, and many zealous and admiring disciples eager to perpetuate his creed.
The founder of a new religion, Nanak, before his death, had nominated his successor – a man of his own tribe named
Angad. Angad held the supremacy for twelve years, years which he employed mainly in committing to writing the doctrines of his great master and in enforcing them upon his disciples.
Angad was succeeded by Ummar Das, a great preacher. He, and his son-in-law and successor, Ram Das, were held in high esteem by the emperor Akbar.
But it was the son of Ram Das, Arjun, who established on a permanent basis the new religion. Comprehending the applicability of the teaching of Muni and his successors to every state of life and to every condition of society, Arjun arranged their several writings, added to them the most suitable compositions of preceding religious reformers, and, completing the whole with a prayer and some pious exhortations of his own, he produced the sacred book, the Grunth, of the new faith, and imposed it upon his followers as containing the guide to their religious and moral conduct. Simultaneously he fixed the seat of the chief Guru, or high priest of the religion, and of his principal followers, at Amritsar, then an obscure hamlet, but which, in consequence of the selection, speedily rose into importance. Arjun then regulated and reduced to a systematic tax the offerings of his adherents, to be found even then in every city and village in the Panjab and the cis-Satlaj territories. Nor did he disdain to increase the wealth of the holy city he had founded by traffic of a very extensive character. Meddling, however, in the political contests which almost invariably supervened on the death of a Mughul sovereign Arjun unfortunately espoused the losing side, was imprisoned, and died.
The real successor of Arjun was his son, Hur Govind. Hur Govind founded the Sikh nation. Before his time the followers of the Guru had been united by no tie but that of obedience to the book. Govind formed them into a community of warriors. He did away with many of the restrictions regarding food, authorised his followers to eat flesh, summoned them to his standard, and marched with them to consolidate his power.
A military organisation based upon a religious principle, and directed by a strong central authority, will always become powerful in a country the government of which is tainted with decay. The ties which bound the Mughul empire together were already loosening under the paralysing influence of the bigotry of Aurangzib, when, in 1675, Govind, fourth in succession to the Hur Govind to whom I have adverted, assumed the mantle of Guru of the Sikhs. Intolerance reigned supreme throughout India. Tegh Buhadur, the father and immediate predecessor of Govind, had been put to death by Aurangzib, a martyr to his faith, and his body had been exposed with ignominy in the streets of Dihli. This murder made of Govind, then only fifteen years old, the irreconcilable enemy of the Muhammadan name. Acting under the -advice, almost under the authority, of his father’s friends, he for the time concealed alike his enmity and his ambition, spent twenty years in comparative obscurity, hunting the tiger and the wild boar, learning the Persian language, studying the best means of swaying the races whom he would have to influence, and perfecting in his own mind the means of shaking the empire held together by the iron hand of the man who had slain his father.
The better to work out his end Govind still further simplified the dogmas of the faith. Assembling his followers, he announced to them that thenceforward the doctrines of the “Khalsa,” the saved or liberated, alone should prevail. There must be no human image or resemblance of the One Almighty Father; caste must cease to exist; before Him all men were equal; Muhammadanism was to be rooted out; social distinctions, all the solaces of superstition, were to exist no more; they should call themselves “Singh” and become a nation of soldiers.
The multitude received Govind’s propositions with rapture. By a wave of the wand he found himself the trusted leader of a confederacy of warriors in a nation whose institutions were decaying.
About 1695, twelve years before the death of Aurangzib, Govind put his schemes into practice. He secured many forts in the hill-country of the Panjab, defeated the Mughul troops in several encounters, and established himself as a thorn in the side of the empire. At last Aurangzib took the alarm. He directed the governors of Lahor and Sirhind to move against the Guru, and even threatened to send his son, Buhadur Shah, to command the army against him. Against such forces Govind could do but little. After a series of manoeuvres he found himself surrounded at Anandpur. His adherents, who had till then followed him with implicit trust, murmured in this hour of his supreme necessity; many of them even deserted him; but Govind himself never quailed. Sending his mother, his wives, and his children66 to Sirhind, he threw himself into the fort of Chamkaur. Besieged there, he still bade a haughty defiance to the enemy, and, after a desperate defence, in which he saw his two remaining sons and nearly the whole of his band perish, he escaped by night to Behlolpur, and thence to Damdamma, midway between Firuzpur and Hang. There he remained, unmolested, for several years, engaged in adding another book to the Grunth, and in devising measures for rousing the energies of his followers.
Aurangzib died in 1707. Buhadur Shah, who succeeded him, summoned the Guru to his camp in the valley of the Godavari. Govind complied, was received with respect and even trusted with a military command. But in the midst of his new prosperity he was assassinated by the sons of an Afghan whom in a sudden fit of anger he had killed.
Before leaving the cis-Satlaj territory Govind had bequeathed his temporal power to Banda, a native of southern India. Banda justified the selection. Recognising the fact that the death of Aurangzib had dissolved the bond which kept
the Mughul empire together, Banda raised an army of devoted followers, defeated the Mughul governor of Sirhind, avenged the death of Govind’s children, and occupied the country between the Satlaj and the Jamna. This success brought upon him the army of Buhadur Shah, and, surrounded, as his predecessor had been, by the emperor’s army, Banda owed his escape only to a stratagem. Escape he did, however, with all his followers; and, making his way to Jamma, laid the fairest part of the Panjab under contribution.
Every day, however, loosened the bonds of union throughout the Mughul empire. The death of Buhadur Shah in 1712, and the contests amongst the rival candidates for the succession, gave strength to the nobles and the confederacies who were playing for their own hands. Banda took advantage of the surrounding turmoil to build a strong fort, Gurdaspur, between the Bias and the Ravi, and, when the turmoil had subsided, he issued from the vicinity of that fort, defeated the army of the Viceroy of Lahor, and once more occupied Sirhind. Again were the chosen troops of the Mughul empire, led by their best general, Abdul Samad Khan, despatched against him. Again were the Sikhs, beaten in the open, compelled to flee before the foe. At last they took refuge in the new fort of Gurdaspur. Besieged here, they defended themselves to the last extremity. It was only when every means of defence was exhausted that they submitted. They had better have died of starvation; for the tortures inflicted by the victors on Banda and on many of his followers were so cruel that the pen refuses to record them. The blow was a serious one, and it was followed up by a rigid persecution. Recantation or death was the Muhammadan cry. Carried out unsparingly, it almost seemed as though it had produced the desired effect, for, for the period of a generation, the Sikhs were hardly heard of again in history.
But the principle which bound them together was a pure and a strong principle. Decay, too, was doing her work on all the
surrounding institutions. Gradually, one after another, whole provinces became dissevered from the Mughul empire. Bengal, Awadh, Haidarabad, disclaimed dependence on Dihli. The Marathas ruled in western and central, and were steadily pressing up towards north-western, India. The invasion of Nadir Shah came to deal a fatal blow to an empire already a shadow of its former self. In the turmoil which followed, the Sikh confederacy gradually reconstituted itself. Then followed the several invasions of Ahmad Shah Durani. The Panjab fell for a time under the sway of the Afghan. The Sikhs, often rising in arms, and as often dispersed, succeeded at length, under the leadership of Jassa Singh, a carpenter by trade (1758), in temporarily occupying Lahor. Three years later was fought the decisive battle of Panipat. But though, the year following, the victor of Panipat inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Sikhs near Lodiana, destroyed their temples, and slew his prisoners by hundreds, the time had gone by when such a community could be rooted out. The Durani had to leave India – an India about to be re-parcelled. Amongst the new claimants for dominion were the English, the Nuwab-Vazir of Awadh, the Marathas, and last, but not least, the Sikhs.
Of these several claimants the last-named were not the least resolute. The year following their defeat by Ahmad Shah they avenged that misfortune by inflicting upon the Afghans an overthrow even more decisive in the plains of Sirhind. Uniting then with the Jats, and in alliance with Holkar, they laid siege to Dihli, and though forced by another irruption – speedily abandoned – of Ahmed Shah, and by the defection of Holkar, to raise that siege, they hurried back across the Satlaj, attacked and seriously maltreated the great Durani, near Amritsar, took possession of Lahor, and parcelled out amongst themselves the whole country between the Satlaj and the Jhelam. The chiefs then convened a solemn assembly at Amritsar, at which they formally proclaimed the sway of the Sikh nation and the prevalence
of their faith. To commemorate this event, to bind it on the tablets of the hearts of their followers, they struck from their mint a coin bearing an inscription to the effect that Guru Govind had received from Nanak the three virtues – grace, power, and rapid victory.
