The following paragraphs from the Internet Archive online version of Lawrence’s Essays’s on British India has particular importance because it immediately precedes the 1857 Mutiny and the subsequent major shift in its status as it came under the direct control of the British government rather than that of the East India Company, a private company. — George P. Landow]

Left: A Company's Seapoy. 1815. Middle: Indian infantryman of 66th Regiment. 1830. Right: 38th Bengal Infantry; Native officer & sepoy. 1881. All three courtesy of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

It seems odd, even bizarre, that Sir Henry Lawrence, should begin an argument for making deserving Indian soldiers officers with the statement that “Native officers have long since been voted useless. They are great incumbrances in war; they are nonentities in peace.” The explanation of this apparent paradox begins to become clear when Lawrence, who served as Chief Commisioner in Oude and Provisional Governor-General of India in the 1840s, tells the reader,

Occasionally a lion-hearted old fellow of seventy will keep up with his company in a charge or on a forced march; but he forthwith dies of exhaustion, after having, perhaps for a year or more during the campaign, put the commissariat to the expense of carrying grain for him, three or four servants, a pony, and half or a whole camel. In quarters they have nothing to do but to brood over their position; to feel that they are nominally officers, and yet that the serjeant-major is liable to command them, and that beardless boys are every day put over them.

In other words, he objects to the East India Company's policy of promoting elderly Indian soldiers to what were essentially make-believe positions of authority, pointing out that “the motive of Government in having three native officers attached to each company and troop — who have nothing to do, and whose ages may be said to average sixty-two — must be their supposed moral influence with the sepoys, and the encouragement given to the latter by placing before their eyes their kinsmen promoted to such grades, and living comfortably and in honour among them.” If that was the government’s idea, says Lawrence,

how much more potent would this moral influence be, if the old men were comfortably seated under their own neem or mangoe trees, talking to their grandchildren and to the wondering villagers gathered around them, of the beneficence of the Honourable Company, instead of toiling in the hot winds on treasure parties, or vexing themselves under young European officers in petty and discomforting duties unsuitable to their age, in which, though they are present in person, they can scarcely be called performers. [24/25]

Lawrence points out that the “foundation-stones of our rule” in India are dependable, regularly paid salaries of its native troops and the equally important establishment of pensions for their long service. For most soldiers that security and reward are enough. For “the lower orders our service is a splendid one,” but “it offers no inducement to superior intellects, or more stirring, spirits. Men so endowed, knowing they can always gain their bread in any quarter, leave us in disgust, and rise to rank in foreign services.”

Indian Army Officers in the later yers of Victoria’s reign. Left: Indian Native Cavalry Officer. 1899. Middle: Kot Dafadar Major. 5th Bombay Cavalry. 1830. Right: Indian Native Cavalry. c. 1870-90. All three courtesy of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Moreover, Lawrence presciently warns, “Did the times avail, they would raise standards of their own, and turn against us the discipline they learnt in our ranks.” He then offers several examples, including “commandants in the Mahrattah and Seikh service,” who began as “privates in our army.” Instead of losing such men to other, often enemy, armies, he urges the British government and the East India Company to “bind such men to our interests” with rank and powers of command, something particularly important “in a land, too, that, above all others, has been accustomed to see military merit rewarded, and to witness the successive rise of families from the lowest conditions.”

Lawrence, hardly the naive optimist, readily admits that “there is always danger in handling edged tools, but justice and liberality forge a stronger bond” than the present stinginess and suspicion. “We hold that no place or office should be absolutely barred to the native soldier, although the promotion of every individual should be grounded on his individual merits, and the requisite cautions be taken that he should not be tempted beyond his strength.” — the same advice he has for the promotion of English officers. Knowing how much the English liked to regard themselves as heirs of Rome and the Roman empire, he reminds his readers that the “grandsons of the Gauls who opposed Caesar, were senators of Rome” (25).

Related material


Lawrence, Sir Henry Montgomery. Essays, Military and Political, Written India. London: W. H. Allen, 1859. Internet Archive. Inline version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 7 November 2018.

Last modified 18 January 2019