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CAPTAIN CUNNINGHAM’S HISTORY OF THE SIKHS*†


[* A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej. By Joseph Davey Cunningham, Lieutenant of Engineers, and Captain in the Army of India. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1849.]

[† Reproduced from Page 7 of The Times (London) of April 06, 1849. It sheds some light on why the book incurred the wrath of British establishment – Capt. Cunningham exposed the collusion of the British Colonists with the Dogra (“Rajpoot”) brothers and Tej Singh & Lal Singh to bring about the fall of Punjab. More importantly, he exposed the establishment’s narrative as less than truthful, thereby causing doubts about the integrity of their other records — Sikh Centre]

[If the reader finds some turn of phrase or spellings archaic, please note that this was written in 1849 — Sikh Centre]

This book would deserve notice even if our relations with the nation of which it treats were less critical than they are. It was written in India, though transmitted to England for publication — a circumstance which has fortunately placed it within the reach of ordinary inquiries. We take this opportunity of remarking that the literary communication between England and India is in a state extremely imperfect and unsatisfactory. The press of Calcutta produces a number of publications of the highest historical and political value, which are yet scarcely heard of in this country. It is true that the Calcutta Review, a journal supported by the first talents in the service of the Indian Government, is received by London correspondents, and occasionally such a work as Major Smyth’s Reigning Family at Lahore finds its way to the library tables of England when any unusual interest is supposed to be attached to the subject. But, generally speaking, the fact is as we have stated, and it receives a curious exemplification in the very volume before us; the historical contents of which are in great part founded upon publications which have appeared at various times in Calcutta, but which have ever since remained inaccessible, except by accident, to English readers.

We should first state Captain Cunningham’s qualifications for the work which he undertook. From 1837 to 1845 he occupied, with little interruption, responsible posts on the staff of the Political Agent on the Sikh frontier, and in the several capacities which were assigned to him he had an opportunity of taking personal share in some of the most important events in those quarters. He accompanied the expedition which forced the Khyber Pass in 1839, and proceeded a second time to Peshawur in the following year. He had magisterial charge of the Ferozepore district in 1841, and was despatched to Little Thibet in 1842, for the purpose of regulating the relations between the Chinese population of those parts and the encroaching family of Gholab Singh. In 1845 he repaired to Bhawulpore to arrange certain boundary disputes, but was soon relieved by a summons from Sir Charles Napier to join his army of co-operation. After the battle of Ferozeshah, however, he was ordered to Lord Gough’s headquarters, whence he accompanied Sir H. Smith to Aliwal, and then returned for the battle of Sobraon. At the conclusion of the war his services were acknowledged by an appointment to the political agency of Bhopal, from a town of which principality he dates the preface to this work on the 9th of last December. The book therefore had left his hands before the occurrence of any of the late incidents of Lord Gough’s campaign — incidents which we suspect drew him again from his retirement, for we are much inclined to think that the Captain Cunningham of the Engineers, who by the last dispatches was superintending the intrenchments of the British camp, can be no other than the author of the work before us. These details are necessary to convey an adequate idea of the authority carried by the book in question, but they are significant also in another sense, as the reader will presently see.

