Sahib, p.29Richard Holmes
of the mate’s mess there was a Madras cadet named Ross, a man at least forty years of age, who had been a captain in the King’s service, but reduced to such distress as to be obliged to sell his commission and accept a cadetship in the Company’s service.121
Commissions in the Company’s service were never bought and sold, but were obtained solely by interest. In August 1768, William Hickey’s father, understandably exasperated by his son’s repeated feckless behaviour, and recently widowed to boot, told him:
Since I last saw you I have procured for you the situation of a cadet in the East India Company’s Service; and God grant you may do better in the future than you have hitherto. And now leave me; I feel too weak and exhausted to say more.
He was later taken to see Sir George Colebrook, who had nominated him as a cadet. ‘The baronet received me with great politeness,’ he wrote,
telling my father it afforded him pleasure to have had it in his power to comply with his request. He said he had appointed me for Madras, in preference to Bengal, which was considered by many to be the most advantageous for a military man, because the Coast of Coromandel was then the seat of an active war with Hyder Ally, and consequently more likely to give promotion to a young soldier.
Hickey was summoned to India House and was:
called into the committee room after waiting of near two hours in the lobby, at which my pride was greatly offended, I saw three old dons sitting close to the fire, having by them a large table, with pens, ink, paper, and a number of books laying upon it. Having surveyed me, as I conceived, rather contemptuously, one of them in such a snivelling tone that I could scarcely understand him, said:
‘Well, young gentleman, what is your age?’
I having answered ‘Nineteen’ he continued:
‘Have you ever served, I mean been in the army? Though I presume from your age and appearance that you cannot.’
I replied, I had not.
‘Can you go through the manual exercise?’
‘Then you must take care and learn it.’ I bowed.
‘You know the terms on which you enter our service?’
‘Are you satisfied therewith?’
A clerk, was writing at the table, then told me I might withdraw; whereupon, I made my congé and retired. From the committee room I went to Mr Coggan’s office, who, after making me sit down for near an hour, presented me with my appointment as a cadet and an order for me to be received and accommodated with a passage to Madras … But another document, wholly unexpected on my part, leased me much more than either of the others. This was a cheque upon the paymaster for twenty guineas … to purchase bedding and other necessaries.
As his father had already set him up with these things, Hickey generously decided that he could not dispose of the donation ‘better than in the society of a few unfortunate females’. Accordingly he got Sally Brent, a lady in business on her own account, to arrange a party which eventually cost more than the Company had so thoughtfully provided.122
Fred Roberts’s father was a senior officer in the Company’s service, and was able to secure him a commission in the Bengal Artillery. Although Henry Daly’s father was a Queen’s officer, he was serving in India and had just been given brevet promotion for gallantry at the storming of Ghazni, which helped secure young Henry his commission in 1840. In 1849 Henry Havelock was trying to procure a commission for his son Joshua but, as usual, had no money to buy one. There was nothing to be had from the Horse Guards, he wrote, so he ‘resolved to besiege the India House. I have personally asked the aid of eighteen of the directors … and though I have got little but civil speech, without the slightest promise of an appointment, I am resolved, with God’s blessing, to persevere.’ His visit went well:
Though a Queen’s officer, my claim on the score of services was everywhere listened to with attention, and my name and career seemed to be more familiar to the bankers, merchants, civilians and ship-captains of Leadenhall-Street, than to the … aristocratic soldiers of Horse Guards, whose immediate concern they were.123
And a cadetship duly materialised.
There were times when the Company displayed a strong sense of responsibility towards its employees and their progeny. Major General A. Monin, who died at Trichnopoly in 1839, at the age of sixty-five, was commissioned at the age of five. His father had been killed in action, and the grant of a child commission was one way in which the Company could give what was in effect a family allowance.124 In another case, that of Hercules, one of James Skinner’s sons, the Company made it clear that it would make an unusual concession as a reward for Skinner’s services. The young man was given local rank in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Contingent in 1832 after Lord William Bentinck assured the Court of Directors that young Skinner had ‘lately returned from England, where, for the last seven or eight years, he has been receiving the education of an English gentleman … his conduct and character are unexceptionable’. And then, on 3 December 1851, the Court of Directors told the Governor of Madras: ‘As a mark of respect for the memory of the late Lieut-Col Skinner CB, we have much pleasure in giving you our authority to confer upon his son, an unattached commission as captain in the army of your presidency.’125 (James Skinner was himself of mixed race, and seven sons were the result of relationships which reflected his ‘wholly Mughal’ lifestyle.)
