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Relations of British India with Neighbouring Countries (1826-79)

Relations of British India with Neighbouring Countries (1826-79)

Relations of British India with Neighbouring Countries :- The desire of the British imperialists to consolidate their administrative and political power in the region led them into conflict with countries neighbouring India.

Note :- This post will be available in Hindi soon

Anglo-Bhutanese Relations

The occupation of Assam in 1826 brought the British into close contacts with the mountain state of Bhutan. Frequent raids by Bhutanese into adjoining territories in Assam and Bengal and the bad treatment meted out to Elgin’s envoy in 1863-64 and the treaty imposed on him, by which the British were forced to surrender the passes leading to Assam, led to British annexation of these passes and the stopping of allowance paid to the Bhutanese. In 1865, the Bhutanese were forced to surrender the passes in return for an annual subsidy. It was the surrendered district which became a productive area with tea gardens.

Anglo-Nepalese Relations

The Gorkhas wrested control of Nepal from the successors of Ranjit Malla of Bhatgaon in 1760. They began to expand their dominion beyond the mountains. They found it easier to expand in the southern direction, as the north was well defended by the Chinese. In 1801, the English annexed Gorakhpur which brought the Gorkhas’ boundary and the Company’s boundary together. The conflict started due to the Gorkhas’ capture of Butwal and Sheoraj in the period of Lord Hastings (1813-23). The war, ended in the Treaty of Sagauli, 1816 which was in favour of the British.

As per the treaty,

  • Nepal accepted a British resident.
  • Nepal ceded the districts of Garhwal and Kumaon, and abandoned claims to Terai.
  • Nepal also withdrew from Sikkim. This agreement brought many advantages to the British—
  • the British empire now reached the Himalayas;
  • it got better facilities for trade with Central Asia;
  • it acquired sites for hill stations, such as Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital; and
  • the Gorkhas joined the British Indian Army in large numbers.

Anglo-Burmese Relations

In the beginning of the 19th century, Burma was a free country and wanted to expand westward. The expansionist urges of the British, fuelled by the lure of the forest resources of Burma, market for British manufactures in Burma and the need to check French ambitions in Burma and the rest of South-East Asia, resulted in three Anglo-Burmese Wars, and in the end, the annexation of Burma into British India in 1885.

First Burma War (1824-26)

The first war with Burma was fought when the Burmese expansion westwards and occupation of Arakan and Manipur, and the threat to Assam and the Brahmaputra Valley led to continuous friction along the ill-defined border between Bengal and Burma, in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The British expeditionary forces occupied Rangoon in May 1824 and reached within 72 km of the capital at Ava. Peace was established in 1826 with the Treaty of Yandabo which provided that the Government of Burma.

  • pay rupees one crore as war compensation;
  • cede its coastal provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim;
  • abandon claims on Assam, Cachar and Jaintia;
  • recognise Manipur as an independent state;
  • negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain; and
  • accept a British resident at Ava, while posting a Burmese envoy at Calcutta.

Second Burma War (1852)

The second war was the result of the British commercial need and the imperialist policy of Lord Dalhousie. The British merchants were keen to get hold of timber resources of upper Burma and also sought further inroads into the Burmese market. This time, the British occupied Pegu, the only remaining coastal province of Burma. An intense guerrilla resistance had to be overcome before complete British control of lower Burma could be established.

Third Burma War (1885)

After the death of Burmese King Bhindan, his son Thibaw succeeded to the throne. Thibaw, from the beginning itself, was hostile towards the British. The British merchants at Rangoon and lower Burma had been complaining about the step-motherly treatment by Thibaw, who had also been negotiating commercial treaties with the rival powers of France, Germany and Italy. The French also planned to lay a rail link from Mandalay to the French territory at a time when the British were in conflict with the French in Niger, Egypt and Madagascar. A humiliating fine had been imposed on a British timber company by Thibaw. Dufferin ordered the invasion and final annexation of upper Burma in 1885.

[The British had to face a strong guerrilla uprising in the whole of Burma soon after, and a nationalist movement after the First World War. The Burmese nationalists joined hands with the Indian National Congress. To weaken this link, Burma was separated from India in 1935. The Burmese nationalist movement further intensified under U Aung San during the Second World War, which finally led to the independence of Burma on January 4, 1948.]

Anglo-Tibetan Relations

Tibet was ruled by a theocracy of Buddhist monks (lamas) under nominal suzerainty of China. The British efforts to establish friendly and commercial relations with Tibet had not yielded any result in the past and a deadlock had been reached by the time of Curzon’s arrival in India. The Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was ineffective and Russian influence at Lhasa was increasing. There were reports of Russian arms
and ammunition coming into Tibet. Curzon felt alarmed and sent a small Gorkha contingent under Colonel Younghusband on a special mission to Tibet to oblige the Tibetans to come to an agreement. The Tibetans refused to negotiate and offered non-violent resistance. Younghusband pushed his way into Lhasa (August 1904) while the Dalai Lama fled.

Treaty of Lhasa (1904)

Younghusband dictated terms to the Tibetan officials which provided that—

  • Tibet would pay an indemnity of Rs 75 lakh at the rate of one lakh rupees per annum;
  • as a security for payment, the Indian Government would occupy the Chumbi Valley (territory between Bhutan and Sikkim) for 75 years;
  • Tibet would respect the frontier of Sikkim;
  • Trade marts would be opened at Yatung, Gyantse, Gartok; and
  • Tibet would not grant any concession for railways, roads, telegraph, etc., to any foreign state, but give Great Britain some control over foreign affairs of Tibet.

Later, on the insistence of the Secretary of State and true to the pledge given to Russia, the treaty was revised reducing the indemnity from Rs 75 lakh to Rs 25 lakh and providing for evacuation of Chumbi valley after three years (the valley was actually evacuated only in January 1908).


Only China gained in the end out of the whole affair because the Anglo-Russian convention of 1907 provided that the two great powers would not negotiate with Tibet, except through the mediation of the Chinese government. However, Curzon’s policy counteracted all Russian schemes in Tibet.

Anglo-Afghan Relations

In the early nineteenth century, increased Russian influence in Persia replaced British influence and thwarted an English scheme for establishment of a new route by River Euphrates to India. Especially after the Treaty of Turkomanchai (1828), the English got alarmed about possible Russian plans regarding India. Soon, there was a search for a scientific frontier from the Indian side. Passes of the north-west seemed to hold the key to enter India. The need was felt for Afghanistan to be under control of a ruler friendly to the British.

Forward Policy of Auckland

Auckland who came to India as the governor-general in 1836, advocated a forward policy. This implied that the Company government in India itself had to take initiatives to protect the boundary of British India from a probable Russian attack. This objective was to be achieved either through treaties with the neighbouring countries or by annexing them completely. The Amir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, wanted British friendship but made it conditional on the British helping him to recover Peshawar from the Sikhs—a condition which the British government in India rejected. Dost Mohammed now turned to Russia and Persia for help. This prompted the British government to go ahead with the forward policy, and a Tripartite Treaty (1838) was entered into by the British, Sikhs and Shah Shuja (who had been deposed from the Afghan throne in 1809 and had been living since then as a British pensioner at Ludhiana). The treaty provided that—

  • Shah Shuja be enthroned with the armed help of the Sikhs, the Company remaining in the background, ‘jingling the money-bag’;
  • Shah Shuja conduct foreign affairs with the advice of the Sikhs and the British;
  • Shah Shuja give up his sovereign rights over Amirs of Sindh in return for a large sum of money;
  • Shah Shuja recognise the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s claims over the Afghan territories on the right bank of the River Indus.

First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842)

Soon after the tripartite treaty of 1838, there came about a drastic change in the political situation of the region because of the removal of the original irritants—Persia lifted its siege of Herat and Russia recalled its envoy from Kabul. Nevertheless, the British decided to go ahead with their forward policy. This resulted in the First Afghan War (1839-42). The British intention was to establish a permanent barrier against schemes of aggression from the north-west.

An English army entered triumphantly into Kabul (August 1839) after a successful attack. Most of the tribes had already been won over by bribes. Dost Mohammed surrendered (1840) and Shah Shuja was made the Amir of Afghanistan. But Shah Shuja was unacceptable to the Afghans. As soon as the British withdrew, the Afghans rose in rebellion, killing the garrison commander in Kabul. The British were compelled to sign a treaty (1841) with the Afghan chiefs by which they agreed to evacuate Afghanistan and restore Dost Mohammed.

But the English plan failed. Under a new expedition, the British re-occupied Kabul in September 1842, but having learned their lesson well, they arrived at a settlement with Dost Mohammed by which the British evacuated from Kabul and recognised him as the independent ruler of Afghanistan. The First Afghan War cost India one-and-a-half crore rupees and nearly 20,000 men.

John Lawrence and the Policy of Masterly Inactivity

John Lawrence (1864-1869) started a policy of masterly inactivity which was a reaction to the disasters of the First Afghan War and an outcome of practical common sense and an intimate knowledge of the frontier problem and of Afghan passion for independence. Even when Dost Mohammed died in 1863, there was no interference in the war of succession. Lawrence’s policy rested on the fulfilment of two conditions—(i) that the peace at the frontier was not disturbed, and (ii) that no candidate in civil war sought foreign help. And as Sher Ali established himself on the throne, Lawrence tried to cultivate friendship with him.

Sir John Lawrence’s foreign policy was a policy of self-reliance
and self-restraint, of defence not defiance, of waiting and
watching that he might be able to strike harder and in the right
direction, if the time for aggressive action should ever come.
—R.B. Smith, Biographer of John Lawrence

Lytton and the Policy of Proud Reserve

Lytton, a nominee of the Conservative government under Benjamin Disraeli (1874-80), became the Viceroy of India in 1876. He started a new foreign policy of ‘proud reserve’, which was aimed at having scientific frontiers and safeguarding ‘spheres of influence’. According to Lytton, the relations with Afghanistan could no longer be left ambiguous.

Second Anglo-Afghan War (1870-80)

Lytton made an offer of a favourable treaty to Sher Ali, but the Amir wanted friendship with both his powerful neighbours, Russia and British India, while keeping both of them at an arm’s length. Later, Sher Ali refused to keep a British envoy in Kabul while having earlier granted a similar concession to the Russians. Lytton was displeased, and when the Russians withdrew their envoy from Kabul, Lytton decided to invade Afghanistan. Sher Ali fled in face of the British invasion, and the Treaty of Gandamak (May 1879) was signed with Yakub Khan, the eldest son of Sher Ali.

Treaty of Gandamak (May 1879)

The treaty signed after the Second-Anglo Afghan War provided that:

  • the Amir conduct his foreign policy with the advice of Government of India;
  • a permanent British resident be stationed at Kabul; and
  • the Government of India give Amir all support against foreign aggression, and an annual subsidy.

But soon, Yakub had to abdicate under popular pressure and the British had to recapture Kabul and Kandhar. Abdur Rehman became the new Amir. Lytton chalked out a plan for the dismemberment of Afghanistan, but could not carry it out. Ripon abandoned this plan and decided on a policy of keeping Afghanistan as a buffer state.

(After the First World War and the Russian Revolution (1917), the Afghans demanded full independence. Habibullah (who succeeded Abdur Rahman in 1901) was killed in 1919 and the new ruler Amamullah declared open war on the British. Peace came in 1921 when Afghanistan recovered independence in foreign affairs.)

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Vishal Singh

Vishal Singh

“Hi, I am Vishal Singh. I completed my Graduations in Physics in 2020 at VKSU, Arrah. Now I'm Preparing For Civil Service Exams. I'm Interested Physics as well as History, Polity, Geography, Technology & Science.

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