British Annexation of the Punjab
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The demand was backed by the presence of a considerable British force on the Gwalior frontier. The British ultimatum was ignored, the British army crossed the border, and in two fiercely fought engagements at Maharajpur .and Puniar the Rani's forces were shattered. The government was placed in the hands of a Council of Regency appointed by the British and practically directed by the British Resident, until the young Sindhia should come of age. The native army was reduced.from forty thousand to nine thousand men, and the British contingent, that is to say the sepoy force under British officers, was increased to ten thousand.
The result of a single-combat between Gwalior and the British was never doubtful. The real danger lay in the north-west; the real value of the Maharajpur campaign lay in the removal of a great hostile force posted upon our flank and capable of co-operating very effectively with the Sikhs of the Punjab. Had the Sikhs attacked first while the Gwalior army was in full strength the latter would have been able to fall upon the British communications, enclose the British army, and threaten the rear of the British advance; and in that case complete disaster might have been the result. Speculations on such points, however, are somewhat vain. Lord Ellenborough's methods created so much uneasiness that he was recalled to make way for Sir Henry Hardinge, who had won his spurs in the Peninsula War and was not without administrative experience; and had the Gwalior army still been dangerous he would undoubtedly have taken adequate military precautions.
Hardinge was never in doubt about the menace from the Punjab. Ranjit Singh died in 1839, and the Lahore state, as the Punjab was also called, was now without any strong central government. The old Maharajah's chieftainship had been a kind of military despotism based upon an army and upon institutions of a very exceptional type. The Sikhs had been primarily a religious brotherhood, a sort of reformed sect of Hindus who had abjured many of the peculiar institutions of Hinduism, notably that of caste. Of diverse races at first, they had become by exclusive association for some three centuries a special breed with marked characteristics of their own.
The brotherhood, subjected to a fierce persecution, had organised itself into an army under the name of the Khalsa, and, though forming only a small percentage of the population, it had in the latter years of the eighteenth century dominated the Punjab. The Sikh army was the one great organisation'in India which could be called democratic in its structure; but, besides the Khalsa proper, the great chiefs or sirdars could, like medieval barons, bring large numbers of their own retainers into the field.
Working upon this basis and helped by European officers, Ranjit Singh had moulded the Khalsa into an army probably the best disciplined and the most powerful, at least in comparison with its numbers, ever controlled by an Indian monarch. Ranjit's death left the Khalsa completely master of the country; or would have done so if the army had realised its own strength and had possessed a directing head. It was hot long in realising its strength, but it still lacked a head. The new Maharajah was a boy, and the reins of power were grasped by his mother, the Rani Jindan, whom Henry Lawrence described as the Messalina of the Punjab. After a series of intrigues and assassinations the Rani seemed to have established herself and her paramour Lai Singh at the head of the government (it may be remarked that every Sikh bore the name of Singh), but not without extreme jealousy on the part of many of the sirdars; while the sirdars and the Rani alike felt that the really dominant power was the Khalsa.
The Sikhs invade the Punjab
The Khalsa knew its own military strength long before it awoke to its political power. It had proved itself decisively the master of every foe with whom it had fought. Even in Ranjit's day it would have hailed with joy a proposal to challenge the power of the British, but that astute monarch was alive to the vast reserves of force which lay behind the British Government in India. But there was no one now who could dominate the Khalsa, and both the Rani and the sirdars perceived possibilities of great gain to themselves if it should hurl itself against the white men. If it were beaten its power would be broken, and every man dreamed that then his own private ambitions might find an opportunity of realisation. If it were victorious the Sikhs would become the masters of India, and every Sikh would have his chance. So the army was egged on to challenge fate. Early in December 1845 the news reached Sir Henry Hardinge that the Sikhs had crossed the river Sutlej, the border-line of the Punjab state.
Ever since his arrival in India the Governor-General had been preparing for this emergency as rapidly as was possible without dangerous ostentation. Troops had been concentrated in the north-west provinces and in the outposts which guarded the Sikh frontier. Two converging columns were promptly on the march to effect a junction with the garrison of the advanced post at Firozpur. They met the advancing Sikhs at Mudki, and after hot fighting drove them off the field. Two days later the advance towards Firozpur was renewed, but the way was blocked by a great Sikh army which had entrenched itself at Firozshah.
Hardinge takes command
The attack was delayed till the afternoon in order that the British might be reinforced by a column which was on its way from Firozpur. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, would have attacked at once, but Hardinge considered the risk too great, and used the power which he possessed to assume the supreme command himself. A furious contest raged long after darkness had fallen, but the Sikhs held their entrenchments and the British passed a night of intense anxiety, resolved to renew the attack on the morrow, but in actual doubt whether they might not be themselves overwhelmed and annihilated. The morning brought relief, when the British troops rushed the entrenchments to find that the Sikhs had already withdrawn under cover of darkness.
