This volume contains the story of the conquest of the several races of India by our countrymen. To this purpose are devoted eleven out of the twelve chapters of which it is composed. The remaining chapter, the first in order in the book, is the key to all others; for it records an event, but for the occurrence of which the battles which follow might have been indefinitely postponed. It was the victory of Paradis on the Adyar, over the army of the native ruler of the Karnatak, which inverted the position of the Europeans on the eastern coast and the children of the soil.
The battles which illustrate the story were all, in the truest sense of the term, decisive battles. It cannot be denied that some of them showed a small list of casualties, and, in many, the numbers on one side at all events were few. If I may judge from some criticisms which have appeared, this fact alone would be held to be sufficient to remove those battles from the category I claim for them. There are some critics who judge of the importance of a battle solely by the amount of the slaughter produced on both sides.
There is no need for me, I am certain, to point out to the intelligent reader that the criterion thus set forth is altogether a false one. The status of a battle can be decided only by its results. If those results prove decisive – decisive, that is, of the campaign, decisive as to the consequences, decisive as to the future permanent position of the combatants – then, though the casualties be ever so few, that battle is a decisive battle. Take, for example, the first battle described in this book, that between the French and the Karnatak troops at St. Thomé. The French numbered two hundred and thirty Europeans and seven hundred sipahis. Their loss did not exceed twenty men. Yet that battle changed the face of southern India. It made the European traders the masters, whose aid was eagerly sought for by the native princes who had previously despised them.
That battle brought the French and English face to face in the Karnatak. The contest took, almost at the outset, the form of a duel between two men, both men of consummate genius, Clive and Dupleix. The ability of Clive to carry out himself the conceptions of his teeming brain – an ability denied to his rival – gave him an advantage which turned the contest in his favour. That contest cannot be said to have been decided by the splendid defence of Arkat, for, a few weeks later, the French had re-occupied the province of which Arkat was the capital. But it was decided at Kaveripak, a battle passed over with singular neglect, relative to its importance, by such historians as Mill and Thornton, by a biographer such as Malcolm, and even by Macaulay. Yet it is not to be
questioned but that the victory of Kaveripak, promptly followed up, caused the surrender of the French army before Trichinapalli, and gave the British a preponderance which they never after entirely lost.
That battle, won by the daring, the coolness, the resolution of Clive, against numbers greatly superior, settled for the time the pretensions of the French in southern India. In Bengal, the intervention of the conqueror was called for a few years later, to avenge the cruelties inflicted by the native ruler upon his countrymen. Those cruelties were avenged at Plassey, one of the most decisive battles ever fought. Plassey gave the English a position in Bengal, Bihar, and Orisa, akin to that of overlord. The native ruler whom they appointed paid them homage, and agreed to undertake no foreign enterprise without their approval.
But other European nations had planted settlements in Bengal, and, after the capture of Chandranagar, the chief of these was the Dutch. That people, jealous of the advantages which Plassey had gained for the English, made a great effort to surprise and trip them up. But Clive, cool and ready, was too much for them, and the decisive battle of Biderra quenched for ever their aspirations.
Then came another, a very desperate and final struggle for the possession of the three provinces. The native troops, led by men with their hearts in the national cause, fought better than they had ever fought before. But again were the English, commanded by a warrior of the first class, the careful and daring John Adams, too much for them.
The battles of Katwa and Gheriah, and finally the decisive battle of Undwah Nala attested the superior discipline of the British soldier, the more skilful leading of his general.
Undwah Nala decided for ever the fate of the three provinces, and brought the English frontier to the Karmnasa. There it touched the territories of the vassals and tributaries of the Nuwab Vazir of Awadh (Oudh). The contact produced war – a war unsought by the British, who desired nothing so much as to consolidate the territories they had but just acquired – but a war caused solely by the desire of the Nuwab Vazir to aggrandise himself at their expense. After some fluctuations of fortune, the result of the hesitations of Carnac, that war was terminated by the brilliant victory gained by Munro at Baksar. Baksar advanced the English frontier to Allahabad, and even to detached positions beyond it.
