The British Empire Library


Bright Eyes of Danger

by Bill Whitburn

and

The Second Anglo-Sikh War

by Amarpal Singh


Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The two wars against the Sikh nation (1845-46 and 1848-49) were the last to be undertaken by the East India Company's army. They resulted in the demise of the Sikh nation and British annexation of the Punjab. Without this it is doubtful if the 1857 Uprising could have been scotched. Yet very little has recently been published about this critical period. Suddenly two excellent books have appeared to fill the gap. Bright Eyes of Danger, Bill Whitburn's first complete book, covers both wars, their origins and aftermath in a single volume; The Second Anglo-Sikh War by the established author on Sikh affairs, Amarpal Singh Sidhu, is a sequel to his earlier The First Anglo-Sikh War now also available in paperback.

Bill Whitburn is a former British regular Army officer who was educated in India until returning to England after Partition. He retired early, earning his living in Taiwan, but clearly retained a lifelong fascination for the traditions and history of the British Army. This adds colour to the thoroughgoing research into his main subject. He has achieved a small miracle compressing such a colossal story into a single volume. The historical and political background of the Punjab up to the death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1839 dixring the First Afghan War, occupy the first hundred pages. This is a useful summary leading to the toxic mix of palace intrigue, family and tribal rivahy and a magnificent but unemployed army that all boiled over until the EIC became involved in the interest of its security and the prospects for imperial expansion. The subsequent manoeuvres, ten major engagements and political consequences are told in an uncomplicated and readable style. The principal characters are colourflilly portrayed with touches of detail that bring them alive. He is unapologetically frank in his opinions, which adds to the enjoyment. His accounts of the actual battles are exciting, not elaborate, but detailed enough for the average reader. By his own admission: 'The background is invariably more fascinating than the actual war' and he makes it so.

By contrast Amarpal Singh's account is a comprehensive and scholarly study that delves deeply into the origin of each element of the conflict, political, personal, military and strategic. At first it appears a somewhat daunting read: over 500 well-filled pages in a smallish font. But one is led on by the perceptive portraits of the leading characters, their ambitions and aspirations, their relationships and the sense of looming catastrophe as events imfold. His version starts at the end of the First Anglo-Sikh War, the two-year period of 'peace' leading up to the murder of the newly appointed British representatives at Multan, the affair that was to polarise the Punjabi community, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu, into loyalties more complex than simple religious definition might suggest.

Bill Whitburn also takes us briefly through this incident and the consequential response leading to two sieges of that city, which engaged the various available British forces until the main army could be assembled three months later to take on the well-organised Sikh rebellion further north. His version presents the whole Multan tale as a single episode before he turns to the dramatic and concurrent campaign that eventually brought the war to an end. Amarpal Singh, on a much wider canvas, is able to split the two periods of the Multan affair to include more detailed accounts of the origins of the rebellion in Hazara and also to cover the parallel insurrections across the Indus in Barmu and Peshawar and the disconcerting Afghan interference of Dost Mohammed. The same advantage of space defmes the treatment by these two authors of the main battles of the northern campaign leading up to General Gilbert's final chase to Peshawar. For instance the Whitburn account of Chillianwala occupies fourteen pages while Amarpal's is spread over fifty. Both authors end their work by following the fate of the principal players in the drama. Among these Whitburn neatly includes the East India Company itself. Amarpal adds the Sikh people as a whole in the words of Governor General Lord Dalhousie 'I like these Sikhs, they are fine manly fellows.'

Which to prefer? For the whole story between two covers, it obviously has to be Bill Whitburn. This would be a safe choice and an enjoyable read. However, the quality of the product is short of perfect. There are more than a few minor textual errors and the ftill-page colour illustrations on the same paper as the text are disappointing apart fi-om some simple maps and plentifiil small portraits. For those who would prefer a deeper treatment, Amarpal Singh's absorbing version will certainly answer, albeit for the second of the wars only. It is a quality product, excellently illustrated. The maps are a little sketchy, the index has some limitations but overall it is very impressive. The arrival of both these titles is a most welcome event, prompting thoughts as to how Britain held on to India so long, let alone participated successfully in two world wars without this 'humane piece of rascality' as Sir Charles Napier once referred to the earlier annexation of Sind.

British Empire Book
Author
Bill Whitburn
First Published
2015
Pages
327
Publisher
Helion & Co.
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
Amarpal Singh
First Published
2016
Pages
513
Publisher
Amberley Publishing
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
Review Originally Published
Spring 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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