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From Resistors to Mercenaries

From Resistors to Mercenaries

By Sanjena Sathian

Ghurkas of 1815
SourceDavid DB


Because what counts is not the size of the dog in the fight — it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

By Sanjena Sathian

By the time Rollo Gillespie’s men noticed that the small Asian warriors who had killed the British general were surprisingly capable of killing with gentlemanly swagger, it was too late. 

Gillespie’s killers were Gurkhas, a Hindu ethnic group known for their East-Asian features and understated muscular build, who have made their home in northeast India and Nepal for centuries. And 200 years ago they resisted the British Empire — a rare feat indeed. Because the Empire, like Gillespie, nearly missed what was right in front of them: a tenacious group of scrappy warriors with the potential to take down the behemoth.

The Gurkhas, once known for their fearless military prowess, have also become poster children for unequal immigration.

But two centuries later, the Gurkhas have become the British Army’s functional mercenaries. A number of young Nepali men — and even some women – descendants of the Gurkhas who once humbled the British, train for months, running up mountains, carrying piles of rocks on their backs, in the hopes of earning a spot in the coveted British Army.


It’s their ticket out of the stagnating nation that is Nepal and the chance at securing a visa. Yet the story isn’t that simple. The Gurkhas, once known for their fearless military prowess, have also become poster children for unequal immigration. Even as they fight for the British, they wage a parallel battle for equal British citizenship, fighting for the right to stay in the nation they serve.

How did it come to this? 

The tale opens at the start of the Anglo-Gurkha War of 1814-1816, a time when the British East India Tea Company was the British Empire – one of history’s most famous monopolies with an appetite for global trade goods that had the empire spreading across Asia as easily as a tea stain. This company had already taken big bites of India and was hungry for Tibet. A mere sliver of a country called Nepal, sandwiched between India and China, could bring the Brits lots more tea (which hadn’t yet boomed in India) and offered the additional lure of wool.

Why not just digest Nepal too?

Illustration portrait of Gen. Rollo Gillespie in black and white ink

Gen. Rollo Gillespie

A rising star in Britain’s soon-to-be colonial government of India, the 48-year-old Admiral Gillespie had served his empire well thus far, building his reputation by controlling colonial unrest from Port-au-Prince to Jakarta. Nepal was simply one more mess to tidy up. But the man who expected to lead the charge into a new part of Asia for his troops, his company and his country met his end on the first day of battle when he ran headlong into a wall of short, stocky Asian fighters.

That first day of what turned into an 18-month war confounded the British Army, which must have felt like professional football players getting pummelled by high school math nerds. The men who lived to tell of Gillespie’s demise wrote of his killers with a distinct mix of Anglicized condescension and admiration:

The determined resolution of the small party which held this small post for more than a month, against so comparatively large a force must surely wring admiration….they fought us in fair conflict, like men; and, in the intervals of actual combat, a liberal courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.

The Gurkhas sapped the Brits for nearly 18 months before giving in to the terms of an Anglo-favoring treaty. British history remembers it as a “pyrrhic victory” while the Nepalese call it for their side. Either way, the campaign cost about four times what it should have. And for a military so tied up in doing good business, it was a massive show of bad form.

By 1816, when Nepali leader Bhimsen Thapa came to the negotiating table to gather what winnings he could from the beleaguered British, the Gurkhas had done more than impress — they’d earned the attention of the world’s dominant armed forces. Which in turn earned them the status of protectorate, rather than colony.

We like you, good chaps. Come join up, said the Brits with a shrug and a wink.

But the more important legacy came in a small addendum to the treaty Thapa signed that siphoned off part of his 2-million strong country to India (and therefore Britain), forming modern-day Darjeeling. Still, the treaty left most of Nepal intact. Plus there was the addendum, which amounted to an open job offer to the Gurkhas: We like you, good chaps. Come join up, said the Brits with a shrug and a wink.

Ever since, the Gurkhas have acted as their own version of the French Foreign Legion. Their presence in the British Army reads like the ubiquitous Where’s Waldo of modern warfare. They’ve participated in battles from Gallipoli to Malaysia, but today the slim admission rates for getting out of their constitution-less, battle-mired nation make their once successful colonial resistance taste of harsh ironies. Because if they’d been India, they’d speak English. And ask any MBA student why India might be a better bet in the globalized economy than China: Colonization, while destroying, gifted India with a voice with which to speak to the rest of the world.

Color illustration of man in traditional military uniform

Bhimsen Thapa

As for Nepal? The former resistors are left scrambling for a spot in Gillespie’s old ranks. And it’s harder to get into the Gurkha regimen than Harvard: Somewhere between .7 and 3 percent of hyper-fit young men who try out make the cut. 

When I met Gurkha Army trainees a few years ago while researching in Nepal, they were running. Up terrific hills, hoping to be selected by an army most didn’t remember holding off. As we talked, they shared their stories. One boy told me that his grandfather was proudest of two things: his topi hat and his Gurkha blood. ”The Indians speak more better English,” he said, noticing the undeniably awkward gift that colonialism left India — but not Nepal. “But we had more victory.” And then he took off, scaling the steep hills into the tea gardens.

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