200 years of Anglo Sikh RelationsDate: Friday, 24 April, 2009
In a letter dated 30th August 1847 Maharani Jind Kaur would protest to the then British Resident Sir Henry Lawrence:
"Well has the friendship between the two nations been repaid. I have lost my honour and you your word"
The friendship to which she refers in this incisive and bold letter was enshrined in the 1809 Treaty Of Amritsar. Drafted 200 years ago when the Sikh Empire was at its zenith the agreement would set the borders between the two powers. Her husband Maharajah Ranjit Singh would apply his seal.
For him it was a way of avoiding conflict. For the British it was a way of buying time as they consolidated their presence elsewhere before turning to what would be the "jewel" in the Imperial crown.
30 years later the Lion of the Punjab would be dead and the British who had eagerly anticipated his demise would put aside any pretence of friendship as they pursued the naked ambitions which fuelled their expansion.
After an unprecedented era of relative stability and prosperity conflict with the conquerors was inevitable. With the 1849 Annexation the destiny of the Punjab would pass into foreign hands. Historians may reach varying conclusions about the nature of the Anglo Sikh relationship but one thing is indisputable - Punjab and the fate of its people would change for ever.
The 1809 Treaty of Amritsar
In 1808 Lord Minto, the Governor-General of India at that time, dispatched Charles Metcalfe to Lahore as envoy to the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. His main task was to secure the North Western borders of the Indian subcontinent against the French which they believed would enter through Persia.
Initially Metcalfe hoped to create a defensive alliance with Maharajah Ranjit Singh. However Ranjit Singh did not believe the French to be a threat and was extremely reluctant to make any alliance. Metcalfe's secondary task was to counter Maharajah Ranjit Singh's aggressive policies against the cis-Sutlej states. Ranjit Singh was also extremely resistant towards this as he wanted to bring these states under his rule to create a united Sikh kingdom.
By late 1808 the threat of an attack by the French had lessened which changed the dynamics of the situation. The British formed an alliance with the Sikh chiefs south of the Sutlej who had been involved in disagreements with Ranjit Singh. British and Sikh troops on both sides of the river began preparations for conflict. Fighting was avoided with Maharajah Ranjit Singh finally agreeing to sign the Treaty of Amritsar
What did the treaty say?
"Perpetual friendship shall subsist between the British government and the state of Lahore" (Article 1)
The British Library holds a true copy of the Treaty of Amritsar. It contains four articles which make explicit the conditions of the treaty. An agreement was made of mutual friendship between Ranjit Singh's Sikh nation and the British. It set Maharajah Ranjit Singh's southern border at the River Sutlej. The British extended their territory to the other side of the river but the neighbours were to remain on friendly terms, otherwise the treaty would be considered void.
Who was Charles Metcalfe?
Charles Theophilus Metcalfe was born in Calcutta in January 1785. He was the son of Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe who went on to become Director of the British East India Company.
Charles Metcalfe was educated at Eton and he landed back in Calcutta on the 1st January 1801. He was only 23 years old when he was appointed envoy to the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. This was a young age to be given such a responsibility.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Amristar he remained in India until 1838. After this time he took up governorship in Jamaica, and then the position of Governor-General in the Province of Canada.
Why did Maharajah Ranjit Singh eventually agree to the Treaty?
It is reported that Maharajah Ranjit Singh was initially extremely reluctant to sign a treaty with the British. Metcalfe was persistent though, following Ranjit Singh around the Punjab for some time trying to arrange meetings with him.
Ranjit Singh's resistance to making an official agreement was challenged when the British made an alliance with his enemies and it is possible that agreeing to the treaty was the best way for him to avoid conflict on his southern border. Although it put a limit on extending the Sikh kingdom to the south, the treaty would in theory allow expansion to the North and West without interference from the British.
Maharajah Ranjit Singh was able to consolidate the power he already had in the Punjab, secure in the knowledge that his southern border was safe. He was able to focus on creating a strong centralised government and powerful army.