Sir Frederick Currie, 1st Baronet - Career - The Period As Resident At Lahore and The Events Leading To The Second Anglo-Sikh War

The Period As Resident At Lahore and The Events Leading To The Second Anglo-Sikh War

In 1847 Currie was appointed to the Supreme Council of India. However, he was soon to be appointed to a different post. Henry Lawrence was granted sick leave in 1848 and travelled back to England with Hardinge, who had come to the end of his term of office as Governor-General. Hardinge was replaced on the 12th January by the Earl of Dalhousie, a former President of the Board of Trade in Sir Robert Peel's cabinet and, on the 6th March, Currie replaced Lawrence as Resident at Lahore.

During the first few months of 1848 the Punjab had been disturbed by only a few incidents. Hardinge, when leaving, had predicted that peace in India would remain unbroken for the next seven years. The periodical The Friend of India reported "the last obstacle to the complete, and apparently the final, pacification of India has been removed". The London Morning Herald considered that "India is in the full enjoyment of a peace which, humanly speaking, there seems nothing to disturb".

It was the calm in the eye of the storm. Beneath the surface there was turmoil in both camps. Many of the Sikh commanders were seething at what they saw as the treachery of their general Tej Singh during the war and the subsequent settlement. Before he left, Lawrence had exiled Lal Singh, for urging Kashmir governor Shaikh Imamuddin not to turn over that country to Gulab Singh, and had replaced him as vizier by Tej Singh. When Maharaja Duleep Singh refused to invest Tej Singh as prime minister, Lawrence had imprisoned the Regent, Maharani Jind Kaur, and this treatment of the widow of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was a further source of anger and unrest.

In the British camp, John Lawrence, who had been expected to receive the Resident appointment during his brother's leave of absence, was critical of Currie, pointing out that the latter lacked military knowledge and experience of the feuds and alliances of the numerous Sikh, Muslim and Hindu factions. Lawrence, who at that time was Commissioner of the Jullundur District (he later became Viceroy and Governor-General of India), was charismatic and independent, traits he shared with several other officers connected with the Lahore Residency, including Captain (later Brigadier-General) John Nicholson, Commissioner of the Sind Sagar District, Captain James Abbott (later General Sir James Abbott), Deputy Commissioner of Hazara and Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers (later Major-General Sir Herbert Edwardes), Assistant at Bannu to the Resident. These would have been a challenging bunch to manage even if circumstances had given Currie time to settle into his new post before the situation exploded.

When the Diwan Mul Raj Multanwala, governor of the Sikh province of Multan, was faced with an increase in the levy imposed by the British, he resigned his office. To replace him, Currie appointed the Sikh Sardar Kahn Singh Man, who arrived at Multan on the 18th April with two British officers, Mr Vans Agnew and Lieutenant William Anderson. The Diwan handed over the keys peacefully, but afterwards his soldiers attacked and wounded the British officers, who were rescued by Kahn Singh and his troops and carried to the British temporary camp at Idgah, half a mile from the fort of Multan. Agnew sent urgent messages to Lieutenant Edwardes and Colonel van Cortland, asking for help. However the following day a Mazhabi boy was shot by one of Kahn Singh's men and an angry mob from the city sought out and killed the British officers. Kahn Singh was taken prisoner and led before Mul Raj, who presented him with Vans Agnew's head and told him to take it back to Currie. Mul Raj then declared a holy war against the British and set about strengthening the defences of the citadel.

Lieutenant Edwardes quickly decided to quell what he saw as a local outbreak before it developed into a national revolt. With Currie's agreement he assembled a force with help from Cortland and the Khan of Bhawalpur, marched on Multan and called upon the rebels to surrender. When Dalhousie heard about this, he was furious that a subaltern should act in this way without his authority. He sharply reprimanded Currie for allowing Edwardes to march on Multan, and ordered him to "keep his reckless subaltern absolutely and utterly away from Multan". Currie wrote to Dalhousie defending Edwardes and asking for a free hand in dealing with the situation. He also wrote to Gough, the Commander-in-Chief, recommending that a British force should at once move upon Multan, capable of reducing the fort and occupying the city. Neither request was granted immediately. Gough, in his summer headquarters in the hill station at Simla, considered that military activity during the hot and monsoon seasons (May to September) was inadvisable. However, the Lahore garrison was reinforced, as were also the forces at Ambala and Firozpur.

