Britain’s Gurkha War: The invasion of Nepal, 1814-16
by John Pemble
Frontline Books, 2008
Thucydides begins his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War by saying that whatever the publicly declared reasons and complaints, the truest explanation was that “the growth of Athens’s power and the fear this caused among the Spartans made war inevitable”. Written nearly 2500 years ago, it is a fair judgement against which to assess the causes of innumerable wars since, including the one that took place between Britain and the Gorkha state of Nepal between 1814 and 1816.
In the 60-year period after 1742, when Prithvi Narayan Shah became its king, Gorkha’s growth as a military and political power was phenomenal. War with China in 1792 arrested its westward expansion; but within a few weeks of Bhim Sen Thapa seizing power in Kathmandu, in 1804, the drive westward from Garhwal resumed, with even greater energy and success. Only the failure, after a three-year siege, to take Sansar Chand’s massive fortress of Kangra denied Gorkha the possibility of seizing Kashmir, the greatest prize for which it strove.
The formidably efficient Gorkha war machine, coupled with its insatiable desire for conquest, was powered by the desire for land revenue, particularly that from the fertile and productive Tarai lands over which many of the hill rajas had control. More revenue sustained a bigger army, which in turn needed more land and more conquests. These stark linkages stemmed primarily from the fact that Gorkha was a military state. The nobility made up the bulk of the army leadership, and it was their loyalty to Gorkha and to the throne that ensured the throne of the loyalty of the army. In the most literal sense, therefore, political power rested on the army, and its loyalty had to be constantly cultivated.
The East India Company, the agent of British power in India, was well aware of Gorkha’s expansion from small impoverished hill state to potential rival as empire builder. The renewal of Gorkha’s drive to the west in 1804 started to harden the attitude of the Company towards Gorkha as a potential impediment to its interests and profits. To quote Edward Thornton, in his 1843 The History of the British Empire in India, “The Goorkhas thus acquired an extent of dominion and a degree of power which, combined with the disposition they had manifested, rendered them dangerous neighbours.” A decision was thus made that Gorkha needed to be put in its place, and that place was to be the hills. The plains were to be exclusively British. This would also have the advantage of permanently weakening Gorkha, by denying it the revenue from the Tarai that it needed not just for expansion but also to maintain itself as a unitary state. This intent was embodied in a unilaterally derived Principle of Limitation, which Gorkha was ‘invited’ to accept. It was, in effect, an ultimatum, and its rejection in word and deed inevitably led to war.
Securing the north
John Pemble’s book is a well-written and well-researched comprehensive history of the conflict. It was first published in 1971 under the title The Invasion of Nepal: John Company at war (using the colloquial reference to the East India Company), and this is a more accurate description of what the book is about. With the devastating analysis of the East India Company’s main military force, the Bengal Army, as an instrument for waging war, military-history buffs will also relish the vivid descriptions of the many actions of the war. Particularly memorable are the scathing characterisations of the senior British commanders, most of whom were ditherers and vacillators of a high order.
The Marquis of Hastings, the newly arrived governor-general of India, was a military man of some considerable experience. He personally drew up the invasion plan, and was confident that it would lead to a quick, perhaps even bloodless, victory. The two main objectives – Kathmandu and the army of Amar Singh Thapa in the far west – were each to be attacked with two cooperating columns of troops. Some of Hastings’s confidence was based on a firm belief that it would be easier to attack a mountainous country than to defend it. This gross misperception was not his only error. Just as serious was his grave underestimation of the fighting capability of the enemy, as well as an overestimation of his own forces.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the war, which began in October 1814, started badly for the Company’s forces. The impetuous Rollo Gillespie, the most experienced and famous of its commanders, was killed in the first main action. The commander of the force intended to capture Kathmandu deserted. Another was paralysed into inaction, and his successor also fell into the same torpor. Only Colonel David Ochterlony, the commander of the westernmost column, in Garhwal, showed the acumen and patience to work out what was required: tactics adjusted to the terrain and full exploitation of his powerful artillery. His brilliant generalship led to the surrender of Amar Singh Thapa and his much-depleted army at the Malaun fortress on 15 May 1815, thus effectively ending the war. After delays caused by reluctance to accept all British stipulations, and a second brief phase of hostilities, which threatened Kathmandu, the Treaty of Sagauli was ratified in March 1816. This confined Nepal between the Mechi and the Mahakali rivers. All the Tarai lands were also to be lost, though substantial tracts were eventually handed back by the British in order to achieve a secure border.
Pemble, a historian with the University of Bristol, is very fair in his judgements on the conflict. Fulsome tribute is paid to the fighting spirit of the Gorkhas. Particularly moving and memorable are his descriptions of the scene of slaughter found when the British entered the Nalapani fort, near modern-day Dehradun, where Bal Bahadur Kunwar’s forces had bravely offered prolonged resistance to sustained British attacks; and the successive charges against the British guns before the Malaun fort (in present-day Himachal Pradesh), led by the aged but valiant Bhakti Thapa, in a vain attempt to save the day for Gorkha.
Two subsidiary chapters are also worth commenting on briefly. It is unfortunate that the section on the causes of the war perpetuates without question a singular British view. For Pemble, “the war was made acceptable by the need to define and secure the northern boundary of the East India Company’s possessions and to vindicate the Company’s raison d’etre as a government by defending the subjects under its protection.” With regards to Hastings’ motives, he does write that “it would be wrong, probably, to discount entirely love of imperialism for its own sake”. But the probably here is revealing, as is the acknowledgment that Hastings was delighted when the Kathmandu court reacted to his ultimatum in the way that it did.
