Doctrine of Lapse

After the victory in the Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1818-19, the British Empire annexed most of the Maratha territory to Bombay Presidency.

However, as we have read in the previous modules, a descendent of Shivaji was brought forward from obscurity and was restored as the titular Raja of Satara by the British. This titular Raja Pratap Singh, ruled in the principality of Satara which was of the same size as of today’s Satara District of Maharashtra.

He remained as an obedient British vassal till 1839, when the political intrigues caused him to be deposed. His brother Shahji Raja or Appa Sahib was placed on the throne. In 1848, this prince, died without male heirs in April 1848.

Now a question arose for the British. If no direct male heir of the body having been left by the deceased, should a son by adoption, or a collateral member of the family, be permitted to succeed him, or whether the rights and titles of the principality be declared to be extinct?

The Governor of the Presidency of Bombay was Sir George Clerk. He looked at the Treaty of 1819 in which the following lines were enshrined:

“the British Government agreed to cede in perpetual sovereignty to the Rajah of Satarah, his heirs and successors”

The members of the Council of the Governor of Presidency of Bombay considered it the duty of the British Government to decide what should be done next?

When the matter reached the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie who had just arrived (he arrived in 1848), he did not hesitate in a practical expression of the policy of annexation, the “Doctrine of Lapse“. I am reproducing the paragraph written by Lord Dalhousie on 30 April 1848.

The Government is bound in duty, as well as policy, to act on every such occasion with the purest integrity, and in the most scrupulous observance of good faith. Where even a shadow of doubt can be shown, the claim should at once be abandoned. But where the right to territory by lapse is clear, the Government is bound to take that which is justly and legally its due, and to extend to that territory the benefits of our sovereignty, present and prospective. In like manner, while I would not seek to lay down any inflexible rule with respect to adoption, I hold that, on all occasions, where heirs natural shall fail, the territory should be made to lapse, and adoption should not be permitted, excepting in those cases in which some strong political reason may render it expedient to depart from this general rule. There may be conflict of opinion as to the advantage or the propriety of extending our already vast possessions beyond their present limits. No man can more sincerely deprecate than I do any extension of the frontiers of our territory which can be avoided, or which may not become indispensably necessary from considerations of our own safety, and of the maintenance of the tranquility of our provinces. But I cannot conceive it possible for anyone to dispute the policy of taking advantage of every just opportunity which presents itself for consolidating the territories that already belong to us, by taking possession of States that may lapse in the midst of them ; for thus getting rid of these petty intervening principalities, which may be made a means of annoyance, but which can never, I venture to think, be a source of strength, for adding to the resources of the public Treasury, and for extending the uniform application of our system of government to those whose best interests we sincerely believe will be promoted thereby. Such is the general principle that, in our humble opinion, ought to guide the conduct of the British Government in its disposal of independent States, where there has been a total failure of heirs whatsoever, or where permission is asked to continue by adoption a succession which fails in the natural line.”

  • The Council of the Governor General accepted at once this doctrine which best favorable to the British advantages.

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