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Cosmopolitismes en Asie du Sud

 | 
Corinne Lefèvre
, 
Ines G. Županov
, 
Jorge Flores

Itinéraires/pratiques // Itineraries/practices

Armed Cosmopolitans? Indian Sepoys and their Travels in the Service of the East India Company (1762-1815)

Cosmopolites en armes ? Les cipayes indiens et leurs voyages au service de l’East India Company

Claude Markovits

Résumé

The article focuses on the experiences of Indian sepoys, i.e. indigenous European-trained soldiers in the service of the East India Company, who were sent abroad to take part in a series of overseas expeditions between 1762 and 1815, with the aim of identifying forms of “cosmopolitanism from below” linked to non-elite members of Indian society. It looks firstly at the way the British constructed the sepoys as anti-cosmopolitans par excellence, because of their particular dietary needs and their attachment to their families, which made them, in British eyes, totally unsuited for foreign service. It was only the lure of batta (prize money), the colonizers thought, which could incite these mercenary soldiers to leave their homeland. And yet a close look at the official records of some expeditions reveals a different picture, of soldiers who found ways of acclimatizing themselves to the foreign lands where they had been sent for short episodes of combat and long period of garrison duty. Attention is drawn to three developments that could be read as signs of “cosmopolitanism from below: ” a change in dietary habits, a search for new relationships, and the emergence of “sightseeing” as a side activity. Although no definitive conclusion can be drawn, it is suggested that such a hypothesis could be of some heuristic value.

L’article explore les expériences des cipayes, soldats indigènes entraînés à l’européenne qui furent utilisés par l’East India Company dans des expéditions à l’étranger entre 1762 et 1815, dans le but d’identifier des formes de « cosmopolitisme par le bas » liées à des groupes non élitaires de la société indienne. Il examine en premier lieu la perception que les Britanniques avaient de ces soldats, dont ils firent des anticosmopolites par excellence du fait de leurs exigences particulières en termes de régime alimentaire et de leur attachement à leurs familles. D’après les colonisateurs, ces soldats étaient inadaptés au service à l’étranger, et seul l’attrait du pillage (batta) pouvait les inciter à quitter l’Inde. Pourtant la lecture attentive des archives officielles concernant quelques expéditions conduit à une conclusion différente. Il apparaît que ces soldats réussirent à s’acclimater dans les pays où ils furent envoyés pour de brefs épisodes de combat et de longues périodes en garnison. Trois aspects qui peuvent être révélateurs d’un « cosmopolitisme d’en bas » sont ici analysés : un changement d’habitudes alimentaires, la recherche de nouvelles relations, et enfin l’apparition du « tourisme » comme une activité annexe. Bien qu’on ne puisse conclure de façon définitive à l’existence d’une forme de cosmopolitisme « par le bas », l’hypothèse nous paraît néanmoins digne d’attention.

Texte intégral

  • 1 For an analysis centered around a regional example, see Chatterjee 2009: 147-182.
  • 2 For a discussion of the notion of cosmopolitanism in the British-Indian colonial context, see Marko (...)

1Cosmopolitanism is not only an intellectual trend, and the cosmopolitan is not necessarily a sophisticate. It is worth exploring other avenues of cosmopolitanism than those linked to the literate elites. Apart from literati, humbler sorts of travelers, literate or not, who circulated through physical spaces, could also partake of forms of cosmopolitanism. The apparent oxymoron, “cosmopolitanism from below” will be used as a first approximation of this phenomenon. As regards South Asia, some attention has been given recently to the existence of cosmopolitan elites in the Islamicate regimes, culminating with the Mughal empire.1 Forms of cosmopolitanism developed by the literati in colonial India have also attracted some scrutiny.2 In this article, I choose instead to focus on a particular group of non-elite Indians, the soldiers of the armies of the East India Company known as sepoys, to try to identify forms of “cosmopolitanism from below” in early colonial India.

The sepoys

  • 3 On this failed expedition, that aimed at recapturing the ancestral lands of the Timurids in Central (...)

2The use of the term “sepoy” (from the Persian sipahi, a cavalry soldier) to name indigenous soldiers is attested from 1717 onwards in European writings about India. The systematic recruitment of sepoys, meaning more specifically European-trained indigenous soldiers, to fight local wars in South India, was initiated by the French East India Company, under Dupleix, in the late 1730s, a move that the British rapidly imitated. The formation of the East India Company armies, starting with the Madras army or “Coast army” as it was called at the time, was, in spite of the role played by one officer, Stringer Lawrence, often called the “Father of the Indian Army” (Biddulph 1901), a haphazard development, and no coherent doctrine presided over it. It was a force made of disparate elements: apart from “peons,” armed guards of the Company warehouses who were often either Paraiyars (untouchables) or Indian Christians, and from topasses (a corruption of dubash, literally “speaker of two languages,” i.e. interpreter), Indo-Portuguese mercenaries, who had been in the service of the different European companies since the beginning of the 17th century, the Madras authorities enrolled local as well as North Indian Muslims, who were the largest single component of the force, cafres, i.e. African slaves (often actually from Malagasy), and local high caste Hindus (Wilson 1882-1889). Welding such diverse components into a cohesive force was a process that took decades, and was more or less completed only in the 1790s. The single most important characteristic of these troops was the fact that, contrary to the armies of Indian powers, they were drilled in the new discipline of fire developed in European armies, and provided with standardized weapons and uniforms. But their recruitment was originally conducted through the agency of the same jamadars (intermediaries) who had provided for hundreds of years Indian powers with their manpower (Kolff 1990). Learning European ways of warfare did not mean for the sepoys adopting a European identity, even if their uniforms were of European design, and poorly adapted to the Indian climate. On the contrary, the British wanted their native soldiers to remain fully distinct and separate from the European soldiers they also employed. However, entering the service of the Company meant however for Indian soldiers that, for the first time in a century, since the time of the failed Mughal “expedition to the North” of 1646-47 under Shah Jahan,3 they could be sent to fight outside India. Not that such an eventuality had been foreseen by the British in the 1740s and 1750s, when they had started recruiting sepoys. Serving “abroad” then meant for Madras soldiers to take part in battles in Bengal: thus, Clive’s native soldiers at the famous battle of Plassey in 1757 came mostly from Madras, even if he had started recruiting also Rajputs from Northern India, who formed the first nucleus of the Bengal army.

