Amazing articles on just about every subject...


British History - India from the Napoleonic wars to the Mutiny

( Originally Published 1922 )



THE struggle with Napoleon, which in the days of his expedition to Egypt had threatened the British rule in India,' in its later stages gave to Britain the monopoly of power and trade throughout the East. In India itself the allies of France had fallen one by one, when Lord Wellesley destroyed ' Tippoo Sahib,' and curbed the Marathas. And in the next ten years the commercial war between England and Napoleonic Europe drove the French, Dutch and other European merchantmen off the India and China seas. The Cape, Mauritius and Ceylon fell permanently into our hands, and until the end of the war we held the Dutch Empire in the Eastern Archipelago.2

A new sense of the security of our rule in the East, together with the fulness of the Company's money chest, led to progressive improvement in the methods of the British Raj. The noble traditions of the Indian Civil Service were created by public servants like Sir Charles Metcalfe and the Scots sent out in such numbers by Dundas. Though still owing their original appointments to a system of personal favour and political patronage, they were already of a very different type from the parasites and adventurers through whom and against whom Clive and Warren Hastings so often had to work. In the first twenty years of the new century our administration already afforded, within its own area, security from the ravages of war, brigandage and the worst forms of domestic oppression. Local police and local courts were instituted, and a standard of fair taxation and just government was set up, such as had not been known in Indian States. The British were entering into the third period of their relations with the East. A hundred and fifty years of quiet trading had been followed by fifty years of conquest not unaccompanied by plunder. The third period, of organised rule for the benefit of the Indians, had now fully set in.

The new era was marked by a readjustment of the privileges and powers of the East India Company. It was still pre-served as the intermediary through which the British Cabinet Ministers preferred to govern, though its political power was a shadow. But the abolition in 1813 of its trading monopoly in India marked a big step in the direction of the new economic doctrine of open world competition, in place of the old conception of trade as a function of chartered and limited companies. Its trading monopoly in China was continued for another twenty years.

While inside the Company's territory reigned peace and justice novel to oriental States, beyond the border a dreadful anarchy had broken out through the whole of Central India. Though Lord Wellesley had curbed the Maratha power, it had not been finally broken, and his far-sighted plans for the permanent settlement of Central India by the system of ' subsidiary treaties ' had not been carried through. In the supposed interests of peace and economy his successors had refused any longer to interest themselves in the disputes of princes outside British territory. This well-meant but retrograde policy of declining the responsibilities, after we had assumed the position of paramount power, resulted in anarchy more complete than had been usual under the MoghuIs. The dread Pindaris, robber bands of mixed race and religion, some Afghans, some Marathas, rode devastating, torturing and burning throughout the territories of the Rajput chiefs and the Nizam of Hyderabad, who claimed our protection as of right. Finally the Pindari hordes threatened our own province of Behar. Sore against its will, the British Government was forced to take up the broken thread of Wellesley's policy, and to go forward until every State in the peninsula had a fixed place in the scheme of the Pax Britannica.

The resumption and fulfilment of Wellesley's policy were effected by Lord Hastings, Governor-General from 1813 to 1823. With the tall athletic figure of a soldier and aristocrat, he had long been known in home politics, under the name of Lord Moira, as a rather unaccountable politician, the friend at once of the Prince of Wales and of the Irish people. He was to prove a great pro-consul. His initial task was to reduce the Gurkhas of Nepal, who had invaded our territory, to the state of friendly alliance in which they have remained ever since. It was the first campaign of the British in the great hill ranges bounding the peninsula, and our contact with the short-set warriors and mountaineers of Nepal was the beginning of the mountain craft of our Indian Army, in which the Gurkhas themselves afterwards took so great a part when enlisted in our service. A portion of their western territory was made over to the British Empire, which henceforth marched with the Chinese along part of the Thibetan border.

