Diary of a disastrous campaign
By Thomas Bell
21 December 2012
A recently unearthed diary brings a fresh perspective to the lesser-known British foray into what we now call Nepal.
The history of the British East India Company was mostly written by the Company itself. It emphasises military victories, such as the late-eighteenth-century campaigns against the Marathas or the Kingdom of Mysore; and it dwells on episodes of heroism and tragedy which serve to expose the perfidy of the natives (the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’). Although they are now seen in a different light, such events still mark the way. There is little space in the story for Captain Kinloch’s invasion of Nepal. Yet, in his failure, Kinloch helped to draw the map of contemporary Southasia no less than his luckier colleagues in the Deccan.
Nepali historians have dwelt on the historic destiny of Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great, who in the mid eighteenth century forged the Gorkhali empire in the hills as a bulwark against the firingis in the plains. His patriotism was so great, he defended Nepali independence before it was invented. These historians record that Kinloch’s expedition was routed by the Gorkhali army at Sindhuli – the first of several occasions when Gorkha courage or nationalism kept the overbearing power to the south at bay. His defeat has been treated as inevitable, and significant mainly in entrenching the Gorkhalis’ abiding suspicion of the British.
Kinloch’s own diary of his disastrous campaign was – until recently – scarcely known to exist, and its publication is provocative and fascinating. It demands that earlier analyses of the invasion be substantially revised. And it invites us to reflect how national destiny, or the fortune of an imperial adventurer, rests on such factors as the antics of an unreliable grain merchant during the interminable monsoon of 1767.
“The road is reckoned extremely good.”
Prithvi Narayan Shah was born in 1723 to be the Raja of Gorkha – a principality in central Nepal amounting to little more than a modern district, with a grand village as its capital. The word ‘Nepal’ described only the Kathmandu Valley, where a prosperous and (to outsiders) mysterious civilisation had long flourished on the proceeds of trans-Himalayan trade. At the age of 19, Prithvi Narayan inherited his father’s throne and quickly launched a series of campaigns to conquer the tiny kingdoms that surrounded his own, and ultimately to take Kathmandu. By 1767 the besieged king of the city, Jayaprakash Malla, was desperate enough to appeal to the Company for help. The Company was pleased to give it: the Gorkhas’ siege was playing havoc with trade routes.
“From Patna to Jalaudbass the Road is very good,” the young Captain Kinloch assured the British committee that evaluated the proposed invasion. “From thence to Sidely [Sindhuli] is chiefly Jungles, throu’ which Cannon may pass without Difficulty; from Sidley to Nepaul the road is reckoned extremely good … there is no Rivers to be crossed, nor any hills to be passed.”
For this comforting information he could rely on the Kathmandu raja’s own messengers, Muktananda and Fakir Ramdass. Little is known of who they were, besides passing references in the British materials. They provided Kinloch with a drawing, which showed the desperate military predicament of the Valley – although Kinloch acknowledged that it was neither a plan nor a perspective, and altogether out of proportion. They urged him to understand that if the expedition was delayed, even until the rains were over, “the whole country will undoubtedly be in possession of the Gorkhawallah”. With an army of 2,400 men – plus their women and servants – Kinloch set off into a completely unknown country at the end of August.
He found the land around Patna fertile and pleasant, but thinly populated, and getting the guns across the many swollen rivers was tedious. The fords were too deep and canoes, which must be lashed together in groups of five to create a platform, were hard to come by. Anyway, the boats were of no use where the water had retreated to leave deep mud. Progress was slow. A wide area of land had been flooded by the Bagmati, which had burst its banks, and although Fakir Ramdass assured Kinloch that he could lead the army around it, he proved to be a disappointing guide.
Meanwhile Kinloch was concerned about provisions. The fakir had warned him that most of the villages on his route, particularly Janakpur, were liable to be deserted when the people heard of his approach. Grain would be unobtainable – especially in the four days of uninhabited jungle which lay between Janakpur and Sindhuli. A contactor named Dondoa Chaudhary had therefore been appointed three months earlier, and Kinloch now sent for him. He was unhappy to discover how little grain had been procured. He warned the Chaudhary sternly, that he was subject to military discipline (and “I would not hesitate in making an Example of him”), but he also offered a further cash advance if necessary, or to appoint another contactor if he preferred. The Chaudhary (with ingratiating references to the other British officers whom he’d pleased in the past) asked why Kinloch should distrust him so. He promised that the grain would be ready in three days.