  • 4 In a letter from Manila of 25 December 1762, the British officer in command of the expedition, Robe (...)
  • 5 Indian troops were sent to the Netherlands Indies together with British troops in August 1945 to ta (...)
  • 6 Metcalf 2007: 68-101. See also Bandhopadhyay 2011.

3Nevertheless, as early as in 1762, sepoys of the Madras army were called to take part in an overseas expedition, to Manila in the Spanish Philippines, a little-known episode of the Seven Years’ War, in which Spain, then allied to France under the so-called family pact between two branches of the Bourbon dynasty, became the target of two British naval expeditions, one to Havana and one to Manila (Baugh 2011). The reason why Indian troops were used was simply that the British did not have sufficient troops in the East to mount such an expedition without Company support. It remains somewhat puzzling that sepoys, who had not been directly engaged in fighting the French in South India in 1757-61, and had served there mostly as auxiliaries on the flanks of British troops, were sent into battle against the Spaniards in the Philippines. It may have been due to the fact that the British thought the latter less redoubtable than the French. The fact that the local population in Manila assimilated the sepoys, most of whom were Muslims, to “Moors” (who had a fearful reputation in the Philippines, a legacy of centuries of warfare between Spaniards and South Filipino Muslims known as Moros), emerged as a further justification of their use in that campaign,4 although it seems doubtful that the British knew about it beforehand. Whatever the case, what is of interest here is the fact that seven hundred recently recruited sepoys were suddenly transported some 3 000 kilometers east of Madras to a land which was totally unfamiliar to Indians, contrary to the neighbouring Moluccas, with which the Coromandel coast had had longstanding commercial relations. This Manila expedition proved to be the first one in a long series that would end only 183 years later in November 1945 in a fierce battle in Surabaya,5 in Java, with military forays by Indian troops outside India in the service of the East India Company and the British Crown. Curiously, this story has largely escaped the scrutiny of historians of colonial India, with a few exceptions.6 Here I look at its beginnings, the period between 1762 and 1815 (although I shall occasionally use evidence from a later period), with the aim of testing the hypothesis of the existence of forms of “cosmopolitanism from below.” I start with an examination of the views of the British rulers, the Company officials, regarding the nature of their indigenous soldiers.

The sepoy as an anti-cosmopolitan: the British view

  • 7 For a synthetic view, see Wickremesekera 2002.
  • 8 Catherine Clémentin-Ojha, oral presentation, 25 january 2011, Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asi (...)
  • 9 A “caste handbook” regarding Brahmins issued by the Indian Army in the late 19th century for the us (...)
  • 10 In a letter to Manila dated 26 May 1763, Company officials wrote to the British commander: “As we a (...)
  • 11 Major-General Van Straubenzie to Birch, Secretary in the Military Department of the Government of I (...)
  • 12 Secretary to the Government of India in the Military Department to Major Atkinson, Quarter-Master G (...)

