HISTORY: THE BRITISH CONQUEST OF SINDH

Published October 31, 2021
<p>The Battle of Miani 1843 by Edward Armitage</p>

The Battle of Miani 1843 by Edward Armitage

Located at the confluence of two great civilisations — the South Asian and the Middle Eastern — Sindh has been prone to invasions from all sides throughout history.

It was first annexed to the Persian Empire during the reign of Achaemenian ruler Darius Hystaspes, around 519 or 518 BC. Sindh’s last annexation took place in 1843, at the hands of the British East India Company under the command of Sir Charles Napier.

This conquest may be considered a watershed in the history of Sindh. However, barring a few exceptions, the event has not received the attention it deserves. Over time, many myths have cropped up and hidden the facts. An effort has been made here to narrate this real-life drama played on the stage of Sindh in 1843, and the roles played by various characters, from the Talpur rulers to Ranjeet Singh to the East India Company.

THE TALPURS

The Talpurs migrated from Balochistan to Sindh on the invitation of their murshid (spiritual guides), the Kalhoras, who needed their trusted disciples to augment their defences. Dr Hamida Khuhro describes in Mohammad Ayub Khuhro: A Life of Courage in Politics how the Talpurs left their hilly abode and came to Sindh “with their camel caravans, wild hillmen in their baggy trousers, long shirts, long matted hair, and huge turbans, carrying their sheep across the hill streams, their women on the camels, and bards singing of the great deeds of Baloch heroes.”

With their warlike qualities, they acquired such power that the later generations of the Kalhoras felt insecure about them. The assassination of a high-ranking officer through the machinations of the Kalhoras proved to be the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and the Talpurs revolted against their erstwhile masters and defeated them at the Battle of Halani in 1783.

The beginning of the ruthless British occupation changed the very fabric of society and culture of Sindh. But many myths have sprung up about this high drama event, which have obscured the actual facts

The Talpurs were good soldiers, but they did not prove to be great statesmen. They divided Sindh into three parts with the capitals at Hyderabad, Khairpur and Mirpur; each under the charge of a branch of the family. This set-up sowed the seeds of disunity as the succeeding generations of the Talpurs fell prey to jealousies and animosities against each other, making them a house divided.

Another hallmark of this set-up was the absence of a professional standing army. The custom was that, in times of need, various clans and tribes provided soldiers who were no match to a disciplined army. Most of these randomly assembled and untrained soldiers were not adept at using modern weaponry. In due course, these weaknesses came to the notice of two of Sindh’s powerful neighbours, the Sikh kingdom in the north and the British East India Company in the east.

RANJEET SINGH

Ranjeet Singh ascended to the throne as the first monarch of the Sikhs in Lahore in April 1801. His initial relations with the Talpurs were cordial and both the courts exchanged envoys and presents. However, things changed in 1818 when Ranjeet conquered Multan, extending his kingdom to Sindh’s borders. As the Baloch tribes living in the border region, nominally under Sindh’s suzerainty, attacked Sikh soldiers, Singh retaliated in 1823, resulting in border skirmishes between the two states.

Subsequently, Singh developed an interest in occupying Shikarpur, a trade centre which the Talpurs had retrieved from the Afghans. He “set out in 1825 with a large and fully prepared army to conquer [Shikarpur]… but was obliged to return due to the food shortages in Sind,” notes historian Ikram Ali Malik in his 1975 paper “Ranjeet Singh’s Relations with the Amirs of Sindh”.

Meanwhile, Singh’s attention was diverted from Sindh to Peshawar in the wake of Syed Ahmed Barelvi’s jihad movement. As soon as he was free from that engagement, he again turned his attention to Sindh. In 1830, “while talking to French traveller Jacquemont, he had expressed his desire to occupy a rich and fertile country like Sind,” notes Malik.

Napier convinced himself of the nobility of his cause, writing: “We have no right to seize Sindh. Yet we shall do it, and a very advantageous, humane and useful piece of rascality it will be.”