In speaking of the history of any Indian state, a writer who wished to be generally comprehended would find it usually desirable to take no knowledge for granted on the part of his reader. Recent occurrences, however, have so concentrated public attention on the Punjab and its population that the Sikhs can no longer be represented as an unknown people. Several publications illustrative of their singular fortunes appeared in 1845 and 1846; Major Smyth’s book, to which we have above alluded, is a specimen of the supplementary information which has been since collected; the Edinburgh Review, for January last, contained a comprehensive sketch of the whole political history of the Punjab, and our own columns have from time to time communicated such retrospective intelligence as was required for a proper understanding of the events under notice. We may therefore presume, on the present occasion, that our readers are generally acquainted with the leading circumstances attending the rise and progress of the Sikh people, such as the facts that they were originally not a distinct tribe, but a religious sect; that their “nationality” has not yet existed for a century; that they were persecuted into union and obstinacy by the Mahometan Emperors and Affghan invaders; that their state first assumed a substantive form under Runjeet Singh, and that from the period of that monarch’s death in 1839 they have been plunged in intestine anarchy, diversified only by aggressive war. In pursuance of such presumptions we shall not attempt to follow Captain Cunningham through the early chapters of his work, but, as we are compelled by our limits to a choice of omissions, we shall take up his history at Runjeet’s death, and confine our notice to those particular points on which the observations of the author tend to place the subject in a different light from that in which it has been previously viewed. That these points are neither few nor uninteresting will be presently found.

The relations of the British Government with the Sikh state at the time of Runjeet’s death were in the charge of the present Sir Claude Wade, who in April 1840 was succeeded by Mr Clerk. Mr Clerk becoming Lieutenant-Governor of Agra in 1843, resigned the frontier agency to Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond, who in his turn gave way to the unfortunate Major Broadfoot in November 1844. It is from the communications of these several agents with the Indian Government that our chief knowledge of all the transactions in question has been derived, and it is on these despatches, with which he was officially familiar, that Captain Cunningham has built this portion of his history. The conclusion deducible from the information previously accessible was certainly that the Government of Calcutta had exercised no conspicuous or objectionable intervention in the affairs of the Punjab during the six years of anarchy. We need hardly, perhaps, remind the reader, that in this interval of uncontrolled self-government, three Maharajahs, three Princes of the blood, three Viziers, and two-thirds of the principal Sirdars, had been put to death in cold blood, or had fallen in civil war. Runjeet left one legitimate son, Khurruk Singh, and one grandson, Nonehal Singh, and to these descendants were added three adopted or reputed sons, irrespective of the child who was finally recognised as Sovereign of the Punjab, by the name of Maharajah Dhuleep Singh. While the assassinations in question were going on the British Government has been hitherto represented as keeping aloof and forbearing, for caution’s sake, from even that intervention which circumstances almost warranted. It was indeed, very well known that the name of the English was unscrupulously employed by all the parties concerned, and that the animosity of the soldiery was often excited by groundless rumours, purposely disseminated, of our intentions against the Punjab. But in Captain Cunningham’s book the interference of the English agent is represented as perceptibly influencing most of the state revolutions, though he does not allege that our wishes extended beyond a sincere desire for a strong Government.

