The Battle Of Khongjom and the Manipuris in the Anglo-Manipur War - 1891
- Part 1 -

Dr. Yumkhaibam Shyam Singh *

Khongjom Day Observation of the historic Battle of Khongjom 1891, with President of India Pranab Mukherjee attending on April 23rd 2016
Khongjom Day Observation of the historic Battle of Khongjom 1891, with President of India Pranab Mukherjee attending on April 23rd 2016

The first bullet of the war was fired by the British on the 24th March, 1891, without any provocation from the Manipuris. In the days fighting at the capital of Manipur, about 50 Manipuris including Pukhramba Tanka, Khumbong Subedar, Leisang Jamadar and Athokpa Dewan sacrificed their lives. Two Tangkhuls were also among those killed in hand to hand fight. Lt. Brackenbary and some sepoys of the British Army lost their lives on the side of the British. In the aftermath of the palace attack, owing to the demand of the Manipuri masses, seven unguarded British Officers were killed.

But surprisingly, on the 4th April, 1891, the Manipuris released 51 arrested Hindustani sepoys (Indian sepoys in the British Army) giving them Rs. 5 each for their journey to respective places. Therefore, the disposition of the Manipuri masses towards the Hindustani sepoys of the British Army was different. Earlier, in the First War of Indian Independence-1857, the Manipuri masses were also psychologically on the side of the Hindustani rebels. After the events of the 24th March, the British Indian Government sent three powerful British Armies to Manipur from the side of Kohima,Tamu and Silchar and continued the war.

The Battle of Khongjom was the greatest battle of the Anglo-Manipur War. Great freedom fighters-Major Paona Brajabasi, Chinglen Sana, Khumbong Major, Loitongba Jamadar, Keisa Jamadar, Heirang Khongja and many more rank and files of Manipuri warriors sacrificed their lives at this battlefield.

Reporting on the real picture of the battle, Captain Rundall who had commanded the British Army at Khongjom expressed: "Of the enemy 76 dead were counted inside the work (mud made Manipuri fort) and two wounded and just outside the work 52 dead were counted those killed in the nala (which surrounded major portion of the fort) were not at all counted as they laid in heaps in the water nor did he counted those killed by the guns and mounted infantry. The mounted infantry estimated that they killed about 50 and some villagers have since told me that 400 fell on that day."

The Anglo-Manipur war was also a memorable event of all the Manipuris, for both the valley people and hill communities fought hand in hand to protect their territory and independence.

On this epoch making event previous scholars had given their views on the genesis and other aspects of the war. But they failed to study the reasons why the aged Thangal General fulfilled the demands of the Manipuri masses executing those unarmed Sahibs in the night of the 24th March, 1891. Besides, the scholars also studied hardly on the concerted efforts of both the hill and plain peoples of Manipur against their giant European power.

Keeping in view of these missing areas, this paper makes a humble attempt to study the reasons why the Manipuris demanded capital punishment for the British officers leading to the execution of the seven Sahibs viz. Mr. J.W. Quinton CSI, Chief Commissioner of Assam, Lt. Colonel C. McDowal Skene, D.S.C., Commanding the 42nd (Gurkha) Regiment of Bengal Light Infantry, Mr. F.St. Clair Grimwood, ICS, Political Agent in Manipur, Lt. W.H. Simpson, 43rd (Gurkha) Regiment of Bengal Light Infantry, Mr. W.H. Cossins, ICS, Asst. Secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Mr. W.B. Melville, Superintendent of Telegraph, Assam Division and Mr. O' Brien.This paper also highlights the concerted wartime efforts of almost all the major Manipuri communities viz. the Meiteis/ Meeteis, the Nagas, the Kukis and the Tangkhuls. The source materials are from different archives, chronicles and secondary sources.

