Nepal and Tibet

This brief chapter contains the published reports on Nepal and Tibet. They are readily severable from the other news, which is the main reason I have done so.

The only caveat I should mention is a report of a general northern alliance against the India Company that appears in the Asia and Afghanistan chapters. With that in mind the reader might wish to also study those chapters for related news from nearby.

This chapter reveals something of the early basis to the martial fellowship between Gurkhas and Britons that commenced in 19th century and continues two centuries later.

Sat 3rd Dec 1814

General Gillespie’s army attacked Kalunga, one of the frontier fortresses of the Rajah of Nepal towards Srinigar, but was repulsed and killed in the assault. In another assault, the fort walls of Nalagur were bombarded. They are pukka-built (sun-dried brick) and our cannon balls passed through the walls like timber but eventually we brought down a corner and the Gurkhas then asked to surrender.

During the Mughal Raj the Indian frontier with Nepal was at Jellalgur in Purnea. When we last marked our territorial limit on that frontier in 1796 we placed it 40 miles north of Jellalgur.

The Company has always followed the rule that a country’s border is the limit of its cultivation. It was Queen Elizabeth’s directions that British colonisation should not impinge on cultivated lands but be built on vacant or abandoned land. In this case India under our stewardship has expanded its cultivation into unused lands to the north – it is an aspect of our superiority.

Our immediate northern neighbours are called the 24 Rajahs, a group of village chiefs, one or more of whom occupy each river valley. Beyond them are the Nepalese. The Mughals had occasional border conflicts with the 24 Rajahs but never disturbed the Nepalese. In these remote mountain fastnesses the people pursue the Hindu religious ideal in a state of peace and innocence.

The Gurkhas are a small tribe based to the west of Nepal that has a history of encroaching on and assimilating the lands of its neighbours. In 1776 a disputed succession in Nepal caused one candidate to solicit Gurkha aid. Upon his success that year, as payment, he allowed the Gurkhas to seize the lands of the Rajah adjacent to Purnea who was a tributary of the Company and under its protection. This elicited a stiff letter from Warren Hastings but the Gurkhas completed their conquest before replying, alleging their opponent had been a troublesome chap.

A British freebooter named Smith set-up at Nautpur in the district in 1773, funded by a House of Agency in Calcutta, and developed a valuable business in timber, indigo farming and saltpetre mining. He built boats, carriages and agricultural implements and employed over 500 men. The local people came to trust him and made him their magistrate. He obtained his labour during famines when the Indian people more readily sell their children. He gave the kids board and lodging and, when they were old enough, they work in his farms, mines and factories. He was a popular employer and the worst punishment he meted out was to dismiss people from their employment with him. After he died his woman became the ruler of the estate.

Meanwhile the Gurkhas had encroached all the way from the Almora Hills in the west to Barhumpooter in the east, adjacent to the frontiers of our provinces of Rohilcund, Oudh and Rungpur.

In 1776 Sir Robert Barker notified Clive that the district was a treasure house of gold, ivory, cinnamon, musk and firs suitable for masts. This was a gross exaggeration but the fir trees are real and valuable.

A route from Bengal to Tibet and China passes through Bhutan which is only visited by Jesuits (Editor ‘they go everywhere’).

The Company sent two missions to the Teshoo Lama at Lhasa – one led by Bogle in 1774 and another under Turner, a relative of Warren Hastings, in 1783. Turner published an account of his travels but the first well-known British visit was by General Kirkpatrick.

In 1782, the Gurkhas penetrated to Degarchen in Tibet and plundered that base of the Teshoo Lama. He escaped and petitioned Peking for help. That caused the Kien Lung Emperor to send a Chinese army into Tibet. Cornwallis whilst Governor-General received letters from the Chinese Amban at Lhasa notifying him of the approach of the Chinese army and its purposes. He also received a plea for help from Kathmandu but maintained a strict neutrality.

The Chinese pursued the invaders to Kathmandu and negotiated Nepali and Gurkhali submission to China as vassals.[1] Tibet was already a Chinese client. Thus it was that the Company obtained a common frontier with the Chinese Empire.

But what was not reported to Peking was a reversal of Chinese military fortune whilst outside Kathmandu. The Gurkhas fell back on Kathmandu and the Chinese were precipitant in following-up, allowing the Gurkhas to spring a trap. They turned and attacked the Chinese General’s camp obtaining sufficient advantage to bring him to terms. This ‘forlorn hope’ was the work of ex-Sepoys of the Company’s army who still wore their old red jackets. It caused the Chinese General to report somewhat plausibly that he had been attacked by the British and it formed the basis to the complaint made to Macartney in 1794 by the same General after his return to Peking.

The Teshoo Lama then went on a tributary mission to Peking and died whilst there or en route. His brother the Sumhur Lama became doubtful of the cause of death and fled to Nepal bringing the contents of the Tibetan national Treasury with him. The Gurkhas heard about the length of his baggage train and sent an army to Kathmandu to plunder it in 1785. And so it has gone on.

