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
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!