The British Empire

The empire increased in size from over 2 million square miles to some 12 million square miles  during the Victorian era and this was done largely through the use of war or the threat of war. After territories had been conquered through the use of violence then the violence did not stop there for often there was resistance which had to be put down, often the result of rulers realising what were the realities of signing treaties with the British. Even after resistance had been put down and a native people had been taught that there was little hope of success in resisting, the violence continued either directly or indirectly.

It is the case that all empires are brought about and sustained by the use and threat of violence, and dealing with resistance is expensive. In an age of free trade and few direct taxes, war was an expensive option for the British government. To keep the cost of war down the British resorted to a number of policies. Where possible they tried to appease local settlers by granting self rule but where this was not desirable and there was more likelihood of resistance they used local militia or local natives in the army.

For much of the c19th communications between the Colonial Office or the War Office and far away colonies was difficult so that decisions were often made by the men on the ground - the local Governor appointed by the Colonial Office or the Commander-in-Chief of the local forces. Consequently many of the wars of conquest were the result of decisions made by the men on the spot with London being told afterwards and having to defend a decision made for them. Sometimes there would be fierce opposition within parliament as a result of decisions taken by far away officials as when Parliament condemned the attack on Canton in 1857 and Cobden's motion of censure was won but usually decisions made by Governors and generals were accepted.

Introduction on the ‘Wars of Empire’

Sind 1843

In 1843 Sind was a large independent territory to the west of British India. It was ruled by two amirs who had allowed the British to use Sind as a base for British troops during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. Following Afghanistan the British established a number of forts along the route to Quetta. An increasing British presence was criticised in Sind and to quell any attempt to get rid of the British, Governor General  Ellenborough sent General Napier to negotiate an agreement to allow the British to stay. Napier was a bible thumping evangelist who believed it was his duty to rid Sind of its evil rulers. He persuaded the amirs to sign a treaty that abolished duties on Indus river traffic , agreed to the HEIC being the only arbiter over disputes between the amirs, and also to the handing over of a sizeable piece of territory. Napier was still not satisfied and in February 1843 invaded Sind with a force of 3,000 men. At the Battle of Miani, Napier won a one sided contest with the traditional British tactics of artillery and bayonets. On 20 February in Hyderabad, Napier announced the deposition of the amirs and the annexation of their lands. Prime Minister Peel who had forbidden any annexation was not pleased and having survived a motion of censure in the Commons dismissed Ellenborough.

Sikh Wars, Punjab, 1845-1849

The Punjab was a largely flat area extending from the north east of the Himalayas to the confluence of the Indus and Sutlej rivers in the south east. The people living there were a mix of Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Hindus and the dominant group, Sikhs. Under the leadership of Ranjt Singh the Sikhs dominated the area with a large efficient standing army of 70,000 men. With the addition of irregular cavalry the army could be expanded to 85,000 men. In 1839 Ranjit Singh died leaving a power vacuum which his sons were unable to fill. Eventually an army council supported Maharani Jindan as the leader and she ruled supreme for a time although the country was bankrupt. Eventually infighting between Jindan and the army led to the possibility of a war against the British as a way of discrediting the army. Reports of trouble inside the Punjab led the  British Governor of India, Henry Hardinge to move 30,000 troops to the border with the Punjab.

1st Sikh War, 1845-46

When Hardinge learned that the Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej in force, he declared. war. The Sikhs had 50,000 men whilst the British forces in the region were scattered and the main force, 10,000 men under Gough was still several days march away. Gough was to meet an advance force of 10,000 Sikhs at Mudki and used horse artillery to force a Sikh withdrawal but with heavy losses. After three days rest Gough resumed his march towards the main force of Sikhs at Ferozpur. At Ferozeshah, Gough found his way blocked by a force of 13,000 men with more artillery than he had. Hardinge forced him to wait for the arrival of Littler's division and once they had arrived they attacked.  A heavy Sikh artillery  bombardment led to confusion among the British camp, but Gough only knew the tactic of attack. Eventually after much hand to hand fighting  the Sikh defences were breached. The next day saw the arrival of the bulk of the Sikh army. It seemed a hopeless position for the British who were outnumbered and tired. Squares of soldiers were formed but the Sikh artillery got the better of them and it seemed the situation was hopeless until the 3rd Light Dragoons charged a larger force of Sikh cavalry. The Sikh riders turned and fled and soon the whole Sikh army followed. Their leader, Tej, believed that his men could not have removed the British from their defensive positions but he would never get a better opportunity to defeat the British.

With more reinforcements arriving from Meerut, Gough was able to advance towards the main Sikh bridgehead  at Sobraon which lay in front of the river Sutlej and consisted of men on both banks of the river, all well entrenched. The Sikh forces numbered 35,000 with 100 guns whilst Gough's men stood at about 15,000 with 80 guns. On 10 February 1846, The British forces were able  to drive Tej's men into the river and into a smaller and smaller space. No quarter was given as the Sikhs lost  67 guns and 10,000 men with the river blood red. The Sikh army had been destroyed. A strict peace was imposed on the Sikhs - they were forced to give up land in the east, restrict the size of their army, accept a British force in Lahore and agree not to make war without the agreement of the British. A British resident was appointed to keep the Regency Council in line - he was Colonel Lawrence, the eldest of the famous Lawrence brothers.

The treaty imposed on the Sikhs included a war indemnity but when it was found impossible to pay the British agreed to the granting of Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh for half of the war indemnity. So it  was that a Muslim dominated province was given to a Hindu ruler.

2nd Sikh War, 1849

The treaty ending the first war brought more and more resentment against the British who took a greater and greater role in the government of the country. By the end of 1847 there was insurrection throughout the north (much of it from demobilised soldiers) and Gough again had to defeat the Sikh forces. At the Battle of Chilianwalla the Sikh forces were defeated but more through the valour of the British soldier than the tactical awareness of Gough. The Sikh army under Sher Singh was still intact though and swelled to over 50,000 with support from Afghans. Gough had 25,000 troops and 96 guns which were used very effectively to deal with Sikh attacks in the crucial Battle of Sadiwal. For the first time the British had artillery superiority and a series of defeats had left Sher Singh's forces denuded of the best regiments.

On 29 March 1849 in the throne room of Lahore Fort, Dalip Singh was forced to abdicate and surrender the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, one of the largest diamonds ever found. Dalhousie later admitted that he had decided as early as September 1848 to annex the Punjab although he had never got the agreement of the British government for his actions.


Read part 2

2nd Sikh War

Punjab - the land of the five rivers

Top: The Empire in 1868

Below: General Napier in Sind

Lord Hardinge, Governor General of India, who declared war against the Sikhs on 13 December, 1845 citing a breach in the 1809 Anglo-Punjabi Treaty.

The Kohinoor diamond