Freedom And Frontiers

A.D. 1834 TO A.D. 1850

What was the cause which led England to refuse a continuance of its

charter to the East India Company?

It was the price of tea. Before this, all considerations as to whether

the Company had done its duty to India or not vanish into thin air. As

Mr Mill the historian says succinctly: "The administration of the

Government of India by the East India Company
as too exclusively a

matter of interest to India to excite much attention in England." But

with tea it was different. That was a question for every Englishman's

breakfast table. Hitherto China had been debarred from free trade, and

the price of tea was high; therefore monopoly was a bad thing for the

consumer of tea. Q.E.D.

So on the 22nd April 1834, India was thrown open to the world, and

though "John-Company" still ruled its destiny, it did so on a

different footing. For the rest, the story of the dispute concerning

territorial and commercial assets, the haggling over bargains between

the Court of Directors and Parliament, is not edifying, as may be

judged by the fact that the latter suggested the abolition of the

salt-monopoly, not from the slightest consideration for the taxed

native of India, but from a desire to secure a new market for


One of the first results of the new arrangement was an unseemly

struggle over the filling up of the Governor-Generalship made vacant

by Lord William Bentinck's retirement from ill-health. That the

appointment should have been bestowed on Sir Charles Metcalfe is

certain; he had served India well in many capacities. But parties

objected. Then Mr Mountstuart Elphinstone came into the running, also

Sir Henry Fane, Lord Heylesbury, Lord Glenelg, until at last a

perfectly colourless appointment was made in the person of Lord

Auckland, a most amiable and estimable nobleman, with no experience of

India. He arrived in Calcutta in 1836, the interregnum, during which

Sir Charles Metcalfe had carried on the work, having lasted for over a

year. He immediately started on judicial reform with the aid of a law

commission, of which Mr, afterwards Lord Macaulay, was president.

It was he who drafted the Indian Penal-Code, which, founded on

common-sense and the old Roman Law, remains to this day practically

unaltered, a standing challenge of concise clearness to the confused

medley of old precedent and new practice which so often does duty for

equity in England. While this work was in progress unexpected trouble

in Oude occurred. Nawab Nasir-ud-din-Hyder died suddenly, leaving no

children. It may be remarked that the constant occurrence of

heirlessness amongst the reigning families of India at this time

tells its tale all too clearly. There were two boys favoured by the

Queen-mother, whom the Nawab had once acknowledged, but had since

formally disavowed. He himself had no brothers, and the succession

therefore reverted to the heirs-male of Sa'adut-Ali, his grandfather.

Under British law the next-of-kin would have been the children of an

elder son; under Mahomedan law it was the younger but still living

son. Of this there can be no possible doubt. Looking back on Indian

history, though, as a rule, the failure of direct heirs-male brought

about a general free fight over the succession, a younger uncle has

always claimed above a cousin. Thus in Oude there were instantly three

claimants in the field. The Queen-mother's boy Mura-Jan, the younger

uncle Nasir-ud-daula, and Yamin-ud-daula, who claimed to be son of an

elder uncle, and was therefore a first cousin.

Naturally, the British supported Nasir-ud-daula. Legally, he was the

heir, though after a time another first-cousin-pretender, asserting

that he and he only was the rightful Nawab, actually travelled to

England in order to urge his title. Meanwhile, on the Nawab's sudden

death, old Nasir-ud-daula, the English nominee, had been dragged out

of bed, promptly conveyed to the palace, and left to take an hour or

two's sleep before the fatiguing ceremony of being installed on the

cushion of State.

This was the Queen-mother's opportunity. She nipped in from her

palace at Dilkusha with half the loose riffraff of the town (which in

Lucknow floats about aimlessly awaiting such an opportunity), seized

on the person of old Nasir-ud-daula-it is a wonder they did not murder

him--and promptly put Mura-Jan on the throne; he occupied it for about

one hour and forty-five minutes. Then the British troops having

returned and cleared a way with a few charges of grape, the coronation

of the poor, miserable, by this time nerve-collapsed old uncle went on

in due course!

Small wonder that he signed every obligation which he was asked to

sign. This does not, however, in any way exonerate those who, taking

undoubted advantage of the position, made him sign an unconditional

engagement of submissiveness.

Still, signed it was; and for a very distinct and palpable "good

consideration." Therefore its legality is beyond question.