Lord Hastings then turned to the problem of Central India. It was clear beforehand that to break up the Pindari bands they must be pursued at large across the territories of many princes, and that this pursuit would involve us in the graver task of finally destroying the independent power of the Maratha chiefs, some of whom were hand and glove with the Pindaris. But Hastings, with the concurrence from home of George Canning, then President of the Board of Control, entered boldly on the complicated series of military and diplomatic operations known as the Pindari war and the third Maratha war. He emerged triumphant, giving final peace to Central India on the basis of subsidiary alliances and the recognition by all Indian princes of British overlordship in foreign relations. Lord Hastings was able to treat the native States and rulers with a generosity that Warren Hastings and Wellesley had not always shown, partly because the position of the British Governor-General was far stronger and more secure than formerly, both at home and abroad.

Between the departure of Lord Wellesley and the coming of Lord Hastings, we had given a fair trial to the system of a limited and local responsibility for what happened in India. It had broken down. Unwillingly and half unwittingly we shouldered the inevitable burden laid upon us by fate, no less a task than to give unity to the heterogeneous races of the sub-continent through the medium of the British rule and the English language.

The policy of accepting all responsibilities as paramount power in the Peninsula, had involved us in the Maratha and Pindari wars and had achieved the settlement of Central India. The same principle involved us in the first Burmese war. The Burmese were in those days an aggressive military power that had never yet measured itself against an European army. They now occupied Assam, an outlying Indian State incapable of self-defence, and thence threatened and assailed British territory. Their reduction cost two years of difficult and expensive warfare, that led to our protectorate over Assam, and annexation of most of the sea-frontage of Burma. The rest of it was annexed by Lord Dalhousie after a second Burmese war in 1852, and Upper Burma, including Mandalay, in 1886.

In this way the guardianship of India led to the extension of our rule outside the Peninsula over a people of Thibeto-Chinese origin, differing from all the Indian races in habits and religion. This same guardianship over the external approaches to India was destined to involve us in relations with Persia, Afghanistan and Thibet. But in none of those countries could the problem be solved by annexation, as in Burma, where the people proved singularly adaptable to the British methods of government, where access by sea and river was easy, and where no Great Power lay beyond,.

After the first Burmese war, there followed ten years of peace before the advance began again on the western frontier. This interlude takes character and unity from the policy of Lord William Bentinck, who represented in India at a propitious moment the liberal and humanitarian spirit of the new age in Europe. He made no change of policy, but he brought into fuller light a doctrine implicit in the theory and practice of his predecessors, namely, that the object of our Government in India was to promote the welfare of the Indians.

Bentinck successfully abolished Suttee, the burning of Hindoo widows, in despite of prophecies that this piece of interference with religious custom would endanger the State. He himself was anxious as to the result, but he was supported by reformers of Indian birth, and the danger-point was safely passed. He also began the suppression of the Thugs, a caste of hereditary murderers who terrorised the roads. He promoted steam communications on the great rivers, and took many measures for the material prosperity of the millions committed to his care. He raised the status of officials of Indian birth, clearly perceiving that the British must train the Indians to the work of administration,

When in 1833 - 4 the monopoly of the China trade was abolished,1 the East India Company ceased to be a trading concern, and retained merely the shadow of political power of which the substance had long ago passed to the Ministers of the Crown. The new charter embodied the tendency of Bentinck's policy in the words: - ' No native of India, or any natural-born subject of His Majesty, shall be disabled from holding any place, office, or employment by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent or colour.'

It was partly in relation to this question of preparing the Indians to help administer their own country, that Bentinck approached the famous controversy which Macaulay's Education Minute decided. Macaulay was sent out in 1834 as the first Legal Member of Council under the new charter. He soon won the confidence and friendship of Bentinck. He drew up the Indian Penal Code, with lasting success. And he persuaded the Indian Government to adopt English instead of any oriental language as the medium of instruction in the scheme of State-aided higher education which Bentinck was pushing forward. The present position of India and the possibilities of its future have been deeply affected by this decision.

On the one hand the bringing up of orientais on an alien literature, largely devoted to the love of liberty in forms natural to an advanced Western democracy, has had many unhappy results. It has been said that ' we attempted to raise a race of administrators on the literature of revolt.' While another class of critic has pointed out that the contempt expressed in Macaulay's Minute for oriental learning was in large measure the result of ignorance and want of imaginative sympathy.

