Frederick Engels in the New-York Tribune 1858

The British Army in India

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, June 26, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Our indiscreet friend, Mr. William Russell of The London Times, has recently been induced, by his love of the picturesque, to illustrate, for the second time, the sack of Lucknow, to a degree which other people will not think very flattering to the British character. It now appears that Delhi, too, was “looted” to a very considerable extent, and that besides the Kaiserbagh, the city of Lucknow generally contributed to reward the British soldier for his previous privations and heroic efforts. We quote from Mr. Russell:

“There are companies which can boast of privates with thousands of pounds worth in their ranks. One man I heard of who complacently offered to lend an officer whatever sum he wanted if he wished to buy over the Captain. Others have remitted large sums to their friends. [...] Ere this letter reaches England, many a diamond, emerald and delicate pearl will have told its tale in a very quiet, pleasant way, of the storm and sack of the Kaiserbagh. It is as well that the fair wearers ... saw not how the glittering baubles were won, or the scenes in which the treasure was trove.... Some of these officers have made, literally, their fortunes... There are certain small caskets in battered uniform cases which contain estates in Scotland and Ireland, and snug fishing and shooting boxes in every game-haunted or salmon-frequented angle of the world.”

This, then, accounts for the inactivity of the British army after the conquest of Lucknow. The fortnight devoted to plunder was well spent. Officers and soldiers went into the town poor and debt-ridden, and came out suddenly enriched. They were no longer the same men; yet they were expected to return to their former military duty, to submission, silent obedience, fatigue, privation and battle. But this is out of the question. The army, disbanded for the purpose of plunder, is changed for ever; no word of command, no prestige of the General, can make it again what it once was. Listen again to Mr. Russell:

“It is curious to observe how riches develop disease; how one’s liver is affected by loot, and what tremendous ravages in one’s family, among the nearest and dearest, can be caused by a few crystals of carbon. ... The weight of the belt round the private’s waist, full of rupees and gold mohurs, assures him the vision” (of a comfortable independency at home) “can be realized, and it is no wonder he resents the ‘fall in, there, fall in!’ ... Two battas, two shares of prize-money, the plunder of two cities, and many ‘pickings by the way’, have made some of our men too rich for easy soldiering.”

Accordingly, we hear that above 150 officers have sent in their resignations to Sir Colin Campbell — a very singular proceeding indeed in an army before the enemy, which in any other service would be followed up in twenty-four hours by cashiering and severest punishment otherwise, but which, we suppose, is considered in the British army as a very proper act for “an officer and a gentleman” who has suddenly made his fortune. As to the private soldiers, with them the proceeding is different. Loot engenders the desire for more; and if no more Indian treasures are at hand for the purpose, why not loot those of the British Government? Accordingly, says Mr. Russell:

“There has been a suspicious upsetting of two treasure tumbrils under a European guard, in which some few rupees were missing, and paymasters exhibit a preference for natives in the discharge of the delicate duty of convoy!”

Very good, indeed. The Hindoo or Sikh is better disciplined, less thieving, less rapacious than that incomparable model of a warrior, the British soldier! But so far we have seen the individual British only employed. Let us now cast a glance at the British army, “looting” in its collective capacity:

“Every day adds to the prize property, and it is estimated that the sales will produce 600,000. [...] The town of Cawnpore is said to be full of the plunder of Lucknow, and if the damage done to public buildings, the destruction of private property, the deterioration in value of houses and land, and the results of depopulation could be estimated, it would be found that the capital of Oude has sustained a loss of five or six millions sterling.

The Calmuck hordes of Jenghiz Khan and Timur, falling upon a city like a swarm of locusts, and devouring everything that came in their way, must have been a blessing to a country, compared with the irruption of these Christian, civilized, chivalrous and gentle British soldiers. The former, at least, soon passed away on their erratic course; but these methodic Englishmen bring along with them their prize-agents, who convert loot into a system, who register the plunder, sell it by auction, and keep a sharp look-out that British heroism is not defrauded of a tittle of its reward. We shall watch with curiosity the capabilities of this army, relaxed as its discipline is by the effects of wholesale plunder, at a time when the fatigues of a hot weather campaign require the greatest stringency of discipline.

The Hindoos must, however, by this time be still less fit for regular battle than they were at Lucknow, but that is not now the main question. It is far more important to know what shall be done if the insurgents, after a show of resistance, again shift the seat of war, say to Rajpootana, which is far from being subdued. Sir Colin Campbell must leave garrisons everywhere; his field army has melted down to less than one-half of the force he had before Lucknow. If he is to occupy Rohilcund what disposable strength will remain for the field? The hot weather is now upon him, in June the rains must have put a stop to active campaigning, and allowed the insurgents breathing time. The loss of European soldiers through sickness will have increased every day after the middle of April, when the weather became oppressive; and the young men imported into India last Winter must succumb to the climate in far greater numbers than the seasoned Indian campaigners who last Summer fought tinder Havelock and Wilson. Rohilcund is no more the decisive point than Lucknow was, or Delhi. The insurrection, it is true, has lost most of its capacity for pitched battles; but it is far more formidable in its present scattered form, which compels the English to ruin their army by marching and exposure. Look at the many new centers of resistance. There is Rohilcund, where the mass of the old Sepoys are collected; there is North-eastern Oude beyond the Gogra, where the Oudians have taken up position; there is Calpee, which for the present serves as a point of concentration for the insurgents of Bundelcund. We shall most likely hear in a few weeks, if not sooner, that both Bareilly and Calpee have fallen. The former will be of little importance, inasmuch as it will serve to absorb. nearly all, if not the whole of Campbell’s disposable forces. Calpee, menaced now by General Whitlock, who has led his column from Nagpoor to Banda, in Bundelcund, and by, General Rose, who approaches from Jhansi, and has defeated the advanced guard of the Calpee forces, will be a more important conquest; it will free Campbell’s base of operations, Cawnpore, from the only danger menacing it, and thus perhaps enable him to recruit his field forces to some extent by troops set at liberty thereby. But it is very doubtful whether there will be enough to do more than to clear Oude.

Thus, the strongest army England ever concentrated on one point in India is again scattered in all directions, and had more work cut out than it can conveniently do. The ravages of the climate, during the Summer’s heats and rains, must be terrible; and whatever the moral superiority of the European over the Hindoos, it is very doubtful whether the physical superiority of the Hindoos in braving the heat and rains of an Indian Summer will not again be the means of destroying the English forces. There are at present but few British troops on the road to India, and it is not intended to send out large re-enforcements before July and August. Up to October and November, therefore, Campbell has but that one army, melting down rapidly as it is, to hold his own with. What if in the mean time the insurgent Hindoos succeed in raising Rajpootana and Mahratta country in rebellion? What if the Sikhs, of whom there are 80,000 in the British service, and who claim all the honor of the victories for themselves, and whose temper is not altogether favorable to the British, were to rise?

Altogether, one more Winter’s campaign, at least, appears to be in store for the British in India, and that cannot be carried on without another army from England.