“Rain continues without intermission.”
During the hardships that followed, George Kinloch diligently kept up his log. It is a daily journal written in a continuous, barely punctuated stream, plain and specific and – like its author appears to have been – dutiful and unwavering.
Yogesh Raj, who has rediscovered and edited the text, is one of the most interesting historians currently working on Nepal. His most recent previous publication, History as Mindscapes, presented an oral history of the early communist movement, among peasants of the Kathmandu Valley in the mid-twentieth century. With The Journal of Captain Kinloch he returns to an earlier period, and an earlier hunting ground in the stacks of the British Library, where Kinloch’s manuscript had lain overlooked. He presents it with little commentary. A fairly brief introduction sketches some of the background and the treatment Kinloch has received from other historians, but he does not offer his own interpretation of events which, he says “would require a separate study”. Even the date of Kinloch’s birth is not mentioned. The footnotes accompanying the text only indicate variant readings of the original manuscript when a second copy (also in the British Library) was made in 1847.
Kinloch’s words reach us from a remote place in the past. Following him closely is difficult at first. The notes offer little assistance with the archaic place names or obsolete units of measure. Like Kinloch himself, the reader must do without a map of this strange country. The effect builds gradually, until one gets used to it and is engrossed. When the end comes, in mid-sentence, it comes as a shock and delivers an almost literary, emotional effect. The drama in the jungles of Nepal in 1767 cuts to black again.
“Violent rain, now, three days without ceasing.”
“The Choudrey now having had five Days instead of Three, I sent to know if everything was ready,” Kinloch wrote on September 10th. “The answer brought me was, that he was gone on before to Jannickpore where he would meet me with a sufficient supply…” Yet at Janakpur there was no sign of the Chaudhary and Kinloch sent for his guide, Jayaprakash’s messenger Fakir Ramdass, to demand how it was possible to continue without grain. The fakir assured him that there was no alternative but to press on, for delay could have the direst consequences, and besides: grain could probably be found on the way. The Chaudhary, meanwhile, still insisted that large quantities were nearby. Kinloch issued further threats, and offered any help necessary to bring the shipment in.
Kinloch had other problems besides the unreliable Chaudhary. The route to Sindhuli lay through wild jungle with “no trace of any living creature, except wild Elephants, Tigers and Bears which are here in vast numbers”. He pitched his camp in a dry river bed. It was cloudy and he was “in some apprehension” that a rise in the river could damage whatever rice he had and spoil his gunpowder, but the fakir “assured me there was no danger”. It rained all night and the flood that swept through was strong enough to carry Kinloch 25 yards down stream. By the lightening he could see the wreckage of his camp. In the morning he found that most of the powder, a day’s grain and four men were lost.
They forded rivers “gullet deep”. The stony paths “gall’d the People’s Feet”. After “fasting” for “above 30 hours” Kinloch was so hungry that he begged a little rice from a sepoy. The cannon were being moved so slowly that he decided to press on without them, giving orders that they rejoin him when they could. The “Black officers” were guilty of “bad Behaviour”. Despite these difficulties an advance party, led by one Mr Hogan, was able to defeat the Gorkhali garrison and capture the fort at Sindhuli. The bloodthirsty expedition surgeon – Mr Logan – lost one of his fingers as he led the storming party. Yet they found little of the grain they had hoped for.
“excessively wet, cold, Hungry and perplexed”
The enemy barely feature in Kinloch’s journal. The fleeing defenders of Sindhuli, he noted, “left the marks of their Blood for a considerable distance. They behaved like Brave and resolute Men, as everybody agreed they could not be above Eighty in [number]”, and they had held out against their attackers for some time. A few pages later, Kinloch comments for the first time on the Gorkhas’ appearance and weaponry: “They have likewise a knife which they wear in their Cummarband, something on the form of a Bill hook with which they Chop off hands and cuts off Noses, Ears and Lips, a Work they seem very dexterous in.”
The strange landscape presented a greater challenge. What Nepalis call hills were mountains, the like of which Kinloch had never seen before (“altho’ I have cross’d the highest and wildest in the Highlands of Scotland”). Despite the dreadful weather, there were long stretches without a drop to drink.