But it must be remembered on the other side that only the English language was capable of giving the races of India a common tongue for communication with each other and with the British. And it is arguable that, in spite of present dangers, the sense of Indian national unity which has resulted from this new lingua franca, may in the end subserve the political and administrative welfare of the peninsula. The revival of Indian science, philosophy and literature in our own day under such leaders as the Tagores is due in no small degree to their knowledge of the literature and science of Europe. The teaching of English has effected what we may, by historical analogy, call the ` renaissance ' of Indian thought. And it is at least possible that although the decision of 1835 has hastened the peculiar troubles of India as we now know them, it has prevented the growth of the worse trouble that must eventually have arisen from a deliberate policy of segregating the British and the Indians in water-tight compartments of thought and knowledge, so far as Government was able to do so, and endeavouring to prevent the spread of Western science and literature in a country governed by a progressive Western power. Such an attempt would largely have failed. Many natives were determined to obtain the educational key to Western learning, both for its own sake and because it was also necessarily the key to advancement in the Anglo-Indian world. Macaulay pointed out that already in 1835 ' we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanskrit students, while those who learn English are willing to pay us.' And Sir Charles Metcalfe in the same year, while foreseeing the unrest which Western learning would very likely cause in India, nevertheless declared ' It is our duty to extend knowledge whatever may be the result ; and spread it would, even if we impeded it.'

Undoubtedly the new Anglo-Indian education partook too much of the literary as distinct from the practical, but in 1835 scientific education scarcely existed in England, and it could not therefore be improvised in India at that date. But the decision in favour of the English language rendered possible the subsequent development of scientific teaching, and had been asked for on that express ground by the far-seeing Indian reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. It may have been an evil that ' the literature of revolt ' was put so lavishly into the hands of Indians, but if the wrong text-books were chosen, that was a mistake in administration under Bentinck's successors, and was not implicit in the original decision that English should become the common language of educated India.

In 1838 the interlude of peace came to an end, and the north-westward expansion of British India was resumed, at first in circumstances disastrous and discreditable beyond any precedent in Anglo-Indian history. Lord Melbourne had, in an evil hour, appointed Lord Auckland as Bentinck's successor.

By this time the sense that Russia would ere long be a dangerous neighbour was beginning to be felt in India, while in England the Whig Ministers, from among whom Auckland came, had grown more and more hostile to Russia. Palmerston as Foreign Secretary regarded Czar Nicholas, the op-pressor of Poland, as the embodiment of encroaching military despotism, opposed both in principle and interest to the world-power of Britain. This Palmerstonian doctrine, which eventually led the Whigs round from the anti-Turkish sympathies of Fox and Grey to the policy of the Crimea, increased the growing uneasiness in India.

It would have been well indeed to provide against the ultimate arrival of Russia on the scene by preparing before-hand close and friendly relations with the warlike Afghan tribes, who, wisely handled, were capable of making their widespread labyrinth of mountains the most impassable of `buffer' States between two great Empires. But Auckland determined to reduce Afghanistan to vassalage. He dethroned the able and popular Amir, Dost Mohammad, and attempted to rule the tribes through the agency of his rival, Shah Shuja. The policy at first met with apparent success, and for two years our troops occupied Kabul. Then the tribes rose on behalf of Dost Mohammad. The British forces, 15,000 strong including camp-followers, were destroyed in their retreat through the winter mountains. One survivor reached the fort at Jalalabad. This staggering defeat, followed as it necessarily was by the abandonment of the attempt to dethrone Dost Mohammad, shook our prestige and affected our relations with the Sikhs during the next half-dozen years, and with the Sepoys in the year of Mutiny.

The unsuccessful attack on Afghanistan was followed by the wars and annexations of Sinde and the Punjab, the two independent States of the river-plain then lying between the frontier of British India and the foot of the Afghan hills.

The Whig Ministers, the authors of the unfortunate attempt to dethrone Dost Mohammad, fell in 1841, and Peel's new Government sent out as Governor-General their able and headstrong colleague, Lord Ellenborough. After a campaign had taken place to rescue the prisoners and restore the honours of our arms, Ellenborough was fully prepared to withdraw from his predecessor's impossible undertakings in Afghanistan. But he himself carried through an equally aggressive though less impolitic interference with Sinde, which had come under British influence as a basis of recent operations against the Afghans. General Sir Charles Napier conquered the Amirs of Sinde at the battle of Meeanee, and then as administrator gave the advantages of British rule to their country. Its annexation he described in his Diary as ' a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality.'

