Sir Charles Napier and the British Conquest of Sindh

William Seymour argues here that the determination of Sir Charles Napier to uphold British interests in Sindh led to coercion and eventual war.

A hand-coloured engracing J.B. Allen of British infantry at the Battle of Miani, c. 1847.
A hand-coloured engracing J.B. Allen of British infantry at the Battle of Miani during the conquest of Sindh, c. 1847. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

Sir Charles Napier, conqueror of Sindh, arrived in Bombay on December 12th, 1841. He was in his sixtieth year, and with a body lacerated by eight deep wounds, failing eyesight, and burdened with many minor infirmities; a lesser man might have preferred something easier than the campaigning discomforts of India. But Napier carried his scars lightly.

At the time of Napier's arrival Sindh, covering an area about the size of England and Wales, was not yet part of British India, though its rulers all had treaty obligations to the East India Company. Sind, with a population of about a million, was predominantly Muslim. Its rulers were Baluchis of the Marri tribe – the Taipurs – who had seized control of the country in 1783 and divided it into three states: Khairpur (Upper Sindh), Hyderabad (Lower Sindh) and Mirpur. The rulers of these states, the Amirs, were nominally under Afghan sovereignty, but for some years no tribute had been paid. In 1839 the Amirs had reluctantly signed new treaties with the East India Company in connection with Lord Auckland's plans for his Afghan campaign. The Amirs, who were not strong enough to resist British demands, had to permit the occupation of part of their territory by Company forces and the use of the Indus for the conveyance of stores en route to Afghanistan. The appalling disaster that befell the British forces in January 1842, was only partially redeemed in the eyes of the Amirs by the military successes and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan carried out that summer under the orders of the new Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough.

When Napier arrived in Sindh to take command of the Company forces there at the end of September 1842, he found that despite the excellent work done by the Resident, Major James Outram, there was an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust; terms of the recent treaty were being broken, and there was evidence of intrigue against the British presence. Among the many princes of the ruling Talpur family the three principal ones with whom Napier had to deal were Nasir Khan of Hyderabad, Sher Muhammad (known as the Lion of Mirpur) and Rustam of Khairpur. The latter, who was very old, ruled through his minister, Fateh Muhammad Ghori, and the question of his successor was to become a major cause of the fighting.

A maharajah in state procession in Hyderabad, c. 1800, during the reign of the Talpur dynasty.
A maharajah in state procession in Hyderabad, c. 1800, during the reign of the Talpur dynasty. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

Napier was not long in forming a very adverse opinion of the Amirs, the conduct of whose government he considered wanton, reckless and self-seeking. He reported to Lord Ellenborough that in his opinion their numerous breaches of the existing treaty gave the British government the right to coerce them with a new and more astringent one. Outram, who had more experience of the East and some sound common sense, was equally mistrustful of the Amirs, and fully aware of their many infractions of the treaty, but his personal relations with the rulers were on a kinder and more understanding plane than that of the General's. Nevertheless, at this stage the two men worked in harmony, and when at the end of October, 1842, the Sind-Baluchistan Political Department was abolished, and Napier was given full political and military responsibility for Sindh, he paid handsome tribute to the 'Bayard of India', and there was no hint of the trouble to come. Indeed it was on Napier's insistence that Outram returned to Sindh a few weeks later.

The first disagreement between the two men related to the degree of importance to be attached to letters that had been intercepted, written by Nasir Khan of Hyderabad and Rustam of Khairpur to the Sikh governor of Multan and Maharaja Sher Singh of the Punjab respectively, inciting them to hostility against the British. There was some doubt as to the authenticity of these letters (which largely depended upon the genuineness of the seals), and Napier's investigations were not conclusive. Outram was most insistent that this should not be the principal justification for the new treaty.

This treaty, with its many imperfections, was drawn up in November, 1842, and during the next three months pressure was put upon the Amirs of Khairpur and Hyderabad to sign. Their artful tacking and trimming to avoid this did nothing to improve their standing in Napier's eyes. At the end of 1842 a complicating factor arose concerning a successor to the titular head of the Amirs of Upper Sindh. Rustam, the present Rais, was an old and greatly venerated chief, but his death could not be far off. Ali Murad, his brother – who disliked Rustam intensely – had by custom a clear claim to succeed, and Napier felt certain that he offered the best prospects for peace. Accordingly he let Ali Murad know that on the death of Rustam he would be given the Turban – the symbol of patriarchal authority. But Ali Murad was not prepared to wait, and in circumstances that cried out for investigation he forced his aged brother not only to resign the Turban, but also to part with a considerable portion of his land. Napier treated it as a piece of oriental extortion, and congratulated himself that he was left with the best ruler in Upper Sindh; but Outram was right to censure him, for Ali Murad was hated by the other Amirs, and a proper investigation, followed by fair treatment for Rustam, might have avoided hostilities.

