As anyone who's seen the various exchanges I've had on the forum about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 must be aware, I've had a strong interest in the history of the entire event for as long as I can remember. I've no idea how much interest there might be among other members here, but I do know I'm fairly fired up at the prospect of any manufacturer offering this British Colonial conflict. If, as it seems likely to me, Cold Steel are going to give me the opportunity of collecting figures depicting the uprising, especially a matte range of well sculpted and painted "Military Miniatures", then I know where my hobby cash is going this year.
So anyway, I thought I'd open a new thread to consolidate all my posts in one place. Here's the first of what ought to fill in the gaps for anyone who's unfamiliar with what by any standards was one of the most savage and hard-fought wars in British military history. It's a story of almost unbelievable barbarity, cruelty and betrayal, which thankfully is offset by many acts of utmost courage, loyalty and dedication to duty exhibited by both sides.
Historical Background Part 1
Britain’s connection with India began on 31 January 1600 when Queen Elizabeth I signed the charter of the East India Company, a major commercial enterprise which would compete with other European trading concerns for the spice trade on the sub-continent. They operated at the request of the Mughal emperors, descendants of the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who had occupied India in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the time the Company established trading posts, known as factories, on the coasts of India, Mughal rule was in a state of decline, with regular in-fighting between rival Indian princes. The power vacuum thus created enabled the Company to expand its power and influence, converting it from a purely business concern to an imperial agent of the Crown.
The East India Company’s natural rival was its French counterpart, but when war broke out in Europe between Britain and France in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740– 48), hostilities inevitably spread to India, where the Company maintained its own private forces which worked in conjunction with local native levies and regular British Army regiments. The French were eventually evicted from India during another mid-century conflict, the Seven Years’ War (1756– 63). Robert Clive, a clerk-turned-soldier in the East India Company, inflicted a decisive blow against the French and their Indian allies at the battle of Plassey in June 1757, which consolidated the Company’s control over Bengal.
From 1765 the Mughal emperor, in recognition of the Company’s achievements, granted it the status of a feudatory ruler, and thereafter extended its hold over new territories through annexation, alliances and conquest. In successive decades of the 18th century, Company forces defeated the sultans of southern India and took on the power of the Marathas of the north and west. By the early 19th century the Mughal dynasty had come to an ignominious end and the last emperor, based at his ancient capital of Delhi but wielding no effective power, had been reduced to a mere pensioner of the Company. It was a measure of British efficiency that by this time India, divided among the three “presidencies” of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, could be managed by a small body of administrators backed by three different armies, themselves supported by regular troops of the British Army.
Successive governors-general, appointed by the Crown and based at Calcutta, expanded the domains of British India over time, up to the administration of Lord Dalhousie, whose conquest of the Punjab over the course of two wars (1845– 46, 1848– 49) pushed the frontier against Afghanistan and broke independent Sikh power. By this time the Company had evolved from a commercial organization to an agency for the civil and military administration of much of the sub-continent.
While the East India Company’s rule brought benefits to Indian society, including peace, rule of law, an efficient civil service, political stability, improved roads and bridges, the introduction of the electric telegraph and the early stages of a railway system, its administration inevitably introduced unwelcome attitudes and institutions – some tolerated, some even admired – but others resented or even loathed by the population at large.
Specifically, the British applied laws and customs alien, and sometimes anathema to, Indian society, such as allowing widows to remarry, and the establishment of a land title system where none had previously existed, the result of which was the confiscation of land regarded by Indians as hereditary property.
Even within the regiments themselves, esprit de corps had undergone a gradual decline, first because the gradual expansion of Company forces with new regiments consisting of Gurkhas, Sikhs, Pathans and Punjabi Muslims gave rise to fears among Hindu troops of the Bengal Army that their importance and privileged position was on the decline, and secondly because relations between the younger generation of recently arrived British officers and the sepoys were not as close as in generations past. Merchants, soldiers and administrators of the 18th century had often learned Indian languages, collected Indian art and artefacts, and even married Indian women. Some had adopted Indian lifestyles and practiced Indian customs. While they never considered Indian culture superior to their own, they found much in it to admire.
By the Victorian era few men of this type still remained in India. With respect to Company officers in particular – beyond taking some pride in the leadership and proper management of their sepoys – few familiarized themselves with the languages, customs and beliefs of the Indian rank and file. Interest in, understanding of, and at times appreciation for, the religion, feelings and culture of their troops, gradually declined within the (entirely British) officer corps, with the erosion of mutual trust the inevitable by-product. In many cases, junior officers physically separated themselves from their men as much as they could and could only communicate with their troops through an interpreter. Tolerance of things Indian gradually gave way to a weary contempt, as William Hodson, a flamboyant intelligence officer and commander of irregular cavalry, observed a few years before the Mutiny:-
At the age at which officers become colonels and majors, not one in fifty is able to stand the wear and tear of Indian service. They become still more worn in mind than in body. All elasticity is gone; all energy and enterprise worn out; they become, after a fortnight’s campaign, a burden to themselves, an annoyance to those under them, and a terror to every one but the enemy!
Yet the weakening bonds between the British officer and the sepoy paled in significance against a much more profound threat to Indian culture; the gradual imposition of Western ideas and attitudes, the introduction of which was meant to sweep away centuries of superstition and heathen practices. On this basis British reformers set out to eradicate "backward", even "barbaric" practices, which to them belonged to a degenerate culture, not to an enlightened and God-fearing civilization.
TO BE CONTINUED