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

The Sikhs

In 1839, while the British were fighting in Afghanistan, the brave and wicked old ruler of the Punjab, the Lion of Lahore, died. After his death the Punjab was torn with civil wars. Plots and murders followed fast upon each other, until the whole country was seething with misery and bloodshed.

The people of the Punjab were called Sikhs. They were not a nation like the Maráthás or the Ghurkas, but a religious body. Under Ranjit Singh, however, they had grown into a nation. He had formed an army which he called the Kalsa or "Saved ones." These "saved ones" were fierce, brave men, splendidly armed, perfectly drilled, and so full of a kind of wild, religious zeal that they were ready to fight any one, or do the most desperate deeds, in the name of God.

The Kalsa was now the greatest power in the Punjab and a terror to all. After much fighting among themselves, they suddenly marched across the river Sutlej, and invaded British India.

The British were in a manner prepared, for seeing the unruly state of the Punjab, they knew that war must come sooner or later. But they had not expected it so soon, nor had they expected to have to fight such a great army as now marched into Hindustan. So secure, indeed, did they feel, that the Commander-in-chief was going to give a grand ball, when the news of the invasion arrived. The ball was given up, and soon the army was marching in hot haste towards the frontier.

In a few weeks four great battles had been fought. Never before had the British in India had to fight such stern foes. In each battle the British loss was very great, and if the Sikh leaders had been as wise as the Sikh soldiers were brave, things might have gone ill. But their leaders were cowardly or foolish.

In the last battle of the campaign, which is called the Battle of Sobraon, the Sikhs were utterly defeated and driven back across the Sutlej with great slaughter. Lord Hardinge, the Governor-General, then marched to Lahore, the capital of the Punjab. The country was now quite conquered, and, had he wished, Hardinge might have added it to the possessions of the Company. But he did not wish to do this, and Dhulip Singh, a supposed son of Ranjit Singh, was set upon the throne. He was, however, only a boy of eight, so had not much real power. A great part of the famous Kalsa army was disbanded, a British resident and garrison were left at Lahore, the Sikhs were made to pay all the expenses of the war, and lastly, the famous Koh-i-nur diamond was sent as a present to the Queen Victoria. Koh-i-nur means mountain of light. This famous diamond has had many adventures. It had belonged to the Great Mogul, it had been carried off by the Shah of Persia, and after its many wanderings it came at last to our own little island, and was the largest diamond belonging to the British crown, until the great South African diamond was presented to King Edward.

Having arranged matters in the Punjab, Lord Hardinge marched home to Calcutta in triumph, and it was hoped that the Punjab would soon settle down in peace.

For about two years all was quiet. Then suddenly two Englishmen were treacherously murdered at the town of Multan. It was the first spark. Soon the whole Punjab was ablaze again with war.

"The Sikh nation has asked for war," said Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General, "and upon my word, they shall have it with a vengeance."

But once again the British found that they had stern work in front of them. The famous Kalsa soldiers gathered again, and fought with all their old courage. Chillianwalla, the great battle of the war, was almost a defeat. It began late in the afternoon. The Sikhs fought furiously, the air was thick with flying bullets, and dark with smoke, and when night put an end to the awful struggle, eighty-nine British officers, and nearly two thousand five hundred men, were among the killed and wounded.

It was a day of disaster. The British had lost both standards and guns, and once at least their horse had fled before the foe. Yet they claimed it as a victory. So did the Sikhs, and that same evening the men rejoiced, and their leader fired a salute in honour of the victory over the British.

But a month later the memory of Chillianwalla was wiped out by the great victory of Gujerat. Upon the battle morning the sun rose clear and bright, and under a cloudless blue sky the fight began. But soon the air was thick and the sun darkened with smoke from the fearful cannonade which thundered and roared from both sides. So tremendous was the firing that the battle was known as the battle of the guns.

The Sikhs fought with all their old fury and courage. The British, too, fought with a fierce determination to win. And win they did. At last the Sikh ranks broke, and fled. For fifteen miles the British chased the fleeing foe. The famous Kalsa army was utterly shattered. Cannon, standards, camp baggage of every sort, fell into the hands of the British. Resistance was at an end. The Punjab was conquered, and this time it was added to the Company's possessions. Maharaja Dhulip Singh, who was now a boy of ten, was given a pension, and his lands passed into the hands of the British. After a little time Dhulip Singh came to England, where he lived for nearly all his life, like an English gentleman, and died in Paris a few years ago.

There was still another war during Lord Dalhousie's rule in India. This was the second Burmese war. The Burmese began to ill-treat the British traders and settlers at Rangoon, so Lord Dalhousie sent an army against them.

As before, the sepoys refused to go over the sea. But this did not matter so much now, for many of the Sikhs, who had quite lately been enemies, had joined our army and were willing to go anywhere. Now they fought for the British with the same fiery courage as they had fought against them. This second Burmese war was very different from the first. It was soon over, and the province of Pegu was added to British Burma.

Lord Dalhousie was one of the great rulers of India. He, like Lord William Bentinck, thought of the good of the people. He has been blamed for adding so much to British possessions, but he did it often to make the people happier. Many of the native princes, who were independent, ruled badly. They tyrannised over their people, and treated them with great cruelty. Lord Dalhousie warned these princes again and again. But as they would not listen, and try to rule better, he took their lands from them. In this way Oudh, Nagpore, and some smaller states were peacefully added to British possessions.

But although Lord Dalhousie enlarged British India very much, he is to be remembered most for the great improvements that he made there. He made good roads, and cut canals. he laid down railways and stretched telegraph wires over thousands of miles. He brought in a halfpenny post over all India. Towns were lit with gas, and steamers plied up and down the rivers. Schools, colleges, and hospitals were built. In fact, Lord Dalhousie found the great peninsula a collection of many states, of many tribes, and he tried to bind them into one great Empire, one great People. And in this work railways and telegraphs were of the greatest help, for they bring distant places near, and bind together those that are far apart.

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