Lieutenant General Sir Charles James Napier, lithograph by Edward Morton c. 1840.
Lieutenant General Sir Charles James Napier, lithograph by Edward Morton c. 1840. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

As it was, Rustam's nephew and other Amirs, shocked by the treatment of their chief, took refuge in a desert fortress called Imamgarh, and here Napier decided to teach them a sharp lesson and at the same time demonstrate to his new ally (Ali Murad) who was master. However, the small expedition of British and native troops mounted on camels that set off into the desert at midnight on January 5th, 1843, found the fortress abandoned; but Napier razed it to the ground. At the time there was little justification for what might have been a disastrous expedition across a waterless desert, but the disappearance of the fort was to be of considerable assistance to Napier in later operations.

The five weeks from the affair at Imamgarh leading up to the signing of the new treaty in February 1843, were among the most critical of Napier's time in Sindh, and witnessed a complete divergence of opinion between him and Outram. Basically, the difference between the two men was that Outram had come to the conclusion that the terms of the new treaty – particularly those concerning the forfeiture of land for all save Ali Murad – were extremely unjust, and he believed that given a free hand to negotiate with the Amirs he had sufficient influence to avert the impending catastrophe. Napier on the other hand, although with less experience of the Indian scene than Outram, seemed to read the signs more clearly. He was prepared to avert war if he could, but with the Amirs alarmed at the possible loss of their national independence, and unable to control the armed bands that swarmed all over the country, he had for some time been convinced that war was imminent. He felt that if trouble was to be avoided, a determined show of strength was more likely to succeed than lengthy negotiations that could only lead the Arnirs further into the valley of humiliation. In this thinking he received the support of Lord Ellenborough.

During the first ten days of February events moved inexorably towards war. Where reason and careful consideration should have prevailed, mistakes and misunderstandings were plentiful. The main stumbling block was Rustam, who was being asked to sign away his birthright. Whilst Outram saw the necessity for keeping the Amirs of Lower Sindh from making common cause with their northern cousins, Napier would not agree to such measures until it was too late. When Outram did get permission to go to Hyderabad he begged the General to halt his march south from Khairpur, for he did not believe that the Amirs intended to fight, although they were firmly convinced that Napier did. But Napier advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with complete conviction of the rightness of his actions. He instructed Outram to give the Amirs a tight deadline for signing. Eventually, the Amirs of Hyderabad signed on February 10th, and the next day Rustam and his fellow Amirs followed suit.

A Baluchi soldier of Sindh, watercolour by unknown artist, c. 1838.
A Baluchi soldier of Sindh, watercolour by unknown artist, c. 1838. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

By now Hyderabad was an armed camp swarming with hordes of angry Baluchis eager to expiate the wrong they deemed had been done to Rustam. The Amirs, who had a high regard for Outram, begged him to leave the city, but he remained in the obstinate belief that there would be no fighting. As a result he narrowly escaped with his life when an armed mob attacked the Residency. At 4 a.m on February 17th, Napier struck camp and, advancing seven miles over difficult country with only 2,800 men and twelve guns, prepared to challenge, just north of Hyderabad, some 25,000 Baluchi warriors. The sword now drawn was not to be sheathed until June 14th.

At the battle of Miani Napier gained the victory against overwhelming odds through the better training, discipline and team work of his small force. The Haluchis were brave and they handled their guns and matchlocks well, but their very numbers were at times a disadvantage; thousands were mown to the ground by the tire of the British cannon. The process of death and mutilation lasted all day, until the surviving Baluchis left the field.

On February 19th Napier marched into Hyderabad. The Amirs surrendered the fort and laid their swords at his feet. But Napier believed in moderation and mercy in victory; he handed back their swords and treated them graciously. However, his troubles were not over. Sher Muhamrnad, the Lion of Mirpur, was camped only six miles away with an ever-growing army. His protestations of peace which Outram assured the General were sincere – did not impress Napier, who by now was certain that all Amirs were rascals and that Outram was constantly being deceived by them. Nevertheless, his small army had been further weakened at Miani, and he felt himself in no position to take the offensive until reinforcements could arrive. There followed anxious weeks of cat-and-mouse tactics; at last the Lion decided that Napier's inactivity was a sign of weakness, and he offered him terms. Such impertinence goaded the General into demanding Sher Muhammad's immediate surrender. The Lion chose to fight.

