Sahib, p.6
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Sahib, p.6

           Richard Holmes

  Mrs Muter, married to Captain Dunbar Douglas Muter, whose health had broken down during the Mutiny, accompanied him to the Murree Hills in the autumn of 1858, and saw how:

  A column of mist fell over the hill like a pall, penetrating into every house. There it hung like death, stealing around all the contents and spreading over them a green and unhealthy mould. Shoes left for a night looked in the morning as if taken from a vault with the rot of a year on them. Scarcely a breath stirred in the leaves – nothing moved except the rain that at intervals fell in torrents. The air was without electricity, without wind and loaded with moisture -we were living in a stagnant cloud.21

  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Thomsett recorded that July 1879 was:

  A very wet month in Bareilly, and twenty-five inches of rain fell. On the 23rd there was indeed a regular deluge – 7.5 inches in the previous twenty-four hours … The rain was followed by what I should call a regular plague of black caterpillars. And the creatures hung by silken threads from the branches of trees, and, as one drove along, found their way down one’s neck and all over one’s garments. Then August came with all its sultriness and snakes, reserved for those unfortunates who could not avail themselves of leave to the hills.22

  An Indian winter could be bitterly cold. Major James Outram, in the Sind desert in December 1838, described: ‘The coldest day I have ever experienced in the east – the thermometer never above 62° in the tents, and a bitter cold North-Easterly wind bringing with it intolerable dust, of so impalpable a nature, that it is impossible to exclude it.’23 Sergeant William Forbes-Mitchell of the 93rd Highlanders wrote in 1857 that ‘with a raw north wind the climate of Lucknow feels uncommonly cold at night in November … ’.24 Things were far worse up on the frontier. Dr William Bryden awoke on the morning of 7 January 1842, the day of the British army’s disastrous retreat from Kabul:

  I found the troops preparing to march so I called to the natives who had been lying near me to get up, which only a very few were able to do. Some of them actually laughed at me for urging them, and pointed to their feet, which looked like charred logs of wood; poor fellows, they were frost bitten, and had to be left behind.25

  Florentia Sale, whose husband Robert was commanding the garrison of Jelalabad, was also on the retreat. On the morning of 8 January, ‘nearly every man was paralysed with cold, so as to be scarcely able to hold his musket or move. Many frozen corpses lay on the ground. The Sipahees burnt their caps, accoutrements and clothes to keep themselves warm.’26 On campaign in Afghanistan in 1880, the Revd Alfred Cave, an army chaplain, was shocked to discover that Lieutenant General Primrose ‘went comfortably to sleep in his tent and awoke to find 7 or 8 doolie [stretcher] bearers frozen to death round his tent & never reported it’.27

  The inescapable realities of terrain and climate helped determine India’s history. Successive waves of invaders pulsed in from the north, and once they had crossed the barriers of desert and mountain there was little to stop them. There are no easily defended river lines, no unassailable promontories, and an attacker who made himself master of the Indo-Gangetic plain would lose impetus as he pushed southwards, but could not easily be brought to a definitive halt. One of the few crucial military corridors leads through the little town of Panipat, north of Delhi, which lies between the southern foothills of the Himalayas and the Rajasthan desert: no less than four major battles (1399, 1526, 1556, 1761) were fought there.

  Panipat retains its citadel and wall, pierced with fifteen gates. Fortresses and fortified towns might stand like islands in the torrent of invasion, and are, as the standard work on them observes, ‘practically innumerable throughout India. Almost every hill in the range running north-east through the south of Rajputana has a fortification on its summit; the same may be said of the Deccan … and of the hilly districts of south India.’28 Captain Osborne wrote that: ‘Every village … possesses a small round mud fort with a turret in the centre, resembling an original Martello-tower, loopholed for musketry, and the generality of them with a dry and shallow ditch, but without guns.’29

  Indian fortresses ranged from the mud-walled forts of petty rajas to prodigious structures such as that at Gwalior – a mile and three-quarters long on a rock 300 feet above the surrounding plain; Golconda, with its powerful citadel standing within three distinct lines of curtain wall; and Chitor, the Rajput fortress which clings to a whale-backed hill 500 feet above the land below. An abundance of stone and labour through most of the subcontinent enabled military engineers to throw up thick, high walls (those of Bijapur are up to 35 feet thick) with loopholes and merlons for defence, and elaborate gateways with twists and turns, invisible to the attacker, and great teak gates equipped with spikes to prevent them from being butted down by the foreheads of assaulting elephants.