4There is no coherent body of literature about the sepoys from the British side, rather a motley collection of official correspondence and the occasional pamphlet written by an officer or some publicist, that allows us nevertheless to derive a broad idea of their perception by British officials.7 The Company view is informed by a perception of the sepoys that gives central place to their bodies. The latter are seen as being in a close relationship to the Indian soil. Nurture and nature combine to make the sepoys “sons of the soil,” to whom separation from their native land can only cause great sufferings. Generalizing from the interdict on the crossing of the “kala pani,” the “black waters,” (i.e. the sea), that was supposed to apply only to high caste Hindus, British officials transformed it into a powerful trope. At the basis of it was a slight misunderstanding of its exact meaning: it was not the fact of crossing the sea in itself that was polluting for Hindus, but the fact of crossing it in a ship which had not been subjected to certain rituals of purification.8 As a consequence, all food cooked onboard was unfit for human consumption. The troops would hence have to be fed with “dry” food—cooked in ghee (clarified butter made from cow’s milk) onshore before embarkation, and known as “pakhi”9—that could be kept in a haversack. But, given the climatic conditions and the lack of technology for refrigeration, such food rapidly deteriorated, causing severe epidemics of dysentery in which thousands perished. But the inadaptability of the body of the sepoys to travel overseas, in the eyes of British officials, did not cease with their landing on foreign shores: once they had landed, they had also to be fed with suitable foods, which were often not available in the locations where they fought or garrisoned. The crucial item was ghee: if it could be procured, then all aliments cooked with it would be acceptable to the troops. Now sending cargoes of ghee to faraway places could be something of a logistical nightmare for an overstretched Company that had often too few ships at its disposal. But it was considered so important that it was done, probably at a high cost, as is clear from the perusal of official files regarding the Manila expedition.10 The question of cooking utensils was also considered important: at the time of the Second Opium War of 1859-60, when a large Indian contingent was sent to China, the commander of the expeditionary force remarked that, as Indian cooking utensils had not been provided to the troops, they “had been obliged to cook as in Europe, viz in their camp in kettles or mess tins,”11 which the troops had obviously objected to. On being informed, the authorities in Calcutta stated that they thought preferable that “Native Regiments should take their own cooking utensils,” and added that “as copper pots cannot, it is said, be tin worked in China, except at exacerbated rates, tin-men with the necessary materials for their work might accompany each Regiment.”12 It is not known however whether such men were actually dispatched to China. Apart from food, which became at times a real obsession with the officer corps of Indian regiments, climate and quality of accommodation were also considered problematic. Conventional British wisdom is epitomized in a correspondence between two British commanding officers at the time of the Second Opium War. One of them wrote to his superior:

  • 13 Major Temple to Major-General Van Straubenzie, 13 October 1859, enclosed in Van Straubenzie to Birc (...)

Indians seem as a class peculiarly ill-adapted for foreign service; their mode of living, caste prejudices and indolent nature combine to render them dependent on the peculiar resources of their Native Country, and these must, at any expense, be supplied them. The climate of China… has been found as noxious to them as to Europeans, and the necessity of presenting them with Barrack accommodation of the very best kind, regardless of cost, as urgent. Their average of sick is at all times considerable, and must entail a heavy charge on the state for the transport of invalids. Their powers of labour are considerably below those of the Chinese.13

5Such complaints were recurrent in the official correspondence, but did not deter the British from sending sepoys abroad time and again, which seems to signal that they should not be taken too literally.

6The second point stressed in official discourse was the pain caused to the sepoys by the kind of long-term separation from their families that travel abroad inevitably involved. This is because the native soldiers were constructed as family men, in complete contrast to British soldiers, who were generally bachelors and not encouraged to marry during service. In a minute written in 1845 by the Governor of Madras, the Marquess of Tweeddale to defend the record of service abroad of the Madras Army, we read:

  • 14 Copy of minute in Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, 1867, East India (Native Troops), pp. 589 (...)

They are separated by sea from their families and homes, and they endure all the discomfort of this separation, which to men accustomed, as our sepoys are, always to have their families around them, who prepare their meals, and who provide for all their other personal needs, is undoubtedly very great.14

  • 15 Lieutenant Colonel Monier Williams, A few remarks on the use of spirituous liquors among the Europe (...)
  • 16 For an analysis of Burke’s views, see Marshall 1981: I-27.
  • 17 Thus the newly-arrived Governor-General Lord Cornwallis wrote in a letter to the Duke of York of 10 (...)

7Whether this particular construction of sepoys was of an “Orientalist” character, or simply a reflection of a form of colonial patronizing, is not a point that will retain my attention here. The fact is that early colonial texts tend to present the native soldiers as sober family men, in stark contrast with European soldiers often reviled for drunkenness (many were Irish, therefore, in English eyes, drunkards) and debauchery. The contrast between British and native soldiers is drawn in a particular vivid manner in a pamphlet written in 1823 by an officer of the Bombay Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Monier Williams, to argue in favour of abolishing flogging in sepoy regiments. After having underlined at length the havoc wrought by excessive drinking upon the British soldiery, Monier Williams goes on to describe the native soldiers as “mild, sober, orderly and obedient,” wedded to innocent domestic pursuits in their free time.15 This mild character of the sepoys, fully in keeping with Burkean stereotypes about the placid happiness of Oriental subjects,16 was, however, seen by others however as the sign of a reduced virility; it made them, in comparison with British soldiers, inferior battlefield material, good for mopping-up operations and garrison duty rather than front-line combat. A certain amount of incoherence must be noted at this stage, inasmuch as sepoys were also often stigmatized for their indiscipline,17 that some officials contrasted with the discipline of British troops. All in all, the picture of the sepoy that emerges from official discourse is that of an essentially anti-cosmopolitan being, a man who is so intimately linked to the Indian soil that displacing him is bound to cause him great suffering, as well as to put serious limitations on the quality of his performance.

  • 18 Cornwallis to Court of Directors, 6 March 1789, East India Company Correspondence, Bengal Letters r (...)
  • 19 Mentioned in Callahan 1998.

