India - Victor Surridge

The Unsheathed Sword

It is easier to take up the sword than to relinquish it. Ever since the Company had become a territorial power, it had found itself engaged in almost perpetual warfare. If you can imagine a pebble, cast suddenly into a pool, viewing with astonishment the commotion occasioned by its advent, you will have some idea of the state of mind with which the Directors regarded their bellicose and bewildering achievements in the East. They were no heroes—these worthy burgesses—no mappers-out of Alexandrian conquests. They were simple traders who looked upon India as a business rather than as an empire. True, in their quest for commerce, the ledger had ever been accompanied by the sword, but the primary purpose of the weapon was defence. And, wonderful to relate, this primitive passion for self-protection had made them the masters of millions.

You will understand, then, how it was the Company—with an eye chiefly to its money-bags—looked severely askance at the ceaseless campaigns waged by their warlike servants. They were so very expensive! The delighted astonishment which filled their hearts when they heard of the exploits of Clive gave way to vague feelings of alarm when, under the daring statesmanship of Warren Hastings, the empire began to arise from its foundations in solid and a tangible shape. Then came the terrible Wellesley who, disregarding the Directors' plaintive appeals for peace, wielded the sword with a brilliancy and vigour that left them mute and gasping. The disastrous retreat of Monson, however, gave them an opportunity to recall the gallant Marquess and to replace him by more docile administrators. Cornwallis, Barlow, and the Earl of Minto succeeded in rapid succession to the Governor-Generalship. Their policy was peace—the sort of peace that a small boy patches up with a still smaller adversary when he feels the cold eye of the headmaster to be upon him. Circumstances demand more haste than dignity in its accomplishment.

Albeit, when in the autumn of 1813 Lord Minto sailed home to the mother-country, he was firmly convinced that he had left India in a state of profound tranquillity. Not so much as a speck of dust obscured the spotless horizon of our empire. Need it be said that this was gladsome tidings to his successor? For the Earl of Moira (afterwards first Marquess of Hastings) had ever been a lover of peace. In far-away Westminster his fiery eloquence had hotly denounced what he considered to be the needless warfares of Warren Hastings and of Wellesley. His lordship, in insular ignorance, had considered them both wicked and wasteful. He was all for the Company minding its own affairs and not interfering with its native neighbours.

With a Governor-General animated by such noble and altruistic motives, you might suppose that the Indian peninsula would allow itself to be rocked peacefully to sleep like a baby in its cradle. Had an era of peace really dawned? Would the Company be able to beat its swords into ploughshares and adopt the olive-branch as the permanent hall-mark of its intentions ? Alas for the vanity of human hopes! As soon as the Marquess of Hastings arrived at Calcutta the scales dropped from his eyes. He saw that to sway any sceptre less sharp or less terrible than the sword would be to sway no sceptre at all. Peace, indeed, was too remote to be worth straining the eyes to look for. As well essay to give to the ocean the placid restfulness of the millpond as attempt to initiate the warring tribes of Hindustan into the virtues of brotherly love and good fellowship.

Besides being a valiant soldier the new Governor-General was an eminently sensible man. He recognised that for every step the Company took another became necessary. It must either advance or be extinguished. So he set out to run the empire on the very lines that for years he had so scathingly condemned. Reluctantly, maybe, but unflinchingly he drew his blade. Nor was it returned to the scabbard until he had carried out a policy every whit as warlike as his predecessors!

It is almost impossible to describe the awful misery which warfare entails upon a country. Can you imagine an England, with every county a separate nation, and all perpetually quarrelling, invading each other's territories, and cutting each other's

throats ? Enlarge this picture many times and you will have some idea of the condition of India. But there was an added terror. Among the hills and valleys lurked terrible bands of robbers—men who revelled in cruelty and bloodshed, and whose sole business in life was to kill and destroy. They were the natural outcome of the anarchy that for so many years had dominated the land. There was no central authority whose business it was to suppress them; for the fighting powers were too much occupied in their own concerns to saddle themselves with outside responsibilities.

