Second Anglo-Sikh War

Second Anglo-Sikh War

The Second Anglo-Sikh War took place in 1848 and 1849, between the restive Sikh Kingdom and the British Empire. It resulted in the subjugation of the Sikh kingdom, and the annexation of the Punjab and what subsequently became the North-West Frontier Province by the East India Company.

Background to the War

The Sikh kingdom of the Punjab was consolidated and expanded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh during the early years of the nineteenth century. During the same period, the British East India Company's territories had been expanded until they were adjacent to the Punjab. Ranjit Singh maintained an uneasy alliance with the East India Company, while increasing the military strength of the Khalsa (the Sikh Army, which also saw itself as the embodiment of the state and religion), to deter British or Afghan aggression against his state.

When Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the Punjab began to fall into disorder. There was a succession of short-lived rulers at the central Durbar (court), and increasing tension between the Khalsa and the Durbar. The East India Company began to build up its military strength on the borders of the Punjab. Eventually, the increasing tension goaded the Khalsa to invade British territory, under weak and very possibly treacherous leaders. After the hard-fought First Anglo-Sikh War ended in defeat for the Sikh army, the Punjab was partially governed by the East India Company.

Aftermath of the first Anglo-Sikh War

The Sikhs were made to cede some valuable territory (the Jullundur Doab) to the East India Company, and Maharaja Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu, was allowed to acquire Kashmir from the Sikh kingdom by a large cash payment to the East India Company. These conditions naturally humiliated and angered the Sikhs. Some of the Khalsa were forced to make an expedition to oust the ruling Maharajah of Kashmir in favour of Gulab Singh. [Hernon, p.575]

The infant Maharaja Duleep Singh was allowed to retain his throne, but a British Resident (Sir Henry Lawrence) now controlled the policy of the Durbar (court). Duleep Singh's mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, continually tried to regain some of her former influence as Regent, and was exiled by Lawrence. While some Generals and courtiers welcomed her dismissal, others resented Lawrence's action. [Hernon, p.576]

Some of the Khalsa had to be kept in being, since many predominantly Muslim areas of the Sikh kingdom threatened to ally with Dost Mohammed Khan in Afghanistan or to lapse into disorder, and only force of arms could keep them in subjugation. The British were unwilling to incur the financial and manpower costs of using large numbers of British or Bengal units for this task. In fact the Governor-General of India, Viscount Hardinge sought to make economies after the war by reducing the size of the Bengal Army by 50,000 men. The Sirdars (generals) of the Khalsa naturally resented carrying out the orders of comparatively junior British officers and administrators.

Early in 1848, Sir Henry Lawrence, who was ill, departed on leave to England. Although it was assumed that his younger brother John Lawrence would be appointed in his place, Lord Dalhousie, who had replaced Hardinge as Governor-General, appointed Sir Frederick Currie instead. Currie was a legalist, based in Calcutta, who was unfamiliar with military matters and with the Punjab. [Allen, p.145-146] While the Lawrences were comparatively informal and familiar with the junior officers who were Residents and Agents in the various districts of the Punjab, Currie was stiffer in manner, and inclined to treat his subordinates' reports with caution. In particular, he refused to act on reports from James Abbott, the Political Agent in Hazara. Abbott was convinced that Sirdar Chattar Singh Attariwalla, the Sikh Governor of Hazara, was actively plotting a rebellion with other Sirdars.

First outbreak

The city of Multan, although part of the Sikh kingdom (having been captured by Ranjit Singh in 1818), was nevertheless been governed by a Hindu viceroy, Dewan Mulraj. After the end of the First Anglo-Sikh war, Mulraj had behaved independently. When required by the British-controlled Durbar in Lahore to pay an increased tax assessment and revenues which were in arrears, Mulraj attempted to give up power to his son, so as to maintain his family's position as rulers. Currie instead imposed a Sikh governor, Sirdar Khan Singh, with a British Political Agent, Lieutenant Patrick Vans Agnew.