During the last ten years, we have had Gurkha raids on our own border villages every harvest-time and people have been killed. All these villagers are under our protection. The Company’s representatives remonstrated with the Gurkhas but they were implacable. The attacks last year were as bad as ever. Now we are going to fight them. The King of Nepal is a young Gurkha named Bueem Sena. He can raise an army of 12,000 from all his widespread settlements but in the vicinity of Kathmandu his maximum force is 4,000.

We are sending Major General Marley with a force of about 6,000. They will march through Muzufforpore to the frontier and continue to Kathmandu.

Another force is near Dehra Dun and around the headwaters of the Jumna where they will deal with the Nepalese in that area. Colonel Ochterlony is replacing the late Major General Gillespie and is at Ludhiana. He will besiege Nallaghur and open a route to Umeer Singh Thappa’s base near the headwaters of the Sutlej River. The fort at Nallaghur has a garrison of only 100 men but we will require artillery to destroy the walls and gain access. That is difficult to arrange in a mountainous region. Horses are unequal to the task of dragging guns up these hills and the Company must rely on elephants to get the 18-pounders into position.

A third army is assembling at Benares under Major General Wood. Their objective is the town of Gurkha to the west of Kathmandu.

Sat 7th Jan 1815

Nepal War – Our second siege of Kalunga failed to produce a breach but the Gurkhas themselves abandoned the fort on 30th November. They returned our dead without stripping them of their possessions which is unusual and suggests they may be amenable to negotiations. We found nearly 100 dead Gurkhas in the fort and many injured men, whom we are treating.

The next fort to be reduced is Ramghur. It is 12 miles distant and 5,000 feet above our camp on the Sutlej. Ochterlony is commanding there and reportedly having a hard time. He has had 45 dead returned to him from an outpost he could not sustain. The Gurkhas are skilled and courageous fighters. Both their defensive and offensive arrangements are admirable.

Sat 14th Jan 1815

The Governor-General has belatedly declared war on Nepal on 20th December. At first it appeared we would be able to subdue the Nepalese in the usual way but they fight better than the Hindus and Muslims we are used to dealing with. It is also the case they are in the mountains and it is difficult to get our artillery into position against them. It is the Company’s use of artillery that assures our easy victories.

The Declaration of War is for the information of those native states in alliance with the Company. The Nepalese have common frontiers with the Sikhs and the Nawab Vizier of Oudh as well as the Company. The Nawab is our ally and the Sikhs are under our protection. Nepalese incursions have occurred at Purnea, Tirhoot, Sarun, Goruckpore and Bareilly as well as between the Jumna and Sutlej Rivers in the protected lands of the Sikhs. We have remonstrated against Gurkha occupation of Indian villages and farms without effect.

Recently a new encroachment in the Tuppah of Nonnoar resulted in the death of a Nepalese official Soubah Luchimgir and we opened negotiations to settle the line of the frontier. During these discussions the Nepalese seized another tract of nearby land – an act of injustice and bad faith. We nevertheless instructed our Commissioner Young to include the newly seized lands in the negotiation. The Nepalese argued that we had agreed the Tuppah of Rotehut was theirs in 1783 and the Tuppah of Nonnoar formed a part of that fief. In fact these Nonnoar lands were expressly reserved to the Company in the 1783 treaty and the Nepalese clearly recognised that by not entering Nonnoar for 30 years. They have now violently re-entered Nonnoar which seems to accord with our long experience of their system of gradual encroachment.

They have also sought to fix responsibility on us for the death of their Soubar at Nonnoar. He died whilst in the lands of the Rajah of Biteah whom they demand be punished. They justify their encroachments as indemnity for his life. In fact it is our information that the Soubar was leading an incursion into the Rajah’s lands and died in an affray.

Sat 4th Feb 1815

The Gurkhas are proving better able to fight than any of our previous enemies in India. Four companies under Captain Sibley were isolated from the main body of troops and boldly attacked by a large Gurkha force on 1st January. Sibley’s men were driven into a river. He lost about 220 of his 300 men.

Sat 11th Feb 1815

Umeer Singh has sustained a defeat outside Ramghur. He sallied out against our besieging force and was severely beaten. We now hold the stockades in front of the fort. Its nice to have a partial success to report after so many defeats.

The Gurkhas have caught many of our elephants (essential for moving cannon into the mountains) and taken an ammunition train.

Sat 4th March 1815

General Ochterlony’s army is in difficulty. After two months of war, they have penetrated about 12 miles into Nepalese territory. The mountainous terrain slows the movement of artillery on which we imperatively rely for superiority. The Gurkhas are absolute masters of mountain warfare – they make their trenches so deep, our shot is ineffective.

Major General Martindell’s army is also stopped at Nahun awaiting for reinforcements.

General Marley’s army is at Baraghuree, confronted by a considerable number of Gurkhas.

The Nepalese created a diversion at Tirhoot where they made a sudden descent, plundered many villages and withdrew.

