Home » 24 March 1891 : The Day Manipur Army Defeated The British

24 March 1891 : The Day Manipur Army Defeated The British

by Rinku Khumukcham
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By: Lt. General (Veteran) L. Nishikanta (Ln) Singh, Vsm & Bar,
President, Manipur Thinkers Forum
On 24th March 1891, the Manipur Army was able to defeat the British Army who showed a white flag and requested for negotiation. While we the people of Manipur are proud of the heroic sacrifices at the battle of Khonjom and do remember them, but little is discussed about this very important day of 24th March when the British were forced to the negotiating table by the heroic deeds of the Manipur Army.
The Anglo Manipur war of 1891 can be divided into three distinct phases. Phase one was the attack by the British on the residence of Yubraj Tikendra Jit Singh in the early hours of 24th March 1891. The British army could not achieve anything worthwhile. This was followed by the siege of the residence of Mr Greemwood , the British political agent in Manipur. The second phase could be described as the attempted rescue by Lieutenant Grant and the battle near Thoubal which lasted for 10 days. Here too, the British failed to achieve any worthwhile victory and had to withdraw. Phase three is the advance by a divisional size force into Manipur and capture of Kangla.
The Manipur campaign is one of the minor campaigns fought by the British during the Victorian era, in which there was no formal declaration of war. The British initially tried to subdue Manipur with about 400 soldiers but failed, immediately within a week another force of nearly 100 was dispatched to rescue the earlier force. The reason for not sending a massive force could be that a few decades back the British had managed to defeat the Assamese by using 360 soldiers under a Captain. Eventually realizing that a proper deliberate operation is required, the British used what was to be later known as Moltke’s theory by attacking Manipur with nearly 6500 soldiers under a Major General. Even in those days, there were only three axes (roads) leading to Imphal, a cart track over the Naga Hill, a bridle-path connecting with Cachar; and the third connecting to Chindwin. The third was considered important by the Manipuris as Manipur was in perpetual conflict with the Myanmarese known by the local name ’Ava’, while Myanmarees called the Meiteis as ‘Kate’.
Post the 1st Burmese war, the British were possibly interested in maintaining Manipur as a front line country, mainly against Myanmar. During the 1st Burmese War, the British had armed the Manipuris. The ‘Manipur Levy’ was raised by Maharaja Gambhir Singh at the request of the British with a strength of 500. It was subsequently converted to Manipur Army. In subsequent years, the strength of this Manipur army increased to 2,000. British officers were deputed till 1853. However, the Manipuri army continued to grow. They assisted and helped the British forces under, Lt Col Johnstone in 1879 during local fights. The British gifted a large number of weapons and ammunition. Again Manipur supported the British immensely in terms of men and material in 1885 during the 3rd Burmese War. Anglo-Manipur relations seemed good.
According to Mark Simner, in 1889 the strength of the Manipuri Army was about 6,200 including irregulars. It was purely infantry based with no cavalry. For fire support, it was believed, there were eight 3-pounder brass cannons which could fire only balls.
After the revolt on 21 September 1890, Maharaja Sur Chandra appealed to Lord Landsdowne, the Viceroy of India, for assistance. But considering Manipur’s contributions to the British efforts against the Burmese, the British declined to help him pointing out that he had abdicated voluntarily. Instead, they recognised Kula Chandra as the rightful regent. However, they felt that there was a need to neutralise Tekendrajit, who was now the Yubraj. This was the beginning of the Manipur war which could be divided into three distinct phases as brought out above.
In phase one, Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, was sent to Manipur with 400 soldiers of the 44th Gurkhas under Lt Col Skene. They arrived at Imphal on 22 March 1891. The Manipuris extended a traditional warm welcome. The plan was to capture Tikendrajit at a durbar. There are reports that Tikendrajit, was tipped off and was aware of the plan to arrest him. Citing ill-health, he did not attend the durbar. It was rescheduled for the next day but again he did not attend. Quinton gave an ultimatum to Kula Chandra for handing over Tekendrajit or lose the support of the British. The demand was declined.
In the early hours of 24th March, the Gurkhas of the British Army attacked the house of Tekendrajit. The Manipuri troops defended it tooth and nail resulting in serious fighting, including hand to hand combat. Many including the civilian staff of Tikendrajit were wounded or killed. The British too suffered a heavy casualty; Lieutenant Lionel Wilhelm Brackenbury was mortally wounded. The cemetery at Governor’s bungalow Imphal has an epitaph of his and other Gorkha soldiers who died in this battle. The British did eventually manage to enter the house but did not find Tekendrajit. The Manipuri soldiers counter-attacked and succeeded in pushing back the Gurkhas into the British Political Argents Residence. The attack from the Manipuris became more severe. The British defences inside the Residency were crumbling and the ability to hold was decreasing with every passing hour. The battle continued till evening. By 8 PM, Quinton, sensing his precarious position, requested a truce by showing a white flag. This was agreed by the Manipuris. Thus ended the battle of the residency in a Manipuri Victory.
In the events that followed, the commissioner with four other officers, who went out of the Residency for talks never returned. Reports say that there was a commotion by an angry mob whose kith and kin have been killed or injured during the indiscriminate action of the British troops and all five men killed. This perhaps was one of the very important moments in the history of Manipur. What could have happened to Manipur if the British were not killed? Would Manipur have remained a front line country for the British?
The death of British officers was unknown to the soldiers inside the residency, but unconfirmed reports and indicators were suggesting that the Chief Commissioner was unlikely to return; for instance, the firing on the residency resumed after midnight. Because of heavy pressure from Manipuri troops, the chances of being defeated & overrun were large hence the British decided to break contact and withdrew towards Cachar. On 26th, Captain Cowley and 200 men of the 43rd Gurkhas from Cachar linked up with the withdrawing party at Laimatak.
Reports on events in Imphal reached Tamu on 27 March, but the British were not aware of the deaths. Lieutenant Grant started on 28 March with 30 soldiers of the 43rd Gurkhas and 50 of the 12th Madras Infantry to help the stranded Britishers. On 31 March, he reached Thoubal and encountered about 800 Manipuri soldiers stretched on a long front. The Manipuris brought down heavy fire on them, but they eventually pushed the Manipuris to the bank of the Thoubal River. The British managed to cross the river and took defensive positions in a village. The Manipuris reinforced and their strength went up to around 2,000 with two guns (cannons). They were very determined and relentlessly attacked the British force for over ten days till 9th April. Grant withdrew. As Grant withdrew he was closely pursued by the Manipuris. The severity of this battle can be judged by the fact that only ‘Victoria Cross’, the British highest gallantry award equivalent of our ‘Param Vir Chakra’ awarded in the whole Anglo- Manipur War, was given to Lt Grant for his fight at Thoubal.
As brought out above, the British realized the need for a major operation with a much larger force to defeat the determined Manipuris. To disperse the Manipuri forces, three brigade groups advanced into Manipur on three different axes starting on different dates but to converse on the same date ie 27 April 1891 at Imphal as preached by Moltke’s theory. A force of 1200 with the overall headquarters under Major General Collett advanced through Kohima on the 20th of April. Another force of 1900 under Colonel Rennick started early on 15 April. While1800 soldiers under Brigadier-General Graham advanced through Tamu on 23 April. In addition to these 5000 odd troops, the 5th Madras was the reserve besides guarding the lines of communication.
Major defensive position of the Manipur Army was encountered by the force advancing from Tamu. A large force of Manipur Army had constructed an oval-shaped defence which was trenches, ditches, snager (parapet) along a stream full of water and taken up defences in and around Khongjom. Capt Rundall, with 250 soldiers of the 2/4th Gurkhas, 50 soldiers of the 12th Madras Infantry and another 43 mounted infantrymen; a total of nearly 350 soldiers and four guns (cannons) was to lead the assault on the Manipur Army’s defences.
The British fired canons, followed by concentrated aimed small arms on the Manipuri Army’s defences. Believing the morale of the Manipuris would be sufficiently dented, the British infantry advanced, but they were surprised by the ferocity of the Manipuris resistance who fought very stubbornly and refused to abandon their position. Even after some parts of their defensive position were captured by the British, the Manipuris did not give up instead continued to put up very stiff resistance. This resulted in hand-to-hand combat. However, better weapons and superior strength eventually led to the British victory.
The British forces reached Imphal on 27th. By then all Manipuri resistance had ended and the Union Jack was raised above the Kangla Fort. The British effectively disarmed the Manipuris, seizing an estimated 4,000 firearms.
Political instability due to squabbling and lack of unity amongst Manipuri leaders which are visible even today provided the British with a trigger. On 24th Mar, if the mob had been restrained then the spiraling of the events out of control could have been avoided and also perhaps history might have been different. The Manipuris had no allies; even now we need to cultivate allies. Preparations for such an eventual showdown are a long tedious and continuous process and have to be anticipated, visualized, more detailed and elaborate. Manipuris won the first two phases including the battles of Residency and Thoubal but eventually lost the war.

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