HC Deb 07 April 1865 vol 178 cc936-44

said, that he wished, before Parliament separated for the holidays, to say a few words on a most important subject, he meant the great disaster that had befallen the expedition to Bhootan. The loss of two guns to any portion of Her Majesty's army was a circumstance which so seldom happened that he thought some special inquiry should be made concerning it. It appeared that on the borders of Bengal was a district inhabited by the semi-savages of Bhootan, who had made such repeated incursions some time ago, that it was considered necessary that an expedition should be sent into the territory. That expedition was planned last year, at considerable expense. It was well planned; it advanced into Bhootan, and was successful. A portion of the Bhootan territory, whether rightly or wrongly he should not presume to say, was annexed, the Natives were said to be satisfied with British rule, and the whole expedition was supposed to be over. The expedition cost upwards of half a million of money. A very slight loss occurred in men from the enemy, but a large proportion, possibly one-third, of the expedition, perished from disease. Scarcely, however, had the European force been withdrawn and replaced by a civil force of police and Native troops, than it was found that they had been made the victims of a ruse on the part of the people of Bhootan. Suddenly an attack was made on us; the forts we possessed were taken, and a force, under the command of British officers, was obliged to retreat in complete confusion with the loss of two guns. This was a most important circumstance in itself, from the loss sustained, and more especially from the effect it would have on the whole frontier which separated Hindostan from the other parts of Asia. He hoped the Secretary of State for India would give the House what information he could on this subject. The original circumstance of the expedition to Bhootan was, he thought, open to very great doubt indeed. He would go farther, and say that Mr. Ashley Eden, the gentleman sent on that expedition, the Envoy who suffered the insult which led to this expedition, had previously played no unimportant part in India. He had been the cause of the quarrels between Europeans and Natives on the question of indigo, and no doubt that gentleman had not displayed the discretion and prudence to be expected from persons deputed by the Government of India to manage important affairs. That gentleman certainly received no praise for his conduct either in India or in England on that occasion, and the disputes which his conduct was the primary cause of occasioning, led to very disastrous consequences in Bengal. It was extraordinary that a gentleman who had not signalized himself by any prudence in the position which he previously occupied should have been selected for this very delicate mission as an Envoy to Bhootan. That was one of the points in which the Government of India was, perhaps, open to blame, but he was unwilling to discuss the question till the papers were laid before them. He hoped the Secretary of State for India would explain how a territory of this sort, recently annexed, was left with so small a guard, and as he had the telegraph at his command, he would give them his views as to the Governor General's allowing the Government of Bengal to take this matter into their own hands. While it was in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief the affair was successful, why then was it left to the inferior Government of Bengal? He did not wish to prejudge the question, but the circumstances were of so exceptional a nature that he hoped the fullest explanation would be given before the House separated for the holidays. They all knew what was the effect of the slightest disaster in a country situated like India; and they had seen on a former occasion how great a flame a little spark had kindled. No doubt all over the frontier this disaster would be immensely magnified. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would give them at the earliest opportunity all the papers relating to this subject, accompanied with a good map, so that they might be enabled to understand the whole question, and that a full inquiry into it would be made.


said, the hon. Gentleman was mistaken in supposing that any European force was sent to Bhootan. It appeared to him that the same mistake which was committed last year in the Hill war on our North Western frontier had been repeated this year in Bhootan—namely, that of despising the enemy. In defence, however, of the conduct of the 43rd Regiment Native Infantry, which ran away from Dewangiri, he had authority for stating that that regiment went into action with but one European officer beside the colonel fit for duty. It was notorious that Asiatic troops would not behave well in action when they were under-officered, and all the Native regiments in India were in this state, owing to the right hon. the Secretary for India, in spite of all warnings and protests, converting the regular Native troops into irregulars, and thus reducing the number of officers from twenty-four to six. Besides which, the unfortunate system that had been introduced in carrying out the amalgamation order had had the effect of making commanding officers entire strangers to their men, and destroying the sympathy which used formerly to exist between them. In fact, no officer could now-a-days lead into action, as in the old time, men with whom he had been acquainted since his boyhood. With regard to this war there had unquestionably been great mismanagement, and the time that was suffered to elapse between the insult offered to our Envoys by the Bhootan Court and the despatch of troops to avenge it had been attended with the worst results. In dealing with barbarians like the Bhootans promptitude of action was necessary, for they attributed inaction to hesitation and fear. Moreover, instead of employing a Native force, of which, with the exception of the Ghoorkas, all seemed to have behaved more or less badly, it would have been better had we organized, in the first instance, a compact, flying European column, for whose operations when the war first commenced the weather was very favourable, it being the commencement of the cold season. This course was, he believed, now being taken, but much valuable time had been lost. Looking to the advanced season, he feared that our gallant European troops would suffer greatly from malaria and cholera. It appeared to him that instead of that feeble policy of occupying a few trumpery passes, our troops ought to have marched boldly into the heart of the country, and after inflicting a severe blow on a despicable enemy, armed with bows and arrows, have concluded a peace and retired from their sterile hills. That might have been effected with comparatively little loss of life and treasure, and without injury to our prestige. This was the course pursued by that clear-minded man, Lord Ellenborough, on the occasion of the second advance of our troops into Affghanistan, and it had been attended with the best results, for we had commanded the respect of that warlike nation ever since.


said, he hoped the right hon. Baronet would give the House some information as to how it was the local Bengal Government had been suffered to act instead of the Supreme Government, and whether the Commander-in-Chief was responsible. It appeared that the local Government were responsible for sending the Native troops without European officers, and it was highly improper that any local Government should be allowed to plunge the Government into war.


said, that the hon. Gentleman who introduced the subject was somewhat in error when he spoke of the European troops in the expedition. The great fault that was to be found with those who had projected it was that no Europeans whatever had been employed, except some twenty artillerymen for the management of the two Armstrongs, which, he was sorry to say, had been deplorably lost in the disgraceful flight from Dewangiri. The House had very little information with respect to this expedition. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir Charles Wood) he believed had received little. But if he had received any he had certainly not revealed it to the public. So far as the facts had reached him (Mr. Torrens), it appeared that the operations of the force were attended with tolerable success during the season favourable to their employment; but when that period had elapsed, and many of the English officers became too ill to remain in the country, their number was consequently diminished, even the Native men were reduced by half; and the sad disaster of Dewangiri took place. It had been stated in a letter from Calcutta, which had been yesterday published in The Times, that the 43rd Native Infantry—composed, as he understood, entirely of Assamese who were a very cowardly race—were left to garrison the stockade at Dewangiri. But many of these men were only enlisted in October, the very month that this war begun, who had never been drilled, and were the first to run away from their post. The consequence was, that the rest of the regiment, too, also misbehaved; they ran away, and we lost our guns. Now, was it fair to leave British officers in command of such a rabble, some of whom were stated in the letter to which he had referred not to have received a day's drill. The right hon. Gentleman had stated, in reply to a question last evening, that an inquiry would be instituted into the management of this expedition. But who was to institute it? Was it the Governor General, or Mr. Beadon, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, who were both responsible for the grievous ill-management of the expedition? The Governor General must be held responsible for sending an expedition into a difficult and mountainous country, composed of a bad description of Natives, solely without any European force to support—doing this in the teeth of all Indian experience, which shows that for the lengthened operations of a campaign Natives are not to be relied on unless they are sustained by British bayonets. He thought the inquiry ought to be instituted in England. As to the fate of our soldiers, who in the rainy and hot season were to be pushed forward into that ill-provided country, he would not dwell upon it, but he looked forward to the consequences with great apprehension. He hoped the House would receive from the right hon. Gentleman complete information upon the subject as far as it could be given.


said, he was puzzled as to how he should set about answering the various conflicting and inconsistent statements which had been made by hon. Gentlemen who had taken part in this debate. Indeed, many of the statements which had been alleged seemed to him to be the reverse of the truth. The hon. Gentleman who had first spoken stated that the Government had withdrawn the European troops from the expedition. But the fact was that no European troops had been sent, and none having been sent none could be withdrawn. The hon. Gentleman then said that, though our loss at first was small, he understood that we had since then lost one-third of our men. [Mr. HENRY SEYMOUR: It appears so from the newspapers.] He (Sir Charles Wood) could not account for the reports in the newspapers; but he could say this, that we had lost neither one-third nor any considerable portion of our force. The whole statement, in fact, appeared so entirely without foundation that he was at a loss to conceive whence it could have come. [Mr. HENRY SEYMOUR: Have not two guns been lost?] The hon. Gentleman, again, had talked of the immense loss we had sustained in the occupation of the Dooars. But he (Sir Charles Wood) informed the House last night that the actual loss, in effecting that occupation, except what had occurred from an accidental explosion, was only five men. What we had lost since then he could not pretend to say, but it might be forty or fifty men. However, instead of attempting to follow the various statements which had been made, perhaps the best course to take, and that most satisfactory to the House, would be to give a history of what had actually taken place. And in the first place he might be allowed to say that the papers which had been laid upon the table would afford the most complete information up to the time of the occupation. The India Office had been most desirous to give every information which could throw light upon the question, and the papers had been ready for some time, but the noble Lord had asked for a map in order to illustrate the operations; and so defective were the materials at their command, that the office had been employed for a long time in collecting the necessary information for making a map, and it was only at the commencement of last week that they had succeeded in doing so. The delay that had taken place, then, was entirely owing to the anxiety of the Department to furnish the House with this map. For many years past inroads had been made by the people of Bhootan into our territories, and before the mutiny broke out it had been determined by the Indian Government to send an expedition into that country with the view of bringing the aggressors to account, and also to rescue a number of British subjects who had been carried off into slavery. The mutiny, of course, put an end for the time to any idea of the sort, and when Lord Elgin went to India he was anxious, in conformity with the directions which he had received from home, to avoid having recourse to a military expedition. Lord Elgin, therefore, determined to send a mission to the capital of Bhootan, in order to make arrangements with the authorities there for the restoration of the British subjects who had been carried into captivity, and to obtain some security against future aggression. There was no reason at the time to apprehend that the mission would be ill received, because a former one had been treated with the utmost consideration and courtesy. And here he wished to say that the Government had no reason to believe that Mr. Eden was not, in all respects, a perfectly fit person for such a mission. On the contrary, that gentleman had conducted a mission to Sikhim, with great ability, and in this last occasion he had behaved with remarkable discretion in a position of great difficulty. The mission, however, was entirely unsuccessful in obtaining redress, and it would be perfectly impossible for any Government, which had a regard for its own honour, to submit to the indignities which had been offered to it in the person of its envoy. The circumstances to which he alluded took place in the course of last summer, and it was then determined that measures should be adopted in order to force from the Bhootan Government redress for the injuries which it had inflicted upon British subjects. It would have been perfect madness to send our troops into that country in the hot season. The advance was made at the earliest moment which was consistent with the health of our troops, and that was about the 1st of December—only a few months after Mr. Eden's return. There was no unnecessary delay subsequent to the return of Mr. Eden. It would be seen by the papers that there were three courses suggested as possible to be pursued with the view of bringing the Bhootans to reason. One was the permanent annexation of Bhootan, the second was the temporary occupation of the country, and the third was the occupation of the Dooars, a portion of which we had always held, including the occupation of the passes from the hill country through which plundering expeditions had been made, and by the holding of which passes protection would be given to the people below against the inroads of the highlanders. He was entirely against the annexation of Bhootan, and he also objected to the temporary occupation; because, looking at the total disorganization of the Government of the country, it would be difficult for any sovereign chief with whom we might make a treaty to hold his position unless he had our support, and this would involve us in the internal concerns of that country. That was a policy which it would be wise to avoid. The course which was recommended—the occupation of the Dooars—met the approbation of all those persons who were best acquainted with the locality, was determined upon by the Government of India, sanctioned by the Commander-in-Chief and by the Home Government. This course was adopted because it was the least expensive, would lead to least subsequent mischief, would be most likely to attain the end in view, and promote the welfare of the people. In the beginning of December a force which had been determined upon by the Government of India, and placed under the command of a general officer, advanced for the purpose of occupying the portion of the country to which he had referred, and that occupation was so successful that had it not been for the accidental explosion of a mortar, they would only have lost five men up to the end of December. Our troops were in the occupation of the forts, and no resistance was offered. The whole undertaking had been under the direction of the Government of India. The Government of Bengal being a local Government, was quite subordinate to the Government of India. Towards the end of January the Bhooteahs assembled in force in front of two of our positions, but we still retained possession of the two places, Buxa and Dalimkote, which the hon. Gentleman said we had lost. Dewangiri was abandoned because it was cut off from any supply of water, and we were not driven from it by any attack made upon the troops. The officer conducting the evacuation, having to remove his two guns by manual labour, and the strength of men dragging them failing, spiked them, and threw them over a precipice, into a narrow valley, and did not lose them through any attack of the enemy. The men of the 43rd had behaved gallantly, so far as the information which had reached this country enabled him to judge. The hon. Member for Windsor said that there were not European officers enough with the regiments, and blamed the reduction of the numbers attached to the old regular regiments; but he must remember that the number of European officers with the old irregular regiments was only three, and many of; the most gallant actions ever fought in India had been fought by regiments so organized. An alteration had been lately made, by which six European officers were appointed instead of three.


What he said was, that we had regular Native regiments and irregulars, and we had reduced the officers from twenty-four to six.


That was perfectly true; but it was equally true that many of the best actions in India had been fought by those regiments in which there were only three European officers. At the present moment there was no resistance on the greater part of the territory which we occupied, and the troops still maintained the position which they had occupied. He hoped by the next mail to receive more accurate information of what had occurred upon the subject. It was not quite fair to condemn the officers and men upon the scanty information which had been received. No official report had been forwarded. He thought the account which came to this country of great disasters was entirely unfounded, and he had received no information which would lead him to suppose that any great loss had been sustained.