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The Mughal Empire and the Regional States
During the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire, which for two centuries had provided political and cultural leadership for virtually all of India, fragmented as a variety of regionally based rulers seized power. As these regional states clashed with each other and with the Emperor, little sense of a unified Indian nation existed. The expanding presence of rival European trading companies inserted further levels of discord into this contentious mix. Conflicting loyalties cut across each other, each demanding a different set of allegiances from the diverse peoples of India. Thus, over the generations preceding Dean Mahomet's birth in 1759, his family—among others—had to make fundamental and potentially dangerous choices about their commitments: to the nominally sovereign Mughal Emperor, to their Muslim community, to their distant relative who ruled the provinces of Bengal and Bihar, to their fellow elite of Patna city, or to one of the European East India Companies which increasingly offered employment.
The Mughal imperial dynasty drew its initial support from a band of central Asian and Iranian adventurers but over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it managed to command the submission and service of virtually all the peoples of India. The Mughals had invaded India from central Asia in 1526, justifying this conquest as their inheritance from their two world-conquering ancestors: Changiz Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). The great wealth and prestige of the Mughal imperial court continued to attract ambitious warriors, scholars, and merchants from west andcentral Asia. Dean Mahomet asserted that he descended from Arab and Turk immigrants drawn to India via Iran in the seventeenth century by the lure of honorable service to the Mughal Empire. Eventually, the Mughals coerced or enticed India's many regional rulers into subordination. Thus, the Mughal Emperors had woven together Muslim immigrants and members of India's regionally distinct local populations into a relatively centralized state; hitherto, this much of India had never been unified under one ruler.
Many factors held each of the many distinct regions of India together as a political, cultural, and economic entity. Every region—including Bihar, where Dean Mahomet's family lived—had long traditions as an autonomous state or, under the Mughal Empire, as a separate province. The majority of the people in each region had a distinctive language or dialect (although Persian had become the language of administration and high culture, linking the elites of each region to the Mughal imperial court). Much of the agricultural and craft production within each region circulated internally, yet the regions were linked commercially by interprovincial and international trade and fiscally by the Mughal land-revenue administration.
At the Mughal Empire's peak, its extensive land-revenue collection system drew from the Indian countryside sufficient wealth to support its elaborate centralized superstructure. The ornate Mughal imperial court and household, and the households of its upper officials which were nearly as grand, lavishly expended these vast resources. The dress, music, and literary compositions of the Mughal imperial court inspired imitation in a range of elite households of both Muslims and Hindus across the subcontinent. In turn, these households gave employment to cascades of subordinate families, including that of Dean Mahomet, providing as well cultural models for them to emulate in consumption patterns and norms of comportment. The Mughal Empire thus offered honorable and lucrative employment for large numbers of both indigenous Indians and immigrants. It created an expansive service elite of administrators and military who continued to dominate Indian life for centuries.
The Mughal imperial armies in particular had provided regular or occasional employment for literally millions of officers and soldiers each year. One authoritative account from the end of the sixteenth century listed 343,696 cavalry and 4,039,097 infantry as the military manpower base within the Mughal Empire. The Mughal armies, in turn, comprised vast markets for a variety of clothing, weapons, foodstuffs, and other necessities and luxury goods. They employed many times their number of provisioners, artisans, and other camp followers. These armies remained almost constantly deployed in extending the Empire, in enforcing imperial rule over resisting peoples within it, and in succession struggles among contending Mughal princes. Thus, their consumption of men and other resources continued to be insatiable. Indeed, one major factor in the eventual decline of the Mughal Empire from the end of the seventeenth century onward stemmed from its overexpenditure on the imperial court and army, given its declining income from an overtaxed agricultural and manufacturing resource base.
During the eighteenth century, each province in the Mughal Empire broke away from the effective control of the Emperor. A number of imperial governors entrenched themselves in their provinces and transformed their appointments into hereditary possessions. One such dynasty, prominent in Travels, was the Shiite Muslim family ruling (1722-1856) Awadh, in the central Gangetic plain. Dean Mahomet claimed kinship with another such dynasty: the Nawabs (Governors) ruling (1740-1854) Bengal and Bihar provinces, in eastern north India.
As the imperial center weakened, indigenous peoples in several regions produced their own leaders who fought to reestablish regional autonomy. Such peoples included the Marathas (from west-central India), the Sikhs (in central Punjab), and the Rohilla Afghans (in the upper Ganges plain)—who all appeared in Travels as threats to English rule. The rulers of such states had strong cultural bonds with the dominant people of their home region, unlike the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh. Nevertheless, virtually all regional rulers continued to submit symbolic and monetary offerings and promises of revenues to the Mughal court in order to legitimate their power with imperial-sanctioned authority. Such rulers then fought to extend their control over their neighbors, with varying degrees of success. Since each region had its own local culture, the conquered people often regarded these rulers as outsiders. For example, the people of Bihar, who spoke a local dialect of Hindi, became subordinated to the Bengali-speaking province of Bengal, under a Persian-speaking Nawab, who boasted family origins from outside of India but defended the province from Marathi-speaking conquerors from the southwest. In short, political identity proved highly diffuse and many loyalties remained divided. During Dean Mahomet's youth, service to one or another of the European trading companies seemed an attractive opportunity for families such as his.
The European East India Companies
The European presence in India had become quite diverse by the time of Dean Mahomet's youth, with a variety of implications for the shape of Indian society and politics. European travelers and merchants had been journeying overland to India, or via the established Indian Ocean trading networks, for centuries. The Portuguese had discovered a direct sea route to India in 1497, three decades before the Mughal Empire established itself. As the cosmopolitan Mughal Empire grew, it simply accommodated the burgeoning European presence without radical dislocations: in Mughal eyes, Europeans were just another set of peoples, having different values and strengths, but ones with whom they could deal.
During the seventeenth century, northern European states chartered national trading companies: England (1600), Holland (1602), Denmark (1616), and France (1664). Each European company built warehouse bases (called "factories") on the Indian coast with dependent factories inland. In Patna where Dean Mahomet grew up, satellite factories were erected by the English (c. 1650), Dutch (c. 1650), and French (c. 1720). Patna's production of saltpeter (essential for manufacturing gunpowder), indigo (a powerful dye for cloth), and opium (vital for the European trade with China) proved particularly attractive to these European merchants. To Dean Mahomet's family and others like them in Patna, the various European companies may not have seemed threatening to their order at first. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the expanding presence and aggressive policies of the competing European companies had began to dislocate and reorient trade and culture at all levels in India.