To gain a clear comprehension of the strange period of Sikh anarchy which preceded the resolution of invading our dominions, it is best to keep strictly in view the state of parties at Runjeet’s death. There were first, his son and grandson; next, his reputed son, Shere Singh (who is not to be confused with the fighting Sirdar of that name), and his adopted sons, Cashmeera and Peshora Singh (so called after the two provinces subdued by Runjeet); and finally, his alleged son, Dhuleep Singh, whose claims were not put forward till a later period, and whose very existence, Captain Cunningham says, was not known to the British until 18 months after Runjeet’s death. After these came the Sirdars, among whom the families of Scindinwallah. Majeetia, and Attarewallah took conspicuous rank — the two former being collateral branches of Runjeet’s own stock, and the latter allied to his family by marriage. Besides all these the Rajpoot population of the hill districts of the Punjab had come, by a strange concurrence of events, to be most influentially represented at the Court of Lahore. Three brothers Gholab, Dhyan, and Suchet, descended from the old line of Rajahs of Jummoo (extinct in its elder branch), had so ingratiated themselves with Runjeet that he had created them all Rajahs, and at his death
Suchet was one of the principal generals of the Sikh army, Gholab had been reinstated in the old principality of his family, and Dhyan was no less a personage than Vizier of the realm. The first and last of these went the way of all Sikh notabilities between 1839 and 1846 — being treacherously murdered; but the second is our present ally, Gholab Singh of Jummoo. Now, after the lineal descendants of Runjeet had been put to death, the quarrels were all for the Vizierate, and the antagonists were the Sikhs, represented by the Scindinwallah family, on the one side, and the Rajpoots, represented by the Jummoo brothers, on the other. We do not mean that the Rajpoots, as a race, ever contemplated, or could have compassed, the assertion of any superiority over the Sikhs, but merely that the power of this particular family was such that they contested, and for some time actually secured, the political supremacy in the state. In the meantime the claims of the boy Dhuleep Singh had been so far recognized that, although it is almost certain he has no blood connexion with the Royal family, he was admitted, after the murder of Shere Singh, to be the sole claimant to the throne, and the Vizierate alone remained an object of dispute. Final1y, therefore, when the leading Sirdars had been killed off, there rose up a new party in the family and favourites of Dhuleep’s mother, better known as the Ranee, and it was this party which we, in 1845, found in possession of power. The order of succession would be somewhat as follows:- Runjeet died in 1839. His lineal descendants had been murdered by November 1840, and Shere Singh’s reign then commenced under the auspices, and with the confirmed ascendancy, of the Jummoo brothers, and lasted till, in September 1843, he and Vizier Dhyan were assassinated together. But though the Scindinwallah chiefs were the perpetrators of the massacre, they did not reap its fruits, for a son of Dhyan’s — Heera Singh — unexpectedly gained the support of the soldiery, half exterminated the Scindinwallahs, and perpetuated the ascendancy of his family till December 1844, when he also was murdered. There survived, however, no longer any Scindinwallah to take advantage of the vacancy thus created, and accordingly, the Ranee’s people, as we have observed, stepped quietly in. Jowahir Singh, her brother, was installed Vizier in May 1845, and after his assassination in the September following, Lal Singh, her paramour, was appointed to the office, and held it till the day of retribution came. Meantime Gholab Singh had adroitly steered his way through the storm, had availed himself, it is said, of the long ascendancy of his family, to take large toll of the Royal treasures, and was preparing his own independence in his mountain city of Jummoo. We have digressed a little to give the reader the benefit of this outline, but the subject is so interesting, and at the same time so confused in ordinary descriptions, that we are sure the episode will not be ill-received.

It will be readily supposed that a Government constituted like that of the Sikhs at the period under notice, could exercise no great control over the spirit of the nation. There was, in fact, an end of all restraint whatever. The Sikhs, as the reader will remember, were essentially a military people, and considering the enormous proportion borne by the army to the rest of the population, there was really no great injustice in the exclusive appropriation by the former of that title which had been early employed to designate the whole mystic commonwealth. The army now styled itself “the Khalsa,” that is, the select or chosen State. Its insubordination at this time was still further increased by a system of government by delegates which had been lately adopted. Each battalion nominated a committee, or “punch,” and these punches again nominated from their own numbers an executive committee in whose hands virtually rested the supreme control of affairs. The punches now declared for open war. That they were not encouraged by the Court in this frantic scheme is very well known, though it is also notorious that false representations had been repeatedly made to them respecting the hostile designs of the British whenever the excitement thus producible was thought likely to serve the turn of one Court faction against the other. Without, however, so much as even a nominal grievance, and with a resolution so abrupt as to take the Governor-General by surprise, they now crossed the Sutlej, marched upon the British army, were met, encountered, and repulsed.

