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The Prisoner of Kathmandu

By Charles Allen

Not so long ago the Ranas were the rulers of Nepal – not as kings but as prime ministers. Although governing in the name of the kings of Nepal, the senior members of their clan held absolute power for over a century from 1846 to 1951. Today they no longer have any political clout, and the powers they once exercised are now celebrated only in the grandiose family portraits that line the walls of the last of the Rana family mansions still standing in Kathmandu Valley. However, in one particular Rana home, belonging to the most senior branch of the family, a more modest painting catches the eye: a watercolour by an English artist that portrays a most curious scene.

Two squads of soldiers face each other across a valley floor with their muskets at the ‘present’. They are dressed in the red jackets, white cross-belts and pantaloons worn by infantrymen at the time of the Napoleonic War. The only irregularity is that that the soldiers on the left wear black shakoes and those on the right wear white. That difference identifies the former as belonging to a British regiment of foot and the latter as local sepoys – infantrymen of the kingdom of Nepal. Between them are a cluster of civilians, some in local and some in European dress. Two raise their hats to acknowledge the salute paid to them.

The subject of the painting is the ratification of the Treaty of Sugauli on 4 March 1816 – or, rather, an idealised representation of the event painted 33 years later. That ratification marked an end to a hard-fought war between the HE ICo and the mountain kingdom of Nepal that had dragged on for fifteen months before concluding with one final battle fought out on the heights above Makwanpur.

So this is where this scene is set: the Makwanpur Valley, in the foothills just south of the great bowl that should properly be called the Nepal Valley rather than the Kathmandu Valley. The ridge above the trees on the right is where the Nepali army made its last stand on 29 February.

Outnumbered, outgunned and outmanoeuvred, the Parbatiya or ‘men of the hills’ who made up Nepal’s fighting elite proved no match for General Sir David Ochterlony and his 17,000-strong army from the plains of India. But they stood their ground and died in a manner that astonished their opponents. That redoubtable old soldier John Shipp, author of Memoirs of the extraordinary military career of John Shipp, late a lieutenant in His Majesty’s 78th Regiment, written by himself, was present at Makwanpur as a junior officer and left a vivid account of the way the enemy they called the Gorkhas fought and died:

‘I never saw more steadiness or more bravery exhibited by any set
of men in my life. Run they would not; and of death they seemed
to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around
them, for we were so near that every shot told … Two six-pounders
now began to play with grape on the poor and brave fellows … The
havoc was dreadful, for they still scorned to fly … I do repeat again,
I never saw such soldiers … Reader, believe me when I assure you
that these results of war were no sights of exultation or triumph
to the soldiers who witnessed them.’

Appalled by this slaughter, General Ochterlony had at last given the order to cease firing. Those of the enemy who were left alive were allowed to walk away and their wounded attended to. Ensign Shipp’s company was then given the task of collecting and burying the Nepali dead:

‘In two days eleven hundred were committed to
the grave, having almost one general tomb; and it would have much
edified those babblers who rail so much against soldiers’ cruelties
and vices to have seen the tears of compassion trickling down the
cheeks of both Natives and Europeans on the occasion.’

News of the disaster was carried by runners to the royal court in Kathmandu, the Durbar. Its implications were inescapable. Nothing could now prevent the foreign-born, without caste Firingis from marching down into the Nepal Valley and occupying Kathmandu – nothing except peace.

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