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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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.


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