For two years the Sikhs remained unmolested in their new dominions. In 1767, however, Ahmad Shah, bent on recovering the Panjab, made his last attempt to enslave India. The attempt failed, mainly in consequence of the defection of his own troops. Left then to themselves, the Sikhs, divided into twelve confederacies or misls, each of which had its chief equal in authority to his brother chiefs, felt the want of the organization which a central authority alone could bestow. Each misl or confederacy fought for itself, and it was not until 1784 that a young chieftain named Mali Singh, gained, mainly by force of arms, a position which placed him above his fellows. The only other chief who could at all pretend to rivalry with Maha Singh was the leader whom he had defeated, Jai Singh Kunaia. But Mali Singh, as great in diplomacy as in war, found means to conciliate even him. A marriage between his son and the grand-daughter of Jai Singh cemented a union which was never afterwards broken. The name of the son of Maha Singh was Ranjit Singh.
Ranjit Sing was born in 1780. At the early age of eleven he lost his father. Before he had attained maturity evil days befell the territories of which he was the nominal chieftain. In 1797, six years after his father’s death, the Panjab suffered again from the horrors of an Afghan invasion, conducted by Shah Zaman. Lahor was taken by the invader, only, however, to be almost immediately evacuated. The invasion was renewed the following year, and ‘Jailor was again occupied. But eighteen summers had formed the character of Ranjit Singh. A true follower of Guru Govind, he hated the Afghan invaders with an intensity inspired by the conviction that they
were the determined enemies of the freedom and the toleration which were the watchword of his tribe. For the time, however, his weakness forced him to dissemble. By a show of service well appreciated he obtained from the Afghan ruler the investiture of the capital of the Panjab (1799). Immediately afterwards serious occurrences in his own country forced Zaman Shah to return to Kabul.
Ranjit Singh became then the recognised ruler of the Sikhs, just after the English had destroyed the power of Tipu Sahib, and just before the contest for supremacy with the Marathas, which was really decided at Assaye and Laswari. The campaign against Holkar which followed the crushing overthrow of Sindia, had been virtually decided before the war broke out. Holkar, after a show of success, crossed the Satlaj in the autumn of 1805, a fugitive, with, as he said himself, “his kingdom on his saddle’s bow,” and implored the assistance of Ranjit Singh. But “the Lion of the Panjab,” as he was called about this time, had no wish to embroil his young nation with the veterans who had destroyed the powerful hosts of the Marathas. Lake, with his victorious army, was on the track of Holkar, and Lake was not the man to fail to push his advantage to the utmost. Ranjit Singh, then, received Jeswant R-o Holkar at Amritsar, and made it clear to him that the aid he wished for would not be given. By this time Lake was on the Bias, and Holkar, after hesitating for a moment whether he should not traverse the Panjab and invoke the aid of the Afghans, finally accepted (24th December 1805) the terms offered by the English general.
Ranjit Singh himself exchanged at this time friendly communications with General Lake. It is even said that he entered in disguise the English camp in order to inspect the troops who had overthrown such famed warriors as Sindia, the Bhonsle, and Holkar. The communications led, however, to no practical result.
But the visit made by the English commander to the country of the Sikhs was not altogether void of consequences. In the
cis-Satlaj territory Lake had been joined by two Sikh chieftains of repute, Lid Singh of Khaital, and Bhag Singh of Mind, uncle to Ranjit Singh. These chieftains had already rendered good service to a British detachment at Shamli when it had been hard pressed by the enemy. On his passage through Patiala, too, Lake had received promises of devotion from its ruler, Sahib Singh. Before the war had terminated the two first of these chieftains received handsome acknowledgments from the Indian Government, and there can be no doubt but that, had the policy of Marquess Wellesley not been suspended, the cis-Satlaj chieftains as a body would have acknowledged the over-lordship of the British. The temporary reversal of Marquess Wellesley’s system delayed this acknowledgment, but the kindly memory of the British remained, and in due season bore abundant fruit.
Meanwhile Ranjit Singh had applied himself zealously to the task of consolidating his dominions, of giving unity to diverse and scattered elements, of welding the increasing Sikh nation into a well-ordered commonwealth. Beyond the Satlaj he succeeded almost to his fondest hopes. But in the cis-Satlaj territories a spirit of independence had been awakened strong enough to dispose the chiefs to resist the claim made by the Panjab ruler even to nominal overlordship. In 1808 these chieftains combined to resist the aggressive system which Ranjit Singh threatened to introduce amongst them – a system which would bring them into direct subordination to Lahor. Recollecting their friendly intercourse with General Lake, they despatched messengers to the British Resident at Dihli, praying for support in case of need. But the Cornwallis policy – the policy of under no pretence interfering in the affairs of native states was in the ascendant, and from Dihli no assuring replies reached them.
But the dread of the ambition of Napoleon changed the course of events. That dread inspired the British Government with the idea of seeking alliances for British India not only beyond
the Jamna but beyond the Indus. To secure these alliances Mr. Elphinstone was despatched to the court of Shah Shuja, then ruler of Kabul, and Mr. Metcalfe to that of Ranjit Singh. In view, too, of an impending crisis, the Cornwallis policy was still further suspended; and the chiefs of Patiala, of Mind, and of Khaital, were verbally assured that they had been brought under the protection of the British Government.
Ranjit Singh heard of this act while Mr. Metcalfe was still with him. He resented it so much that but for the earnest entreaties of two of his most trusted councillors he would have declared war against the English. As it was, he broke off the negotiations, crossed the Satlaj at the head of his army, seized Faridkot and Ambala, levied exactions in Malarkota and Thanesar, and entered into an agreement or alliance with the ruler of Patiala.
The proceedings of Ranjit Singh seemed to the Governor-General, Lord Minto, to be of a character to demand a vigorous counter-demonstration. He accordingly ordered Sir David Ochterlony to march northwards with a force to support Mr. Metcalfe and to confine Ranjit Singh to the north bank of the Satlaj. Ochterlony on entering Sirhind, was received with open arms by all the chiefs, one only excepted, and then halted at Lodiana, near his supplies, to wait for the next move of Ranjit Singh.
Ranjit Singh was in this position. His hold on the Panjab was not absolutely secure. Multan, Peshawar, and many other strong places were held by the Afghans. He could not, until he had secured his kingdom beyond the Satlaj, engage in a war with the English. Reluctantly, then, he gave way, and recognised the protectorate of the British Government over the cis-Satlaj states, those only excepted which he had originally acquired south of that river.
During the five years which followed Ranjit Singh was occupied in carrying out, not always successfully, his ambitious schemes beyond the Satlaj. Some acquisitions he did make, but he
failed, for the second time, before Multan, in 1810; and he was foiled in an attempt upon Kashmir in 1814. But he never lost heart. He had placed one aim before him, the unification of the Panjab under his sceptre, and he kept that ever in view. In 1818 he captured Multan, and gained a post on the north bank of the Indus which secured to him the passage of that river. In 1819–20 he conquered Kashmir and annexed the Derajat. Four years later, 14th March 1823, he defeated the Afghans at Naoshera, and sacked Peshawar, which, from this time forward, may be regarded as an integral portion of his dominions. From this year, indeed, his aim may be said to have been attained, his dominions to have been welded into one whole. He had become the feudal chief of a large population, devoted to war and to the preparation of military means and equipment. To this end were directed the wealth, the energies, the longings of the people.
A circumstance had occurred, the year previous to the consolidation of his dominions, which had greatly stimulated the ambition of Ranjit Singh to possess an army equal to any emergency. This was the arrival at ‘Jailor of two officers who had made their proofs under Napoleon, Generals Allard and Ventura. Ranjit Singh persuaded these officers to accept positions in his army not dissimilar to those which de Boigne and his coadjutors had held in the armies of Sindia. At a later period two other officers, who had undergone the same training, Generals Court and Avitabile, were added to the list. Possessing great capacity and experience, these officers succeeded very speedily in engrafting on the most promising raw material in Asia the discipline and the dexterity of the European soldier. Strong of body, active, intelligent, unfettered by the bonds of caste prejudice, full of courage and gifted with a wonderful stamina, accustomed to live on flesh or to dispense with it, the Sikh has the making of the finest soldier in the world. And it is not too much to affirm that the rank and file of the Sikh
army became, under the training of the skilled officers I have named, the finest rank and file in the world. They wanted but officers, from general to subaltern, to be invincible. These, happily for England, they had not.