The scene had shifted, even before this, to southern India. The French there had made a desperate effort to recover their fallen fortunes. Not only did the attempt fail, but, by a stroke of genius, Clive, through his lieutenants, wrested from them, by the victory of Kondur and the storming of Machhlipatanam, a province the importance of the possession of which could not be too highly estimated; for the manner in which that province was gained, more, even, than the actual gain, secured for the English an influence at Haidarabad which has ever since gone on increasing.
But the British hold on southern India was not yet secure. In the decay of the Mughul empire, an adventurer
of low birth, but of commanding talents, had usurped authority in the Hindu kingdom which had existed on the highland plateau overlooking the Karnatak towards the east and the sea coast towards the west. Having by degrees absorbed all the petty native states within his reach, and having measured his strength – not, on the whole, unequally – with the English, that adventurer determined at length to make a supreme effort to become the arbiter of India south of the Krishna. The war that ensued became, then, a war of life and death for the foreigners who had by degrees constituted themselves the protectors of the Karnatak. Never were the English in such danger. But for the obstinacy of one solitary Frenchman - the Chevalier D’Orves – they must have succumbed. Saved for the moment by that obstinacy, they were still forced to risk the fate of their dominion on the issue of a single battle. It was the hard-fought victory of Porto Novo which, giving the first check to the conquering career of Haidar Ali, secured for the English time to accumulate their resources, and eventually to baffle his aims. Those aims once baffled, the invader once forced to retire within the limits of his dominions, his entire subjugation became the object which no Governor of Madras could omit from his political Calculations. When, at last, the opportunity did offer, this object was achieved without much difficulty.
The overthrow of the Muhammadan dynasty in Maisur, made possible by Porto Novo, brought the English face to face with the Marathas. The aggressive action of those hardy warriors had, even in the time of Aurangzib, shaken
the Mughul empire to its very basis. After the death of that sovereign they, too, began to dream of universal dominion. Everything seemed to favour them. They gradually absorbed the larger part of western and central India, and made rapid strides towards the Jamna. Suddenly they met with an unexpected opponent in the shape of Ahmad Shah Durani, the leader of the Afghan invaders. The hotly-contested battle fought at Panipat (1763), gave the Marathas their first decisive check. Gradually, however, they recovered from that terrible overthrow, and, under the leadership of a very remarkable man who had fled from the field, not only re-conquered all they had lost, but gained infinitely more. Masters of the imperial cities of Dihli and Agra, of the north-western provinces as far as Aligarh, they at length beheld before them only two possible rivals – one of them, indeed, the Sikhs, almost too young to be seriously regarded as a rival – and the English, ruling from the mouths of the Ganges to Kanhpur, and possessors of Bombay and Madras. The inevitable contest with the more powerful of the two rivals, preceded by circumstances which not only deprived the Marathas of their great leader, but which paralysed one and forced to temporary inaction another of their four great confederacies, came at last. It was a fight for supremacy throughout India. For southern and western India the question was decided at Assaye; for northern India at Laswari. Though further lessons became necessary, no serious question of rivalry for empire between the British and the Marathas was possible after Laswari.
The victorious issue of the Maratha campaign extended the English frontier virtually to the Satlaj. For forty years the great sovereign who ruled beyond that river recognised, often sorely against his will, the policy of keeping on terms with his powerful neighbours. His death, and the anarchy which ensued in his kingdom, broke the spell. It is hard to say how Ranjit Singh, had he been then alive and in the prime of life, would have acted during the Kabul disasters of 1840–41. In a military point of view, he would have been master of the situation. Fortunately for the English, the Sikh chieftains were, at the critical time, occupied with intrigues for power; they had no guiding mind to direct them, and the occasion was allowed to pass. But, from the day of Ranjit’s death, the contest between the two nations had become inevitable. For four years before the invasion occurred warnings of its certain proximity had been incessant. The English had made such preparations to meet it as were possible without exciting the jealousy of a high-spirited people. When, at length, inspired by chiefs who only desired to ensure their own safety by the destruction of the Praetorians who threatened them, the Sikh army crossed the Satlaj, and the English hurried up their troops to meet them, the greatness of the danger was recognised. Two things alone, at this conjuncture, preserved India to the English. The first was the unaccountable halt of the invaders for several days on the south bank of the Satlaj; the second, the detachment of a few troops only instead of a whole army to Mudki. There was even then time to
repair mistakes. But the splendid valour which had all but won Firuzshahar on the first afternoon of the fight, was neutralised by the treachery of the Sikh leaders. The battle which might have been a victory became a defeat; a defeat which virtually decided the campaign, for Sobraon was but the complement of Firuzshahar.
