(BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 – continued)

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BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 (5 of 9)

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India and the British Debacle in Afghanistan, 1831-50

Politics to 1835

In 1831 the British claimed there was misrule in Mysore, a kingdom with which they had had a subsidiary alliance, and they took over administration of the kingdom. Meanwhile, people in Britain were criticizing the East India Trading Company for its restrictions on Christian missionaries and for supporting Hinduism, and in 1833 parliament responded by giving Christian missionaries the right to go to India without a license. Parliament took power from the East India Company, took over the company's debts, conferred all British power in India upon their governor-general in India, and eliminated the company's trading monopoly with China and the East Indies, leaving the company with a trade monopoly in India in salt. And parliament allowed any British subject to migrate to India.

In British-controlled India, English was to be the language in the courts of law, and in 1835 the British opened an education system, with instruction in English, soon followed by English speaking civil servants. With only 17,000 military personnel in India, the British remained concerned about hearts and minds in India. The phobia in Britain about Russian expansion was at an all time high, and Britain's elder statesman, the Duke of Wellington, observed that, for defense against the Russians in India, Britain was dependent upon its Indian troops – the Sepoys.

The British Debacle in Afghanistan, 1838-43

In early 1838, Shah Muhammad of Iran sent a force into India's neighbor, Afghanistan, and the Iranians laid siege to the city of Herat. Shah Muhammad is said to have been encouraged by the Russians. The British protested, and Russia's tsarist government publicly disowned Russian involvement in the Shah's venture. Nevertheless, with the left-liberals detesting Russia because of its illiberality and Britain's conservative-right concerned about Russia's threat to Britain's position in the world, a consensus existed for a tough line. Parliament decided in favor of a demonstration of British power. The British believed that the ruler in Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, was too friendly with the Russians, and, on October 1, 1838, Britain's governor-general in India, Lord Auckland, issued what is called the Simla Manifesto. The welfare of India, it stated, required that the British have "a trustworthy ally" on India's western frontier. Lord Auckland, said to be a normally a man of peace, sent a force through the Bolan Pass – a force of 12,000 British and Indian troops, with elephants, 38,000 camels and a horde of followers, including families, prostitutes, and sellers of opium, rum and tobacco. They reached Kandahar in April, Ghazni in June and Kabul in August, 1839. Some of the British in the force were hoping to show their courage against the Russians.

The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan. Instead, they claimed, they were supporting Afghanistan's legitimate ruler "against foreign interference and factious opposition." That man was Shah Shuja, a loser in recent decades in a struggle for power in Afghanistan. The British took away Dost Muhammad's power and imprisoned him, but he escaped. Afghanis confronted the British-Indian force with guerrilla warfare, and rumors of a Russian invasion to restore Dost Muhammad became common among the British.

Dost Muhammad was recaptured and taken to India. The British were barely able to hold on in Afghanistan. In November 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes, Britain's appointed political resident at Kabul, was hacked to death, and an uprising in that city left 300 of a British detachment dead. The British pulled out of Kabul. then a British force returned to rescue captives and to punish the city. They blew up the city's covered marketplace and troops went on a spree of looting.

In April, 1842, Shah Shuja was assassinated, and that year the British were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. During the British invasion, most of the dead on the British side were Indians. The demonstration of power that the British had hoped to display had become an humiliation. Dost Muhammad returned to Afghanistan and to power in 1843, and there was a change among Afghanis in general: before the British invasion, it is said, the Afghanis had been hospitable to foreigners and now they were xenophobic.

India in the Wake of Afghanistan, to 1850

The British were afraid of being perceived as militarily weak, and in India they were interested in demonstrating their power. Their major challenge was from Sikhs in the Punjab. Sikhs had been fighting among themselves over who would succeed to a throne that had been vacated in 1839, and the British allied themselves with one faction against another. The Sikhs were confident and well-trained fighters, better armed than other Indians had been, but not always as well-armed as the British and their Sepoys. In December 1845 a coalition of Sikhs forces attacked the British. In three months of tough fighting in the Punjab – at Moodkee, Ferozeshah, Aliwal, and Sobraon – the British forces prevailed, and in 1846 the Sikhs signed a treaty obliging them to disband most of their military.

The Sikhs had been ruling in Kashmir since they had conquered it in 1757, and the British sold it to a Hindu maharaja, Ghulab Singh – despite that area being overwhelmingly Muslim.

A second Anglo-Sikh war erupted with a Sikh revolt in April 1848. The British won again, and in 1849 they formally annexed the Punjab and territory to northwest, including Peshawar, pushing their control in India across the Indus River to the Khyber Pass.


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