Sahib, p.33Richard Holmes
Enter three of four banditti of HM’s—Regiment. Faces black with powder, cross belts speckled with blood, coats stuffed out with all sorts of valuables. And now commenced the work of plunder under our very eyes. The first door resisted every sort of violence till the rifle-muzzle was placed to the lock, which was sent flying by the discharge of the piece. The men rushed in with a shout, and soon they came out with iron caskets of jewels, iron boxes and safes, and wooden boxes full of arms crusted with gold and precious stones. One fellow, having burst open a leaden-looking lid, which was in reality of solid silver, drew out an armlet of emeralds, and diamonds, and pearls, so large, that I really believed they were not real stones, and that they formed part of a chandelier chain.
‘What will your honour give me for these?’ said he. ‘I’ll take a hundred rupees on chance!’
Oh! wretched fate. I had not a penny in my pocket, nor had any of us. No one has in India. His servant keeps his money. My Simon was far away, in the quiet camp …
‘I will give you a hundred rupees; but it is right to tell you if the stones are real they are worth a great deal more.’
‘Bedad, I won’t grudge them to your honour, and you’re welcome to them for a hundred rupees. Here, take them!’
‘Well then, you must come to me at the Head Quarters camp tonight, or give me your name and company and I’ll send the money to you.’
‘Oh! Faith, your honour, how do where I’ll be this blessed night? It’s may be dead I’d be, wid a bullet in me body. I’ll take two gold mores’ (mohurs at 32s each) and a bottle of rum on the spot. But shure, it’s not safe to have any but ready money transactions these times.’
The man gave them each a small jewel ‘as a little keepsake’, but left with the necklace. All around the scene of plunder was ‘indescribable’. Yet when, the following month, the formal sale of property was held under the supervision of the prize agents, Russell ‘saw nothing of any value, and it struck me that the things that were sold realized most ridiculously large prices’.193
Things had been rather better organised in Delhi. There, reported Mrs Muter:
agents who had been elected before the capture were diligently employed gathering the booty, but the greater portion was lost through the ignorance of its whereabouts …
For a short period it became a most exciting pursuit, and my husband was actively and successfully engaged. After an early breakfast, he would start, with a troop of coolies, armed picks, crowbars and measuring lines. A house said to contain treasure would be allotted for the day’s proceedings, and the business would commence by a careful survey of the premises … By a careful measurement of the roofs above and the walls below, any concealed space could be detected. Then the walls were broken through, and if there was a secret room or a built up niche or recess it would be discovered, and some large prizes rewarded their search.
On one occasion I had asked a few friends to lunch, expecting Colonel Muter home, when a guest informed me that there was no chance of his return as a large treasure he could not leave had been found. It was late when he came back with thirteen wagons loaded with spoil, and, among other valuables, eighty thousand pounds …
We heard rumours from time to time that some of the searchers amongst those no one would have suspected of the crime, had ‘annexed’ to themselves articles of value.194
Edward Vibart was amazed by his own restraint. At Delhi he and his men ‘found some thirteen or fourteen wooden boxes filled with all kinds of gold and silver articles, coins and precious stones of more or less value, and took them to the prize agent’. This worthy, perhaps nonplussed by Vibart’s honesty, allowed him to take a handful of jewels which he subsequently had set in gold ‘as presents to my relations’. It remained ‘a matter of regret to me that I did not take advantage of such an excellent opportunity to select something of greater value’.195 Another of those who indulged in some annexation, this time at Lucknow, was Captain Charles Germon, whose wife Maria proudly recorded that: ‘Dear Charlie came home quite lame … He brought me some beautiful china and a splendid punch bowl, all his own looting.’196
It is evident that, while looting had always been common in Indian warfare, British attitudes during the Mutiny encouraged it on an unprecedented scale. The long legal dispute that followed the seizure of prizes by the Army of the Deccan in 1817–18 showed that courts were then properly anxious to differentiate between the enemy’s public property (which could legitimately be seized), and the private property of enemy combatants (which could not). There was no such niceness during the Mutiny. And although, as we saw at Seringapatam, soldiers had sold loot to their officers well before the Mutiny, there were repeated attempts to reduce looting, and at least some officers took their responsibility for prizes seriously.