  While castle-building in Europe had largely stopped by the sixteenth century, many of these fortresses, which constitute one of India’s many abiding delights, show successive layers of fortification, often the work of new conquerors or resurgent local rulers. Chitor, held by Hindu Rajputs, was taken by Ala-ud-din Khalji, Sultan of Delhi, in 1303. Recovered by the Rajputs, it was taken again in 1535, this time by the Sultan of Gujarat. Again recovered, it was taken by the Emperor Akbar in 1567. On each occasion, when its fall was imminent, the Rajput women committed suicide by self-immolation, while their menfolk went out to fight to the last man. Rajput warriors traditionally wore long saffron-dyed gowns called maranacha poshak, or clothes of the dead, to symbolise that they were already dead, and battle was simply a sacrament to celebrate their sacrifice.

  Although India produced more than its fair share of warriors, it was less well endowed with sailors. Most of the small craft based in Indian harbours were used for fishing, and although there was some maritime trade, both westwards towards Arabia and eastwards towards Indo-China and China itself, most was in vessels which were unable to make headway against the monsoon. While the Mughals snapped up useful military technology wherever they found it – a practice later continued by the Marathas and (as a survivor of Sobraon would have acknowledged grimly) the Sikhs – they did not generally attempt to build the large, sail-powered warships and merchantmen which were increasingly a feature of European war and commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  Of course there were exceptions. In the 1750s the Maratha chieftain Tulaji Angria built a small fleet which was used for privateering attacks on European vessels trading in Indian waters. On 12 February 1756 it was wholly destroyed by a British squadron under Rear Admiral Charles Watson, and the next day the British took Angria’s fortified base of Gheria at a cost of only ten killed and seventeen wounded. ‘A fine harbour … in the hands of Europeans might defy the forces of Asia,’ mused Watson. European ability to use naval power to sidestep India’s vast distances and primitive communications would play a fundamental role in the conquest and dominion of India. In the capture of Gheria, HMS Kent – one of Watson’s warships – fired 120 barrels of powder.30 Moving powder and heavy guns on this scale by land was a time-consuming undertaking: but a nation which enjoyed command of the sea need not be daunted by India’s endless dusty wastes. By the time this story starts in earnest it was apparent that dangerous wasps were buzzing about the elephant’s head.


  AT THE BEGINNING of the sixteenth century, a century before the story of British India really begins, Sikander Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, was hard at work building the city of Agra – which was to be his alternative capital – and on subduing local rivals. The Governor of the Punjab, nominally his subject, had attained something approaching independence, but had founded no proper state of his own and so the Moslem ruler of Afghanistan, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad (better known as Babur, ‘the Tiger’), could see that ‘the gates of Hind were swinging in the wind’.31 Babur was a Turco-Mongol prince, a descendant of the great Timur (Timur-i-Lenk, hence Tamerlane) who had himself invaded India, beating the Delhi sultan at the first battle of Panipat in 1399 and flattening
his capital so thoroughly that it took almost a century to recover.

  India was not Babur’s first choice. He had been unable to retain his ancestral princedom of Fereghan, in Central Asia, and had thrice seized Samarkand, losing it each time. He took Kabul in 1504, and in 1525 he crossed the Indus near Attock, defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at the second battle of Panipat on 20 April 1526. Although Babur was badly outnumbered, by perhaps ten to one, he planned his battle carefully, commandeering 700 carts which were lashed together as protection for his matchlock-armed infantry. When Lodi’s cavalry thundered up against the carts they were blown away by a storm of musketry, and Babur’s own cavalry, better disciplined and more manoeuvrable, sliced in against his opponent’s flanks and rear.32 By the end of the day the sultan was dead with at least 15,000 of his followers.