Such is a brief statement of the case as hitherto accepted, nor does the author before us attempt to gainsay its substantial allegations. But by some singular predilection his heart is with the Sikhs throughout, and though he does not spare the Sirdars, he gives the Khalsa the benefit of every doubt which can be raised or devised. As regards the great question of all, though he cannot of course conceal that the Sikhs took the initiative, yet he actually ventures upon condensing the opinions of his text into a marginal epitome, that “the English, nevertheless, are mainly to blame for the war.” When we come to examine the particulars of this unexpected assertion, we find it expanded into the less positive proposition, that “considering the English to have been sincerely desirous of living at peace with the Punjab, the policy adopted by them does not show that strict adherence to formal engagements, and that high wisdom and sure foresight which should distinguish the councils of an intelligent Power acquainted with actual life and with the examples of history.” Upon further investigation the arguments used to justify the Sikh invasion are found to resolve themselves into these: that the British had gradually concentrated troops on the north-west frontier of their own dominions, and had even collected a bridge of boats at Ferozepore; that they had comported themselves offensively in the cis-Sutlej states, and that they had given indications of a hostile policy by the appointment of Major Broadfoot to the political agency of the frontier. Frederick the Great never prefaced & war by a more flimsy manifesto than all these charges would constitute, even if literally proved; but the fact is that such force as they may at first appear to possess vanishes altogether when they are thoroughly discussed.

To allege the precautionary measures of one state as justifying the actually aggressive measures of another, is a line of argument which, if commonly admitted, would leave our dockyards under heavy liabilities. It is surely one thing to say (what can be only matter of opinion), that but for our warlike attitude on our own frontier we should never have been invaded; and another thing to allege that this attitude warranted the invasion. As far as the argument is available at all, its force turns upon the circumstances under which our precautions were taken. If the condition of the Punjab was not such as to suggest such prudential measures to a reasonably minded Government, or if the measures were injudiciously carried out by a concentration of troops either sudden or overwhelming, and in spite of treaties to the contrary, then no doubt something may be said for the Sikhs. But every one of these considerations tells against them, and in our own favour. The condition of the Punjab was surely such as to create natural apprehensions. Captain Cunningham indeed supposes that the Sikhs “did not understand why they should be dreaded when intestine commotions reduced their comparative inferiority still lower.” But it can hardly be thought strange that the British Government should look with distrust towards a state in which a numerous and well-appointed army had monopolized the administration of affairs, had made and unmade Sovereigns, had held state trials and performed state executions, and was now encamped, with loud proclamations of conquest, close to its own frontier. As to the precipitancy with which the troops were collected, or the scale on which the muster was made, it might be summarily conclusive to point to the plight in which we were actually surprised. We will, however give the reader the actual figures to judge by. The original frontier station was Loodianah, and here, up to Runjeet’s death, there used to be 2,600 men and six guns. Stations were afterwards formed at Ferozepore, Umballa, Kussowlee and Simlah, while, on the other hand, the station of Kurnal was (in 1843) abandoned. The frontier force was then raised successively by Lord Auckland to 8,000 men, by Lord Ellenborough to 14000 men and 48 guns and by Lord Hardinge to 32,000 men and 68 guns, out of which last establishment 17,000 only were found available for the actual shook of war at Ferozoshah. With respect to the stipulations of treaties, Captain Cunningham does not venture to allege that we were debarred by any such compacts from occupying the cis-Sutlej province in such force as we thought proper; he merely argues that it was contrary to the “arrangement” by which the symbols of our power had been confined to Loodianah. Admitting, however, that the Sikhs did probably “cherish these old relations of 1809,” and that our authorities in times past had deemed it prudent to adhere to such forms, were not all the conditions and requirements of such relationship reversed, when instead of the sagacious policy and strong Government of Runjeet, the whole external representation of the Sikh state was centred in the mutinous and turbulent battalions of the Khalsa? As to Major Broadfoot’s personal comportment, it is hard to attack one who can no longer defend himself; but even if all that is here alleged of his imperiousness be true, surely the unpopularity of a political agent is not to justify an invasion.

