The Other 1815

June 17, 2015

Waterloo was but an episode in a maelstrom of conflict across much of the world in 1815. In defeating Napoleon, British-commanded and allied forces had a great impact, but in 1914 and 1940 invading German forces were anew to raise the Western Question.

In contrast, other campaigns involving British forces that year were to have a longer impact. This was clearly so in South Asia and North America. Take Sri Lanka. The Portuguese had established bases on its shores from 1518, but successive Portuguese, Dutch and British attempts to move from the control of coastal positions to that of the entire island had been defeated. Most recently, in 1803, the British had been defeated by guerrilla attacks, logistical problems, inhospitable terrain and disease. A garrison had been established at the capital of the inland kingdom of Kandy, but it was obliged to surrender and the troops were then massacred on their retreat to the coast.

In 1815, the brutality of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the King of Kandy, ensured support among some of the aristocracy for Robert Brownrigg, the Governor of the British positions, when he declared war in response to the murder of British subjects. 900 British and 1,800 Indian troops advanced in three independently moving columns. Kandy was occupied, its king was taken prisoner, and replaced by George III as a result of a convention with the Kandyan chiefs. The throne and regalia of Kandy were taken to Windsor, being returned in 1934. Independence followed in 1948.

Further north, the British were initially unsuccessful in the war with the Gurkhas of Nepal that began in 1814. Poor British generalship and unfamiliarity with mountain warfare was accentuated by the Gurkha combination of defensive positions, especially hill forts and stockades, with attacks on British detachments.

However, British victories at Almora (1815), Maláun (1815), and Makwanpur (1816) eventually brought the conflict to a successful conclusion in March 1816. These victories, which owed much to the effective use of bayonet attacks, were in large part the result of luck, the skill of some commanders, especially David Ochterlony, and the failure of the Sikhs and Marathas to support the Gurkhas. The role of Brownrigg, born in Wicklow, and of Ochterlony, born in Boston but with a Scottish background, captured the British nature of the empire.

British military proficiency as an Asian and Indian Ocean empire was much in display in the 1810s, not least with the capture of Aceh (1810), Djakarta (1811), Timor (1811) and Bali (1814) from the Dutch, Réunion (1810) and Mauritius (1810) from the French, and Palembang (1812) on Sumatra from Native forces. In India, the Marathas were finally and rapidly crushed thanks to successive victories in 1817-18, bringing to an end the challenge posed by one of the most dynamic elements in Indian society. During the remainder of the century, other European powers would try to create empires comparable to that of the British in India. None would succeed. The British had gained an unassailable position in the imperial stakes. If by 1815, Britain was the strongest power on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, as well as on the oceans themselves, the defeat of France was crucial to this achievement, but so also were repeated victories in South Asia.

The ability to hold off the Americans was also highly significant. 1815 is best remembered for the crippling British defeat at New Orleans on 8 January 1815. The British suffered 2,000 casualties, over forty per cent of the attacking force, and Wellington’s protégé and brother-in-law, Major-General Sir Edward Pakenham, was among those killed.

This was a dramatic defeat, and ensured that the fighting ended with a strong impression of British failure. However, the War of 1812 had seen repeated American failures, both to conquer Canada and to break the British blockade. Moreover, the British were able to send forces to the Chesapeake, burning Washington (1814) and to the Gulf coast. In a most dramatic display of imperial power, the British responded to Napoleon’s return to power in 1815 by mounting amphibious expeditions that conquered Guadeloupe and Martinique, the two most important French colonies. These successes sent a powerful message about power and potential to America. British naval dominance was clearly seen in the Caribbean just as it was off France where the potent blockade that forced Napoleon into British hands was accompanied by successful action against French ports including Toulon. Postwar, America found it necessary to manage relations with Britain carefully while focusing military expenditure on coastal fortifications designed to see off British attack.

Waterloo was a great defensive triumph for Wellington’s army, successfully beating off French attacks before the Prussians arrived to help rout Napoleon. Ultimately, however, as in 1813 and 1814, the Austrians and Russians would have defeated Napoleon even had Wellington not achieved greater success. It was the other British victories that ensured British global power and, with it, the transformations of the following century.