General Charles Napier and the Conquest of Sind

Edward Rice

The key figure in the manipulations that involved both sides, English and native, was the leading prince, the Talpur chieftain Mir Rustam, then about eighty-five, somewhat feeble in strength, but clearheaded and still in perfect health. Rustam was then being challenged by a very junior brother, 'Ali Murad, who was scheming for the throne. . . . The summer of 1842 saw the beginning of the tragic events that were finally to give the province to the British. Eastwick, a key figure for stability in the province, fell ill and had to retire. He had been a moderating force, trying to temper the greed of "the avaricious, grasping, never satisfied Faringi," the English. . . . To complicate and confuse the situation, 'Ali Murad and others had been involved in a massive forgery of documents purporting to show that his brother Mir Rustam was conspiring against the English. . . .

In London . . . the Court of Directors of the East India Company. . . approached General Charles Napier, a career soldier, to go to the Bombay Presidency. The General was a man devoted to the military life who kept his private views to himself and did not let them affect his work, although he could be critically outspoken afterward and would show little interest in the sensibilities of the conquered, though he liked it known that his life was "one long protest against oppression, injustice, and wrong-doing." . . . As a lifelong professional soldier, Napier despised and hated the Company, calling the Directors "a parcel of shopkeepers" and "the shopocracy," but he had no money and had three daughters, the result of an alliance with a Greek woman, to worry about. During his service in India the General denounced the Company in terms that were both accurate and virulent.

The English were the aggressors in India, and, although our sovereign [Queen Victoria] can do no wrong, his [sic] ministers can; and no one can lay a heavier charge upon Napoleon than rests upon the English ministers who conquered India and Australia, and who protected those who committ atrocities.... Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties was money . . . a thousand million sterling are said to have been squeezed out of India in the last ninety years. Every shilling of this has been pick out of blood, wiped and put in the murderers' pockets; but, wipe and wipe the money as you will, the "Damned spot" will not "out."


Eastwick, in commenting upon this passage, asked, "Can these be the words of the man who waded through blood to the treasures of Hyderabad?" and remarked that the Directors had in fact "pronounced the war in Sindh uncalled-for, impolitic, and unjust." To highlight the hypocritical cast of the war in Sind for all the parties concemed, despite Napier's professed sorrow over the invasion and the Company's shock over what the General had done, the Directors awarded him. . . 60,000 in silver rupees for taking Sind. . .

Napier had some inkling of the injustice of the invasion, for he said, "We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful and humane piece of rascality it will be." Ignorant of India and the people, Napier was able to carry out his commission oblivious to the fact that several fair and sensible treaties forced upon the Sindhis by the Company had been abrogated when greed demanded. Not only did the General fall into 'Ali Murad's schemes -- which Outram had tried to warn him against -- but, wrote Eastwick, he said "he saw the only chance of goading the amirs into war would be by persecuting Mir Rustam" . . . [who] fled into the desert, pursued by Napier. . . .

On February 17th, at Mlani, in a battle famous in British military annals, [the vastly outnumbered Napier defeated] the Sindhis, who had 22,000 troops in the field, while he had but 2,800, six hundred of them engaged in guarding the baggage or scouting the enemy under Outram. Only five hundred of Napier's forces were white; the rest were natives whose loyalty and reliability under fire were always a source of concern to the English. . . .

The Sindhis advanced wave upon wave, to be mowed down by Napier's superior firepower. The lesser number of Company troops were able to outflank and encircle the enemy, and, unable to escape, the Sindhis marched relentlessly into the English cannons. . . .There was bitter hand-to-hand fighting, and then the surviving Sindhis fled. In the frightful carnage Napier lost twenty officers and 250 troops. Six thousand natives died or lay wounded on the field. Hyderabad surrendered, and its treasures were in Napier's hands.

Hot weather was quickly setting in: The daytime temperature had already reached 110 degrees. Napier received reinforcements, and on March 24th he attacked Shir Muhammad, "the Eion of Mirpur," at the hamlet of Dubba, where he sent his five thousand men against the Sindhis' 26,000. Again Napier crushed a numerically superior foe: Five thousand natives were killed or wounded to Napier's 270. That was the end of Sindhi resistance. And now the controversies broke out.

Brilliant as the victories had been, Napier had to face criticism from enemies and friends alike. The new English humor magazine, Punch, barely a year old, published a cartoon of Napier striding through the camage of the battlefield with the caption "Peccavi"--"I have sinned," as indeed he had. [Sir Richard Burton, who later worked undercover for Napier, charged that bribery was as responsible as bravery for the victory]:

Neither of our authorities tell us, nor can we expect a public document to do so, how the mulatto [Eurasian] who had charge of the Amir's guns had been persuaded to fire high, and how the Talpur traitor who commanded the [Sindhi] cavalry, openly drew off his men and showed the shameless example of flight. When the day shall come to publish details concerning disbursement of "Secret service money in India," the public shall leam strange things. Meanwhile those of us who have lived long enough to see how history is written, can regard it [William Napier's account of the battle] as little better than a poor romance.

The "mulatto" and the "Talpur traitor" who had betrayed the Sindhis in the heat of battle had been approached and bribed by one Mirza 'Ali Akhbar, recently arrived from Persia. He had served first as munsh or personal secretary to James Outram and then to Napier. 'Ali Akhbar, Burton said, served with special bravery at the Battle of Mlani and then at Dubba. Napier had remarked later to Burton that the mizra "did as much towards the conquest of Scinde as a thousand men," for as a fellow Muslim he was able to enter the enemy camps and bribe some of their best forces to desert the battlefield.

References

Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990, 74-79.


[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002