Saturday, January 21, 2012

February 10, 1846 – Sikhs Defeat British East India Company

The Sikh Empire had one of its greatest military triumphs and began its second imperial age with the defeat another great imperial force, Britain. Although Sikhs as a culture had begun some three centuries before in the Punjab region of India, it would not be until the fall of the Mughal in the mid-1700s that the Khalsa (Sikh army) was organized to support a confederacy of newly freed Sikh misls. Ranjit Singh rose to power from leader of one misl into uniting the Sikhs into an empire in 1801. He modernized the Khalsa, even including Western artillery and mercenaries, and expanded his control by conquest of Afghan territory as well as the kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir.

At about the same time, the British Empire through the East India Company worked to extend its control in the region. Afraid of Russian interference, the British fought the initially successful but later disastrous Anglo-Afghan War, which had been supported by Ranjit Singh. After the death of Ranjit in 1839, however, the Sikh Empire began to wane as centralized control dissipated. Many applauded the return to the ideal confederacy, but unrest was common. The Khalsa tripled in size to maintain order, even though they themselves were responsible for much of it, such as killing viziers who proved to be thieves or cowardly or holding a riot to find anyone who spoke Persian and executing them on grounds they might be corrupt administrators in charge of financing. The court, known as the Durbar, faced its own turmoil with intrigues and assassinations that caused the throne to change hands quickly between sons and regents until finally settling on eight-year-old Duleep Singh with his mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, in control of real power. Seeing the chaos just over the border in what British visitors described as a "dangerous military democracy", combined with the sudden and ultimately rebuffed Sikh invasion of Tibet in the Sino-Sikh War (1841-42), the East India Company built up military forces near the Punjab for protection of their holdings.

The British massing caused tension to build further with the Durbar disagreeing with both the Khalsa and the representatives from the East India Company working to keep trade free of the hang-ups of corruption. In December 1845, a British force made up largely from units of the legendary Bengal Army under Sir Hugh Gough began maneuvers to join units already stationed along the border at Ferozepur, and the Khalsa responded with their own armies led by the rajas Tej Singh and Lal Singh. The two generals meandered: Tej refused to attack an exposed British division at Ferozepur that became instrumental in the close British victory at the Battle of Ferozeshah, where he appeared late and withdrew upon misinterpreting the retreat of the British cavalry as a flanking maneuver. Lal, meanwhile, failed to reorganize his troops after a few British soldiers broke Sikh defenses. After the battle, both armies retired with the British exhausted and the Sikhs in disarray. In Lahore, the Sikh capital, Jind Kaur blamed the cowardice of officers rather than her commanders, even dismissively throwing garments in their faces.

Upon this insult, Khalsa tempers rose and became embodied the Sham Singh Attariwala, a hero who had served in the Sikh army since enlisting in 1817, whose daughter had married Nau Nihal Singh (the second in line for the throne after the death of Ranjit and died from wounds after a building fell), and who served on the council that observed the regency for Duleep Singh. He ordered corrupt prime minister Gulab Singh exiled and Jind Kaur placed under house arrest, naming himself regent for Duleep. Sham also began a purge of the lackluster command of the Sikh army, finding both Tej and Lal Singh, upper-caste Hindu Dogras rather than Sikh, not only futile but treacherous, having sold battle plans to the British. Both were executed, and Sham himself took command of the army, reinforced with troops from the western part of the empire. The British, themselves reinforced, attacked the pontoon bridge at Sobraon, trading artillery fire before Gough was told his cannons were low on ammunition and he replied, "Thank God! Then I'll be at them with the bayonet." The resulting attack, however, would prove a repeated failure to break through Sikh lines. When the British began to withdraw, the Sikhs counter-attacked and routed them.

The expedition would prove a disaster for the British, but it cemented the Khalsa in control of what would become known as Sikhistan to the West. Sham Singh Attariwala himself ruled until Duleep Singh came of age and ruled until his death in 1893. He westernized his country as per his tutelage under Sham and maintained it as the richest part of India, many historians believing due to the secular nature of the diverse country. Duleep traveled to Europe a number of times and was on good terms with Queen Victoria, creating a peaceful coexistence of the Sikhs alongside British India. India would not see independence from Britain until 1947, when it was divided into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The resulting Partition of India would be largely calm in the north as Khalsa watched over the borders, and the population of Sikhistan surged as refugees were taken in after escaping brutal clashes in the south.

Today Sikhistan is an economic leader in the region as well as its territory of the Punjab considered “the breadbasket of India.” While there have been some border altercations, the military strength of the Khalsa has maintained order in what otherwise could be an area of violent tension.


In reality, the Khalsa did not rise up. Sham Singh Attariwala appeared at the Battle of Sobraon, encouraging the army never to retreat again. Lal Singh supposedly sold information to the British, while Tej Singh fled the battlefield early, reportedly destroying the pontoon bridge behind him. The Sikhs fought to the last man, but ultimately the Sikh Empire was defeated. Although promised even marginal independence for over 150 years, the Sikhs have yet to find it.

1 comment:

  1. This is brilliant....only if, though, only could have truly been something beautiful.


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