Troops and guns from Karachi and Sukkur arrived in the nick of time and Napier, although even now with only five thousand men, felt confident after Miani of victory. The battle was fought close to Hyderabad or the Fuleli River, and the struggle was fierce. The small British force was lapped about by the enemy but they beat off vastly superior numbers and, assaulting with parade-ground precision, drove the enemy headlong from the field. Sher Muhammad managed to escape, and although his strongholds of Mirpur and Umarkot were soon taken, it was not until June 14th that Captain Jacob of the Scinde Horse defeated him at Shadadpur.

The British Residency in Hyderabad, c. 1845, engraved by William Miller from a drawing by Captain Robert Grindlay. Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain.
The British Residency in Hyderabad, c. 1845, engraved by William Miller from a drawing by Captain Robert Grindlay. Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain.

The conquest of Sindh was now complete, although there remained some campaigning against the warlike hill tribes along the frontier and beyond. On March 15th Lord Ellenborough had directed Napier to send the Talpur princes into exile at Bombay, on the 24th dispatches received by Napier announced the annexation of Sindh, and at the end of the month he was informed that he was to be governor of the new province. For many months after the conquest and annexation there raged fierce and controversial debate both in India and in England. Praise was given sparingly for a deed of fame; condemnation more liberally for a deed of shame.

The rights and wrongs of annexation (a policy which reached its zenith during the governor-generalship of Lord Dalhousie) are beyond the scope of this essay, but it is pertinent to examine the charges levelled against Sir Charles Napier.

Criticism of Ellenborough's policy, and of Napier, who largely instigated it and carried it out, had been building up even before Miani. The fate of the Amirs after the battle fanned the flames of sentimental and uninformed public opinion, and in India the Bombay Times was loud in praise of Outram for his work of conciliation, and severely critical of Napier for his aggressive attitude and extrusion of Rustam from the Turban. But it was not until Outram produced his notes before the Secret Committee of the East India Company that the English press, and Members of Parliament, sought to foster a faction against Ellenborough, and more particularly Napier.

Lord Ellenborough inherited an unpopular treaty and policy imposed upon Sindh at a time when there was considerable unrest there, due to the British disaster at Kabul and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was clear to Napier that a new treaty was imperative and Ellenborough, who had formed the most favourable opinion of Napier without ever having met him, was prepared to give him virtually a tree hand. No one disagreed that there was a need for a new treaty, but when he saw the draft Outram begged Napier to modify the demands whereby the Amirs were to cede large tracts of land to the British and to Bahawalpur. Here there was some injustice, and Outram was right. Had Napier agreed to remit these penalising cessions of territory the Amirs might have signed without trouble.

Edward Law, Earl of Ellenborough, c. 1861 from Camille Silvy’s Portrait Cartes-de-visite album of Eminent Victorians. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Public Domain.
Edward Law, Earl of Ellenborough, c. 1861 from Camille Silvy’s Portrait Cartes-de-visite album of Eminent Victorians. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Public Domain.

The gravamen against Napier was that he forced the Amirs into war. If he did so it was not for the hope of personal aggrandisement, for he never wished to conquer Sindh, but merely to impose the treaty on the Amirs. Napier was an ambitious man, but his ambition was to be builder for England and posterity: he disdained the prizes of life. For most of the time prior to the outbreak of hostilities he was convinced that the Amirs meant to fight (and this may have been his greatest mistake); only once do we find him writing in contradiction – at the beginning of November 1842, 'They say they will fight; J'en doute!' – but just a few days later in a letter to Ellenborough he returned to his old theme that defensive measures would become offensive as soon as opportunity arose.

Napier was a soldier and not a diplomatist. His courage and humanity cannot be assailed, but he was impatient of detailed investigation when a simple solution seemed to present itself. He undoubtedly handled the affairs of the intercepted letters and the withdrawal of the Turban from Rustam badly. There can be little doubt that some of the letters were genuine (Outram and others were in agreement on this), but proof positive was lacking. At least the Amirs should have been confronted with allegations of their treachery, for it was wrong to base the need for a new treaty mainly on charges that they had had no opportunity to refute.

