India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

A Plundered Land

Thanks to Lord Wellesley's determined policy, the dangerous power of the Mahrattas, which had long disturbed the peace of all India, was now broken. They gave us more trouble at a later period, but were then finally suppressed. We were now the greatest power in India, all the various States being under our direction or protection with the exception of the Punjab, where the Sikhs were becoming a very powerful race.

But now, unfortunately, the British Government and people at home, who had at first been dazzled by the splendour of Lord Wellesley's triumphs, suddenly got panic-stricken when Holkar defeated us in Rajputana. And although Lake conquered him in the end, it was thought that we had won possessions which were too big for us to defend. It was rather cowardly and very short-sighted. But Lord Wellesley was called home, and first old Lord Cornwallis, who was sent out again, and after him Sir George Barlow, set to work to undo all the great work of Lord Wellesley. They gave back territories to bad rulers, broke off alliances with others who depended on us, and refused any longer to protect the weaker States against their oppressors.

In fact, it was thought that we could get along better and make more money by acting a thoroughly selfish part. What happened was a disgrace to the British name. In the west the poor Rajputs, who had refused to help the Mahrattas against us, were left to be punished by this cruel race for their loyalty to us. In fact, the whole of Rajputana drifted into war and confusion.

A single story will show the sort of things that were happening. While the Mahrattas ravaged the country where they pleased, two of the Rajput chiefs were fighting and slaughtering one another's people because both wanted to marry the beautiful daughter of the Rana of Udaipur, and nearly every other chief took part in the struggle. The distracted Rana of Udaipur offered half of his territory to the British if only they would help him in his trouble. Clive, Warren Hastings, or Wellesley would have done so at once. But now he met with refusal, so he bought the aid of Ameer Khan, an Afghan adventurer, with an army of 30,000 men, the price being one-quarter of his dominions.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


The cruel Afghan at once ordered him to stop the fighting by the murder of his daughter, and when the brave girl was told of her fate she gladly consented to die as the best way of helping her father. Her brother was appointed to stab her, but the dagger fell from his trembling hand. Then they tried poison. She drank it three times, bidding her despairing mother to remember that it was always the duty of Rajput women to sacrifice themselves with gladness. Then she took opium and lay down, never to wake again.

It is a terrible story, and terrible it seemed to old Sagwunt Singh, chief of Karradur, who rode hard to Udaipur to protest against the tragedy if there were yet time. Flinging himself from his horse, he cried, "Does the princess live?" And then, when he heard the truth, he strode through the palace halls to the Rana, sitting sadly upon his throne. There he unbuckled his sword.

"My ancestors," he cried, his old voice trembling with indignant passion, "have served yours for thirty generations. To you, my king, I dare say nothing, but nevermore will sword of mine be drawn in your service." Then, flinging sword and shield at the feet of his ruler, he strode away.

The story shows there were noble men and noble women among the native people of India then as now. And it is sad to think we might have helped and did not. Nine years later, when our mad fit of selfishness had passed for ever under the strong rule of Lord Hastings, Rajputana, still eager to claim alliance and protection, found us not only willing to grant them, but ready to uphold our will against all comers.

It was indeed high time that we used the strong hand again, for all central India had been wasted with fire and sword by the Mahratta hordes and by swarms of mounted robbers called the Pindaris. Everywhere peaceful villages were burnt, the peasants murdered or horribly tortured, and women and children killed for the mere love of killing by these fiends, who were allowed to do what they liked so long as they did not come on to British territory. It was so wrong, said the British Government and people, to interfere with the liberty of others. So we looked on while all these horrors were taking place, and whole villages killed themselves to escape the tortures of these ferocious brigands. It showed plainly enough what would happen if England left the Indian people to themselves.

At last, after a series of weakling rulers, came Lord Hastings of the strong hand. One day the murderous Pindaris were gathered together in their mountains and jungles, gloating over their plunder and the killing which they had done. Suddenly, without a word of warning, they found themselves completely surrounded by the armies of Bengal and Madras. Then there was some killing of another sort, as the British and native soldiers closed in upon the robber gangs from every side. Thousands of them were slain and their bands broken up for ever. Then we tackled the Mahrattas once more and for the last time. There was stout fighting. The Peishwar, the Nagpore Raja, and Holkar were all in it. Scindia wisely gave in, but the others had to be well beaten, and they were before Lord Hastings had finished with them. To him alone belongs the credit of bringing peace and happiness to the people of all that unhappy part of India where Mahratta and Pindari had murdered and plundered for so long. For the British Parliament never meant him to do more than stop a few robberies on British ground, and not to fight battles.

No doubt one of the things which induced the Mahrattas to cross swords with us again was the difficulty we had been having in a war with the Gurkhas of Nepal, who, after conquering all the highlands overlooking Bengal, had begun to attack the lowland country under our rule. The war lasted two years and was a terribly difficult business, for our troops had to cut their way through dense forests, to drag cannon up enormous heights, and to make their way along narrow ledges overhanging precipices, or through deep and dangerous ravines.

At first we met with bad disasters, and the Mahrattas and Sikhs began to think that at last we had found somebody who could beat us. But then a clever old Scottish general, Ochterlony, went up to Nepal and at once changed the fortune of war. He took the Gurkha fortresses one by one, and when at last he was marching on their capital of Khatmandu the Gurkhas made peace. Since then these brave little men have always enlisted in our native army, and form some of its finest regiments. They have followed our flag on many a battlefield, and have taken part in many an heroic defence.