India - Victor Surridge


Half a century has passed since the Great Mutiny was brought to a close. It has been a period of peace, of unexampled progress, and of great educational enlightenment. It says much for the efficacy of the British Raj that during the last fifty years no foreign foe has set foot on Indian soil, that no armies have met in the shock of conflict upon the plains of Bengal, Hindustan, or the Deccan, where formerly so many wars were waged, and so many momentous contests decided. The peasant and the cultivator may till their land and rear their kine in peace, secure from the devastating influence of war. Even their great enemy, "Famine," which in the past has been allowed to work its will unhindered, is now checked and rendered less terrible in its consequences by the unceasing vigilance of a strong and sympathetic government. The ravages of plague are being steadily decreased. So that the intelligent native, recognising the great benefits that have been brought to his country by British rule, has no longing to exchange it for Anarchy—its inevitable alternative. Albeit, we must not lose sight of the fact that both in this country and in India the agitator exists; that there are men who, either through ignorance or to gratify some selfish aim, would wish to see the present form of government overthrown. But this class of person has existed since the beginning of all governments; both Clive and Warren Hastings knew him well, and it does not do to take him very seriously. So long as he is kept within proper limits he serves a very useful and necessary purpose—though perhaps hardly the one he imagines.

Of course during the last fifty years there have been wars; but they have been waged either beyond the boundaries of India Proper, as in Afghanistan and Burma, or with small and unimportant frontier tribes. Nor must we forget that that frontier is never stationary. As the years roll by, fresh tracts of land are being added to, fresh tribes of hillmen brought under, the dominion of the British Crown. A picturesque example of such a conquest occurred in 1864, when an Englishman, Ashley Eden by name, set forth with a few white companions and an escort of one hundred Sepoys on a delicate and hazardous mission. His destination was the country of Bhutan, and his task was to bring the rulers of that wild and lawless district to reason. For the Bhutanese had long been a thorn in the side of the Indian Government. They are of a race distinct from all others in Hindustan—a mixture of Chinese and Tartars—and, as yet, the tide of western civilisation—or, indeed, of any civilisation at all worthy the name—had failed to reach their bleak and inaccessible land. The Eighth Commandment was by them more honoured in the breach than in the observance; many villages had been despoiled of cattle and other property in the course of their freebooting raids; and it became necessary to impress upon the populace the seemliness of restricting their depredations to districts outside the sphere of British rule.

The country of Bhutan lies to the north of Assam and Bengal, shut in by the snow-peaked Himálayas. The Imperial Gazetteer  of India describes it as "a succession of lofty and rugged mountains abounding in picturesque and sublime scenery. The prospect between abrupt and lofty prominences is inconceivably grand; hills clothed to their very summit with trees, dark and deep glens, and the high tops of the mountains lost in the clouds constitute altogether a scene of extraordinary magnificence and sublimity."

Ashley Eden


So it was not a very easy route that Ashley Eden had to traverse. Nor was it rendered smoother by the action of the fierce native chiefs who barred the envoy's path at many points, nor allowed him to proceed until heavy bribes had been extorted. At length, after many hardships, Punákha, the capital, was reached. There the envoy was treated with scant courtesy. In open durbar he was flouted by the arrogant nobles of the Bhutan court; insults and abuse were showered freely upon him; and under pain of imprisonment he was forced to sign a treaty ceding large tracts of territory to the Bhutanese. Ashley Eden was careful to add that he signed "under protest." Under cover of night the envoy and his companions managed to escape from this inhospitable land, and made their way back to India, where they told their tale. Of course the absurd treaty was instantly repudiated. Three months later, on the failure of the rulers of Bhutan to tender their submission, war was declared. Fiercely the Bhutanese strove to stay the path of the invader. Their weapons were wild and barbaric, comprising matchlocks and catapults, swords, spears, slings, and barbed arrows, but they wielded them with great effect. But after the Bhutanese had sustained several reverses, the Deb Rajah (or "Divine King") began to consider the advisability of coming to an agreement with his foes. To Brigadier Dunsford he sent a long letter, which concluded in the following remarkable terms:—

"If you wish for peace, do not disturb our peasantry: it will be best for you to go back to your own country without doing any harm to ours. But if you will take possession of my country, which is small, without fighting, and attach it to your own, which is large, I shall send the divine force of twelve gods, as per margin, who are very ferocious ghosts. Of this force seven thousand stop at Chamoorchee, five thousand at Dhurma, nine thousand at Buxa, and twelve thousand at Dhalim Dooar. You have done great injury to our country and should not repeat it."

Undismayed by the "ferocious ghosts" the force pushed on its way. But before the campaign was concluded and peace declared a lot of stiff fighting had taken place. Eventually, however, the Bhutanese were forced to capitulate, and a large and fertile territory was annexed by us.

