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The Maharajah’s howitzer

An indian ruler sits crossed legged

Ranjeet Singh. Gouache painting by an Indian painter. credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

In 1838 the Governor-General of India Lord Auckland arrived in Lahore to persuade Maharajah Ranjit Singh to allow British Indian armies to march across Punjab. The British planned to install a puppet ruler on the throne of Afghanistan. To sweeten the deal, Lord Auckland gave the Maharajah two new howitzer guns, cast in the Company foundry in Cossipore, one of which is still in the Royal Armouries collection at Fort Nelson.

Guest historian Gurinder Singh Mann, Director of the Sikh Museum Initiative, explains the thinking behind the gift, and how it ended up in Hampshire.

‘Lion of the Punjab’

Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839) known as the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was a young military leader of the Sukerchakia Misl, one of the Sikh Confederacies. He managed to absorb the various Sikh Misls and carved out the Sikh Empire in the region of the Punjab, India between 1801 and 1839. His reign ushered in a renaissance of Sikh culture from the minting of coins to the employment of artisans who created and beautified Sikh places of worship (Gurdwaras) and other Mughal structures.

His sovereignty was challenged by the Afghans to the west and the British–run Honourable East India Company to the east. As a result, Ranjit Singh needed to consolidate his military strength. But resistance to change came from within and this was mainly from the Akali Nihangs, the Sikh warrior elite.

The legend of the Akali

This traditional order was ordained by the Tenth Guru-Gobind Singh (1666-1708) when he created the Khalsa or the ‘fraternity of the Pure’. Whilst Ranjit Singh embarked on hiring Europeans or Ferengi this was not to the liking of the Akalis who had a distaste for anything foreign.

Tall blue turban with steel quoits and daggers

Quoit turban (dastar bungga), also known as a Fortress Turban, Northern India, about 1775-1848. (XXVIA.60) Turban composed of quoits, kirpans and held by plaited steel wire. Worn by the Akali Nihangs.

The Punjab Pie: the British take a bite

Ranjit Singh recognised the strength and the importance of the Akalis but also realised that he needed to modernise his army if he was to gain more territories as well as protecting his borders from the East India Company. In 1809 the Treaty of Amritsar had defined the borders between the Sikh Empire and British territories with the River Sutlej being the nominated marker. However, the British were also mapping the territories of Punjab and obtaining intelligence on its resources and capabilities. With the aid of his Ferengi generals, the Maharajah updated his army formations and training, adopting more European-style infantry and artillery divisions and drill.[2]

Bronze cannon

9 pr howitzer gun, 1838 (XIX.247) presented to Maharajah Ranjit Singh by Governor General Auckland in Ferozepore. Made in the Cossipore Foundry.

At the same time, the British were keen to keep good relations with the Sikhs as they wanted to control the affairs in Afghanistan. Punjab was the buffer state between both powers. So when Lord Auckland arrived in Lahore to broker a deal, his gift was intended to appeal to the Maharajah’s continued modernisation programme.

Aftermath

The Maharajah died in 1839, and his death plunged Punjab into turmoil. Communications between the Sikh Empire and the East India Company broke down and in 1846 the First Anglo Sikh War broke out.[3]

The highly trained Sikh army was more than a match for the East India Company and its native armies. Ranjit Singh’s modernisation programme, combined with the traditional fighting methods of the Akalis initially proved highly effective. In the hands of ‘the pure’, Sikh swords like the talwar were superior to their British equivalents. However, the British were ultimately successful in the wars and in 1849 the Punjab was annexed, one of the last states to fall to the Company.

decoratie indian sword and scabbard

Sword (talwar), scabbard and belt, 1801-1830 (XXVIS.138)

The Sikh treasury or Toshkhana, which consisted of exquisite jewellery, arms and armour, was seized and catalogued.[4] Some of the items were sold off; others made their way to various collections in the UK, including the Royal Armouries, where several items are on display at the museum in Leeds. They include armour we think belonged to Maharajah Ranjit Singh himself.

helmet decorated with gold

Helmet, 1800-30. (XXVIA.36) Traditionally of Ranjit Singh.

The cannons were taken by the Royal Artillery, and one was transferred to the Royal Armouries in 1968.

As a gift recaptured as the spoils of war within the space of a decade, the Maharajah’s howitzer is a symbol of contradiction: of warfare and friendship between empires; of a monarch balancing the demands of the past with the needs of the future.

References

  1. K. Singh & G.S. Mann, The Granth of Guru Gobind Singh: Essays, Lectures and Translations (Oxford University Press).
  2. Forthcoming 2019- G.S.Mann, British and the Sikhs: Discovery, Warfare and Friendship (Helion and Company).
  3. Visit www.anglosikhwars.com for more information on the battles.
  4. T .Richardson & N.Bennett ‘The East India Company Gifts to the Tower of London in 1853’ in East Meets West-Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia (Royal Armouries).

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