Letters from the Western FrontMore than 200 years after they were written, battlefield correspondence fill gaps in the history of the Anglo-Nepal War
- 'We have heard rumours the enemy will bombard our fortifications day and night for a week when their 24/17 cannons arrive, and then storm our fort on the eighth day. They are adding cannons day by day…when our reinforcements arrive, by God’s grace and the sacred powers of the King and with your encouragement, we will continue to strike and resist the white men.’ - Capt Bal Bhadra Kunwar, Ripu Mardan Thapa and others writing from Nalapani Fort to General Bhimsen Thapa in Kathmandu, 10 November 1814.
- 'The English are conceited in their belief that our defence is no match for their cannons. They are getting ready to send troops up to Palpa, Piuthan, and Butwal. They will bring cannons … hit them hard before they start climbing the mountains up from Butwal.’ - Gen Amar Singh Thapa’s instructions to the Palpa Commander, 15 January 1814
- 'When the white man enemy attacked us from the west of Ramsahar, all of us here first hit them with cannon and muskets. After that we unsheathed our swords, and we prevailed. We killed 24 hat-wearing white enemies and 740 black soldiers. There were many wounded.’ - When this letter from the western front by an anonymous commander arrived in Kathmandu in November 1814, it was greeted with jubilation and a gun salute.
- 'The English will have the upper hand if we ratify the (Sugauli) treaty and it will have far-reaching consequences into the future. Even though they signed the treaty, we did the right thing by not putting the official red seal on it.’ - Ujir Singh Thapa writing from Palpa to Gen Bhimsen Thapa in Kathmandu about the Sugauli Treaty that was signed on 2 December 1815, but which powerful generals regarded as surrender.
It was 210 years ago this week that Nepali defenders of the Nalapani Fort in Garhwal of present-day India finally gave up after a month-long siege by the forces of the British East India Company.
Even before the war started, the westward expansion of the Gorkha Empire had come to a halt after their defeat at Kangra by the combined forces of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and local King Sansar Chand.
The British under the command of Maj-Gen Hugh Gillespie and Col Sebright Mawbey attacked the fort after bombarding it relentlessly with cannon fire. Gillespie was killed by a Gorkhali sniper, but Mawbey located the fort’s only water supply and cut it off.
Capt Balbhadra Kunwar escaped from the fort at night, but left behind hundreds of dead Nepali soldiers, their families including women and children.
Now, after two years of painstaking research of letters at the National Archives and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, author Mohan Mainali has brought out hitherto unpublished communications by Nepali commanders on the western front during the 1814-1816 Nepal-Company war.
“We know the broad strokes of the Nepali defeat, but these letters give us a much more detailed picture of what it was like as well as the meticulous information the generals sent back to Kathmandu with runners,” Mainali told us.
What emerges is that the fearsome Gorkhali blitzkrieg at first easily over-ran the kingdoms, and their British allies, reaching the Sutlej River. Ultimately, bamboo spears, poison arrows and muskets of the Gorkhalis were no match for British bombardment of forts with cannons and siege tactics.
Mainali’s book, मुकाम रणामैदानः नेपाल–अंग्रेज युध्दको बखान (From the Battlefield: An Account of the Nepal-English War) uses these communications, deciphering the archaic Nepali written on flimsy pieces of paper that are decaying due to damp and dust after two centuries of storage.
While the English account of the war is well-documented, Nepalis have so far largely relied on oral history, leading to factual discrepancies, some airbrushing and nationalistic myth-making.
This first-ever publication of the correspondence between commanders in Kumaon, Garhwal, Palpa with the rulers in Kathmandu fills the gaps in the existing timeline of the war by inserting relevant excerpts from the letters.
It was during a visit to the National Archives in Kathmandu in 2019 just before the Covid pandemic on another quest that Mainali stumbled upon a catalog that mentioned letters from the Anglo-Gorkha war. They included written directives from King Girvan Yuddha and Gen Bhimsen Thapa in Kathmandu to commanders in Garhwal and Kumaon.
Mainali could not hide his excitement, but little did he realise what a monumental task this was going to be. First, he had to do battle with the bureaucracy at the National Archives to give him access to the papers bundled in red cloth in the dank storeroom.
Some of the documents had been microfilmed, but others were flagged in the catalogue with remarks like ‘insect-eaten’, ‘water damaged’, ‘torn’, or ‘ink-stained’.
Despite being deeply worried by the negligence with which Nepal’s valuable historic archives are treated, Mainali persevered — driven by a passion for history and a journalistic curiosity.
“What comes across in the correspondence is the deep sense of loyalty that the generals, commanders, soldiers, conscripts, and even porters had for the king and country,” Mainali explains. “Even while enduring the overwhelming firepower of the British cannons, hunger and thirst, they refused to surrender.”
In fact, the British adversaries were so impressed with the bravery and loyalty of the Gorkhalis defenders that it led to the first recruitment in 1815 of Nepali foot soldiers into the British military even before the war ended.
What struck Mainali while poring over the letters was the painstaking sophistication with which the commanders in the field were keeping other generals in the Kumaon and Garhwal as well as faraway Kathmandu informed about the progress of the war, assessment of enemy capabilities, casualties, and urgent requirement of men and matériel.
Some of the commanders who were running low on ammunition and supplies showed uncommon understanding of the larger military campaign by writing to Kathmandu saying that perhaps the Gorkhali forces in adjoining forts were in more urgent need of supplies.
Other beleaguered commanders wrote increasingly desperate letters for reinforcements. Some, surrounded by the enemy and out of ammunition, collected rocks to hurl at attackers. They wrote almost poetically: “There is no reason to live if the kingdom falls.”
Aside from the degradation of the paper, the biggest challenge for Mainali was to understand obsolete Nepali words (like ‘tilanga’ for ‘soldier’ that comes from the Indian state of Telangana). Mainali consulted experts like Mahesh Raj Panta and Dinesh Raj Panta for linguistic and historical accuracy.
Mukam Ranamaidan is not a casual read, and should be approached only after first dipping to a less detailed history of Nepal’s unification, the first invasion of the East India Company in 1767, and the context of the Gorkha conquests that led to the 1814-1816 war.
Some of the letters question the historically accepted courage of Captain Bhakti Thapa, citing his demise at Lahar Bhanjyang. But a war memorial of the Subathu Regiment in Himachal Pradesh asserts that Thapa's death occurred in Narain Kot during the final battle at Malaun Fort in 1814.
The bravery of Captain Bhakti Thapa was actually first documented by Gen Ochterlony himself, who gave his adversary a dignified funeral. But the letters in Mainali's book show correspondence from Chandra Kunwar to Bhimsen Thapa and Rana Dhoj Thapa in Kathmandu indicating dissatisfaction with Bhakti Thapa's decisions on military tactics.
Mukam Ranamaidan does not get into the cruelty and plunder by Gorkhali invaders. The strategy of the Nepali generals appears to have been to frighten the defenders with sheer terror, rather than win allies with a hearts and minds strategy.
Mainali also found letters written in English that may have come into possession of the Gorkhalis after they overran British bases, or personal letters written by wives back in England possibly found in the pocket of an English soldier killed in action (below).
In Mukam Ranamaidan Mainali relies heavily on British military accounts and historical sources and shows readers what was happening on the frontlines at the time the letters were being written.
The correspondence between the king and generals in Kathmandu with other commanders proves the opposition of hardliners to the Sugauli Treaty. Gen Ochterlony had to advance into Makwanpur and threaten an invasion of Kathmandu for the final capitulation. Only then, the first British resident Edward Gardner (Nepali nickname: ‘Garan’) finally arrive in Thankot.
There are no plans by the publishers to bring out an English translation of Mukam Ranamaidan, but that may give these new disclosures a wider readership.
The real message in Mainali’s valiant effort to delve into our past is the importance of keeping Nepal’s historical archives safe from the ravages of time.
‘God protect you, my dear John’
Letter found in the possession of a British soldier (named John McGuire?) from his wife in England (Eliza) that tells him about what is happening back home, as well as containing words of endearment. Transcription:
4th January 1815
8 o’clock in the evening
My dear John
I hope this will find you in good health as it leaves me at present thank God for it – I sent you a letter on the 2nd of this month I daresay you have received it (…) this – Mrs (...) is moved in the front room on account of her room being cold – many others went home yesterday – Mrs (...) and Mr Howell have called here today for their daughter's play is tonight they prest me very much to go and see it I told them it was not in my powers to go at that time – there was a man with them that has some sort of a factory he did tell me his name but I almost forgot I think he said (O’Brian) he told me to sent to you and tell you to enquire for him at any time you thought proper he should be glad to see you – they told me that they were going to get up next (….) of the wind they asked me to take the part of piggy I did not give them an answer until sent to you – Let me know what I am to do and what excuse I am to make if I go we shall get a good deal by it and I have the part of – and if I refuse we will entirely lose this forever (….) you know best – answer it as soon as you can for I long to hear from you I was very much pleased with your last letter it showed that you have not forgot me
My love how I long for the time to come for you to return I some times indulge myself with thinking how happy we shall be should it please the Lord to send you home and back to me again as I shall never be happy unless you are with me for you are my last thought at night and my first in the morning I dream of you every night to and have since you went away – write to me often that is all the pleasure I have to hear from you –
God protect you my dear John I remain your loving wife Eliza McGuire
Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.