The annexation of Sinde has often been stigmatised as the one case of unprovoked aggression in the expansion of British rule over India. No such bad eminence attaches to the con-quest of the Punjab, which completed the subjugation of the river lands of the nort-west.

Sikh dominion over the Punjab rested on the military qualities of the dominant sect. The Sikhs, who had but one caste, were a democratic religious brotherhood of what may, by analogy, be called ' Protestant ' Hindoos. They were embittered against Islam by an ancient history of revolt against the persecuting Moghuls of Delhi. For many years past the Sikhs had been guarding the gates of India, preventing the debouchment on to the plains of Mohammedan hill tribes, or of invaders from Central Asia. For the last half-century the barbaric craft and valour of Ranjit Singh had given unity to the Sikh State. He had had the wisdom to keep friends with the British, and the strength to hold in awe his turbulent vassals and legionaries. He had even joined with us for objects of his own in the Afghan adventure. His death in 1839, like the death of Oliver Cromwell, let loose an anarchy of fanatical regimental officers, intriguing against each other in rival committees. The great military machine, that only Ranjit had had the power to keep idle, began

'To eat into itself for lack
Of somebody to hew and hack.

To save the tottering State, Ranjit's widow launched the army across the Sutlej to meet the British, and slay or else be slain.

The two Sikh wars that followed were characterised by more severe fighting than any that the British and sepoys had formerly had to face. The European arms and training that Ranjit Singh had given to his stubborn religionists enabled them to contend on nearly equal terms with the Queen's and the Company's regiments. But once General Gough had broken the army, the Punjab was subdued with ease.

The Sikhs had begun the second war in revolt against a generous settlement granted them after their first reduction. They were punished by the annexation of the Punjab, decreed by Lord Dalhousie, who was just beginning his great period of office as Governor-General. The rule of the brothers Henry and John Lawrence in the Punjab prepared the loyalty of the Sikh nation against the unexpected trial of the Mutiny year, and created a tradition which went far to cancel any recent symptoms of weakness or violence in the British Raj.

The Governor-Generalship of Lord Dalhousie saw the completion of the internal and external framework of British India. The second Burmese war resulted in the annexation 1852 of Rangoon and the mouths of the Irrawady, where the new government became so popular that in the year of Mutiny it was safe to strip Burma of British troops.

Progress and Reform were the watchword of the hour in the British Eastern possessions. It was characteristic that in 1853 the Indian Government accepted wholesale Macaulay's proposals for the throwing open of the Indian Civil Service to free competition, thereby sacrificing the kind of patronage which British statesmen would not surrender as regards the Home Civil Service, save grudgingly and by stages during the next seventeen years.

Dalhousie, bold in his reforming zeal, disturbed the deep conservatism of the native mind. Railways and telegraphs, with which he covered India, were a terrible and suspected magic. But if they helped to cause the Mutiny they more certainly helped to quell it: the mutineers called the telegraph wire ' the string that strangled us.' Then again the evangelising zeal of some of the best Englishmen in India, lay as well as clerical, helped to alienate the Brahmans. Western influence was making itself increasingly felt in many different ways, and could not fail to cause alarm and reaction.

In taking thought for the welfare of the subjects of Native States, Dalhousie favoured a policy of gradual annexation. He laid down the rule that, in the case of a prince dying with-out natural heirs, his sovereign rights should ' lapse ' to the paramount power, so that the British Government could, for reasons of public policy, annex the State if it so wished, instead of allowing an adopted heir to succeed. In accordance with this ' doctrine of lapse,' as it was called, several Native States were added to the Company's territories, while Oudh was annexed simply on account of gross maladministration. It followed that Oudh, in the Upper Ganges valley, became the centre of Indian discontent. The mutiny, when it came, was localised round that region and confined to the Bengal army. Dalhousie's policy, strong and just if somewhat over-eager, had ensured the respect and loyalty of the great Native States of the centre and south, as well as of the sepoy armies of Bombay and Madras. And, thanks to Dalhousie and the Lawrences, the newly acquired North-Western frontier, where trouble might most naturally be expected from the lately conquered Sikhs and the lately victorious Afghans, became in the hour of need the chief source of strength and safety.