An interview between Ranjit Singh and the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, at Rupar, on the Satlaj, in October 1831, seemed only to confirm the conditions of friendship between the two nations. There can be no doubt, however, but that Ranjit always regarded the advances of the aggressive foreigners with suspicion. Already had they thwarted his projects on Sirhind and Malwa, and he feared lest, fixed now on the banks of the Satlaj, at Firuzpur and Lodiana, they might interfere with the designs which he had already nurtured regarding Sindh. To bring his suspicions to a test he laid a claim, the year following the interview, to a paramount right over Shikarpur. But eventually he had to yield – and not only to yield, but to grant, unwillingly, the opening of the Satlaj to British traders. It was about this period that, glancing at a new English map of India with the political agent, Captain Wade, and noticing how many portions of it were encircled by the red line betokening the supremacy of England, he exclaimed with a sigh: “All will become red.”
It would be interesting to study the history of Ranjit Singh’s dealing with his powerful neighbours from this period to the hour of his death. He never trusted them. He saw the beginning of those trading aspirations which, by bestowing a power to interfere, had led to the absorption of Bengal and of the Northwest Provinces. Had he been younger, or had he felt within him the power to command, he would have resisted and fought. But, at his age – and he was old for his age – he feared to risk the empire he had made on a single battle. He preferred the impossible task of conciliating an aggressive race. He had not sufficiently realised the fact that a race which, from small beginnings, had succeeded in appropriating one-third of the
globe, can never be diverted by conciliation from its natural bent. He tried it, however, first when Sir Henry Fare, the Commander-in-Chief of the army in India, visited ‘Jailor in 1837, and, again, when the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, demanded, in 1838, permission to allow the English troops to traverse the Panjab in order to seat Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan. Unwillingly, most unwillingly, did Ranjit Singh yield to this demand. The idea that he was to be girt about by the armies of England chafed him. He entertained no doubt that the men who had overcome the Marathas in all their glory could easily conquer and retain the northern province which had always been the outer rampart of the Mughul empire. And then where would he be? With the English south of the Satlaj, the English north of the Indus, the English protecting Sindh, what chance of independence would remain for the Panjab? Still – he yielded. Again be tried conciliation: he became a party to the alliance against Dost Muhammad.
What he hoped cannot be doubted. He hoped, though he believed it not, that the resistance of the mountaineers might so weaken his aggressive allies that he would be left master of the situation – master to conquer Sindh, master to recover the cis-Satlaj districts – possibly to acquire more. Nor can it be questioned that had a few years of vigorous life yet been spared to him he would have used to the advantage of the Sikh nation the mishaps which overwhelmed the English army a little later.
It was not to be. Ranjit Singh lived only long enough to hear that the English had taken Kandahar. He died on the 27th June 1839, aged in years only fifty-nine, but older in physique by at least twelve or fifteen years.67
His eldest son, Kharak Singh, succeeded him. He was almost an imbecile. But his son, Nao Nihal Singh, had inherited much of the ability of his grandfather. He was a man who could rule as well as govern; who distrusted the Rajahs of Jamu, and who was resolved to be master. Everything seemed to favour him. Karak Singh, always ailing, showed every disposition still further to abridge his life by his excesses.68 In October 1840 it was clear that his days were numbered. On the 5th of the following month he died.
Nao Nihal Singh became ruler of the Panjab. But the accession of a prince so able, so resolute, so self-reliant, did not suit the views of the ambitious Rajahs of Jamu. Returning from performing the last rites at the funeral pyre of his father, Nao Nihal was passing under a covered archway with the eldest son of Gulab Singh by his side, when a portion of the structure fell, killed the son of Gulab Singh, and so severely injured the Rajah that he died that night. The day of his accession was the day of his death.69
Sher Singh, a reputed son of Ranjit’s, succeeded to the thus vacated throne. A voluptuary without talents, Sher Singh conciliated neither respect nor affection. Suddenly an unexpected rival appeared in the person of Chand Kaur, widow of Kharak Singh, and mother of the deceased Nao Nihal. Matters were further complicated by the opportune recollection that Rani Janda Kaur, a favourite wife of Ranjit Singh, had borne to him a son, named Dhulip, a few months before the conferences regarding the re-seating of Shah Shuja on the throne of Kabul had taken place!
For the moment, the sword decided the question. Sher
Singh, having gained over the Jamu Rajahs, marched on ‘Jailor, captured it, and caused himself to be proclaimed Maharaja. Mai Chand Kaur was treated at first with outward respect; but, after a time, she was placed under surveillance, then in confinement. In the course of time, her paramour, who had been allowed to share her fate, was seized, tortured, and put to death; and a little later, about a year after her overthrow, Mai Chand Kaur herself was, at the instigation of higher authority, beaten to death with slippers by her own slave girls!
Sher Singh had gained his throne by the army, and the army had become his master. From that moment, until it invaded British territory, the Sikh army never ceased to be master in the Panjab. No longer was it the willing instrument of a despotic but genial government. It had come to look upon itself as the representative body of the people, as the Khalsa itself, commissioned by the various tribes to take a leading part in public affairs. Distrustful of the English, the Sikh chiefs and soldiers yet behaved with singular loyalty to that people in the hour of their calamity in Afghanistan, and even aided them to force their way through the Khaibar. After the disaster had been retrieved, and the English army had returned to the south of the Satlaj, Lord Ellenborough, then Governor-General, expressed a desire that Sher Singh should visit the British camp at Firuzpur. But neither Sher Singh nor his Jamu advisers desired an interview which, they imagined, would be used to force from them new concessions. Advantage, then, was taken of a misunderstanding to postpone it indefinitely.
But events were marching too fast for the repose of the voluptuary who ruled the Panjab. The year following the return of the English from Kabul, he was deliberately murdered by his boon companion, Ajit Singh Sindhawala, a man whom he had recalled from exile. The assassin then murdered the son, Partab Singh; then the minister, chief of the Jamu Rajahs, Dhian Singh; and then proceeded to the citadel to proclaim a
new king. But, meanwhile, Hira Singh, son of the murdered Dhian Singh, had thrown himself on the army, and promised them rewards if they would avenge the death of their friend and his father. The issue was doubtful, because the Jami Rajahs were hated by the troops, and it is probable that if Ajit Singh and his confederates had been able to maintain their position in the citadel for three days, the army would have come round to them, and the days of the Jamu Rajahs would have been numbered. But, on the spur of the moment, the army responded to the call of Hira Singh; the citadel made a poor defence; Ajit Singh and his brother were killed; and the next day, Dhulip Singh, the only surviving son of the great Ranjit, was proclaimed Maharaja. Hira Singh was nominated his Vazir!
Be it remembered that the new Rajah was then in his fifth year, an irresponsible minor. His mother, Rani Janda Kaur, became, in virtue of his age and of her relationship to him, regent of the kingdom. Of this lady it is not necessary to say more than that, gifted with considerable talents, she had not been endowed with the faculty of rightly directing those talents. Nor had education supplied that which nature had denied. With all her abilities, she was, and remained to the end, a spirited, hot-tempered, intriguing woman, swayed always by her passions, and possessing a large capacity alike for love and for hate!
The Rani had, on her accession, an intuitive conviction of the necessity of crushing the ambition of the Jamie Rajahs. But she chose her instrument badly. Perhaps because there was no one else upon whom she could thoroughly depend, she selected her brother, Jowahir Singh. Jowahir Singh was a weak debauchee, without character and without influence. He made the attempt and failed. Scarcely had the failure been recognised than a new peril arose. Kashmira Singh and Peshora Singh, two princes who claimed relationship to Ranjit Singh by adoption, if not by blood, rose in revolt. Though the revolt collapsed, mainly through the imbecility of its two
leaders, it proved the beginning of many others. Noble after noble rose in rebellion, nor was the spirit of sedition satisfied until the rule of the Jamu Rajahs had been overthrown, and their leader, Hira Singh, been slain (21st December 1844).
To the government of the Jamu Rajahs succeeded an administration – if, by courtesy, it can be called such – of which Jowahir Singh, the brother, and Lal Singh, the lover, of the Rani, were the responsible heads. Of the first I have already spoken. Lal Singh was a man of greater ability and cunning. Of the Sikh nobles, he and another, Tej Singh, had been foremost in recognising the necessity of curbing the insolence of the army. There is reason to believe, indeed, that at this early period they had begun to nurture the idea that if they should fail to master those all-powerful soldiers, it would be wise policy to throw them on the bayonets of the British!