  Taking Delhi did not ensure the Mughal hold on northern India. Babur faced unrest amongst disaffected subordinates, who wanted to return home with their loot, and a serious counter-attack by a Rajput raja. Babur was a natural leader, and appealed to his men’s Islamic faith, declaring that the struggle was a jihad and reaffirming his own orthodoxy by ostentatiously abjuring wine, hitherto a great favourite. He won a major battle at Khanua, north-west of Agra, and when he died in 1530 he ruled a substantial kingdom centred on Agra. His eldest son, Humayan, lost the kingdom to a fresh wave of Afghan invaders, but, with a resilience that his father would have admired, he first retook Afghanistan and then, in 1555, regained Delhi. The following year Humayan was killed when he fell down the stairs of the observatory on the roof of his Delhi palace, and was succeeded by his son Akbar.

  The odds seemed stacked against the new monarch, who was only thirteen and was in any case away in the Punjab. But his guardian, Bayram Khan, counselled against withdrawal to Afghanistan, and the Mughals advanced on an army led by the Hindu minister Hemu, who had assumed the regal title Raja Vikramaditya. The armies met, yet again, at Panipat. Hemu’s men had 1,500 elephants, and he himself commanded from the howdah of the gigantic ‘Hawai’ (meaning ‘Windy’ or, more generously, ‘Rocket’).33 The Mughals were wavering when Hemu was hit in the eye by an arrow: his army was seized by an unstoppable panic, and Hemu himself was quickly caught and beheaded.

  The third battle of Panipat enabled Akbar to establish what even Babur had never achieved, a secure Mughal empire. He enjoyed several advantages. Unlike his father and grandfather he had been born in India; he had that ‘common touch’ which enabled him to sample the opinion of the ‘dust-stained denizens of the field’; and although he remained a Moslem, he believed in toleration, and happily celebrated the Hindu festivals of Diwali and Dusshera. By the time he died in 1605, Akbar ruled Afghanistan, and the whole of India as far south as Bombay (then just a fishing village) in the west and Cuttack in the east. His great-grandson Aurangzeb extended Mughal authority further south, and by the time of his death in 1707 the empire included even Mysore.

  Under Aurangzeb, however, the empire had begun to tilt out of control. The Hindu Marathas, in the north-western Deccan, had grown increasingly troublesome under their charismatic leader Shivaji. And, just as significant in the long run, but for the moment a religious movement with no military power, were the Sikhs, whose spiritual leader Guru Nanak preached a monotheistic faith which linked all believers regardless of caste. Where Akbar had been tolerant, Aurangzeb was a zealot, and the cracks always inherent in a state based on Moslem rule over a Hindu majority gaped more widely: as the Mughal empire reached its fullest extent, it was increasingly vulnerable to internal dissension and foreign envy.

  Yet some of the institutions of Mughal India were to prove extraordinarily durable, and were to underlie British rule. Despite the lavishness of the court and its conspicuous display of jewels and precious metals, the prosperity of India hinged upon the land and its produce. All cultivatable land was likely to produce a surplus, beyond what the peasants who worked the fields required for their subsistence, which varied according to locality and type of crop. The jagir, or revenue assignment, of a piece of land could be assigned to a nobleman, official or military officer, who became its jagirdar. The zamindar – literally ‘landholder’ but in fact any sort of rural superior – enforced the collection of the surplus in a process which often left the ryot – the peasant farmer – at the bottom of the pyramid, with barely enough to survive on. Although, on the one hand, the stability achieved under the Mughals contributed to increased productivity, with provincial capitals and trading centres growing to encourage markets for luxury goods, on the other the efficiency of the government enabled the empire to sate its enormous appetite more easily by bearing down on the peasants.