European companies vied with each other, and with private European merchants, for control over production, trade, and—increasingly—political influence. The English East India Company proved the most successful of the European powers but it felt continually threatened by French operations in Europe, Africa, and Asia, especially by the French diplomatic and military presence in the courts of many of the Indian rulers. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 had as one major objective a threat to the British in India. Indeed, the French and the British remained almost continuously at war until 1815 (when Dean Mahomet was fifty-six years old and had been living in Europe for over thirty years).
While other European companies in India at times proved annoying to the English, they did not present the same military threat as did the French. The English fought one brief war with the Dutch in 1759, the year of Dean Mahomet's birth, and subsequently reduced the Dutch Company to a limited role in India. In Travels, Dean Mahomet blamed the Dutch Company's remaining factory in Bengal for the extensive and—in his view—immoral trade in opium from India to China. Dean Mahomet did not explain that the English Company monopolized opium production, collection, and sale in India or that the importation of opium into China remained mostly in British hands. Even the English Company's Directors in London recognized the stigma of this trade, writing in 1781: "Under any circumstances it is beneath the Company to be engaged in such a clandestine trade; we therefore, hereby positively prohibit any more opium being sent to China on the Company's account." The English Company's officials in India, however, responded that the economics of purchasing tea in China made this "not a matter of choice but necessity," since they had little else the Chinese would buy. The Company's face-saving solution was to auction its opium in India to other merchants, including Dutch and private English traders, who then exported it to China.
The Danish Company, with a factory near Calcutta (the English capital in India), also remained an irritating commercial rival—but not a substantial danger—to the English. Indeed, the Danes in India remained in an uneasy state of dependence, relying on purchases of cotton cloth, saltpeter, and other goods controlled by the English. Therefore, a variety of European companies and private merchants interacted, always in competitive—and often in hostile—ways.
From the mid-eighteenth century on, the English Company sought enhanced political influence with India's regional rulers (including the Nawab of Bengal) so as to extend both its own special exemptions from their judiciary and also tariff privileges for its trade—and for the private trade of its European employees. This led eventually to a transformation in the commerce in Bengal and Bihar, at the cost of established Indian merchants. In particular, the English Company reshaped the region's extensive cotton hand-weaving industry around its demands and requirements, a major factor in the English Industrial Revolution.
In Patna and elsewhere in north India, many prominent families declined under these trying circumstances and their own infelicitous choices of allegiance and commitment. Other families, such as that of Dean Mahomet, managed to take advantage of the unstable situation. Over time, the most successful families were those which oriented themselves toward commercial, administrative, or military service to the English Company, acting as intermediaries between the British and the other peoples of India. Since Dean Mahomet and his family chose to serve the English Company's Bengal Army, and since Travels tells us so much about life within that army from an Indian perspective, it will be useful to examine this army's origins and early development.
The Diverse Origins of the Bengal Army
A significant shift for Indian society—and for Dean Mahomet's family in particular—came as the English gradually transformed the role and form of the military in India from the late eighteenth century onward. During the years that Dean Mahomet's father, his elder brother, and he himself served the Company's Bengal Army, what it meant to be a soldier in India changed markedly. The amalgamation of European military science with various military patterns traditional in India proceeded sporadically, in the Company's armies as well as in those of its allies and enemies.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Company had maintained only a limited military component: a few European officers, drawn either from the Royal Army or from the Company's commercial branch, serving to supervise European or part-European "sentinels" and Indian "peons" who had guarded the Company's factories. As the English Company involved itself in regional politics and in anti-French maneuverings, its armed forces grew. Indians with martial experience provided the only viable source—in terms of cost, quantity, and quality—for such expansion.
The English Company gradually developed a separate army in each of its three bases ("Presidencies"): Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. Although the youngest of the three, the Bengal Army developed into the largest. It arose directly out of the conflicts between the English Company and the Nawabs of Bengal. By the 1750s, the Company had five hundred soldiers (including Europeans and Indians) and ten to twenty British officers in Calcutta. In June 1756, the newly installed Nawab of Bengal, Siraj al-Daula (r. 1756-57), expelled the English from Calcutta in retaliation for English repudiation of his authority, and seized the Company's reputedly large treasury. His capture of Calcutta caused the ignominious flight of most of the Company's British officials and officers there, a flight which abandoned most of the Company's Indian employees and soldiers to his mercy. Many of the captured Europeans died, giving rise to the "Black Hole" legend. On receiving word in Madras of this disaster for the Company, Robert Clive undertook a hurried expedition north by sea to Bengal with what forces could be spared from the Company's Madras Army.
On his arrival in Bengal, Clive rapidly recaptured Calcutta (January 1757) and began local recruitment of three to four hundred Indians—professional and semiprofessional soldiers and officers, most originally from Bihar. Further armed confrontations led to the decisive battle at Plassey (June 1757), during which the English Company arranged the defection of much of the Nawab's army and defeated the rest. Indeed, Persian-language histories of the day explained the English Company's conquest as resulting from the internal factionalism and moral decline of the ruling Indian families of the region, rather than from English military superiority. After the English drove the incumbent Nawab out of office, the Company installed a series of Nawabs, each more tightly under its control than the last. In addition, the high officials of the Company extracted vast personal fortunes—totaling some 2,600,000—as gifts from successive Nawabs in exchange for their elevation.
Given the velocity of his military recruitment drives, Clive must have hired men from the extant Indian military labor market of professional and semiprofessional soldiers, many with experience serving in other armies. For most of these recruits, therefore, military service to the English Company would have been a job opportunity, rather than a career or an ideological cause. Only gradually did the Company shift military employment from more traditional and indigenous forms to a new model which reflected both Indian and European patterns.
The New Model: The Sepoy
Indian soldiers, including Dean Mahomet and others of his family and class, developed new roles under the command of European officers. With Clive as commander, the English Company started to train and equip Indian recruits uniformly along the lines of an innovative and distinctive military type: the sepoy. This Persian term (sipahi) had been long current in India to mean a cavalryman. From the mid-eighteenth century onward, however, the French and English Companies adapted it into their prime model for an Indian infantryman, trained, dressed, and armed in a semi-European manner.