Meanwhile, the imprisonment of Maharani Jindan Kaur in the Sheikhupura Fort in the Punjab had not destroyed her determination and ability to influence the affairs of the Punjab. She maintained contact with Sikh leaders and Currie described her as "the rallying point of rebellion". On discovering plots by her against the British, he decided to exile her from the Punjab. She was taken to the Chunar Fort, about 45 km from Varanesi, her allowance was reduced from 150,000 to 48,000 rupees and her jewellery and cash were taken from her. This caused deep resentment among Sikhs and fuelled the developing rebellion. The Muslim ruler of neighbouring Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan protested that such treatment is objectionable to all creeds.

Trouble was also brewing in the Hazara province. During the first months of Currie's Residency Captain James Abbot had warned Currie that discontent was rife in the Sikh brigade stationed there and in August he reported that its Governor, Sardar Chattar Singh Attariwalla was planning an uprising against the British. Abbott raised a Muslim force and marched on the capital to expel Chatar Singh. Currie ordered an investigation by Captain John Nicholson, whose report excused the defensive measures the Governor had taken to protect the capital, but drew attention to Chatar Singh's numerous previous actions, which had given rise to and justified Abbott's assessment. Accordingly, Currie issued orders that substantially reduced Chatar Singh's authority and income. This angered his son, Raja Sher Singh Atarivala, who was fighting on the British side with Edwardes against Diwan Mul Raj. Sher Singh was a prominent member of the Council of the Regency and was until then well disposed to British interests. His sister was betrothed to Maharaja Duleep Singh and in November 1847 he had been honoured by the Lahore Durbar with the title Raja.

In July Dalhousie granted Currie the free hand he had asked for in April. Currie ordered a force from the East India Company's Bengal Army, under General Whish, to join Edwardes and the contingents from Van Cortland, Bhawalpa and Sher Singh in the Siege of Multan. The forces under General Whish arrived outside Multan between the 18 and 28 August. However, Sher Singh and his troops changed sides on 13 September, angered by the treatment of both his father and sister, and the Bhawalpa troops and a number of Edwardes' irregulars dispersed to their homes in sympathy with them, severely weakening the British side. The fortified city of Multan with its fortress citadel was considered to be the strongest in the Punjab and General Whish decided that the siege must be abandoned until the arrival of reinforcements from Bengal, so he withdrew to a position which commanded the principal roads to Bahawalpur and the Derajat. The reinforcements started arriving in November and heavy siege guns arrived at the beginning of December. Their batteries made two breaches in the city walls and on the 30th destroyed the main magazine in the citadel. The city itself fell early in January 1849, but the citadel held out for two more weeks, finally falling on 18 January.

Sher Singh had offered to assist Mul Raj, who declined his offer but gave him money to pay his army, so he moved northward with his troops at the end of September on the way to join his father. He proclaimed himself a servant of the Maharajah and the Khalsa and called upon the people of the Punjab to rise in arms and expel the British. Meanwhile, the Sikh contingents at Bannu, Kohat, Tofik, Peshawar and Attock had joined Chatar Singh.

The monsoon over, Gough announced in early October the formation of "the Army of the Punjab" to operate under his personal control. He reached Lahore on 13 November. Full accounts of the campaign are given elsewhere. Summarising:

  • 22 November - Gough's cavalry fell into a trap at the ford of the Chenab River at Ramnager, with severe losses, including the deaths of General Cureton and Colonel Havelock;
  • 13 January - a disastrous battle at Chillianwala, after which Lord Airey, referring to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, said "It is nothing to Chillianwala";
  • 25 January - Sher Singh, joined by Chatar Singh's army, moved to Gujrat, on the Chenab River;
  • 18 February - General Whish's troops and heavy batteries arrived from Multan and during the next two days brigades from Bombay and Bengal arrived;
  • 21 February - the British won a decisive final victory in the Battle of Gujrat;
  • 14 March - Sher Singh surrendered to the British at Rawalpindi;
  • 29 March - the British flag was hoisted on the citadel of Lahore and the Punjab was formally proclaimed to be part of the British Empire.

Currie had called for military help to protect the young Maharaja and his government of the Lahore Durbar. However, despite his protests and strong opposition from Henry Lawrence, who by that time had returned from leave, Dalhousie had annulled the Lahore Government, exiled Duleep Singh and confiscated the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the symbol of his power. The Sikh Raj was ended. The annexation of the Punjab was complete. A Sikh warrior cried out "Aj Ranjit Singh mar gaya" - Today Ranjit Singh is dead.

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