  Akbar had been anxious to bring together potentially divergent interest groups, notably the broad mix of Afghans, Turks, and Rajputs who constituted his amirs, or nobility. The mansabari system gave all civil and military officers a rank in a formal hierarchy. They were expected to produce the number of cavalrymen specified by their position in the pecking order, and senior mansabdars had to produce elephants too. While junior officials in the Mughal bureaucracy were salaried, many mansabdars were given jagirs on which to support their retinues, in a system that looked not unlike the feudalism of Europe or Japan. It financed itself by coercion, with troops extracting the financial surplus which made up their pay, and the unlucky ryot toiling for a military establishment which, with its assorted dependants, may have comprised one-quarter of the population.

  Even when the empire was in decline it still retained ‘the barakat or charisma of an imperial title, the gradual emergence of the concept of Timurid royal blood, and the idea of the need for Delhi as a symbolic centre … ’.34 The notion of legitimacy remained important, and many an Afghan chief sought to establish himself in the Mughal nobility, and to ‘live of his own’ with a title and an appropriate jagir; even if he had no intention of serving the emperor in any practical sense. And as the Mughal grip weakened in the eighteenth century, overmighty subjects, such as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Oudh, happily reinforced their own legitimacy by notional deference to an emperor who no longer controlled them.

  Imperial nobility retained its mystique long after the empire itself was pitifully attenuated. In 1800, Lieutenant James Skinner, serving as a mercenary with the Marathas against the Maharaja of Jodhpur, had taken possession of the latter’s camp, and helped himself to ‘two golden idols, with diamond eyes, which I immediately secured in my bosom, for fear they should be discovered’. He also picked up a quaint brass fish. His superior, Colonel Pohlmann, pressed him hard on the question of loot. But it turned out that their employer had no interest in the gold, although Skinner wisely took ‘good care to say nothing about the idols’. The Maratha chief ‘then explained that the fish I had given him was the actual mahee muratib or imperial ensign of honour bestowed by the King of Delhee on the Raja’. It was far more valuable to him than money.35

  The arrival of the British in some ways would alter relatively little: India had been a land of warriors long before the British came. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century about a quarter of a million men, say 1 to 1.5 per cent of the population, were soldiers, and regular troops had, on average, five to seven dependants each: in 1782 the Nawab of Oudh had an army of 20,000 men with 150,000 camp followers.36 Indian armies in cantonments and in the field traditionally needed from 5–10 followers for each fighting soldier, and in this respect, as in so many others, the British in India adopted a local way of doing business. Those peripatetic bands of irregular light horse called Pindaris by the British, made up of individual war bands which coalesced to form ‘armies’ (although swarms might be a better word), lived by moving loot from one area to another, but even they ‘benefited the agricultural stability of their homelands by injecting cash and cattle into them’.37

  The pattern of life in village India, too, spun on much as before: for those at the bottom of the pile the British simply substituted one landlord for another – and did not always do that. Sir Charle
s Metcalfe, early-nineteenth-century colonial administrator and historian, believed that the influence of his countrymen had never really percolated to the very bottom of Indian society: ‘Hindoo, Pathan, Mughal, Mahratta, Sikh, English, we are masters in turn; but the village communities remain the same.’ When Brigadier General Neville Chamberlain was up on the frontier in 1858 an old chief told him: ‘Many conquerors, like the storm, have swept over us and they have passed away leaving only a name, and so it will be with you. While we poor people are like the grass, we remain, we lift our heads again.’38

  When the British arrived they found that the ideology of empire was well understood, and just as native rulers had tried to legitimise their position within the Mughal system, so the British paid careful attention to court ritual and diplomatic usage. The concept of the jagir also worked to their advantage, because they were able to buy out many jagirdars who were content to accept a pension in the place of a revenue which might depend on the weather or the capricious vagaries of court politics. The notion of Mughal legitimacy persisted well into British rule. Political officer Alexander Burnes visited the dispossessed emperor at Delhi in 1831, and wrote: ‘The mummery of the ceremony was absurd, and I could not suppress a smile as the officers mouthed in loud and sonorous solemnity, the title king of the world, the ruler of the earth, to a monarch now realmless and a prince without power.’39 Well before the great Mutiny there were persistent rumours that there would be a rising, as Sita Ram put it, to ‘restore the throne of Hindustan to the Delhi Badshah’.40

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment