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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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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).[40] 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.

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