Victoria's Wars 1843-1860 - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

Victoria's wars 1843-1860

Sind 1843
In 1843 Sind was a large independent territory to the west of British India. It was ruled by two amirs who had allowed the British to use Sind as a base for British troops during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. Following Afghanistan the British established a number of forts along the route to Quetta. An increasing British presence was criticised in Sind and to quell any attempt to get rid of the British, Governor General Ellenborough sent General Napier to negotiate an agreement to allow the British to stay. Napier was a bible thumping evangelist who believed it was his duty to rid Sind of its evil rulers. He persuaded the amirs to sign a treaty that abolished duties on Indus river traffic , agreed to the HEIC being the only arbiter over disputes between the amirs, and also to the handing over of a sizeable piece of territory. Napier was still not satisfied and in February 1843 invaded Sind with a force of 3,000 men. At the Battle of Miani, Napier won a one sided contest with the traditional British tactics of artillery and bayonets. On 20 February in Hyderabad, Napier announced the deposition of the amirs and the annexation of their lands. Prime Minister Peel who had forbidden any annexation was not pleased and having survived a motion of censure in the Commons dismissed Ellenborough.
The land of the Sikhs
The Sikh Wars, Punjab
The Punjab was a largely flat area extending from the north east of the Himalayas to the confluence of the Indus and Sutlej rivers in the south east. The people living there were a mix of Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Hindus and the dominant group, Sikhs. Under the leadership of Ranjt Singh the Sikhs dominated the area with a large efficient standing army of 70,000 men. With the addition of irregular cavalry the army could be expanded to 85,000 men. In 1839 Ranjit Singh died leaving a power vacuum which his sons were unable to fill. Eventually an army council supported Maharani Jindan as the leader and she ruled supreme for a time although the country was bankrupt. Eventually infighting between Jindan and the army led to the possibility of a war against the British as a way of discrediting the army. Reports of trouble inside the Punjab led the  British Governor of India, Henry Hardinge to move 30,000 troops to the border with the Punjab.
Battle of Meanee
1st Sikh War, 1845-46
When Hardinge learned that the Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej in force, he declared. war. The Sikhs had 50,000 men whilst the British forces in the region were scattered and the main force, 10,000 men under Gough was still several days march away. Gough was to meet an advance force of 10,000 Sikhs at Mudki and used horse artillery to force a Sikh withdrawal but with heavy losses. After three days rest Gough resumed his march towards the main force of Sikhs at Ferozpur. At Ferozeshah, Gough found his way blocked by a force of 13,000 men with more artillery than he had. Hardinge forced him to wait for the arrival of Littler's division and once they had arrived they attacked.  A heavy Sikh artillery  bombardment led to confusion among the British camp, but Gough only knew the tactic of attack. Eventually after much hand to hand fighting  the Sikh defences were breached. The next day saw the arrival of the bulk of the Sikh army. It seemed a hopeless position for the British who were outnumbered and tired. Squares of soldiers were formed but the Sikh artillery got the better of them and it seemed the situation was hopeless until the 3rd Light Dragoons charged a larger force of Sikh cavalry. The Sikh riders turned and fled and soon the whole Sikh army followed. Their leader, Tej, believed that his men could not have removed the British from their defensive positions but he would never get a better opportunity to defeat the British.

With more reinforcements arriving from Meerut, Gough was able to advance towards the main Sikh bridgehead  at Sobraon which lay in front of the river Sutlej and consisted of men on both banks of the river, all well entrenched. The Sikh forces numbered 35,000 with 100 guns whilst Gough's men stood at about 15,000 with 80 guns. On 10 February 1846, The British forces were able  to drive Tej's men into the river and into a smaller and smaller space. No quarter was given as the Sikhs lost  67 guns and 10,000 men with the river blood red. The Sikh army had been destroyed. A strict peace was imposed on the Sikhs - they were forced to give up land in the east, restrict the size of their army, accept a British force in Lahore and agree not to make war without the agreement of the British. A British resident was appointed to keep the Regency Council in line - he was Colonel Lawrence, the eldest of the famous Lawrence brothers.

The treaty imposed on the Sikhs included a war indemnity but when it was found impossible to pay the British agreed to the granting of Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh for half of the war indemnity. So it  was that a Muslim dominated province was given to a Hindu ruler.
The Battle of Chillianwala
2nd Sikh War, 1849
The treaty ending the first war brought more and more resentment against the British who took a greater and greater role in the government of the country. By the end of 1847 there was insurrection throughout the north (much of it from demobilised soldiers) and Gough again had to defeat the Sikh forces. At the Battle of Chilianwalla the Sikh forces were defeated but more through the valour of the British soldier than the tactical awareness of Gough. The Sikh army under Sher Singh was still intact though and swelled to over 50,000 with support from Afghans.
Gough had 25,000 troops and 96 guns which were used very effectively to deal with Sikh attacks in the crucial Battle of Sadiwal. For the first time the British had artillery superiority and a series of defeats had left Sher Singh's forces denuded of the best regiments.

On 29 March 1849 in the throne room of Lahore Fort, Dalip Singh was forced to abdicate and surrender the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, one of the largest diamonds ever found. Dalhousie later admitted that he had decided as early as September 1848 to annex the Punjab although he had never got the agreement of the British government for his actions.
The Koh-i-noor diamond
The China Wars
In 1793 and 1816 there had been two British missions sent to China in order to establish diplomatic links but neither of them made any progress. It was perhaps inevitable given the weakness of the Chinese state and the British search for new markets for their goods that there would be a clash with China eventually and this came in 1839.

