Sahib, p.31
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       Sahib, p.31

           Richard Holmes

  Indian officers also helped provide a cultural and linguistic conduit between British officers and Indian soldiers, and in this respect they were much more than simply junior officers. In industrial terms, perhaps, they were part foreman and part trades-union representative; to British officers they were a combination of political adviser, sounding-board and intermediary. And when the system worked well, as it so often did, they were more than this: across the long glacis of culture, language and caste, they were comrades, friends, even brothers. Second-Lieutenant Francis Yeats-Brown was serving alongside Ressaldar Hamzullah Khan, and after their commanding officer had inspected the squadron’s horses, declaring that some of their tails wanted pulling, Hamzullah Khan said:

  I have known the Colonel Sahib for thirty years … and never yet have the tails of any troop been right. Not since we enlisted the first men and bought the first horses.

  Were you here when the regiment was raised? [said Yeats-Brown]

  Yes, Hazoor. I was a syce then, for I was too small and ugly to be a soldier. The Colonel Sahib was adjutant. After five years he enlisted me as a fighting man. Before I die I shall be Ressaldar Major.

  After the Mutiny the term ‘Indian officer’ was replaced by Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer, VCO for short, and when the British army standardised its officer badges of rank, jemadars wore the two stars of a lieutenant, subadars and ressaldars a captain’s three stars, and subadar-majors and ressaldar-majors a major’s crown. When Francis Yeats-Brown joined the 17th Cavalry at Bannu, on the North-West Frontier, in early 1906, he was puzzled to meet a fierce-looking Indian with a red beard, ‘wearing an old khaki jacket with the three stars of a captain on the shoulder, but his legs were encased in Jodhpur breeches and his feet in black slippers’. Yeats-Brown was interviewed by the commanding officer, and then the adjutant took him in hand.

  We walked over to a tumble-down mud hut, which was the Adjutant’s office.

  A group of big, bearded men sat there on a bench. They wore voluminous white robes and held walking-sticks between their knees. Another group, without walking-sticks, squatted. The squatters were called to attention by the senior NCO. The sitters rose, saluted the Adjutant and looked at me sternly. I was introduced and shook hands with Rissaldar Major Mahomed Amin Khan, Jamadar Hazrat Gul, Rissaldar Sultan Khan, Rissaldar Shams-ud-din and Woordie-Major Rukan Din Khan – names that made my head reel.

  They all said ‘Salaam, Hazoor’ (to which I answered ‘Salaam, Sahib’) except one Indian Officer, who disconcerted me by saying ‘Janab ’Ali,’ which I afterwards discovered meant ‘Exalted Threshold of Serenity’, or more literally, ‘High Doorstep’.

  In the course of these introductions, [Ressaldar] Hamzullah [Khan] arrived. We shook hands. He eyed me narrowly, cackled with laughter and made a remark to the Adjutant in Pushtu, the language of the frontier. The Adjutant translated.

  ‘He wants to know if you can ride. He says you are the right build. And he says you are a pei-makhe halak – a milk-faced boy.’

  I was anything but pleased.155


  M OST SUCCESSFUL ARMIES work because they appeal to two sides of human nature. A theologian might argue that human beings are drawn between logos, the world of the practical and provable, and mythos, the less easily defined realm of myth and legend. Some people live at extremes: on the one hand as a worldly individual for whom materialism is all, or on the other, perhaps, as a monk, nun, or religious fundamentalist for whom this world means nothing. But most of us, and soldiers are no exception, have a foot in both camps, drawn on by the hope of material reward as well as by a complex mix of motives which tap deep into the human spirit. In 1806, when the future Duke of Wellington, a major general at last, was asked how he could bear to command a brigade at peaceful Hastings after his triumph at Assaye, he replied:

  I am nimmukwallah, as we say in the East, that is, I have ate of the King’s salt, and, therefore, I conceive it to be my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and where the King or his government may think it proper to employ me.

