Advent of Britishers into Sindh
By Baldev Matlani
The era of Talpur Mirs before the advent of Britishers in Sindh, was dominated by infighting, palatial intrigue and treachery. Britishers befriended Mir Ali Murad Talpur and convinced him that he was deprived of his rightful share by his brothers. He was the youngest son of Mir Sohrab. The Britishers promised him the throne of Sindh after the demise of his elder brother Mir Rustam Khan. On December 8, 1842, Sir Charles Napier, the new British supreme civil and military head, incharge of Sindh affairs, proclaimed that he would take possession of lands ceded by Bahawalpur and forbid anyone from paying revenue to the Mirs after January 1, 1843. At first Mir Rustam Ali tried to buy peace with Charles Napier due to the continuous treachery of his younger brother Mir Ali Murad. Major Outram tried to mediate but could not succeed. The Balochs decided to settle the issue once and for all. On the morning of the 15th, the Agency building which stood on the bank of the river was attacked by an 8000 strong Sindhi army.
Sir Charles Napier heard of it at Hala, where Major Outram joined him with his brave companions. On February 16th, 1843, the British forces marched to Matari. Even though the Sindhi forces were seven times as large as British forces, Sir Charles Napier decided to take on the Sindhis on 17th. Some 2800 men with arms and 12 pieces of artillery were within the range of Sindhi guns. Sindhis were strongly stationed at Miani, with forest cover on both their flanks. These two woods were joined by the dry bed of Phuleli River, around 16 kms away from the city of Hyderabad. The river had a high bank and its bed was nearly straight and about 1200 yards in length. Behind this and in both woods were the Sindhis. The Britishers posted the artillery on right of the line, and infantry with Sindh Irregular Horse was sent ahead, to try and make the Sindhis reveal their positions.
English forces then advanced from the right in battalion formations. The 9th Bengal Light Cavalry formed the reserve in the rear of the left wing, and the Poona Horse, together with four companies of infantry, guarded the supplies. The artillery and Her Majesty’s 22nd Regiment in line formed the leading echelon, the 25th Native Infantry the second, the 12th Native Infantry the third and the 1st Grenadier Native Infantry the fourth. The Sindhis were 1000 yards from the English line, which soon traversed the intervening space. British musketry opened fire at about 100 yards from the bank, in reply to that of the Sindhis, and in a few minutes the engagement became general along the bank of the river, on which the combatants fought man to man for about 3 hours or more with great fury. Sir Charles Napier described it as a superiority of the musket and bayonet over the sword, shield and matchlock. In other words technological superiority tilted the fate of war in the Britishers’ favour.
The brave Sindhis, first discharging their matchlocks and pistols dashed over the bank with desperate resolution but down went these bold and skilful swordsmen under the superior power of the musket and bayonet. At one time the courage and numbers of Sindhis against the 22nd, 25th and the 12th regiments bore heavily on the British. There was no time to be lost and Sir Charles sent orders to the cavalry to force the right of the Sindhi’s line. Same was executed by the 9th Bengal Cavalry and the Sindh Horse, as the struggle on Britishers’ right and centre was at that moment so fierce that Sir Charles could not go the left. In this charge the 9th light Cavalry took a standard and several pieces of artillery and the Sindh Horse took the Sindhis’ camp, from which a vast body of latter’s cavalry slowly retired fighting. Sir Charles Napier gave full marks to these two cavalry regiments for their victory over Sindhis. From the moment the cavalry was seen in the rear of Sindhis’ right flank, their resistance slackened, the 22nd Regiment forced the bank, the 25th and 12th did the same, the latter regiment captured several guns and victory was achieved.
Around 5000 Sindhis attained martyrdom in the battle. Though Britishers tried to paint Mirs as villains their reign was in no way cruel or tyrannical on common subjects. Even General Jacob of British Army had expressed his opinion that the first effect of British rule was to increase rather than decrease the burden of the cultivator. Under Mirs rule, administration was entrusted to Kardars, incharge of different districts, who were both revenue and judicial officers. Their rule exhibited a striking contrast to that of their predecessors in the absence of political assassinations and in the administration of ordinary justice they had an aversion to capital punishment. Mutilation was the penalty for the worst crimes and this too was commuted to prolonged imprisonment in some of the cases. Other punishments were fines, shaving the beard, blackening the face, flogging and confinement in the stocks.
For detection of crime they had an excellent system, the abolition of which under British rule was regretted by many officers. The liability of all stolen property rested on the village in which the theft occurred until the footprints of the thief were traced to another, in which case the liability was transferred to that village. Thus it became the duty of every village chief to see to it that no theft occurred in his limits. The rule of the Mirs had the merit of strength.
Lawlessness and raiding were checked and life and property were secure to a degree which has been unknown probably for centuries. Lieutenant James, reporting on the district of Chandka (present Larkana) in 1846, says, “Thefts were scarce, much fewer than they have been under the British government. Abroad Sindh was feared, if not hated, but the policy of Mirs was to avoid interaction with other states, excluding Kalat. Dr. J. Burnes who had better means of knowing than any other Englishman, noted that their temperance was remarkable. The mention of alcoholic drinks was offensive to them and not a hookah was to be seen at their court, nor did any of the family at that time consume opium.
In their dress, there was no gaudy show, “none of that mixture of gorgeousness and dirt to be seen at the courts of Indian princes,” but a most gratifying taste in dress and attention to cleanliness. In their manners they were haughty and reserved, yet courteous and in the exercise of true Sindhi hospitality, extravagant. The splendour of their court amazed early British envoys. Their only personal extravagance was the indulgence of passionate love for jewellery and fine swords, daggers and other arms. They had agents in Iran to procure these and secured many historic blades of fabulous value. Every visitor to Sindh before the advent of Britishers noted Mirs’ passionate devotion to sport, to which they willingly sacrificed almost every other interest, enclosing large tracts of the most fertile country to make Shikargaahs (game preserves) regardless of the loss of revenue to themselves and the hardships to their subjects.
On the annexation of Sindh, Sir Charles Napier was appointed Governer of Sindh on Rs. 8000 a month and headquartered at Karachi. He announced many projects for progress of Sindh but lacked conviction to convert them into reality. Sir Bartle Frere had been very critical about it. When he came to Sindh in 1851, he reported that there was not a mile of bridged or metalled road, nor a masonary bridge of any kind, not a single dawk-bungalow, Serai, dharamsala or district kutchery.
Sir Charles Napier had been in aversion to natives, he abhorred politicians, described old Indian as “a set of old bitches whose God is mammon.” He was determined to govern the country through military officers. When Sir Bartle Frere took charge he found only two persons among the bureaucracy who could speak Sindhi language. They had been accustomed to carry on their work in bad Hindustani, interpreted to the people in Sindhi and recorded in mongrel Persian. His police have been instanced by Sir Bartle Frere as an admirable system, far in advance of any other in India. He kept police apart from the influence of Collector and other jagirdars with the result that both kept a check on each other. The police informed the government of the cheating of the Kardars and zamindars and these people complained of usual faults of policemen. In this manner they keep each other in check and both took the side of the poor, not out of humanity but spite. He projected a bridge over the Indus at Sukkur on the plan of the one thrown across the Rhine by Julius Caesar and built an arsenal in Bukkur. A fort had been built at Larkana, where the newly formed Camel corps was stationed. Detachments of cavalry had been posted at Garhi Khairo and there was a whole brigade at Shikarpur.
Sindh under charge of Sir Bartle Frere showed semblence of normalcy as he got underway to make the life of ordinary citizens safe and easy by a number of steps he took for the purpose. He turned his attention, to the port of Karachi. Closely connected with the improvement of the harbour was a scheme for a railway line from Karachi to Kotri for which Sindh Railway Company was formed in London in 1855. Major Jacob was instrumental in construction of a web of roads through the length and breadth of Sindh. A carriage road over the Laki hills was a piece of real feat carried out at the time. Another pet scheme of Mr. Frere was an annual fair at Karachi to bring together the dealers of Central Asia and Bombay.
He was the introducer of the postage stamp into India. He designed the Postmaster of Karachi, a stamp bearing a modified broad arrow and the words “Scinde District Dawk” and distributed it for sale. They were later replaced with the Indian stamps in September 1854. He wanted to make Sindhi, the people’s language as an official language. The script based on Persio-Arabic letters was adapted for the language and promotion in the civil service was made conditional on at least colloquial knowledge of Sindhi. Thus the march towards progress of Sindh continued under the able guidance of its new rulers.