The year 1836, however, brought up another political question for

decision. The Rajah of Sattarah, quite a small princeling, had given

trouble ever since the English had most unwisely rescued him from

poverty and imprisonment and placed him in power. His proceedings,

eventually, became so outrageous, that the Government deposed him, and

elevated his brother to the vacant throne.

This is mentioned because the incident is made use of as evidence for

the "annexation at any price policy" of the English. In this case, at

any rate, they did not err.

But now, over the horizon of a fairly peaceful India, its statesmen

saw, looming in the distance, the shadow of Russia, and all thought,

all energies, turned to the north-west frontier. Between it and the

territory already swayed by Calcutta lay the Sikh nation and the five

fruitful Doabas of the Punjab. Of these England knew little, save what

she had learnt from Megasthenes the Greek, and Arrian's Anabasis.

One or two courteous interviews had passed with Runjeet-Singh, the

Sikh king, but that was all. It was sufficient, however, to show him

able, a man not to be easily swayed. His life-history confirms this.

Left king at the age of twelve, with a profligate mother who for years

had carried on an intrigue with the chief Minister-of-State, and an

exceedingly ambitious mother-in-law, he managed to rid himself

speedily of their influence, and ere long take his position as

monarch of a far larger kingdom than he had inherited. His conquests

eastwards were, indeed, only checked by meeting with British-protected

states, and he kept an eye steadily on both Kabul and Kashmir. The

former he hoped to gain by using Shah-Sujah, the deposed Ameer, as a

stalking-horse; and as a bribe for help promised, but never given, he

succeeded in extorting from the latter the celebrated Koh-i-nur

diamond. The latter, and Peshawar, he wrested from the Afghans, with

the aid of two French officers who opportunely arrived on the scene.

So much for the Punjab. Below it, still on the western border, lay

Scinde, an independent state. Beyond it, Persia, with which England

already had relations. But what of Afghanistan? There Mr Elphinstone's

attempt to establish connection had ended with Shah-Sujah's flight.

It was determined, therefore, to attempt an embassy to Dost-Mahomed,

his usurping successor, and Sir Alexander Burnes was chosen as the


He was a man who had travelled all over Central Asia, who was in every

way qualified for his task. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he was too

well qualified for carrying out the simple commercial instructions

with which the English Government had tentatively, perhaps timidly,

entrusted him. But the discovery of Russian intrigues in full swing at

the Kabul court sent commerce to the right-about. Burnes was in the

thick of diplomacy without delay, and ere long formal questioning and

reply was going on between Russian and English ambassadors regarding

the former's influence on the Indian borderland, which elicited a

categorical denial of any ulterior object on the part of Russia.

But Dost-Mahomed for all that refused to accede to England's somewhat

impertinent request, that he should dismiss the Russian agent from his

court. And so began a quarrel which is barely settled to-day.

Sir Alexander Burnes left Kabul in dudgeon, and almost immediately

after his departure matters came to a crisis by the Persians--avowed

allies of Russia--besieging Herat. Now, Herat was considered by

diplomatists and the military alike the key of India, and in 1838,

after many pour parlers, manifestoes, and embroglios, the combined

armies of the tripartite alliance, that is to say, the British, the

Sikhs, and Shah-Sujah, marched on the Punjab to reinstate the latter

on his long-vacated throne in Kabul. In all the long history of India

no more unwarrantable invasion was ever undertaken, though half a

hundred good reasons were given for it at the time, and could be found

for its defence even now by those who fail to see that Dost-Mahomed

was, as Eastern potentates go, quite a decent ruler. There is but one

possible excuse. England chose her career deliberately, thinking not

at all of Afghanistan, but of Russia.

After a halt at Ferozepore, where the allies assembled and where

festivities were held, Runjeet-Singh, an old man now, blind of one

eye, desperately marked with smallpox, and inconceivably ugly, tripped

over a carpet, to the horror of his court (who considered it an evil

omen), and fell flat on his nose at the feet of a big English gun he

was examining; and where, also, Henry Havelock, one of the new school

of the Church-Militant, exclaimed in horror at "the ladies of a

British Governor-General 'watching' choral and dancing prostitutes"

(surely a somewhat over high-toned description of that deadliest of

dull and decorous entertainments, an Indian nautch). After all this

a fairly-triumphant march was made through Scinde (where the Ameer of

that country, after a distinct promise that no riverside forts should

be touched, was fairly diddled out of the one at Bukkhur, on the

shameless plea that it stood on an island), through Quetta to Kandahar

and Ghuzni (which made a good resistance); so to Kabul, which was

entered on the 7th August 1839, when Shah-Sujah ran about the passages

of the Bala-Hissar palace like a child, clapping his hands with

delight at finding himself back again after thirty years' absence.