Dost Mohammad, whom we had so foolishly and vainly tried to keep off the throne of Afghanistan, had not unnaturally been our enemy during the Sikh wars. But in 1855 Dalhousie and John Lawrence made a treaty of friendship with him, and next year Dalhousie's successor, Lord Canning, protected him from attack by the Persians, who had been stirred up by Russia to occupy Herat in Western Afghanistan.

Canning sent an expedition to the Persian coast, captured Bushire and caused the evacuation of Herat. Grateful for this relief, Dost Mohammad, during the Mutiny in the ensuing summer, kept Afghanistan friendly for Britain, a fact of supreme importance.

Meanwhile, the Sikhs of the Punjab received at the hands of John and Henry Lawrence the kind of government that speedily reconciled them to British rule. The brothers, differing on a question of policy, agreed to send in their resignations on the same day, for Dalhousie's decision. He decided to leave John as sole Commissioner for the Punjab, and re-moved Henry, who when the Mutiny broke out was found at the storm centre of Lucknow as Chief Commissioner for Oudh. His predecessor there had been tactless, but owing to his better management the local magnates of Oudh did not throw in their lot with the military mutiny at the outset, when such a junction might have had terrible results.

The Mutiny, as its historic name implies, was a rising of soldiers, not a revolt of civilians. Nevertheless, there were social, racial and political causes for the soldiers' discontent. It was felt all over India that change and Westernisation were being pushed on too fast, but the feeling was strongest in recently annexed Oudh. The Bengal army was largely recruited in that region from among high-caste Brahmans and Rajputs, peculiarly sensitive to grievances, both general and personal.

In 1856 a new enactment that all sepoys who enlisted in future must be prepared to cross the sea if required, had aroused among them fresh fears of outrage on caste. At the same time the belief that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifle were being greased with the fat of the sacred cow and the abhorred pig, united Hindoo and. Mohammedan sepoys against us. Since the rumour was based on fact, due to an unfortunate oversight, the situation was scarcely improved by Government denial, though made in good faith. All Eastern armies are liable to become overbearing in peace time after a long course of conquest, and the Bengal army felt themselves to be the lords of India. Above all, in spite of Dalhousie's protests, the proportion of British to Indian troops in the peninsula was still as one to five, and most of the artillery was in the hands of sepoys.

The Mutiny of the Bengal army began at Meerut. Its, immediate occasion was a display of unwise severity by incompetent officers, who did not know how to quell the storm they had raised. Some of the mutineers made straight for Delhi, where there was not a single British regiment. Delhi fell into the hands of the movement, Lucknow all except the Residency, and Cawnpore after three weeks of gallant defence. It was in this Upper Ganges region that the issue was fought out and won during the summer of 1857, by the little band of British then actually in India, and by the Indian troops faithful to their cause. Their boast that 'alone we did it ' is substantially true, though there were many months of severe fighting after the arrival of reinforcements from England.

The old King of Delhi was dragged into the limelight and proclaimed Moghul Emperor by the mutineers, an act which gave a Mohammedan complexion to the movement in that region. It did not at once break up the union of Mussulman and Hindoo, on which the hopes of the Mutiny rested, but the news of it in the Punjab had the effect of throwing the wavering Sikhs heartily on to our side. They had no wish to see their old Mohammedan oppressors once more lording it over India, and were prepared to march to the storm of the Moghul capital.

Thenceforward the newly conquered Punjab instead of being a danger became the basis whence Delhi was reconquered. Nothing was to be feared from the Afghans under Dost Mohammad, and John Lawrence found himself free to send the already almost mythical Nicholson and his column to aid the little army that was clinging to the Ridge outside Delhi. Again and again the defenders of the Ridge had beaten back the assault of overwhelming numbers of mutineers issuing from the city gates. The arrival of Nicholson's small reinforcements with siege guns emboldened them to attack and capture the city with its myriads of armed fanatics. This amazing adventure began on September 14 with the blowing in of the Kashmir gate, and after six days' street fighting, in the course of which Nicholson was killed, Delhi remained in the hands of the British. It was the decisive moment of the Mutiny.