The first measure of the new confederates was to humble Gulab Singh, now become chief of the Jamu family. The army, which Hira. Singh had attempted to conciliate by a monthly increase of two and a half rupees to the pay of each common soldier, was further propitiated by a new increase of one-fifth of that sum. It was then ordered to march against Gad) Singh. That Rajah, one of the most astute men of his day, submitted without a struggle, scattered his rupees broadcast among the soldiers, and returned with them to Lahor, where, to save his life, he surrendered without a murmur a considerable portion of his ancestral domains. He was then permitted to return to Jamu.
Meanwhile, Jowahir Singh had been appointed to the fatal post of Vazir (14th May 1845). Shortly there followed a second rebellion of Peshora Singh, terminated very quickly by the surrender of that insignificant political personage. His very insignificance should have saved him. But Jowahir Singh no sooner had him in his power than he caused him to be put to death. The news of this outrage roused into action feelings
which had for some time been fomenting in the army. Long had the soldiers despised Jowahir Singh; the crime perpetrated on Peshora changed that feeling to hatred. At a solemn meeting of the Panchayats, or regimental councils, of the army, Jowahir Singh was sentenced to death. He was required, in consequence, to appear before the assembled Khalsa to answer for his misdeeds. Tremblingly he obeyed; but, to ensure, if possible, his safety, he placed beside him, in the howdah of his elephant, the boy Maharaja, Dhulip Singh. The troops, however, thoroughly in earnest, were not thus to be baulked of their prey. The Maharaja was made to descend and enter a tent. A party of soldiers then disposed of Jowahir Singh by a volley of musketry I
The army, thus become the arbiter of the fate of the rulers of the country, was now more than ever master. To men like Lal Singh, Tej Singh, and others who had a stake in the country, the situation had become intolerable. Earnest secret efforts were then made by these men to arouse in the ranks of the army a spirit of hostility to the English. They bore no grudge against that people; they wished them no ill-will; they rather hoped that the power which ruled India south of the Satlaj would rid them of those all-powerful Janissaries who, at a word, might sentence them and their families to death. By degrees they succeeded. The soldiers, roused to a determination to conquer India, selected as prime minister and as commander-in-chief Lid Singh and Tej Singh, the two nobles who had most openly declared in favour of the new aggression; and, on the 11th December 1845, tumultuously crossed the Satlaj some ‘ twelve miles below Firuzpur.
What sort of reception were the English prepared to give them? The Government of India had been neither blind nor indifferent to the anarchy which had prevailed in the Panjab since the day when Sher Singh refused the invitation of Lord Ellenborough. That nobleman, strong in his conviction that a
crisis was imminent, and might occur at any moment, had made every preparation in his power to meet it. He had established a new cantonment, the head-quarters of a division, at Ambala, in Sirhind, and had located there the troops who had previously occupied the far less commodious station of Karnal. He had directed the throwing-up of an intrenchment round the magazines and stores at Firuzpur. He had even contemplated more. It had been his intention to establish a fortified camp between Mudki and Jagraon, and he was only prevented from carrying out this project by his untimely recall.70 He did not the less commend the plan to his successor, Sir Henry Hardinge. But like every Governor-General who has landed in India, from the time of Clive downwards, Sir Henry Hardinge had quitted England with the most sincere and loudly-proclaimed resolution to maintain a policy of peace. It can easily be understood, then, that he was unwilling to inaugurate his assumption of power by sanctioning a line of policy which would most certainly have been denounced as menacing the independence of a free people. But Sir Henry had not been long in India before he recognised, as clearly as had Lord Ellenborough, the danger of the situation. Quietly and unostentatiously, then, he strengthened the force in the north-west; increased the number of native regiments at Firuzpur to seven; placed at the head of the brigade there the best officer in the Bengal army, General Littler; and brought up to support the frontier force every man who could be spared from the eastern, and even from the southern, portions of the empire. He did not mass the troops in the north-west on any particular spot, for such action on his part would have been liable to afford to the Sikhs the excuse they wanted; but he kept them handy, in readiness to move at the first signal.
On the 11th December, we have seen, the Sikhs gave that signal. They crossed the Satlaj twelve miles from Firuzpur,
and at once intrenched themselves on the south bank of the river. Their counsels were divided. Whilst many amongst the rank and file were eager to push on at once, and overwhelm the weak British force at Firuzpur, others, stimulated by Lai Singh and Tej Singh, who dreaded a victory of the Khalsa over the British, and whose main object was the destruction of the army which threatened them, were eager to push on, and have the glory of capturing or slaying a British Governor-General. Still, Firuzpur was so temptingly near, and was so weakly defended, its arsenal being three miles from the station, that it is probable the advocates for an attack on that place would have carried the day, but for the conduct of the British general commanding there, General Littler.
Littler was a very capable soldier, daring, resolute, and self-reliant. He had seven thousand men under his command; but of these, rather less than one thousand were Europeans. As soon as he heard that the Sikhs, in large force, were attempting the passage of the Satlaj, Littler at once summoned the commanding officers of regiments to his quarters, and asked their advice. Without one exception, they recommended throwing up intrenchments to fortify the station. Littler listened to them all, dismissed them without a word from himself, and learning the next morning that the Sikhs had crossed the river, and were intrenching themselves on its south bank, marched out and offered them battle!
This bold and judicious action had an excellent effect. If the Sikhs ever had any intention of attacking Firuzpur, the movement of Littler effectually dissipated it. They left, then, uninjured a position they might easily have carried, and the occupation of which by them would have effected incalculable damage to the British army, and prepared to carry out the design craftily instilled into them by their leaders.
Meanwhile the news of the passage of the Satlaj had reached the Governor-General, and the Commander-in-Chief in India,
Sir Hugh Gough. Instantly, from every station in the northwest, horse, foot, artillery were in motion. From the bill stations of the Himalayas there hurried down two European regiments. The divisions stationed at Ambala and at Wrath marched on one common point. The Lodiana force was concentrated at Bassian. On the 13th, Sir Hugh Gough, who bad started from Simlah, was with the Ambala troops at the town of Sirhind; on the same day, he opened out communications with Sir Henry Hardinge. On the 14th the army was formed into brigades and divisions. On the 15th, Gough’s division marched twenty-six miles to Lattala, and the day following thirty miles to Wadni, effecting on the way, at Bassian, a junction with the Governor-General and the Lodiana force.
Wadni belonged to the Sikhs, and the officer who held the place refused the British army supplies. He yielded, however, to force. The next day the army marched ten miles to Charak; and the following day, the 18th, twenty-one miles further, to Mudki. They had scarcely taken up their ground here, however, when they found themselves threatened by a detachment of the Sikh army.
It happened in this wise. The Sikh army, having crossed the Satlaj on the 11th, had remained for some days motionless. The influence of its leaders, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, caused them to waste those precious days. Intimidated by Littler’s bold challenge, they had spared Firuzpur. Their intelligence department being extremely defective, they had but imperfect news of the movements of the British army. A bold and sagacious enemy would have found it comparatively easy to destroy that army in detail. But boldness and sagacity were alike wanting in the councils of the Sikh leaders. At last, after they had rested six days idle on the south bank of the Satlaj, information upon which they could rely reached their camp (17th December) that the British army would certainly arrive at Mudki the following day. Here was an opportunity.
The Sikhs had thirty thousand men on the south bank: the English, of all arms – not including Littler’s force, which had not yet effected a junction with Gough – numbered eleven thousand: they would reach Mudki tired and unprepared: how easy then to surprise and overwhelm them! Such were the counsels of common sense. But the Sikh army, under the baneful influence of the leaders who were bent on its destruction, had no regard for such counsels. Instead of marching en masse to overwhelm the enemy, they were persuaded to detach only a brigade consisting of less than two thousand infantry, supported by twenty-two guns and eight or ten thousand cavalry.71
The British force had, I have said, just arrived at Mudki when the proximity of the enemy was reported to Sir Hugh Gough. Few men braver than the soldier who commanded the British army have ever lived; not one who was less of a strategist or a tactician. Of Clive, of John Adams, and of Wellesley it has been recorded that under the roar of cannon their mental energies redoubled, and that never was their vision so clear or their action so cool as when the battle raged furiously and doubtfully around them. Sir Hugh Gough possessed the opposite characteristic. Under the excitement of battle he forgot all his plans; he could only push forward. He chafed under the delay caused by the preliminary fire of his artillery; he burned with impatience to let his infantry get at the enemy. Such a disposition, less harmful against an Asiatic foe than any other, was dangerous when allowed to have its way against an enemy so formidable as the Sikhs. It would have been fatal had the opposing army been European.