The fakir told Kinloch that the pass at “Dunmanna” was unguarded, but when the British reached there they found extensive and well built fortifications. The attackers were repulsed twice by a hail of stones from above. Kinloch sent for the fakir and severely reprimanded him for his faulty intelligence, “telling him by such blunders he wou’d effectively ruin the Cause of his Master… he with Tears in his Eyes answered me thus:
Had you Sir, march’d when you first Come to Patna or Soon after your arrival there, which I often trust you to, you would not have met with any Such obstructions as I can prove it by as Many Witnesses that 600 Sunasses [sanyasis] passed this way after that Time, to the assistance of my Master, without molestation… How then Sir, Shou’d you blame me; when you Continu’d at Patna, everybody knew that you were going to Napaul and your Enemy had Correspondents there; Nay the English themselves wrote the Goorka Rajah that they were coming to fight him.
Kinloch retorted that he had been promised Jayaprakash’s soldiers would join him after he took Sindhuli, “Not one of which had ever Come”.
But anyway, it was pointless to get lost in recriminations. They must instead make the best of their current situation. Indeed, since Jayaprakash had been unable to send any men, it seemed to Kinloch more urgent than ever that they come to his relief. The fakir revealed that there was another way, by the pass at “Mahabbed”, which was sure to be unguarded, and would bring them to Kathmandu in six days. That was fortunate: the army had provisions for only six more days – although there was news from the Chaudhary that 130 bullock loads of grain were on the way. Kinloch gave decisive orders on the spot: for the immediate distribution of whatever supplies there were, and an advance party led by Mr Hogan, accompanied by the fakir, to go ahead and hold the “Mahabbed” pass.
The march remained arduous. There were the first stirrings of insubordination, which Kinloch punished severely. Rivers had to be forded a dozen; 19; 32 times in a single day. They saw the prints of tigers, elephants and rhinoceros in the jungle, and chose to camp on an island. “It rain’d Violently which continued all night.” And now here was Mr Hogan, back again unexpectedly, without reaching the pass, blaming the fakir for deceiving him. The fakir had disappeared, but a letter arrived from him, blaming Mr Hogan for ignoring his advice. Kinloch seems to have been prepared to believe both sides of the argument.
He decided to write to the Kathmandu raja, urging him to take the “Mahabbed” pass at any cost, and to send grain if possible. Using a trick which appears to have been popular in the period, the message was rolled up and concealed in the bamboo staffs of two soldiers disguised as holy men. (Like many of Kinloch’s scouts and messengers, they never got through.) “Last Day of the people’s provisions and secon’d of the Rain,” he recorded in his diary.
“My situation began now to be very alarming.”
On October 4th Kinloch wrote, “The Rain continues with great Violence and want already begins to be Echo’d from every corner… Third day of the Rain First of the Famine.” On the fourth day of the famine the fakir turned up, claiming to have reached Kathmandu and returned with a message (but no letter) from the king. He also claimed that if only Mr Hogan had listened to him he could have captured “one of the Passes just at the Entrance of Napaul which would have secur’d grain.” If only it wasn’t raining so much, Fakir Ramdass said, they could be in Nepal in two days.
The question of where the fakir could have been for the week or so that he was missing, and by extension where exactly Kinloch himself was at this point, is critical to understanding how close he came to relieving Kathmandu. But because Kinloch was in the dark, the reader of his diary is too. His uncertainty and dependence on unreliable informants is also the reader’s experience – which is part of the fun of this book. Without further research all that can be said is that he was a few days’ march beyond Sindhuli. It’s not impossible that a hardy walker such as the fakir, travelling alone, could have reached the Valley in a few days from there. If the fakir really had met Jayaprakash Malla, as he claimed, why didn’t he bring a letter? Kinloch asked him this, and other suspicious questions, but the answers he received could neither be verified nor disproven. The fakir claimed he had evaded the ‘Goorkhas’ by travelling through unfrequented parts of the jungle, which – by the scratches all over his body – Kinloch could well believe. But for the most part he recorded it all plainly, offering neither credulity nor scepticism. What choice did he have but to keep an open mind towards anyone who offered hope?
“7th day of rain and 5th of famine.” The people were eating jungle roots and plantains. Kinloch saw how things could slide out of control. An insubordinate “Zemmadar” was reduced to the rank of sepoy and given 500 lashes – “both too mild in my opinion”. He told his army that he would put to death with his own hands the first man to show insolence. The eighth day of the rain was the last and the army tried to march again, but it was almost too weak to move. The rivers were nearly impassable. A bridge-building party refused to go into the raging water, until Kinloch threatened to “flog them without mercy”. “We soon made an excellent Bridge and now wanted only provisions to proceed to Napaul.”