The peace which followed was but a patched-up peace. The Sikh nobles had been gained over, but the Sikh people had not been subdued, and they knew it. Resolutely they bided their time, seized the first opportunity to rise, and fought their old enemy once more; this time, not for empire, but for independence. How the contest, undecided by Chilianwala, was brought to a final issue at Gujrat I have told at considerable, but I hope not unnecessary, length, in the last chapter.
It will be seen, then, that this book has for its aim to describe the steps by which the English, after subduing their European rivals, conquered, one after another, the several races which inhabit India; how Bengal, the provinces north of the Karmnasa, Maisur, the Maratha confederacies, the Panjab, received the blow which paralysed them. Sometimes the paralysed territories were swallowed up at once; sometimes they were left paralysed, to be swallowed on the first fitting opportunity. But there they were, harmless, impotent as far as rivalry was concerned; capable of making, indeed, a blow for defence, but never again striking for victory. Such was the state of the Bengal of Mir Jafar after Plassey; of the Bengal of Mir Kasim after Undwah Nala; of southern India north of the Krishna after Machhlipatanam; of the same region south
of that river after the peace which followed Porto Novo; of the Maratha confederacies after Assaye and Laswari; and, I may say, notwithstanding Chilianwala, of the Sikhs after Firuzshahar.
One word more regarding the method of the book. The reader will perceive that whilst each chapter describes the particular battle which gives it its name, it is linked informally, yet very really, to the chapter which precedes it. Further, that wherever it has seemed necessary – in the chapters, for instance, describing the battles of Plassey, of Baksar, of Porto Novo, to a certain extent of Assaye, and of Firuzshahar and Sobraon – I have given a sketch either of the previous history of the people, or of the family which gave political existence to the country they inhabited. This is especially the case with the chapters referring to Haidar Ali and the Sikhs.
In writing this book I have gone as far as possible to original documents, or to the writings, published and unpublished, of contemporaries. Thus, for the first chapter, that on St. Thomé, and for the third, that on Kondur and Machhlipatanam, I have relied on the memoirs of Dupleix and Moracin, with the correspondence attached to each (pièces justificatives), on Orme, on Colonel Stringer Lawrence’s memoirs; for the second chapter, relating to Plassey and the early history of Bengal, and for the fifth, Biderra,
I have consulted Stewart’s History of Bengal, Orme’s Military Transactions, the Siyar-ul-Muta’akherin, Caraccioli’s Life of Clive, Ive’s Voyage and Historical Narrative, Grose’s Voyage to the East Indies, Holwell’s Indian Tracts, and Broome’s History of the Bengal Army; for the sixth,
Undwah Nala, and for the seventh, Baksar, the Siyar-ul-Muta’akherin, Vansittart’s Narrative of Transactions in Bengal, the Asiatic Annual Register, Williams’s Bengal Native Infantry, Francklin’s Life of Shah Aulum, Verelst’s English Government in Bengal, Wheeler’s Early Records of British India, and Broome’s History of the Bengal Army; for the eighth chapter, Porto Novo, I have relied mainly on Wilks’s History of Southern India, on Transactions in India, on Mémoire de la dernière guerre, on Grant Duff’s History of the Marathas, and on information acquired during a residence of seven years in the Maisur country; for the ninth and tenth, Assaye and Laswari, I have depended on the despatches of the two Wellesleys, on Grant Duff’s history, on Thorn’s War in India, on the Annual Register, and on the Asiatic Annual Register. I am indebted likewise to the writer, whose name I have been unable to ascertain, of an article in the Calcutta Review, on the Duke of Wellington’s career in India, for many useful indications.