The military science of Europe, which had developed over decades of costly war on that continent, brought to India a pattern of military discipline and supply that would prove decisive in the English Company's conquest of India. The quality of European weaponry was not then superior to the best that India could produce by hand. Nevertheless, England's system of mass manufacture meant that large numbers of identical weapons of reasonable quality could be supplied at a relatively low cost. Instead of groups of Indian soldiers, often recently hired by their Indian commander, wearing a variety of clothing and bearing nonstandard weapons and requiring custom-made ammunition, the Bengal Army began to substitute the regular training of standing military units in disciplined field maneuvers, supplied with uniform equipment. Such European models of "rational-bureaucratic" organization of indigenous soldiers gradually made the difference in India—and elsewhere in the European colonies in Asia and Africa.
In Europe, military scientists had discovered empirically that rigorous close-order drill of a standing, professional army enabled trained officers to reposition orderly bodies of troops even while under heavy fire or cavalry attack. In India, this meant that companies of sepoys with European or European-trained officers could stand up to—and maneuver while under attack by—the artillery and heavy cavalry that formed the core of many Indian armies. Further, the larger groups of less drilled foot soldiers that filled out the forces of Indian rulers and landholders had to give way before the sometimes smaller but frequently more disciplined and uniformly armed units of Company sepoys. As a contemporary of Dean Mahomet recognized in his Persian-language commentary, so long as the British-commanded soldiers "maintain their formations, which they call 'lines,' they are like an immovable volcano spewing artillery and rifle fire like unrelenting hail on the enemy, and they are seldom defeated." The sepoy thus formed the dominant model for soldiers within the Indian component of what would become the Company's new armies.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, many Indian states also followed this model. Across India, sepoys became increasingly a factor in war and in the enforcement of land-revenue demands, but such units proved relatively expensive. Individual European officers claiming the expertise to train sepoy units demanded from their Indian employers large salaries and often autonomy as well. The European-model weapons and training of sepoy units became a constant drain on the treasury of all who deployed them.
The English Company itself only just managed to sustain the cost of such European-pattern Indian armies. The Company's Bengal Army consumed a high percentage of its budget: over the decade prior to 1770, the Company spent about 8,000,000 directly on the Bengal Army (in addition to the costs of building and maintaining the army's bases), over 50 percent more than it spent on the purchase of trade goods. In the eyes of the Company's Directors and shareholders in London, the army was a largely unproductive expense; indeed, the army's activities seemed only to generate further costly political and military entanglements with India's regional rulers. Nevertheless, the Company recognized the growing necessity for an army for the defense and subjugation of territories under its control.
To support the expense of this army, the Company drew upon an extensive and effective revenue-collection administration, unprecedented financial support and subsidies from the English Government, and unsurpassed borrowing credit in India and England. Rival European companies and the regional rulers of India could not command such a range and scale of resources. Thus, they could not sustain the continuous employment of the tens of thousands of European-trained Indian officers and men—like those of Dean Mahomet's family—who composed the English Company's armies.
For many regional rulers, alliance with the Company, and hence access to the services of its sepoy armies, proved a superficially attractive but ultimately even more costly strategy. The Company subsidized large portions of its army by essentially renting its troops to its Indian allies. These troops went on the payroll of the Indian ruler, but remained under British command. Military dependency on the Company, however, meant that these rulers gradually lost much of their treasuries, sources of revenue, and finally their independence. Over the course of the period described in Travels, for example, the ruler of Awadh slipped from command over the most powerful military force in north India to almost complete military dependence on the Company's army and therefore on the Company's will. By the mid-nineteenth century all Indian rulers had succumbed either to annexation or to indirect control at the hands of the Company.
Throughout the period of Dean Mahomet's Travels, the boundaries of the Bengal Army remained ill-defined. Sepoys and Indian officers moved relatively easily from one army to another, including into or out of the Company's army and that of its opponents of the day. For example, Clive raised his third battalion of sepoys (eight hundred to a thousand men) at Patna in April 1758, mainly out of men who had seen military service in other armies. Dean Mahomet's father most probably entered the Company's army in this recruitment drive, between the births of his first and second sons.
Not until 1764 did the Bengal Army formally start to institutionalize its sepoy model. The Company found that the existing relatively informal organization and discipline of the Bengal Army had led to mutinies variously by its European officers, European soldiers, and Indian officers and sepoys. Following the suppression of a mutiny by sepoys near Patna in 1764, the Army established a regularized body of rules and systematic set of maneuvers, based on the code of standing orders then in force in the Royal Army.
This code of standing orders sought to bring further uniformity to the military conduct of the Bengal Army. Traditionally in India, a military labor contractor bargained for the best deal for himself and his professional or peasant-soldiers from any one of a number of possible military employers; soldiers felt free to shift from army to army as opportunity offered. Many sepoys continued to regard service with the Company's army as a temporary situation, to be entered into or left at their pleasure. In 1781, for example, the Company complained that whenever one of its sepoy battalions relocated to a different region, locally recruited sepoys regularly deserted it and reenlisted in the new battalion transferring into their region, rather than accept relocation. The English Company sought to reorient sepoys until they saw themselves as individuals bound professionally and by "honor" to the Company's army.
British commanders used a semi-European uniform and drill to try to professionalize sepoys and minimize individuality and visible ethnic or community differences. Hindu and Muslim sepoys—indeed sepoys from all religions and regions—had to dress and act uniformly, at least while on duty. The sepoy uniform reflected European elements mixed with British interpretations of Indian traditions. The standard-issue military coat and flintlock "Tower musket" (one stamped as tested at the Tower of London) were European in pattern. The necklace of beads—the relative quality of the glass, conch shell, or precious metal beads respectively denoting rank—was apparently a British adaptation of the gorget used in European uniforms to denote military rank. The Company's official specifications for a sepoy's uniform required: "1 turban, 1 cummerbund and caross [waist-shawl and crossed bands], 1 linen jacket, 1 pair of junghiers [military shorts], 1 coxcomb or turah [ornament], 1 silver regimental device for ditto," plus a round shield (target) suspended at the back of the left shoulder of both sepoys and Indian officers; Dean Mahomet supplied figure 2 to depict a sepoy and Indian officer in uniform.
