British in India 18th Century II


La Bataille de Wandiwash 1760


When the British first began to raise Indian troops for the defence of their trading stations, it was to the jemadari system that they turned, as the normal local way of finding soldiers. The first such men were a company of Rajputs, commanded by their own officers and armed with their own weapons, raised at Madras in 1664. Similar Rajput companies were raised in Bengal in 1682 and at Bombay in 1684. The precise areas from which these men were recruited is not easy to determine, but all three presidencies were employing Purabiyas by the middle of the following century. The duties, drills, and conditions of service of musketeers in the new European-style sepoy battalions were not so different from those in the companies of Mughal matchlockmen as to inhibit Purabiya recruitment, and the East India Company found no difficulty in raising its Indian infantry. Although two-thirds of the sepoys who fought in Clive’s army at Plassey in 1757 had been raised in Madras, and only one-third in Bengal, the Madras troops were of Purabiya descent, if not of actual birth. Their commander, Keshar Singh, was a well-known Baksari jemadar, and their agent at Madras, Parbat Singh, himself had a Purabiya name. Indian officers when recruiting naturally gave preference to members of their own families and would have been thought by members of their own society to have behaved disgracefully had they acted otherwise. Thus it was that Purabiya soldiers continued to be employed in the expanding British Indian armies, especially that of Bengal which was stationed nearest to their home area. Although Rajputs or even Brahmans formed the majority of recruits so raised, Muslim peasant-warrior communities also contributed their share.

In 1756, after fifty years, war came to Bengal. A new young Nawab, styled Siraj-al-Daulat (‘Sir Roger Dowler’ to the British) was alarmed at the dominance which the European Companies had achieved by their military intervention in the affairs of the Deccan and the Carnatic. He was, moreover, aggrieved by the loss to his revenues resulting from the English claims to exemption from transit tolls. Although his predecessors had authorised the construction of fortifications at Calcutta against Afghan raiders in 1697 and against Marathas in 1742, a British proposal in 1756 to improve these defences (in case the French might take Calcutta as they had Madras) was answered by the Nawab marching upon first the East India Company’s factory at Kasimbazar, which fell without a struggle, and then Calcutta itself, which put up only a brief resistance. The senior officials escaped in the Company’s ships. Their juniors were taken prisoner and put in the fort’s detention cell or ‘black hole’ where most died of heatstroke. This incident was caused mostly by negligence on the part of the captors but subsequently passed into British folklore as an example of deliberate cruelty.

The reinforcements that Pitt had sent from England to counter the French arrived to find that they were needed against the Nawab of Bengal. Joined by five companies of Europeans and 1,200 sepoys from Madras, they picked up the surviving two companies of Bengal European Infantry and seventy volunteers from those of the Company’s civil servants who had escaped from Calcutta and its outstations. Calcutta was recaptured by a coup de main six months after it had fallen. The constitutional position was a complicated one and a dispute arose between on the one hand Admiral Watson, who appointed Captain Eyre Coote of the British Army to be commandant of Fort William and, on the other hand, Lieutenant Colonel Clive, who, as well as holding a rank senior to Coote in the British Army, was the senior military officer present of the Company’s service. Against this could be argued that he was under the orders of the President and Council of Madras, not those of Bengal, and that the two Presidencies were quite independent of each other. Watson threatened to bombard the Fort, with Clive in it, if Coote’s authority was not recognised. Clive defied him and only yielded when Watson landed in person and, acting as supreme commander, handed over control to President Drake of the Bengal Council.

News of the outbreak of the Seven Years War spread the conflict in Bengal. Siraj-al-Daulat at first offered his protection to the French factories in his territories, but then withdrew it, with a view to settling his differences with the British and obtaining their aid against Ahmad Shah, the victor of Panipat, the master of Delhi, and the possible next invader of Bengal. At the end of March 1757 Chandarnagar, the base of French trade in Bengal, was captured by the British. Clive then marched against Siraj-al-Daulat, reaching Plassey (Palasi) on 23 June. Against 1,000 European and 2,000 sepoys, Siraj-al-Daulat had an army of 50,000 but, as many of these were led by Mir Jafar, a nobleman whose own aspirations to become Nawab Clive had secretly agreed to support, only about 12,000 came into action. Once again, European-style discipline, musketry and field guns were able to defeat a largely cavalry army in what came to be recognised as being–although a mere cannonade by comparison with other engagements fought upon Indian soil–one of the decisive battles of South Asian history. A grateful Mir Jafar, on becoming Nawab of Bengal, not only paid over vast sums, which his treasury could ill afford, to Clive and the members of the Bengal Council but granted to the East India Company the right to collect the revenue of twenty-four parganas or districts around Calcutta, the first major British territorial holdings in Bengal.

With Bengal secure, the British were able to restore their position in Madras. The French were defeated by Eyre Coote at the Battle of Wandewash on 22 January 1760 and his subsequent capture of Pondicherry, after a siege lasting from 16 November 1760 to 16 January 1761, brought the French Indian empire to an end. The last involvement of Indian troops in the Seven Years War was the successful expedition sent from Madras in 1762 to capture Manila in the Spanish Philippine Islands, the earliest demonstration that troops from British India might have a part to play in imperial as well as local power politics.

In Bengal, Nawab Mir Jafar found himself unable to cope with the problems of government. His western districts were raided by Marathas claiming to collect a share of the revenue on behalf of the Mughal Emperor, and by the army of the new Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, collecting on his own behalf. His eastern districts failed to produce the revenue on which his British friends counted for the payment of their troops and indeed for all their other expenses in India. The British authorities at Calcutta persuaded him, in August 1760, to retire in favour of his son-in-law, Mir Kasim, who assigned the revenues of further districts to the British in return for troops for the defence of what remained of his state. When he tried to restore his depleted treasury by challenging the Company’s claim to exemption from inland trading tolls, the British sent these troops to arrest him in July 1763. This attempted coup failed and several hundred men, Europeans as well as sepoys, were taken prisoner. The British then declared war on Mir Kasim though their initial movements against him were hampered by a mutiny, first of their European troops and then of their sepoys, over arrears of pay and prospects of prize money. Order was restored by a mixture of cajolery and threats, but the commander of the Bengal forces, Major Carnac, was replaced by Major Hector Munro, a stern disciplinarian. Another incident, considered by him to be mutiny and desertion with intent to join the enemy, was according to the conventions of the Baksaris nothing more than the attempted renegotiation of their contract in favour of another employer. An entire battalion decamped but was pursued and captured. Twenty-four men were put to death by the conventional Mughal punishment for mutineers, being blown away from the muzzles of guns. Mir Kasim fell back with his army into Awadh (Oude) the heart of Hindustan. There the Nawab of Awadh, and Wazir of the empire, Suja-al-Daulat, then in company with the Emperor Shah Alam II, had mustered a combined force to exact tribute due from the neighbouring region of Bundelkhand. Mir Kasim joined them in this expedition, and they in turn marched to restore him to his place in Bengal, still constitutionally a province of the Mughal empire.

They were met by Munro, at Baksar, on the Awadh-Bengal border, on 23 October 1764. Against the allies’ 50,000 men, including a sepoy brigade in Mir Kasim’s service (led by a German mercenary, known locally as ‘Samru’, who had murdered Mir Kasim’s 200 European prisoners of war at Patna), the British mustered 900 Europeans and 7,000 sepoys with twenty field guns. In their hardest fought battle in India thus far, the British lost over 800 men before the allied army gave way, leaving 2,000 dead on the field. Mir Kasim fled, to die in poverty. Samru and his sepoys found employment with the Nawab of Awadh, who made peace with the British. In return for an undertaking that he would receive his long unpaid share of it, Shah Alam granted to the East India Company the land revenue of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In practice this placed the government of that province under British control and the last Nawab of Bengal, Mir Jafar’s son Najm-al-Daulat, retired on a handsome allowance.

In 1764, recognising that they now had a standing army that had increased in size ten-fold in ten years, the Directors changed their method of appointing officers. Those in the British regiments then being recalled from India were still permitted to transfer to the Company’s service when their units returned to Europe. They thus, except in the artillery where this system did not apply, realised a substantial sum by the sale of their commissions, though accepting permanent service in India. All other appointments to commissions were to be made from candidates sent out to India as cadets. Cadets did duty as private soldiers in European units, occasionally in combat, forming elite sections for special tasks. Promotion for all was by seniority in each Army, unlike the British Line, where the senior in each rank could in normal circumstances succeed to a vacancy only in his own regiment, and only by payment of a substantial sum for his new commission, so that those who could afford it might purchase promotion over the heads of those who could not. The seniority principle, intended to avoid the probability of corruption, was also applied to all ranks in the sepoy companies, with the seniority being that within each company. Any exceptions to this rule, if the next in line for pro motion were considered unfit to hold higher rank, required the approval of the local government. The first subedars and jemadars, men of independent means who had produced their own companies in the traditional Indian way were, in the course of time, succeeded by those who had come up through the ranks. The military disadvantage of this was compensated for by the political benefit of phasing out a body of independent contractors who, in the unsettled conditions of eighteenth-century India, might use their troops, paid and armed by the British, for their own purposes. A notable case was that of Subedar Yusuf Muhammad Khan who, for his distinguished services in the Carnatic was appointed commandant of all the Company’s sepoys in the Madras Army and granted an extensive jagir by the Nawab Muhammad Ali (‘Subedar’ by now meant ‘Indian captain’). He subsequently attempted to use his own troops to establish an independent state in alliance with Haydar Ali (who had come to power in neighbouring Mysore by just such a means) but was eventually hanged by the Nawab as a rebel.

In the space of a single decade the position of the military in British India had changed, more radically than it had in the first century and a half of the East India Company’s entire existence. A few companies of ill-led Europeans, retained for the local defence of a few coastal trading stations and supplemented in emergency by war-bands obtained from Indian military contractors, had been replaced by a standing army of European and Indian regulars. Instead of being financed out of the profits of the Company’s trade, they were funded by the revenues of the territories which they had conquered. The infantry sepoy had emerged as the most effective type of South Asian soldier.

Nevertheless, the institutions and authorities under which the military operated remained in essence the same. The Company’s very existence as a body depended upon the grant (and periodic renewal), of its charter from the British Crown, voted by a majority in Parliament. The Company’s Governors and councils in India were subject to the Court of Directors, and the Company’s military was subordinate to the local Governors. A new element had emerged in the arrival of British Army troops, but the Mutiny Act of 1754 had ensured that all came under the same operational command locally. In South Asia the position of the Company continued to derive from Mughal imperial grants. Like the other South Asian powers, the Company had the authority to collect revenues and apply them to the maintenance of troops on which in theory the Mughal government could call when required. In practice, the British, like any other South Asian powers who could do so with impunity (by 1764, all of them) provided the troops for whose maintenance the revenues had been alienated only when it suited them and ultimately used them to overthrow the power of their nominal overlords or that of rivals. For the time being, however, the British government was content to exert its power over British India through the East India Company, and the Company was happy to leave the task of ruling the provinces whose revenues were in its hands to the princes who were themselves nominally agents of the Mughal Emperor, but whose possession of their thrones was actually dependent upon British military support.


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