On April 18, 1848, Vans Agnew arrived at Multan, with another officer, Lieutenant William Anderson, and a small escort. Mulraj handed over the keys of the fortress, but as Vans Agnew's party attempted to take possession, they were attacked by a party of Mulraj's irregular troops, and a mob from the city. Both officers were wounded, and were rescued by Khan Singh. They were taken to a mosque outside the city. Their escorts fled or defected to Mulraj, and the officers were murdered by the mob the next day. [Allen, p.149-150]

Mulraj later claimed that he had not instigated these attacks, but he was committed to rebellion because of them. [Hernon, p.578] He presented Vans Agnew's head to Sirdar Khan Singh, and told him to take it back to Lahore. [Allen, p.150] The news of the killings spread over the Punjab, and unrest and disquiet increased. Large numbers of Sikh soldiers deserted the regiments loyal to the Durbar to join those prepared to rebel under the leadership of Mulraj.

ubsequent outbreaks

Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the British Political Agent in Bannu, had been near Multan in April but was unable to save Vans Agnew. He hastily levied some Pakhtun irregular troops, and together with some loyal Sikh regiments, defeated Mulraj's army near the Chenab River on June 18 and drove them back to the city but was unable to attack the fortified city itself. On August 18, he was joined by a small force from the Bengal Army under General Whish to begin the siege of the city.

Meanwhile, on learning of the events at Multan, Currie (supported by Dalhousie, the Governor General, and Sir Hugh Gough, the Commander in Chief of the Bengal Army) declined to order major units of the East India Company to the Punjab until the end of the hot weather and monsoon seasons, which would not be until November. Instead, Currie ordered several detachments of the Khalsa to suppress Mulraj's rebellion. To the alarm of several Political Agents, the largest contingent was commanded by Sirdar Sher Singh Attariwalla, Chattar Singh's son.

Some Agents were already taking action to forestall outbreaks of rebellion. Captain John Nicholson, leading irregular cavalry, seized the vital fort of Attock on the Indus River from its Sikh garrison while they were still deciding whether to rebel. His force then linked up with James Abbott's local Hazara levies to capture the Margalla Hills which separated Hazara from the other parts of the Punjab. When Chattar Singh openly rebelled in August, his force was unable to leave Hazara without fighting a battle. Although Chattar Singh twice succeeded in capturing the passes through the hills, he nevertheless failed to take advantage of this (possibly because of dissension among his senior officers and continual harassment by pro-British irregulars), and retreated into Hazara.

On September 14, Sher Singh's army openly rebelled at Multan. He did not join Mulraj however. He and Mulraj conferred at a carefully chosen neutral site, at which it was agreed that Mulraj would give some money from his treasury to Sher Singh's army, which would march north into the Central Punjab and ultimately rejoin Chattar Singh. Meanwhile, Whish was forced to raise the siege until he was reinforced.

Course of the War

As the cold weather season began in November, substantial contingents from the East India Company's armies at last took the field.

A contingent from the Bombay Army (administered separately from the Bengal Army) had been ordered to reinforce Whish and besiege Multan. This force was delayed by a petty squabble over seniority and could arrive only when its first commander (who was senior to Whish and refused to serve under him) was replaced by a more junior officer. Whish's army was supplied and reinforced by sea and river transport up the rivers Indus and Chenab.

Sir Hugh Gough led his main force against Sher Singh. Sher Singh's army held the line of the River Chenab against Gough for several weeks. On November 22, the Sikhs repelled a British cavalry attack on their bridgehead at the Battle of Ramnagar. Although they subsequently withdrew from their exposed bridgehead, the Sikhs regarded the battle as a victory and their morale was raised. Gough forced his way across the Chenab in December and outflanked the Sikhs defending the fords, but his cavalry but then paused to await infantry reinforcements, allowing the Sikhs to withdraw without interference.

At the start of 1849, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan of Afghanistan sided with the rebellious Sikhs, who agreed to cede the area around Peshawar which had been conquered by Ranjit Singh early in the nineteenth century. Dost Mohammed Khan's support of the Sikhs was cautious, but when 3,500 Afghan horsemen approached the vital fort of Attock on the Indus River, its garrison of Muslim troops defected. This allowed Chattar Singh to move out of Hazara and march west and then south, intending to link up with Shere Singh's army. Dalhousie had earlier ordered Gough to halt operations while waiting for Multan to fall, which would allow Whish to reinforce him. Learning of the fall of Attock, he instead ordered Gough to destroy Sher Singh's army before Chattar Singh could join him.

Gough unexpectedly encountered Sher Singh's position near the Jhelum River on January 13, 1849. Sher Singh had cunningly concealed his army, and Gough was faced with the choice of withdrawing, or attacking when it was late in the day. Gough unhesitatingly took the latter course. The resulting Battle of Chillianwala was desperately fought. Gough's troops, attacking into thick scrub without artillery support, suffered heavy losses. Some units lost their colours (which was regarded as a disgrace) and part of one British cavalry regiment fled in panic, resulting in the loss of four guns, also reckoned a humiliation. Sher Singh's army was also hard hit, losing twelve of its own guns.

