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Posted on Aug 7, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Resentment, Rebellion and Retribution: The Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848-1849. Book Review

Resentment, Rebellion and Retribution: The Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848-1849. Book Review

Ray Garbee

The Second Anglo-Sikh War.  Author: Amarpal Singh. Publisher: Amberley Publishing.  Price $ 25.00

In the later half of the 1840’s the Sikh state founded by Ranjit Singh found itself in competition with the expanding British Empire’s East India Company. A short conflict in 1845-46 had led to concessions by the Sikhs, with those concessions fostering resentments which sparked a second war in 1848. Amarpal Singh’s book The Second Anglo-Sikh War provides a comprehensive overview of the war, it’s causes and the aftermath.

The book is divided between an extensive portrait of the personalities and events that led to the second war and the campaign and battles that resulted in the defeat of the Sikh armies and the annexation of the Sikh territory into the British Empire.

Starting from the final events of the First Anglo-Sikh War, Amarpal Singh provides a detailed narrative that delves into the personalities of the coming war. The reader is introduced to the feudal nobility of the Sikh leaders and the families. You’ll gain insights into the familial bonds, rivalries and the tribal competition that fueled political decision-making in the Sikh government.

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The Singh conveys how, in the wake of the 1st Anglo-Sikh War, British oversight was overlaid onto the traditional Sikh administrative structures of their state, including how political agents were dispersed across the provinces to “advice” the local Sikh ruler and to report back to the British government.

Amarpal Singh’s book is a welcome addition to the historical analysis of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Singh dives into the complex web of factors that led to the second war. There were many factors banging on the war drum that included punitive reparations, resentment, and intrigues as well as a lack of trust at multiple levels with a dash of random acts that pushed the Sikhs and British Empire into back into open war.

Singh’s knowledge of the subject is demonstrated through the extensive citations and quotes from the journals and letters of the participants. Going far beyond the official histories, Singh provides insights into the perceptions, goals and thought processes of the participants that imparts a sense of understanding and connection to the reader.

Having laid out the path to war, the book then proceeds to walk the reader through the subsequent military campaign. While the vantage of history may make the outcome seem inevitable, Amarpal Singh shines a light on the strengths of the Sikh’s as well as showcasing the limits that constrained Britain’s seemingly endless Imperial resources.

Each battle is well covered, with extensive details reserved for the pivotal battle of Chillianwalla. The battle narratives demonstrate that the British military juggernaut was far from infallible and show that several battles were indeed close-run affairs.

Singh rates General Gough’s performance with a critical view, showcasing that while the initial government announcements presented hard fought victories, the later reports of poor strategic and tactical decisions ultimately led to his replacement by the British government. If not for the distances and time lag involved in communications, Gough would have been relieved before bring the war to a successful conclusion.

An area where the book falls short is in the area of the maps. In this, The Second Anglo-Sikh War is far from alone. The modern trend in cartographic representation in history books continues to be a minimalist presentation designed to convey the least amount of useful information possible. A generous supply of well-done maps is essential for a work of military history and double so for a book aimed at a general audience that lacks a detailed appreciation of the geography of the Punjab and trans-Sutlej.

It’s unfortunate, but the book continues that trend of bare bones line drawings as a substitute for a good mapping effort. Fundamental cartographic elements such as a scale and a legend are not provided, and the representative of features does not convey a good sense of the landscape or spatial relationships.  A good map is worth a thousand words, and the lack of those good maps forces Singh to engage in lengthy exposition in trying to convey the lay of the landscape and terrain analysis of the battlefields.

The maps are minimalist, failing to create a sense of place or space.

Partially redeeming the lack of quality maps is the inclusion of an excellent selection of images of both people and places. These are both most welcome, especially the provision of the pictures of historical places is very welcome in helping achieve a sense of place.

But history is more than just place, it’s really about people and Amarpal Singh’s selection of images catalog the key players on both sides of the conflict. In an age before wide spread availability of the camera, sketch portraits of individuals were a key method of preserving an image. Singh has leveraged an impressive collection of images to present the key personages involved in the campaign. Impressively, Singh includes two photographs taken in 1849 showing both the hereditary ruler of the Sikh kingdom as well as a landmark gate.

The Anglo-Sikh wars form an important milestone in the history of the British Raj. Amarpal Singh’s book provides a detailed, balanced view of the causes that led to war, the conduct of the campaigns and the ultimate fate of the Sikh kingdom under British rule. This is not a dense, symbolist tome, but an eminently readable narrative that guides the reader through a complex web of people and places and explains the how and why these events unfolded. This book – and it’s predecessor on the First Anglo-Sikh War – is an invaluable resource for students of 19th Century India and Imperial Britain.

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