8What signification was given for sending these troops abroad? There were of course justifications of a purely pragmatic character: the Company had few European troops, did not find them always very reliable for various reasons, and the cost of native troops on foreign expedition was on average, according to some calculations, only 40 % of the cost of British troops, given the higher pay British soldiers received and the higher cost of their “comforts,” in particular their food (they ate a lot of meat, and consumed a large amount of spirits). But there was also another angle: some drew attention to the fact that the sepoys were mercenaries and that both material interest, in the form of the lure of batta (prize money), a traditional perquisite of the soldiery in India that was subjected to detailed regulations, and the celebrated “loyalty to the salt” (salt being a well-known metaphor for the soldiers’ pay in India), could lead them to overcome their prejudices and bear their sufferings. The question arose mostly in relation to the Bengal army, which was composed overwhelmingly of high-caste Hindus, in contrast to the Madras and, to a lesser extent, the Bombay army, which had a more mixed composition. Getting these soldiers to fight outside India proved to be more difficult than was the case for their Madras colleagues. It was with that problem in mind that Lord Cornwallis, when he was governor-general, from 1786 to 1794, advocated using Fort Marlborough, an outlier of the Bengal Presidency situated in the island of Sumatra (in Bengkulen), as a kind of training ground to familiarize the Bengal sepoys with service outside India.18 An episode of revolt during the Ceylon campaign in 1795 against the Dutch, when one regiment of the Bengal army refused to obey marching orders,19 tended to show that the Bengal soldiers could actually be reticent to serve outside India (although the dispute seems to have been more about the amount of batta than about a question of principle). Fear of further unrest led to the granting to the Bengal army of a privilege: service abroad in that army would thenceforth be only on a voluntary basis, while in the Bombay and Madras armies, it was not always the case, depending on the necessities of the service. As is well known, the abolition of that privilege by the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 is often mentioned as one of the proximate causes of the Mutiny of 1857, that affected mostly the Bengal army. The interesting fact, however, is that, in the first half of the 19th century, there was never a shortage of volunteers from the Bengal army for foreign expeditions, a sign that the rationalizations about the lure of batta and the loyalty to the salt may have contained more than a grain of truth. But I want to go further and explore the possibility that the sepoys took a more active posture and developed forms of cosmopolitanism that helped them smooth the pain of being transported across the seas and of staying in foreign lands for short episodes of combat and long periods of garrison duty.

Recovering the cosmopolitan dimension in the experience of the sepoys

  • 20 This is in particular the view that informs the above-mentioned book by Bandhopadyay 2011. See note (...)

9Indian nationalist historiography has been ambivalent about the sepoys, alternating between a view of them as accomplices of imperialism, and an opposite perception of them as victims of British colonialism.20 In the latter view, the sepoys’ agency manifested itself mainly through mutinies. Although sepoy risings in India, from the Vellore mutiny of 1806 to the Great Revolt of 1857, have acquired almost mythical status in the saga of Indian resistance to colonialism, none are known to have occurred outside India, with the sole exception of the aborted plot in Java in 1815, that will be evoked later, prior to the mutiny of a Muslim regiment in Singapore in 1915 during the First World War (Sho 1991). Therefore, as far as the sepoys’ expeditions abroad are concerned, the focus has to be on other, more discreet, forms of agency. These can, however, be approached only indirectly through the filter of official sources. The difficulty raised by this approach is a familiar one to practitioners of “history from below: ” in the absence of reliable sources emanating from subaltern actors, how to recover their voices and their histories? I refer here to Ranajit Guha’s well-known advocacy of reading official sources “against the grain” in an attempt to recover the voices of peasant insurgents that had been silenced in the dominant historiography (Guha 1983: 15-117). Of course, sepoys were not peasant insurgents, but mercenaries in the service of empire, and their voices have not been deliberately silenced: they just happen not to have been recorded by any one and, since most of them were illiterate, there is little chance of this situation being remedied through the discovery of lost archives in some attic. On the other hand, there is a fairly rich archive of official correspondence in which commanding officers, writing to Company authorities, provide a lot of information about the state of mind and behaviour of the sepoys under their command. I scrutinize that archive in pursuit of signs of a more active intervention by the sepoys in the narrative. It is not only or even mainly a search for agency: there is no doubt that sepoys were endowed with agency and were not just passive recipients of orders. What I seek are more positive signs of an attempt by them to acclimatize themselves to the lands where they had been fated to go, and to reconstruct their lives there in a meaningful way so as to escape the weight of nostalgia and mourning that the British assigned to them. Such signs shall be sought in three directions: a modification of dietary practices, a search for new relationships, including sexual relationships and, last but not least, the emergence of “sightseeing” as a side activity in the lives of soldiers. How all this would amount to a form of cosmopolitanism is of course debatable, if one keeps in mind the usual definitions of the notion, generally applied to literati. If one seeks, however, to identify cosmopolitanism “from below,” one will be tempted to give a looser definition of it, encompassing all signs of acclimatization to a foreign reality.

  • 21 Letter of Adjutant General of the Army to Secretary in the Military Department, 2 January 1860, Col (...)

