British in India 18th Century I


British Sepoys

At the time of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe, the ‘country powers’ (the various South Asian states) certainly seemed strong enough. The Mughal empire was the mere shadow of a great name, but its successor states had large and well-practised armies at their disposal. In the south, the suba of the Deccan was ruled by Asaf Jan, once the Wazir (or finance minister) of the whole empire, who had since his resignation from this post in 1724 established himself as a virtually independent ruler. Although still technically Subadar or Governor, he adopted the honorific title Nizam-ul-Mulk (Sovereign of the Land) and, from the name of his capital city, became known to the British as the Nizam of Hyderabad. Though defeated by the Marathas in 1738, he and his generals had twenty years of active campaigning to their credit. Much the same could be said of Anwar al-Din, appointed by the Nizam in 1744 to be Nawab of Arcot, from which city the territory of the Carnatic was governed. This included the Coromandel coast, in which were situated the English factories of Fort St George, at Madras, and Fort St David, at Cuddalore, a few miles from the factory established in 1683 by the French East India Company at Pondicherry.

Anwar al-Din, in response to a request from the French, warned both European Companies not to make war within his dominions. Governor Morse of Madras replied that he had neither the means nor desire to make war, but pointed out that he had no power over the Royal Navy, which had begun to make valuable prizes of French East Indiamen off the Coromandel coast. When in 1746 the British naval squadron moved to the Bay of Bengal, a group of French ships appeared off Madras, with a regiment of regular infantry from the French Army, supported by locally raised Indian troops led by Joseph Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry. The garrison of Fort St George put up only a token resistance, and Governor Morse and his council surrendered in anticipation of being able to pay a ransom, a proceeding then as common in European as in Indian conduct of war. It then became clear, however, that Dupleix had no intention of conforming to this agreeable convention but planned to hold the place indefinitely.

This episode had profound military and political consequences. Fort St David was left as the only British trading station on the coast. The Company’s authorities there hastened to strengthen its fortifications and raise 2,000 watchmen, while the Bombay government hurried a force of European and Indian soldiers round from the west coast and recruited additional local levies for their own defence. When the news of the fall of Madras reached London, the Directors appointed the first regular soldier to be Commander-in-Chief of all their forces in India. This was Major Stringer Lawrence, the father of the Indian Army, an experienced infantry officer who had been a captain in the British Army before accepting this appointment from the East India Company. In addition to his position as C-in-C, he was appointed a member of the Madras Council, third in seniority, but was not to rise above that position. The British government, alarmed at the sudden prospect of losing the trade of southern India to the French, sent twelve independent companies of infantry which reached Fort St David in July 1748. The question of a Company’s officer having command over these royal troops was avoided by the appointment of Admiral Boscawen as C-in-C of all British naval and military forces in the East Indies.

Anwar al-Din’s reaction to the French seizure of Madras was that, as the town lay within his dominions, it should revert to him. When Dupleix refused to hand it over, a conventionally organised Mughal army, commanded by Anwar al-Din’s son, Mahfuz Khan, laid seige to it. A sally by French infantry and field guns demonstrated that Mughal cavalry could be defeated by the rapid artillery and musketry fire of a well-drilled Western army. Further encounters between French and Mahfuz Khan’s troops had a similar result. Although the style of fighting practised by European armies in the mid-eighteenth century was not unknown to Indian generals, it had not previously carried all before it. English attacks, often in conjunction with the forces of Indian states, against pirate strongholds on the west coast had had limited success. As recently as 1739 the Portuguese had been defeated by the Marathas, losing Bassein, their last remaining major fortress in India. Anwar al-Din himself, surprising the French when they first reached Fort St David, proved that European troops were not invincible. The ease with which the French defeated Mahfuz Khan owed at least as much to the indiscipline of the Mughal troopers as to the discipline of the French infantry, and to the faulty tactics of the former as to the superior technology of the latter. The French victories nevertheless had a psychological effect on the great princes of southern India, out of all proportion to the number of men involved, and created the impression that European troops, or Indian troops drilled, armed, and disciplined in the European style (raised first by the French and then by the English) could have a decisive effect.

