The middle of the 19th century was a significant time in the history of modern India. The Indian Empire was governed at that time, from 1848 to 1856, by a remarkable Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie.
Lord Dalhousie achieved two things. Firstly, by his wars and conquests he gave to geographical India in its political unity. Secondly, by the introduction of railways, telegraphs and the modern posts, he heralded in India new socio-economic changes. His time, in fact, saw the beginning of a new age.
Dalhousie was born on 22nd April, 1812. On 12th January, 1848, he assumed the office of Governor General of India at the young age of 36. On the same day, he was also appointed as the Governor General of Bengal. He was full of enthusiasm. His ability, efficiency, foresight and determination were quite uncommon. In his role as a ruler two distinct traits were seen. Like Lord Wellesley, Dalhousie was an aggressive imperialist. Like Lord William Bentinck, he was a progressive reformer. He succeeded both in his imperialism as well as in his reform.
The expansion of the British Empire was a continuous process ever since Clive laid its foundation in the mango groves of Plassey. For nearly a century the conquests were going on. It was left for Dalhousie to complete that work. It was in his time that the British Empire touched the Hindukush on one end, and Burma on the other, and covered the whole land from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. In 1850, Dalhousie wrote: “On 2nd January, I left Mooltan, in sight of the Soliman Mountains bounding India on the west; on 2nd March I reached Moulmein, and saw from it the mountains of Burma, which bound the Indian Empire on that East. It is a wide span, and I question whether anyone – has even swayed his power between such far remote limits, or has been called by his duty to so gigantic a journey of inspection”. For an imperialist, it was indeed a matter of great pride.
Thus the mid-nineteenth century saw the culmination of the imperial ambitions of the East India Company.
Dalhousie’s Wars and conquests
Dalhousie conquered two regions by his aggressive wars. One was the Punjab in the north-west, and the other was a vast area of Burma in the east.
After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and before the coming of Lord Dalhousie the English and the Sikhs fought the First Sikh War Though the English were victorious in that war yet the Punjab was not annexed to the British Empire. Dilip Singh, the son of Ranjit Singh, was placed on the Sikh throne. But according to the treaty some English soldiers were placed in the Punjab to help the young king. To the proud Sikh leaders that appeared as a national humiliation. The brave Sikh soldiers could not tolerate the presence of the English soldiers on the soil of their dear land. Thus within a short time another war appeared inevitable. To the imperialist, Lord Dalhousie that kind of situation appeared as a golden opportunity. He began to search for an occasion to declare war. At last he got it. The Sikh Governor of Multan in the Punjab, Dewan Mulraj by name, rose in revolt against his own government, the Lahore Darbar. Some of his followers killed two of the young English officers stationed in the Punjab. That incident was considered by Dalhousie to be an act of hostility. He, therefore, declared war. It began in 1848 and became famous as the second Sikh war. The Sikh army fought with wonderful courage. But the British forces possessed superior arms. The Sikhs, therefore, were defeated and the war came to an end. In 1849, Dalhousie declared, by a proclamation, the annexation of the Punjab to the British Empire. In those days, the Punjab of the Sikhs extended as far as the base of the mountains of Afghanistan. With the conquest of that kingdom, the British Empire reached ‘the natural limits of India’ in the north-west.
The deposed Raja Dilip Singh was sent to England as an exile. The famous diamond Koh-i-Noor was taken away from him. Dalhousie sent it to Queen Victoria. From every point of view the Punjab proved a valuable territory. The Government-General brought it under an efficient administration. He developed a liking for the Sikhs and paid attention to their welfare. Gradually, the Sikh population became attached to the British rule.
After finishing his work in the north-west, Dalhousie turned his eyes to the far-away eastern frontiers of the empire. Some years before him, the English fought a war with Burma, known as the first Burmese War. Since that time, the English traders were granted many trade facilities in Burma. A British resident was also placed in that kingdom for diplomatic purpose.
From the beginning, however, the King of Burma did not treat the English well. He considered them to be enemies. The people also looked down upon them with contempt. By the time Dalhousie reached India, the Anglo-Burmese relation was already at a breaking point. Added to that, a new political situation was developing in the South-East Asia. The French influence was growing in those areas alarmingly. Dalhousie could not close his eyes to those developments. Nor could he remain inactive. He waited for some time to find an opportunity.
At last, a small incident occurred. The British merchants of Rangoon sent a petition to the Governor-General that they were being oppressed by the Burmese. At once, Dalhousie took up the issue. He sent Commodore Lambert with three battle-ships to Burma to demand explanation and compensation from the King. It was definitely an act of aggression on the part of Dalhousie. He did not want any peaceful negotiation, but war. Lambert’s mission was an act of provocation.
The King Pagan of Burma did not want war. He, therefore, accepted some of the demands of Lambert. But the latter could not be satisfied, and ordered for blockade of the port of Rangoon. The angry Burmese opened fire.
That led the Governor-General to send an ultimatum to the King demanding one lakh pounds as indemnity. The King did not reply. Thereupon, Dalhousie ordered for war. Thus began the Second Anglo-Burmese war in April 1852. General Godwin reached Rangoon with an army and began the invasion. Martaban was conquered without difficulty. And, Rangoon fell. Dalhousie became so anxious to conquer Burma that he personally preceded to Rangoon. Soon thereafter, Prome and Pegu were captured. Thus, the most fertile and prosperous areas of Burma fell to the British hands. In December 1852, Dalhousie declared by a Proclamation the annexation of Pegu or the Lower Burma area. The entire eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal came under the British. The limits of the British Empire extended as far as the banks of Salween in the east. By the conquest of the sea-coast of Burma, the British cut off the upper Burma from any foreign connection by sea. That was a valuable strategic gain.
The Burmese War of Dalhousie is a glaring example of his naked imperialism. Without any reason he invaded an independent kingdom. Without any desire for a peaceful settlement he proceeded with war. And, taking advantage of the weakness of the enemy, he annexed a part of Burma to the British Empire. In the words of the English historian Arnold, “the Burmese war of Dalhousie was neither just in its origin nor marked by strict equity in its conduct or issue”.
The Punjab and Lower Burma were conquered by war. That was one of the three methods of Dalhousie’s annexation. His second method of annexation was the application of the doctrine of Lapse.
Lord Dalhousie is often criticized for devising the Doctrine of Lapse (annexation policy). The Doctrine gave powers to the British to annexe any Indian Princely State under the East India company, if the ruler of that Princely State dies without a male child. It caused huge discontent among the Indians, ultimately leading to the Great Revolt of 1857.