Second, a long chapter on Himalayan trade goes into impressive detail to prove that, by 1814, trans-Himalayan trade was commercially unimportant for the Company. But while Pemble makes a persuasive case, a great deal of this chapter is taken up explaining away the evidence that the main actors on the Company’s side – starting with the governor-general himself – were motivated by a view quite to the contrary.
In contrast to the attention paid to Britain’s “fears” and “necessity”, there is scant mention of Gorkha’s equivalent concerns. Although Pemble acknowledges that the Gorkha empire would have proved viable if the war with Britain had not intervened, and that “its great strength was the army by which it had been won and by which it was held, for no rival among the Himalayan states had a force more efficient and more loyal,” nowhere does he analyse the basis of that loyalty or the dynamics that drove the army on to further conquests. In this, it should be pointed out that Pemble’s research was done in the 1960s. Originally, he did not therefore have the benefit of reading Ludwig F Stiller’s The Rise of the House of Gorkha, published in 1973, many of whose ideas were referred to earlier in this review. With its extensive references to Nepali sources, Stiller brought out, in convincing detail, the fact that the land-military nexus was fundamental to the successful growth of Gorkha.
In the event, despite the great cost and the loss of the lands west of the Mahakali River, Nepal emerged from the war still in possession of large tracts of Tarai lands. This gave it the capacity to remain a unitary state, something that might not have been possible if it had merely accepted the Principle of Limitation as a means of avoiding war. After the conflict, the army continued to be indulged and pampered. Indeed, it increased in size and, with the loss of revenue from conquered land, the ordinary peasant had to be squeezed – many to the point of impoverishment – to produce the money needed. Their unheard, anguished appeal for some relief was The Silent Cry of Stiller’s 1976 book. There is a contemporary echo here, as well. The Maoist conflict ended nearly three years ago, but an untouched and bloated Nepal security sector, plus the Maoist combatants in the UN supervised cantonments, still has to be paid for. About this, few in authority seem concerned, at least so long as ever-pliant donors continue to produce the funds required to preserve the status quo.
Serving the crown
One other significant outcome of the war is briefly but accurately covered. On 14 April, as part of the actions around Malaun, Lieutenant Peter Lawtie, Ochterlony’s aide-de-camp and field engineer, led a volunteer body of deserters and prisoners from the Gorkha army into action against their former masters. They immediately impressed. Even before this first use, Ochterlony had adopted them as very much his own. After the conflict, he masterminded the recruitment of some 4700 men of Gorkha’s western army into British service as an irregular corps. The best estimate (from A P Coleman A Special Corps) is that about 1500 of these were Chhetri, Gurung and Magar soldiers from the Gorkha heartland. The rest were hillmen of Kumaon, Garhwal and Sirmur.
It is beyond the scope of this review to describe the endless twists and turns that have led to some 3400 citizens of Nepal serving under the rubric of the Brigade of Gurkhas in today’s 100,000-strong British Army. But serve they do, and with great distinction, as a valued and integral part of the army. Their recent and current service in operational theatres, particularly Afghanistan, has added even greater lustre to their reputation as soldiers of the very highest quality. One of the original 40 demands of the Maoist rebels was that all recruitment of Nepalis into foreign armies must cease. But Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) recently told some visiting British MPs that recruitment would in fact not be stopped. However, changes are taking place that could well revise Nepali attitudes in years to come. New terms and conditions of service introduced in 2007 put Gurkha soldiers on full British rates of pay and pensions, and gave them the right to settle in UK after discharge, a right that can lead to citizenship. This right was also extended to those who retired after 1997, the year of British withdrawal from Hong Kong. The courts are currently considering appeals to extend this right to an indeterminate number who retired before that year.
Since 2007, remittances to Nepal from serving Gurkhas have come down by 97 percent. This indicates that just about everyone now serving intends to settle in the UK. There is clearly no further need to buy land and a house for a future back in Nepal. Pensions will also be paid in UK. Thus, the direct value to Nepal of the UK’s right to recruit Gurkhas will rapidly diminish to zero. Capital flight and loss of pension revenue are already underway. Since 2004, some 6000 former Gurkhas have been granted settlement in the UK, a figure that includes 3500 who retired before 1997 and have been granted the right under existing discretionary rules.
In the UK, the extensive and sympathetic coverage that has been given to Gurkha court cases seldom refer to Nepal or its interests. It is as if Gurkhas have mysteriously materialised from a Gurkhaland, somewhere. In Kathmandu, meanwhile, the media seldom mention the trend highlighted. Justification for the huge number of young Nepalis who leave each week to search for work overseas is accepted on the grounds that Nepal gains through remittances. Yet comment is scarce on the fact that this no longer pertains to British Gurkhas, who arguably constitute Nepal’s most privileged and richly rewarded group of ‘expatriate workers’. Allowing citizens of Nepal to be recruited into the British Army has traditionally been based on the principle of mutual benefit. Clearly, thought must now be given to finding new ways of making certain that this continues to be the case. It cannot become a one-way street.
All of this is a far cry from the days of Ochterlony and Lieutenant Lawtie. But they would be proud to know that the direct descendents of the Special Corps they formed remain special in every sense, and far exceed in bravery and loyalty even their lofty expectations. Long may it be so!