In 1804 Sano Kaji Amar Singh Thapa (not the same general in Kangra) conquered Palpa and expected to receive rents from Butwal and Gorakhpur. However, he did not know then that the Nawab of Oudh had already ceded Gorakhpur to the Company. The negotiations around the territory took a turn for the worse when the Company flatly refused it to Kathmandu.
That bitterness was festering when in 1813, Major Paris Bradshaw, who joined the East India Company as Chief Commissioner, produced land documents as evidence to back the Company’s claim on the villages in the Makawanpur border and Butwal. Historians say that Bradshaw’s ‘haughty’ manners did not sit well with the Gorkhalis, and this escalated the matter further.
The Gorkhalis were given until 22 April 1814 to surrender Butwal and Siuraj. On the day, the Magistrate of Gorakhpur sent 17 Companies to take possession of the land. The Gorkhalis had withdrawn since it was the malaria season. A month later, however, they returned to attack the police posts in Butwal resulting in the death of one policeman.
Meanwhile, Francis Rawdon Hastings joined the East India Company in Calcutta as the new Governor-General. Hastings was a sensible man and did not want to start a full-scale war with the Gorkha Empire for a small piece of land that merely got the Company Rs15,000.
But war was inevitable. A precursor to the Kumaon-Garhwal-Himachal war was that Bradshaw had occupied 22 villages in Saran and captured a Gorkha police post. Following this, when Chandra Shekhar Upadhaya, an agent from Kathmandu was sent for diplomatic negotiations, the Company announced it did not want any more talk.
Meanwhile, in the territory newly conquered by the Gorkhalis in Garhwal, General Amar Singh Thapa claimed Sirmaur and Hindur. British Gen David Ochterlony, who was then based in Ludhiana countered the claim. Thapa wrote to Kathmandu and was eventually successful in invalidating Ochterlony’s claims. The failure to secure Sirhind for the Empire and the Company greatly embittered Ochterlony towards Amar Singh Thapa.
According to Jyoti Thapa Mani, the author of the book The Khukri Braves, Ochterlony and Amar Singh Thapa were rather frenemies. To keep an eye on each other, these two opposing generals even made their sons mit friends.
“Both Ochterlony and Thapa understood each other’s expansionist ambitions and loyalties to their respective countries,” Thapa Mani says.
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Despite his reluctance to go to war with the British, Amar Singh Thapa knew that the war with the East India Company was inescapable. The Gorkhali’s ties with the Khalsa army of Punjab was weakening after the Sikhs were subdued with the Treaty of Perpetual Friendship with the Company. Amar Singh Thapa knew that a war would come at a hefty price for the over-extended Gorkhalis.
Thapa tried to send word to Lord Hastings in Calcutta but failed. He even tried to get support from Qing rulers of China and the Sikhs, but in vain. The Peshwas of Maratha, who were also fighting the British, were also approached.
In a letter to General Ochterlony, Amar Singh Thapa wrote: ‘Otherwise by favour of Gods, the troops of the Gorkhas, resembling the waves of the ocean… will make necessary preparations to prevent the usurpation of any one place which has been in their possession for years past, and the flame of agitation will daily increase.’
On 1 November 1814 Lord Hastings formally declared war on the Gorkha kingdom, but he permitted the army to strike as they saw fit as soon as the monsoon ended. He had to his favour also the intensified infighting in the royal court in Kathmandu, and the tension between Bhimsen Thapa and Amar Singh Thapa was already at a tipping point.
The East India Company was looking to redeem itself as the bravest warriors since Captain Kinloch defeat at Sindhuli, and the second time around, on top of more advanced artillery, Hastings was also more prepared.
By October 1814, the East India Company had already placed four points of attack on the Gorkhas — Khalanga, Saran, Jitgarh, and Malaun Fort.
By the end of the first month of the war, the Gorkhali had already surrendered Nalagarh Fort to the East India Company, and by the end of November Khalanga in Dehradun too was lost. The British had overwhelming numbers and mountain cannons that could blast the Gorkhali forts.
The forts did not just have the warriors in them, but the Gorkhali troops had brought along their wives and children as well who would rain boulders down from the ramparts at the British. These families bore the brunt of the Company’s siege of the forts and the battles to conquer them.
In November Amar Singh Thapa moved to Ramshehar Fort. Then within a month he again moved his base to Malaun, where winding roads isolated the fort. He then advised his son, Ranajor Singh Thapa to move his base from Nahan to Jaithak, 92km north-west of Malaun.
The Assault at Jaithak
Jaithak Fort sits atop a steep hill and even today, with one wrong move on the narrow trail, a visitor can fall into the ravine below. Historians remark at how only the nimble-footed Gorkhalis knew their way around the terrain and to imagine the British troops trying to scale this perilous hillside is truly astounding.
The British had no option but to try and build roads to reach from the nearby mountain peaks. Due to its geographical advantage, Ranjor Singh Thapa held on to the fort even after five months of the British siege.