RICHARD SULIVAN’S WRITING ON SIKHS DURING THE MISL PERIOD IN THE LATE 18TH CENTURY
Professor Ganda Singh in his illustrious career found several European writings on the Sikhs written prior to the ascent of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the throne of Lahore and Punjab in 1799. In 1960, eight such accounts were published under the title Early European Accounts of the Sikhs edited and annotated by the great historian.1A few years later, in 1965 Professor Ganda Singh wrote A Select Bibliography of the Sikhs and Sikhism where further early British and European accounts on the Sikhs were mentioned.2
Four decades later, in 2004 British Sikh historians Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh updated the above work and added some new accounts and titled their book Sicques, Tigers or Thieves Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1810).3
Although these accounts tend to contain lot of errors in relation to Sikh Guru period (1469-1798) but they are fairly accurate about the contemporary period and give us an insight how Sikhs were viewed by the British and the European people before their formal interaction in the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The writer of this article, an Independent researcher, came across several British and European accounts which were not covered in the above mentioned books.4 The format used by Professor Ganda Singh on the subject has been followed which includes short summary about the author and commentary on the account. Some of the spellings are old and outdated but for the sake of authenticity they have not changed them like Seik (Sikh), Shaw (Shah), Cawn (Khan), Owd (Awadh) Thannaisser (Thanesar), Puttialah (Patiala) among others.
History of the Parliament Online, the official Crown’s website informs that Richard Joseph Sulivan was born on 10th December 1752 and was a British MP and writer from an aristocrat family. His brother John Sulivan was also a Member of Parliament. Richard was related to Laurence Sulivan another Parliamentarian who held an important position in East India Company and encouraged Richard to visit India.
In 1768 Richard went to India as a writer and wrote An Analysis of the Political History of India. The extended title of this book also includes, ‘In which is considered the present situation of the East, and the connection of its several Powers with the Empire of Great Britain in 1779.’
He came back to England in 1782 and was later in 1787 elected MP for New Romney. In 1804 he was made 1st Baronet and became Sir Richard Sulivan. He died a couple of years later, on 17th July 1806.5
Sir Richard Sulivan wrote several books, but readers of Sikh history will be interested in his work pertaining to India. An Analysis of Political history of India was published in 1779. An enlarged second edition came out in 1784 which included an account of the Sikhs, the Jats (of Bharatpur), the Rohillas among others.6
This account is important as it is a contemporary source when Sikh Misls ruled the territories between rivers Indus and Yamuna. This period prior to the rise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who ruled from 1799 to 1839 has been ignored. The Sikh confederacy ruled over the provinces of Lahore, Sirhind, Multan (lost in 1794 later regained under Maharaja Ranjit Singh). The Sikh incursions into Western and Central UP, their cooperation with Jats of Bharatpur and treaties with Rajput rulers of Rajputana have been largely disregarded by non-Sikh historians.7
The author calls the Sikhs ‘powerful’ and ‘extraordinary’ people. He has made some mistakes while explaining the history of the Sikhs. He erroneously mentions Guru Nanak instead of Banda Singh Bahadur who conquered Sirhind and major part of Punjab in 1713. He is very appreciative of Sikh Sardars and states that they are known for their benevolence and ‘attention to travellers and strangers’. He adds that a stranger and acquaintance are treated with the same kindness.
The author writes that Sikh manners are plain and simple. They are moderate in their living and dress, and honest in their dealings. Unfortunately, today on the western side of river Raavi, the Sikh rule especially the Misl period is portrayed as detrimental to the Muslims. Sulivan account refutes this allegation and states that Punjab’s town and cities abound with Muslim artificers and tradesmen, who are most liberally encouraged. He describes the atrocities of Aurangzeb and his son Bahadur Shah on the Sikhs and their fortitude to withstand their tyranny. Both the Moghul emperors failed to surpress the Sikhs and convert them to Islam. He Writes, “He murdered the Seiks whenever they were to be found, Nor could he prevail upon them to abjure their principles, and profess Mohammedanism, though the alternative was offered to them. Magnanimity and fortitude grew, as intolerance increased. Persecuted and scattered though they were, they had an attraction to one common center; and to that center they were certain to return when a cessation of difficulties should take place.”8
After freeing themselves from the Mohammadan Yoke, they organized themselves and occupied their native territory and parcelled the occupied territory into different principalities (Misls) these principalities were independent and sovereign but formed a lose confederation in the event of a foreign invasion. He states, “ At length being freed from the Mohammedan yoke, the Seiks assembled from their lurking places, and formed themselves into a new community. They adopted no regular system of government. The richer sort assumed the title of Rajah, and annexed to it a full and sovereign authority, independent of each other. The next in consideration called themselves Sardars, and established an equal share of independency, both of each other and of the Rajahs. They formed a federal association, not a commonwealth, as it hath been erroneously denominated. They erected, as it were, distinct principalities; to act together in concert, only when a common enterprise should be in question. Their leaders were then to assemble in congress, on a perfect equality, and each to rear his standard in the general cause.”9
He predicts that like the Mahrattas, the Sikhs, with their excellent organizing capacity, generous supplies in the form of voluntary donations, and adventurous spirit, are bound to rise and become a force to recokon with. He describes their repeated combats with Ahmad Shah and Taimur Shah and made the river Attock almost impassable for the Afghan invaders. He writes, “ The river Attock they rendered impassable. Timur Shaw has likewise met with the same bad fortune, and that even more frequently than his father.”10 They have even made several predatory incursions into territories situated on the western bank of Ganges Upper and Rohilkhand, Saharanpur and Delhi.
Finally, he warns the ruling English to be wary of the rising power of the Sikhs and their political importance. He writes, “It is not, therefore, requiring too much to say, that the Seiks are a power which should be carefully watched by the English. They certainly are of great consequence on the political scale of India.”11
The Sikhs protect all foreign merchants and taxes are assessed with moderation. He informs that the Sikh government is the ‘most lenient’ and many Afghan families continue to possess their hereditary estates in Punjab. This was despite the devastation and anarchy caused by Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali who invaded Punjab no less than 8 times.
The author interestingly seems slightly less impressed by Cis-Sutlej Sikh rulers, perhaps due to their incursions into the territories of Awadh (written as Owd, Western-Central Uttar Pradesh) which was a British ally. By 1806 all Cis Sutlej rulers had come under British protection fearing that Maharaja Ranjit Singh may annex their territories. It was a failure of diplomacy on the Sikh part.
Sulivan writes that the Sikh cavalry consists in excess of hundred thousand and anyone with a horse and minimum clothing can find refuge with the Sikhs. He states that Sikhs have no dislikes or prejudices. He sees them as formidable force within India in future. The readers will find the extract interesting and it will be a valuable addition to the existing 18th century European accounts on the Sikhs.
1. Ganda Singh (1960) Early European Accounts of the Sikhs. Calcutta: Firma K.L.
2. Ganda Singh (1965) A Select Bibliography of the Sikhs and Sikhism. Amritsar: SGPC
3. Amandeep S Madra&Parmjit Singh (2004) Sicques, Tigers or Thieves Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1810). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
4. They were ‘discovered’ between 2006-09. An early version of this account was published in Sikhnet in 2017.
5. Accessed on 3rd June 2021, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/sullivan-%28sulivan%29-richard-joseph-1752-1806
6. Richard Joseph Sulivan(1784) An Analysis of the Political History of India. London: T. Becket
7. Please see, History of the Sikhs – Vol 2, 3 & 4 by Hari Ram Gupta; Sikhs in the Eighteenth Century: Their Struggle for Survival and Supremacy by Surjit Singh Gandhi; The Eighteenth Century Sikhs: Political Resurgence, Religious and Social Life, and Cultural Articulation by Karamjit K. Malhotra; &History of The Sikhs & Religion Volume2 - Sikh Struggle and Misl Period (1708-1800) by Kirpal Singh & Kharak Singh