The Talpurs’ last stand
17 November 2016
Hard by a farm-to-market road outside the village of Sahib Khan Chandio, ten kilometres north of Hyderabad and just off National Highway 5, there stands amid the fields a yellow sandstone obelisk. The white marble plaque on one of its faces tells us that the monument was ‘Erected by Major General Sir Charles Napier GCB and the officers, non-commissioned officer and soldiers of the British army under his command in memory of their comrades who fell in the battles of 17th February and 24th March 1843 fought with the Ameers of Sind.’
The plaque then lists the names of those three hundred or so British and Indian men who gave up their lives fighting for control over Sindh. Understandably, the monument commemorates the men who were in the service of the British crown, not those who fought for the independence of the country of Sindh.
About a couple of kilometres to the north, there sit a forlorn and disused mosque and a bunch of graves. Only one of these graves, that of Jan Mohammed Talpur, bears a date that corresponds to that of the battle, but in the annals of Sindhi or Talpur lore this man is unsung: no one raises memorials to the vanquished; even when they die like heroes.
It was the year 1842 when the British, having suffered serious reverses in what became known as the First Afghan War, retreated to their Indian territories. Sindh unfortunately fell into the scheme of things: it had to be taken for no reason but to bolster the sagging morale of the empire. Divided under the three closely related Talpur families of Khairpur in the north, Hyderabad in the middle and Mirpur Khas towards the desert, Sindh was already riven by petty rivalries.
And so when Napier arrived in Sindh in September 1842, the imperious over-bearing man was quick to assess the situation. Of the Talpur rulers of Sindh he wrote to Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General of India, ‘The intrigues of these people are very silly, and like a tangled web; we can cut the Gordian knot as Alexander did – we are too strong to take the trouble to untie it.’ Here was a swaggerer come to deal with a people of whose nature he was largely ignorant.
Exploiting avarice, that most overpowering of human instincts, Napier successfully removed the aging Mir Rustum and installed his brother Ali Murad as the ruler of Khairpur. Then he wrote to Mir Naseer of Hyderabad: ‘I came to Khyrpoor to see how matters stand, and I mean to go to Hyderabad to do the same.’ The ominous ring in this note was more than evident. As he advanced southward, Sindhi warriors incensed by the ignominious behaviour of Ali Murad and by Napier’s brashness began to rally around the flag of Mir Naseer Talpur.
In this madness there was just one sane voice: that of Major James Outram, at that time the British resident at Hyderabad. Even as Napier’s army advance, Outram remained steadfastly sympathetic to the Talpur cause. But despite energetic and sincere attempts, the man failed to restrict Napier. Blinded by fury and unable to tell friend from foe, the Talpurs thought Outram culpable for their rapid decline. The Residency was attacked and Outram was barely able to make away with this life. This attack on the British agent was the excuse Napier awaited at Matiari, twenty-five kilometres north of Hyderabad.
Napier’s intelligence was that some twenty-five thousand men with an unknown number of cannon were amassed in the forest of Miani on the banks of the Fuleli branch of the Sindhu River. That should have been enough to set Napier’s heart aflutter for he led just 2800 men. The man may have been over-bearing and self-righteous, but he was not devoid of courage.
As 17th February dawned, the British advance guard came to within eight hundred metres of the Fuleli embankments to find the hirsute defenders of Sindh armed with sword, shield and matchlock arrayed behind them. Against the British musket and bayonet these arms were, if anything, a poor match.
Between the adversaries lay the dry bed of the Fuleli and on either flank of the defenders were the woods of the hunting ground of Miani. As the vanguard advance, Mir Naseer who had come to the contest with the hope of negotiating a peace, ordered his artillery to open fire. Napier withdrew his forces as Sindhi artillery continued to fire hopelessly out of range. Shortly before noon, with British artillery having softened up Sindhi positions, Napier ordered the advance anew.
Three hundred metres from the Fuleli, British forces formed in battle order for the final assault but deadly matchlock fire from the embankment broke up the advance. It was only on the third attempt with their 12-pounder guns bringing down devastating fire into the mass of Sindhi soldiery in the bed of the Fuleli that Napier’s men were able to attain its banks. With the muzzles of their guns all but touching their adversaries’ turbans, the British began to mow down the men who stood ‘as thick as corn’ in the river-bed.
The sun had just crossed its zenith when the Fuleli was choked with the dead and dying, that the charge was finally led by Jan Mohammed Talpur. Having fired their matchlocks one last time, the men laid them aside and with swords in hand rose as a body. With the doughty Jan Mohammed leading, they came swarming up the river-bank and fell upon the British. The contest was hard fought and not long into it Jan Mohammed went down in hand to hand combat.