  Underlying the whole notion of military service in India was a sense of mutual obligation, an ill-defined contract bearing on both parties. British officers and men, and the sepoys who served alongside them, were influenced by both moral and material considerations. If the symbolic gesture of eating one’s employer’s salt was important, so too was the conviction that pay and allowances should be both adequate and prompt. It was such practical considerations induced soldiers to volunteer to spend the best days of their lives away from home in an unhealthy climate. For sepoys, pay – just below that of a skilled worker for private soldiers, rising to a very substantial income, say ten times as much, for a senior subadar – featured particularly prominently in motivating men both to enlist and to serve on.

  For junior officers, NCOs and private soldiers, service in India was always a mixed blessing, though Major J. A. Bayley of HM’s 52nd Light Infantry, who served in India between 1843–58, believed that a private’s pay was quite adequate:

  The lowest pay which a private soldier in India receives is £1 a month, from which the regular stoppages are trifling in amount. He gets his rations gratis, and at the canteen is allowed only a certain quantity of liquor; so, there being no public houses, as in England, some of them soon find their purses growing heavy, and begin for the first time to invest in the ‘Regimental Savings Bank’, where they get a small interest for their money. Some who know a trade, practice it, whenever there is an opportunity; and in this way, many a man at the expiration of his term of service, finds that he has a good sum to start with on getting his discharge.156

  However, things rarely looked this rosy from the private’s point of view. Nathaniel Bancroft, who joined the Bengal Horse Artillery as ‘a very small shaver’ of nine in 1833, discovered that a recruit had to pay a total of 51 rupees to have his uniform altered and fitted, and to buy a stable jacket, cap, boots, spurs and ‘summer kit’. In addition:

  A recruit on joining his troop was made to pay his share towards mess tables, forms, mess utensils, copper boilers, and provide himself with a cot and box. I leave you to guess how long a recruit was under stoppages, having only Rs 4 of a monthly balance to pay off all his debts.157

  George Carter noted that, while promotion to sergeant brought more money,

  The outfit of a sergeant in this Regiment is now very expensive indeed; his undress jacket costs him Rupees 44–6–0: The collar is ornamented with a pair of silver grenades: along the front instead of buttons there’s a row of six dozen roly-poly buttons of silver (the jacket being hooked from top of collar to bottom of jacket) round the bottom of the jacket, up both sides, round the bottom of the collar and around the peaks of the cuffs runs a narrow silver gimp cording, and the jacket is competed in silver gorgeousness by a pair of undress wings laced round with silver lace an inch wide & having silver grenades and laurels in the centre. Besides this, though Govt issued good substantial sashes, our sergts must needs in Lahore pay six rupees for crimson silk ones which can be got in the city of Agra for three rupees and half.158

  For a sergeant in a good regiment, there seemed little alternative to that bazaar-bought sash: dress reflected status, and cost money.

  Although Company’s officers did not purchase their commissions, their pay, generous by Indian standards, barely met their living expenses for their first years of service. For the infantry – the lowest-paid arm of the service – in 1855, an ensign’s monthly pay and allowances amounted to 203 rupees (13 shillings and 2 pence); a captain received 415 rupees (£17 shillings and 2 pence) and a colonel 1,295 rupees (£4 5 shillings). These were significantly lower than the rates paid to officers in HM’s forces, where an ensign received 8 shillings a day, a captain 10 shillings and 4 pence, and a colonel over £1 and 12 shillings per day.159 The cost of living in India was far cheaper than in Britain: in 1830, for instance, a lieutenant in Bengal might spend about 275 rupees per month, including: 8 rupees
to the pension fund to provide for widows and orphans; 40 rupees for rent; 45 rupees for meals; 35 rupees for drink; 6 rupees for candles; 59 rupees for servants; 6 rupees for cigars; and 17 rupees for fodder for his horse. However, with a monthly income of some 365 rupees, there was little room for manoeuvre, and many young officers ran up substantial debts. Indeed, one of the reasons for soldiering on to reach field rank was their desire to clear the debts they had incurred as young officers.160

  The financial burden of procuring the necessities of Indian campaigning was heavy, even for officers of HM’s regiments. When Lieutenant Walter Campbell reached India he discovered that a minimum requirement was:

  A Tent – single-poled for a subaltern, and double poled for a captain or field officer – with two or four bullocks to carry it, according to its size.