Singh’s advancements pushed the Talpurs to seek “British aid against the Sikhs,” notes historian Robert A. Huttenback. The British discouraged Singh from his ambitions on the request of the Talpurs, but they had to “pay a high price for what they received,” observes Huttenback. The threat from Singh only ended with his death in 1839, but only after fully exposing Sindh’s vulnerabilities to the British.

THE EAST INDIA COMPANY

By 1825, the East India Company had already emerged as a paramount force and obtained direct or indirect control over the Subcontinent, with the exception of the states of Sindh and Punjab. “While substantial parts of what is now India had passed to the British by treaty and annexation, most of what is now Pakistan had to be physically conquered,” writes British historian John Keay.

Initially, Sindh had cordial relations with the British, with whom they had signed various treaties. Later, however, the British developed an interest in using the Indus River for navigational purposes, as a link from the Arabian Sea to the upper reaches of Punjab, and then to extend trade routes to Central Asia and North India through land. As a result of Alexander Burnes’ exploratory report on the Indus, the British were euphoric, believing that they had finally discovered an alternate to “the cumbersome Ganges supply line to the British northwestern provinces [which] could be replaced by a more efficient route — the Indus,” writes Huttenback.

Another British interest in Sindh was rooted in their apprehension of a Russian attack through Persia and Afghanistan, using Sindh’s soil. But a major part of British officialdom was not in favour of the annexation of Sindh. However, the personal ambitions of their man on the ground, Napier, came into full play at this critical juncture of Sindh’s history.

SIR CHARLES NAPIER

Napier is an interesting case study in the conquest of Sindh. “By the time he reached Sindh in 1842, he was sixty, and he had spent the previous twelve years on half-pay in Britain… His horizons had closed in around him and, at first, he expected little from his appointment to the India Staff,” notes David Cheesman in Landlord Power and Rural Indebtedness in Colonial Sindh. On being sent to India, a frustrated Napier reflected: “I am too old for glory now… If a man cannot catch glory when his knees are supple, he had better not try when they grow stiff,” Cheesman quotes him.

However, this depressive mood changed once he inhaled the air filled with the perfume of British power in India. Everything looked possible to him now. On his way to assume command of the army in Sindh, he sensed the opportunity to fulfil his lifelong ambition of achieving glory. Cheesman cites his quote: “Charles! Charles Napier! Take heed of your ambition for military glory; you had scotched that snake, but this high command will, unless you are careful, give it all its vigour again. Get thee behind me, Satan!”

Despite much opposition in the British camp to the annexation of Sindh, Napier convinced himself of the nobility of his cause, writing: “We have no right to seize Sindh. Yet we shall do it, and a very advantageous, humane and useful piece of rascality it will be.”

THE THEATRE OF WAR

Despite all the endeavours on the part of the Talpurs to avoid war, Napier was determined to have it. The theatre of war warmed up at Miani, in the vicinity of Hala and Matiari, on February 17, 1843, when both armies took their positions. The sizeable superiority of the British forces, the weaknesses of Sindh’s forces, disunity and divisions, an absence of central command and the use of archaic weaponry sealed their fate.

“Sindh with its antiquated arms and prediluvian army was no match for the experienced troops and modern weapons of the British Sepoy army,” observed Dr Khuhro. The battle was lost in a few hours, with huge loss of lives on the part of the Talpur forces.

The remaining Talpurs made another effort, a month later on March 22, when they challenged the British forces at Dubbo near Hyderabad. But here too, they lost and the British forces under Napier took over Sindh, ending the 60-year Talpur rule.

‘I HAVE SINNED’

A word about Napier’s purported telegram: the telegraph was introduced in the Subcontinent in the 1850s, much after the conquest, so there is no question of Napier having sent the famed telegram in 1843 in which he reportedly used the Latin word “Peccavi” meaning “I have sinned [Sind]” to inform his higher-ups of his conquest.

In reality, Peccavi was coined as a pun by a schoolgirl, Catherine Winkworth, in her class in London, to highlight the immorality of Napier’s invasion. Impressed with her wit, Catherine’s teacher encouraged her to send the joke for publication to Punch magazine, which published it on May 18, 1844.

The writer is former Vice-Chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University and a former faculty-fellow at American University, Washington DC. He can be reached at drshaikhma@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 31st, 2021

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