Historical Background of the anti-British mindset of the Manipuris

In the Last part of 1823, when Gambhir Singh of Manipur was ruling over South Cachar (a region neighbouring with the British Sylhet),the Burmese had not only occupied Assam and Manipur but also invaded Cachar from three directions viz. Assam, jaintia and Manipur. The third party from Manipur attacked South Cachar and defeated the army of the latter (mainly Manipuris) under Gambhir Singh. Thus, the British Indian Empire was threatened by the Burmese. In a Letter to the Court of Directors, it as stated later: "Under such an emergency it was natural that every resource, however trifling, should be sought after and the re-establishment of the Munnipore dynasty seems to have been a scheme peculiarly favoured by the late agent Mr. Scott."

Accordingly, it was accepted to assist the British Army at Badarpur (Assam) by a group of Manipuris Known as 'Raja Gambhir Singh's Levy' comprising 500 infantry and 40 cavalrymen. Lord Amherst, the Then Governor General of British India, declared War against Burma on the 5th march, 1824; and The Raja Gambhir Singh's Levy' joined the British outpost at Badarpur in April, the following month. The Levy was supplied with arms, and its expenses were also borne by the British. However, they were regulars as no pay was entitled to them.

The number of the Burmese Army in Cachar was estimated at about 8000. The British Army under Lt. Col. William Inns arrived at Badarpur on June 20 and then proceeded by water along the river 3arak to Jatrapur. On the way, he tried to dislodge the Burmese from the heights of Talain where they strongly fortified. For three days (July 6,7, 8) British guns fired on the stockade; Gambhir Singh with his excellent local knowledge, assisted the operation. By the end of October, 1824, the entire Burmese Army in Cachar retreated to Manipur. On the role played by Gambhir Singh in Cachar, it was stated: 'Gumbheer Sing ...with whom we had negotiated, raised from among his own followers a body of 500 men, who actively co-operated with our troops in expelling the Burmese from Cachar."

At this juncture, Brigadier-General Shuldham, commanding the Eastern Frontier of British India, decided to march to Manipur so that the gravity of the war in the Arakan frontier could be diverted to the advantage of the British Army.

However, because of the hopelessness of this wet and mountainous kingdom, the General's mission was suspended. Yet, Gambhir Singh, breaking the ice, proposed to take up the task condemned as hopeless by the General. Earlier, the former had also been induced by David Scott to lead an expedition for the conquest of Manipur. He was also told that "Manipur would be placed under him if he could liberate it." Consequently, Gambhir Singh's proposal was accepted, and thus, the prince made preparations with his own Levy.

The 'Raja Gambhir Singh's Levy' left for Manipur on 17th May, 1825, with Lieutenant R.B. Pemberton. At this mission, the latter volunteered to accompany Gambhir Singh to Manipur with the additional objective of obtaining some accurate information about the passes into Manipur, its resources and the strength of the Burmese Army. The party, after facing so many difficulties, reached Maklang (a village in the valley of Manipur) on June 10. Hearing their arrival, the Burmese Army in Manipur was divided into four sections making stockades at Kameng, Andro, Nambol and the Phunal Hills. Gambhir Singh and his levy fought bravely for two days and ultimately the Burmese were expelled from the valley of Manipur.

The Levy successfully captured Kangla (the capital of Manipur) on 12th June, 1825. In this way, the Levy executed the task which General Shuldham had failed to do. On this Levy, it was stated: "The men could move lightly equipped without a paraphernalia of a regular army." Once more, it was complimented: "The primary objects in view, viz. The expulsion of the Burmese from Manipur was, however, achieved by Gambhir Singh.... These men had been provided with arms by the British commander, but they were wholly undisciplined, and it was only at Gambhir Singh's urgent request that he was permitted to advance with them to Manipur." Therefore, the conquest of Manipur in the First Anglo-Burmese War was the handiwork of the irregular and unpaid 'Raja Gumbhir Singh's Levy.'

The Levy faced untold difficulties due to the lack of provisions as there was less cultivation in Manipur. Consequently, Gambhir Singh left 300 men in Manipur, and returned to Sylhet by the end of June 1825 to discuss his problems and other policy matters. Lt. Pemberton, returning to Sylhet with Gambhir Singh, reported on the latter that "the success of the enterprise was due mainly to his energy, perseverance and skill."

At Sylhet, Gambhir Singh was intimated with the order of the British Government which accepted the inclusion of the former's Levy in the British Indian Army with a new denomination. With this happy news, Gambhir Singh left Sylhet for Manipur on 4th December, 1825, along with Captain FJ. Grant and Lieutenant R.B. Pemberton.

Reaching at Kangla on 23rd instant, Gambhir Singh declared that his Levy would be a part of the British Army with a new denomination-the 'Manipur Levy'; the British Government had accepted to increase its strength to 1500 infantry and 150 cavalry; the pay, provisions and all equipments of the Manipur Levy would be borne by the British Government and the same would be collected from the Magazine at Chandrapur (a place at the western foothills of the Bhuban Mountain, Cachar); Cap. FJ. Grant and Lt. R.B. Pemberton would be the Commissioner and the Assistant Commissioner of the Manipur Levy with Lt. George Gordon (who had not arrived at Imphal that time) as the Adjutant. Cheitharol kumbaba (the chronicle of Manipur) also mentions that the Maharaja coming with two Ferunghees entered the capital on Friday, the 23rd December, 1825, and arranged a grand feast for the 'Four Victoria Battalions.' On this occasion, Alexander Mackenzie also stated: "In 1825 the force was increased to 2000 men, and placed under the command of Captain Grant; it was denominated the Manipur Levy."

In this way, the members of the Manipur Levy, becoming regular army of the British Government, enjoyed many facilities, and Manipur had a sizeable inflow of currency. On the other hand, this kingdom was projected seriously for war against Burma, and also, to defend the eastern frontier from the latter's aggression thereafter. Gambhir Singh now decided to expel the Burmese from the Kabaw Valley (now in Burma) which had been for Manipur for ages in the past.

Nur Singh was, therefore, sent along with 1000 men to Tamu on 1st January, 1826. On being asked for reinforcement, Gambhir Singh along with the two British Officers left for Tamu on 13th January, 1826. The Burmese fort at Tamu was a very strong and well protected one. Therefore, the two Sahibs suggested the need for cannons. But, Gambhir Singh, disfavouring the proposal, planned to send Nur Singh to invade Samsok with 300 selected men.

Meanwhile, surrounding the Tamu fort to obstruct provisional supply for five days, the Burmese were compelled to leave the place in the night of 23rd January 1826. On the other side, Nur Singh, crossing the Ningthee (the Chindwin River now in Burma), broke the capital of Samsok on the same day. Receiving the message of the fall of Samsok capital, Gambhir Singh, along with the two British officers, arrived on the bank of the Ningthee on 1st February, 1826. Hereafter, declaring his conquest up to the Ningthee River, Gambhir Singh unfurled the flag of Manipur on the bank of this river.

In this way, under the leadership of Gambhir Singh, the Manipur Levy completed the conquest of the Kabaw Valley. On Gambhir Singh and his followers, Captain Grant reported, "...the activity, judgement, and skill, he (i.e., Gambhir Singh) had displayed on this occasion, have proved the justice of the opinion previously entertained of his merits.

The steady gallantry which, without the usual aid of cannon, could force a brave enemy to evacuate a strong fortified position, is a very satisfactory illustration of the character of his followers..." Indeed, had the British not received the timely help from this brave son of Manipur, it would have been impossible for them to launch an attack on Ava through Manipur and bring the war to conclusion so early leading to the Treaty of Yandaboo, 24th February, 1826.

Although the treaty recognised Gambhir Singh as the Raja of Manipur, yet it did not mention anything on the Kabaw Valley. Soon after the treaty, the Burmese started encroaching into the territory of Manipur crossing the Ningthee River. It resulted in a serious headache to the Manipuris and, consequently, they were highly discontented with the British policy.

To be continued ...

* Dr. Yumkhaibam Shyam Singh (HoD, History Imphal College, Govt, of Manipur) wrote this article for 'Manipur Today' that was published by DIPR Manpur in April 2017
This article was posted on July 04, 2017.

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