The War of the Austrian Succession ended in 1748. In India Dupleix had failed to take Fort St David and the English, despite Stringer Lawrence’s men, the twelve British companies and Admiral Boscawen’s battle fleet, had failed to take Pondicherry. Madras was restored to the East India Company at the peace treaty of Aix-la Chapelle but, despite this treaty, English and French soldiers continued to find themselves on opposing sides in Indian campaigns. The rival Companies made alliances with Indian rulers or with those who wished to become Indian rulers, since there were by this time disputed claims to the thrones of Hyderabad (following Asaf Jan’s death in 1748) and Arcot (following Anwar al-Din’s death in battle in 1749). The rival European Companies had at their disposal what was, in Indian warfare, a new weapons system, well-drilled flintlock musketmen and field artillery. Their local representatives were happy to put them to work as mercenaries in the service of any Indian prince who could pay for them with cash and, in the long term, promises of trade concessions. Although the ability of European infantry to defeat much larger bodies of Indian cavalry (once the initial surprise factor of their novel tactics had worn off) could not be taken for granted, their presence on one side or the other might be enough to tip the balance. Thus if one army had a European contingent, its opponent needed to have one as a counter to it. The Directors of the English East India Company, as their military changed from being a local defence force into a field army, had to give up their old policy of having no ‘gentlemen’ in their employment and replaced the superannuated subalterns and volunteer civil servants on whom they had previously relied with experienced officers, available from British regiments reduced at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession.

This different class of officer turned out to be spirited not only in the field, but in their attitude to their civil superiors, especially over financial questions. The rates of pay of the Company’s troops were fixed on the assumption that they would serve only in the Company’s fixed defences on the coast. Once they were required to go into the field, they incurred additional expenses, including the cost of transport, hire of tentage, and the purchase of all kinds of personal supplies which they would not have otherwise needed, and therefore they were compensated by the issue of batta or field service allowance. Officers in garrison at Fort St George and Fort St David were given free rations until Lawrence arranged for this to be replaced by a messing allowance which continued to be paid in addition to the service batta. In 1749 Anwar al-Din’s illegitimate son, Muhammad Ali, whose claim to the throne of Arcot was supported by English troops, paid an additional allowance to the officers in recognition of the expense and attendant risks of carriage of articles of European origin from the coast to the theatre of operations inland. He subsequently discontinued this payment, as he had granted jagirs to the Madras government which provided the funds to pay the military contingents provided for him by the English. The Madras government, however, chose to regard this allowance as an act of personal generosity by the Nawab which, it told the aggrieved officers, they could expect to see renewed when he was again in full possession of his dominions. The officers’ further remonstrances were greeted with accusations of mutiny. Officers were recalled to the coast in ones and twos on the pretext of relief, to prevent the whole corps refusing to do duty, and three were arrested as ringleaders.

Every officer was needed at this period as British military power in India was built up. Companies of German and Swiss mercenaries were sent out by the Directors, though the latter caused difficulties by insisting on maintaining their own separate codes of discipline and were moreover inclined to desert to the French or any country power which might offer better wages. The passage of the Mutiny Act in 1754 replaced the old Articles of War as the basis of military discipline in British India, though strongly opposed in Parliament because it had the effect of allowing regiments of the British Army to be sent to India. The French government, however, had sent its own troops to India in support of the interests of the Compagnie des Indes. These troops were therefore, within months of the passage of this Act, matched by the arrival at Madras of the 39th Foot. Their commanding officer, Colonel Adlercron, outranked Stringer Lawrence (though the latter was simultaneously granted a royal commission as Lieutenant Colonel), and so assumed command over all land forces in Madras. Supreme command was taken by Admiral Charles Watson, whose squadron had escorted the East Indiamen which brought the troops. The Mutiny Act also provided that officers of the British Army were to have seniority over officers of the Company’s service in the same rank, much as was the relative position of regular officers to militia or colonial forces. This arrangement, though in itself reasonable enough, was later to become a source of grievance in India, just as it was already becoming in the American colonies, since it took no account of seniority within each rank.

The major innovation of the period was the gradual replacement of the watchmen by a new kind of Indian soldier, the sepoy. The name, derived from the Persian sipahi, a regular soldier as distinct from a quasi-feudal retainer, was applied to Indians who were armed, trained, and, to a large extent dressed, in the European style. Equally importantly, at least when it came to raising recruits, they were promised pay in the European style, in cash at the end of each month. No great skill was required to load and fire a flintlock musket, while the battlefield drill of eighteenth-century armies could, under efficient officers and sergeants, be learnt in a matter of weeks, as its greatest exponent, Frederick the Great, freely asserted. Not only were sepoys easier to recruit than Europeans, but they were also cheaper to maintain and less likely to succumb to the tropical diseases and intemperance which carried off the European soldiers with such regularity. Sepoys were formed into companies on the European model, each commanded by its own subedar. As the success of this innovation, first introduced by the French and then adopted by the British, became apparent, it was taken up by the country powers and by 1760 a sepoy contingent formed part of the standard order of battle of all major Indian armies.

The great majority of these sepoys came from the plains of Hindustan, particularly from the eastern (purabi) region between Bihar and Agra. This gave them the name ‘easterners’ (purabiya) or, as the British called them, ‘poorbeahs’. They were also known as Baksaris or ‘buxerries’ from the name of the city, Baksar (Buxar) which was their most prominent recruiting centre. Centuries of warfare in northern India had encouraged the development of a society in which everyone of the slightest consequence carried weapons. Swords and spears were readily available and even muskets were to be found in private hands. During the Mughal period, the most influential Rajput groups, desirous of maintaining their own status, had introduced new forms of genealogical orthodoxy and created a more narrow Rajput identity, virtually confined to their states in Western India, or Rajasthan. The Rajputs of the east, mostly living in peasant agricultural groups, were excluded from this group and thus were denied the opportunity of serving as troopers in the contingents supplied to the imperial armies by the great Rajput princes. They were still, however, inspired by the Rajput ideal of naukari or service. Their culture was still one in which young men sought honourable and profitable employment as soldiers for a few years before returning to their villages to set up as respected and prosperous peasant proprietors. A new outlet for this spirit opened with the arrival in the military environment of the matchlock musket, which was most effective in the hands of practised infantrymen. From the middle of the seventeenth century, therefore, the great majority of the matchlockmen serving with the Mughal forces in the Deccan campaigns were Purabiyas recruited at Baksar. They were organised into permanent companies and provided an element of stability in the predominantly cavalry armies of the time. In the best-managed Mughal armies, regular shooting tests had been conducted, with the musketeers classified, according to the results, into one of three grades, and their pay adjusted accordingly. Just like the gentlemen troopers, the matchlockmen were described in detail on the muster rolls, to prevent impersonation. One Ganga Ram, for example, was listed on 24 September 1646 as 30 years of age, the son of Khanna, a Rajput, with blue eyes, several scars and three moles on his face, a resident of Baksar, and due to be paid five rupees per mensem. No Indian army maintained any central recruiting system. Instead, reliance was placed upon intermediary agents. In the sixteenth century this function had been performed mostly by zamindars, who not only collected the revenue, but raised war-bands from among those who lived in their district. By the late Mughal period, zamindars, although they continued to employ armed retainers, no longer acted as either recruiters or leaders of fighting men, and had been replaced in these roles by jemadars (jama’dar, the holder of a group or collection), the military embodiment of the labour contractor or jobber, a figure long established in Indian custom. ‘Jemadar’ was for long a rather nebulous term in respect of the size of the ‘gang’ or company which such officers produced and led, and corresponded to the early use of the English word ‘captain’ to mean a military commander rather than the holder of a particular rank. Some commanded as few as fifty, others a thousand or more. Jemadars selected recruits on the basis of their past and future good character and their general acceptability. As the main purpose of military service was to enhance the prestige and the income of the individual and his family, such patronage was a valuable asset, the future possession of which was not to be risked by introducing anyone likely to be a bad soldier. The system therefore was geared to producing the kind of recruit who would be acceptable in terms of physique, spirit and social background to the other members of the war-band and who would, in short, ‘fit in’, an ability which has an undeniable military value in maintaining the cohesion of small groups during the stresses of active service.


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