Such was the leader to whom it was reported, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon (18th December), that the Sikhs were advancing. The men, tired after their march of twenty-one miles, were cooking their dinners. Instantly the bugle sounded; the half-cooked dinners were abandoned, the men turned out, the line of battle was formed, and the order to advance was given. The front line was formed of the three arms, the artillery being in the centre, flanked on both sides by infantry, and the infantry again by cavalry. Behind this line came the main body of the infantry in contiguous columns; and in rear of all a small reserve. After marching a mile and a half the advance came under the fire of Sikh guns in position. Still the British troops pressed on. A few minutes later and the enemy’s cavalry threaten both flanks of the British. To repel these Gough launches his own cavalry against them, and, under cover of their brilliant charge, deploys into line his infantry columns and sends them against the enemy. The enemy’s hope, at this crisis of the battle, was in their guns. What could their handful of infantry effect against the superior numbers of the British? Still they remained firm, opposing, with steady discipline, a continuous musketry fire to that of the enemy. All at once, however, their flanks were uncovered; their cavalry gave way! Even in that hour the troops of the Khalsa, were true to their renown. They retired, steadily, their faces to the foe, disputing every inch of ground. For five miles they fell back, still doggedly resisting, seizing every opportunity, every vantage ground72 to turn upon their pursuers. With nightfall only did the contest cease. Of their twenty-two guns the Sikhs
had lost seventeen; they had lost also the field of battle; but they at least had not lost their honour!
In this combat the English lost eight hundred and seventy-two men killed and wounded, amongst the former the famous Sir Robert Sale and General M’Caskill. How many of the Sikhs were slain can never be known. In all probability their casualties did not exceed those of their enemy.
That the victory of Mudki was not considered in the British camp to be very decisive was shown by the determination arrived at that evening to effect a junction with Littler before attempting anything further. Orders to that effect were accordingly transmitted to that officer. It was ascertained the next day that the main body of the Sikhs, consisting of twelve battalions of infantry, eighty guns, many of large calibre, and from ten to twelve thousand horsemen, or in all under thirty thousand men,73 were encamped in a deep horse-shoe form round the village of Firuzshahar. Before venturing to attack such a position it was necessary that the army should be reinforced.
That same day some reinforcements, the 29th Foot and the 1st Europeans, the 11th and 41st Native Infantry, and a small detachment of heavy guns, arrived in camp. The clay following, the Governor-General, Sir Henry Hardinge, notified to the Commander-in-Chief his willingness to serve under his orders as second in command. The offer was accepted. Sir Henry brought to the army a great accession of strength; for, in calm, cool, clear judgment on the field of battle he was surpassed by no one then in India.
The village of Firuzshahar is ten miles from Mudki, nearly midway between that place and Firuzpur. Early on the morning of the 21st December the army, led by Sir Hugh Gough, left its encamping-ground to effect a junction with Littler, who, on his part, quitted Firuzpur to march across country to meet it.
The junction was effected four miles from the Sikh position, about half-past one o’clock in the day. The skilful manner in which this manoeuvre was effected by Littler completely deceived the Sikh reserve which, under Tej Singh, had been set to watch Firuzpur, and severed it from the main army.
The junction having been effected, Gough marched on the enemy’s position. He found it, to use his own language, “a parallelogram of about a mile in length and half a mile in breadth, including within its area the strong village of Firuzshahar; the shorter sides looking towards the Satlaj and Mudki, and the longer towards Firuzpur and the open country.”
The dispositions for the attack were not completed till an hour before sunset. The left division was Littler’s, next to him was Wallace, then the whole force of artillery, with the exception of three troops of horse artillery, one on each flank and one in support, to be used as it might be wanted; on the right was Gilbert’s division. The division of Sir Harry Smith and the cavalry formed the reserve, a brigade of the cavalry being thrown forward in support of each wing. Sir H. Hardinge commanded the left wing, Sir H. Gough the right.
The order of the battle was as follows: Littler was to attack nearly the whole of the west face, that looking towards Firuzpur and the open country, Wallace the corner of the west and south face; Gilbert the rest of the south and as much of the east as he could manage. Littler came first under fire, just about, as I have said, an hour before sunset. To him the hardest work had been allotted, for on the west face the Sikhs had massed their best troops and their heaviest artillery. Boldly, however, did he advance, his troops in the highest spirits: so boldly, indeed, that the issue appeared certain to Littler. When he was within a hundred and fifty yards of the intrenchment, he gave the order to charge. Gallantly did the troops respond to this call, until, within a few yards of the enemy, the European regiment on the right of the line, crushed, apparently,
by the overwhelming fire from the intrenchment, halted, turned about, and fell back, accompanied by the native soldiers, who took their cue from them.74 Then, amongst many, undoubted panic set in. The cry of “India’s lost” was heard from one commanding officer as he tried in vain to rally his men. The left attack on the Khalsa had failed so signally that it could not be renewed.
It was not until Littler had been beaten back that General Wallace was able to bring the next division into fire. Sufficient time elapsed between the two attacks to allow a part of one of the native regiments belonging to Littler’s division, the 14th, to rally and join in the new attempt. Wallace was more successful than Littler. The European regiment in his division, the 9th, and one of the native regiments, the 26th Native Light Infantry, had been comrades in the Afghan campaign, and they now vied with each other in generous rivalry in the field. The two sides of the angle on which they directed their efforts were well manned and well defended. But nothing could withstand their ardour. They carried the position at the point of the bayonet, in the face of a fire which cost the 9th Regiment alone two hundred and seventy-three men in killed and wounded.
To Gilbert had been assigned the storming of the south and south-east faces of the intrenchment. He had two splendid European regiments, the 29th and the 1st Europeans – now the 101st Fusiliers – under his command, and native regiments worthy of being their comrades. With great gallantry, and suffering much loss, the division carried the two faces. They carried them, however, only to find that their work was but just beginning. Behind the guns they had captured were posted the unsubdued infantry of the enemy, and these poured forth a continuous galling fire of musketry upon the English now face to face
with them. To add to the horrors of the situation, one of the enemy’s magazines exploded under the feet of the 1st Europeans, blowing up many men and officers and rending the regiment in two. Undismayed, however, the gallant division pressed on, and drove back the foe. It was only on the approach of darkness that they retired, and took up a position about three hundred yards from the intrenchment, ready to advance again with the morning’s light.
The battle, then, was not yet won. On the right the Sikhs held their own, and the fire from their guns continued to pour death and havoc into the British ranks. To deal finally with them the reserve under Sir Harry Smith was ordered up; the 3rd Dragoons were at the same time launched upon a battery which kept up its deadly shower. The manner in which they carried out this order is thus described by an eye-witness:75 – “They charged, and carried the battery they were opposed to, – the leaders filling up the yawning trench with their own numbers, and those who followed crossing on a living bridge of their comrades. . . . But this was not all. Having put the artillerymen to death and silenced the battery, this gallant band faced the whole Khalsa army within the intrenchment, swept through their camp with loud huzzas over tents, ropes, pegs, guns, fires, and magazines, cutting down all who opposed their passage; and having traversed the enemy’s position from side to side, emerged among their friends with numbers thinned, indeed, but covered with imperishable glory.”
But the effect of this brilliant feat of arms was but temporary. Night fell before victory had been achieved. The Sikh infantry still offered a steady, and so far a successful, resistance to the British army. The position when darkness covered the field may thus be briefly summarised. On the extreme left Littler, repulsed, had fallen back on a small village directly west of the Sikh intrenchments. Two regiments of Wallace’s division, the
9th Foot and 26th Light Infantry, had, in the confusion of the battle, taken ground to the right, and were intermingled with those led by General Gilbert. Sir Harry Smith, whom we have seen brought up to finish the action, had penetrated to the very heart of the great parallelogram and had halted there ready to resist any attack. Gilbert’s division on the right, reinforced, as just stated, by the 9th Foot and 26th Light Infantry, and increased by stragglers from broken regiments, and Smith’s, were the only two left on the field of battle. But Gilbert was soon to find himself alone. Between two and three in the morning the enemy forced Smith to fall back, to evacuate the intrenchment, and to retreat on a village two miles to the south-east of Firuzshahar. Gilbert was thus left alone to face the enemy. But with Gilbert were Hardinge and Gough, and these three gallant soldiers had laboured indefatigably since nightfall to restore order among the stragglers and to encourage the troops. This at last accomplished, the men lay down to take some fitful repose.