Apart, however, from this, Captain Cunningham’s own statements go far to relieve the British Government of the responsibility thus cast upon them, for he acknowledges that the war was deliberately promoted by some of the chiefs who desired to engage the troops in destructive hostilities, and thus to free themselves from a licentious and overbearing soldiery, who disturbed them in the enjoyment of their possessions, so that the culpability must be mainly transferred to native shoulders. It is curious to see what interesting and inoffensive gatherings the Sikh musters appear in the descriptions of the author. The old battalions of the Khalsa, trained by Avitabile and Ventura, dragging a tremendous force of artillery, and fresh from scenes of civil carnage to which few parallels could be found in the Irish campaigns of Cromwell, or the Saxon campaigns of Tilly, become “illiterate peasants,” impressed with a sacred notion of their duties, hardy “yeomen,” taking up arms for their rights, or innocent husbandmen impelled to war in defence of their ancestral shrines. Even the democratic committees of delegates, by which all military authorities were superseded, are described as merely representing the old patriarchal system of “punchayets,” so common in Indian villages, though the author might have remembered that the custom in the Sikh army was only a few months old, that it had originated in a military insurrection, when Shere Singh, in order to quiet the mutineers, offered to treat with such deputies as might be sent to him, and that a general massacre of the officers was the first step of these new authorities. When the campaign at length commences the colours of the picture are still further heightened. The “youthful Khalsa” are led to destruction by the calculating treachery of their own Sirdars. As soon as they touch the British territory they are “startled at their own audacity, and partially intrench one portion of their forces while they timorously keep the other as a reserve out of danger’s way. Thus the valiant Swedes, when they threw themselves into Germany under their King, the great Gustavus, revived the castrametation of Roman armies in the presence of the experienced commanders of Austria; and thus the young Telemachus, tremulously bold, hurled his unaccustomed spear against the Princes of Ithaca, and sprang for shelter behind the shield of his heroic father!” The numbers of the Sikhs are always pared down, while those of the British are exaggerated. Their formidable fieldworks become “slight and imperfect intrenchments.” The battles read as we may presume the battles of the Peninsula will read in the next volume of M. Thiers. At Ferozeshah “no exertion could have saved the English if the Sikhs had boldly pressed forward.” At Buddiwal the traitorous Sikh commander “did not essay the easy task of improving the success of his own men into the complete reverse of his enemy.” At Aliwal, after the brilliant charge of the British cavalry, “the ground was more thickly strewn with the bodies of victorious horsemen than those of beaten infantry.” At Sobraon “no Sikh offered to submit, and no disciple of Govind asked for quarter… …The victors looked with stolid wonderment on the indomitable courage of the vanquished; but the warlike rage, or calculating policy of the leaders, had yet to be satisfied; and, standing with the slain heaped on all sides round them, they urged troops of artillery almost into the waters of the Sutlej to more thoroughly destroy the army which had so long scorned their power.”

We can understand this kind of narrative when Mr. Fenimore Cooper is describing the battle of Bunker’s Hill, or when Mr. Hazlitt is relating the reverses of Napoleon, but it comes strangely from an experienced, able, faithful, and well rewarded servant of the Indian Government. However, it is certainly a magnanimous fancy, and it supplies us with the altera pars which all stories need. We will, therefore, say no more on the point, but leave the book to the reader’s own judgment. As to the general qualities of the work, they include all that is good and bad in Indian composition. The history is written with great fullness of detail, with great laboriousness, with a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, and with a fondness for it which (in the author’s eyes) invests every particular with an attraction not its own. But its style oscillates between tumid description and complicated detail. There is little arrangement and no kind of perspective. The writer never realizes in his own mind the wants of an ordinary English reader, and records his transactions in Thibet as if every one who took up his book would recollect the relations between Cashmere and Lassa, and be conversant with the topography of Leh. What an accomplished writer has suggested as the chief cause of the unpopularity of Indian history is conspicuously exemplified in the pages before us. They contain an immense amount of information of great value, and display an industry of which any officer might be proud; but they are so wholly technical and professional in their form, that they are little better fitted for the general reader than a treatise on gunnery or an apology for Buddhism.
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