Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Ghurkas

It was in the year 1813 that a great change took place in the trade with India. As the Company became more and more rulers they became less and less traders. Indeed, instead of making money by their trade, they lost it. Yet they had a monopoly of the trade with India, and no one else was allowed to take part in it. Indeed no European was allowed to live in British India unless he held a post in the Company.

Besides this all the goods from or to India had to pass through the India House and the Port of London, and rising ports, such as Liverpool or Glasgow, had no hope of any profit from it. For not only had all the goods to go to London, but they had all to be carried in ships belonging to the Company.

At last the other merchants and shipowners of Great Britain began to be impatient of the Company's monopoly and wanted to share in the Indian trade. Napoleopn, too, was still trying to ruin British trade by shutting all the ports on the Continent to our goods. And the manufacturers and millowners of Lancashire and Yorkshire saw in India a new outlet for their wares.

So merchants and shipowners sent petitions to Parliament begging that the trade of India might be made free to all. The directors of the Company, although they were now losing money, were bitterly opposed to this. But the people of Britain won the day. In 1813, when the Charter of the Company was renewed, the ports of India were opened to all the merchants of Great Britain, who were free to trade from their own ports, and to carry goods in their own ships and not in those of the Company only. But people who wished to live in India had still to get a license from the Company. It was not until twenty years later that any one who liked was allowed to live there.

For some years after Lord Wellesley left, the plan of not interfering with the native states and their wars was followed in India. In Central India the wild Maráthás and a still wilder tribe called the Pindaris plundered and spoiled at will. Meantime the British were occupied fighting the French both at home and abroad. But that struggle was coming nearly to an end, when in 1813 Lord Hastings went to India as Governor-General and the new trade began. This Lord Hastings has of course nothing whatever to do with Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General.

At home Lord Hastings had been one of those who had found fault with Lord Wellesley's wars and conquests. But he had hardly arrived in India when he was obliged to change his mind, for he found himself forced into war.

The Maráthás, the Pindaris, and a third people called the Ghurkas had made Central India a waste of misery. The Ghurkas were a warlike race from the mountains of Cashmere. They were small and hardy. From their mountains they had swept down upon the peaceful province of Nepal, which lies along the base of the Himalayas, and completely conquered the people. Having conquered the people of Nepal and taken their lands, the Ghurkas next attacked towns and villages within British borders.

At first, for the sake of peace, and to carry out the orders of the directors about not interfering, no notice was taken. Finding that the British did nothing, the Ghurkas grew bolder and bolder. At last their attacks became so bold, that just before Lord Hastings arrived, the governor sent a message to the Ghurka chief ordering him to give up the British lands of which he had taken possession.

The Ghurka chief, having so long done as he liked, refused. Then war began, for Lord Hastings saw that there would never be peace in India until these bandit chiefs were made to keep the peace even within their own borders.

The Ghurkas were very proud and haughty. They were a brave and fearless race of mountaineers, and they did not fear the British. "What power can fight against us in Nepal?" they asked. "Our hills and fastnesses are the work of God. They cannot be taken by mortal men. As for the British, they cannot even conquer mud fortresses which are the work of men's hands. How then can they take our forts, which are created by the Everlasting One?"

At first it seemed as if the Ghurkas were right. The British in India were not used to mountain warfare. The little Ghurkas were very fierce in battle. Their charge was terrible, like that of our own highlanders. After firing their guns, they rushed upon the foe with fierce yells, attacking them with their little deadly knives. And the sepoys, dismayed by this sudden onrush to which they were not used, gave way before them again and again. Misfortune and disaster followed each other.

Apart from fighting, the difficulties were great. The British army had to pass through almost trackless jungle where wild beasts prowled, and poisonous snakes glided. The toils and hardships of the way were enough to make the bravest falter. And it is told of one officer that he was so terrified that he turned and fled back to camp leaving his soldiers to their fate. But not many were like him.

When the jungle was passed and the mountains reached, troubles and hardships were by no means left behind. Up pathless valleys, along ledges overhanging sheer precipices, the heavy cannon had to be dragged. As they rose higher, icy winds whistled around the men, snow lay deep upon the ground through which they had to struggle.

Every pass was defended by a fortress easily held by a few against the attacking army. General Gillespie, the hero of Vellore, besieged one fort for a month. It was held against him by only six hundred Ghurkas. But both sides fought with so much determination that the garrison was reduced to seventy before the fort yielded, and of the besiegers five hundred lay dead, among them the gallant general.

From all sides came news of failure and disaster. The Ghurkas rejoiced in victory, and seeing the British worsted, all the bandit chiefs in India began to plot together for the overthrow of the British Raj.

But at length the tide of war turned. A gallant general, sir David Ochterlony, carried fort after fort in the face of every difficulty and danger. In spite of their heroic fighting, in spite of their brave defences, the Ghurkas were defeated. They saw at length that their vaunted "Heaven built" forts, and mountain passes were no defences against the British Lion. So they gave in.

By the treaty of Segauli peace was made. A brave enemy became a firm friend, and from that day to this there has been no quarrel between the British and the Ghurkas. Later, the Ghurkas became British soldiers, and the Ghurka regiments are among the best of our Indian army.

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