Why Did the EIC Win in India

From Major Amin. A look at some factors that made the EIC so successful militarily. As usual, the Royal Navy gets a lot of credit.

Native troops played a significant role in the East India Company’s conquest of  India. Certain aspects however made the military potential and effectiveness of East India Company’s troops stand out from their other opponents in India. The East India Company employed European officers trained in the European way of war to drill train and command native Indian troops.In addition in almost every battle native troops were grouped around a relatively much smaller nucleus of European troops. Another factor which played an important part in the East India Company’s conquest of India was naval power.Naval power gave flexibility to the operations of the East India Company. This meant that troops from Bengal Army could be swiftly transported from Bengal Presidency to the Madras presidency,thereby reinforcing the Madras troops in case of any serious military reverse. This happened many times during the Mysore Wars. Naval power also played an important role in logistically supporting the operations of land based armies. Three widely separated bases of the English East India Company which were interconnected with each other by sea meant that loss of any one of these could not defeat the company,since troops from one presidency could be switched to another quickly via the sea route. No single Indian power had common borders with all the three presidency and this meant that no single Indian power could destroy the English East India Company. The only way that this could be done was by an alliance of native powers and this was made extremely difficult since no two native powers could agree on anything for a long time. Above all the center of gravity of the English East India Company was naval power and no native power possessed naval potential to challenge British naval mastery. For sometime the French were in a position to do so,but the only opportunity to do so was lost during the Second Mysore War at Cuddalore when all the French squadron under Admiral D’ Orves had to do was to remain in position off the coast of Cuddaiore while the English East India Company’s main army under Sir Eyre Coote facing Hyder Ali of Mysore could have been starved into surrender. (1) Due to some inexplicable reason D ‘ Orves simply sailed away and the French lost their last decisive opportunity to defeat the English East India Company.

The origin of English East India Company’s native army were guards enrolled for the protection of their trading posts and factories in the seventeenth century. The French were the first European nation to employ natives as soldiers in India. In 1676 Francois Martin the French Governor of Pondicherry enrolled 300 Natives to beef up his very small force of European troops. (2) In 1740 Benoit Dumas another French governor of Pondicherry was employing a force comprising 4,000 to 5,000 Indian Muslims apart from the European troops. This force was led by one Paradis, described as a brilliant Swiss officer serving as a mercenary soldier of fortune in the army of the French East India Company may be noted that the superiority of the infantry-artillery team based European way of war , over the cavalry charge based Asiatic way of warfare, was, for the first time demonstrated at the Battle of Saint Thome in 1746, where the French-Native troops of the French East India Company, under the same Paradis , brushed aside the much larger and at least outwardly awesome cavalry heavy army of , Anwaruddin , the Nawab of Carnatic . Thus in words of the Cambridge historian “Cavalry could make no impression on troops that kept their ranks and reserved their fire . The terror of Asiatic armies had disappeared “ ! (3) Major Stringer Lawrence an officer of the Royal British Army is generally acknowledged by historians as tbe “father of the Indian Army”. He came to India in 1748 at the age of 51 Initially Calcutta was under the governor of Madras but in 1699 Bengal also became a Presidency (i.e. administered by a governor known as the President). Robert Clive later famous as Lord Clive was the first Englishman to organise Indian troops on pure European lines in June 1757,shortly before the decisive battle of Plassey.