For the Company, profit remained an intrinsic organizational principle in its army as well as its commercial operations. Each sepoy had to purchase his own uniform for Rupees 6, which gave a generous profit to his British commanding officers, who arranged to supply it. In addition, each sepoy had a fixed sum withheld from his monthly salary to pay for the new uniform coat he received each December. Yet the sepoy did not own the coat he so purchased; a discharged or promoted soldier had to give his used coat to his replacement. Thus, Indians inducted into the Company's Bengal Army increasingly found a vocation with professionalized characteristics growing ever more distinct from earlier military service patterns.
The Company continued to recruit Indians by the thousands annually for its Bengal Army from the 1760s onward. By 1765, Clive reorganized it into 3 Brigades (each consisting of 7 battalions of sepoys plus 1 regiment of European troops, 1 company of European artillery, and 1 troop of cavalry), totaling some 14,000-15,000 Indian soldiers and some 3,000 European officers and men. When Dean Mahomet attached himself to the Bengal Army (in 1769), it totaled 27,277 active Indian officers and men, in addition to about 522 European officers and 2,722 European soldiers. By the time Dean Mahomet resigned from the Bengal Army (in 1782), some 52,500 Indians were currently serving in it, and over 115,000 in the Company's three Presidency armies combined. In addition, many more Indians entered and then left the Company's armies over the years through resignation (as did Dean Mahomet), death, or disability. Thus, a substantial number of Indians enlisted in the Company's armies and submitted to the training and discipline that made them sepoys, then conveyed their experiences serving the British with them back into Indian society.
Further, a broad variety of Indian official servants and informal camp followers enveloped the European and Indian officers and soldiers. Camp servants formally employed by the Company worked under the command of Quartermasters to set up and move the camp, transport its baggage and equipment, and handle the distribution of its supplies. Additionally, individual soldiers, officers, and units had a variety of personal servants and camp followers, according to their rank and purse. Indian mistresses or families of soldiers or officers, both European and Indian, often accompanied the army—even in the field. The ratio of official servants and unofficial camp followers to soldiers varied but generally averaged two or three of each per soldier: some 35,000 per brigade. Feeding, clothing, and defending such a large concourse of people proved a continual logistical problem of enormous proportions. Arthur Wellesley (later famous as the Duke of Wellington) maintained that his experience organizing the logistics of his campaigns in India (1799-1804) prepared him for his successful contest with Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula. Dean Mahomet would himself number among the unofficial camp followers until he was twenty-three years old. In these ways, large numbers of Indians chose to enter the Company's military structure, either formally as sepoys or informally as camp followers; their collective participation in, and shaping of, British rule over India should not be overshadowed by the largely European accounts that have survived from this period.
The Bengal Army's European Regiments
Alongside Indian sepoys, European troops served in the Company's armies, but under quite different conditions. Unlike sepoys, European troops remained perennially in short supply and expensive; nevertheless, the Company believed them to be the heart of its army. The long English wars in Europe created a chronic shortage of able-bodied European males—even for the Royal Army which, by law, held precedence in recruiting over the Company. Consequently, the Company engaged contractors ("crimps") to supply Europeans—of any nationality, including French, German, and Swiss prisoners of war—at a rate of up to 5 per man. Indeed, London newspapers reported that the Court of Directors illegally arranged for European men to be kidnapped and forcibly impressed into its armies.
During this period, Company officers in India constantly complained, and London regularly made excuses, about the low quality and inadequate quantity of these European recruits. Mortality rates on those transport ships that reached India sometimes approached 50 percent. In addition, the high rates of deaths in India from disease—and occasionally from wounds—created a constant, and largely unmet, demand for European soldiers. Despite nominal requirements for age, size, and health, many of the recruits who finally reached India proved unfit for duty. In 1768, the Commander-in-Chief wrote about the latest crop of European recruits: "they are exceedingly bad...the refuse of our metropolis....The Company are at a great expence to send abroad annually a number of soldiers when in fact, instead of recruiting our army, they only serve to increase our Hospitals....[A]t present our European Regiments compared to a Battalion of Sepoys appear like a Regiment of Dwarfs."
Despite the difficulties in recruiting such European soldiers, and the relatively abundant supply of Indian soldiers, the Company saw these European infantry regiments as its moral core—although they comprised only about 15 percent of the Company's army in India. At this time European officers and European troops "mutinied" about as frequently as Indian troops. Nonetheless, many Britons in the Company believed that sepoys would only stand firm in battle if European regiments provided "stiffening."
Dean Mahomet's Youth in Bihar (1759-69)
From the time of Dean Mahomet's birth onward, the English Company proved the most consistent patron for his family and many others like it. Muslim families like his comprised an important component of the Company's army and administration, particularly in the upper ranks of Indians, but always below Europeans. In the Bengal Army over the period that Dean Mahomet chronicled, Muslims consistently composed nearly half of the higher Indian officer corps, about two-fifths of the lower Indian officers, and about one-third of the sepoys, far in excess of their minority proportion of the general population (roughly one-quarter). As the power of the Nawab of Bengal and the other mainly Muslim regional rulers of India declined, many members of the Muslim service elite decided to attach themselves to the rapidly expanding English East India Company's armies or administration. Additionally, Clive and others in the Company sought to retain an even balance between Hindus and Muslims in the army. The Company throughout this period devalued Bengalis as soldiers, preferring to recruit non-Bengalis for its Bengal Army: "the fighting Tribes of the Hindoos and Musselmen [Muslims], and as many of the latter as can be procured."
For the Company, as for the Mughals, strong class distinctions separated high Indian officers from lower officers and sepoys. The elite background of Dean Mahomet's father apparently led the Company to put him directly into one of the officer ranks in the Company's Bengal Army. His father reached the rank of subadar (lieutenant), the second highest that an Indian could attain at that time in the Company's army (after komidan, "commandant").
Dean Mahomet grew up in a context where the English East India Company increasingly forced and precipitated changes in virtually all aspects of life in India. These were years when the Company began to assert increasingly broader authority over the administration of Bengal and Bihar. By installing a series of their clients as Nawabs of Bengal, the English Company had gained political supremacy over the incumbent officials in Bihar as well. From 1757 to 1765, the English Company largely attempted to use the Nawab of Bengal's existing administration to extract revenues from the Bihar countryside. Dissatisfied with the results, the Company thereafter created an ever more British-controlled administration. In particular, the Company appointed Thomas Rumbold in 1766 to head the Patna Revenue Council, supervising the Nawab of Bengal's Deputy Governor for Bihar, Raja Shitab Rai.
