Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Raid of the Goorkhas

During the past two and a half centuries the great empire of China has been under foreign rule, its emperors, its state officials; its generals and trusted battalions, being of Tartar blood, and the whole nation being forced to wear, in the shaved head and pigtail of every man from the highest to the lowest, a badge of servitude. The firm position gained by the Manchu dynasty was largely due to the ability of two emperors, Kanghi and Keen Lung, who stamped out the spirit of rebellion in China, added Thibet to the empire, and conquered Mongolia, subduing those restless tribes which for so many centuries had been a sword in the side of the great empire of the East. Their able administration was aided by their long reigns, Kanghi being on the throne for sixty-one years, while Keen Lung abdicated after a reign of sixty years, that he might not take from his esteemed grandfather the honor of the longest reign. Keen Lung died three years afterwards, in 1799, thus bringing up the history of China almost to the opening year of the nineteenth century. His eventful life was largely devoted to the consolidation of the Tartar authority, and was marked by brilliant military exploits and zeal in promoting the interests of China in all directions. It is our purpose here to tell the story of one of the famous military exploits of his reign.

The conquest of Thibet had brought the Chinese into contact with the bold and restless hill-tribes which occupy the region between China and India. South of the Himalaya range there existed several small mountain states, independent alike of Mogul and of British rule, and defiant in their mountain fastnesses of all the great surrounding powers. Of these small states the most important was Nepal, originally a single kingdom, but afterwards divided into three, which were in frequent hostility with one another. West of Nepal was a small clan, the Goorkhas, whose people were noted for their war-like daring. It is with these that we are here concerned.

In 1760 the king of Bhatgaon, one of the divisions of Nepal, being threatened by his rival kings, begged aid from the Goorkha chief. It was readily given, and with such effect as to win the allies a signal triumph. The ease of his victory roused the ambition of Narayan, the leader of the Goorkhas, and by 1769 the three kings of Nepal were either slain or fugitives in India and their country had fallen under the dominion of its recently insignificant and little-considered neighbor.

The Goorkhas differed essentially from the Nepalese in character. They despised commerce and disliked strangers. War was their trade, and their aggressions soon disturbed conditions along the whole Himalaya range. The flourishing trade which had once existed between India and Thibet by way of Nepal was brought to an end, while the raids of the dominant clan on neighboring powers excited general apprehension. Twenty years after their conquest of Nepal the incursions of the Goorkhas into Thibet became so serious as to demand the attention of the Chinese emperor, though no decided action was taken for their suppression. But in 1790 an event occurred that put a sudden end to this supine indifference.

The temples and lamasaries of Thibet were widely believed to contain a great store of wealth, the reports of which proved highly alluring to the needy and daring warriors of the Goorkha clan. The Chinese had shown no disposition to defend Thibet, and this rich spoil seemed to lie at the mercy of any adventurous band strong enough to overcome local opposition. In consequence, the Goorkhas prepared for an invasion in force of the northern state, and, with an army of about eighteen thousand men, crossed the Himalayas by the lofty passes of Kirong and Kuti and rapidly advanced into the country beyond.

The suddenness of this movement found the Thibetans quite unprepared. Everything gave way before the bold invaders, and in a short time Degarchi, the second town of the state, fell into their hands. This was the residence of the Teshu Lama, ranking next to the Dalai in authority, and possessed the vast lamasary of Teshu Lumbo, rich in accumulated wealth, which fell into the hands of the invaders. A farther advance would undoubtedly have given them the chief city of Lhassa, since the unwarlike population fled in terror before their advance, but their success at Degarchi had been so great as to cheek their march, many weeks being spent in counting their spoil and subduing the surrounding country.

Meanwhile urgent petitions were sent to Peking, and the old emperor, aroused to the necessity for prompt and decisive action, gave orders that all available troops should at once be despatched to Lhassa and vigorous preparations made for war. Within a few months a Chinese army of seventy thousand men, armed with several pieces of light artillery, had reached Thibet, where the Goorkhas, alarmed by the numbers of their opponents, made hasty preparations for a retreat. But their spoil was so abundant and bulky as to delay their march, and the Chinese, who were well commanded, succeeded in coming up with them before they had crossed the mountain passes. The movements of the Chinese commander were so skilfully made that the retreat of the Goorkhas without a battle for the safety of their treasures became impossible.

Sund Fo, the Chinese general, according to the usual practice of his people, began by the offer of terms to the enemy, these being the surrender of all their spoil and of a renegade lama whose tale of the wealth of Thibet had led to the invasion. Probably also pledges for better conduct in future were demanded, but the proud chief of the Goorkhas haughtily refused to accept any of these conditions and defied his foes to do their worst. Of the battle that followed nothing is known except its result, which was the defeat and hasty retreat of the invaders, much of whose baggage was left behind.

The Chinese do not seem to have suffered greatly, to judge from the promptness of their pursuit, which was made with such rapidity that the Goorkhas were overtaken and again defeated before they had reached the Kirong pass, they being now obliged to abandon most of their baggage and spoil. The pursuit continued with an energy remarkable for a Chinese army, the Goorkhas, bold as they were by nature, growing demoralized under this unlooked-for persistence. Every encounter resulted in a defeat, the forts which commanded the mountain passes and defiles were taken in succession by Sund Fo's army, and he still pressed relentlessly on. At a strong point called Rassoa the Goorkhas defended for three days a passage over a chasm, but they had grown faint-hearted through their successive defeats, and this post too fell into the hands of their enemy.

The triumphs of the Chinese had not been won without severe loss, both in their frequent assaults upon mountain strongholds and a desperate foe, and from the passage of the snow-clad mountains, but they finally succeeded in reaching the southern slopes of the Himalayas with an effective force of forty thousand men. Khatmandu, the Goorkha capital, lay not far away, and with a last effort of courage and despair the retreating army made a stand for the defence of the seat of their government.

Their position was a strong one, their courage that of desperation, and their valor and resolution so great that for a time they checked the much stronger battalions of their foes. The Chinese troops, disheartened by the courage with which the few but brave mountaineers held their works, were filled with dismay, and might have been repulsed but for the ruthless energy of their leader, who was determined at any cost to win. Turning the fire of his artillery upon his own troops, he drove them relentlessly upon the foe, forcing them to a charge that swept them like a torrent over the Goorkha works. The fire of the guns was kept up upon the mingled mass of combatants until the Goorkhas were driven over a precipice into the stream of the Tadi that ran below. By this decisive act of the Chinese commander many of his own men were slain, but the enemy was practically annihilated and the war brought to an end.

The Goorkhas now humbly solicited peace, which Sund Fo was quite ready to grant, for his own losses had been heavy and it was important to recross the mountains before winter set in. He therefore granted them peace on humiliating terms, though these were as favorable as they could expect under the circumstances. Any further attempt at resistance against the overwhelming army of their foes might have ended in the complete destruction of their state. They took an oath to keep the peace with Thibet, to acknowledge themselves vassals of China, to send an embassy with tribute to Peking every five years, and to restore all the plunder taken from Teshu Lumbo.

Of the later history of the Goorkhas some words may be said. Their raids into India led to a British invasion of their country in 1814, and in 1816 they were forced to make peace. The celebrated Jung Babadur became their ruler in 1846 through the summary process of killing all his enemies, and in 1857, during the Indian mutiny, he came with a strong force to the aid of the British, whose friend he had always remained. In more recent wars the Goorkhas have proved themselves among the bravest soldiers in the Indian army, and in the late war with the hill-tribes showed an intrepidity which no part of the army surpassed. The independence of their state is still maintained.

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