  A portable camp-table, chair and basin-stand.

  A camp-cot, consisting of a light framework of wood, with a rattan bottom, and a thin cotton mattress, in which is packed the chair, and other light articles – the whole being carried by two ‘coolies’ on their heads.

  A good horse – or two of them if you can afford it – with his attendants … a horse-keeper and grass-cutter, one of each being required for each horse.

  A sufficient number of bullocks to carry your baggage.

  Two servants; a ‘doobash’ or head man, and a ‘matey-boy’.

  Two ‘cowrie-baskets’ containing a sufficient stock of tea, sugar, coffee, brandy, and wax candles, carried by a ‘coolie’, suspended from the end of an elastic slip of bamboo.

  A couple of hog-spears …

  A hunting knife …

  A hunting cap, strong in proportion to the respect you have for your skull – a thin plate of iron let into the crown is not a bad thing in strong country.

  A good stock of cheroots and plenty of ammunition – it being taken for granted that you are already provided with a gun, a rifle and a telescope.

  Some men, who study their comfort rather than their purse, indulge in a palanquin, a Chinese mat, a tent carpet, and many other little luxuries; but the few things of this kind a man hampers himself with the better.161

  Unless he had a generous family or patron an officer would have to borrow money to buy all this. Subalterns on average owed 6–7,000 rupees, servicing the debt as subalterns and captains and eventually paying off the principal when they became majors. First-hand accounts abound with tales of the paucity of cash and the inevitability of bills. ‘An ensign’s pay is only 181 rupees 5 annas a month,’ lamented Albert Hervey, ‘out of which he has to pay his house rent, messing, servants and household expenses … ’.162 Indeed there were constant complaints from British officers and officials that their salaries were devoured by servants, and that the peculiar restrictions of the caste system meant that it was impossible to get one servant to do another’s work. Bessie Fenton, a clergyman’s daughter from Northern Ireland who went to India as an army wife in 1826, wrote that: ‘The retinue of servants you are forced to keep is absurd, but [it is] one of the tyrannies of custom that cannot be remedied.’163

  Rear Admiral John Purvis wrote to the newly commissioned Richard Fortescue Purvis in words all too familiar to many fathers:

  I cannot account for your being in debt … I had every reason to think after the complete outfit you had and afterwards on your arrival in India £125 in hand, would have placed you comfortable and easy; I have no money to spare; what little I have I saved in the course of a long and fatiguing service; I inherited no riches from my parents, and they never paid me a quarter in my whole life as I have already done for you.164

  Richard told his father that he hated being in debt, but asked him to consider ‘the great misfortune it must have been for me to see my brother officers with every comfort about them that could make them happy and myself not even able to make any return for the civilities which were occasionally shown me by them’.165

  Another factor that brought debt surging in over the narrow freeboard between income and expenditure was the need for young officers to furnish themselves with uniform and equipment. Richard Purvis thought it could be done for between £100–£150 in 1805; and in 1831 a committee put the sum at between 1,500–1,800 rupees. A substantial chunk of this outlay went towards procuring the whole paraphernalia of camp kit. In 1833, wrote Albert Hervey:

  My friend with whom I resided, procured for me the requisites for a sub; to wit, a camp cot with mattress and pillows, mosquito curtains, and water holders for the legs of the bedstead … the latter [to guard] against the visits of the little red ants, which, without those articles, will swarm a poor man’s bed, get into his hair, and bite like so many little fiends!

  Besides the above, I had a folding camp-table, and a large chair, a queer-looking article, still strong and serviceable. I also purchased a brass basin on a tripod stand, very useful in marching, and a well-known accompaniment to every officer’s kit.

  As a bit of horseflesh is indispensable to a sub’s ‘turn out’, my friend bought me a stout Pegu pony, with a saddle and bridle.166

  This, it should be noted, was a very modest establishment: richer or perhaps more gullible officers had whole inventories of punch ladles and strainers, tongue scrapers, rat-traps, card tables, Beetel-nut boxes and muffineers, along with a veritable arsenal of swords (regulation and fanciful), pistols (service and duelling), fowling pieces and hunting rifles.

  Richard Purvis made a serious attempt to prune his expenses as sharply as he could and then, by great good luck, was given command of an outpost, which brought added pay, ‘by which means and with the plans of economy which I had adopted, and to this day continue to pursue’ he was able to decline a loan of £100 from his father.167 Once his finances were secure his mind turned again to the bare necessities of life, and he wrote to his stepmother asking her to spend a recent gift on a shotgun.

  Let it be single barrelled and let it be bought from the maker’s shop. The makers must be either Nock, Manton or Mortimer, whichever your friend may have the best opinion of. Let it be in a case, and as I am particularly anxious to have it Really good, I dare say my father will have no objection to your adding a guinea or two if requisite … Let my Crest or Cypher be engraved both on the gun and the case to prevent it being changed … Do, my dear Madam, use all your utmost endeavours to hinder my being disappointed, as I have set my heart upon it.168

  Officers (and, no less to the point, their wives) were surrounded by things they felt they simply had to have. Bessie Fenton affirmed that: ‘You never hear anyone say “I must not buy this or order that, for I cannot afford it.” People get all and everything they fancy and require, and let the future and ten per cent pay the debt.’169 In 1806, Richard John Purvis (cousin of Richard Fortescue Purvis) admitted to a friend, Lieutenant John Home, that ‘you have had a sample of my saving cash, but by God I can’t do it, it is all nonsense talking, and I get hold of the money and I can’t keep it’. Lieutenant Home at once demonstrated that he too suffered from the same disease:

  I picked up a very neat and smooth medicine chest, the same kind as the one I was asked 80Rs up in Calcutta. I got it for 56 which is a great difference considering the places. I should not have got it so cheap but the man has lately set up in opposition to another merchant and sells his goods much cheaper on that account … I should not have taken it, tho’ I had not the money to pay for it, but it would have been the enormous sum of 4Rs dearer.170

  Drink, women and extravagant living could make huge additional inroads into officers’ salaries that were enormous by native standards, though in 1824 civil servant’s wife Fanny Parkes was keen to come to their defence:

  I wish much that those who exclaim against our extravagances here, know how essential to a man’s comfort, to his quiet, and to his health it is, to have everything good about him – a good house, good furniture, good carriages, good horses, good wine for his friends, good humour, good servants and a good quantity of them, good credit and a good appointment.171

  Horses were as exciting to young officers then as sports cars are today. Even the staid Major Le Mesurier took ‘the chestnut waler mare “Julia” … and the grey waler gelding “Bobby”’ off to Kandahar with him in 1880, reinforcing them with a riding-camel, ‘in the care of Biluch, my old Shikari [who] reported having a severe tussle with the camel in the [railway] truck, as the beast took fright while the train was moving’.172 The pony Fazl Shah was added on the road, and Rover, a Newfoundland dog, made up the menagerie. Charles MacGregor’s diary of the Second Afghan War is speckled with comments on the difficulty of keeping up with the hard-riding General Roberts, who hurtled about on his trademark grey, Vonolel, named after a frontier chieftain. In April 1880 MacGregor wrote: ‘Off at two on big waler. Roberts, as usual, galloping over stones regardless of road. Thought my horse going queer.’ On the following day a new charger arrived: ‘he is a fine horse, but has a bad head, is in poor condition. I hope he is quiet, and does not buckjump.’ The beast was not a success, but happily his new general, Sir Donald Stewart, ‘does not like galloping’.173

  These horses all had to be bought and paid for. The hard-up Henry Havelock wrote in 1846 of a veterinary disaster: ‘I have lost, by rupture of the intestines, my ever to be lamented horse … for whom I gave 1,400 rupees last year on the banks of the Sutledge, and his place has to be supplied, where, I know not.’174 Walter Campbell’s brother gave him the Arab colt ‘Turquoise’, and the creature was so precious that when no cover was available:

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