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The Sikh wars & the annexation of the Panjab

The death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Ranjit Singh's tomb, unknown photographer, Lahore, 1860-1870. Museum no. 2469-1900

Ranjit Singh's tomb, unknown photographer, Lahore, 1860-1870. Museum no. 2469-1900. A view of the tomb from the top of Ranjit Singh's palace, Lahore.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839 after a reign of nearly forty years, leaving seven sons by different wives, none of whom was a worthy successor to the 'Lion of the Panjab'. Two main factions, the Hindu Dogra brothers and the Sikh aristocracy, fought for control.

Kharrak Singh was the first successor, but his weakness, indolence and opium addiction, allowed his son, Nau Nihal Singh, to become effective ruler within two months. The following year he was dead, and Nau Nihal Singh was killed the day after his father's funeral by falling masonry.

After a stormy interval, Sher Singh became maharaja early in 1841. An impressive figure, he was painted by many of the foreign visitors to the court, including August Schoefft and Emily Eden. With the army in open mutiny and the British hovering on his borders, Sher Singh was forced to make drastic changes in his foreign policy. None was more difficult than when he welcomed to Lahore the former enemy of the Sikhs, Dost Muhammad Khan, as he travelled to Kabul to regain the throne of Afghanistan.

Violent deaths continued, including Sher Singh's own, in 1843. Finally, the only remaining son of Ranjit Singh became maharaja: the seven-year-old Dalip Singh. Real power rested with the Dogras, whose leading figures were Hira Singh, the former favourite of Ranjit Singh, and Gulab Singh, a loyal supporter of Ranjit Singh who now offered his services to the British in the event of war against the Sikh kingdom.

The Sikh wars and Annexation

'The capture of two Sikh standards', illustration from 'Mooltan' by John Dunlop, London, 1849. NAL no. 59.D.15

'The capture of two Sikh standards', illustration from 'Mooltan' by John Dunlop, London, 1849. NAL no. 59.D.15

Watching the chaotic events in the Panjab after Ranjit Singh's death were the British. By the time Lord Hardinge, a soldier of great repute, became Governor-General in July 1844, war seemed inevitable.

As turmoil gave way to anarchy, British troops moved to the borders of the Sikh kingdom. When the Khalsa army crossed the river Sutlej into British territory in December 1845, it was seen as an invasion, and Lord Hardinge declared war. Although the Khalsa army was divided, and at least one commander was secretly on the British side, it inflicted heavy blows on the opposing force, largely due to the effectiveness of its artillery.

The first Anglo-Sikh war ended in a British victory. Dalip Singh was allowed to remain as maharaja, but the British took over the administration of the kingdom and Henry Lawrence was installed at Lahore as the British representative. Gulab Singh Dogra was made Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir in recognition of his services to the British.

Resentment of British rule led to a revolt in Multan in 1848, whereupon the new Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, declared war for the second time. Most of the Sikh guns had been captured by 1846, the army was considerably reduced in size, and defeat came within months. On 29 March 1849, Lord Dalhousie annexed the Sikh kingdom to the British crown.

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