10Of particular importance would be signs of changes in dietary practices, given the central place given to this question in British writings. Here we are, however, faced with a particular problem concerning the official sources: British commanding officers of sepoy regiments were prone to stress how well they had managed to feed their soldiers with the kind of food they were familiar with. There is of course no way to verify the truth of their allegations. It is difficult, however, to imagine that the quartermaster’s department was so efficient that it could always provide the troops with the right kind of food. Evidence from records of the expedition to China in 1859-60 points to the difficulty of providing such staples as spices and fresh vegetables to the troops.21 Moreover, there are clear indications that, at times, troops had to find their food locally, especially when they stayed in foreign locations for long periods of garrison duty. Although British officials expressed fears that such situations would lead to discontent, and even to mutiny, there are few traces of such occurrences in the archives. It is not too far-fetched therefore to conclude that, in certain circumstances, troops accepted a change in dietary habits. It would of course be interesting to see if they even brought back from their stints abroad new dietary habits, but unfortunately there does not exist a sufficiently developed literature on the history of food habits in India. To give a particularly striking instance, we do not even know in detail the history of the spread of chili, an innovation due to Portuguese influence. So, while we cannot come to a definite conclusion on this question, the possibility remains of an adaptation, however transitory, of sepoys to different dietary regimes.

  • 22 “Spanish protest to Robert Fell, British Commander, Manila, 18 July 1763,” A.P.T. (Archivum Provinc (...)
  • 23 Robert Fell to the archbishop of Manila, Monsignor Rojo, 20 July 1763, A.P.T. XVII, fo 14, reproduc (...)

11The second question, regarding the sexual and affective life of the sepoys during long stays abroad is of course particularly tricky, as there is bound to be very little explicit material about it in the archives. As already mentioned, most sepoys were married men with families in India. When they went abroad for long stints, it was impossible for them to keep in touch very regularly with their families: they were in their vast majority illiterate and so were their wives. Although all regiments had a few literate men who could act as scribes, it is difficult to imagine for instance that in the early 1760s many private letters were exchanged between Manila and Madras, given the difficulties of communication: even official dispatches took months to reach Madras. Some of the sepoys who took part in the expedition stayed away for a total of five full years, during which they probably could not communicate with their families. They were mostly young men, and it is difficult to conceive that they did not engage in relationships with local women. Actually, Spanish sources contain a petition to the British commander in Manila in which local Spaniards accuse some sepoys of having “violated women in the streets.”22 It is of course difficult to assess the truth of such accusations, which were rejected by the British commander,23 given the complexity of the relationship between the British conquerors of Manila and the local Spaniards. Intriguingly, one sees here the first apparition of an image of the sepoys as “savage devils” that was to gain widespread popularity one century later, in the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny, with British public opinion. A more interesting indication is that about one hundred of the seven hundred sepoys sent to Manila eventually did not return to India. They were mostly, it seems, wounded or sick men who took shelter with the local population, a fact that would tend to cast doubts about accusations of savage behavior on their part. The group may also have included some deserters. There is no doubt that most of these men forged unions with local women, given the fact that their descendants are still apparently recognizable in two towns close to Manila (Rye 1993: 708-74). Although no similar occurrence is mentioned in sources regarding subsequent expeditions, it is not too far-fetched to suppose that sepoys occasionally formed unions with foreign women in locations where they held garrison for long periods, and that these unions had issues. Some sepoys could have been bigamists with one wife in India and one elsewhere, although the details of such stories will always elude us.

  • 24 The French army that Bonaparte left behind in 1799 was considered a direct threat to the British po (...)
  • 25 “Military Journal of John Budgen, Esq., Captain Eighty-Fourth Regiment, Aid (sic) de Camp on the St (...)

12As to the third aspect, the emergence of the “soldier-tourist,” who became an identifiable figure in the late 19th century in some Western armies, there are interesting indications that it could have already taken place in the early 1800s in the sepoy armies. Witness the anecdote about those two Brahmins from a regiment of the Bengal army taking part in the Egypt expedition of 1801 against the French,24 who, visiting the ruins of an old Egyptian temple at Denderah in the company of a British officer, are reported by him to have remarked on the similarity between the sculpted figures of some ancient Egyptian gods and those of Vishnu.25 An interesting feature emerges here: the possible coincidence of cosmopolitanism with a form of proto-nationalism. For it is clear that, in stressing the similarity between ancient Egypt and India, the two Brahmins were conveying a message, be it subliminal, that Egypt and India were linked through the antiquity of their civilizations, a message that put in stark relief the recent character of the so-called European civilization.

  • 26 The British resident in Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, famous later as the founder of Singapore, wrote (...)
  • 27 Raffles’ opinion, in the above-quoted letter, was that “it is rather the Sepoys than the Javanese w (...)
  • 28 For an elaboration of this point, see Van der Veer 2002.