The British invade Punjab
The Sikh invasion was broken; it was now the turn of the British to invade the Punjab. Two months were passed in preparations for forcing the passage of the Sutlej, during which there were two sharp engagements at Bulowal and Aliwal. Then came the decisive battle at Sobraon, where the Sikhs held the passage of the Sutlej. Only after desperate fighting their entrenchments were carried, and the Sikh army was driven over or into the river, after which there was no further possibility of resistance.
The British marched to Lahore, bent not on annexation but on establishing an efficient government. A Council of Regency was appointed; Henry Lawrence was left as Resident with very large powers of control over the administration, which in various frontier districts was delegated to subordinate British officers; a large part of the Sikh army was disbanded; and at the earnest request of the sirdars a considerable British force remained in the country. This was to be withdrawn at the end of the year; when once more, at the request of the sirdars, the troops were allowed to remain and the administration was virtually placed in the hands of Lawrence, under whose powerful and sympathetic rule it seemed probable that the country would soon settle down in peaceable and orderly fashion.
Very different was the actual event. At the end of 1847 all seemed to promise well. Hardinge, now a Viscount, left India in January, believing that there were no serious troubles in store. With him went the great administrator of the Punjab. Within four months a flame had been kindled which soon blazed into a general insurrection, necessitating another sanguinary campaign which ended with the annexation of the Punjab and its final absorption into the direct British dominion.
The Multan Revolt
Lawrence's successor at Lahore was an experienced and capable official but of no exceptional power. Hardinge's successor in the Governor-Generalship, Lord Dalhousie, was a man of very exceptional abilities, but his capacities were still unknown. The veterans of the Khalsa were sore at their overthrow, which they still attributed not to British superiority but to the treachery of their own leaders. The minds of the sirdars were divided; they resented any other ascendency than their own, but they distrusted each other; they were not sure of themselves; but even though the British had remained in the Punjab at their own request they suspected them of intending to establish themselves permanently. Thus when insurrection broke out it was not a national movement, but it was in danger of at once becoming so unless the British ascendency were forthwith asserted vigorously and decisively. It began as a local revolt at Multan. The governor, Mulraj, resigned. His resignation was accepted by the official Sikh government at Lahore, and two British officers were sent to Multan to take over the administration until the new governor should be appointed. The troops in Multan rose, murdered the officers, and proclaimed a revolt against the British dominion.
Technically there was no British dominion. The government was the Sikh government, acting temporarily under the advice and with the support of the British Resident and some British, that is to say Sepoy, regiments. The British Government therefore called upon the Sikh government to suppress the revolt. A young frontier officer, Herbert Edwardes, hearing that British officers at Multan were in danger, but not that they had been murdered, at once marched to their rescue from the Derajat, the hill-frontier, with a force mainly of the hillmen, who, throughout, showed an admirable devotion to their British officers, the more so as they had no love for their Sikh masters. He acted on his own responsibility. He had already routed the insurgents arid driven them into Multan, when he was joined by the troops of the Lahore government under the command of Sher Singh. It was, however, obvious that those troops could not be trusted, and a British column was presently despatched from Lahore to take part in the siege. Dalhousie accepted the view of his commander-in-chief, Lord Gough, that it would be worse than useless to send a small expeditionary force into the Punjab, since it would be superfluous if the insurrection did not become general, and would be annihilated if it did.
The Siege of Rassul
The result was that the insurrection did become general. The British column from Lahore had hardly joined Edwardes before Multan when Sher Singh withdrew with his whole force from the' siege and began to gather all the old members of the Khalsa to his standard. Some six weeks later, Gough, with the army of invasion which he had been organising, was in the Upper Punjab seeking to force'a decisive battle upon Sher Singh. At the crossing of the river Chenab a sharp skirmish and a sharp engagement took place at Ramnagar and at Sadulapur; but. Sher Singh made good his retreat and entrenched himself at Rassul on the river Jhelum. The Sikh army, established in an entrenched position, was not to be attacked hastily. Presently, however, Gough advanced, and found the enemy, always behind entrenchments, at Chillianwalla, where there was a furious engagement with very heavy losses on both sides, and the Sikhs were again able to retire to their position at Rassul, though they left the British masters of the field of battle. Rassul was impregnable, and Gough could only hold Sher Singh under watch.
A month later Sher Singh, who had received considerable reinforcements, suddenly slipped out of Rassul. But in the meanwhile Multan had fallen, and the British column was on its way to join the commander-in-chief. A week after htsv march Gough brought Sher Singh to battle at Gujerat, where the Sikh army was decisively and finally shattered. The Sikhs accepted the situation; this time they knew that they had had a stand-up fight with the British and had been soundly beaten without any treachery on the part of their own leaders. Perhaps there was hardly any one except Henry Lawrence himself who was not satisfied that the annexation of the Punjab was now the only course possible. It was the course adopted by Dalhousie, who regarded the new province with an especial favour which it speedily repaid.