There are always certain incidents in history which are remembered and talked about more than the others. Same is the case with various incidents and events of the British colonialist expansion in India. We have frequently learnt and discussed annexation of Jhansi in 1854, especially due to heroic resistance by Rani Laxmibai, annexation of Awadh in 1856 etc. But, how Sindh came under complete control of British is not something that is discussed. So, today I want to talk about that, not only because it’s less discussed but also because it’s so interesting, it gives us an insight of ruthless diplomacy of British and despite trying, utter helplessness of the rulers of Sindh. This is part one of a two part series.
Ever since the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 CE, except for certain areas, it’s been mostly under the Islamic invaders until its occupation by the British in 1843. It was under the Mughals, then submitted to Nadir Shah and then was included in the empire of Ahmed Shah Abdali/Durrani in the eighteenth century. It was ruled by the Kallora chiefs but they were ousted by the Baluchi tribe of Talpura which had descended from hills and settled in Sindh in 1771. Mir Fateh Ali Khan became its ruler and was confirmed as such by Durranis in 1784. After his death in 1800, Sindh was divided amongst his brothers known as ‘char yar’. They called themselves Amirs of Sindh. Later, they occupied some more territories like Karachi, Amarkot, Shaikarpur and Bukkar. The chiefs were seated at Hyderabad, Khairpur and Mirpur.
The East India Company had established a factory at Thatta which was an important commercial town at that time. But, they abandoned it in 1792. The British were concerned about the French actions in Sindh hence, they made a treaty of ‘eternal friendship’ with the chiefs in 1809 and the treaty was renewed in 1820. The British were now successful in keeping French out. Apart from French another power whose presence and actions or just the possibility of it kept British on their toes was Russia. They wanted a place which can be a counteracting influence over the Afghans. It wasn’t possible to use Punjab as Maharaja Ranjit Singh was too powerful. Hence, Sindh. Ranjit Singh himself wanted to expand Sikh power to Sindh as natural progression of Sikh Empire. He had even suggested to divide Sindh between the Sikh and the British in 1831 but, Lord Bentinck didn’t agree to this. In fact the British had decided to use the looming fear of Sikh attack over Sindh to threaten the Amirs and bring Sindh under the Company rule.
In 1831, British sent Sir Alexander Burnes to explore the Indus area for commercial reasons. They pretended that they were just carrying presents for Ranjit Singh at Lahore and were just passing along the way. The Baluchis knew that Company had other motives and it was only a matter of time before Sindh would be under their rule. When Burnes arrived at the Indus, a Baluchi soldier said; “the mischief is done, you have seen our country”. In 1832, another treaty was concluded between the British and the chiefs of Sindh for opening rivers and roads of Sindh for commerce but not for military vessels and stores. Amirs though signed the treaty, were still apprehensive. The treaty was renewed in 1834. Their apprehension of British actions proved correct by what happened subsequently. What is interesting to me is that from the very start the Amirs knew what was to happen and yet they fought, though they were helpless and incompetent against the British might.
As much as one abhors the British practices, one can also learn from sheer connivance and ruthlessness of their diplomacy in this whole saga. They knew that Maharaja Ranjit Singh wanted to incorporate Sindh into his empire, so they warned him of such actions saying that Amirs of Sindh were now connected with the British Empire and Lord Auckland used this threat to conduct another treaty with the Amirs in 1838 and sent a British resident there.
Highhanded attitude of the British made them break the treaty of 1832 when they took armed forces through Sindh during the first Anglo – Afghan war. Everything was going as per the whims of the British. When they decided, they concluded a treaty. When they decided, they broke it. Other such odd demands included a very heavy price for mediating between the Amirs and Shah Shuja (the Afghan ruler) in commuting his pecuniary demands on Sindh, despite the fact that Shah Shuja himself had granted an exemption to the Amirs. Then there was the demand of three lakh rupees for maintaining British force in their territories. Sindh was now a formal British protectorate.
Final nail in the coffin was Sir Charles Napier as a representative of the Governor -General with full military and civil powers in 1842. He was a very hot headed and impulsive office. He replaced Major James Outram who was better liked by the Amirs. Napier believed the theory that “annexation of Sindh would be a very beneficent piece of rascality for which it was his business to find an excuse – a robbery to be plausibly effected”.
He held the Amirs accountable for vague charges of going against the British during Anglo Afghan war, wanted some new territory in lieu of three lakh rupees tribute and the right of minting coinage completely under British. But before this new treaty could be accepted he occupied the demanded territory and marched on Imamgarh in 1843 January, an important desert fortress in Sindh. By February a full blown war had started. The Baluchis attacked the British Residency and James Outram (he came back as a British Commissioner) found refuge in a steamer. The Baluchi army consisted of 22,000 men but was routed by 2,800 men and 12 guns under Napier at Miani, few miles from Hyderabad. There were other battles at Dabo, Amarkot that British won. Napier conveyed this news to Lord Ellenborough in a pun saying, “Peccavi, I have Sind.” Napier got 70,000 euros as his prize money, Outram got 3000 euros but he gave it back to charity.
Everyone at the time, from the casual observers, to fellow officers, to Board of Directors, to newspapers agreed that the whole affair cannot be defended neither politically nor morally. They knew it was nothing but continuation of another morally questionable Afghan war, yet they held onto the newly won Sindh, for there is no such thing as a wrongly acquired territory when it comes to the expansion of an empire.
- History of India by R.C. Majumdar , H.C. Raychaudhuri, Kalinkar Datta
- History of British India by P.E. Roberts.