Timeline History

The Anglo-Gurkha war

The Gurkha War (1814 – 1816), sometimes called the Gorkha War or the Anglo-Nepalese War, was fought between Nepal and the British East India Company as a result of border tensions and ambitious expansionism. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.
For centuries the three kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley - Kathmandu, Patan and Bhadgaon, (now Bhaktapur), - had quarrelled amongst themselves and were too concerned with internal rivalry to pay attention to any potential danger from without. This insularity however had by 1769, enabled Prithvi Narayan Shah the king of Gorkha to conquer the valley, forming the foundations for the modern Kingdom of Nepal.
In 1767, a request to the British for help by the traditional valley kings under threat from Gorkha expansion resulted in an ill-equipped and ill-prepared expedition numbering 2,500 lead by Captain Kinloch. The expedition was a disaster - the Gorkha army easily overpowered those who did not succumb to malaria or desertion. This ineffectual and token British force not only provided the Gorkhas with firearms but also filled them with suspicion, causing some to underestimate their future opponents.
This conquest of the Kathmandu valley was only the beginning of an explosion of Gorkha power throughout the region. The Gorkha armies had overrun all of eastern Nepal by 1773 - by 1788 Gorkha forces had also annexed some western portions of Sikkim. In the west, all rulers as far as the Kali River had submitted or been replaced by 1790. Farther west still, the Kumaon region and its capital Almora, had also succumbed to the Gorkhas.
To the north however, aggressive raids into Tibet (concerning a long-standing dispute over trade and control of the mountain passes), finally forced the Chinese emperor in Peking to act. In 1792 he sent a huge army, expelling the Nepalese out of Tibet to within 5km of their capital at Kathmandu. Acting regent Bahadur Shah, (Prithvi Naryan’s son), appealed to the British Governor-General of India, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Moira for help. Anxious to avoid confrontation with the Chinese, Lord Moira sent Captain Kirkpatrick as mediator, but before he arrived the war with China had finished. The Nepalese were forced into signing a humiliating treaty revoking their trading privileges in Tibet and requiring them to pay tribute to Peking every 5 years.
The Tibet affair had postponed a previously planned attack on the Kingdom of Garhwal, but by 1803 the raja of Garhwal had also been defeated - he was killed in the struggle and all his land annexed. Further west, general Amar Singh Thapa overran lands as far as the Kangra - the strongest fort in the hill region – and laid siege to it (although by 1809, Ranjit Singh the ruler of the Sikh state in the Punjab, had intervened and drove the Nepalese army east of the Sutlej river).
The British were also expanding their sphere of influence. The recent acquisition of the Nawab of Oudh's lands by the British East India Company brought the region of Gorakhpur into the close proximity of the raja of Palpa - the last remaining independent town within the Gorkha heartlands. Suspicion of the raja’s collusion with the British led first to his imprisonment by the Gorkhas, then to his assassination. Bhimsen Thapa the Nepalese Prime Minister (1806 – 1837) installed his own father as governor of Palpa leading to serious border disputes between the two powers.
These disputes arose because there was no fixed boundary separating the Gorkhas and the British - a Border Commission imposed on Nepal by the Governor General failed to solve the problem. Gorkha raids into the flatlands of the Tarai (a much prized strip of fertile ground separating the Nepalese hill country from India) increased tensions - the British felt their power in the region and their tenuous lines of communication between Calcutta and the northwest were under threat. Since neither side had any idea where the border was supposed to be, confrontation between the powers was inevitable.


While the Gorkhas had been expanding its empire – Sikkim in the east, Kumaon and Garhwal in the west and into the British sphere of influence in Oudh in the south - the British East India Company had consolidated its position in India from its main bases of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. This British expansion had already been resisted in parts of India culminating in the Mahratta Wars, as well as in the Punjab where Ranjit Singh had his own empire-building aspirations. It was therefore imperative to the British that the Gorkha war was quickly and successfully concluded. When the Kathmandu durbar solicited Gorkha chiefs’ opinions about a possible war with the British, Amar Singh was not alone in his opposition, declaring that - “They will not rest satisfied without establishing their own power and authority, and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed.” This contrasts sharply with the prime minister Bhimsen Thapa – “ . . .our hills and fastness are formed by the hand of God, and are impregnable.” The Gorkha prime minister realised the Nepalese had several advantages over the British including knowledge of the region and recent experience fighting in the mountainous terrain. However, the British had numerical superiority and far more modern weapons. The initial British campaign was to attack on two fronts across a frontier of more than 1,500km (930miles). In the eastern front, Major-General Bennet Marley and Major-General John Sullivan Wood, would lead their respective columns across the Tarai towards the heart of the valley of Kathmandu. Further east, on the Sikkim border, Captain Latter led a small force in a primarily defensive role. Major-General Rollo Gillespie and Colonel David Ochterlony commanded the two columns in the western front. These columns were pitted against the cream of the Gorkha army under the command of Amar Singh Thapa. All four columns were mainly made up of Indian troops, though Ochterlony’s was the only column without a single British infantry battalion. The Commander-in-Chief of the British forces was Lord Moira. The campaign started badly. A day before the Governor-General officially declared war on 1 November 1814, General Gillespie had been killed trying to take the weakly defended fort at Kalanga at the Battle of Nalapani. In the interval before Gillespie’s successor Major-General Gabriel Martindell took over command, Colonel Sebright Mawby managed to take Kalanga by cutting off its water supplies. Soon after Martindell arrived however, the British suffered further setbacks at the hands of Ranjur Singh Thapa (Amar Singh Thapa’s son), at the Battle of Jaithak. Martindell eventually reduced Jaithak to rubble with his guns but, even with vastly superior numbers, he failed to occupy it for fear of counter-attack. The generals in the east mirrored this pusillanimity with both Wood and Marley reluctant to face the enemy. After two attempts to advance on Butwal, Wood, with superior numbers, feebly retreated and took up a defensive posture at Gorakhpur. His compatriot, Major-General Marley, whose 8,000 strong force was supposed to provide the main striking force on Kathmandu, showed even more timidity. After his advance posts at Samanpore and Persa were wiped out due to lack of support, he was reduced to abject inactivity and, on 10 February 1815, “unable to endure the irksomeness of his situation . . .took the sudden and extraordinary resolution in leaving the camp”. He had deserted! The company’s hopes now rested on the abilities of Colonel Ochterlony’s force of around 10,000 troops. Unlike the other generals, Ochterlony showed determination, skill and an ability to adapt to the circumstances. Although there were no initial decisive encounters, Ochterlony slowly pushed Amar Singh’s army higher and higher into the mountains until, in April 1815, the Gorkha general had been forced into his main fort at Malaun. The ensuing Battle of Dionthal was the decisive moment in the campaign. Attempts by Amar Singh’s most able lieutenant, Bhakti Thapa, to dislodge the British from the Dionthal ridge overlooking the Malaun fort, failed. Although Bhakti Thapa was killed in the action on 16 April, the fort held out for a while. However, when news arrived announcing that Almora had fallen to Colonel Jasper Nicolls’ 2,000 strong force of regular sepoys on 26 April, Amar Singh Thapa realized the hopelessness of the situation and, threatened by the British guns, surrendered. In recognition of their heroic defences of their respective forts of Malaun and Jaithak, Ochterlony allowed Amar Singh and his son Ranjur (who had joined him at Malaun) to return home with their arms and men. During the campaign Ochterlony was promoted to major general.

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