To remain in his position of power over Bihar, Shitab Rai had to please Rumbold and other British officials of the Company. He lavishly entertained British officers and officials. Further, he collected ever increasing land revenues for the Company from Bihar, backed up by the force of Company troops—including those under the command of Dean Mahomet's father. Both landholders and villagers frequently engaged in armed resistance to such revenue exaction. Only when hard-pressed would they negotiate payment of that year's revenue. Dean Mahomet's father died in 1769 while enforcing Shitab Rai's revenue demand during a time of famine. Nevertheless, the Rajas who killed Dean Mahomet's father subsequently negotiated an adequate revenue payment and thus soon obtained their release from prison. Thus, the British and Shitab Rai may have regarded the death of Dean Mahomet's father as only an unfortunate but minor incident in their annual campaign to force landholders to pay their taxes; Dean Mahomet's family clearly regarded his sudden and premature death as a tragedy.
Dean Mahomet as Camp Follower (1769-81)
As the second son of a distinguished, but deceased, father, Dean Mahomet had to establish a career for himself. In earlier generations, he might have drawn on the traditional ties between his family and their relatives and patrons, the Nawabs of Bengal, for an opportunity for military service. By 1769, however, the Nawab's service promised little, at just the time a career in the Company's service seemed especially inviting.
The eleven-year-old Dean Mahomet reported his fascination with the colorful uniforms and confident bearing of the Company's British officers, as he watched them participate in the convivial life of Patna's high society. At a British tennis party, Dean Mahomet caught the eye of his future patron, Godfrey Evan Baker of Cork, Ireland. Baker, a newly appointed cadet at the beginning of his career, had just been assigned to the Third European Regiment of the Third Brigade in the Bengal Army. In a European regiment, little place existed for Dean Mahomet except as a camp follower. Although Dean Mahomet dressed and drilled in the regimental style, until age twenty-three he nevertheless remained attached to the Bengal Army only as a member of Baker's entourage.
Over Baker's years in India, his entourage would grow significantly. A Captain (the rank at which Baker retired) would ordinarily have thirty-five to forty servants and attendants; a Lieutenant Colonel over a hundred. As Dean Mahomet matured and gained experience, he probably took charge as majordomo of Baker's expanding household.
For the first dozen years of Baker's military service, he chose the lucrative career track of a Quartermaster commanding Regimental lascars (laborers) and other official uniformed camp servants, rather than a line officer commanding a regular infantry company. Quartermasters had to extract provisions for their regiment from the countryside, ensuring that Baker had far more contact with Indian society than most British officers. Further, he had continual opportunities to profit from provisioning his regiment, as well as to conduct his own personal trade. Since the Company spared its European regiments the most dangerous or onerous duties (relegating such duties to sepoy units), neither Baker nor Dean Mahomet engaged in combat during their first dozen years in the Bengal Army.
The complex political situation in India, however, meant that Baker's Brigade, with Dean Mahomet in his entourage, ranged across north India. Early in 1771, a threatening advance by the Marathas from the west toward Company territory determined the Company to dispatch the Third Brigade from Denapur cantonment (near Patna) to the Karamnasa River at Buxar.This expedition drew Dean Mahomet away from his mother in Patna; indeed, the entire life of the Brigade was disrupted. The existing stores in the cantonment—including tents, clothing, weapons, ammunition, and a panoply of other goods—had to be packed up or sold off and new stocks purchased for the campaign. The families of soldiers, servants, and camp followers all had to be left behind or brought along. Financial arrangements with local businessmen or moneylenders had to be wound up. For the transport of stores, the Brigade's Quartermasters had to obtain a thousand or more bullocks from reluctant villagers.
Once into the countryside, the Brigade's foraging and looting soldiers and their servants disrupted life in all the villages and towns they passed. Villagers who encountered this march in 1771 identified the damage from the Brigade with that of a devastating hailstorm; one district complained of Rupees 15,000 worth of losses. In addition, this journey to the western edge of Bihar apparently took Dean Mahomet on his first trip outside the Patna area, into territory clearly alien to him. The people of these territories were not reconciled to English rule as their sporadic raids on the regiment's camp, and their kidnapping of Dean Mahomet, demonstrated. On the banks of the Karamnasa River, which marked the western border of Bihar, the Brigade poised ready to advance further against the Marathas, whom Dean Mahomet later characterized as "disturbers of the public tranquility" (Letter XXXI).
When this latest Maratha threat receded and the hot season of 1771 intensified, the Company ordered the Brigade to withdraw in stages down the Ganges River toward Calcutta in order to repulse a dreaded French invasion. As the Brigade left Bihar, Dean Mahomet passed through countryside particularly resistant to Company rule. The narrow passes through the hills into Bengal had long been a much contested route as Paharis ("hill people") fought off outside control. Part of the Bengal Army's assignment was to suppress such resistance, a process that Dean Mahomet described in gory detail. Emerging from these passes, the Brigade moved slowly down to Calcutta, where it arrived in May 1772. For the next six months, Dean Mahomet lived in the Company's military headquarters, Fort William, at the center of Calcutta.
Calcutta, as the major center for the English Company's commerce and administration in India, had become a prosperous and entrepreneurial city. As the "City of Palaces," Calcutta stood second only to London in the British empire. Dean Mahomet described in impressed tones the city's bustling markets for local and international trade and the Company's expanding administrative structures. New—largely Hindu—commercial and administrative elites evolved and prospered in Calcutta; during the early nineteenth century these classes would begin the vibrant cultural movement known as the "Bengal Renaissance." For Dean Mahomet, however, these new elites seemed pretentious, filled with "supercilious disdain," and alien to men of his background (Letter XXXVII).
Some hundred and twenty miles to the north of Calcutta at Baharampur, the English Company had just constructed an expensive new base for its troops, adjacent to the Nawab of Bengal's capital of Murshidabad. Dean Mahomet and Baker shifted to these cantonments, where they remained for two years (1773-74). Here, Dean Mahomet rediscovered the culture from which his family came, but toward which he had become an outsider.
