Three Swords of Subedar Meer Jaffir

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the experiences of a distinguished Frontier soldier in the conflicts of the 19th century

Three Swords of Subedar Meer Jaffir
In 1953, my late father Major General Syed Shahid Hamid visited 7th Frontier Force Battalion (Coke’s Rifle) on the frontline in Azad Kashmir. The purpose was to present to the battalion a family heirloom that was of immense historical significance and originally belonged to Meer Jaffir (or Mir Jafar), who was an ancestor from the paternal side of my father’s family.

While recording this presentation, the digest of service of the battalion states,

Meer Jafar was one of the first and most distinguished stars in the galaxy of brilliant soldiers who had fought in the Bn. Having joined COKE’S RIFLES at the time of its raising he had served in it for 9 years until he was invalided out of the service and the letter of JOHN COKE (now coloured with age) was a glowing tribute to the outstanding services of this old veteran. The sword was a beautiful silver handled weapon of war which had been artistically mounted in a glass case. Both these presents were eagerly welcomed by all of us and were later placed in positions of honour in our officer’s mess.”

Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk (1785-1842)

Meer Jaffir was a Kabuli born to Syed Momeen, who was a Nasir (helper or Madadgar) to Shah Shuja ul Mulk, the Sadozai who first ruled Afghanistan from 1803 until 1809. After Shah Shuja was overthrown, he sought refuge with Ranjit Singh in exchange for the Kohinoor Diamond. Syed Momeen remained with Shah Shuja during his twenty years in exile, the greater part of which was spent in Ludhiana. It was during these years that God blessed Syed Momeen with a warrior son who he named Meer Jaffir.

In 1838, the British decided to reinstate Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan, which triggered the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842). Ranjit Singh did not allow the British Army of the Indus invading Afghanistan to pass through Sikh territory and so it had to take the southern route through Quetta and Kandahar. However, he did allow what Durand referred to as “a motley contingent of 4000 Afghan Levies” to be formed in Ludhiana to escort Prince Tamoor Shah (the heir-apparent of Shah Shuja) through the Khyber Pass to Kabul. The levies were commanded by Meer Abbas and his cousin Meer Jaffir enlisted in this force.

The Jazailchees that Meer Jaffir commanded would resemble the Afghan marksmen in this picture, armed with Jazails

In February 1839, Capt. Joseph Ferris arrived in Peshawar with two companies of the 20th Native Infantry that had escorted guns and treasure and was to form part of the escort of Major Claude Wade, the political agent in Ludhiana. While waiting for Wade, Ferris organised several irregular corps to aid in the movement through the Khyber. The principle one was a body of border Pashtuns (320 strong) armed with the Jazail and initially titled as 1st Shah’s Jazailchee. Both Meer Abbas and Meer Jaffir were enrolled into the Jazailchee and the latter would serve with Ferris for the next ten years.

When Wade arrived at Peshawar a month later, his efforts to win over the Afridi tribes of the Khyber met only partial success and the pass had to be forced with a mixed contingent of Shah Shuja’s Afghan levies, Punjabis from Ranjit Singh’s regular army, the two companies of 20th Native Infantry and the 1st Shah’s Jazailchee. Leading his two companies and the Jazailchees, Ferris took a distinguished part in the operations through the Khyber, especially in capturing the strategic fort of Ali Masjid on the 27th of July 1839. Jalalabad was vacated by the Afghans and a subsequent operation in the Nazrar Valley opened the way to Kabul. In a citation for Meer Jaffir that was initiated 12 years later (for reasons that will be explained later), Ferris stated:

“Meer Jaffir [...] was present at the forcing of the Khyber pass under Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Wade, at the destruction of the forts in the Nazrar Valley under Brigadier H.R. Shelton. On this occasion he was in command of an advance piquet on the heights with two companies of H.M.’s 44th regiment and, although the 44th were driven in by the enemy, Meer Jaffir held his post until relieved by a party of the Kelat-i-Gilzie Regiment and a wing of the Jazailchees for which he received the thanks of Brigadier Shelton.”

To assist the passage of Brig. Sale's brigade, the crossing over the river at Gandamak was protected by a large contingent of the Corps of Jazailchees under Meer Jaffir

Meer Jaffir also managed to extricate the remnants of the corps and brought it to Peshawar

While the greater portion of the force advanced to Kabul, Ferris with his two companies and the corps were sent back to garrison Ali Masjid and protect the lines of communication. They remained here till October 1839 and repulsed a number of attacks by the Afridis. During this period, 1st Shah’s Jazailchees was renamed as the Corps of Jazailchees and Ferris was appointed its commandant. Its strength was considerably augmented and during 1840, it continued to carry out Line of Communication duties. Its headquarters was in Peshbolak, in the Shinwari country between Khyber and Jalalabad. By now the corps was recognised as ‘Ferris’s Jazailchees’ and in Feburary 1841, it “distinguished itself in action against the Shinwaris but suffered considerable loss.”

In spite of its army still in Kabul and a revolt brewing within the Afghan tribes, the Indian government decided to stop the subsidies of the frontier tribes - rendering them hostile. In the autumn of 1841 the main British force in Kabul was despatched to clear the line of communication to Peshawar. The brigade under Brig Henry Sale forced a passage through Jugdulluk and Gandamak but ultimately took refuge in the fort at Jalalabad in November 1841. A larger part of the Corps of Jazailchees under Meer Jaffir (now promoted Subedar) had been based at Gandamak and assisted Sale’s passage. In some severe fighting at Passen Dara, Subedar Meer Jaffir’s horse was killed under him. He was also at the forefront when his troops were temporarily besieged at Jugdulluk, and in action at Mamoo Khel. In the latter place, Dawson’s Cavalry went over to the enemy, but the Corps of Jazailchees remained loyal. Further back at Peshbollak, Capt. Ferris had to cut his way out with severe losses. He then negotiated safe conduct with Torabaz Khan, the friendly Mohmand chief of Lalpura, with a promise of Rs. 3,000, to be escorted through the hills to Peshawar. Meer Jaffir also managed to extricate the remnants of the corps and brought it to Peshawar.

Badges of the 52nd Sikhs and 55th Sikhs: the two Frontier Force Battalions that Subedar Meer Jaffir served in from 1849-1857

During the succeeding months at Peshawar, Ferris was busy recruiting, reforming and refitting his gallant 400-strong corps. It now joined Gen Pollock’s ‘Army of Retribution’ in forcing the Khyber Pass in March 1842, with the general making special mention in his despatches of “Capt. Ferris commanding the Jazailchee whose conduct excited the delight and the admiration of all who beheld him.”

Meer Jaffir performed equally admirably and Capt. Ferris states that he “[...] distinguished himself at a bridge in leading his company on in the most gallant manner.” Advancing further through the Shinwari Valley on the way to Kabul, the only one major action by the Field Force was at Tezeen. The Afghans held the heights along the line of march but a series of sorties drove them back and this victory left the way clear for the advance to Kabul. During this action, Brig Monteath commanding the Field Force reported that:

“[...] the conduct of Capt. Ferris, his native commandant Hyder Ali, and the whole corps of Jezailchees, was highly distinguished. [...] My thanks to [...] Capt. Ferris, for the gallant manner in which, with his corps of Jezailchees, he drove the enemy from their position on the heights.

Meer Jaffir was in service with the Corps of Jazailchees, which assisted Capt. Ferris in capturing the Fort of
Ali Masjid in the Khyber Pass, 1839

Once again Meer Jaffir fought gallantly and Lt Col Mackenson of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry “ [...] was witness to his [Meer Jaffir’s] gallant conduct on all the instanced by Major Ferris,”. In fact, he further states that:

“Next to Haider Ali, the Native Commandant who was killed in our service in the act of taking a standard, I know of no Native officer who was more conspicuous for his Gallantry on all occasions than was Mir Jaffir.”

During the action at Tezeen, Meer Jaffir was wounded by a matchlock ball in the chest. For his gallant services at the Khyber Pass and subsequently at Kabul, he was rewarded with a donation of Rs. 300 and two shawls (cloaks).

After the evacuation of Afghanistan in the summer of 1842, the Corps of Jazailchees were disbanded at Jhelum. On his return from a long leave in 1843, Ferris was appointed as Commandant Bundelkhand Military Police comprising of two battalions stationed at Banda in which some remnants of the Corps of Jazailchees including Subedar Meer Jaffir were incorporated. The police force campaigned against dacoits (bandits) for most of the next few years and ultimately disbanded in 1847. That same year Ferris was unexpectedly appointed commandant of the freshly raised 2nd (Hill Regiment) Sikh Local Infantry (It was renumbered as 52nd Sikhs in 1903 and as 4th Frontier Force Battalion after Independence). It was part of the Frontier Brigade raised to defend the territories of the Jalandhar Doab as well as the Cis-Sutlej States annexed from the Sikhs under the treaty of 1846.
During the action at Tezeen, Meer Jaffir was wounded by a matchlock ball in the chest. For his gallant services at the Khyber Pass and subsequently at Kabul, he was rewarded with a donation of Rs. 300 and two shawls

It stood to reason that Meer Jaffir became a member of the battalion and joined it at Kot Kangra. During the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49), this newly raised unit acquitted itself honourably against the insurgents under Ram Singh, both in the Jullundar Doab and in the country beyond the Beas. The Hill Regiment took part in the dispersion of a large body of Sikhs at Dinanagar in November 1848, and in the defeat of Ram Singh at Bassu, near Nurpur, in January 1949. On the termination of the war, the battalion moved to Dharamsala where a cantonment was then first formed.

Meer Jaffir’s ten years of service with Ferris came to an end in May 1849 when he transferred to the 1st Regiment Punjab Infantry.

The second part of this article covers the next ten years that Subedar Meer Jaffir spent fighting on the frontiers of the Greater Punjab, the operations of his battalion at the siege of Delhi in 1857 and his command of a battalion of the Oudh Police.