The Enclosing of Nepal

Nepal Table of Contents

The Gorkha state had its greatest success in expanding to the east and west, but it also pressed northward toward Tibet. There was a longstanding dispute with the government of Tibet over trade issues, notably the status of Nepalese merchants in Lhasa and other settlements and the increasing debasement of coinage used in Tibet. There also was a dispute over control of the mountain passes into Tibet, including the Kuti and Kairang passes north of Kathmandu. In the 1780s, Nepal demanded that Tibet surrender territory around the passes. When the Tibetans refused, the Nepalese closed trade routes between Lhasa and Kathmandu. In 1788 the Nepalese overran Sikkim, sent a punitive raid into Tibet, and threatened Shigatse, seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking lama in Tibet. They received secret assurances of an annual payment from the Tibetan and local Chinese authorities, but when the agreement was not honored they invaded again in 1791, pillaging the monastery at Shigatse before withdrawing to Nepal. These acts finally moved the emperor in Beijing to send a huge army to Tibet. Alarmed, the government in Kathmandu concluded a trading agreement with the British East India Company, hoping for aid in their struggle. They were to be disappointed because the British had no intention of confronting China, where there were so many potential trading opportunities.

In 1792 the Chinese forces easily forced the Nepalese out of Tibet and pursued them to within thirty-five kilometers of Kathmandu. The Nepalese were forced to sign a humiliating treaty that took away their trading privileges in Tibet. It made them subordinate to the Qing Empire and required them to pay tribute to Beijing every five years. Thus, Nepal was enclosed on the north, and the British had again shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

The kingdom of Garhwal to the west was mostly hill country but included the rich vale of Dehra Dun. During the late eighteenth century, the kingdom had been devastated by conquerors as varied as Afghans, Sikhs from the Punjab, and Marathas from western India. The armies of Nepal were poised to attack Garhwal in 1790, but the affair with Tibet shifted their attention. In 1803 after Garhwal was devastated by an earthquake, the Nepalese armies moved in, defeated and killed the raja of Garhwal in battle, and annexed a ruined land. General Amar Singh Thapa moved farther west and during a three-year campaign defeated or bought off local princes as far as Kangra, the strongest fort in the hills. The Nepalese laid siege to Kangra until 1809, when Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh state in the Punjab, intervened and drove the Nepalese army east of the Sutlej River. Amar Singh Thapa spent several years putting down rebellions in Garhwal and Kumaon, towns that submitted to military occupations but were never fully integrated into Gorkha. The Nepalese were being checked in the west.

There had been little direct contact with the lands controlled by the British East India Company or its clients, but by the early 1800s a confrontation was becoming more likely. Just as Nepal had been expanding toward the west throughout the late eighteenth century, so the company had steadily added to its annexed or dependent territories all the way to the Punjab. Amar Singh Thapa claimed lowland areas of Kumaon and Garhwal as part of his conquests, but David Ochterlony, the British East India Company's representative in the west, kept up constant diplomatic resistance against such claims, which were not pressed. In 1804 Palpa was finally annexed by Gorkha and along with it came claims to parts of the Butawal area in the Tarai. As Nepalese troops slowly occupied those tracts, local landlords complained to the company that their rights were being violated. Similar claims to Saran District led to armed clashes between Nepalese troops and the forces of local landlords. During these proceedings, there was constant diplomatic intercourse between the government of Nepal and the British East India Company and little desire on either side for open hostilities. The Gorkha generals, however, were quite confident in their ability to wage warfare in the mountains, and the company, with its far greater resources, had little reason to give in to this aggressive state, which blocked commerce in the hills. After retreating before a reoccupation by company troops, Nepalese forces counterattacked against police outposts in Butawal, killing eighteen police officers on April 22, 1814. The fragile state of Nepal was at war with the British Empire.

At this stage in its history, Nepal's single major unifying force was the Gorkha-led army and its supply system. Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors had done the best they could to borrow military techniques used by the British in India, including modern ordnance, command structures, and even uniforms. An entire munitions and armaments industry had been created in the hills, based on locally mined and processed raw materials, and supported by a system of forced labor to transport commodities. The soldiers in the army were renowned for their ability to move relatively fast with their supplies and to fight with discipline under tough conditions. They also knew their terrain better than the British, who had little experience there. Although the Nepalese army of an estimated 16,000 regulars would have to fight on a wide front, it had great logistical advantages and a large reservoir of labor to support it.

The initial British campaign was an attack on two fronts. In the eastern theater, two columns totaling about 10,000 troops were supposed to coordinate their attacks in the Makwanpur-Palpa area, but poor leadership and unfamiliarity with hill warfare caused the early collapse of these campaigns. In the west, another 10,000 troops in two columns were to converge on the forces of Amar Singh Thapa. One of the western columns failed miserably, but the main force under Ochterlony outmaneuvered the Nepalese army and defeated General Thapa on May 9, 1815, leading to the complete loss of Kumaon by Nepal. The Nepalese forces had already proved their abilities, so the British East India Company took no chances the next year, marshalling 35,000 men and more than 100 artillery pieces under Ochterlony for a thrust toward Makwanpur. Simultaneous operations by the chogyal, or king, of Sikkim were driving the Nepalese army from the east. Major battles before Makwanpur in late February 1816 resulted in the final defeat of Nepalese forces by early March. Diplomats had already begun preparing a peace treaty, which reached Ochterlony on March 5.

The Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-16) was a total disaster for Nepal. According to the Treaty of Sagauli, signed in 1816, Nepal lost Sikkim, the territories west of the Kali River (Kumaon and Garhwal), and most of its lands in the Tarai. The British East India Company was to pay 200,000 rupees annually to Nepal to make up for the loss of revenues from the Tarai. Kathmandu was also forced to accept a British resident, which was extremely disturbing to the government of Nepal because the presence of a resident had typically preceded outright British conquest throughout India. In effect, the treaty proved to be less damaging, for the company soon found the Tarai lands difficult to govern and returned some of them to Nepal later in 1816, simultaneously abolishing the annual payments. The return of Tarai territory was important for the survival of Nepal because the government relied on the area as a source of land grants, and it is doubtful that the country as it was then run could have survived without this source of endowments. The presence of the resident, too, turned out to be less difficult than first imagined because all later governments in Kathmandu took stringent measures to isolate him by restricting his movements and keeping a close eye on the people he met. Nevertheless, the glory days of conquest were over, and Nepal had been squeezed into the boundaries it still had in the early 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress