The reason behind the Anglo-Nepal War was the clash in political interest between Nepal and the East India Company. Nepal was playing a role in making new imperialism, but it had to labor hard for achieving its envisaged goal. While assessing Nepal’s expansion plan, the country's unification campaign started from a small state of LigLigKot and then Gorkha and was able to reach as far as Sikkim in the east, Kangara in the west, the Himalayas in the north and Purnima, Saran, Gorakhpur and Bareli in the south. These are now considered as the most fertile areas and they are covered with great cities.195It can be imagined how rich Nepal would be if those areas were part of the country. Besides, the Gorkhas were strengthening their economic condition by controlling the landlords and their lands in the plain Terai. Thus, Nepal was in the unification campaign by capturing the southwest areas, while the East India Company was expanding its imperialism in the northeast region.
British India was not in favor of giving up Nepal’s southern border areas, which are now under Nepal. Another main target of British India was to open the trade route to Tibet and China via the Nepalese territory. Achieving the target would be possible only after capturing Kathmandu- Rasuwa and Listikot, Sikkim- Nathula pass and Kumaon- Kalapani areas. Therefore, the English took the Kumaon region to be the most important (Presently in Nepal and India, it is known as “Kalapani dispute”). It was because the English could expand their trade route to Tibet and China through Kumaon and it would also get fertile and arable areas. That was the reason why the English accorded high importance to Kumaon.
Instead of capturing Kathmandu, the English wanted to stop Nepal’s expansion bids by clipping its wings. As per the English war strategy, they wanted to contain Nepal only as a hilly region. There is also an opinion that in case Nepal remained as it is now, the country could be a 'Buffer Zone' between China and British India. As Nepal was leading its state expansion to the southwest and the English towards the northeast, the two troops would definitely meet at a point somewhere. And there was a high possibility of the two countries' clash due to their political interests. Both countries had speculations on the same line. That clash would be a military confrontation and it was the only way out at the end.
Thus, the border disputes in the south from the time of King Prithvi Narayan Shah and Nepal’s expansion to Kumaon and Garhwal was a great threat to the East India Company. Since the East India Company was there for making money, it used to focus on economic benefits. In order words, the Anglo-Nepal War took place as the former's intervention would obstruct the latter's political economy. The English had established great imperialism and Nepal, as a newly rising military power, had strong willpower.
Sketch Source: Brig Gen Prem Singh Basnyat, PhD
However, other reasons paving the way for the war were as follows:
(a) During the time of the small kingdoms and principalities, India was not a distinct nation. India became independent from the British rule only in 1947. There was a dense forest in the Terai and there was no fixed border with India. So, there were border disputes between the two neighbors at that time. Since most of the plain areas in the Terai belong to the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh, the kings of the small states and principalities on the Nepal side had to pay land taxes to them for using the land. Sometimes Nepal and Nawabs seemed to capture some of the lands that remained like no man's land. After the English defeated the Nawabs, the former claimed the ownership of those areas. Since the time of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the borders on the eastern Terai were full of disputes. Later, as Nepal expanded its territory from Sikkim to Kangara - about 3,000 km, the English charged Nepal with infringing on its lands in many areas. Because the lands served the economic interest of the English, they would not give the lands to Nepal. The initial misunderstanding occurred due to land-related disputes.
(b) At a time when there were border disputes with the English in the eastern Terai after the unification campaign launched by Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Kantipur Jaya Prakash Malla sought military support from the East India Company to check possible attacks by Shah and get rid of the Gorkha sanction. Accordingly, the English Army brigade led by Captain Kinloch left for Kantipur. But the Gorkha troops badly defeated the English troops at PauwaGadhi (Aada) of Sindhuli by using multiple ambushes as a spoiling attack. The English soldiers could not advance towards Kantipur and ran away. As the English troops were again trying to march to Kathmandu from Janakpur through HariharpurGadhi, the Nepalese troops attacked against them in the BagmatiRiver near HariharpurGadhi.Thus, Gorkhas and the English became enemies after they deployed their troops to cause damage to the former at the wish of Kantipur's king. And the English were waiting for an opportune time to take some sort of revenge against Gorkha for the humiliating defeats at PauwaGadhi– Sindhuliand HariharpurGadhi.
(c) In line with their religion, the Christians would consume beef while the Hindus used to worship cows, the former were taken as an unholy group. Since the Malla period, the Christians had been staying in different parts of the Kathmandu valley, especially in PatanBazar and providing medical treatment to patients and involved in the promotion and publicity of their religion. They had some churches, too. In addition, they would get engaged with politics and instigate the kings of the valley against one another. King Prithvi Narayan Shah understood that well and after he captured all the three states—Kantipur, Bhadgaon and Patan, he chased away the Christians from his state. Then, the western Christians turned out to be great enemies of the king and they started campaigning against him by complaining the English, who were living in India, against him. Thus, the Christians unnecessarily hyped the issue that the king chopped the noses of the residents of Kirtipur after bringing the state under his control. Anybody could Google and search on “ Chopping Noses in Military Tradition” would find this tradition in the globe at that time and even in Malla kingdoms of Kathmandu valley. Therefore, the enmity between the Gorkhas and the English increased due to the mixture of politics with religion.
(d) Prince Bahadur Shah met with European Christian pastors and other followers, too, during his frequent exiles to India. As Shah was ill, his health improved after using the medicines given by the Christians. Because he got help from the pastors in his difficulties, he had good relations with them. Later on, he returned to Nepal and got the opportunity to be in power. During that time, at the initiative of the pastors, a trade pact was signed with the English in 1792. The English delegation was led by Abdul Kadabir Khan. But the Government of Nepal did not endorse the pact. After the English failed to materialize their dream of promoting their trade, they had enmity with Nepal.