In contrast to Calcutta, the Nawab of Bengal's Murshidabad continued as a capital in decline from its former glory. The Company's periodic cuts in its pension to the Nawab, its forced reductions in his army, and its diversion of the administration from his officials into its own hands all meant that Murshidabad and the—largely Muslim—elite of the old regime had lost their sources of income. Even the main channel of the river had shifted away, making Murshidabad a literal backwater. Dean Mahomet's poignant depiction of himself as spectator to the passing of the Nawab's court suggested his own position on the outside of that fading world of his ancestors.
When the Third Brigade marched back up the Ganges in 1775, the journey brought Dean Mahomet into contact with the world of the central Gangetic plain—further west than he had ever been before. His fresh description of the people, countryside, and cities through which he passed reminds us of the cultural and ecological variety of the Indian subcontinent which made everything so new and striking to him. Each region evoked a different set of associations for him, and each was part of a different political entity. Benares, under a subordinate ally of the Company, Raja Chayt Singh, reminded Dean Mahomet of the sacred element in Indian culture and of its ancient accomplishments, which he proudly described without communal distinctions between Hindu and Muslim. The cities of Allahabad and Delhi—the Mughal imperial capital—led him to describe in rich detail the faded glories of the Mughals; at that time, the Emperor remained a palace prisoner of the Marathas. The Third Brigade camped near Bilgram in Awadh for two years, as part of the English Company's lease of its troops to the Awadh rulers.
The English Company sought to decrease its military expenses and simultaneously gain influence over its Indian allies by renting them parts of its Bengal Army. This sometimes left the Army vulnerable to dangerous entanglements in those allies' affairs. In 1774, parts of the English Company's Bengal Army had fought on behalf of the Awadh ruler Shuja al-Daula (r. 1754-75) against his neighbors, the Rohilla Afghans. Dean Mahomet, and many British officers, complained that the Bengal Army bore the burden of the fighting but the Awadh ruler received the spoils—including captured Rohilla princesses. Although Dean Mahomet remained in the Baharampur cantonments during this war, he recounted the Awadh ruler's mortal wound at the hand of the Rohilla princess whom he sexually violated—an event widely rumored at the time but unsubstantiated.
At the end of 1775, Dean Mahomet and the Third Brigade bivouacked in Bilgram, taking their turn on the Awadh ruler's payroll. In June 1776, while Baker's European Regiment remained safely in garrison, sepoy battalions of their Brigade bloodily suppressed a mutiny by the Awadh army against the new Awadh ruler, Asaf al-Daula (r. 1775-97). The Brigade incurred in the process substantial casualties—and the consternation of the Company's government against this unauthorized intervention in the domestic affairs of Awadh. The Third Brigade finally abandoned Bilgram in October 1777, burning that base to deny it to the Awadh ruler. The Brigade's withdrawal reflected the Company's effort to pull back from such deep involvement in Awadh. In his account of Awadh and its capitals of Lucknow and Faizabad, Dean Mahomet emphasized the immorality of its rulers and also their splendor (see figure 3).
Over the next three months (November 1777-January 1778), Dean Mahomet marched with the Third Brigade some eight hundred miles down the Ganges River to Calcutta. News of the declaration of renewed war between France and England reached Calcutta in July 1778, mobilizing massive preparations for the defense of that city from the expected French invasion. For nearly three years, the Third Brigade stood ready to defend Calcutta: in cantonment at Calcutta (January 1778-September 1779), then Baharampur (September 1779-December 1780). Meanwhile, other parts of the Company's armies won and lost against its enemies elsewhere in India. From a distance, Dean Mahomet took pride in the Company's daring capture of the supposedly impregnable fortress of Gwalior during the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82). He also highlighted a "victory" by Colonel Baillie in the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-84) against Haydar Ali, a Muslim military entrepreneur who had subordinated the Hindu dynasty of Mysore state and then challenged the Company for control over peninsular India. In fact, the Mysore army defeated Baillie and killed or captured his entire detachment of 3,720 men (September 10, 1780). Dean Mahomet wrote little about his own life during these years in garrison.
Dean Mahomet as Bengal Army Officer (1781-82)
With the promotion of his patron, Baker, Dean Mahomet entered a new phase of his career, as an official provisioner and then subaltern officer in the Bengal Army. In January 1781, Baker's seniority garnered him a promotion to Captain and command of one of the two sepoy battalions in Major William Roberts's Thirtieth Infantry Regiment in the Second Brigade, then stationed up the Ganges at Cawnpur. This promotion came despite Baker's recent conviction by court-martial for insubordination, brought against him by his commanding officer—an event which Dean Mahomet refrained from mentioning in Travels. As Baker marched to Cawnpur, he took command of a detachment of two companies of sepoys and two companies of Europeans (some four hundred men) also going in the same direction. He used his newly acquired patronage to appoint Dean Mahomet as market master to supply this detachment by collecting provisions from the territories through which they passed. Local resistance to the depredations of Bengal Army sepoys led to Dean Mahomet's narrow escape from death at the hands of a hostile peasantry.
After taking command of his new battalion at Cawnpur, Baker again exercised his patronage by arranging to have Dean Mahomet appointed jemadar (ensign) in one of its elite grenadier companies under his command. This appointment, however, violated the Bengal Army's formal regulations for such appointments, since Dean Mahomet lacked the necessary seniority. The irregularity of his appointment may have made Dean Mahomet feel reticent about command of this grenadier company. Further, he was much shorter (about five feet tall) than the men he commanded, who were selected for their imposing height (closer to six feet). Nonetheless, Dean Mahomet took command, although he never mentioned any of his men or other Indian officers in Travels. As was customary, Dean Mahomet had personally to pay a gratuity of half a month's salary to Major Roberts, commanding the Regiment, for confirmation of his appointment.
As officers in a sepoy regiment, Dean Mahomet and Baker engaged in far more combat than they had during their dozen years with a European regiment. Further, by 1781, the Company's financial situation had become particularly precarious. Its military expansion and extremely costly wars against the Marathas and Mysore had drained its treasury. Governor-General Hastings (1772-85) sought to extract money from the Company's enemies and thus prevent bankruptcy and placate the British Parliament and Company's Directors.
