The Untold Story of The Sikh Wars

The first Anglo-Sikh War was the result of British imperial expansion to annex the Punjab and remove the Sikh threat to British hegemony on the Indian subcontinent.

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During the 18th and 19th centuries, Ranjit Singh made use of war and diplomacy to unite the Sikh tribes into a powerful nation. He built up a powerful army under European influence and European style cavalry.

After learning of the impressive performance of the British infantry in the Anglo-Maratha War, Singh built up his army and constructed factories to manufacture guns. European advisers were important to the development of the Sikh army because they helped to improve the munitions factories and trained Sikh troops. Before he died in 1839, he had built up his army of 150,000 men.


Singh’s death changed the dynamics of the politics in the Punjab because his son Kharrack Singh proved to be an ineffective leader and was murdered in 1840. The British, aware of this political instability, mobilized their army on the border separating the British Empire from the Sikh nation, provoking the Sikhs to attack in December 1845. The British defeated the Sikhs in this war with the help of the defections of two army commanders, Lal Singh and Tej Singh. The British victory over the Sikh army resulted in Britain’s annexation of part of the Punjab. The Sikh army was reduced, and Britain was able to appoint advisers in the Punjab to influence the administration.

The concessions that the British wrestled from the Sikhs in the First Anglo-Sikh War were not enough to satisfy Governor-General Dalhousie. Determined to annex the entire Punjab, Dalhousie used the death of two Britons in the Sikh mutiny at Multan in 1848 as an excuse to expand British territory. The Sikhs, however, tried to create an anti-British front by calling on the aid of the Afghans. Britain, however, was able to suppress the Sikh resistance at Gujrat, and the Treaty of Lahore was signed in 1849 as a result. It forced the Maharaja Dhalip Singh to retire and become a pensioner of the British government.

The fall of the Sikh nation was crucial for the British government. It eliminated the Sikh threat to British control over the Indian subcontinent. Thereafter, Punjabis were recruited in large numbers to serve in the Indian army. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 failed badly because of the significant number of Sikh troops from the Punjab who adhered loyally to Britain’s cause.

Brian de Ruiter

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