(e) It has already been mentioned that the expansion of Nepal’s territory to the southwest was the first reason for the rivalry of the English towards Nepal. The second reason was that Nepal obstructed the trade route to Tibet and China. The money-minded English wanted to establish business relations with Kathmandu and Tibet by any means. To materialize that, they sent goodwill or talks team under the leadership of different persons to Nepal under various pretexts. For example, in 1792, a team was sent under the leadership of Abdul Kawadir Khan, in 1793 under the leadership of Col. William Kirkpatrick, and as per the treaty signed in 1801, a team led by Captain O. Knox had to return humiliated without fulfilling the wishes of the English. Although it was an economic issue, the English took it as a diplomatic dishonor. The first British resident representative Knox, who came to Nepal in 1801, had to return empty-handed in 1803.
(f) After former King RanaBahadur Shah returned to Nepal from his Varanasi exile, BhimsenThapa became the Kaji and General. Following the assassination of Rana Bahadur Shah, Thapa became very powerful in Nepalese politics. With his zeal, patriotic feelings, enthusiasm to do something and commitment to countering the growing pressure from the English, Thapa emerged as a strong person. Dissatisfied with the English due to frequent political differences, he had thought it necessary for Nepal to fight against the adversary. Some years before the start of the war against the English, he made an approach to the Chinese Monarch, Tibetan government, Indian Maratha, Gwaliyar King, Punjabi Sikhs and Indian Rohilla were seeking international support to fight against the English and forming an anti-English organization by sending envoys. The English had known that. So, the English wanted to disable the Nepalese Army as soon as possible.
(g) British resident Captain Knox, who stayed in Kathmandu from 1801-1803, had to return home without completing his tenure because he did not maintain the diplomatic dignity, and interfered in the palace politics by bribing courtiers. That reflected the ill- intention on the part of the English towards Nepal. And Nepal was unhappy with the English.
(h) Several kings and Rajautas, who were defeated in the unification battles against the Gorkhas, were instigating the English to attack against Nepal. They used to secretly inform the English about Nepal’s weaknesses, military strength and the palace politics and played roles in poisoning against Nepal. As a result, English was encouraged to launch attacks against Nepal.
(i) The English were eager to capture the Kathmandu Valley as they thought they would be able to have control over the invaluable gold found in the monasteries, temples, shrines and monuments and take up trade with Tibet.
(j) During that period, the main enemies of the English were French. After BhimsenThapa became the General, he brought French military technicians to Nepal for manufacturing weapons, conducting professional training and improving the standard arms and ammunitions of the Nepalese Army. In line with the French Army's provisions for the General, Colonel and the military uniforms were made. Based on their suggestions, barrack systems were established in Kathmandu. The Army Headquarters and barracks were established in Chhauni– Kathmandu where there is now the National Museum. The English were not happy with Nepal because of all those things.
(k) As there were land-related disputes in the Terai, SubbaLaxmanGiri and his team were deployed to the Rautahat area to look after the land on behalf of the Government of Nepal. The land was being used by Nepalese landlord Bir Kishore Singh, the puppet of the English. Singh, together with his 1,600 supporters, made an assault against LaxmanGiri and his security guards. Giri and his aides were killed in the attack. That incident resulted in a big dispute. The English had to take the moral responsibility of the incident. It assured Nepal of taking action against the guilty after probing into the incident through the diplomatic initiative. But later on, the English put all the blame of the incident on Nepal and the former did not bother about it. That was a great insult for Nepal.
The Immediate Cause of War
The English suppression was going beyond its limit. Instead of resolving the disputes through the diplomatic channels, the problems were getting complicated. The main dispute during that period was a border row. The disputes of Butwal and Sheoraj (Shivaraj)-Kapilabastu were becoming more problematic. After the assassination of Palpa's King PrithvipalSen, General Amar Singh Thapa- father of General BhimaSenThapa was assigned the reasonability as the governor of Palpa. Butwal and Sheoraj were also under his administrative jurisdiction. The King of Palpa had used the land in the areas by paying tax to the Nawab of Abadh. The English took ownership of those areas after it captured the State of Nawab. After then, the English rulers were not willing to allow the Nepalese people to use the lands.
The Government of Nepal requested the Company Government to permit Nepalese to use the lands as the King of Palpa had done. However, there was no understanding between the two sides and the English Government chased away the Nepalese security personnel from the lands and established their security posts there. General Amar Singh took it as a dishonor. Then, he took revenge and chased away the Britishsecuritypersonnel staying at the post and returned the lands. The agents of the English instigated them against the incident by exaggerating it. Consequently, a bigger English troop was deployed in the areas. It demolished the security posts and beat up the sentries and brought Butwal and Sheoraj under its control. By establishing stronger security posts in the areas, the English officials returned.
After knowing all about the incident, Amar Singh got fired and informed the Nepal Durbar about it. Then, the Durbar issued an order stating that there should be Nepal’s control over Butwal and Sheoraj anyhow. In line with the directives, Thapa moved towards Butwal and Sheoraj with troops and launched a surprise assault against the English security posts. A total of 18 persons were killed and six others were injured in the incident. Other security personnel fled. With that incident, the English formally decided to launch a war against Nepal. On November 1, 1814, British India Governor-General Lord Moira declared a formal war against Nepal and the war kicked off.
The main portion of this article has been extracted from the author’s book “ Anglo- Nepal War: A Military Review”
Prem Singh Basnyat, PhD, is a Brigadier General ( Rtd) of Nepal Army