So far good. But, meanwhile, Runjeet-Singh had died, and our rear was

endangered by the almost open enmity of his successor. Thus a

limited garrison, only, had to be left in Kabul; and in addition,

Dost-Mahomed's first flight had proved to be but a prelude to

desperate resistance. Still, armed occupation was held of the town of

Kabul, cantonments were built for the British regiments and sepoys

which formed the garrison, in which the troops passed the winter and

summer of 1841 in comfort. Then came disaster.

What caused the outbreak is a mystery. So far as one can judge, it

began in private revenge upon Sir Alexander Burnes. His house was the

first attacked on the 2nd November 1841 by a mob thirsting for blood

and plunder. He attempted to calm them by harangue. He offered large

sums for his own and his brother's escape, but they were both cut

down, every sepoy murdered, every man, woman, or child on the premises

brutally killed.

And here follows in petto an anticipation of what occurred some

fifteen years later, when a like massacre broke out at Meerut in 1857.

A general paralysis seems to have attacked those in authority. Here,

there, everywhere, in isolated posts, Englishman and sepoy fought

together and fell together bravely; but at headquarters decision

disappeared, and Brigadier Shelton finally settled, weakly, to hold

the cantonments, instead of retiring on the fortified and almost

impregnable Bala-Hissar, where there was a plentiful store of

provision. The mistake was fatal. Within a month a treaty had to be

signed which was practically unconditional surrender. Dost-Mahomed was

to be reinstated; Shah-Sujah allowed to follow his friends back to

India. "The terms secured," writes Sir William McNaghten, "were the

best obtainable." At any rate, at the time, it was hoped that they

would save the lives of some fifteen thousand human beings. But fate

was against it. Sir William McNaghten, failing in a side-intrigue

which, even had it succeeded, would have been barely possible with

honour, was foully murdered, and on the 6th of January about four

thousand five hundred fighting-men and twelve thousand camp followers,

men, women, and children, were driven out into the inclement winter

cold to find their way, as best they could, over peak and pass back to


The horrors of that terrible march will scarcely bear telling. Over

three thousand found freedom at once by being massacred, wantonly

massacred by mountain tribes in the first pass; the rest, without

food, without fuel, without tents, pressed on, fighting fiercely as

they forced their way eastwards.

It was on the 13th of January that the English garrison at Jellalabad,

looking out up the passes, saw one man swaying in his saddle, scarce

able to keep his seat, urging his jaded, outworn pony eastward, still


It was Dr Bryden, the only man who came through. But he brought the

welcome news that some women and children, and a few men, were

prisoners, and so far safe.

Naturally, there was no more question now as to the rights or wrongs

of war. These captives had to be rescued, and punishment meted out to

many murderers. Both objects were accomplished within the year, but

not by Lord Auckland; for Lord Ellenborough succeeded him at the time

of the Kabul disaster, when matters were at their worst. There was

some difficulty in finding a candidate for the throne. Shah-Sujah

himself had in the interval been shot through the head, and his son,

whom the mob of Kabul had first set up as a puppet-king and then

imprisoned, had no stomach for further sovereignty. A younger member

of the family was, however, eventually found willing to face

assassination for the sake of a doubtful crown.

His kingship, which only lasted till the British forces were

withdrawn, at least secured the preservation of the Bala-Hissar, which

otherwise, as a punishment to Kabul, would have been razed to the

ground; as it was, the Great Bazaar, a building entirely devoted to

commerce, was destroyed instead, possibly because Sir William

McNaghten's body had been exposed upon it.

Thus, in 1843, the first Afghan war came to an end with the absurd

incident of the Gates of Somnath. These were supposed to be still hung

at the entrance of Mahomed-the-Despoiler's tomb at Ghuzni. So, with an

odd mixture of sham Orientalism and latter-day romanticism, they were

taken down, carried back to India to form the subject of a most

marvellous effusion addressed to the chiefs and peoples of India,

which goes by the name of "Ellenborough's Song of Triumph," in which

these gates, "so long the memorial of your national humiliation," are

said to have "become the proudest record of your national glory!"

And after all, they were not the Gates of Somnath!