13In one intriguing case, this claim went even further. There was a group of Bengal sepoys from the Light Infantry Battalion, who had been part of a large contingent of the Madras and Bengal armies—6,000 men in all—sent to take part in an expédition against the Dutch, then Under French rule, in 1811. In Java, in 1815, this group planned, Under the leadership of a subadar—a non-commissioned officer, the highest rank a native soldier could aszpire to—named Dhaugkal Singh (who was a Rajput) to rise against the British, in cahots with some members of the ruling family of the central Javanese sultanate of Surakarta. This episode remained largely absent from Indian as well as from Indonesian historiography, having been kept secret by the British, till it was reconstructed in 1977 by the historian Peter Carey in an article based on previously unpublished documents in the British and Dutch archives (Carey 1977: 294-322). It is striking to note that the conspirators appear to have embraced the idea that Java was the land of Brahma and the ruler of Surakarta a descendant of Rama (although the latter was actually a Muslim), a notion that may have been triggered in part by the sight of the awesome remains of the great Hindu-Buddhist temples of Borobodur and Prambanan in Central Java, that the British “rediscovered.”26 These impressive testimonies of ancient links between India and Java harked back to a period when the latter island was part of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” so convincingly recreated by Sheldon Pollock in a recent book (Pollock 2006). This suggests a link between old and new forms of cosmopolitanism, across a chasm of several centuries, that must however remain speculative. More to the point, some of the high-caste sepoys of that regiment had forged during their four yearstay close links with the Javanese nobility in the Central Javanese states of Yogjakarta and Surakarta, and some had even married into noble families. It is difficult to decide whether, in planning a rising, they had been manipulated by some members of the Surakarta court or, on the contrary, had used them for their own ends, in the hope of carving for themselves a small raj in Central Java.27 In any case, the conspiracy was foiled by British officers before it could become a full-scale rising, and seventeen of the potential mutineers, after having been court-martialed, were executed in Semarang, while fifty others were sent back in irons to India. But, interestingly, some deserters remained in Java, and one of them took part a few years later in an anti-Dutch rising. An Indian presence thus remained in Java, that caused fears to the Dutch for several years after they had reestablished their domination. Although Peter Carey analyzed the conspiracy as a sort of rehearsal of the 1857 Mutiny, it seems possible to view it within the context of the sepoys’ engagement with foreign lands. Contrary to British perceptions, the sepoys were not necessarily only preoccupied with coming back to their families as soon as possible (although that motivation was undoubtedly powerful and played a role in the conspiracy); they could also integrate foreign lands, especially if the latter had some cultural links to India, within a broader vision, and forge significant connections with their inhabitants. Whether this can really be characterized as a form of cosmopolitanism from below, inasmuch as those involved appear to have been high-caste Hindus, remains of course a debatable point. But, if a characteristic of the cosmopolitan is that he feels at home even when away from home, the Bengal army conspirators appear to have fitted the bill. That this feeling, in their case, was also one of cultural superiority is not necessarily contradictory with the nature of cosmopolitanism. After all, Western cosmopolitanisms have been shown to often coincide with claims of belonging to a superior civilization.28

14It should be noted that Muslim soldiers, who represented probably the majority of the sepoys sent abroad, developed their own Islamic cosmopolitan connections. An interesting testimony is that of a religious teacher in Malacca, a man of Hadrami ancestry, who befriended Indian Muslim soldiers passing through Malacca on their way to Java in 1811. He noted, in his autobiography, written in Malay in the 1840s (Abdullah Munshi 1955), that “they understood the Koran and the Arabic language” and that they were on friendly terms with local Muslims. He gave them religious instruction, and they taught him Hindustani. They appeared well acclimatized to Malacca, while their Hindu colleagues were often sick, because of their diet of cooked rice. There could thus be different kinds of cosmopolitanisms amongst the sepoys.

***

  • 29 For a somewhat sketchy presentation, see Fisher 2004: 137-79.

15My main point is that the discussion of cosmopolitanism in South Asia cannot limit itself to the literati. The illiterates or semi-literates also travelled, and they tried to make sense of the world. Amongst these illiterate or semiliterate travelers, sepoys constituted an important category, that has left archival traces which are not insignificant. They are much richer than those concerning other “ordinary” Indians who travelled abroad, such as lascars (sailors), about whom we know really very little.29 Although in trying to recover their voices through official archives the historian is confronted with the classical dilemmas that attach themselves to the practice of “history from below,” I think the attempt is nevertheless worth making. While British officials tended to present the sepoy as the least cosmopolitan of beings, a man attached to the Indian soil by the double pull of dietary habits and family connections, a close reading of official sources raises at least the possibility that some of the sepoys developed strategies of survival that led them to seek some acclimatization to the foreign lands where they were sent, generally as volunteers. The adoption of new dietary practices, the forging of personal relationships with “foreigners” and the development of forms of “sightseeing” could thus be analyzed as three manifestations of a certain kind of “cosmopolitanism from below.”

Bibliographie

References

PRIMARY SOURCES

Manuscript sources

Asia Pacific and Africa collections of the British Library, London

European Manuscripts

“Military Journal of John Budgen, Esq., Captain Eighty-Fourth Regiment, Aid [sic] de Camp on the Staff of General Sir David Baird during service at the Cape, India and Egypt from Feb. 7th 1796 to Feb. 14th 1802”, MSS Eur A 103

India office Records

Bengal Secret and Political Proceedings

East India Company Correspondence

Madras Military Consultations

Military Collections India

Printed sources

Caste Handbooks for the Indian Army: Brahmins, Compiled in the Intelligence Branch, Office of the Quarter-Master General in India, by Captain A. H. Bailey and Captain A. Nicholls, Simla, Government Central Printing office, 1897.

Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, vol. I, London, John Murray, 1859.

Documents illustrating the British Conquest of Manila 1762-1763, edited for the Royal Historical Society by Nicholas P. Cushner Camden Fourth Series, vol. 8, London, Royal Historical Society, 1971.

Abdullah Munshi, Hikayat Abdullah, trans. A. H. Hill, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 28 (3), no 171, 1955.

