22 January 1849: The Siege of Multan ended in Second Anglo-Sikh War

The Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-1849 was one of the last major military conflicts between the East India Company and an important Indian power before the 1857 revolt, and resulted in the annexation of the Punjab by the British.

The siege of Multan, that ended on 22 January 1849 was a turning point in the war, and victory for the British was now within sight.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the greatest of the Sikh rulers, had expanded his empire during the initial years of the 19th century and captured parts of Afghanistan and Kashmir as well. But with the British East India Company’s stranglehold over the subcontinent steadily increasing, the British-controlled territories soon touched the edges of Punjab.

After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, disorder spread in his empire and there were differences between the court (durbar) and the Khalsa (the military wing). With the British stepping up the pressure on the borders, there was a conflict between the Khalsa and British forces in 1845-46. Known as the First Anglo-Sikh War, it was won by the British and came as a blow to the Sikh empire.

As per the Treaty of Lahore signed after the war, the Sikhs were made to cede the important region between the Beas and Sutlej rivers. The Lahore Durbar was also forced to give away Kashmir, which was later purchased by the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, from the British for a sum of Rs. 75 lakh.

Though Duleep Singh, who was still a minor, retained the Sikh throne, the policy of the durbar was henceforth controlled by a British Resident, Sir Henry Lawrence. Duleep Singh’s mother Jind Kaur was exiled.   

In 1848, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie appointed Sir Frederick Currie as the new Resident of the Sikh Durbar.  

At this time the city of Multan, which was part of the Sikh empire, was governed by Dewan Mulraj, a Hindu chieftain, who started acting independently. To get the potential rebellion at Multan under control Currie sent Sirdar Khan Singh (a Sikh governor) and British Political Agent Lieutenant Patrick Vans Agnew there.

But in April 1848 Agnew was murdered by men loyal to Mulraj. This gave the signal to several disaffected Sirdars (local chieftains) in Punjab to switch their allegiance and fight the British.

In one of the first battles of what came to be known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War, Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, with the help of some Pakhtun irregulars and a few Sikh regiments, defeated Mulraj’s troops in the Battle of Kineyri. But Mulraj did not let go of Multan so easily.

Soon, a limited force of the Bengal army commanded by General Whish joined with other local troops lay siege of Multan. On the other side were the Khalsa including a large force under Sirdar Sher Singh Attariwalla.

Meanwhile, the British took over the strategic important Attock fort.

Though Chattar Singh, an important Sikh leader, rebelled, he and his men were holed up in Hazara. It was decided that Sher Singh’s men would eventually join Chattar Singh in central Punjab.  

British reinforcements began to arrive in large numbers.

Sir Hugh Gough attacked Sher Singh’s forces along Chenab river. 

At the Battle of Ramnagar a British cavalry was successfully repelled by the Sikhs on the eastern side of Chenab.

In the beginning of 1849, Afghanistan’s Amir Dost Mohammed Khan gave tactical support to the rebelling Sikhs in exchange of some territory. 

British forces tried to intercept Sher Singh’s forces before Chattar Singh’s men reached him. The Battle of Chillianwala which followed was one of the toughest of the war. The British suffered a setback, with heavy loss of guns and men. 

But at Multan, taking advantage of their superior gun power, British forces finally managed to enter the city, with Mulraj surrendering on January 22, 1949.

The endgame was near now. The Battle of Gujrat on February 13, 1849 would be the last effort by the Khalsa to seize the initiative.  British guns relentlessly bombed Sikh positions forcing them out, after which they were pursued till the bitter end. Chattar Singh and Sher Singh lay down their arms on March 12. The Afghans retreated from Peshawar and Attock. The British victory was complete.

A few weeks later Dalhousie formally annexed Punjab, and the Sikh empire passed into history. The March 30, 1849, proclamation from the Governor-General read: “The kingdom of the Punjab is at an end and that all the territories of Maharaja Dalip [Duleep] Singh are now, and henceforth, a portion of the British Empire in India.”  

Given the overwhelming strength of the British forces, there was little doubt over the outcome of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The end of the war marked the total domination of the Indian subcontinent by the East India Company. Though British power would face a severe test eight years later during the revolt of 1857, British imperialism had reached a high point.

Also on this day:

1901 — Nirmal Kumar Bose, Indian anthropologist, was born

1934 — Vijay Anand, Indian filmmaker, was born 

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