Almost immediately after Dean Mahomet's appointment as officer, his Regiment joined the expedition under Colonel Morgan to drive the Marathas out of the Kalpi region, just south of the Jamuna River, and collect the region's revenues for the Company. In April 1781, Morgan attacked Kalpi fort and expelled the Maratha garrison. He then demanded that the local administration pay the Company the tribute it had previously submitted to the Marathas. When the Maratha negotiator sought to prevaricate until his force could fully collect that season's harvest, Morgan launched a preemptive strike (including Dean Mahomet's company) against the Maratha force of some two thousand cavalry. The Marathas withdrew with no loss on either side.
In addition to using the Bengal Army for fiscal and territorial gains at the expense of its enemies, Hastings also used military threats to extract money from its allies: the rulers of Benares and Awadh. In the fall of 1781, Hastings ordered Dean Mahomet's battalion to the Awadh capital, Lucknow, where he intended to visit and thus put pressure on the Awadh ruler for more funds. Meantime, Hastings personally visited Benares to force that Raja to contribute more to the Company. Immediately after having reached Lucknow, however, Dean Mahomet's battalion received a desperate message from Hastings ordering it to rush to Benares and rescue him.
Raja Chayt Singh (r. 1770-81, d. 1810) of Benares had been a subsidiary ally of the Company since 1775. By treaty, the Raja promised to pay Rupees 2,340,249 annually to the Company, and to maintain troops ready to assist its army. In 1778-79, the Company unilaterally increased its demands, asserting that the Raja, as the Company's "feudal vassal," was obliged to provide as much cash and military support as his overlord needed. For some time, Chayt Singh had argued that these enhanced demands exceeded what the extant treaties required, and that he could not afford to meet them in any case. After Hastings arrived at Benares in August 1781, he had upped the pressure on Chayt Singh by ordering two companies of sepoys to arrest him. Chayt Singh's loyal troops assembled to release him and slaughtered the Company's sepoys. By an oversight on the part of their British officers, these sepoys had not been issued ammunition; 174 sepoys and their British officers were killed or severely wounded. When open warfare broke out, Hastings himself nearly fell into Chayt Singh's hands and had to retreat while issuing frantic orders for all the Company's troops in the region to assemble for his rescue. Another ill-conceived Company attack led to another massacre of sepoys, French "Rangers" in the Company's service, and their officers. This second defeat forced Hastings to flee for his life. Dean Mahomet's battalion marched rapidly from Lucknow, while other Company troops escorted Rupees 50,000 (borrowed from the Awadh ruler) in order to pay the Company's troops their long overdue salaries.
After Dean Mahomet's company arrived at Benares on September 13, he took a leading part in the attack on Patita fort. Hastings described this fort as: "much stronger, and the approach more hazardous, than he had expected...a small square house of stone, itself fortified with four round towers, and enclosed with a high rampart, and a ditch, which is in most parts broad and deep." Grenadier companies of the Thirty-Fifth and Thirtieth Regiments—including Dean Mahomet's company—assembled into a shock force which successfully stormed the fortress, at their loss of twenty-one casualties. In his report, Hastings especially commended the grenadiers and their British commander, Captain Lane. Dean Mahomet modestly highlighted Baker's service in this battle rather than his own.
Following this action, Dean Mahomet and Baker took on the task of commandeering much needed supplies from the hostile countryside for the Company forces pursuing Chayt Singh's remaining army. After Major Popham drove Chayt Singh into exile, he negotiated a surrender of the virtually impregnable fortress of Bijigarh in November. When this fortress fell, Popham interpreted a private letter from Hastings to mean that he could divide Chayt Singh's vast treasure among his troops "on the drum-head" (i.e., immediately, on the spot). Since this treasure amounted to some Rupees 4,000,000 (400,000) cash plus much jewelry, and since the whole purpose of Hastings's journey was to extract funds from Chayt Singh for the Company's official use, this summary distribution led to considerable acrimony within the Company. Popham himself took Rupees 294,000 while each British Captain received Rupees 22,478 and even sepoys received Rupees 50 each. Despite their protests, neither Dean Mahomet nor Baker received anything since their units were not present at the time Bijigarh surrendered. The Company, on its part, demanded that all the prize money be returned, and instituted court-martial proceedings and civil suits against those officers who refused to comply.
In Dean Mahomet's final series of operations as part of the Bengal Army, he helped suppress insurrection in the Benares countryside. After expelling Raja Chayt Singh, the Company installed his infant nephew in his place under the guidance of a Regent, but with the reduced status of zamindar (landholder) rather than ruler. The Company also raised its demand on Benares to Rupees 4,000,000 annually. It further placed the civil and judicial administration under the supervision of its Resident political agent. This divided authority led to tension and mutual recriminations. Baker and Dean Mahomet's battalion had orders to impose this new government's authority on the villagers in the region, who resisted it. In particular, Baker and Dean Mahomet's battalion undertook punitive expeditions into the countryside around Ghazipur and Jaunpur. Dean Mahomet mentioned his promotion to subadar during this service in Benares. Nevertheless, the brutality of these expeditions seems to have inspired him to elegiac poetry about the tragic waste of war.
Subsequently, Dean Mahomet abruptly recorded that he and Baker decided to resign from the Army and move to Ireland. Behind this cryptic statement lies much that illuminates both Dean Mahomet's own possible divided loyalties and also the hostility between the Bengal Army and the Indian countryside. Although Dean Mahomet did not mention it, Baker's resignation eventuated from accusations against him by villagers that he had extorted money from them. Governor-General Hastings had ordered Baker to arrest three alleged murderers of a Brahmin named Dharma Dube, early in 1782. The Benares Regent complained to Governor-General Hastings that, instead, Baker had seized an entire village and held it for ransom. Hastings thus ordered Baker recalled from active duty in disgrace in July 1782. Although the Company's Resident in Benares investigated and declared Baker not guilty of these accusations, Baker resigned from his command of a battalion in the Thirtieth Regiment in October 1782. He may also have given notice that he intended formally to resign from the Army; the rules of service required a year's advance notice.
On his part, Dean Mahomet had come to find his career in the Bengal Army disagreeable, particularly in contrast to accompanying Baker into a new life in Ireland. Dean Mahomet's defense of the deposed Raja Chayt Singh and his obvious pain at the destruction and suffering inflicted by the Bengal Army on the Indian countryside—necessary to impose order as they might have been in his eyes—may suggest his mixed feelings about his position in that army. His explicit reasons for resigning his commission were his own "desire of seeing that part of the world" and conviction "that I should suffer much uneasiness of mind, in the absence of my best friend," Baker (Letter XXXV).
