'Best Black Troops in the World? : British Perceptions and the Making of the Sepoy 1746-1805
PR Chari ·       

The author is conducting post-doctoral research in Monash University, Melbourne. ?Black?, he assures us, is not a pejorative term, but a word used by the British to distinguish native sepoys from white troops. He has explored British perceptions of Indian soldiers, which explains his reliance, almost exclusively, on British sources; this becomes clear from the extensive bibliography appended at the end of the book. He has chronicled therefrom a dominant conviction in the British of that age that race determined hierarchy within society and between nations. This faith in social Darwinism was used to explain the dominance of the white Europeans over the coloured non-European peoples.�

Caste, incidentally, was the basis for recruiting sepoys into the East India Company service. Classifying Indians into martial and non-martial races reinforced this process when the Crown took over the Company?s possessions in 1858. Historian Percival Griffiths had noted that the British overran India with Bengal gold and Carnatic infantry. In truth caste was only emphasized, at that time, in recruiting to the Bengal Army which, incidentally, had rebelled during the Mutiny. Caste was de-emphasized in the Madras and Bombay Armies that, curiously enough, stood firmly by the British in 1857. But caste was the basis for recruitment into the army even in the 18th century. As Philip Mason informs us in his classic ?A Matter of Honour?, which describes the birth and development of the Indian Army, British officers ? liked to see tall men, and they preferred them to be as fair in complexion as was convenient and to have features of the kind they sometimes called ?Grecian? ?. The author also informs us of their belief that: ?The Jats and Gurkhas may have been brave, but they were also considered slow-witted and?childlike?. That explained a preference for northerners, Turks and Arabs, especially from rural areas, but the British were convinced at all times of their racial superiority.�

The author appreciates that genuine differences did exist between the Indian and English military cultures as, for instance, in having a professional standing army; this was not the Indian tradition, which emphasized, instead, individual martial skills at the expense of planning, tactics or strategy. The major research question addressed by the author against this backdrop is, ?how did the British perceive Indian soldiers and how did this perception influence the formation of the sepoy army in the eighteenth century??� Towards this end a comparison of the Indian and European military systems is attempted to examine how the sepoy army was recruited and organized, disciplined and commanded. More importantly, how were sepoys employed in combat.

An important conclusion reached is that, despite their religious sentiments being respected, material needs being met, training and disciplining improved, sepoys were ?not trusted with highly demanding combat duties, particularly leading assaults on fortified places?. The prevailing European tactics demanded great steadfastness in troops; atypically they would advance to within 20 yards of the enemy, receive their fire, and then charge with fixed bayonets. Occasional mutinous behaviour by sepoys, that had to be quelled with great severity, might have reinforced British beliefs in the sepoy?s unreliability. In the Anglo-French battle of Wandiwash (1760), the English Commander Eyre Coote used only British troops, leaving the sepoys behind as spectators. This discrimination, the author suggests, might have been occasioned by lack of adequate training. But plain racial prejudice was also operating. This becomes evident from the tenacity and courage displayed by Indian sepoys in the hard fought battles of Buxar (1764), Seringapatam (1799) and Assaye (1803). Battle casualties are one way of measuring commitment and dedication in war; at Buxar, which assured the East India Company political supremacy over East India, the sepoys suffered 205 killed and 414 wounded, compared to 32 Europeans killed and 47 wounded.

Despite such sacrifices the British viewed sepoys only as good Indian troops. Drill, discipline and organization definitely improved their military performance, but they were not comparable to European soldiers. The author?s overall conclusion is that: ?All they [British] expected from the sepoys was to function in support of the European troops during major campaigns and keep the countryside in tranquility?. But, Stephen Cohen in his seminal book ?The Indian Army? has noted that the ultimate success of the British was premised on their discovery that ?first, a few disciplined British troops could defeat large but disorganized Indian armies; second, Indians were themselves amenable to discipline?.�

Written in an easy and graceful style with photographs and maps to illustrate the text, this book is an easy read. It merits the attention of both military historians and lay readers interested in matters military.