The First Great Game: diplomacy and intrigue before the Treaty of Amritsar

(June 28, 2018)

[Adapted From: The Great Game: the Hundred Year War for India’s Northern Frontier]

In the beginning of 1808, British intelligence circles were in a state of panic. Informants from the north reported that Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore was preparing to lead a large army into the holy city of Haridwar, an ancient settlement that had grown on the banks of the Ganga as it descended from the Himalayas into the plains. One of the most important pilgrimage centres for Hindus, Haridwar was also revered by Sikhs and was home to historic Gurdwaras, marking visits by Guru Nanak.

The fear of the invasion turned out to be misguided panic. The purported purpose of the visit was to attend the holy gathering called the Kumbh Mela, a day on which it was considered auspicious to bathe in the River Ganga. However, since the city was nominally independent at the time, a geopolitical purpose could not be dismissed lightly.

Hurriedly, an Ambassador, Charles Metcalfe, was despatched to Haridwar to meet the the Maharaja. The visit by Maharaja Ranjit Singh was, however, cancelled abruptly. Was this just a testing of the waters?

Metcalfe, ultimately, did not go to Haridwar.

Just as he was preparing to leave Delhi, he received a letter from Lahore, inviting him to Thanesar to meet the Maharaja. Thanesar was well south of the Sutlej, near the ancient city of Kurukshetra, the battleground where the legendary war of the Mahabharata had taken place. The choice of Thanesar was, perhaps, made for its symbolic value – not the mythology, per se, but the geography. It lay to the south of Patiala, which after Ranjit Singh’s Empire, was the largest Sikh state.

By the year 1808, it had almost been a decade since Ranjit Singh had become the Maharaja of Punjab. In this decade, through war, diplomacy and tact he had stitched together what was turning out to be a substantial Empire of the Sikhs in Punjab. The only Punjabi territories that remained outside this Empire, were south of the River Sutlej. Theses were the Malwa States – Jind, Kaithal, Jagadhari, Nabha and Patiala. Nominally, Ranjit Singh was recognised as suzerain by the Sikh kings and nobles who controlled these lands. He was often called upon to negotiate disputes, settle matters between them.

However, with the East India Company’s consolidation of the territories around Delhi, the geopolitical calculus in the northern subcontinent had shifted. So the Governor-General of the EIC Lord Minto had despatched Charles Metcalfe, who was initially meant to meet Ranjit Singh in Haridwar to establish relations with the Empire of the Sikhs.

There was also a global geopolitical context to the embassy of Charles Metcalfe. In the previous decade, while the East India Company had consolidate its hold over India, in Europe Britain had been participating in an alliance against Napoleon Bornaparte’s France. Napoleon had previously had some diplomatic contacts with Tipoo Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, who had been the EIC’s greatest opponent in peninsular India. After Tipoo had been defeated by the British, Napoleon had expressed his desire to march overland, through Persia, into India.

So, Metcalfe’s embassy had a two-fold purpose: one, to secure an agreement regarding boundaries with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and two, to secure a preliminary alliance against the possibility of a French invasion of India. Two more ambassadors were sent at the same time, John Malcolm to Persia, and Montstuart Elphinstone to negotiate with the Afghans. Since the English did not have any agreements with Ranjit Singh at the time, Elphinstone took a circuitous route through Rajasthan and Sind to reach Peshawar, the summer capital of Afghanistan, where he met the Afghan Emir, Shah Shuja.


When Metcalfe left Delhi, for, as he was informed, Thanesar, it was nearing the end of the monsoon season. There had once been a ‘Grand Trunk Road’ – not known by this name of course – that ran all the way from Bengal through Delhi to Kabul. The Grand Trunk Road, the oldest ‘highway’ in the world built by India’s first historical Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, extended by Sher Shah Suri, who christened it the Shah Rah e Azam – the grand road – was once well maintained by the Mughals. Now, as Metcalfe travelled north from Delhi, it was lost in a quagmire of post-monsoon mud. Now, Metcalfe wasn’t traveling alone. He was leading a party that had a retinue of soldiers, scribes, munshis, and, although his letters don’t mention it, supplementary groups of porters, washermen, craftsmen, etc. – as all traveling parties in the age generally did.

After the arduous journey, he would have been hoping for some ‘oriental’ comforts at the Maharaja’s camp in Thanesar, but it was not to be. The Maharaja wasn’t there! What awaited him was a message (carried by Hari Singh, let us assume!) to pass on through the Malwa, across the Sutlej, through the Empire, and meet the Maharaja in Kasur! One can imagine the psychological effect this must have had – almost more than doubling the journey, when the matters at hand demanded urgency. Not to mention the body’s demand of rest.

Thankfully, there was some rest to be had. Just a day’s travel more, and Metcalfe reached the domains of the Raja of Patiala, Sahib Singh. Here, he got his first taste of the legendary Punjabi hospitality, something in which the rulers of Patiala even surpassed the King of Lahore, perhaps.

Metcalfe reached Patiala on 22nd August, he was greeted by the Raja himself, who, in a grandiose gesture, handed the English envoy the keys to the fort of the Capital, asking them to given back as a gift from the British! The Raja of Patiala, it seems, had his diplomatic game all set. He was going to use the opportunity to the maximum to maintain his independence. This gesture was perhaps also meant for the ‘messenger of Lahore’ who accompanied Metcalfe. The Maharaja of Lahore should be warned, the Raja of Patiala had powerful friends.

Metcalfe remained in Patiala for a few days. He finally crossed the Sutlej on 1st September with a warning in his ear – the Maharaja of Lahore was playing a game, he meant to cross the Sutlej and take the city of Faridkot, which was independent at the time, but, nominally, belonged to Patiala.

The English envoy would have had ten days to contemplate. On the 10th of September he approached the camp of the armies of Lahore on the outskirts of Kasur.


Charles Metcalfe met Ranjit Singh, finally, on September 12. It was an informal meeting. He had another meeting a week later, on September 19, in which he was allowed to explain the larger geopolitical context and express a desire for an alliance with Punjab.

On September 22, the Maharaja invited Metcalfe to a more ‘personal’ meeting. For long hours they had an informal, wideranging discussion, where the two young men gauged each other’s power and abilities. The Maharaja, accompanied by a select group of advisers, as Metcalfe says ‘his principal counsellors of State’, questioned the Englishman on a range of issues. He asked about the EIC’s military strength, about their relationship with Holkar, about how far they were willing to proceed to fight the French of they did march to India. Metcalfe answered as he thought fitting, ending by saying that they were willing to march up to Kabul, if needed. Ranjit Singh would make note of this – for future reference!

After this somewhat positive meeting, Metcalfe was in for a surprise when he woke up on the morning of the 25th of September. The Maharaja had broken camp early in the morning – he was marching across the Sutlej, to Faridkot.


What commenced hereafter was a diplomatic game of cat and mouse. Metcalfe rushed to Faridkot, arriving just on the day it was captured. There was no serious meeting with the Maharaja. The Khalsa army broke camp and moved on to Mallerkottla, where after a show of force the Muslim Nawab surrendered. Again, Metcalfe followed the fauj but could arrive at no terms for a treaty. Ranjit Singh’s march continued – to Shahbad, to Ambala, and finally, to Patiala.

What happened at Patiala was unexpected. At least to Metcalfe. Rather than witnessing an outbreak of hostilities he saw, the Maharaja of Lahore meeting and greeting the Raja of Patiala in a ceremony organised at the behest of a venerable Sikh elder, descendant of the clan of Guru Nanak, Sahib Singh Bedi.

To what extent did the English understand the Sikhs, their enmities, their unities?

Frustrated, Metcalfe wrote to the Governor General that Ranjeet Singh could not be trusted enough for an alliance. He suggested a show of force. Even as his letter was traveling to the authorities of the EIC, Ranjeet Singh brought out another surprise. He was going to travel back to Amritsar, and Metcalfe was to accompany him.

In the ensuing weeks, known to both the English and the Sikhs, armies from each side had begun to gather, in preparation for war. It should be recalled, Ranjeet Singh ruled as a regent on earth for the Eternal God, Akaal Purakh. His was an Empire of Sikhs. It would not be complete unless all Sikhs were brought under the Empire.

As the chill of winter descended over the north Indian plain, the two diplomatic camps settled in Amritsar, with regular, but keeping with the theme of the season, chilly contact with each other.

As the new year came, so did new developments in Europe. The British alliance in Europe was beginning to push Napoleon’s conquering armies back into France. It would not be long before the diminutive Gallic conqueror would be defeated for good.

This changed the equation in India. Till now, the stalling had been frustrating for Metcalfe, but not altogether bad for the British. They too had bee waiting for geopolitical stability, in Europe and from the embassies of John Malcolm to Persia, and Monstuart Elphinstone to Afghanistan.

Now, the balance had clearly shifted. The threat of the French invasion had passed. The English could be more assertive. Gradually, final terms were passed on to the Maharaja. He would have to give up suzerainty over all territories south of the Sutlej, since the Sikh Princes of the Malwa had clearly pledged their sovereignty to the British – as they had, by then.

There were two camps in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. One led by Diwan Mokham Chand and Akali Phoola Singh. Mokham Chand claimed to be in touch with the Marathas, and also whatever remained of the Rohilla Afghan aristocracy. The Maharaja was, however, in the other camp. He was not in favour of fighting the British. Perhaps, he realised, it was not the British who were the real, historical, enemy of the British. It was true that the Sikh states south of the Sutlej did not accept his sovereignty. Going to war with the British would mean having to fight them too. This was not worth the cost in blood and treasure, when there was a greater fruit there for the picking.

Had not the British told him they were willing to march up till Kabul?


The Treaty of Amritsar was signed on 25th April, 1810. Charles Metcalfe made a large offering before Guru Granth Sahib in Amritsar and returned to Delhi, with mixed feelings. He had been led through an arduous emotional, psychological and physical journey in the past half year. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had avoided war with a superior enemy but the mood in the Sikh camp was not too cheerful.

More than a few people felt that the Sikh qaum had been robbed of its rightful lands. Perhaps to remind his court that were other frontiers to conquer, perhaps to make up for the loss of territory, in the spring the Maharaja decided on campaigning to Kangra – to secure the kingdom under the direct control of the Lahore Durbar.

However, with the southern boundaries settled, the assurances of peace from the English, the Empire wound in the coming decades he free to turn its sights north – towards the age old enemy, the Afghans.


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