Lord Hastings decided that the time had come to stamp these vermin out of the country. By force alone could order be evolved out of the universal chaos which prevailed. But before he could obtain leave to attack the robbers the Governor-General found himself plunged into warfare with a bold mountain race which, snug in its fancied security, openly defied the British government. "How was it likely," cried they derisively, "that the Company's soldiers should storm the mountain fastnesses constructed by the hand of God?"

The Ghúrkas numbered only twelve thousand fighting men, but their prowess was renowned throughout the peninsula. Had they not dared to set the pale-faced conquerors at defiance, swooping down upon their villages, carrying off their cattle, even demanding tribute from their subjects? The British could not afford to be flouted in this manner. They told the bold invaders to keep within their own territory, or to beware of the consequences. But the Ghúrkas were little troubled by the warning. Hot blood ran in their veins and haughty words were bandied by their chiefs. There was no alternative but to declare war.

Along the southern slopes of the Himálayas, backed by peaks covered with perpetual snow and shut in from the lowlands by dense and impenetrable forests, lies the country of Nepal. This was the home of the Ghúrkas, and the difficulties encountered by our men in reaching it were terrible. Failure was written large over the opening of the campaign. Before the stone walls of Kalanga fell brave General Gillespie—the saviour of Vellore—with his last breath cheering his men onwards to a fruitless attack. But the fort fell at length—though not until all but seventy of its six hundred heroic defenders were killed. The British, who had anticipated that a very short while would serve to bring the Ghúrkas to their senses, found themselves grievously out of their reckoning.

On one occasion a small party of troops, looking for the enemy's outworks, fell in with a band of Ghúrkas. Fiercely the tribesmen yelled and brandished their swords. Then their leader stepped forward and challenged the English commander to single combat. Nothing loath, Captain Showers took up the gage, and midway between the rival forces the two combatants confronted each other. There was a clash of swords, a few glittering passes, and the snow was crimsoned by the Ghúrka leader's life-blood.

The British Sepoys raised a joyful shout. But their triumph was short-lived. As the English captain turned to rejoin his company a bullet laid him low. The frightened Sepoys turned to flee. After them charged the fierce Ghúrkas, slaying right and left, and not until the guns of a fortress were turned upon them did they relinquish the chase.

Wearily the war dragged to its close. At last the Ghúrkas were compelled to sue for peace, and a treaty was drawn up by which large tracts of territory were ceded to the British. But it took some little time to send the treaty to the Governor-General for his approval and signature, and during the interval that elapsed the Ghúrkas plucked up fresh courage. When, in due course, the treaty returned from Calcutta they refused to sign it. The war-party, politely explained their chieftain, had now regained the ascendency; he was really very sorry, but the fight must be continued.

Once again Sir David Ochterlony took the field. Through the vast and dreary forests, which the Ghúrkas believed to have been planted by their divinities for the special protection of Nepal, the Scottish general led his men. It was a melancholy march, for so gloomy is this far-stretching wilderness that no living creature—save perhaps the ubiquitous insect—is to be found within it: and the troops uttered cries of joy when at length they emerged from the depressing shadow of the mighty trees to find fresh air and sunlight and an open sky. In front of them lay the mountains. How were they to be traversed, for the enemy held the passes, and to storm them would mean great sacrifice of life?

David Ochterlony stared thoughtfully at the mountains and wondered how he was to get to the other side. He would have accounted it bad generalship to throw away his men in the passes. Was there no other way? None was known—not even to the Ghúrkas themselves—but Ochterlony determined to find one. He sent forth his trusty quarter-master to explore.

Through many dried-up watercourses Lieutenant Pickersgill picked his way. But the secret of the mountains lay not with them. Each led to a hopeless cul-de-sac  from which the perplexed officer was obliged to retrace his steps. Then he met with a party of smugglers—cheerful and picturesque villains—who hinted that for a consideration they would provide a key to the problem. There was the chink of money passing from hand to hand, and the delighted lieutenant made his way back to camp with the announcement that the difficulty was solved.