The eleventh chapter demands a more special notice. The portion relating to the rise of the Sikh nation is based upon Cunningham’s History of the Sikhs; the account of the battles on Cunningham’s history, on an article in the Calcutta Review (vol. vi.), by the late Sir Herbert Edwardes, on private letters, and on minute personal investigation. I dismiss the despatches of the day as utterly unreliable, abounding in exaggerations of all sorts; worthy, in that respect, to be classed with the bulletins of Napoleon. But Cunningham is a great authority. His history is a very remarkable one. Joseph Davey Cunningham belonged to
the corps fruitful of great men, the Bengal Engineers.1 His talents early attracted the attention of Lord Auckland, anxious to select a young officer to train for the work of a political agent on the Satlaj frontier; and, without any solicitation on his part, he was appointed assistant to Colonel Wade, then in charge of the British relations with the Panjab, and the chiefs of Afghanistan. Holding that office, Cunningham was present at the interview which took place, in 1838, between Lord Auckland and Ranjit Singh. In 1839 he accompanied Shahzadah Taimur and Colonel Wade to Peshawar, and he was with them when they forced the Khaibar pass and laid open the way to Kabul. In 1840 he was placed in administrative charge of the district of Lodiana; towards the end of that year, he, then under the orders of Mr., now Sir George, Clerk, the agent for the Governor-General, once more traversed the Panjab to Peshawar; during part of 1841 he was in magisterial charge of the Firuzpur district; and towards the close of that year he was, on the recommendation of Mr. Clerk, deputed to Thibet to see that the ambitious rajahs of Jamu surrendered certain territories which they had seized from the Chinese of Lhassa, and that the British trade with Ludakh was restored to its old footing. He returned in time to be present at the interview between Lord Ellenborough and the Sikh chiefs at Firuzpur (December 1842). Appointed subsequently personal assistant
to Mr. Clerk’s successor, Colonel Richmond, and then employed in important duties in the Bahawalpur territory, Cunningham, very studious by nature and greedy of knowledge, was able to acquire a fund of information regarding the Sikhs, unequalled at the time in India. It was by reason of this knowledge that, when the Sikh war broke out, Sir Charles Napier ordered him at once to join his army then occupying Sindh. For the same reason, Sir Hugh Gough, after Firuzshahar, summoned him to join his head-quarters; detached him to accompany Sir Harry Smith to Badiwal and Aliwal, and retained him near his person on the day of Sobraon.
Cunningham, then, had enjoyed peculiar opportunities of knowing the Sikhs. He had lived with them for eight years during a most important portion of their history. He had enjoyed intercourse, under every variety of circumstances, with all classes of men, and he had had free access to all the public records bearing on the affairs of the frontier. It had even been one of his duties to examine and report upon the military resources of the country, and, being essentially a worker, a man who, if he did a thing at all, could not help doing it thoroughly, he had devoted to the task all his energies and all his talents.
No one, then, was more competent than this honest and experienced officer to write a history of the Sikh people – a history which should tell the truth and the whole truth. Circumstances favoured the undertaking of such a task by Cunningham. As a reward for his services he had been appointed to the political agency of Bhopal in Central India. He found the life in that quiet part of the world
very different to the all-absorbing existence on the frontier. To employ the leisure hours forced upon him then he conceived the idea, as he knew he had the means, of writing a history of the Sikhs. This intention he communicated to superior authority, and he certainly believed that his plan was not disapproved of. The work appeared in 1849. Extremely well written, giving the fullest and the most accurate details of events, the book possessed one quality which, in the view of the Governor-General of the day, the Marquis of Dalhousie, rendered the publication of it a crime. It told the whole truth, the unpalatable truth, regarding the first Sikh war: it exposed the real strength of the Sikh army; the conduct of, and the negotiations with, the Sikh chiefs.