Plassey as a result of which the English East India Ccompany became the master of the revenue rich provinces of Bengal Bihar and Orrissa was a true Mughal Indian battle; which the English won by bribing the Muslim courtiers of the Muslim Nawab of Bengal ! Thus the Army of Nawab of Bengal consisting of 50,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry and a very powerful artillery train was effortlessly defeated by a British-Indian Army consisting of 750 Britishers,200 Topasses and 2,100 Native Sepoys supported by just ten artillery pieces. The vast bulk of the Nawab’s army did not fight as its commanders were in league with Clive. The battle was basically a cannonade and an exchange of musketry fire which the English Company won at the cost of just 18 killed and 48 wounded. The battle is remembered as one of the most decisive battles of world (listed by J.F.C Fuller as one of the decisive battles of the Western world) because it enabled the English Company to raise and support a private army with which it subsequently captured the whole of India within the next eighty two years! Robert Clive the father of the modern Indian Army was neither from the British Army,nor a soldier by profession.; but a simple clerk in the English East India Company’s service. Clive won the appointment of an officer in volunteer infantry for a daring escape from French captivity in 1746. Clive was a man of crisis and won fame for a daring military manouevre during the siege of Trichinopoly in 175l. He landed at Calcutta in 1757 with a British-Indian force tasked to relieve Calcutta which was besieged by the Muslim ruler of Bengal. Clive raised the ” Bengal Native Infantry” in January 1757. At that time this unit was known as “Lal Paltan” because of the red coats which it wore. This unit consisted of volunteers from the Gangetic Plain. These consisted of Hindu Jats,Hindustani Pathan Rohillas ,Rajputs and even Brahmans.

Before Clive raised the Lal Paltan ie the first Indian regiment dressed trained and organised on pure European lines the Indian troops employed in Madras Bengal and Bombay were ill disciplined and dressed trained and organised on haphazard and adhoc basis. The Lal Paltan which later on came to be known as the Ist Bengal Native Infantry was organised trained and equipped just like any other European unit of that time and officered by Europeans. It may be noted that there were no Bengalis in this regiment which was largely composed as we have already discussed of Muslims and Hindus of Rohilla Jat Rajput and Brahman castes from areas west of Bengal proper.

Clive’s experiment was successful and immediately after the battle of Plassey in which the La! Paltan participated a second sepoy (English distortion of the Indian word “Sipahi” which means soldier) battalion was raised. In Madras six similar battalions were raised in 1759. Similarly in Bombay Native Companies were formed in 1760 and these were eventually reorganised as Native Battalions in 1767. Three factors played an important part in the rapid expansion of the Native Army.The first was availability of manpower , the second was the economic factor, and the third was East India Company’s intense military activity during the period 1757-177l. European manpower was not readily available in India during this period. On the other hand due to decline of the Mughal Empire many soldiers were forced into unemployment and the English East India Company had a very wide choice of excellent recruits who flocked to Calcutta to get recruited.

Some time after the acquisition of Bengal as a result of the battle of Plassey the East India Company was forced to meet a new military threat from the west i.e. the Nawab Wazir of Oudh. This necessitated raising of new regiments. Thus by 1766, 29 infantry battalions had been raised in Bengal presidency alone apart from the Lal Paltan. Three out of these battalions were disbanded for mutiny in 1764 in which 24 mutineers were blown by artillery guns . (4) There is no doubt that Robert Clive the ex clerk was the real founder of the British Empire and Bengal Army which conquered major part of India for their British masters. Clive is remembered only for Plassey,but it is forgotten that even after Plassey it was Clive who saved the East India Company by creating the Bengal Native Army trained on European lines. Clive performed the duty of the Commander in Chief of the Bengal Army and the overall East India Company army chief in India from December 1756 to 25 February 1760 and again from April 1765 to January 1767. While it was true that Clive won the battle of Plassey by bribery and treachery,no one can refute the fact that Clive laid the essential foundations of British rule in India by organising native infantry battalions on European lines. Had these native battalions trained equipped and organised on European lines not been there, the English East India Company could not have held Bengal during the period 1757-66 , and , would have been simply overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers of the army of the Nawab of Oudh.

Thus in 1763 shortly before war between the English East India Company and the Nawab of Oudh commenced ,the company had on its strength some 10,000 Native troops and approximately 1,500 Europeans (including 220 British Army Infantry) . (5) At the decisive battle of Buxar fought on 23 October 1764 as a result of which the invasion of Bengal by the Nawab of Oudh was defeated and Oudh became a vassal of the English East India Company there were only 857 Europeans out of the total force of 7,072 men. (6) The Native contribution to this battle may be gauged from the fact that out of the total East India Company Army’s 825 casualties,some 744 were Native J.W Fortescue the official historian placed the casualties suffered at Buxar at 847 out of which I03 were suffered by Europeans and 744 by Natives. (8) Clive had left India when Buxar was fought,but there is no doubt that without the Native Regiments conceived and created by Clive ,the East India Company would have been defeated at Buxar,and East India Company would have surely lost Bengal. There is no exaggeration in stating that the future British Empire of India was saved at Buxar by 857 European troops and 6,115 Native troops.

