Nepali history from new perspectives
After invading most of the surrounding lands, the Gorkhali army blockaded the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, leaving the last Newar king of Kathmandu and his people with the options to either wait for a famine or open their gates for the enemy.
This is what most Nepali historians have portrayed repeatedly, followed by endless praise for the Gorkhali army’s bravery, whether it be in Babu Ram Acharya’s “Shri Panch Bada Maharaj Prithvi Narayan Shahko Jeevani” (2034 BS/1977/78 AD), based on his Divyopdesh; or Leela Nateshwor Sharma Baral’s Ph D thesis for the University of London, titled “The Life and Writings of Prithvi Narayan Shah” (1964 AD) based on the British Resident in Kathmandu Brian Hudgson’s collection in the British Library.
The people in Kathmandu were but waiting for the trusted British army for help, and this review is of a book which explores the other side of our otherwise “beautifully designed” history.
Expedition to Nepal Valley: The Journal of Captain Kinloch (August 26-October 17, 1767) is a book on the history of present-day Nepal which has arrived at a time when this particular episode is being questioned intellectually, objected to ethnically, and thrashed about politically. The book attempts to assess the knowledge, ambitions and actions of a number of key characters from 18th century Nepal.
George Kinloch, Captain of the British Army: Did his troop really lose the war against the Gorkhali army?
• Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha: Did he actually aim for unification or a mere expansion of his Gorkha territory?
• Jaya Prakash Malla, the last King of Kathmandu: Was he just a mere helpless puppet?
Two men contribute to the making of this book, each working in the land of the other, to bring out the history of Nepal that has survived a test of more than two centuries between the two of them!
August 1767 – Captain Kinloch, while marching with his troop to Nepal Valley with an intention to save the people of Kathmandu from the harassment of the Gorkhali army, starts writing a journal of daily events.
December 2006 – Historian Yogesh Raj starts transcribing and collating those journal manuscripts found in the British Library in London.
Kinloch is definitely not the most important of British army officer, but from the Nepali historical perspective, his importance can be second to none.
His journal is presented with meticulous transcription by Yogesh Raj, including every spelling mistake, as it is. His including relevant information from across countries does wonders to this enterprise by offering a more complete characterization, e.g., Kinloch´s will, military and political records available in the UK, and details from Kinloch´s cemetery in Patna, India.
Prithvi Narayan Shah´s character has been explored as an expansionist as opposed to the more conventional nationalist historiography of his, having pure ambitions of unification:
“The visible (material) and invisible (cultural) wealth of the Kathmandu Valley also influenced his determination to wage a war against the Newar kings. Nonetheless, a territorial ambition and/or an unquenchable hunger for war bounties alone cannot explain a lifelong struggle to create a unified “nation” of Nepal.”
Raj comes to such a conclusion, partly based on the fact that after the 1744 conquest of Nuwakot, the Valley´s north-west entry point for lucrative Himalayan and trans-Himalayan trade route to Tibet, the Gorkhali army started imposing restrictions on travelling merchants.
This trade, which flourished in mid-18th century, was also being anxiously watched by the John Company, which further leads Dr Raj to suggest that the intention of the British army to move into Nepal was for “more commercial than territorial expansion.”
Author Raj further writes off some earlier historians’ unfair projection of Newar kings as “mere helpless puppets.” His justification is deduced from the Newar king’s knowledge of the ongoing affairs, and “a long experience of commercial and cultural intercourse between the Valley and Mithila/Tirhoot.”
Even Kinloch’s entry in Book 1 Folio 17a mentions his getting help from saint-like people of Janakpur, in return of which, he promised protection from the harassing “mountaineers.”
In Folio 9, Kinloch’s accounts seem to be equally important from several other perspectives than solely military. He explains about the climatic, geographical and natural conditions of places he travelled through, with details on the flora and fauna, and even the local knowledge of using its natural resources, etc.
His accounts even include popular religious beliefs, e.g., Ramayan in Janakpur, expressed in local dialect (“Beebi Seeta”). In Folio 20a, he even believes that the astounding water resources of Nepal could be sufficient for “the Empire of India”!
Throughout the journals, Kinloch expresses his problems related to lack of logistics, harsh natural conditions and scarce local knowledge not improved even by the most competent of guides, with whom he was marching to Kathmandu.
From Book 2, Folio 18a onwards, the days of famine eventually hits Kinloch’s detachment. His men revolt against him, and by Folio 19a, “subedars complain that the sepoys are very disobedient and call their names.” His journal ends abruptly with Folio 30b which marks the 13th day of famine when his troop leaves him behind to die.
Reading Kinloch’s journal definitely raises an important question: Is it fair to state that Captain Kinloch’s forces, after suffering for weeks in search of grains to eat and routes to follow, was defeated by the Gorkhali army?
Raj labels it as “a typical military failure,” perhaps on the part of British Intelligence rather than the glorious victory of the Gorkhali army, as is normally projected.