Monier Williams, Lieutenant-Colonel, A Few Remarks on the Use of Spirituous Liquors among the European Soldiers, and on the Punishment of Flogging in the Native Army of the Honourable East India Company, London, D.S. Maurice, s.d. (1823?).

Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, 1867, East India (Native Troops).

Walsh, Thomas, Including Descriptions of That Country, and of Gibraltar Minorca, Malta, Marmorice and Macri, London, T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1803.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Athar Ali, M. (1967), “The Objectives Behind the Mughal Expedition to Balkh and Badakhshan 1646-1647,” Proceedings of the 29th Indian History Congress, pp. 162-167.

Bandhopadhyay, P. K. (2011), Sepoys in the British Overseas Expeditions, Kolkata, K. P. Bagchi & Co,

Baugh, D. (2011), The global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest, Harlow, Longman.

Biddulph, J. (1901), Stringer Lawrence, The Father of the Indian Army, London, John Murray.

Callahan, R. (1998), “The Company’s Army 1757-1798,” in P. Tuck, ed., The East India Company: 1600-1858, vol. V: Warfare, Expansion and Resistance, London/New York, Routledge.

Carey, P. (1977), “The Sepoy Conspiracy of 1815 in Java,” Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land-er Volkerkunde, vol. 133 (2/3), pp. 294-322.

Chatterjee, K. (2009), “Cultural Flows and Cosmopolitanism in Mughal India: the Bishnupur Kingdom,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 46 (2), pp. 147-182.

Fisher, M. H. (2004), Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600-1857, New Delhi, Permanent Black.

Foltz, R. (1996), “The Mughal Occupation of Balkh: 1646-1647,” Journal of Islamic Studies, 7 (1) pp. 49-61.

Guha, R. (1983), Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Jasanoff, M. (2006), Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750- 1850, New York, Random House.

Kolff, D. H. A. (1990), Naukar Rajput and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan, 1450-1850, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mackay, P. (1995), British Victory in Egypt, 1801: The End of Napoleon’s Conquest, London/New York, Routledge.

Markovits, C. (2010), “How British was British India? Recovering the Cosmopolitan Dimension in the British-Indian Colonial Encounter,” in Jahrbuch für Europäische Überseegeschichte, 10, pp. 67-91.

Marshall, P.J. (1981), “Introduction” in P. Langford, ed., The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. V: India: Madras and Bengal 1774-1785, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 1-27.

Metcalf, T.R. (2007), “Projecting Power. The Indian Army Overseas,” Id., ed., Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena 1860-1920, Delhi, OUP, pp. 68-101.

Pollock, S. (2006), The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Pre-modern India, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press.

Rye, A. Singh (1993), “The Indian Community in the Philippines,” in A.K. Mani & K. S. Sandhu, eds., Indian Communities in South East Asia, Singapore, Institute of South East Asian Studies, pp. 708-74.

Sho, K. (1991), Indian Mutiny at Singapore, 1915, Calcutta, Ratna Prakashan.

Van der Veer, P. (2002), “Colonial Cosmopolitanism,” in S. Vertovec & R. Cohen, eds., Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice, Oxford, OUP, pp. 165-79.

Wickremesekera, C. (2002), “Best Black Troops in the World”: British Perceptions and the Making of the Sepoy 1746-1805, New Delhi, Manohar.

Wilson, W. J. (1882-89), History of the Madras Army, 4 vols, Madras, Government Press.

Notes

1 For an analysis centered around a regional example, see Chatterjee 2009: 147-182.

2 For a discussion of the notion of cosmopolitanism in the British-Indian colonial context, see Markovits 2010: 67-91.

3 On this failed expedition, that aimed at recapturing the ancestral lands of the Timurids in Central Asia, see Foltz 1996: 49-61 and Athar Ali 1967: 162- 167. I thank Corinne Lefèvre for these references.

4 In a letter from Manila of 25 December 1762, the British officer in command of the expedition, Robert Fell, reporting on dissatisfaction amongst sepoys at the rate of batta paid to them, wrote: “as they are a most necessary Corps here and even formidable to the Indians (i.e. the indigenous Filipinos), who hold Moors in the highest detestation, we thought it politic to indulge them in this…” Madras Military Consultations 1763, consultation no 73, P 251/49, India office Records, Asia Pacific and Africa Collections (APAC) of the British Library, London.

5 Indian troops were sent to the Netherlands Indies together with British troops in August 1945 to take over from the Japanese, but were caught in October in a ferocious fight with Indonesian nationalists who had risen against the British in the Eastern Javanese city of Surabaya, in which they sustained heavy losses. This was to be their last intervention outside India in the colonial era.

6 Metcalf 2007: 68-101. See also Bandhopadhyay 2011.

7 For a synthetic view, see Wickremesekera 2002.

8 Catherine Clémentin-Ojha, oral presentation, 25 january 2011, Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, Paris, “Kalapani ou les limites à ne pas franchir. Le tabou du voyage en mer au xixe siècle”.

9 A “caste handbook” regarding Brahmins issued by the Indian Army in the late 19th century for the use of its officers explained the difference between kachi food, i.e. food cooked in water, that had to be eaten at the cooking place (and could not therefore be eaten onboard ship), and pakhi food, i.e. food cooked in ghee, that could be carried in a haversack and eaten at any time or place. Caste Handbooks…, 1897: 15.