In August 1765 the military genius of Robert Clive again came into action when he reorganised the Bengal Army into brigades. Each brigade was a composite force of all arms , consisting of one regiment of the private European infantry of the English East India Company, one company of artillery, one rissalah of native cavalry (118 sabres),and the formidable cannonfodder i.e. seven infantry regiments(911 each) of Native Sepoys. Clive deployed three brigades of the above mentioned composition for the defence of Bengal, making it impossible for any opponent of the East India Company to militarily surprise it by a sudden invasion. Thus the First Brigade was stationed at Monghyr ,the Second Brigade at Allahabad in the territory of the Wazir of Oudh,who was now only an insignificant vassal of the East India Company, the Third Brigade was stationed at Bankipore again in the territory of the Nawab of Oudh. (9)

It may be noted that the ethnic composition of the East India Company’s Native Armies was quite diverse. These included Pathans,Hindustani Pathans, Muslim Rajputs, Hindu Rajputs, Arabs (mostly in Bombay Army) , Abbysinians (Bombay Army) and various categories of Hindustanis (inhabitants of the territory between Bengal proper and Ambala). Most of the native troops of the Bengal Army however were from the tract of country in between the Ganges and Gagra rivers located in modern eastern United province and Bihar province of India. The bulk of the infantry was Hindu Rajput and Brahman while the bulk of cavalry comprised Rohilla Mussulmans and Hindustani Pathan or Hindustani Rajput Mussulmans. (10) There is a common myth in Pakistan that bulk of East India Company’s army was Muslim. In reality this belief is the creation of the ridiculous imagination of some who think that the Muslims were the only fighting class in India,and that too from the area of Punjab and Frontier in modern Pakistan! As a matter of fact the pre British Mughal armies had a large proportion of Hindu Rajputs from the Gangetic plain. Notable among these were high caste Hindu Bhumihars and the Oudh and Bihar Hindu Rajputs,from the areas of eastern Oudh and Benares region. (11) It is important to note that in Mughal India the army was a purely mercenary force. There was no compulsion or no obligation on any Muslim to enter the army and the army was a purely volunteer army in which any man Muslim or Hindu could enroll. The army’s aim was not to conduct any holy war or Jihad but to fight for the Mughal Emperor against any enemy regardless of religion or ethnicity. Thus the Mughal Army was frequently employed against the Muslim Pathan tribesman just like the British Army in so many post 1849 frontier expeditions.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

19 thoughts on “Why Did the EIC Win in India”

  1. The EIC won as they paid well, were well-organised and most importantly its commanders did not betray each other for money.

  2. It also helped tremendously that the Mughal empire completely collapsed and that the replacement powers (marathas, sikhs, various nawabs and nizams) were all too busy fighting each other and themselves. This allowed the company to become the deciding factor in various conflicts.

    Also don’t forget the British east India company were doing business in India for more than a 100 years without ever thinking they could one day defeat the Mughal empire.

    It’s sort of forgotten history but no one ever talks about how the sikhs played such a critical part in helping the company put down the 1860 mutiny/revolution. That revolt almost ended company rule, but sikhs came in and helped the company because they wanted payback for their own defeat at the hands of purbiya sepoys that the company employed. Jatt pride at work I guess.

    1. wasnt just Sikhs but a lot of muslims from agricultural tribes of Punjab. It was basically recruitment from NW frontier putting down gangetic plain and deccan. And that cemented legacy of “martial races,” something tribalist clowns from those communities still take a lot of pride in

      1. They think they’re so much better than “wimpy” Hindus though. Can’t believe people believe in martial race theory. Nothing more than an invention to turn idiots into useful tools.

  3. This analysis of Amin treats time indifferently –

    The EIC were purely mercantilist and had no armed presence on the subcontinent for the first 125 years – when they first received Bombay as a betrothal gift from the Queen of Spain.

    The conquest of Bengal with EIC holding the reigns took over 30 years to materialise. This included all sort of maneouvering with Siraj-Ud-Daula and his father playing major roles.

    The replacement of Marathas as the power behind the titular Shah Alam by the EIC took over 50 years. Marathas had the full backing of French and other European mercenaries.

    I can understand, why Amin with his military background, simply choses to highlight the military parts of EIC. If anything, the Marathas had better artillery. What the EIC had was a singularity in purpose and men purely attuned to material gains – the best kind of motivation and means. To be honest, if it was the Royal Army in operation, it would have been whipped by any of the scores of middling powers from Mysore to Oudh.

    Instead what the Marathas, Nawabs and Mughals faced was a corporation that perfected its machine without the competing attention of court intrigues, land administration and governance.

    And precisely that was the reason why the French, Dutch and Portuguese failed in their own ventures. Their own holdings were quickly brought under European rule, losing their efficiency in the process.

    It wan’t European domination that won the day but rather the structural ferality of a corporation which was new to most Indians.

  4. 1. where does jagat seth fit into all these?
    2. were there other jagat seths else where. i am not referring to mir sadiq types.

    1. Jagat Seth was a title (Banker to the World) – in fact, it was hereditary and you will see that the legend of Jagat Seth was born across 3 generations – grandfather, father and son – Fateh Chand, Anand Chand, Madhab Rai.

      The Jagat Seths were already bankers to European traders in Hooghly and were responsible for security-invoicing the massive trade out of Bengal. They also supported Aliverdi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal in his war campaigns.

      Siraj Ud Daula, the head strong grandson of Aliverdi Khan committed the cardinal mistake of stopping the Seths on their annual Jain pilgrimage and threatening to forcefully convert them with circumcision – unless they supported him in the succession battle.

      Clive was ever watchful of such mis-demeanours by the princes and looking to cement an alliance with the Seths. Mir Jafar offered to turn sides. The fate of Bengal was sealed.

      The whole financial base of EIC’s operations in India was Bengal. When Bengal fell, it set up the foundation for Wellesley’s exploits 50 years later in defeating Marathas and Tippu.

  5. This is new thing I am hearing about Maratha artillery being better ! The simple fact that Indian powers lost every pitched battle as they could not respond to manoeuvre and change plans to suit the pressures of battle known as operational strategy ? All indian powers including Marathas and Mysore could not win a single pitched battle unless there was overwhelming indian superiority like in first Maratha war vis a vis Bombay army or at pollilore – to my mind the central issue was officers – british officers leading Indians were the real difference

    1. Maratha artillery was superior to English artillery. This is the recorded view of Lord Wellesley, who was chief commander of EIC during the Mysore wars and Anglo-Maratha clashes. This has been independently attested by many military and non-military historians like Darlymple etc.

      Link below – War and Empire, Bruce Collins


      Your assumptions are febrile. Vietnam had lesser artillery, air forces and naval forces than the States. There are still several dozen military analyses published every year dissecting that defeat.

      The EIC victories across India in the 18th and 19th century were neither born of military superiority nor tactics. It was attrition warfare with some very good logistics and theatre command.

  6. Even the term ‘ Maratha artillery ‘ in itself is a nonsense term that a novice would use – there were so many Maratha armies Sindhia holkar gaekwad bhonsla peishwa pindari – all highly erratic and uneven and as a corps no match to the company’s artillery – the Marathas were particularly weak in horse artillery the corps d elite of the company and could never synchronise artillery fire with manoeuvre – they were real culprits in the company’s success as they gave the company a 20 year break after first Maratha war

  7. Dalrymple I don’t recognise as an authority and Wellesley was in habit of exaggerating odds – rest I don’t want to comment on a man hiding sneakily behind a nickname and making snide remarks – not having the moral courage to even own his own name –

  8. One thing which had always surprised me is the amount of battles the “Indian” forces forced upon the Brits and still lost out. I mean you would think that since the Indian forces are taking the initiative they should be somewhat better prepared than the EIC. But almost always the Brits come across as reluctant winners.

    Almost at all stages the Brits are willing to maintain status quo (and maintain trade) and honor treaties , and then there forced to war which they win decisively.