In single file—Sir David Ochterlony leading at the head of the Royal Irish Fusiliers—the British troops began their hazardous climb. The way lay through a deep ravine, enclosed by rugged and precipitous sides, and rendered dark and eerie with overhanging trees. At intervals the zigzag course emerged into the cold clear rays of moonlight, and above them, mysterious and chilly, towered stupendous peaks and pinnacles. Then the mantle of darkness would again enshroud them, and with difficulty could each man distinguish the blurred outlines of his comrade in front.

It was, in sooth, a highly dangerous journey; and had an enemy appeared the British would have run an excellent chance of annihilation. Fortunately no foe was near. Can you not imagine the anxiety of Sir David as he led his men through the desolate and unknown pass? Once when he was brought to a halt by an almost perpendicular ledge of rock which seemed entirely to block the way he turned angrily to Lieutenant Pickersgill and charged him with having deceived him. "You have risked the destruction of my whole army!" he cried bitterly. But with the aid of his officers' sashes the irate general was hoisted over the obstacle, and he turned and apologised to the lieutenant for his hasty words.

At length the end of the defile was reached and the British found themselves in the open country. Some distance away the Ghúrkas were patiently watching the passes. They wondered what had become of their cowardly foe. Great was their astonishment when they found themselves suddenly attacked in the rear! Some fierce fighting ensued, but the campaign came to a speedy end. The Rajah of Nepal sent a messenger to state that the war-party had fallen from power and the pacificists were again predominant. So he had no longer any objection to signing the despised treaty and making peace.

"Peace!" was Ochterlony's grim retort: "has your master the effrontery to offer me peace, when he has nothing to give but what I choose to leave him . . . Your master deserves to have Khatmandoo burned to the ground for his insolence; but fall down and ask mercy in his name, as the Ghúrka ambassador asks favours of the Emperor of China."

The ambassador fell abjectly on to his knees and expressed the utmost penitence. A fresh treaty was drawn up and signed, and the East India Company complacently added another rich domain to its fast-growing empire. Shortly afterwards the army of the Celestial Kingdom arrived on the other side of the Himálayas; for the Ghúrkas had been imploring their mighty neighbour for help. But the war was over. For some time the Celestial troops waited for developments upon their side of the snowy mountain peaks, and then, nothing happening, they struck their tents and marched stolidly back into the interior of their fair and flowery land.

In 1816, after a long and tedious delay, the Marquess of Hastings obtained permission to make war upon the robber tribes, chief of whom were the notorious Pindárís. Yearly these wild banditti rode forth from the valleys of the Narbada to plunder and destroy. Across the fair province of Rájputána, eastward and southward they roamed, and woe betide the hapless villages that lay upon their track. When some breathless messenger brought in tidings of the robbers' imminent approach, the unarmed peasantry would flee terror-stricken from their homes to seek a precarious hiding-place within the jungle. Some hours later, when the tribesmen had wreaked their will and departed, they would creep cautiously back. What a mournful sight would meet their view! Where but a few hours previously had stood a peaceful and happy village, nothing but ruin and desolation would be seen. All that could not be carried off would be burned or destroyed, and the unhappy villagers would find themselves homeless and ruined.

It not infrequently happened that the villagers found themselves surrounded and unable to escape. Then each man would gather his wives and children into his fragile hut and take a last farewell before applying a torch to the leaf-thatched roof and perishing with his family in the flames. All that the Pindárís would find upon their arrival would be the smouldering embers of their victims' fiery graves. Better death a thousand times than to suffer the robbers' fiendish cruelties!

The Governor-General determined to give the bandits no chance to escape. The largest army the Company had yet raised in India was assembled to destroy them. Slowly a glittering ring of steel gathered around the Pindárís' haunts, and the desperate efforts of the robbers to break through it were without avail. Their hour had come, their Nemesis had overtaken them! The majority were either killed or captured, while the rest, broken up into insignificant bands, were dispersed throughout the peninsula. The day of the lawless freebooters was over for ever.

