In October 1831, the small town of Rupnagar (Ropar) on the banks of Sutlej witnessed a historic meeting between Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and Lord William Bentnick, the Governor General of Indian territory under the East India Company. Over eight days of festivities, military reviews, entertainment and feasting, each side tried to outdo the other in show of goodwill and warmth. At the conclusion, a document was presented by Lord Bentnick to the Maharaja – often erroneously referred to as the “Treaty” of 1831, it was in fact, more of a British proclamation of good intention and its desire for good relations with the Maharaja. It can possibly be compared to the communiques issued post meetings between modern day heads of states. (See below)
By this time the British empire had extended up to the Eastern banks of the Satluj, while territory beyond the river right up to Afghanistan was firmly under the control of Ranjeet Singh, a strong ruler in his own right. It was only after his death and subsequent intrigues that the British conspired to extend their rule beyond Satluj to encompass his territories.
An interesting account of this meeting, including extracts from the diaries of Col James Skinner (who raised the illustrious cavalry regiment named after him, which is still part of the Indian Army in its new avatar as an armoured regiment, known today as 1st Horse) were published in the USI journal in 1932 in an article by Col EB Maunsell. The same is reproduced below.
The meeting between Lord William Bentinck, Governor General, and the Maharaja Runjeet Singh, at Rupar, October 1831, as described by Colonel James Skinner, CB
The following account has only just come to light. The original is a heirloom of the Wood family, and is in Skinner’s own handwriting, clear and legible, though the ink has faded. Skinner’s memoirs and reminiscences were, curiously enough, written mainly in Persian. The forwarding letter was written to Mr Wood, who, so the family tradition states, married the daughter of a Rajput officer who lay beside Skinner, desperately wounded, on the field of Oniara. in the connection there is a tradition in the Skinner family that, when the ladies of Delhi were working an altar cloth for the church this half -caste adventurer was building in the memory of the horrors occasioned on that occasion, Skinners took the letters, I.H.S., to be complementary to himself, these being his own initials. With regard to the Durbar, Skinner makes a very pertinent remark, “The meeting with Runjeet was very grand on his side, on ours, very poor.” This is in full accordance with contemporary accounts of Bentinck’s character for pettifogging economies. It was this Governor General, it will be remembered, who was responsible for the mean “half batta” order which reduced the small allowance of officers while retaining those of the sepoys. This, coupled with his fatuous “gesture’ of abolishing flogging for sepoys while the punishment still remained in existence for British soldiery, had no small effect towards running the discipline of the Bengal Army, which culminated in the Mutiny twenty six years later.
Skinner, in this note, also observes, “Runjeet is a noble fellow, and the only good chieftain of the old days remaining. After his death there is no one to manage his affairs and John Company will, of course, do it.” Runjeet was then fifty years of age, and, on the last day of the Durbar, joined in with some of his own troopers, and with men of Skinner’s Horse, at equestrian feats, Skinner observing, “I could not help admiring his fine spirit.”
This was the second occasion when Skinner crossed the Sutlej. In 1805, acting as advanced cavalry to Lord Lake’s army in pursuit of Holkar, who was delirious of seeking shelter with Runjeet, then a budding chief, the adventurer, with a couple of troops and a galloper gun, was the first man to plant the British standard on the far bank of the river and his mare was the first animal of the British camp to drink the water of the Hyphasis – the Beas – of Alexander the Goat, and in close proximity to the altar erected by that world’s conquerer.
Although in 1831 Skinner had served the Company, on and off, for the last twenty-eight years, he was not a regular officer, but as a special compliment, he was placed on the roster as a Field Officer, and commanded the outposts in his turn. He was much gratified by this, for never before had he commanded European troops, the 16th Lancers and 31st Foot being the regiments present.
Runjeet Singh’s troops, who were reviewed on this occasion, had come into being in a curious manner, for the Sikhs, like the Mahrattas, in the days of Lake and Wellesley, and only been horse soldiers, and very irregular at that. In 1809, Charles Metcalfe had been sent to negotiate certain terms with Runjeet who was now imposing his personality on the whole of the Punjab, as also on Sikh States on the British bank of the Sutlej. Metcalfe happened to be at Amritsar when the Muharram festival took place, and the Mussulman sepoysof the escort celebrated it in the usual manner. This infuriated the fanatical Sikh Akhalis, who attacked the camp. The Company’s sepoys, well disciplined, but totalling only some two hundred all told, met the overwhelming numbers of the Akhalis in the most steady manner, utterly routing them. Runjeet was so impressed with what he heard of the occurrence that he resolved on forming an army, to be trained and disciplined in the European manner. The Colonel, Allard mentioned, together with Ventura nd AVitabile, were the adventurer officers who, in common with sundry British, entered his service and who welded the Sikhs into the formidable soldiery we met in the war of 1845. In this connection Avitabile became the Governor of Peshawar, the only Euopean who governed in India in an Orinetal manner, with the gallows at the city gate.
In the initial preparations for the Durbar “the Seiks cleared a fine space and planted a garden, in the centre of which the royal tent was to be pitched. Wheat had been sown too, in the shape of men, birds and animals, in which form it grew up for the amusement of the chief, as well as gave verdure to this royal and magnificent encampment, while a bridge of boats sufficiently strong to allow the passage of the royal sowarees, consisting of elephants, horses etc, were erected. Nor did a single accident occur.” The “bungalow of silver” referred to below could be moved about as necessity dictated, Runjeet and Lord William taking their seats thereon and being able to see over the heads of the crowd. With regard to the entertainment given by the Maharaja, Skinner tells us that the whole “formed a perfect specimen of Indian luxury and magnificence” – and this old adventurer had seen much magnificence i this early days, particularly under his first master, the great de Boigne, who fully realised its importance in the East. Runjeet Singh, in his cups, was wont to become “very high spirited” and somewhat inconveniently hearty. On this occasion he plated Lady William Bentinck, in common with the naught girls, with gold dust. “and he seemed much to enjoy the joke.” On the other hand his chieftains appeared unable to carry their liquor as gentlemen should, “and, instead of the manners of noblemen, displayed those of village churls.”
Runjeet Singh, in his enthusiasm, went so far as to present Lord William with his famous horse “Loylee” – this was well on in the evening – and his Lordship wisely declined acceptance. The reception was an unqualified success.
The results obtained by the Durbar were incalculable. Had the Sikhs proved hostile during our troubles in Afghanistan eight years later it might have proved impossible to redeem the situation, for the Khyber line of advance would have been closed.
The total number of Sikh troops present was estimated at being some fifteen thousand horse, seven thousand infantry and twenty five guns.
Ranjeet Singh arrived in his royal tent this morning at 8 am. A deputation consisting of Mr Prinsep, General Ramsay and two other officers, escorted by 60 sowars from Skinner’s Horse, went over and was received with a salute of 15 guns. His son, Kurruck Singh, paid the Governor-General a visit and was received by a salute of 17 guns and took his leave at 12 am. The Royal tent is made of red velvet and the outer kunnauts of yellow satin. There is also a bungalow of silver about 16 feet square.
All our troops formed a street from the Governor-General’s tents towards his camp. The Maharaja arrived at 9 am, escorted by a thousand horsemen dressed in silk velvet also rich armours. As he passed every corps saluted, the Company’s colours only dropped. The Governor General with all his suite received him about 100 yards from the Government tents, went into his Hodah, and put a string of pearls around his neck. After asking after each other’s health, about 200 trays were brought in containing shawls, silk, velvet, Kum Khaub, and other manufactures, also several double barrelled guns and pistols besides two horses and two elephants which were all presented to the Maharaja. He returned about 10 am, with the same salute of 21 guns. The horsemen that accompanied him, about 300, were good, the rest were indifferent. The French Lancers were only a mockery of discipline and the horses badly disciplined.
This morning His Lordship returned the Maharaja’s visit at 7 am Kurruck Singh met His Lordship about 1/2 a mile on our side of the river when he crossed the bridge of boats and was met by Runjeet with all his Sardars. His Lordship shook hands and one into the Maharaja’s Howdah. They then passed through street fully a mile in length formed by Runjeet’s troops, both infantry and cavalry. The Durbar was surrounded by large silk kunnauts inclosing a space about 2,000 yards square. It was made of scarlet broadcloth lined on the inside with yellow velvet worked with gold. The carpets were all shawls, rich and superb. The household horse (dismounted) were arranged in ranks in different places. Upon the Lord dismounting, he was received with a salute of 21 guns. He was seated on the left of the Maharaj – Kurruck Singh on the right. Near Runjeet sat Captain Wade, acting as interpreter – then 200 of his Sardars, and then our own officers according to their respective ranks.
When we were all seated a band of about 100 young women came in, well dressed and jewelled. After their salute they sat down on our left. She had arrows in their hands, and some bows. their commanders held staff of order in their hands and wore yellow turbans inkling on one side which made them look very handsome. After singing a little they retired.
The presents next came. They consisted of about 190 trays of different rich manufactures of the country. Runjeet put a string of pearls round His Lordship’s neck besides two horses and an elephant with rich trappings. After receiving these, His Lordship got up and looked at all the magnificent tents, etc etc. After which he took his leave with a salute of 21 guns. Everything was well managed in the Royal way of Hind. The Maharaja was dressed very richly with jewels and wore on his left arm the famous diamond called the Khoe Noore. We returned to our tents at about 11 am.
Troops all paraded at 3pm. Maharaj arrived about 4 pm with about 200 soldiers and sardars. His Lordship also accompanied him with all his staff. The Maharaja inspected the troops very minutely. When the manoeuvres commenced he was so delighted that he was going about alone among the troops with the greatest confidence and tased the Generals to perform some of the manoeuvres again. Of our square he said “They are like a wall of iron.” He departed about sunset quite delighted. He presented 11,000 rupees to the troops. He proved himself superior to any native and seemed rather to have understanding of an English Field Marahal, and, in fact, moved about as though he were himself commanding the troops.
The review of Runjeet’s troops took place to-day and was one of the grandest I have seen. In the front of the parade stood the silver bungalow, or rather, temple, for it resembled on in shape. In the upper part of this sat Runjeet with the Lord and his staff. The rest of the officers were seated below under shumianahs which were pitched close before the temple, and before the Durabar all the movements were performed. There were five brigades of infantry formed, three deep, and each consisting of about 1,000 men, chiefly Seiks (Sikhs?) but mixed with some Mussalman sepoys. The whole of this brigade, with about 15 or 20 gallopers, was under the command of a Seik General. After passing in review order they performed some English Manoeuvres, now out of date. They were done in slow time. Their firing(which they did both in line and square) was very regular – they were armed with muskets and dressed like our sepoys. There were three or four guns attached to them in all their manoeuvres. Whether in line or square, they always left a space for them and fired together. Of the cavalry, only one regiment called the Dragoons acted with the infantry. They are dressed in red jackets with steel helmets and are armed with carbines and pistols. Monseiur Allard (a Frenchman, who was formerly in Napoleon’s army) commanded them. He has taken much pains with them but they are still greatly inferior to our cavalry.
The rest of the cavalry were drawn up o each side of the silver temple and seems the flower of his army. they are undisciplined and are perfectly in their native style. They were dressed in yellow silk and wore armour. Some of his own braggers received about Rs 40 a month.
In the evening entertainment was given by the Maharaja to the Lord and consisted of fireworks. His troop of females was likewise present and danced before the company. Runjeet was in high spirits and drank freely with the Lord. At the end of the party jewels and shawls were presented to Lady William, and a handsome armour to the Lord.
On the 2nd, the camp broke up – the Lord marched to Puttiala – Runjeet to Lahore, and the troops to their respective cantonments.
Unfortunately it does not include the proceedings of 31st October when the ‘treaty’ is dated. But its quite clear from Skinner’s account that the plan to annex Ranjeet Singh’s kingdom was already hatching in the minds of the British. The careful manner in which the fighting potential of the Sikhs was being assessed is obvious from his remarks. But the most ominous give away is his statement in the accompanying note – “After his death there is no one to manage his affairs and John Company will, of course, do it.” And sure enough, that is what happened.
This is what the site where the camps were pitched and the meetings took place looks like this today.