How many remember it was soldiers from the Bengal Army who helped the British defeat the Chinese and take Hong Kong? Amitav Ghosh tells the story in Flood of Fire, which brings his epic Ibis trilogy to a close.
River of Smoke, the previous volume, ended with the British in Hong Kong after being driven out of Canton for opium trading. The Chinese emperor banned the trade alarmed at the opium addiction among his people, but the British were determined to carry on the lucrative business by force if necessary and sent soldiers and warships to China. The soldiers included both Indians and British.
River of Smoke (published in 2011) and Sea of Poppies (2008), the curtain-raiser in the trilogy, featured a large cast of characters. They are all here in Flood of Fire (2015) – Neel Rattan Halder, the Bengali zamindar and Raja of Raskhali, who escapes to China after being falsely convicted and dispossessed of his property, Burnham the scheming merchant who dispossessed Neel, Baboo Nob Kissin, his Bengali agent, Zachary Reid, the American sailor, Paulette the horticulturist, and all the others. It’s a huge, sprawling novel. There are star-crossed lovers, adultery, tragedy.
It has added value for the light it sheds on the Bengal Army. I can’t recall any recent novel that gives a more detailed picture of the sepoys and officers of the East India Company.
What makes it all the more interesting is that it describes the army that fought in the First Opium War (1839 to 1842). That was just a decade before the sepoys turned against the British in the War of 1857.
One of the reasons the sepoys rebelled against British is they had to serve overseas, which made them outcasts, it is said. But there were regional differences among the sepoys. As Neel explains to his friend, Zhong Lou-si, in China:
“In general the sepoys from Bengal do not like to fight abroad. That is why the British often use sepoys from Madras for foreign campaigns.”
There had been mutinies in the Bengal Army even before the War of 1857.
Mutiny and foreign wars
Sepoys mutinied in Barrackpore, near Calcutta, then the capital of British India, in 1824 when they were about to be sent to fight in the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-1826).
Havildar Kesri Singh, one of the principal characters in Flood of Fire, fought in Burma. The war and the Barrackpore mutiny are both described in the story:
Two years after his first foray overseas Kesri was back in Burma.
The campaign got off to a bad start. While the force was still being assembled in Barrackpore, the troops learnt they would have to bear many of the expenses of the march…
This caused a great deal of resentment, especially in a regiment that had long been notorious for the laziness and incompetence of its English officers. Feelings ran so high that one morning the regiment refused to parade when ordered to do so.
On the following morning the Jangi Laat (or “War Lord” as the commander-in-chief was known) arrived suddenly in Barrackpore with two British regiments and a detachment of cannon. The sepoys who had refused to fall in were called out and ordered to surrender their arms. When they hesitated to obey the War Lord ordered the artillery detachment to fire on them. Many sepoys were killed and the rest ran away or were taken prisoner. Eleven men were hanged and a large number were sentenced to hard labour or transportation to distant islands. The regiment was disbanded…
The violence of these measures silenced the rest of the force, but morale was low and sank even lower when they arrived in Burma. Their route led through dense forests… The Burmese were experienced in jungle warfare…
On top of all this, fevers and disorders of the stomach took a terrible toll…
Kesri and his regiment couldn’t rest in peace even after they returned from Burma.
Over the next few years, the men of the Pachesi were almost continuously in the field, fighting in Assam, Tripura and the Jungle Mahals.
Nevertheless, they were proud to serve in the army.
Pay, allowances, pension
Havildar Bhyro Singh told Kesri’s father there was no other army like theirs.
While the basic pay might not be higher than in other armies – just six rupees a month – what counted was that the money was always delivered in full and on time. Besides, there were regular increments, with rank: a naik received a basic pay of eight rupees, a havildar ten, a jamadar fifteen, and a subedar thirty…
The Company’s allowances were more generous, said Bhyro Singh, than those of any other army: they added up to almost as much again as the basic pay… As for the booty taken in battle, the splitting of the spoils was always scrupulously fair. Why, after a major battle in Mysore, the English general had kept only half the loot for himself! The rest was divided fairly amongst the various ranks of officers and sepoys.
But that was still not the best of it, said the havildar. The Company Bahadur was the only employer in all of Hindustan that looked after its men even after they had left service. When they retired they were handed something called a “pension” – a salary, of at least three rupees a month, that was paid to them for the rest of their lives. On top of that they could get land grants if they wanted. If wounded, they were provided with free medical care wherever it was needed.
The sepoys were respected by others. Kesri marries the daughter of a wealthy family. But he misses the routine of military life. So he returns to the army. His family also wants him to do so, he realizes, because of the money and the prestige.
The sepoys were proud high-caste men whose sensitivities were respected by their officers. Bhyro claimed: “Already the sahibs have done more to keep the lower castes in their places than our Hindu kings did over hundreds of years. In the gora paltan no one can join unless he is known to be of high caste… Why, even the girls supplied by the Company, for our red bazars, are always from high castes.”
Officers could be close to their men. Kesri is close to Captain Mee and goes with him to fight in the Opium War as one of the Bengal Volunteers. The soldiers who accompany them are volunteers who chose to join the expedition. They have incentives. Captain Mee expects to make more than four hundred rupees from the expedition.
The British in India picked up Indian words and phrases. Mrs Burnham, the merchant’s wife and a general’s daughter, speaks a mix of English and Hindi. “Oh Mr Reid!” she tells Zachary after having an affair with him. “Now it is you who is being the gudda. Surely you can see that it would not suit me at all to be a mystery’s mistress, living in some dark hovel. And if I were on your hands all day long, you too would quickly tire of me. In a week or two you would run off with a larkin of your own age.” (“Gudda” is Hindi for “ass”, “mystery” in Hindi means a craftsman and “larkin” is a girl.)
Of course, there was racism too. There’s tension between the British and Indian regiments. When they reach Canton, Kesri and his men pitch their tents on the best available spots but are forced to move out by a Cameronian colour sergeant who calls them “coolies”. Nevertheless, they fight together against the Chinese and win.
A decade later they will be enemies, the Bengal Army revolting against the British in 1857. But there is no intimation of that in Flood of Fire, which ends with British, Parsi and other traders buying land on Hong Kong’s shores in an auction.
If anyone wants to know, the Bengal Army ceased to exist in 1895 when it was merged with the Bombay Army and the Madras Army to form the Indian Army.