Ensign Alfred Bassano, of HM’s 32nd Foot, was at Multan in 1849 during and after its capture:
Three sections of my company were detailed to occupy Mulraj’s house. Here we kicked up the devil’s delight. Wine was there in abundance. But we spilt most of it to prevent the men from getting drunk. We also rummaged about, finding boxes full of gold and silver coins, strings of pearls and bars of gold said to be worth fifty pounds each. Major Wheeler calculated that we had at least fifty thousand pounds-worth of gold! Officers in the fort fingered a little, including Brigadier Harvey, who was reported officially, but none of our officers cribbed anything of real value except a few curious gold coins of which we made no secret. We had too great a regard for our characters and commissions to be tempted into roguery. But the Governor General has, however, decided that Multan is to be looted for the benefit of the troops. So I look forward to some prize money.197
Other soldiers in his regiment were, however, not as scrupulous. Private Robert Waterfield recalled that:
one man, a Nottingham chap, who was loaded with gold from head to foot – how to escape the prize agents he hardly knew … acting on the impulse of the moment he ran with his head full butt against the corner of a house, which made a severe cut in his head. The blood ran all over his face, and he reported himself as having received a severe injury from accident. A dhooly was brought, and he was conveyed out of the fort, a few thousand pounds richer than he went in.
Waterfield rose from bed to see his company march into camp: ‘Some of them could scarcely walk, for their boots were crammed with gold mohurs.’ Waterfield’s brother, a corporal in the same company, was on quarter-guard that night, so had no chance to steal anything himself, but the lads on guard were all given a cut by their comrades: ‘My brother had a great deal given to him, for he presented me with 200 Rupees … the equivalent to £20 British.’198
Sergeant John Pearman had mixed fortunes after the battle of Gujrat in 1849. He went into town with half a dozen troopers. They ‘came across an old money changer and made him tell us where he had put his money, but he would not say, until we showed him our pistols, when he gave us a bag of gold, about one quart, with silver’. An officer at once appeared and told them to take the bag to the prize depot, but ‘we walked off and left him to do what he liked with it … He could not tell what regiment we belonged to as we were in white shirts and drawers and pugerie caps.’ The following day he stole a fine Arab horse, although its groom begged him ‘Nay, nay sahib, nay puckeroe [steal].’ He sold it to an officer for two flasks of grog and 100 rupees, and immediately converted the cash into drink.
Even better luck beckoned when he was riding out on reconnaissance with Private Johnny Grady, and they came across a two-bullock hackery with a chest of rupees aboard. Both men filled their saddle holsters with gold coins and blew up the rest. He maintained that this was
the only way to get prize money, for the Company only gave us six months batta: £3 16s od in all. We made what we could and did very well, that is if we had not spent it in a very foolish way.
He thought that HM’s 10th Foot had done best of all, although Sergeant Williams had been given a hundred lashes and reduced to the ranks for stealing a valuable
Garnet Wolseley had strong views about looting. ‘Throughout my soldiering career I have never been a looter,’ he declared.
Not from any squeamish notions as to the iniquity of the game, for I believe that, as a rule, to the victor should belong the spoils of war, but in the interests of order and discipline. It is destruction to all that is best in the military feeling of the British army for the officer to pillage alongside the soldier, and possibly to dispute with him the ownership of some valuable prize … I have no hesitation in saying that the loot secured by the rank and file of our army in Lucknow at that time was very injurious to its military efficient and affected its discipline for a considerable time afterwards.200
However, loot, like prize money, pay and batta, did play a fundamental part in the motivation of British troops in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It helped persuade some men, notably the Company’s officers and the soldiers of the Company’s European regiments, to join the army in the first place. It gave most soldiers a personal stake in the successful outcome of a campaign, and, with luck, it could transform the finances of men from the commander in chief downwards. But when roundshot thrummed overhead, gusts of grapeshot winnowed rank and file like chaff, and cavalry whooped in with spear and tulwar, then other factors loomed rather larger, and it is to these that we now turn our attention.
THE SMOKE OF THE FUSILLADE
Then belching blunderbuss answered back
The Snider’s snarl and the carbine’s crack,
And the blithe revolver began to sing
To the blade that twanged on the locking-ring,
And the brown flesh blued where the bay ‘net kissed,
As the steel shot back with a wrench and a twist,
… And over the smoke of the fusillade
The Peacock Banner staggered and swayed.
KIPLING, ‘The Ballad of Boh Da Thone’
FIELDS OF BATTLE
IT WAS UNDENIABLY a bloody business. British conquest of India, Burma and Sri Lanka took a dozen substantial wars; there were two major invasions of Afghanistan, and almost constant operations on the North-West Frontier. The Company sent troops to the First China War of 1840–42, the Persian War of 1856–57, the Second China War of 1857–60, and there were Indian troops on the Abyssinian expedition of 1867–68. Rudyard Kipling’s fictionalised account of the ambush by dacoits of a government bullock train in Burma in the 1860s makes the point that even when India and its dependencies were notionally at peace there was still endemic violence in which the army became involved. Big wars and small ones, raids, expeditions, sieges, assaults, riots, nick-of-time rescues and occasional catastrophes, all combined to give soldiering in India a sharp edge.
The North-West Frontier was always more or less lively, with actions ranging in size from the poetic ‘scrimmage in a border station’ to major operations such as the Chitral relief expedition of 1895 which saw a full division of British and Indian troops engage against tribesmen. Here the enemy was tough, warlike and resourceful, punishing the least mistake and remorselessly savaging any unwise deployment. In another action on the frontier, in 1897, a force was pursuing an elusive lashkar, or tribal band, when the enemy doubled back and attacked the strong posts built to cover the British lines of communication. Although the garrison of the little fort at Saragarhi – twenty-one men of the 36th Sikhs – was well armed and determined, it was simply swamped. In story books, defenders fight to the last man and the last round, but they do so less often in real life. Here, however, the Sikhs – their resolute signaller in telephone contact with Fort Lockhart until the last seconds of his life – would not even consider surrender. One, firing steadily from the little guard room, would not budge when offered the opportunity, and his assailants eventually burnt the room down with him in it. The column returned to see that:
Saragarhi was a piteous sight. The fort which only two days before we had deemed impregnable unless reduced by want of ammunition, water or food, was almost levelled to the ground, while the bodies of its gallant garrison lay stripped and horribly mutilated among the ruins of the post they had so bravely held.1
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was sporadic fighting in central India against shoals of fierce mounted freebooters that the British called Pindarries. They were largely suppressed after the Third Maratha War, but as late as 1829 John Shipp saw a lady react in terror when, enquiring about some horsemen, she mistook the answer, Brinjarrie (meaning itinerant corn-supplier), for something infinitely more sinister, and ‘jumped out of the palanquin and ran towards home screaming “Pindarees, Pindarees”’.
It was not just northern tribesmen or Deccani horsemen who were traditionally obdurate. The warlike Moplahs (properly Mappilas) of the south-west were the Moslem descendants of Arab traders, and between 1836 and 1919 there were 351 separate incidents in which they killed eighty-three people. ‘Those Mopleys are a troublesome set indeed,’ declared Albert Hervey.2 Scenting martial qualities, the British tried to recruit them into the army, and formed two Moplah battalions, but the experiment was not a success. In 1903 some Moplah soldiers waylaid and assaulted their adjutant, and the battalions were both disbanded in 1907. There was a full-scale Moplah rebellion in 1921. Also in the south the Polighars, ‘armed chieftain-bandits’, caused the Madras government much trouble before they were subdued in the late eighteenth century. The Coorg War of 1833 does not feature in many history books, but in an assault on a stockade in its course a British regiment lost heavily. Its colonel was shot, and then beheaded and mutilated, and the Coorgs ‘came down upon the doolies carrying the sick and wounded … The Coorgites dispatched every one, and they were found with their throats cut from ear to ear.’3
The term ‘dacoits’ was used for armed robbers in general, but it became specially attached to bands which fought on after Britain’s gradual annexation of Burma. Depending on one’s viewpoint, Kipling’s Bo Da Thone was either a bandit or a patriotic guerrilla leader. Dacoitry was never stamped out during British rule, and even today it occasionally blazes up to trouble rural India. In 1871–72 the Kookas, members of a violent Sikh sect, rose in revolt. They were rounded up by the district commissioner of Ludhiana, who had fifty of them blown from guns, in the last example of this shocking mode of execution. The proceedings were wholly illegal, for there had been no trial and a district commissioner could not impose a death sentence. The district commissioner was sacked, and the Commissioner of the Punjab, who had supported him, had to resign.4
The conquest of the island of Ceylon required two wars between 1803–18. Although relatively few British troops were involved, there were the usual ebbs and flows of battle in a beautiful but militarily awkward landscape. The fighting there produced one of the most lapidary ‘sole survivor’ reports of all time. Corporal George Barnsley of HM’s 19th Foot, who had survived the massacre of his comrades, approached the nearest British outpost, where:
the sentinel was struck with terror at the emaciated figure and ghastly look; he was conducted to Captain Madge, commander of the Fortress at the time, who was thunderstruck by his appearance, and the melancholy tidings he bore. The first words he said, were ‘The Troops in Candy are all dished, Your Honour’.
Barnsley was promoted to sergeant as soon as he had recovered from his wounds, but the experience, and the hospitality of attentive comrades, proved too much for him: he was soon reduced to the ranks for being drunk on guard.
Powerful landowners might defy their own suzerains, or the British, or both. Lieutenant John Pester of 1st BNI wrote that in August 1802:
In consequence of the refractory conduct of some Zemindars who had been committing sad depredations and setting the laws of the government at defiance I was ordered to march with my Grenadiers in the evening. My friend [Lieutenant] Marsden expresse
Before long he found himself bursting into a fortified village, and then assaulting its little citadel:
The instant we entered the village we were like so many tigers let loose … I discerned a round tower pierced with loopholes … here a party of the more resolute had retired … This was no season for delay … I collected about thirty men, and with my Subadar … I rushed in at their head to assault the post … four of my grenadiers were shot at my heels … We succeeded in getting so close under them that they could not fire at us … Marsden joined me here … the enemy heard that we proposed digging them out and instantly surrendered … We now fired the village in every quarter and many of the enemy who had sheltered themselves were destroyed. By our best calculation nearly two hundred of them fell in this affair and we had reason to conjecture that in future they would treat us with more respect.6
As late as 1883, the Maharaja of Bikaner fell out with one of his barons, who retired to his fort and defied both his master and the British brigade sent to deal with him. Walter Lawrence, present as political agent, feared that the little garrison might resort to johur, burning their women and then sallying out sword in hand in the old Rajput way. Happily there was a dignified surrender, and Lawrence then overheard two privates of the Worcesters: ‘Who’s that with the general?’ said one. ‘Him? Why, he’s the raja.’ ‘Oh,’ said his comrade, ‘I thought he was the bloke we had come to kill.’ ‘The rajah’s fort was blown up. I saw the fort rise almost solid,’ wrote Lawrence, ‘then crumble into dust, then flames and thick smoke.’7
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