At Lucknow early in July Sir Henry Lawrence had been killed by a shell, but his work and influence survived to inspire the defence of the Residency, which he had organised and begun. In September, a few days after the capture of Delhi, Havelock and Neill, who had already reconquered Cawnpore and had now been joined by Outram, effected the first relief or rather reinforcement of Lucknow, fighting their way through the town into the Residency.

As yet no soldier had landed from England, but in November the troops from England under Sir Colin Campbell again relieved the Lucknow Residency after desperate street fighting, and enabled the garrison to evacuate that glorious ruin in safety. In March 1858 the city of Lucknow was finally captured by Sir Colin. The end was now in sight, but an unfortunate proclamation by the Governor-General threatening to forfeit lands in Oudh, threw the local magnates at length on to the side of rebellion, too late to affect the issue, but with the result of prolonging the strife.

Meanwhile, in the early months of 1858 Sir Hugh Rose, by his brilliant campaign crowned by the victory of Gwalior, stamped out the flame in Central India before it was able to spread to the South. If we had failed at Lucknow and Delhi it might have been different, but in fact Western, Eastern and Southern India remained loyal all Sinde, Punjab and Assam; most of Bengal; all Madras and Bombay; Rajputana under the guidance of George, the third of the Lawrence brothers ; the Native States of Mysore and Hyderabad, and the Maratha princes. Dalhousie's ' doctrine of lapse ' was abandoned after the Mutiny, and the Native States were thenceforth regarded as essential buttresses of the structure of British India.

It had been a mutiny of part of the sepoy army, not a racial rebellion. This makes it the more regrettable that the struggle had been so ferocious as to leave bitter memories. It was difficult to restore the sense of ` glad confident morning again,' in the relations of Englishmen and Indians. Nana Sahib, once the pet of London drawing-rooms, had, in circumstances of treachery almost as horrid as the cruelty itself, massacred the white women and children at Cawnpore. His crime had the effect he intended of giving to the conflict something of the nature of a war of colour. There were reprisals, though only against men. And a limit was set to revenge by the wisdom of ` clemency Canning.' Though heartily supported by John Lawrence, his humane policy lost the Governor-General much popularity with his enraged countrymen.

The Mutiny was followed by a long period of material improvement and quiet paternal government, with few wars or striking events of any sort. After this tranquillity has come our own era of change. The demand of Indians for self-government is the result in general of the world forces which are stirring the somnolent East, and in particular of the unifying and educating work of the British in India. The difficulties of the present era of transition have been enhanced by that streak of blood, and of suspicion sprung from blood, long running underground, which can be tracked to its source in the year of the Mutiny.

Some formal changes were made in 1858. The old East India Company rule, long obsolete in fact, was abolished in name. The Governor-General became the Queen's Viceroy. But in spite of their proud new title, the successors of Wellesley and Dalhousie have found the sphere of independent action reduced by the telegraph wire and the steamship. The government has become more and more a dual consulship of the Indian Secretary in London and the Viceroy at Calcutta. And improved communications have altered the conditions of life for all Anglo-Indians. They have been enabled to enjoy closer and more frequent connections with the homeland, and to become more and more self-sufficient as a white society, a change that has meant both gain and loss.

John Lawrence, Viceroy from i 864-9, remodelled the Indian Army. The Queen's and the former Company's troops were amalgamated. In accordance with the lessons of the Mutiny the artillery were made wholly European, and the proportion of European to Indian troops was fixed at not less than one to two. In 1868 the new Indian Army was employed oversea in Africa in the almost bloodless conquest of Abyssinia by Lord Napier of Magdala, owing to our quarrel with King Theodore. We have never since had a serious dispute with the Abyssinian State, a fact of some importance after we became its neighbours in the Sudan.

In 1876 Disraeli's policy procured for the Queen the title of Empress of India.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com