Soon they were roused again to action. As the night was wearing away the Sikhs brought up their heavy guns and played them with deadly effect upon the British troops only three hundred yards distant. Sir Henry Hardinge, cool and ready, at once called upon the two regiments nearest him, the 80th and the 1st Europeans, to “see if they could not stop that gun.” The two regiments appealed to sprang at once with alacrity from the ground, dashed forward into the intrenchment, spiked the gun, and “returned again to their cold bivouac on the frosty ground.”76 They were not again disturbed.
Let us take a glance now at the Sikh camp. The brave, untutored warriors who defended it, led by generals who were betraying them, had, if they had only known it, won a victory. They had repulsed the British attack. They had driven back Littler, forced Smith to retire, compelled even
Gilbert to evacuate the position he had gained, and thrown the whole British army into disorder. What was more; they had still ten thousand men under Tej Singh, watching Firuzpur, who had not been engaged, and these could not fail to join them with the morning’s light. Had a guiding mind directed the movements of the Sikh army nothing could have saved the exhausted British. But the Sikhs, as we know, possessed no guiding mind. The honest men amongst them either did not recognise the advantage they had gained or were powerless in the presence of those who saw, in the attitude of Gilbert’s division, the certainty of a renewal of the attack on the morrow. To these divided counsels were added the fatal suggestions of the traitors who desired nothing less than the victory of the Khalsa. The result was stormy counsels, bitter words, plunder, desertion. All cohesion vanished; the morale, which alone could have insured victory, disappeared.
When the day broke, then, and the English line again advanced, it encountered no opposition. The Sikhs were driven out of the village of Firuzshahar.77 The British line, then changing front to its left on its centre, swept the camp, marched round two sides of the parallelogram, and emerged on the north-east of the plain.
The line then halted, and its two leaders, riding along its front, were received with cheers. Every man thought that the work was done, that the victory had been gained. But, suddenly, the scene changed. A dense cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. It approached nearer and nearer. From it there emerged the advance guard of a fresh army of Sikhs. It was the army of Tej Singh, marching from the leaguer of Firuzpur to recover the advantage which Lal Singh had thrown away!
Tej Singh had it in his power to recover that advantage.
The true and loyal men who had served under him had urged him to fall upon the English army at daybreak when they were entangled in the intrenchments. He might have done this. He would have done it had he been as loyal as the least of his followers. But Tej Singh had but one object – to see the Khalsa troops overcome and dispersed. He waited, then, till the army of Lal Singh had been put to flight, till the British had had time to re-form. He then skirmished with their line, and opened an artillery fire upon the British left. This fire evoked no response. The English had exhausted their ammunition; they “were unable to answer him with a single shot.”78 This fact, which would have inspired a true man with a determination to continue the contest, produced an opposite effect upon the traitor who commanded the Sikh forces. He suddenly ordered the firing to cease, and, turning his horse’s head, galloped as fast as he could towards the Satlaj. He did this at the moment when victory was in his grasp, for a portion of the British army was, at the moment, retiring upon Firuzpur79
Such was the battle of Firuzshahar – a battle gained after it had been lost, and then re-gained after its success had once more been imperilled – a battle which shook the edifice of British dominion in India to its very basis, which impressed our native soldiers with the conviction that the English were not invincible.
More, far more, than the Kabul disaster of 1841, did the battle of Firuzshahar give birth in the minds of the sipahis to the conviction that great numbers might prevail even over their foreign masters.
For, be it remembered, the numbers on both sides were not very disproportionate. The English army mustered over 16,000; the Sikhs, excluding Tej Singh, who was not near the battle-field, did not certainly exceed 30,000; and if the latter possessed a slight superiority in artillery and a strong position, these advantages were more than counterbalanced by the treason of their leaders, the want of unity in their counsels. It was these two circumstances alone that lost them the day.
The results of the battle have been so well described by the faithful and accurate author to whom I am so largely indebted80 that I cannot do better than record them in his own impressive language; “A battle had thus been won, and more than seventy pieces of artillery, and some conquered or confiscated territories, graced the success; but the victors had lost a seventh of their numbers,81 they were paralysed after their prodigious exertions and intense excitement, and the Sikhs were allowed to cross the Satlaj to prepare for fresh contests. The Sipahi mercenaries had for the first time met an equal antagonist with their own weapons – even ranks and the fire of artillery. They loudly complained of the inferiority of their cannon; they magnified banks two or three feet high into formidable ramparts, and exploding tumbrils and stores of powder became, in their imagination, designed and deadly mines. Nor was this feeling of respect and admiration confined to the Indians alone; the European soldiers partook of it.”
The moral effect of this hard-gained victory was seen in the demeanour of the cis-Satlaj feudatories. Whilst the beaten
army was allowed to cross the Satlaj leisurely, and then to re-cross again and construct a bridge-head to ensure freedom of passage, the cis-Satlaj feudatories kept as much as possible aloof from their new masters. The Rajah of Ladwa even joined the enemy, and subsequently burned a portion of the cantonment of Lodiana; and, generally, the demeanour of the petty princes was such as to indicate their conviction that the hour of independence was approaching.
The English army, meanwhile, gradually reinforced, had advanced to the Satlaj, and taken up a strong position on the left bank stretching from Firuzpur towards Hariki. Thence, whilst waiting for his heavy guns, Gough, on the 17th January 1846, despatched Sir H. Smith to capture Dharmkot, and to cover the march of the expected convoy of guns, ammunition, and treasure. Dharmkot having surrendered without bloodshed, and the progress of the convoy having been thus made more secure, Smith was ordered to proceed to the relief of Lodiana, threatened by a Sikh army under Ranjur Singh. On his march thither, Smith received information (21st January) that Ranjur Singh, with an army estimated at eight thousand irregular cavalry and nearly seventy guns,82 had the previous day occupied Badiwal, eight miles distant. Smith then concluded that by making a detour to the right, so as to leave his left flank three miles distant from the Sikh position, he would be able to effect a junction with the Lodiana brigade without molestation, and he attempted to give effect to this idea. As he approached Badiwal, however, it became clear to him that he would not be allowed to carry it out with impunity. Ranjur Singh moved from that place with the apparent intention of heading the English force. But as Smith, who wished to avoid a combat, inclined more and more to the right, the Sikhs pounced upon the English rear-guard, and captured nearly the whole of their baggage!
This misfortune, which gave heart to the malcontents all over India, which made Tej Singh and Lal Singh tremble with fear, and which drew the head of the Jamu family, Gulab Singh, to Lahor, to gain supremacy should the Sikhs be victorious, or to share in the spoil should they be beaten, was very soon avenged. On the 28th January, Smith – his army reinforced to a strength of eleven thousand men – marched to give the enemy battle. He found them, strengthened by the addition of four thousand infantry, their left resting on the little hamlet of Aliwal, their right on the village of Bundri. So little did they expect the English, that they had but just time to throw up banks of earth to protect their guns, when the battle commenced. Smith, seeing that Aliwal was the key of the position, sent his infantry against that hamlet. The Sikhs who defended it were hill-men, with no heart in the cause of the Khalsa. After firing a straggling volley, they gave way, and fled from the field, headed by the commander of the army, Ranjur Singh. Whilst this was going on on the left, the English cavalry, led by the 16th Lancers, made a magnificent charge on the Sikh right. There the Khalsa regiments behaved in a manner worthy of their renown. They knelt to receive the dashing charge of the Lancers and their Indian comrades; but, as these approached, they instinctively rose and delivered their fire. Beneath the charge that followed they did not yield, nor was it till they had been three times ridden over that they gave way. After the battle it was found that the ground was more thickly strewn with the bodies of the victorious horsemen than of the beaten infantry. An attempt made to rally behind Bundri was ineffective. The English pushed their advantage to the utmost, nor did they cease till they had forced the Sikhs to recross the Satlaj, and had captured more than fifty of their guns.
This victory changed the aspect of affairs. Whilst it raised the hopes of Lal Singh and of Tej Singh, it encouraged the astute Rajah of Jamu to open negotiations with the British.
Gulab Singh possessed at this time the reputation of being the most able and the most formidable of the Sikh aristocracy, and it was by no means displeasing to Sir Henry Hardinge to receive proposals of accommodation from one in so high a position. In reply, then, to Gulab Singh’s overtures, the Governor-General intimated that he would be prepared to acknowledge a Sikh sovereign in Lahor after the Sikh army should be disbanded.
Neither, however, had the Sikh army any intention of disbanding itself, nor did Guild) Singh, Lid Singh, or Tej Singh possess the power to force it to such a step. Its destruction then became a necessary preliminary to the carrying out of the plans of the Sikh rulers.