Shortly afterwards, his replacement Ghulam Shah Talpur too succumbed to a British sword. That was when Mir Naseer knew that the battle was as good as lost and quietly withdrew towards Hyderabad. Talpur soldiery sorely lacking discipline at the best of times turned into a mob without their leaders and scattered in front of British cavalry now bearing down upon them. The sun had not yet set when the field of Miani went quiet over the bodies of more than five thousand brave Sindhi and Baloch warriors. These were the men whose memorial was never going to be built: they of greater number had lost to resolute discipline and superior firepower.
The following day, 18 February, Mir Naseer surrendered his sword to Napier. In a show of feigned chivalry the general returned the sword and assured the Mir that his affairs would be settled within twenty-five days and that he would be permitted to retain his country. That was not to be because on the twelfth day of March, the Governor General of India announced the annexation of Sindh. As for the Mirs, they became prisoners of war to be transported to Bombay.
Some time before he had arrived in Sindh, Napier had written, ‘We have no right to seize Sindh, yet we shall do so; and a very advantageous, useful and humane piece of rascality it will be.’ The fall of the Talpurs of Hyderabad ratified Napier’s statement. But all was not yet over for even though Ali Murad of Khairpur was quiescent, there yet remained Mir Sher Mohammed Talpur of Mirpur who had missed the action at Miani. Subsequent to the plundering of Hyderabad fort only four days after the debacle of Miani and the humiliation of Talpur ladies, the stage for the Battle of Dubbo was set.
Sher Mohammed, said to be the doughtiest of the lot, made an exaggerated attempt to intimidate Napier: he sent an emissary offering the general safe conduct out of Sindh. As the Sindhi agent ended his presentation, the evening gun happened (or was made) to fire. Napier turned his back to the man saying, ‘You hear that sound, that is my answer to your chief.’
For some reason that we will never know, Sher Mohammed leading some twenty thousand men failed to take the initiative against Napier who was desperately awaiting reinforcements for two thousand five hundred-strong force. As the Talpur procrastinated, Napier’s ranks rose to five thousand and with these he left the fort of Hyderabad to advance to the village of Narejani just outside town. Because of the two dry water courses nearby, the area was known as Do-Abo (Two Waters) or Dubbo.
Once again the Talpur army was entrenched on the far side of the dry Fuleli with eleven guns protecting their right flank and a wooded area the left. Napier opened the engagement with artillery fire that immediately put the Talpurs at a disadvantage by destroying their magazine. After cannon fire had done substantial damage, British cavalry charged into the Fuleli to once again find the Talpur infantry tightly packed within the confining walls of the Fuleli. There, unable to wield their swords, Sindhi forces suffered heavy losses.
The fighting had barely begun when this loss occurred following which Sher Mohammed Talpur was seen leaving the field on his elephant. Command devolved upon Hosh Mohammed Sheedi, a man of humble origin who had risen to high command through dint of martial prowess. At Miani, Jan Mohammed had led a spirited charge, here at Dubbo there was none. The defenders of Sindh went down like sitting ducks. The only act of noteworthy courage was that of Hosh Mohammed and his small group of soldiers who fought without yielding ground. There, where they stood, the bunch went down fighting to the last man.
With no commander to rally around, the warriors eventually began to filter from the field. Yet again, discipline, better firepower and tactics had carried the day over superior numbers and irresolute leadership.
With the dust settled and Sindh firmly in British hands Charles Napier ordered the obelisks at the battlefields of Miani and Dubbo to remember those who died in the service of the British crown. No memorial was ever raised to the Talpur dead, but it is fitting in a way that the only two graves positively datable to those battles are of the two men whose valorous conduct in battle was noted by their adversaries: Jan Mohammed Talpur’s grave lies by the mosque outside village Sahib Khan Chandio while that of Hosh Mohammed Sheedi is outside Narejani village.
Outwardly Sindh was lost to the military genius of Charles Napier. But in reality petty jealousies and rivalries between the three families of Khairpur, Hyderabad and Mirpur were the country’s undoing. Driven by ambition Ali Murad of Khairpur, having been assured of the turban by Napier, engineered the downfall of his aging brother Mir Rustum and then kept his army out of the fray while Sher Mohammed was tardy in reaching Miani. Who knows what the outcome would have been had the three centres combined to oppose Napier.
It is said that surveying the carnage at Miani, Napier comforted himself saying, ‘This blood is on the Amirs, not on me.’ Perhaps he was not entirely wrong.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,