Family tradition and the contacts this involved were important throughout. Of those officers in a sample group in T. A. Heathcote’s The Indian Army, who listed their fathers’ professions (542), nearly half were connected with India in some way, and of those with military fathers (252) there were eighteen sets of brothers. All four Bellew brothers joined the Bengal army: two died in India aged eighteen and twenty-five; one was killed in the First Afghan War and one retired to draw his pension. All ten sons of George Battye of the Bengal Civil Service became soldiers: the second and the three youngest were killed in action. Lieutenant Quentin Battye died at Delhi commanding the Guides cavalry, gut-shot in his first battle, murmuring ‘Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori’; Major Wigram Battye was killed commanding the same unit in 1879; Major Leigh Battye was ‘barbarously hacked to death’ on the frontier in 1888, and Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Battye was killed in the Chitral relief expedition of 1895. Richmond Battye’s eldest son, also called Richmond, was commissioned into the British army in 1889 but transferred to the Indian army, and he too was killed on the frontier in 1897.
Neville Chamberlain had been a cadet at Woolwich, but wisely resigned when it appeared ‘extremely improbable’ that he would pass the final exam; his family then secured him a Bengal cadetship. His brother Crawford had gone to Haileybury and was destined for the Indian Civil Service, but decided to join the Bengal army instead. ‘You cannot tell how happy I was hearing that Crawford’s appointment was through,’ wrote Neville to their mother, ‘though it has made the difference of his being a poor man instead of a rich one … Oh, how happy I shall be if we can be together; we should be able to talk of home sweet home, and it would in a measure take off being so far away.’126
Charles MacGregor, however, had to warn his mother to:
prepare yourself for the worst. The list of survivors [from Lucknow] has come: in vain have I looked for the name of MacGregor. Oh God! To think that I should have to write such a thing – to think that poor Edward is cut off, so young …
He was given his brother’s sword, ‘all covered with blood, and the hilt and scabbard are all dented as if with bullets, showing that it has not remained idle in its sheath … ’.127 Brother followed brother, and son followed father. On 16 August 1849 the Bombay Times noted that: ‘Major Mynin, who led the Fusiliers up the breach at Multan, is the son of Colonel Mynin, who, exactly half a century ago, led the flank companies of the Bombay Army at the storming of Seringapatam.’
Richard Purvis had served in the navy for two years when he decided to become a soldier, and though his clergyman father w
T. A. Heathcote’s careful analysis of officers of the Bengal army over the period 1820–34 shows that:
They were predominantly drawn from the ranks of the British middle class, and some were from working-class families. A few were from titled families, but these were either younger sons who had to make their own way in the world, or from the nobility and landed gentry of Ireland, which was much less affluent than that of England. Out of 2,000 officers, one was the son of a marquis, four were sons of earls, one the son of a viscount, six sons of barons, and sixty-six sons of baronets. Only one officer succeeded to a peerage, the second son of the Earl of Carnwath. Six officers inherited baronetcies, but only three were eldest sons. On the other hand, a large number of officer’s mothers, and rather fewer of their wives, were the daughters of titled families.130
Many officers came from military and naval families, and almost as many were in the Church, for it was no easy matter for the Reverend Quiverfull, himself dependent on the patron of his living, to find gentlemanly occupations for his sons. At the other social extreme, a number of officers had tradesmen for their fathers, including three hairdressers, two hatters, a grocer, a saddler, an upholsterer, four drapers, four booksellers and a Nottingham hosier who obtained Bengal cadetships for two of his boys.
However, the contrast with officers of the Queen’s army was not as stark as was once thought. Across the period perhaps a quarter of British officers came from the nobility and gentry, with what one officer called ‘private gentlemen without the advantage of birth or friends’, making up most of the remainder. It was not, then, the case of the Queen’s service being full of noblemen’s sons and the Company’s of tradesmen’s, more of a very broad spectrum with the former tending to congregate at one end and the latter at the other, but with some overlap: one of Havelock’s boys was in the Company’s service, and another then a lieutenant in HM’s 10th Foot, won the VC during the Mutiny.
When HM’s 32nd Foot embarked for India in May 1846, its officers included three sons of landowners, eight of officers or former officers, and fourteen of a variety of middle-class occupations, including sons of a bishop, two clergymen, an Indian judge, and an East India Company civil servant, a colonial administrator, a Canadian businessman, a City merchant, a West India merchant and a bank manager. When the regiment fought at Lucknow it included three officers who had risen from the ranks, its adjutant, paymaster, and a Company commander, Captain Bernard McCabe, commissioned for gallantry at Sobraon, where he had planted a colour of HM’s 31st on the Sikh rampart. The abiding difference was that most of the officers of HM’s 32nd could have afforded to buy their first commissions, and most of those in the Company’s service could not. When we see just how important money was to the Company’s officers we should not be in the least surprised: most of them would not have entered that service had they had sufficient money in the first place.
Until 1798 officers of the Company’s army were commissioned without the need for any formal training. That same year ten East India cadetships were created at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich, where gunner and sapper officers were trained for the royal service. Although the number was later increased it could not satisfy demand, and in 1809 the Company formed its own military seminary at Addiscombe. The syllabus of its two-year course closely followed that of the Royal Military Academy, and although it was intended primarily for engineer and artillery cadets, some of its graduates went to the infantry, though there was no more an obligation for them to do so than there was for young men destined for the royal infantry and cavalry to attend the Royal Military College, established at Sandhurst in 1796. There were frequent fights in the town, and cadets often got themselves into trouble in which drink, money and women were usually involved. In 1833, John Low, having helped his scapegrace nephew Alec out of ‘some little debt’, heard that Alec’s brother was in worse trouble: ‘Robert Deas was expelled from Addiscombe at the beginning of the Christmas vacation, for repeated acts of drunkenness & it was only two days ago that we heard that the Directors had confirmed the sentence.’131
There was briefly a military college at Barasat in Bengal where cadets were taught drill, tactics and Hindustani, but such was its endemic indiscipline that it only survived from 1804–11. This did not much improve the behaviour of the newly commissioned. The depot at Chinsurah was home to most ensigns arriving in Bengal: it was a ‘dull, dreary, mildewy-looking place, without any possible entertainment except snipe shooting in the neighbouring rice-fields, where snakes abounded and bad fever was to be easily caught’. There was a church twenty yards from the verandah in front of the officers’ quarters, its inviting clock used so often for unofficial pistol practice that it was stopped for ever at 11.15.132
Some cadets were commissioned before they reached India, but others had to wait until they arrived there, when they might, like Albert Hervey, receive a commission within a matter of days or, like the luckless Fulwood Smeardon, have to wait some time. When the Company’s army was expanding at a pace, an ensign’s commission and first promotion could follow quickly: Richard Purvis was an ensign on 18 August 1804 and a lieutenant on 21 September the same year. Thereafter promotion was strictly by regimental seniority, which meant that it tended to be slower than in the British army. There was an obsessive interest in seniority: Lieutenant George Rybot described one of his brother officers as ‘a walking army list’, and another subaltern carried an army list throughout the Second Sikh War ‘to scratch out the men as they are knocked over’.133
One consequence of promotion by seniority was that the Company’s officers tended to be older than those in HM’s service. In 1855 the average age of serving majors in the Company’s armies was forty-nine, while for HM’s regiments in India it was forty-two. This slow promotion meant that colonels might be in their sixties and generals in their seventies, giving a measure of support to the frequent assertions of Queen’s officers that the Company’s senior officers were simply too old.
It was, however, possible for the enterprising to gain accelerated promotion by leaving their parent regiments and joining irregular units. Charles MacGregor opted to serve in Hodson’s Horse after his own regiment mutinied, and, although he was not yet eighteen and had only a year’s service, he was soon able to report:
I am getting on in my promotion. I am now eighth lieutenant – in a month or two I should be seventh. If my luck keeps up, I shall, at this rate, be a captain in about four years more … I shall only be twenty-two, and having got my Company, I should be eligible for brevet promotions, CB-ships, and all kinds of things.134
The less swashbuckling might club together in a ‘subscription system’ to induce their seniors to retire early. Although the practice was officially illegal, the authorities connived as it was one way of meeting the incessant torrent of demands for promotion. In 1836 Albert Hervey wrote:
At the present rate, many of us can never expect to be majors under thirty-five years service, and then what shall we be fit for? Nothing but the invalid or pension establishment! If our commanding officers of regiments were more effective, the army would be also; but at
The best account of the way the subscription system worked is to be found in the papers of Captain Willoughby Brassey, 2nd Bombay European Light Infantry, in the National Army Museum. He offered to retire from the service on receipt of the sum of 11,000 rupees from his juniors, expecting the senior lieutenant to stump up 1,800 rupees to become a captain, while other officers contributed according to an excruciatingly complex sliding scale which reflected the number of months of promotion gained. This sort of scheme was always vulnerable to impecunious youngsters, who would profit whether they subscribed or not, refusing to pay, when ‘the difference, as share calculated, must be charged to all subscribers to the step [up in rank] or paid out of any fund, as may hereafter be agreed upon’.136
When the Company’s army was transferred to the Crown after the Mutiny there was widespread disaffection amongst its soldiers, many of whom did not agree that the engagement they had undertaken with the one could be extended to the other without payment of a bounty. This was the so-called ‘White Mutiny’ so well described by the historian Peter Stanley, which saw outbreaks of indiscipline across most ex-Company regiments and led to the execution of Private William Johnson, shot by firing squad at Dinapore on 12 November 1860, for disobeying a lawful command. Many men who had served with distinction in the Company’s Europeans left the service disgruntled, and many of those who soldiered on in the British army found that its ways were not their own: a sergeant narrowly escaped prosecution for saying Jack, will you loop up that tent?’ rather than ‘Jones, loop up the tent.’137 The Company’s artillery and engineers became part of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; infantry regiments were embodied in the British line, and became battalions of county regiments in 1881; and the three recently raised regiments of Bengal European cavalry were translated into the 19th, 20th and 21st Hussars.138
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