Three days of heavy rain followed, discouraging both sides from renewing battle. After both armies had faced each other for three days without renewing the action, both withdrew. Sher Singh continued northwards to join Chattar Singh, which made the battle into a strategic British defeat.

There was much alarm at the losses Gough had suffered. His tactics were severely criticised and he was replaced by General Charles James Napier, who could not arrive from Britain for several weeks. Some junior officers reckoned that the true cause of the setback lay lower down the ranks. Promotion in both the British and Bengal armies came slowly, and by the time officers were appointed to command regiments and brigades, they were too old, and worn out by harsh climate and disease. At Chillianwala, several senior officers had proved unable to command their units effectively. [Allen, p.192]

The last battles

Meanwhile, Whish's force completed their siege works around Multan, their batteries opened fire and made a breach in the defences, which the infantry stormed. Mulraj surrendered on January 22. He was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. The ending of the siege allowed Whish to reinforce Gough. In particular, Whish's division had large numbers of heavy guns, which the Sikhs lacked.

As Gough's army closed in on the Khalsa, Sher Singh attempted a last outflanking move, sending cavalry to cross the Chenab, and re-cross in Gough's rear. They were thwarted by heavy rains which made the river difficult to cross, and British irregular cavalry led by Harry Burnett Lumsden and William Hodson. On February 13, Gough attacked the Khalsa at the Battle of Gujrat. Here, he began the battle with a three-hour bombardment from almost 100 guns, which drove the Sikhs from their hasty entrenchments. He then sent his cavalry and horse artillery after them in a pursuit which lasted for four hours.

On March 12, Chattar Singh and Sher Singh surrendered near Rawalpindi. Some 20,000 men (mainly irregular cavalry) laid down their arms. The Afghan contingent hastily withdrew through Attock and Peshawar, which the British reoccupied. Dost Mohammed Khan later signed a treaty acknowledging British possession of these cities.

On March 30, Duleep Singh held his last court at Lahore, at which he signed away all claims to the rule of the Punjab. A proclamation by Dalhousie, annexing the Punjab, was then read out. For his services the Earl of Dalhousie received the thanks of the British parliament and a step in the peerage, as marquess. Gough also received rewards for his services, although his tactics at Chillianwala were to be questioned for the remainder of his life. Many of the junior British Political Agents who had organised local resistance to the Khalsa were to have distinguished later careers.


The Sikh defeat had resulted from several causes. Their administration of the population of the Punjab had been poor, which meant that their large armies found it difficult to find enough food. The mainly Muslim inhabitants of the frontier districts, who had themselves been subjugated by the Khalsa in earlier years, readily fought under British officers against the Sikhs, continually disrupting their movements. Finally, the East India Company had brought overwhelming force against them.

The Sikh Wars gave the two sides a mutual respect for each other's fighting prowess (although the war itself had been unchivalrously fought; the Sikhs took no prisoners at Chillianwala, and the British had taken no prisoners at Gujarat).

There was an increased recruitment of people from various communities of the Punjab in the Punjab Irregular Force under British command. These recruits fought for the East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, against the mutineers and other opponents (mostly high-caste Hindus from Eastern provinces, and forces or loyalists of Shia, Maratha and Mughal rulers). These Punjabi recruits had especially little sympathy with the Hindu mutineers of the Bengal Army, ironically contributed to by the latter's role in helping the British in the Anglo-Sikh wars. A long history of enmity of the Sikhs with Mughal rule did not help the mutineers' cause either, given their choice of Bahadur Shah Zafar as a symbolic leader.



*cite book|last=Allen|first=Charles|title=Soldier Sahibs|publisher=Abacus|year=2000|isbn=0-349-11456-0
*cite book|last=Farwell|first=Byron|authorid=Byron Farwell|title=Queen Victoria's Little Wars|publisher=Wordsworth Military Library|year=1973|isbn=1-84022-216-6
*cite book|last=Hernon|first=Ian|title=Britain's Forgotten Wars|publisher=Sutton Publishing|year=2002|isbn=0-7509-3162-0

External links

* [ Second Anglo-Sikh War]
* [ Sikhs in British Empire]
* [ The Anglo Sikh Wars]

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