It seemed as if we should never leave off fighting the Maráthás. Like the many-headed dragon of the fairy tale, no sooner had one ugly head been chopped off than another grew in its place. This time it was the Peshwá, the acknowledged head of the great Confederacy, that caused the trouble. He longed to break his engagements with the Company and stand forth, free and unchallenged, the supreme head of a mighty nation. Alone he could accomplish nothing, and his brother chieftains, still staggering under the sledge-hammer blows of Wellesley, were one and all dominated by the Company. The crafty Peshwá cast an eye around the Commonwealth and alighted upon Baroda. Was it possible to seduce the Gáekwár of this powerful state from his allegiance to the British? Unfortunately for his hopes the prince in question happened to be imbecile, and Colonel Walker, the Company's Resident at his Court, kept a very vigilant eye upon British interests. Clearly it was difficult to negotiate where an Englishman held sway. So it came about that the Prime Minister of Baroda was invited to the Peshwá's capital, and it was hoped that the visitor would prove a pliant tool in the Maráthá chieftain's hands.

It so happened that the minister was a very holy Brahmin, and, therefore, exceedingly wise. He had a shrewd suspicion of what lay in the Peshwá's mind, and was not at all anxious to put his head in the lion's mouth; so he demurred and hung back until the British Resident consented to guarantee his safety. Then, nothing loath, he set out for Poona, where he received a cordial welcome, much feasting, and not a little flattery.

It is not easy to hoodwink a Brahmin. The Peshwá found all his cajolery to be in vain; for the minister steadfastly refused to turn traitor or lend an ear to the warlike intrigues of his host. Not unnaturally the latter was very much wroth. This miserable Brahmin," thought he, "has listened complacently to all my secrets, and will doubtless reveal them to the accursed British as soon as he gets back to Baroda! How shall his lips be sealed?" Then spoke Trimbakji, his favourite: "Do the lips of the dead babble secrets? Let not the dog return to Baroda alive!"

Now to kill a Brahmin even legally is a very serious crime—as we saw when the luckless Nanda Kumár was hanged—but to shed his blood is simply indescribably wicked. Yet the villainous Trimbakji shrank not even from this. On a day the Hindús regard as holy the Peshwá and his favourite persuaded their guest to make an excursion to a famous temple, there to offer up supplications and thank-offerings to the gods. The Brahmin, thinking, no doubt, that this was a very proper thing to do, obediently departed to the sacred shrine. On his way back he was surrounded by a gang of cut-throats, the hirelings of Trimbakji. There was no chance of escape; they hewed him into pieces with their knives. The blood of the murdered minister cried out to the British for vengeance!

It blossomed into war. Trimbakji was put into prison, but effected a romantic escape. A Maráthá groom took service with the officer who was guarding the fortress. The stable was situated directly under the captive's window, and it was noticed that when attending to his master's steed the groom would chant weird snatches of Maráthá war-songs. By this means he seems to have communicated to the imprisoned favourite—as Blondel sang of old to Richard Coeur de Lion—for one dark night in December 1816 Trimbakji mysteriously disappeared, together with the commandant's horse. Nor was the singing groom ever seen again.

Every war exacts its toll of heroes, and in this brief contest with the Peshwá were performed many noble deeds. Even to-day when the Sepoys are gathered round the camp-fire at night, chattering together of exploits performed in long-ago campaigns, they will recall reverently and in awe-struck whispers the tale that has come down to them from their grandfathers of Staunton Sáhib's wonderful defence. It happened like this. The Peshwá had fled from his capital and had flung himself with an army of twenty-six thousand men upon a tiny British force. Sustaining a severe defeat, he was obliged to retreat southwards to Poona. Reinforcements arrived, and he again sallied out, only to be rebuffed and once more forced to retreat. Meanwhile Colonel Staunton was marching hastily southwards to assist in holding Poona. Quite unawares he led his men into a trap. Early one morning, after a long night's journey, they found themselves surrounded by the entire Maráthá army, composed principally of Arab mercenaries, and thirty thousand strong. It seemed as though Staunton and his little band of eight hundred men were doomed to destruction.

