British Declare War on Nepalese Gurkhas

British Declare War on Nepalese Gurkhas

On this day in 1814, Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, British Governor-General of India, declared war on the Gurkhas of Nepal. It was the beginning of what became known as the Anglo-Nepalese War, and would lead to the division of Nepal and a British colonial presence in the region.  

British interests in much of the Asian sub-continent were controlled at the time by the British East India Company. This was more than just a trading company, and effectively formed the governing body across the areas in which it operated. It formed the de facto government across vast swathes of India, exercising military control and aggressively pursuing territorial expansion.  

The British East India Company had been expanding its influence in areas of India that neighboured Nepal, and was concerned with the aggressive nature of Gurkha expansion within Nepal. Exploiting the squabbling between minor kingdoms within the region, the Gurkha Kingdom had made large territorial gains throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, seizing much of what became the Kingdom of Nepal, and growing in strength and influence.  

The British and the Gurkhas were now in close proximity, but the lack of a formal border between their jurisdictions lead to increased hostility and mutual suspicion. Fearful that Gurkha raids would hinder stability and economic progress, the British devised a strategy to invade the Gurkha territory and neutralise the perceived threat.  

Four separate battalions were formed, totalling more than 20,000 mainly Indian soldiers, each briefed to attack a different Gurkha stronghold. The idea was to surprise the Gurkhas and divide their defences. What the Gurkhas lacked in terms of resources and weaponry, they made up for in tenacity and intricate knowledge of the terrain. Despite superiority in numbers, the British suffered severe losses at the hands of the Gurkha forces, with one of the British army commanders, General Gillespie, killed in battle in the first few days of the conflict.  

However, as the war developed, the modernity and numerical advantage of the British began to tell, and the Gurkhas suffered increasingly heavy losses. Notable successes were achieved under General David Ochterlony, whose out-manoeuvring of a large Gurkha detail at Makwanpur would prove pivotal in the outcome of the war. In 1816, faced with an opposing force that was quickly adapting to the conditions of mountain warfare, the Gurkha hierarchy was compelled to accept an uncompromising peace treaty.  

The resulting Treaty of Sugauli was proposed in December 1815 and finally ratified in March 1816, officially drawing the hostilities to a close. Under the terms of the treaty, the Gurkhas were forced to cede about one third of Nepali territory to the British, and an official British representative would have the right to remain in the capital Kathmandu. In addition to this, the treaty gave license for the formation of a regiment in the British Army consisting of soldiers selected from Gurkha forces. General Ochterlony had been impressed by their fighting skills during the conflict, and was keen to augment the British Indian army with a strong Gurkha presence. To this day there is still a prestigious Gurkha unit serving with the British army.

Credit: Alamy BJWBK7
Caption: Officers of the 44th Gurkhas pose for a photo in 1896.