Dean Mahomet in Transit (1782-84)
Following Baker's dishonorable recall and Dean Mahomet's resignation, they took time to visit Dhaka city and explore the Sunderbans jungle on their way to Calcutta. Even for ordinary transfers between postings, the Bengal Army allowed British officers a generous amount of time: six weeks for this trip to Calcutta. If he followed the usual practice, Baker hired at least three boats: a twelve-oared vessel for comfortable travel during the day and for sleeping at night, an attendant baggage boat for luggage and servants, and a separate cookboat. Dhaka remained famous at that time for the court of its Nawab, its urbane culture, and the quality of its fine muslin cloth and other products. Thus, Baker and Dean Mahomet may have been attracted to Dhaka to indulge in tourism and/or in private trade, purchasing goods for later sale in Calcutta or Ireland. Their subsequent voyage through the deltaic Sunderbans brought them into a densely jungled maze of low islands. British officers customarily took with them an escort of sepoys, since gang robbers lurked in fast boats among the islands.
The year that Baker and Dean Mahomet spent in Calcutta (January 1783-January 1784) must have been somewhat painful for them both. Dean Mahomet, having resigned from his prestigious appointment as subadar, apparently returned to the status of majordomo or dependent companion in Baker's household. Baker, also having effectively terminated his career in the Army, marked time as a supernumerary officer with no specific command. While in Calcutta, Baker may also have been winding up his business affairs, or passing them on to his younger brother, Lieutenant William Massey Baker, before leaving India permanently.
Baker officially resigned on November 27, 1783, citing pressing family responsibilities. In deciding to end his career after some fifteen years in India, Baker was not unusual. In the more prestigious civil service, less than half the inductees of his age set still remained in service. Further, prospects for promotion in the Army's officer corps (even for someone without Baker's ta inted record of service) were in decline, as looming peace in Europe and India brought reductions in the Company's army. Cutting their ties to the English Company, Dean Mahomet and Baker left India on a Danish ship, rather than an English East India Company vessel.
The Danish and English Companies remained commercial rivals. The English Company tried to control the export of capital from India, desiring to harness it for the Company's own use. The Danish Company also tried to tap this capital for its purchases of Indian goods and thus offered better interest rates than the English.
On a more personal level, Dean Mahomet's emigration may not have been legal. The English Company had long worked to prevent the creation of an indigent community of Indians in London—mostly dismissed or runaway sailors or servants—since, by law, the Company was ultimately responsible for their passage back to India. Thus, the Company required all Europeans bringing an Indian servant with them to post a bond of 50 pounds as surety for the return passage of that Indian. The English Company also repeatedly warned the Danish Company to respect this requirement. Although the Danish Company assured the English that they would comply with this request, it is quite likely that the Danes circumvented this, as they did other English restrictions on them. We do not know Dean Mahomet's legal status since he was not a simple servant, but sailing on a nominally Danish ship, and boarding it outside Calcutta, might have avoided the necessity for Baker to post such a bond, one he never would have recovered since Dean Mahomet never returned to India.
The very ship on which Baker and Dean Mahomet sailed added to the tension between the English and Danish Companies. This ship (originally named Fortitude), some seven hundred tons, had been part of the fleet built for the English East India Company. A French frigate, La Fine (thirty-six guns), had captured Fortitude off the Madras coast. The French then sold the captured ship to Portuguese merchants in Calcutta. These Portuguese merchants, however, failed to raise sufficient capital to fill Fortitude for a return voyage to Europe. Eventually a British consortium in Calcutta bought Fortitude. In the summer of 1783, as peace between the English and French approached, merchants knew the first ships to reach Europe with Indian goods would reap a huge profit. To avoid English Company control, the new owners reflagged and renamed the ship as a Danish vessel, Christiansborg, with Ole Bie (head of the Danish factory) as the pro forma shipowner and Captain Adam Doack in command.
After a year in Calcutta, Baker and Dean Mahomet sailed downriver to board Christiansborg, as the ship was loading a secret cargo. Bie sent a load of cloth from the Danish factory, officially consigned for other ships, seeking to evade English Company duties. Baker and Dean Mahomet sailed with a cargo costing 102,656—what Bie called the "richest cargo that any Danish ship has ever brought from India to Denmark."
The trip to Madras often took only the week Dean Mahomet mentions; in a less favorable season, this trip could take up to three months. Christiansborg touched on the Coromandal Coast near Madras to load more piece goods. As with many other such nominally Danish vessels, it probably also loaded cloth diverted from the English Company's stocks by profiteering English Company officials.
During his brief visit to Madras, Dean Mahomet noted both the European and the Indian parts of the city. His military training led him to assess the str engths and foibles of Fort St. George, at the heart of the European presence. He also remarked upon the pomp of the procession of the Governor of Madras, George Macartney. For someone like Dean Mahomet, the indigenous language, culture, and people of Madras appeared quite different from those of his own Bihar, a thousand miles to the north. He particularly described the "female choristers," by which he probably meant devadasi s (women trained in dance and music who were nominally married to a Hindu divinity). Following a tempestuous voyage, Christiansborg finally reached its next port of call, St. Helena in the south Atlantic, where it refitted and reprovisioned for ten days (June 13-23, 1784).
Dean Mahomet's brief mention of his arrival in southwest England, at Dartmouth, may conceal much. This region remained a center for smuggling of goods into and out of England. It is possible that some of Christiansborg's cargo made its way ashore to England in this small port or was transshipped to a coastal trader bound for Cork where Baker's father held charge of shipping, in the powerful office of Water Bailiff (harbormaster).
Although thousands of Indians made the trip to Europe over these years, apparently no one else had exactly Dean Mahomet's status. Most were sailors, servants, wives, or mistresses of Europeans. A few were travelers or visiting dignitaries. Dean Mahomet clearly fit into none of these categories. In his decisions to remain in Britain as an immigrant, to create a distinct identity there, and to record his life in his own words, he remained unique during his lifetime. His own account, reproduced in the next chapter, reveals his perspectives on the peoples of India and their changing relationship to British rule. The final chapter traces Dean Mahomet's life in colonial Ireland and Georgian and Victorian England (1784-1851).
Excerpted from The Travels of Dean Mahomet by Dean Mahomet. Copyright © 1997 by the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.