A tiny village lay before them, and they had just time to gain the shelter of its rude mud-walls ere the enemy hurled themselves against them. Though their numbers were small, the hearts of the defenders were brave and valiant. For all their fierce courage the Arabs could not sweep the British from their posts. All during the day the fight went on. The terrible noonday sun blazed down pitilessly upon the gallant but exhausted defenders. There was no water to cool their parched throats, no food to sustain their ebbing strength, and their eyes were dull and heavy for want of needful sleep. Like the waves of the sea the dauntless Arabs hurled themselves upon the frail mud-walls. How long could the fight continue? Sooner or later those cruel billows must surely sweep away such puny obstacles and overwhelm the weary men behind them.

Slowly the hours rolled by, and the golden ball sank low in the western heavens. The shadows of dusk were quivering over the plain. With heavy hearts the British looked out through the gathering gloom upon the packed masses of the enemy. Night meant certain death, for an assault under cover of darkness would be impossible to withstand. Their position was perilous in the extreme. Of their eight officers, five were either killed or wounded, while nearly three hundred of the men lay dead or disabled. Little wonder, then, if the cheery words of Staunton, as he strove to sustain the spirits of his men, belied an anxious heart.

The enemy did not cease from their efforts. Time after time, with hoarse shouts and gleaming swords, they rushed to the attack. At length they succeeded in capturing a gun, and the dead and dying strewn around it were brutally hacked to pieces. Near by, mortally wounded, lay Lieutenant Pattinson, a sturdy young giant six feet seven inches in height. They told him that the gun was taken, and the news inspired him to a deed of heroic grandeur. With a dying effort he struggled to his feet, seized a musket by the muzzle, and calling on the grenadiers to follow him, rushed right into the middle of the foe. With herculean blows he strewed them right and left. Then a second ball went through his mighty frame and the lieutenant fell, never again to rise. But his purpose had been achieved; the gun was recaptured; and the Maráthás, finding it of no avail to waste their strength upon the tiny garrison, sullenly retired from the field.

Not long afterwards they were hunted down and dispersed. The Peshwá, deprived of his throne, was fain to content himself with an enormous pension, and never again was the Company troubled by his vagaries.

British garrison besieged


The outbreak of the Peshwá had sent a wave of unrest through the neighbouring states. In Nagpur was a fierce Maráthá chieftain eager to try conclusions with the British. For that purpose he assembled a great army and busily prepared for war. His challenge was accepted, and a force of fourteen thousand men marched into his dominions. Upon two peaks of a range of hills outside the city they pitched their camp. Soon the Maráthás were swarming around the hills. A fierce battle took place; the enemy opened a murderous fire, and charging impetuously up the slopes placed the British in a hazardous position.

Upon one of the peaks was posted Captain Fitzgerald at the head of three troops of Bengal cavalry. The gallant officer looked impatiently down upon the Maráthás beneath him. Repeatedly he begged to be allowed to charge them, but the desired permission was withheld. At length the enemy hemmed him in on every side, and two guns were brought to bear on his position. Shot fell thick and fast into their midst; the men clamoured to be led against their foes. But still the order to charge was not forth-coming. Once again the restless Irishman sent an urgent message to his chief. "Tell him to charge at his peril!" snapped out that officer, in angry tones.

"At my peril be it! We'll charge them, by heaven!" shouted Fitzgerald to his men. "Deen, Deen!"  came back the ready response from the Mussulmans behind him. It indicated that they were prepared for death or victory. With exultant shouts and waving swords they charged tumultuously into the midst of the foe. Backwards reeled the Maráthá horse, throwing into confusion those behind. Nothing could withstand that fierce onward rush of Fitzgerald and his men. The enemy were routed and driven from the hill, and shortly afterward their headstrong chieftain surrendered. Thus the Company obtained control over a formidable military power, and her growing empire was further expanded by the accession of Berar and the rich lands adjacent to the Narbada.

Thus also did Hastings of the peaceful heart and warlike hand carry out the policy of his illustrious predecessors.