Want of provisions was the final cause of Kinloch’s defeat. On the 12th of October the “Villany” of the Chaudhary was fully exposed, when his bullock loads of grain arrived, with only one seventh of the quantity he had promised.
Towards the Evening found myself so Ill I coud no longer sit up… a Violent fever came in which soon turn’d me delirious, and I pass’d the Night in the greatest torment. The small quantity of grain distributed among the people having rather serv’d to whet then satisfy their appetites. I shall call this the 9th Day of the Famine.
Four days later Kinloch (by then so delirious he couldn’t remember conversations he’d had hours earlier) was still debating the Chaudhary’s possible intentions with himself, as if another shipment of grain might somehow appear.
In the army’s dying condition, retreat was impossible. “So extremely troublesome were the Junglee people now become, that had a man only fallen a few Yards behind the rest, he was sure to be cut off in a most cruel manner.” The situation was the more excruciating because Kinloch believed (or wanted to believe) that he was only two days away from Kathmandu and its grateful raja.
On the 13th day of the famine he wrote, “Sickness now rages and many die, so that my own Malady is heightened by the groans of many poor wretches around me.” On the 14th day he was disturbed by “a Very strange and sudden noise” at around two in the morning, and he sent the gentlemen who lay near him to discover what was happening,
for I doubted not that the Enemy were amongst us. I soon understood that the Sepoys had taken to their arms forc’d the guard and were going off in a Body. It being in the Dead of Night, and the matter carried this far with such secrecy, I had reason to apprehend the worst of Consequences and never doubted but it was general
Kinloch’s journal ends there.
“make publish and diclare this my last will & tesaments”
The Company did not attack the Gorkhas again until the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16. By then the consolidation of the hills was advanced enough to partly resist a more powerful invasion. The Gorkhas lost their most recently conquered territories, between the Mahakali river and the Sutlej, and accepted humiliating treaty terms. During this protracted second encounter, the British largely overcame their military disadvantages, of not knowing the hills or how to fight in them. A third attempt to reach Kathmandu would surely have succeeded. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight one can say that the military threat from the British in fact declined. Even as Kathmandu was riven by factionalism for much of nineteenth century, and deposed rulers repeatedly sought refuge in India, the British did not seize the opportunity to impose their own favourite at the point of a bayonet. The Gorkhas remained wary, naturally, but whether because the British were engaged elsewhere (such as in Afghanistan) or because they could get what they wanted from Kathmandu by other means, the risk of invasion had largely passed. The moment of greatest military tension occurred around 1840, when the Company (represented in Kathmandu by Brian Hodgson) was anxious to avoid conflict, and succeeded in doing so.
Yet if the British had turned Prithvi Narayan Shah back from the gates of Kathmandu in 1767, modern Nepal might never have existed. The invasion failed for want of provisions and because Kinloch didn’t understand where he was, or how far he was from where he was going. His collaborators misled and betrayed him. Nevertheless, he seems to have been convinced that if he reached Kathmandu he could lift the siege. Yogesh Raj, in his introduction, seems to agree.
A few weeks before he set out for Nepal, George Kinloch wrote his will, which is published among six appendices at the back of the book. He left his property to be divided equally between his brother Charles and his sister Celia, except he reserved his palanquin, its silver paraphernalia, a horse, saddles and clothes for Charles, and he wanted ten pounds a year to be paid to a young man back home in Scotland. It is not clear how he got out of the jungle alive. Perhaps, as Yogesh Raj suggests, he was carried back across the treacherous mountain paths, rivers and swamps by a few loyal friends. After he made it back he was blamed for the fiasco, but later his masters took a kinder view.
George Kinloch survived until May 1768, when the illness or illnesses he caught in the jungle finally finished him off. He was buried at Patna. In the last months of his life he tried to convince his superiors that a renewed expedition, not afflicted by the ills that had blighted his own, would have every chance of success and spare the Company a dangerous enemy on its northern border. For a while they seemed inclined to listen, but then they ignored him. Kathmandu fell to Prithvi Narayan a few months after Kinloch died, in the summer of 1768. It is the moment when modern Nepal is reckoned to have been born.
~ Thomas Bell is a writer and long-term resident of Kathmandu.