But the chief centre of interest from the military and strategical point of view now lies in the North-West Frontier. We are continually having to wage "little wars" against the sturdy mountain tribesmen, and in the bleak passes which lead to Afghanistan many heroic deeds have been performed, many gallant lives lost, for the sacred cause of Empire. The steady and persistent advance of Russia towards our Indian possessions has been the cause of grave apprehensions on the part of our statesmen. One of the greatest living military authorities has, indeed, given it as his opinion that a Russian war is inevitable, and that it is only a matter of time before the two great white Asiatic powers meet in a deadly struggle for existence. Be that as it may, it is certain that the Romance of our Indian Empire lies not only in the past; the future holds forth prospects of problems to be faced more difficult than any we have hitherto encountered. And in that day, when Britain rallies her sons from over the seas to join forces with their loyal foster-brothers in India against a common foe, we may be sure that opportunities will not be wanting for the performance of as gallant actions as have ever been chronicled of the mighty heroes of old. Let us hope that the Empire will never lack warriors willing to fight and to die for the great heritage which our fore-fathers have bequeathed to us.

The last scene in our story is laid at Delhi. The date is New Year's Day 1877. In this beautiful old city the reigning princes and nobles have assembled. From all parts of the peninsula are they come, over many diverse peoples they hold sway, but they have now met together for a common purpose, linked each to each by the common bond of loyalty. For Queen. Victoria has assumed the title of "Empress of India," and it is to render homage to their imperial mistress that the mighty chieftains of India have travelled in splendid state to Delhi.

What a magnificent and dramatic spectacle it must have been! The stately figure of Lord Lytton seated on the Viceregal throne, before him in a great and glittering semi-circle a brilliant throng, gorgeous with jewels, and bedecked with all the insignia of royalty and exalted station! Here are the governors and lieutenant-governors of provinces, with great crimson standards fluttering lazily above them. There, where the green banners are waving, the proud Mussulmans are assembled, while yonder pink and yellow flags denote the position of the pious Hindús. More than one hundred thousand persons are assembled on the grounds, and the brightness and variety of their costumes give the scene the radiance of a rainbow and the glory of a garden gay with many-coloured flowers. As the haughty Khán of Kelat stalked to his place, he cast upon each chieftain as he passed a glance of cold disdain. "Sáhib," said he to his English guide, "there is not a man among them!" "But," asked the Englishman, "have you ever seen such a durbar before?" The Khán turned and eyed his questioner with hauteur. "No; neither have you, Sáhib," was his response; "thus it is not strange that I have not."

When all were assembled, and the Viceroy had taken his seat, the chief herald—whose gigantic figure and gorgeous tabard gave him a very imposing appearance—read aloud the Empress's Proclamation. It declared. that Her Majesty, under the powers granted to her by Parliament, had been pleased to assume the imperial title. Immediately twelve silver trumpets sounded a jubilant flourish; then the artillery thundered forth their salvos of three guns at once. The Viceroy now made a long and eloquent speech, at the conclusion of which he read aloud a telegraphic message from his royal mistress.

"We, Victoria, by the grace of God, Empress of India, and through our Viceroy, to all our officers, civil and military, and to all princes, chiefs, and peoples now at Delhi assembled, send our Royal and Imperial greeting, and assure them of the deep interest and earnest affection with which we regard the people of our Indian Empire. We have witnessed with heartfelt satisfaction the reception they have accorded to our beloved son, and have been touched by the evidence of their loyalty and attachment to our House and Throne.

"We trust the present occasion may tend to unite in bonds of yet closer affection ourselves and our subjects, that from the highest to the humblest all may feel that under our rule the great principles of liberty, equity, and justice are secured to them, and that to promote their happiness, to add to their prosperity, and advance their welfare, are the ever-present aims and objects of our Empire."

With great cheering was this message received. Many great native princes arose to offer their congratulations. Among them was the mighty Scindia:—

"Sháh in Sháh Padishah, be happy!" quoth he. "The princes of India bless you, and pray that your sovereignty and power may remain steadfast for ever."

Then spoke His Excellency Sir Salar Jung on behalf of the Nizam:—

"I am desired by His Highness the Nizam to request your Excellency to convey to Her Majesty, on the part of himself and the chiefs of India, the expression of their hearty congratulations upon her assumption of the title of the Empress of India, and to assure her that they pray for her long life, and for the enduring prosperity of her Empire, both in India and Britain."

With such inspiring sentiments as these let us bring our tale to a close. When we consider that they were uttered by the great hereditary princes of a country which but three short centuries before was entirely unknown to the nation to whose representatives they were addressed, we must marvel at the tremendous revolution they denoted. How little could those brave merchants of the famous old Company have guessed, when they set out in their frail cockle-shells to discover a new and mysterious world, that the enterprise would one day be crowned with such glorious results? Truly the whirligig of time brings about many changes!