10 In a letter to Manila dated 26 May 1763, Company officials wrote to the British commander: “As we are informed that the Sepoys with you complain greatly for want of ghee, we have ordered a quantity to be purchased for them, which comes on this ship.” With an eye to costs, they however added: “We would have the same issued to them at such a price that the Company may not lose thereby.” Madras Military Consultations 1763, P 251/49.

11 Major-General Van Straubenzie to Birch, Secretary in the Military Department of the Government of India, Canton, 15 October 1859, India Office Records, Military Collections, Collection 438, “China Expeditionary Force 1859-60,” L/MIL/5/439.

12 Secretary to the Government of India in the Military Department to Major Atkinson, Quarter-Master General of the Army, 12 November 1859, ibid.

13 Major Temple to Major-General Van Straubenzie, 13 October 1859, enclosed in Van Straubenzie to Birch, passim.

14 Copy of minute in Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, 1867, East India (Native Troops), pp. 589-602.

15 Lieutenant Colonel Monier Williams, A few remarks on the use of spirituous liquors among the European soldiers, and on the punishment of flogging in the native army of the Honourable East India Company, London, D. S. Maurice, s.d. (1823?).

16 For an analysis of Burke’s views, see Marshall 1981: I-27.

17 Thus the newly-arrived Governor-General Lord Cornwallis wrote in a letter to the Duke of York of 10 November 1786: “The Sepoys are fine men and would not in size disgrace the Prussian ranks; I have heard undeniable proofs of their courage and patience in bearing hunger and fatigue, but, from the little I have hitherto seen of them, I have no favourable idea of their discipline.” Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, vol. I, London, John Murray, 1859, pp. 235-36.

18 Cornwallis to Court of Directors, 6 March 1789, East India Company Correspondence, Bengal Letters received 1st November 1788 to 12 March 1789, India office Records, E/4/47.

19 Mentioned in Callahan 1998.

20 This is in particular the view that informs the above-mentioned book by Bandhopadyay 2011. See note 6.

21 Letter of Adjutant General of the Army to Secretary in the Military Department, 2 January 1860, Collection 438, “China Expeditionary Force 1859-60.”

22 “Spanish protest to Robert Fell, British Commander, Manila, 18 July 1763,” A.P.T. (Archivum Provinciae Tarraconensis Societatis Iesu, San Cugat, Barcelona) XVIII, fo 13, reproduced in Documents illustrating the British Conquest of Manila 1762-1763…, vol. 8, London, Royal Historical Society, 1971, document no 104. The Spanish original mentions “el furor de los Cipayos” ( “the fury of the Sepoys”) and adds: “violentan a las mujeres en las calles publicas” ( “they rape women in the streets”).

23 Robert Fell to the archbishop of Manila, Monsignor Rojo, 20 July 1763, A.P.T. XVII, fo 14, reproduced in ibid., document 105.

24 The French army that Bonaparte left behind in 1799 was considered a direct threat to the British position in India. That is why Governor-General Richard Wellesley sent in 1801 a 3000-strong expeditionary force from India. The troops reached Egypt after the French, besieged in Alexandria by a large British force, had capitulated, but were nevertheless ordered to cross the desert between the Red Sea and the Nile Valley, a march that took a heavy toll on the sepoys, who did not take part directly in fighting the French, but were then used as garrison before their re-embarkation. For the campaign, see Mackay 1995, and for a narrative of the sepoys’ march across the desert, Walsh 1803: 190.

25 “Military Journal of John Budgen, Esq., Captain Eighty-Fourth Regiment, Aid (sic) de Camp on the Staff of General Sir David Baird during service at the Cape, India and Egypt from Feb. 7th 1796 to Feb. 14th 1802,” Mss Eur A 103, ff 53-54, APAC, quoted in Jasanoff 2006: 205.

26 The British resident in Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, famous later as the founder of Singapore, wrote in a letter: “The existence of the extensive remains in Java may have contributed to the encouragement of this intimacy between the Sepoys and the Sushunan (the ruler of Surakarta)” and added: “The Hindu sepoys admired the remains of Hindu antiquity found in Java.” Secret Department letter no 27, Bengal Secret and Political Proceedings, vol. 279, 4 May 1816, India office Records.

27 Raffles’ opinion, in the above-quoted letter, was that “it is rather the Sepoys than the Javanese who have been the principals in this affair.” Bengal Secret and Political Proceedings, vol. 279.

28 For an elaboration of this point, see Van der Veer 2002.

29 For a somewhat sketchy presentation, see Fisher 2004: 137-79.

Auteur

Directeur de recherche émérite au CNRS, membre du Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, il poursuit ses recherches sur des aspects de l’histoire de l’Inde coloniale en rapport avec une histoire plus globale, en particulier sur des réseaux marchands et sur le corps expéditionnaire indien en France pendant la première guerre mondiale.
Publications
– 2000 Gandhi, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po (« Références/Facettes »).
– 2000 The Global World of Indian Merchants c. 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama, Cambridge, CUP.
– 2015 C. M. & J.-L. Margolin, Les Indes et l’Europe. Histoires connectées, xve-xxie siècle, Gallimard ( « Folio histoire » 246).

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