The Meeting with the Maharajah Ranjit Singh
In 1829 the 31st Regiment had an effective strength of 1086 all ranks but in that year the India establishment was reduced to 736 and consequently no reinforcement drafts arrived from England for a considerable time. The only notable event during the regiment’s stay in Meerut was the arrival of new colours to replace those which had been lost in the Kent. It was, however, involved in a major state occasion in 1831 after it moved to the Punjab frontier at Kurnal. It was part of the escort of Lord William Bentinck, the British Governor-General, who was about to meet the renowned Sikh ruler, the Maharajah Ranjit Singh.
The Maharajah was at that time at the height of his power. By birth no more than chief of one of the smaller confederacies of the Sikhs, he had, during the first twenty years of the century, formed that turbulent and divided people into a loyal and united nation under his absolute rule, and he had divorced the Punjab from its dependency on the Afghan state. He had also, by judicious employment of European officers, created a formidable army. His empire lay between the East India Company’s territories and an Afghanistan which it was thought was becoming increasingly susceptible to Russian influence. He might be a dangerous enemy or a valuable ally; and it was to establish friendly relations with him that the Governor-General had taken the unusual step of travelling to the frontier to meet him.
The meeting took place at Rupar on the British side of the River Sutlej. The Maharajah’s escort consisted of 10,000 of his best cavalry and 6,000 regular infantry who had been trained by European officers. It greatly outnumbered the British force which consisted of two squadrons of the 16th Lancers and two of irregular cavalry, eight guns of horse artillery, the 31st Regiment and two battalions of Bengal infantry. A bridge of boats had been placed across the river. The Maharajah crossed the river on the 26th October and the meeting began with great pomp and ceremony.
The occasion was later described by Captain White of the 31st Regiment. He wrote that “Ranjit Singh himself, in the midst of his glittering array, seemed impressed with the appearance made by the British allies. The number of Europeans present, two King’s corps, the 16th Lancers and the 31st Regiment, being in the governor’s train appeared to give him both surprise and pleasure. He regarded the men with evident astonishment, and remarked to those persons about him, that they were all so fair and young, they looked like gentlemen, comparing them to the sahibs of his acquaintance. He expressed himself also highly delighted with the whole of the troops, and with their movements as they went through several evolutions after the most approved system of military tactics; and the review being ended, he ordered a largesse, consisting of several mule-loads of rupees, to be distributed among the soldiers. However rapacious the Maharajah may be in his character of sovereign, upon this occasion he displayed a truly prince-like liberality, presenting shawls and silk to everybody who paid their respects to him. He also occasioned several of the soldiers and camp followers, who had been induced by curiosity to reconnoitre the precincts of his tented fields, to be called before him, and dismissed them with handsome presents. He was much pleased with the equipments of the British soldiers, especially the lancers; and though it is impossible to say whether ears so well accustomed to the din and dissonance of native music could relish the more subdued harmony of our instrumental performers, he gave a thousand rupees to each of the bands accompanying Lord William’s escort”.
Captain White then went on to discuss the state of the Sikh army and the extent of the French influence. He concluded that the British victory at Bhurtpore (when an immensely strong fortress occupied by a recalcitrant despot was finally taken by Company troops on 18th January 1826) had convinced other Indian rulers that British power was absolute, and was the reason why the outcome of the Rupar meeting was that Lord Bentinck gained the assurances of friendship which he had been seeking. He wrote: “The army of Ranjit Singh has been disciplined under the command of two French officers of very distinguished merit, who have introduced the tactics and system of their own nation, and, in consequence, the legion of cavalry, and the regular infantry, are said to be in a high state of efficiency. Besides these troops, the Ghora Churrahs of the bodyguard are, perhaps, the most effective regulars in India; their men are all Sikhs of good family, and receive liberal pay; they are splendidly equipped, their arms, consisting of swords and matchlocks, being mounted in silver. There is also a ghoorka battalion, and about four thousand irregular cavalry attached to the army. The artillery consists of sixty pieces of horse and a hundred and twenty heavy guns... The troopers of his elite bodyguard are all tried shots, and at eighty yards very seldom fail to hit a small brass pot with a matchlock. Ranjit Singh does not place implicit confidence in his European officers, keeping a watchful eye over them, and not infrequently displaying marks of distrust. The ukhbars, or native newspapers of the Upper Provinces, are continually reporting misunderstandings said to have occurred between him and these gentlemen, and some authorities state that French influence is on the decline at Lahore, though others, again, lamenting over the prevalence of European opinions, say that Ranjit Singh, instead of being independent, is controlled by his own general, M.Allard. In fact, the fall of Bhurtpore has impressed the native mind with a belief that nothing can now withstand the British power - a conviction much strengthened by the courtesies shewn at Rupar by Ranjit Singh to the Company’s Governor-General, which seemed to give an assurance that, notwithstanding the strength of his position, and the state of his army, he would do nothing to oppose the universal rule”.
Among the European officers was an Italian, Paola de Avitabile. The 31st were to meet him again many years later when he had become governor of the city of Peshawar. The Maharajah was familiar enough with European officers, but it was probably the first occasion that he had met British soldiers. His interest in them is therefore understandable. One wonders what they made of him for that almost legendary figure was a man of small stature; through smallpox as a child he had lost one eye; he had a broad and massive forehead and wore a long grey beard. He would have watched the display by British troops with a knowledgeable and critical eye for there was no great difference in the methods of European warfare taught by the French and the British.