The Company is sending regiments from the Madras and Bombay armies to prevent our invasion stalling.[2]

Sat 11th March 1815

Nepal War – we have collected and incorporated a corps of 3,000 irregular troops who were all formerly farmers in the districts seized by the Gurkhas. We are deploying these men behind Gurkha lines to disrupt their communications. They appear to have been instantly effective and several Gurkha posts have been abandoned for want of provisions.

We are having great success against Gurkha positions with Shrapnel’s new exploding shells.

Sat 25th March 1815

Our expedition to Nepal is suffering from cold. The main camp is under 6” of snow and some camp followers have died of exposure. Ochterlony is persevering in the west. Reinforcements from all over India are marching to Gorruckpore.

Sat 15th April 1815

The Gurkhas have been using poisoned arrows against our forces in the foothills. We never use poison, we use Shrapnel’s grenades – they are barbarians. The hilly nature of the country and the skilled use of stockades gives the Gurkhas an equality with our superior technology. These people are short but strong.

Sat 22nd April 1815

Ochterlony has taken Taraghur. He managed to get a couple of 18-pounders up the hills to within 850 yards of the walls and fired off 700 rounds over the next two days with no appreciable effect. Next morning he saw the Gurkha garrison had withdrawn in the night and he took possession of the place discovering the walls to be 17 foot thick masonry. We will have to build a road system through these hills if we are to deal with more forts like Taraghur and bring the Nepalese into submission.

Fortunately the effects of our pressure are beginning to be felt by the Nepalese. A steady trickle of deserters is coming-in to our camps. They report ill-usage by Umeer Singh. We are being nice to them in the hope they will tell their friends to stop fighting. So far about 200 have come over. Their action suggests a quicker and easier way of ending this war in a satisfactory manner.

Sat 27th May 1815

Ochterlony has reported from Futtighur that he has obtained a signal victory over Umeer Singh and his Gurkhas. It was about 15th April. He sought to cut off Malown from the other nearby forts, this caused the Gurkhas to sally-out and a general engagement ensued. Both sides had heavy losses but we captured several members of Umeer Singh’s family which makes it a victory.

Mon 5th June 1815 Extraordinary

Kemaun, 27th April – Colonel Nichols has captured Almora and agreed a Convention with the Nepalese for their evacuation from this province.

Sat 10th June 1815

Futtighur, 14th May – Ameer Singh Thappa has surrendered to us all the Gurkha forts west of the Jumna. He is permitted to retain his arms and colours and retire across the Gogra into Nepalese territory. We managed to strike a few blows against him sufficient for his commanders to propose peace to him.

He pressed them to endure until the rains when the British army would be unable to operate in the hills. They were impatient and came-over to us straight away leaving Thappa with a few hundred men. He had no choice but to submit.

Sat 8th July 1815

There was an interesting confrontation at Jiheend on 19th March when 1,200 Sikhs, whom we have hitherto considered the finest fighting men in India, were defeated by 400 Gurkhas. The Nepalese came down to the Sikh positions in the night, waited for the moon to go down and assaulted the stockade, killing 250 of its 300 defenders whilst concurrently attacking the remaining Sikhs in their camp and firing it. Dawn revealed the Sikh survivors to be dispersed over 2-3 miles of country whilst the last of the Gurkhas could be seen ascending the mountains with their loot.

1816 – Whole year missing in BL copy

1817 – Whole year missing in BL copy

Sat 28th March 1818

E Gardner, our Resident at Kathmandu, has sent an interesting specimen to the Asiatic Society and another to Dr Wallach of the Botanical Gardens at Sibpur. It is Daphne Cannabina (known as Lokta in India – it is later identified as Daphne Papyracea) from which excellent paper may be made.

Sat 15th May 1819

Asiatic Mirror, 21st April – The Nepal government seems to be in difficulties. Rooder Bur Saab, the fine Nepalese administrator and General is dead. He was the brother of Beem Saab Choutra, who was the man who planned and executed the raid on Lhasa whereby the Gurkhas claim to have seized and brought away Tibetan property worth 15 million Rupees. That was the event that brought them to international notice and funded their expansion to the banks of the Sutlej.

Sat 3rd June 1820

Political Dept, 6th May – R H Hodgson has been appointed Assistant to the Resident at Kathmandu.

Vol 10 No 47 – 21st November 1837

Friend of India 24th August – The Indian government has fixed a mission to Bhutan and Tibet purportedly to establish commercial relations but, from the employment of the people selected for the mission, it appears more likely intended to collect political information and to learn of those countries’ botanical and mineral production.

The mission is led by Captain Pemberton, a well-known explorer. He is assisted by Griffith of the Madras Medical Service who recently examined the tea plants in Assam. An important political duty will be to get accurate information on these countries lying between British India and China.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Vassalship was a good deal – the Tibetans had discovered you got more from Peking than you gave. The Nepalese were no doubt delighted.
  2. The Company cannot lose in war – to do so is thought to invite insurrections all over India. Wherever the Company sustains a military reverse, it instantly sends reinforcements with a more senior CO and attacks again. The key to British power is the perceived invincibility of the Company’s army. That is what keeps the natives quiet.

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