By degrees, by means of the bridge-head they had constructed, the Sikhs crossed over into the intrenchment they had formed on the left bank of the Satlaj. But alike in the construction of the intrenchment and in the means taken to fortify it there was evidence of the want of a guiding mind. Each regiment seemed to work for its own hand, and for that alone. Instead of being a position possessing defensive works regular in design, the intrenchment at &brawl presented the most glaring anomalies. Whilst on the left and centre, where the regular battalions were mainly posted, batteries and salient points had been constructed as high as the stature of a man, defended by ditches which an armed soldier could not leap without exertion, on the right flank the parapets were thrown up at intervals, and constructed in a very slipshod fashion. As some compensation, however, this flank derived support from a salient battery, and from heavy guns on the right bank of the river. Whilst the left and centre faces had fifty-seven pieces in battery, the right was protected only by two hundred zumburaks (falconets). A bridge of boats connected the intrenchment with a smaller camp on the right bank. It should be added that, owing to the carelessness of the English, the Sikhs had captured and continued to hold a post of observation almost within bail of the British pickets.
The strength of the Sikh army within the intrenchment on the left bank did not exceed twenty thousand men.83 They were commanded by Tej Singh. But, outside, higher up the river, Lai Singh disposed of a body of ten thousand horsemen.
The English had been forced to watch the gradual growth of these works, pending the arrival of the siege train and reserve ammunition for a hundred field guns. The first instalment of these reached the British head-quarters on the 7th and 8th of February. On the latter day joined also the brigades which had been detached for operations in the neighbourhood of Lodiana. On the 9th the plan of operations was decided upon, and it was determined to attack the enemy’s position the following morning.
The general plan of attack adopted by the British general was to force the right or weaker end of the intrenchment close to the point where it rested on the river, and thus take the guns on the outer face in reverse. To carry out this plan, he had resolved to prelude the attack by a fire from his heavy guns, then to launch his left, commanded by Sir Robert Dick, against the right; whilst his centre, Gilbert, and his right, Smith, should divert the attention of the enemy by a false attack; and his cavalry, Cureton, should occupy the attention of Lal Singh.
Before dawn the British columns were in motion. The morning was dark and foggy, favourable to a surprise. The advance guard, composed of the 62nd Foot, dashed upon the post near the British camp, and another in the village of Little Sobraon, only to find it unoccupied.84 Thus favoured alike by the fog and the carelessness of the enemy, the British pushed forward until, at a little before seven o’clock, they had been able unobserved to place their heavy guns in position. Exactly at seven o’clock these opened their fire, and, by a curious
coincidence, precisely at the same moment the fog lifted, and “the surprised Khalsa at once heard and saw that the avenger had come upon them.”85
Clamorously did the Sikh drums beat to arms; eagerly did the gallant defenders rush to their posts. Not for long had the British guns opened before an answering fire from the intrenchment proved to their army that they had all their work before them.
The cannonade had lasted two hours, and but little impression had been made on the intrenchment, when it was reported to Sir Hugh Gough that the ammunition of the heavy guns was “well nigh expended.” The gallant soldier, who had been fretting for the time to arrive when he could launch his infantry at the enemy, felt his heart bound with a secret joy as he gave the order to his left to advance and carry out the preconcerted programme.
Under a slackening fire from their own guns, formed in line, the first brigade of the British left, “in even order and with a light step,” advanced to the attack. It was composed of the 10th and 53rd Foot, the 43rd and 59th Native Infantry, was led by Brigadier Stacy, and was supported on the flanks by Horsford’s and Fordyce’s batteries and Lane’s troop of Horse Artillery. No mean authority, the late Sir Herbert Edwardes, himself an eye-witness, has pronounced this to have been “beyond all comparison, the finest attack of the campaign.” I cannot do better, then, than describe it in his own words. “The artillery,” he writes,86 “galloped up and delivered their fire within three hundred yards of the enemy’s batteries, and the infantry charged home with the bayonet, and carried the outworks without firing a single shot. As it was the finest attack, so also did it meet with the most determined hand-to-hand resistance which the Khalsa soldiers had yet opposed to
the British. Like lightning, the real plan of the attack seemed to flash on the minds of all the desperate men in that intrenchment; and, disregarding the distant feints of Gilbert’s and Smith’s divisions on their left and centre, they rushed to the right to repel the real danger that was upon them. In vain Stacy’s brigade tries to withstand the mass which every moment is growing denser; in vain Wilkinson’s brigade” – second brigade, left division – “comes up to the support; in vain Ashburnham’s reserve swells the furious tide of the assault.”
In one word, the attack so gallantly made was, for the moment, repulsed. The Sikhs, fighting with the same steadiness and resolution which they have since invariably displayed when fighting for the British, had, in an incredibly short space of time, turned their guns on the advancing enemy. When the combatants paused for breath the British found that the line of trench alone was all that they had gained.
Sir Hugh Gough had observed, with passionate excitement, the splendid advance of his left, then their sudden check. Divining that to gain such a result, the enemy had concentrated all their efforts on their right, he despatched orders to his right and centre to make of their feigned a real attack. Smith and Gilbert responded to the call and at once pushed forward. But before them were the strongest parts of the intrenchment, high and continuous ramparts, guarded by deep and broad ditches. The Sikhs, too, noticing their movement, rushed back tumultuously to the defence. Grape, round shot, and musketry, poured forth at a distance at which almost every shot was bound to tell, forced the assailants for a moment to recoil; only, however, for a moment. In spite of their enormous losses87 they re-formed and returned to the charge – this time under happier auspices; for the British left, taking advantage of the slackening of opposition to them caused by the rush of the
defenders to oppose the centre and right divisions, had again pushed forward, and had penetrated within the intrenchment sufficiently far to give a hand to the extreme left of the British centre. The tide of the fight was now turning against the defenders, and to make- its turn irrevocable, the traitor commander-in-chief, Tej Singh, instead of leading fresh men to sustain the failing strength of his right, fled across the bridge, and, either by accident or design, sank its centre boat.88 Thenceforward, steadily advancing, the assailants, though still gallantly opposed, carried one position after another, and, pushing on, pressed the defenders towards the banks of the, now to them, formidable river. But, fiercely assailed, the Khalsa warriors viewed with calmness the inevitable fate before them. “No Sikh offered to submit, no disciple of Govind asked for quarter. They everywhere showed a front to the victors, and stalked slowly and sullenly away, whilst many rushed singly forth to meet assured death by contending with a multitude. The victors looked with stolid wonderment upon the indomitable courage of the vanquished and forbore to strike when the helpless and dying frowned unavailing hatred. But the warlike rage or the calculating policy of the leaders had yet to be satisfied, and, standing with the slain heaped all around them, they urged troops of artillery almost in the waters of the Satlaj, to more thoroughly destroy the army which had so long scorned their power.”89 At half-past ten o’clock not a single Sikh soldier remained on the left bank of the Satlaj!
Such was the battle of Sobraon. Though in point of actual fact it terminated the Sikh invasion, and threw the fate of the Sikh nation into the hands of the British, Sobraon, as
a decisive battle, must be considered not by itself, but as the complement to and natural consequence of Firuzshahar. Of the two, the latter was really the decisive battle. There victory long hovered in the balance. There, victory for the Sikhs – a victory twice within their grasp – would have meant to the English the loss of India. When the Sikhs were beaten at Firuzshahar they had really lost the game. Thenceforth they had to get out of the difficulty the best way they could. They were persuaded by their treacherous leaders to make one more attempt at Sobraon. But there they never had a chance of victory. The overthrow at Firuzshahar still hampered them. Nor, even if the English had been repulsed, would the consequences have been so tremendous as would have been entailed by a defeat at Firuzshahar. That would have meant the destruction of the British army. A repulse from Sobraon, had it been possible, would still have left the British army in a position to renew the attack.
Rightly, then, must we regard Sobraon as the complement to Firuzshahar. The result of the latter really decided the question of empire!
There was no great disproportion between the numbers engaged at Sobraon. The fighting strength of the English engaged was about fifteen thousand; that of the Sikhs fell somewhat short of twenty thousand. But, whilst the English were led by a gallant soldier, with his whole heart in the cause, the worst enemy of the Sikh soldier was their general. It is beyond a doubt that he betrayed them. The English lost 820 killed and 2,088 wounded. The casualties of their beaten foe have been calculated from five to eight thousand; most of these happened after they had lost the battle.