Outram was to tell the Court of Directors that in his opinion the Turban affair was the sole cause of hostilities. It was his handling of this complicated transaction, more than any other of his actions, that exposed Napier to criticism and malice. He almost certainly knew (although he tried to convince himself to the contrary) that Ali Murad had forced his brother to relinquish the Turban, and the greater part of his private lands. The truth is that he was not interested in the justice of the matter, but only in getting the best and most pliable man to govern Upper Sindh.

Finally, there were the negotiations immediately preceding hostilities, which saw the culminating divergence of opinion between Napier and Outram. By now Napier had lost all faith in Outram's reliability and kept him tightly trammelled. He might have been of some use in Hyderabad had he been allowed to go there earlier; as it was, his ceaseless ingeminations that the Amirs would not fight were dangerously misleading. Nevertheless, their actual resort to arms was largely brought about by their complete misunderstanding of Napier's intentions as he marched towards Hyderabad. Evidence shows that not until February 14th had a definite decision to fight been taken – by which time, even had Rustam been granted a fair hearing, the Amirs could not have controlled their Baluchi chieftains.

olor lithograph showing Sir Charles reviewing the brigade at Barrackpore, May 1849.
olor lithograph showing Sir Charles reviewing the brigade at Barrackpore during the later Anglo-Sikh War, May 1849.  Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

The verdict of history must be that Napier, in his determination to enforce better government on the Amirs, did through his actions, which were at times high-handed and insensitive, drive them to war. Had he shown a greater willingness to understand the foibles, the vanities and the vices of those he had come to rule, and handled Outram with more discernment, war in 1843 might have been averted. But the Amirs appeared incapable of good government and could never have controlled their feudatories for long; British interests in the area would have made the conquest of Sindh inevitable – if not in 1843, then soon afterwards. Writing to the Governor of Bombay shortly after Miani, Napier says, 'the battle was merely the lancing of a great ulcer, which sooner or later must have come to a head of natural causes’.

Undoubtedly the eight years that Napier had spent as Military Resident in Cephalonia stood him in good stead for the formidable task of settling Sindh – a responsibility he shouldered with characteristic energy and drive. He was to prove himself a most able and wise administrator.

In a country whose people were divided by race, religion and custom, the establishment of law and order was the first priority. Frontier skirmishing ended with the pacification and submission of the Baluchi chiefs, but Napier relied upon a military-based Government. He was accused of having set up a military dictatorship, and to a certain extent this was true – and necessary – but Napier was always working towards the time when the people would be ready for a civil administration, and he made as few changes as possible in the ancient laws and customs, trying to keep broadly within the framework that existed under the Amirs. Improvements were soon forthcoming in such important matters as land tenure, roads, irrigation and above all the administering of justice. The country was divided into three districts, each under an army officer reporting direct to the Governor; below these district officers the old system of administration was little changed, but closely supervised.

Two important innovations made by Napier were the establishment of an efficient police force and the raising of the Scinde Camel Corps. The police were divided into mounted, rural and city sections, and were built up to 2,500 Pathans, Rajputs and Sindhians under European officers. The Camel Corps became the prototype of those which rendered such valuable service a few years later in Egypt. Not long after the end of hostilities, Napier moved his headquarters to Karachi. To make this city the important post it became it was necessary to create a connecting link with the mouths of the Indus, to construct a lighthouse and to run out a mole beyond the shallows. It was in this way that Sindh was given a commercial future of promise.

Often ill, sometimes dismayed, but never defeated, Napier laboured on in Sindh until July 1847, organising, supervising and encouraging many projects which he felt sure would one day bear their golden fruit. 'No one', said Sir Robert Peel, 'ever doubted Sir Charles Napier's military powers, but in his other character he does surprise me – he is possessed of extraordinary talent for civil administration.'

  • William Napier Bruce, Life of General Sir Charles Napier, John Murray (London, 1885)
  • H. T. Lambrick, Sir Charles Napier and Sind, OUP (Oxford, 1952)
  • T. Rice Holmes, Sir Charles Napier, CUP (Cambridge, 1925)
  • Cambridge History of the British Empire, H. H. Dodwell (ed.), Volume 4, British India 1497-1859, CUP (Cambridge, 1929)
  • General Sir James Outram, The Conquest of Scinde: A Commentary, Blackwoods (Edinburgh, 1846)
William Seymour is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. His books include Battles in Britain and their Political Background 1066-1746 (1979), Yours to Reason Why: Decision in Battle (1982), Great Sieges of History (1992) and The Price of Folly: British Blunders in the War of American Independence (1995).