Canton was the main port open to trade with China and it was here that the first collision came when the Chinese government decided it wanted to reduce the opium trade which was having a detrimental impact on Chinese society. The Chinese commissioner in Canton, Lin Tse-hsu, was told to implement a series of measures to limit the trade. 20,000 cases of illegal British opium was seized and then the British communities in Canton and Macau were expelled.
Although the HEIC (Honourable East India Company)  had lost its monopoly, the profits from the opium trade still accounted for 40% of the total value of Indian exports and the money made was often more than the sum total of the interest payable on loans received by the HEIC from London. The HEIC and the British government was not willing to allow this situation to go unchallenged. Consequently the Foreign Secretary, Palmerston, authorised the sending of an expedition consisting of a fleet of gunboats and 4,000 troops to the mouth of the Canton River. In the war that followed, (1839-1842) the British used all the modern technology available to them such as steam gunboats, war rockets and muskets. At the start of the conflict Hong Kong was seized and annexed to be used as a naval base, and then gunboats were used on the Yangste River to shell Shanghai and Chungking before being taken by landing forces. Whilst the British killed many Chinese with their superior firing power, the British lost men to sunstroke, malaria, dysentery and cholera. The result of the Yangste campaign was that the Chinese government signed the Treaty of Nanking which confirmed British possession of Hong Kong and the use of Canton as a trading base besides the opening up of Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai and Ningpo as trading bases.

This war exposed China's military weakness and established Britain as the dominant power in the Far East. Using the newly acquired port of Hong Kong Britain sought to make the coastline and rivers of China safe for trade by eliminating piracy. This was popular work for the crews which could earn good money from the bounties won. Relations between the two governments though were not good and not helped by the actions of British warships. These actions at sea helped to provoke another war with China in 1856 when Cantonese soldiers on 8 October 1856 boarded the British registered Arrow and hauled down its flag. The claims to British registration were doubtful as the registration had lapsed. The British captain of the Arrow reported the incident to the consul in Canton who demanded the release of crew members (some of whom were former pirates known to the Chinese).
The bombardment of Canton by the British
Parkes, the Canton consul appealed to Browning, the Governor of Hong Kong who, seeing an opportunity to extend his area of control, agreed to become involved and ordered a British gunboat to board a Chinese vessel . As the crisis escalated a squadron of the Royal Navy was sent up the river to bombard Canton and blockade the city of Canton. The British cabinet was not whole heartedly in support of Browning's  actions but they decided to support him in the interests of trade and to punish the Chinese authorities.
The support of the Cabinet for what Richard Cobden described as an illegal action prompted in January 1857  a heated debate in Parliament. In the House of Commons with Palmerston warning the Commons not' to abandon a British community to a set of barbarians.' It was not enough to prevent Cobden's motion of censure to win by 263 votes to 247. Palmerston, now the Prime MInister appealed to the country in a General Election which he lost to a Whig-Radical coalition.

Meanwhile Lord Elgin had been sent by Palmerston to China as an envoy to negotiate with the Chinese government to end the impasse over the Arrow. Elgin was joined in Hong Kong by a French envoy sent by Napoleon III to get compensation for the execution of a French missionary. The two envoys eventually authorised an attack on Canton itself and with 2,000 soldiers newly arrived from Calcutta and a powerful French fleet, the city was bombarded and then entered. The victorious troops stripped the city bare with Elgin himself taking 52 boxes of silver and 68 boxes of gold ingots. The allies deposed the Commissioner and replaced him with his deputy.

The Imperial government refused to accept the situation so an allied fleet of gunboats attacked and took five forts at the mouth of the Peihu river. This forced Chinese Commissioners  to agree to what became the Treaty of Tientsin signed in 1858 by which China would pay £5m in war reparations, the opening up of China to Christian missionaries, the freedom of Europeans to move anywhere in China and a permanent representative in Peking. The Imperial government was slow to ratify the treaty and this produced the Third Chinese war of 1860.
Frederick Bruce, Elgin's brother was sent to Peking with a fleet of sixteen warships but the fleet failed to breach the booms put across the mouth of the River Peiho. By the time the news reached London Palmerston was back in power and he was determined that British prestige must be repaired. A large British and Indian force of 13,000 troops was sent together with 6,500 French troops to the mouth of the Peiho. The force took the forts at the mouth of the river without too much difficulty and then  began their march on Peking.

The destruction of the Summer Palace
Having arrived at the outskirts of  Peking, the Emperor sent envoys to let it be known that two new commissioners had been appointed to begin discussions. After  exhaustive discussions the Chinese commissioners agreed to all the allied demands but a party of British envoys was captured by a Tartar force. Elgin decided that it was time to use force rather than diplomacy against this Tartar army which was  attacked before Peking. The much larger Tartar army was defeated and forced to retreat but not before they had beheaded two prisoners. As well as the retreat of the Tartar army, the Emperor himself fled leaving Peking to the allied army. The Summer Palace which contained the pick of Chinese art treasures were looted despite an agreement of the Allies to preserve the treasures.
Wolseley who was General Hope Grant's military secretary, believed that the looting and the destruction of the Palace ordered by Elgin in October helped to hasten the signing (by the Emperor's brother Prince Kung)  of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. As well as ratifying the earlier  treaty, Kung and Elgin agreed the transfer of Kowloon to the British. The expedition had been enormously successful with few military casualties, huge  reparations, and the permanent annexation of Kowloon to add to Hong Kong. It was perhaps ironic that Elgin, the man who had saved the Parthenon friezes, destroyed one of the wonders f the world - the Summer Palace.

Peter Crowhurst, August 2019

Further reading:
Victoria's Wars by Saul David, 2006
Britain's Empire by Richard Gott, 2011
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James, 1994
The looting of the Summer Palace, Peking, during which up to a million items were taken away.
Back to content