  9. A very good view of the poorly understood 18th century India when a small British army of few thousand captured all the high and mighty armies of princely India. Capture of India by the British would not have been possible without the large manpower from the Indians .

    Another aspect to the British conquest esp Plassey was that the Indian capitalists of Calcutta like the Jagath Seths, realized the British rule would be more systematic and preferable to that of Nawabi rule, so they lent their capital to the British, a part of which was spent in bribing their Indian opponents to capitulate or turn their coats at the least

  10. The current Swiss bankers are Genoese, who moved to Switzerland in the 18th century and during the Napoleonic Wars. The capital of the Venetians and Lombards, which was collected centuries earlier, was transferred to those banks. They have very complex relations with the Venetians, and, in general, the structure of the world’s elite is very complex. The Venetians became rich thanks to the plunder of Constantinople. The robberies of the Anglo-Saxons were even supported and organized by the state. Many famous pirates became officers of the English navy, and only continued their criminal work. The most famous pirate who “accidentally” was in the English navy was Francis Drake. Economist John Maynard Keynes believed that Drake’s robbery of 60,000 pounds allowed Elizabeth not only to repay foreign debts, but also to invest 42,000 pounds in the Levant Company (Venetians), and the first capital of the East India Company was invested from this her income.

  11. sepoy (English distortion of the Indian word “Sipahi” which means soldier)

    Interesting. Colloquial Sinhala had Lansi Sipai, meaning Lansi=Dutch/Eurasian Sipai=Low class.

    Now Lansi is not used (not enough of them around). So just Sipai or Lapai Sipai, ineffective low class.

  12. It is important to note that in Mughal India the army was a purely mercenary force. There was no compulsion or no obligation on any Muslim to enter the army and the army was a purely volunteer army in which any man Muslim or Hindu could enroll.

    True of all of Sri Lankas history. Kings armies and their fights among themselves were with mercenaries. Most often South Indian Velakaras.

    In general the local populace did not join these wars. The one exception being the 1817 rebellion against the British in 1817. Uva Wellasa Rebellion, lost and the Brits killed all the males over 18.

    Sri Lanka does not have warrior caste.

    1. sbarrkum: Not really true that the Mughal Army was a “volunteer army”. The mansabdar (noble) in the Mughal Army used to have to equip 100/1000/5000 soldiers as part of their obligation to the emperor. These troops were mostly drawn from their soldiers, farmers, etc. They owed an obligation to the Mughal mansabdar and hence it would be incorrect to call it voluntary service.

  13. Professional trained army vs sipahi/sepoy day rate fighters. That’s the other half for sure. These types of sipahis still exist today – the taliban are basically day rate fighters who go home each night after getting paid.

    Mughal empire collapsing though is the primary reason. They had 4 million sipahis at their peak and lots of artillery/cannons. That’s why the east India company had to wait 130 years before it even becomes a possibility that they could be deciding factor in many of the local kingdom level conflicts.

  14. The original post focuses excessively on the military aspect. The most critical aspect is overlooked – political acumen. The EIC was adroit as it came to the realization that a small and disciplined armed force under European command could humble a much larger native rag-tag army. They were able to use this knowledge to put their thumb on the scale over and over again to favor one faction against the other.

    The political leadership of the EIC was better informed about the world outside South Asia and global trends. Most Indian rulers were completely uninformed in that regard. A notable exception in this regard was Shivaji who understood the role of naval power, and Tipu Sultan who understood that he needed the help of the French if he was to take on the EIC.

    While the native regiments provided the bulk of the muscle for the military forays of the EIC, one thing that is often overlooked is the huge role played by Scottish Highlanders in EIC armies. The EIC drew upon Scottish recruits once Scotland entered into a formal political union with England in 1707.

    On a separate note, there is literature to the effect that up until mid to late 1700’s, firearms and artillery manufactured by some native powers – some Maratha powers, Tipu Sultan, and Ranjit Singh – were more robust and better adapted to the local climate and more forgiving to the exact composition of the gunpowder used. The EIC dismantled and destroyed most of these manufacturing centers of the native powers.

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