The battle gained, the English army crossed the Satlaj, and on the 12th occupied the fort of Kasur within thirty miles of Lam.. The Sikh army had meanwhile retired, its spirit broken, to Amritsar. From this place they gave their assent, on a requisition
made by the Court, to the proposition that Gulab Singh, the Jamu chief, whose treachery had not been apparent to them, should have full powers to treat with the English on the admitted basis of recognising a Sikh Government in Lahor. Finally, after some negotiation, a treaty was concluded at Kasur on the following conditions: – (1) That the country between the Bias and the Satlaj, known as the Jalandhar Doab, comprising the districts Jalandhar, Hoshiapur, and Kangrah, with an area of eleven thousand four hundred and eight square miles, and a population of two million four hundred and seventy thousand souls,90 should be transferred to the conquerors; (2) that the Sikh Treasury should pay a million and a half sterling for the expenses of the war. It was soon found, however, that it would be impossible for the Sikh Treasury to find two-thirds of the sum agreed upon. A way, creditable to none of the parties concerned, was then found to meet the difficulty. In lieu of one million of the sum they had agreed to pay, the Sikh Darbar yielded the magnificent province of Kashmir, a country famed for the beauty of its scenery, the mildness of its climate, the industry of its inhabitants, to the British. The British, retaining only the suzerainty, sold the province to the chief of Jamu, Rajah Gulab Singh.
The reasons for this transaction have never been sufficiently explained. Sir Henry Hardinge declared that he required the money, and that he had not sufficient troops to occupy Kashmir. But a mountainous country like Kashmir, possessing a few strong passes, would have been easily garrisoned by a brigade. The fallacy of the reasoning is further proved by the fact that very shortly afterwards Sir H. Hardinge effected a considerable reduction in the native army, thus giving evidence that he had actually more troops thin he required. To a rich country like England the million of money was but a small compensation for the possession of the finest mountainous tract in the whole
world. Subsequent events have proved that the transaction was a blunder, politically and morally. Politically, because England thus gave away the opportunity of strengthening her frontier and of gaining a position which, in the event of an invasion, would be of incalculable value; morally, because the Governor-General had no right to sell a hard-working and industrious people to a chief alien in race and religion, and harsh and oppressive in nature.91
The treaty concluded, Lal Singh was rewarded for his treachery by being made Vazir, and a high position as the nominal head of the army was secured to Tej Sing. But these chiefs and those associated with them were still afraid of their broken and diminished army. Thinking only of themselves, not at all of their country or of the child Maharajah, in whose name they exercised authority, they pressed upon the British Government a policy of the kind which has ever proved, sooner or later, fatal to the native Government which has adopted it. They requested, and the request was granted, that a British force should remain at Lahor till the last day of December 1846. Before that day had arrived they had again requested, and the request was agreed to, that the British force should remain at Lahor till the Maharajah should attain the age of sixteen.
Further, and what was of far greater importance still, it was, on the motion of the Lahor Darbar, agreed at this period (16th December 1846) between the two Governments, that “a British officer, with an efficient establishment, shall be appointed by the Governor-General to remain at Lahor, which officer shall have full authority to direct and control all matters in every department of the State.”92 2nd. That a regency should be appointed of six selected Sikh nobles, chiefest of whom was
Tej Singh, and that “no change shall be made in the persons thus nominated, without the consent of the British Resident, acting under orders of the Governor-General.”93
This, then, was the result of Firuzshahar and Sobraon! The English Government assumed virtually the protectorate of the Panjab during the minority of the Maharajah Dhulip Singh; constituted that sovereign prince its ward; and, the better to ensure the proper government of his country and the due transmission to him of his power intact at the proper time, nominated as Controller of the native regency, “with full authority to direct and control all matters in every department of the State,” a British officer, having under him British assistants. In a word, by the agreement of the 16th December 1846, the English assumed the responsibility of the Government of the Panjab.
In the light of the events which followed, this is a very important consideration. It is necessary that the reader should bear it in mind when he comes to consider the causes and consequences of the second Sikh war.
It remains only to add that the officer to whom the Governor-General delegated the important trust set forth in the last paragraph but one, was Colonel, afterwards Sir Henry, Lawrence.
66. The boys were, on their arrival there, betrayed to the Muhammadans and put to death.
67. When Lord Auckland paid his return visit to Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh ruler, says Sir Henry Lawrence, had completely lost the power of speech. Before he died, the same year, the faculties of his mind gave way, and the powers of the State had been usurped by the Rajahs of Jamu.
68. Sir Henry Lawrence says he was the victim of a slow and subtle poison.
69. Captain Cunningham states: “It is not positively known that the rajahs of Jamu thus designed to remove Nao Nihal Singh; but it is difficult to acquit them of the crime, and it is certain they were capable of committing it.” Sir Henry Lawrence would appear to have been of the same opinion (vide Calcutta Review, vol. i. p. 479). Captain Gardner, who witnessed the accident, recorded his belief that it was premeditated.
70. I received this information from the late Earl of Ellenborough himself.
71. Vide Cunningham, p. 306. Captain Nicholson, who was at that time British agent at Firuzpur, estimated the detached force as considerably smaller. The numbers given in the official despatches (fourteen thousand to twenty thousand infantry and the same number of cavalry) are absurdly unreliable. Personal inquiries on the spot enable me to state that the numbers given in the text are correct.
72. In his article on this campaign in the Calcutta Review, vol. vi. pp. 263–4, Sir Herbert Edwardes involuntarily renders justice to the Sikh army at Mudki. Sir Herbert was then under the impression (1846) that the number of the Sikhs greatly exceeded the actual amount. He calculated the infantry at about four thousand five hundred, and the cavalry from twenty thousand to thirty thousand. Whilst, then, exalting the prowess of the British soldier, he renders perfect justice to the gallant stand made by less than two thousand men against four times as many.
73. Edwardes estimates them at thirty-five thousand with between eighty and ninety guns. – Calcutta Review, vol. vi. p. 271.
74. Sir John Littler’s despatch; Sir Herbert Edwardes in the Calcutta Review, vol. vi. p. 273–5. It was well known that the commanding officer of the regiment in question had given the order to retire.
75. Sir Herbert Edwardes, Calcutta Review, vol. vi. pp. 276–7.
77. There was no real opposition. It was “little more than the passive resistance of the wreck of a great army.” – Sir Herbert Edwardes, Calcutta Review, vol. vi. p. 279.
78. Sir Hugh Gough’s despatch.
79. Cunningham’s History of the Sikhs, pp. 308, 309, and notes. Sir Herbert Edwardes’ narrative bears out the view taken in the text so far as relates to the practical result of Tej Singh’s conduct. He says, after recording the facts: “To what the army of the Satlaj are indebted for this deliverance; whether to cowardice or treachery, or ignorance on the enemy’s part of the British numbers, or whether, after all, Tej Singh’s whole object was a chivalrous wish to cover his friend’s retreat – remains to be guessed and wondered at, but we fear not to be satisfactorily decided.” We may dismiss at once the last supposition, that regarding the “chivalrous wish,” for the British were not pursuing. Cowardice can scarcely have been seriously suggested; nor can ignorance of the English numbers be pleaded with better grace. There is only one possible solution, and that is the solution adopted in the text. The object of Tej Singh was to destroy the Khalsa army, and then to claim credit with the British for having destroyed it. He succeeded in both objects.
80. Cunningham’s History of the Sikhs.
81. They lost six hundred and ninety-four killed, seventeen hundred and twenty-one wounded, or a total of two thousand four hundred and fifteen.
82. Sir Herbert Edwardes.
83. Cunningham, p. 321. My own investigations confirm this calculation.
84. It was the bad practice of the Sikhs to occupy the place strongly during the day, and to abandon it at night.
85. Edwardes, Calcutta Review, vol. vi. p. 294. Vide also Cunningham, p. 825.
86. Calcutta Review, vol. vi. p. 294.
87. Gilbert’s division lost six hundred and eighty-five men, and Smith’s four hundred and eighty-nine, in about half-an-hour.
88. Cunningham, p. 327.
89. Cunningham, p. 328. This is confirmed by Edwardes, Calcutta Review vol. vi., pp. 295, 296. Gough writes in his despatch: “In their efforts to reach the right bank through the deepened water, they suffered from our horse artillery a terrible carnage.”
91. “The transaction,” writes the fearless and conscientious Cunningham (p. 832), “scarcely seems worthy of the British name and greatness.” His remarks in continuation are well worthy of perusal.
92. Agreement between the British Government and the Lahor Darbar, 16th December 1846, Art. II.
93. Agreement between the British Government and the Lahor Darbar, 16th December 1846, Art. V.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage