The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In 1890, the effete Maharaja of Manipur was deposed in a palace coup. Of the set of eight brothers in the royal line, four were opposed to the Maharaja, and three supported him. The leaders of the putsch were the Jubraj, or Heir Apparent, the second oldest brother, and the Senapati, or Commander-in-Chief, the third oldest. A few shots were fired at the window of the palace, the Maharaja abdicated, and with his three supporters fled to the British Residency, and the Jubraj installed himself on the throne. Because the Senapati was wildly popular and recognised as the ablest of the fraternity, Manipuris on the street welcomed the coup.

The Maharaja then left the kingdom on a pilgrimage to the Ganga.

It was not British policy to interfere in the governance of a nominally independent kingdom, but the Political Agent at a Residency was meant, first of all, to ensure that no prince who meant harm to the British survived in power, and contrariwise, that no friendly prince should be deposed. So, although the wise advice of the then Political Agent to Manipur, Frank St Clair Grimwood, to the Indian Government was to accept the coup, the Viceroy, Landsdowne, decided on a half-assed compromise: recognise the Jubraj as the Maharaja but demand the expulsion of the Senapati.

And immediately hilarity and tragedy combined.

Landsdowne ordered Quinton, the Chief Commissioner, to march upon Manipur with a detachment of Gurkhas. Quinton was to announce publicly the Indian Government’s decision, arrest the Senapati, and take him out of the state. When Quinton arrived at the palace, the Senapati was understandably suspicious and refused to attend the durbar in his honour, and retired to his own fortress. Quinton followed him there with his Gurkhas, hoping to convince him peaceably to surrender. The most popular man in Manipur ordered his troops to fire upon the British, who then withdrew to the Residency. The Senapati’s troops attacked the Residency, whereupon Quinton was forced to sue for peace. He, Grimwood and three military officers went to the palace to negotiate. By now, the atmosphere was vitiated, and an angry soldier mortally wounded Grimwood.

Realising that if they were to be hanged for a penny, they might as well hang for a pound, the Manipuris beheaded Quinton, attacked the Gurkhas, and chased all the British out of the kingdom.

The British, of course, wouldn’t take this contretemps lying down, and returned later in force. They were not especially vindictive, satisfying themselves by executing the Senapati and four others. Whereas in earlier times they might have then proceeded to annex the state, this time they installed a child prince on the throne, and thenceforth maintained a close grip on the administration of Manipur.

Meanwhile, the absurdity of the Indian Government’s orders were manifest. As Sir William Harcourt pointed out in the House of Commons, recognising the Jubraj and punishing the Senapati was like accepting the restoration of Charles II and demanding the execution of General Monck. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy a decade later, was even more scathing: The Manipuris were the most good-natured, harmless, though excitable, people in creation, … were driven into a revolt against us by a series of blunders almost unparalleled in history.

Until 1890, the British had been admired and respected in the North-East. The blow to that reputation after the madcap events of that year was immense.


  1. David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, John Murray, London, 2005.


km said...

Fun little story! (And rendered more impressive by the fact that Pink Floyd's guitarist is quoted as the source...:))

Fëanor said...

Versatile sorta characters, these pink floyds.

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