Almost immediately after this the relations with Scinde became

strained. The Ameer had, in truth, just cause of complaint in a breach

of treaty regarding the passage of troops across the Indus, and after

much discussion the sword became the only possible arbiter. So Sir

Charles Napier commenced the war which, conducted by consummate skill

throughout, ended virtually with the victory of Miani and the

annexation of Scinde.

It was towards the end of the next little war, this time with

Scindiah, that Lord Ellenborough was recalled, and Sir Henry Hardinge,

being sent to govern in his stead, found himself instantly plunged in

a war of far greater magnitude with the Sikhs, with whom, after the

death of old Runjeet-Singh, friendly relations had ceased. In truth,

the kingdom was in a state of tumult. The army, which consisted of

almost the whole nation (since every Sikh is by birth and faith a

fighter), realising that the whole power was virtually in its hands,

clamoured for new conquests. Dhuleep-Singh, the heir, was a minor; his

mother, nominally guardian, had no influence, and finally, forced by

circumstances, gave her consent to an invasion of British territory.

It was an unprovoked, and yet not altogether unwelcome assault, and it

met with instant and overpowering reply. On the 13th December 1845 the

Sikh army crossed the Sutlej in force, and on the very same day a

British proclamation was issued, formally declaring that all

possessions of Maharajah Dhuleep-Singh, on the British bank of the

river, were annexed. Swift battle followed. At Moodki on the 18th

December, on the 22nd at Ferozeshah, on the 20th January at Aliwal;

finally, the 10th February saw the last stand made at Sobraon, a

village which stood then on the eastern bank of the sliding river. It

stands now on the western, for the Sutlej has shifted.

Swift, and short, and sure, was the campaign, curiously enough leaving

little of rancour behind it amongst the tall, upstanding Sikhs. "You

were so much better than we were," said an old Sikh worthy, who had

gone through the four defeats, as he showed an infinitesimal slice of

his little finger tip; "just so much--no more! but you were better

led." And the keen old eyes ranged cheerfully over the wide wheat

plain, intersected by silver-shining streaks of sliding river, that

had once been the battle-field of Sobraon, and the old voice went on

exultingly over the tale of how he had knelt to receive the British

cavalry at Aliwal, and knelt on, through three consecutive charges,

until he had fallen unconscious amongst his dead comrades.

A treaty of peace was signed at Lahore twelve days after Sobraon,

which stipulated for the formal cession of the whole Cis-Sutlej

country and an indemnity of L1,500,000, L500,000 of which was to be

paid immediately, and the remaining L1,000,000 to be discharged by the

cession of Kashmir and Hazara.

This practically ended Lord Hardinge's Governor-Generalship, and late

in 1847 Lord Dalhousie took up the office.

The whole of the next year was taken up with a war in Scinde

which spread to the northern half of the Punjab beyond Lahore,

which--despite the cession of Hazara--still remained practically

unsubdued. After the taking of Multan and the defeat of Mulraj's

troops, Lord Gough marched northwards against Shere-Singh, defeated

him at Ramnuggar, fought an indecisive battle against him at

Chillianwala, and finally, on the 21st February 1849, at Gujerat,

completely annihilated the Sikh army, taking all their guns.

Resistance was thus at an end, and the Punjab as far as Peshawar was

coloured red in the map of India.

The proclamation of the Governor-General in announcing the fact is

worthy of quotation as a finish to the long history of English

dealings with Hindustan.

"The Government of India formerly declared that it decreed no further

conquest, and it proved by its acts the sincerity of its profession.

The Government of India has no desire for conquest now; but it is

bound in its duty to provide fully for its own security and to guard

the interests of those committed to its charge. To that end, and as

the only sure mode of protecting the state from the perpetual

recurrence of unprovoked and wasting wars, the Governor-General is

compelled to resolve upon the entire subjection of a people whom their

own Government has long been unable to control, and whom (as events

have now shown) no punishment can deter from violence, no act of

friendship can conciliate to peace."

The question arises, how much of this admirable effusion is strictly

true? In the case of the Punjab there can be no doubt that the Sikhs

began the struggle by wanton and unprovoked assault. But was this

always so? Certainly not always. Yet once begun, there was no

possibility of turning back in England's career of annexation. She had

put her hand to the plough, she was driving a Western furrow over the

uncultivated wilds of the East, and as she sowed and scattered seed,

the necessity for protecting the crop-scanty though it was at

first--arose immediate and insistent.

People say England has brought poverty to India. Perhaps she has.

Poverty is the handmaid of so-called civilisation. But she has also

brought peace--and population!