India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

How the Punjab was Painted Red

Ranjeet Singh, the "Lion of Lahore," had a face marked by small-pox, one eye with a roguish twinkle, and a mouth with a very decided look of rascality about it. Although he pretended to be very religious, he rather resembled Herod, King of the Jews, and cut off heads, hands, and feet without mercy.

He was one day shown a map of India. "What do all those red patches mean?" he asked. On being told that they were English territory he flung the map away, saying with a frown, "It will all be red soon."

Having conquered the Punjab, he had decided that it was wise to keep friends with the British, but he had made the Sikhs a powerful military nation and had taken the town of Peshawar from the Afghans.

Just at this time we did not at all like the way Russia was gradually moving towards India in the north. We were anxious, therefore, to make an alliance with the Afghan Amir Dost Mohammed, to whom the Russians had been sending messengers. Dost Mohammed, a rugged, honest soldier, said he would do as we wished if we would only make Ranjeet Singh give him back Peshawar. We refused this, so the Amir at once allowed a Russian envoy to come to Kabul.

We had no real quarrel with the Afghans, but we were urged on by our alarm at finding ourselves again at last, after a hundred years, being approached by another European Power. In former days our rivals had come by sea, where we could beat them. This time the danger was advancing overland through Asia and the north.

So we attacked poor old Dost Mohammed, who fled, and we placed the worthless Shah Soojah back upon his throne. We remained in military occupation of the country round Kabul and Kandahar for two years until, finding it a very expensive business, we began to stop the allowances paid to the Afghan nobles and chiefs of the hill tribes to keep them quiet. At once they and their people became our enemies, and our position grew daily more difficult and dangerous. For in India behind us there was not a friendly country as there is now. But there were the people of Scinde, who disliked us, and the Sikhs, who were watching us with fierce jealousy, for Ranjeet Singh had died suddenly and there was no one to keep them quiet.

It was this unfortunate state of things which at last ended in the worst disaster which has ever happened to a British army in India. It was, perhaps, a punishment for treating old Dost Mohammed as we did. Almost like a sad, reproachful ghost must have seemed that strange figure which appeared to Sir W. Macnaghten, our Resident at Kabul. As he was riding home one evening with a companion, with whom he had been discussing the gloomy and threatening outlook, they became aware of a man on a horse riding rapidly towards them from the north.

Soon he overtook them, and they saw a poorly dressed but robust and powerful man with a sharp aquiline nose, highly arched eyebrows, and a grey beard and moustache which looked as if it had not been trimmed for a long time. He dismounted from his horse and seized the stirrup rein of the British Resident, bowing low in submissive salutation. It was Dost Mohammed, tired of his exile, who had ridden in to surrender, willing that we should do what we liked with him. So we sent him to India as an honoured guest of the Governor-General with a pension of 20,000 a year.

Meanwhile the Afghans rose against us in overwhelming numbers. Our force in Kabul was badly handled. Poor Sir W. Macnaghten and our other officials were foully murdered, and on January 6, 1842, 4000 fighting men and 12,000 followers—men, women, and children—trusting to Afghan promises, set out in the winter cold to find their way through those rugged mountain passes back to India.

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


But the Afghans had sworn that not one should leave their country alive. The story of that long death march is almost too horrible to be told. It was one long and cruel massacre, in which our troops, without food or fires or rest, fought their way fiercely onwards with numbers which dwindled every moment from exhaustion or the ceaseless attacks of the enemy. At last the end came.

All up the dark length of the Kyber Pass the gallant little army lay dead. Only six officers, better mounted than the rest, reached a spot a few miles from Jallalabad, held by General Sale. But into the town itself rode painfully on a jaded horse, with the stump of a broken sword slung to his wrist, but one. It was Dr. Brydon, and he had escaped by a miracle. When his comrades had been cut down, a single fierce Afghan horseman had ridden near him, watching his chance to strike. Brydon's horse stumbled, and the Afghan slashed at him, broke his sword, and gashed his knee. Brydon bent forward with the pain, and his assailant, thinking he was drawing a pistol, turned and galloped away.

Sole survior of Afghan massacre


A few months later a British army under General Pollock burst into Afghanistan, captured Kabul, and freed our captive countrymen and countrywomen. Then, after the Afghans had been taught a severe lesson, we left the country.

Almost immediately we found ourselves at war with Scinde in the north-west on the Indus, and three years after we had taken this country came the long-expected war with the Sikhs. After Ranjeet Singh's death there was no one who could control the fierce soldiery with whom he had conquered the Punjab and driven the Afghans from Peshawar. The whole kingdom fell into a state of tumult, and the army, consisting of almost the whole nation, after many mutinous outbreaks and murders, cried out for fresh conquests. At last, the queen-mother, Ranjeet Singh's widow, in order to escape the violence of the military party, gave her consent to an invasion of British territory.

Swift battle followed. We, who had been so accustomed to easy victory on the open plains of India, found we had underrated our enemy's fighting power, and their well-served artillery took us by surprise.

In the first battle, at Moodkee, we paid dearly for our success, and three days later, at Ferozshah, began the most deadly and obstinate contest ever fought by us in India, and we only just managed to hold our ground. Two more stern struggles followed, at Aliwal and Sobraon, and the enemy, fighting fiercely, were driven back across the Sutlej and compelled to abandon further resistance.

But the tall Sikhs, who loved fighting, bore us no ill-will. One of them told a British officer afterwards how he had knelt to receive the charging British cavalry at Aliwal, knelt on through three charges until he had fallen senseless amongst his dead comrades. He added, showing a tiny bit of his little finger, "You were only so much better than we—just so much, no more! But you were better led."

A second war with Scinde, and then the Sikhs determined to have one more wrestle with us. We met them at Chillianwala, on the field where Alexander had defeated the son of Porus. The Sikhs were in great force, with an enormously powerful artillery. We managed the battle badly, and only just won after losing a large number of officers and men, and the enemy, being reinforced, were soon stronger than ever. They tried hard to tempt General Gough to attack them in a very strong position, but he waited patiently until a fresh British force joined him, when the Sikhs, who ought to have attacked earlier, moved round him into a much weaker position at a place called Gujerat.

Then Gough went for them, and having now a much more powerful artillery, he crushed their guns and sent his infantry to the attack with such skill that he completely shattered their army and captured the whole of their artillery. The gallant Sikhs had now had quite enough of it and submitted. The Punjab, the last independent native kingdom, was made British territory, and India was now coloured red right up to the great mountains of the north.