The book, if unnoticed by high authority, would have injured no one. The Panjab had been annexed, or was in the process of annexation, when it appeared. But a despotic Government cannot endure truths which seem to reflect on the justice of its policy. Looking at the policy of annexation from the basis of Cunningham’s book, that policy was undoubtedly unjust. Cunningham’s book would be widely read, and would influence the general verdict. Now, Lord Dalhousie was not only a despot, but a despot who hated the expression of free opinion and of free thought; he would be served only by men who would think as he bade them think. That an officer holding a high political office should write a book which, by the facts disclosed in it, reflected, however indirectly, on his policy, was not to be endured. With one stroke of the pen, then, he removed Cunningham from his appointment at Bhopal.
Cunningham, stunned by the blow, entirely unexpected, died of a broken heart!
Lord Dalhousie could crush Cunningham, but he could not crush his work. The truths given to the world by this conscientious and faithful historian will for ever be the basis upon which a history of the Sikh war, worthy of the name of history, will be written. In my chapter on Firuzshahar and Sobraon, then, I have adopted the view which Cunningham put forward, and which my own subsequent investigations absolutely confirmed. The conclusions arrived at regarding the Sikh leaders obtain a strong support, moreover, from the fact that, after the war, the men who received the largest rewards, and the greatest share of the British confidence, were Lal Singh and Tej Singh, the two leaders who, nominally at the head of the war party, had betrayed their followers!
With respect to the actual fighting, I have consulted, I repeat, and to a great extent followed, the narrative of the campaign written by Sir Herbert Edwardes in 1846, in the Calcutta Review. The article has since been republished with the name of the author attached to it.2
I have relied on the same authority (Edwardes’s Year on the Panjab Frontier) for the true story of the events which preceded, and which immediately followed, the rebellion of Mulraj in 1848. The campaign which ensued was described and criticised at the time by one who took a part in it – the late Sir Henry Durand. A cool, able, and impartial critic, favouring no one and blaming where blame was deserved, Durand has left a record which it is impossible to ignore.
The article, which appeared in the Calcutta Review for June 1851, and which has since been republished with the name of the author attached (Selections from the Calcutta Review), must be consulted and studied by everyone who would wish to understand events as they actually happened. Indeed, Durand’s article bears the relation to the second Sikh war which Cunningham’s book bears to the first. One remarkable fact in connection with it is that both articles were written by Engineers, and both were written at Bhopal. Durand succeeded Cunningham as political agent at that place! The fact that Durand’s article was unsigned, and that it criticised only military manoeuvres, saved him from any open expression of the wrath of the Saturn who had devoured his predecessor!
The military despatches of the second Panjab campaign are as unreliable and as worthless as those of the first. They were denounced at the time, in the most uncompromising manner, by the Indian press. Some other contemporary memoirs are not much better. But I have studied very carefully, for the purposes of this as I did for the purposes of the first Sikh campaign, the letters of officers written at the time. I have likewise made considerable use of a little work written on the campaign, some five years ago, by an officer formerly in the 24th Foot, Captain Lawrence-Archer,3 and which appears to me to be a model of the style in which such a work should be written.
It remains now to add that these decisive battles have during the past twelvemonth appeared as articles in the
pages of the Army and Navy Magazine; that the actual fighting details of one of them, Plassey, occur in my Life of Lord Clive. In the same work appears also a description of the battle of Kaveripak; but, in this volume, many details have been added to it. The other battles have been compiled and written expressly for this series.
I have found it difficult to obtain reliable plans of the earlier battles. I have given, therefore, but three, relating to those not of the least importance – Plassey, Chilianwala, and Gujrat. To supply, as far as possible, the omission, I have arranged that the map accompanying the book shall contain the name of every important place mentioned in its pages.
1. The names of the first-class men, whom I have known personally, rise at once to the recollection; men, for instance, like Lord Napier of Magdala, Sir Henry Durand, Baird Smith, George Chesney; but the list is too long, for other names remain.
2. Selections from the Calcutta Review. Calcutta : Thos. S. Smith.
3. Commentaries on the Panjab Campaign of 1848–49. London : W. H. Allen & Co.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage