From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain.
Several questions came my way regarding origins of Indian army and that resulted in following piece. Only for military history interested parties.
Origins of Indian Army – Early Days of East India Company Army
Mughal central authority was rapidly evaporating in eighteenth century India. Many local governors became de facto independent and many soldiers of fortunes were busy carving out their own fiefdoms. In this anarchy, foreign invaders as well as local robber bands frequently descended on helpless population for loot and depart as quickly as possible. East India Company (EIC) expanded its control of large swaths of India only due to superior military organization compared to the military organizations of its opponents. EIC, French, Portuguese, Mughal, Marhattas, Rohillas, Nawab of Arcot, Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Nawab of Bengal were competing for the spoils and each party was competing and cooperating depending on local circumstances. Many soldiers of fortunes found eighteenth century India a fertile ground. French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Swiss, Pathans, Afghans, Arabs and Africans found ready employment with power brokers. They frequently changed sides depending on the prevailing situation. For example, in 1761, commander of Chittapet garrison Captain Coulson deserted to Hyder Ali taking with him his garrison and guns. EIC military establishments finally evolved into three presidential armies of Madras, Bombay and Bengal.
East India Company (EIC) recruited few European soldiers and native peons called chaprassis to guard their factories. EIC was a trading company and directors were hesitant to embark on any military adventure as it was a costly business. In 1744, war broke out between Great Britain and France, and their trading companies in India also got entangled in the conflict. French captured Madras in 1746 and EIC was forced to organize a military establishment. They raised European infantry, artillery and cavalry and native infantry. This was the foundation of Madras army also known as Coast Army. Bodies of sepoys of various strengths were under the command of their own chiefs. Sepoys brought their own arms consisting of matchlock, sword, spears, dagger etc. Chief was given the pay of the men under his command which he distributed. If he owned the arms and loaned it to his sepoy, he charged one rupee a month from the sepoy for the use of his arms. When two or more bodies of sepoys were employed together a European non-commissioned or commissioned officer was sent with the party. Early European soldiers of EIC were soldiers of fortune of different nationalities including English, French, German, Swiss and Dutch. Native sepoys included Rajputs, Hindustanis (mainly from Bombay), Arabs (mainly from their settlements in Bombay), Topasses (Christian offspring of Portuguese and native women) and Coffrees (natives of East Africa and Madagascar brought as slaves). Locals made a very small proportion of the contingent until 1756 when circumstances necessitated local recruitment. When most of the Madras troops were in Bengal, French captured Madras. After this setback company realized the need for a more disciplined force to defend its territories.
Major Stringer Lawrence is considered father of the Indian army. He laid the foundations of what was to become the Indian Army. In January 1748, Major Stringer Lawrence landed at Fort St. David to take charge of the fort when French had defeated the British. Later, Lawrence was appointed Commander-in-Chief of company’s army in India. A very able soldier Muhammad Yusuf was appointed commandant of all native sepoys and a Brahman Poniapa served as Lawrence’s interpreter.
Lawrence organized Europeans and native peons (chaprassis) into companies. They were organized into a regiment of two battalions; one European and one Sepoy (Indian). Both battalions were similar in structure and included seven companies each. A company had three Europeans officers and seventy privates. This regiment was involved in all the battles against the French forces in India. European cavalry was never more than a squadron strength and only maintained during a conflict and broken up during peace. The main reason was cost. In rare cases, native horsemen in the employ of a local ruler were borrowed but they were not effective due to poor discipline.
In 1759, sepoys were organized into five battalions that increased to sixteen by 1767. However, practically they worked in small parties of wings and companies as their duties included garrisoning small forts, escorting convoys or native chiefs and collecting revenues. It was the genius of two worthy adversaries of the company Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan that helped to transform Madras army. In the fight against a well organized and professional adversary, Madras army also evolved into a professional army. Native cavalry and artillery establishments were raised much later. Native cavalry was raised in 1784 and native artillery in 1805. Early recruitment for EIC army was from a wide social base. A number of sepoys were from “untouchable” Paraiya community. All sepoys served together in composite companies with no consideration for caste sensibilities. Bengal army was an exception where high caste Brahmins dominated.
In western India, EIC only had control over Bombay and few islands near the harbor. In 1741, Bombay military establishment consisted of seven companies of Europeans with total number of 1500 (this included 900 Topasses). There were 700 chaprassis working for civil servants. By 1746, about 2000 natives had been enrolled in the Bombay military establishment. In 1748, one company of artillery was added. Major Goodyear was made commander of Bombay army. After defeat of French and Marhattas, Bombay army became the smallest establishment of three armies. After the conquest of Sindh in 1843, new regiments were raised to patrol the new border of Sindh and Baluchistan.
In Bengal few hundred natives, four companies of Europeans and one company of artillery were employed to guard factories. In January 1757, when Calcutta was retaken from Siraj-ud-Daula, a battalion of native sepoys was raised with three officers (one captain, one lieutenant and one ensign) from Madras detachment. In early organization of sepoy battalions, European officers were assisted by a Sergeant Major and few Sergeants. A native commandant and native adjutant also assisted commanding officer. Each battalion consisted of ten companies of which two companies were grenadier companies. Each company had a subedar, three jamadars, five havaldars, four naiks, two drummers, one trumpeter and seventy sepoys. Each company had its own standard of the same color as facings of the men with the badge of the subedar at the center. Grenadier companies had Union Jack in upper corner. By 1764, there were nineteen sepoy battalions of the Bengal establishment and they were numbered according to the rank of their captains. The senior most Captain was Giles Stibbert and his battalion was numbered 1. The Captains commanding battalions regulated the uniform of their men. However, once fixed, it could not be altered without the permission from the board.
17th battalion was one of the first battalion clothed in regular red uniform and called ‘Lal Paltan’. 26th battalion was raised in Cawnpore by John Byrne and called Dhobie Ki Paltan as a large number of washer men were recruited in this battalion. In 1765, army was organized into three brigades of seven battalions each. Each brigade also had one European regiment of nine companies, one troop (Rassalah) of cavalry and one company of artillery. When brigades were formed, Lord Clive fixed the uniforms for the brigades. First brigade blue, second brigade black and third brigade green (the latter was changed to yellow in 1779).
When EIC obtained the management of revenues of Bengal province, three regular battalions of sepoys were assigned to Revenue department and six purgunnah (provincial) battalions were also raised for the revenue board. In 1773, purgunnah battalions were used in operations against the robber bands of saniassis. These battalions suffered heavily and routed by saniassis. Three commandants Captain Thomas, Lieutenant Keith and Captain Timothy Edwards were killed. The disgraceful conduct of many sepoys resulted in breaking up of purgunnah establishment. Three regular battalions were returned to their brigades while remainder new purgunnah battalions were disbanded with the exception of 24th (two years later this battalion was brought into the line and numbered 14th). In 1775, standards of companies were replaced with only two standards for the battalion. In 1778, nine battalions trained by British officers for Nawab Vizier were transferred to EIC. In 1795, Native Militia was raised for judicial and commercial duties and regular battalions were removed from these unpleasant duties.
In 1781 regulations, articles relating to desertion and mutiny were translated in Hindustani and Persian and read and explained to sepoys every month. In 1801, ten sepoys from each company were trained as light infantry and marksmen. In 1803, three companies of pioneers were raised for the first time for EIC army. In 1808, this was converted into a regular Corps of Pioneers or Sappers and now had the strength of eight companies.
Civil servants had the sole authority over the military establishment. All orders of the council passed through civil servants to the military. In 1796 re-organization was carried out with a view of creating avenues of promotions for European officers. New establishment consisted of twelve regiments of two battalions each and each battalion consisted of ten companies. Each regiment had one colonel, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, seven captains, twenty two lieutenants and ten ensigns. The principle of regimental rank and promotion up to the rank of major was also adopted. Whenever officers went on home leave they resigned their commission and when employed on staff duties, they were struck off the strength of the corps. This opened the positions for officers.
Lieutenant Colonel commanding the battalion was responsible for the recruitment and maintenance of discipline. A sepoy enlisted for three years and on completion of three years, he could obtain his discharge on two months notice except in the time of war. Each recruit took an oath of fidelity. The pay for sepoy was seven rupees per month when in station and eight and a half rupees per month when marching or on field service. Soldiers had to construct their huts of accommodations in cantonments at their own expense. Punishment varied according to the crime. Mutiny was punished with death penalty while minor crimes punished by dismissal from service, corporal punishment or removal of privileges. In one case, when two subedars tried to dissuade sepoys not to volunteer for service requiring sea voyage, they were dismissed from service. They were paraded in front of the battalion, their commissions were torn, their swords broken and they were forbidden forever to enter any military station.
Early officers of EIC army were soldiers of fortune and discontent was mainly over salary and prize money. If a town resisted then normal procedure was to allow soldiers to loot the place for a specific period of time and this loot was later distributed among all according to their station in life. Many officers accumulated reasonable amount of wealth and went back to England. There were many cases of indiscipline due to disputes over prize money. Captain Alexander Delavaux was appointed Chief Engineer and Commandant of Artillery of Madras establishment in 1748. Next year he deserted and joined French at Pondicherry. His desertion was ironic as artillery was a special preserve and even Roman Catholics were strictly prohibited from recruitment in artillery. Even if an officer married a Roman Catholic girl, he was to be immediately dismissed from artillery. In 1751, there was discontent among European officers of Madras over money and thirteen officers sent a letter to council for redress. Three ring leaders; Captain William Richards, Murray and James Kilpatrick were put under arrest. Richards died soon after arrest, Murray escaped and deserted to French at Pondicherry where he was given a commission and Kilpatrick repented and was pardoned. In 1766, there was widespread discontent among European officers of Bengal establishment. A contingent from Madras was sent to prevent an outright mutiny.
A King’s Commissioned Officer when serving in India took precedence over a company’s officer. This meant that a junior most King’s commissioned Captain superseded senior most Captain in company’s service and this was a source of agitation among company officers. In 1758, Captain Gowen of Bombay establishment came to Bengal and Colonel Robert Clive gave him seniority in Bengal establishment. This resulted in disaffection among Bengal officers and eight Captains resigned their commission in a single day.
Main reason of discontent among sepoys was also related to money while in other cases poor handling by a commanding officer caused resentment among sepoys. In 1776, 10th battalion (Matthew Ki Paltan) showed discontent due to improper conduct of their commanding officer Captain Delafield. He faced a court martial and dismissed from service. In another case, native officers petitioned against their commanding officer Captain McLean and he was removed from the command. In 1781, 20th battalion mutinied at Midnapore due to dispute between Captain Grant and his men about the distribution of prize money. Battalion was disbanded, Grant was tried and cashiered and some of the men of the battalion drafted into other regiments.
There has been some confusion among historian about reluctance of sepoys about sea voyage.
In 1769, two Grenadier companies of the 3rd battalion were coming back from Madras via sea. They perished in a shipwreck and nothing was heard about them. This had a negative impact on the minds of native sepoys who already had serious reservations about sea travel. When EIC needed troops for its settlement in Sumatra in 1788, it asked for sepoy volunteers for service. Four companies were organized from these volunteers. EIC went out of its way to ease apprehensions of the sepoys regarding sea travel. A bounty of ten rupees was given to each man and special arrangements were made for sepoys during sea voyage. The sepoys observed the filling of water casks and each carefully marked and ample supply of each dietary item was provided. On return, the payment of duties was waived for Hindu sepoys for performance of their religious rites at Gyah. EIC sepoys volunteered for services requiring sea voyage when handled properly. In 1810, they served in expedition against Isle of France, conquest of Island of Java and occupation of many islands of Phillipines archipelago. In 1811 alone, seven battalions (7,000 sepoys) volunteered for service beyond sea.
In 1782, 4th, 15th and 17th battalions stationed at Barrackpore refused service when rumor spread that they were to proceed by sea. Later, 35th also refused the order. These four battalions were broken, a court martial was held and two subedars were blown from the cannon. In 1795, 15th battalion mutinied when it was ordered to go by sea to the settlement of Malacca. Instead of asking for volunteers, to save money and logistical inconvenience of collecting volunteers from different battalions, whole battalion was ordered for service without first confirming the wishes of sepoys. Soldiers reacted violently and suffered in the consequence. Battalion was disbanded, it’s colors burned and number fifteen was left vacant. These events show that sepoys participated in many expeditions travelling be sea when handled with care. However, whenever EIC cut corners for cost or officers were not careful, then sepoys showed hesitation about sea voyage. In view of hesitation of sepoys of Bengal establishment for sea voyage, a Marine battalion of twelve companies was raised for duties on islands.
EIC started as a trading company but quickly got entangled in local intrigues and power play. EIC needed a strong muscle to compete in the power arena that required establishment of an organized military machine. Native peons were transformed into professional soldiers. The impact of EIC army was not limited to military but had a broader social impact on natives. Illiterate villagers were exposed to modern ideas and native lives were changed for generations to come. Subedar Major Shaikh Hussain of Madras Infantry served a long career in EIC army. His son Mohammad Abdur Rahman was educated, became a doctor, joined Indian Medical Service in 1909, served in Great War and retired at Lieutenant Colonel rank. Sheikh Hussain’s two grandsons attended St. Paul school in England and later both joined Indian army. Atiqur Rahman nick named Turk was winner of sword of honor at Indian Military Academy. He joined 4th Battalion of 12th Frontier Force regiment (FFR), opted for Pakistan army in 1947 and retired as Lieutenant General of Pakistan army. The second grandson, Attaur Rahman nick named Ishi also joined a Frontier Force battalion. In 1947, he opted for India and later joined Foreign Service. He served as India’s ambassador to several countries.
1- Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Wilson. A History of the Madras Army (Madras: Government Press), 1882
2- Colonel S. Rivett-Carnac. The Presidential Armies of India (London: W. H. Allen & Co.), 1890
3- Captain John Williams. An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Bengal Native Infantry 1757-1796 (London: John Murray), 1817
4- Colonel John Biddulph. Stringer Lawrence: The Father of the Indian Army (London: John Murray), 1901
5- A Bengal Officer. Remarks on the Dress and Discipline of Bengal Army (London: Dean & Scott: Reprint of 1793 Edition), 1809
6- Edmund C. Cox. A Short History of the Bombay Presidency (Bombay: Thacker & Co. Ltd.), 1887
7- Manas Dutta. Revisiting the historiography of the Madras Presidency Army, 1801-1858. Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Volume 13, Issue 4 (Jul. – Aug. 2013), PP 46-49.
June 29, 2016