Zoya Ansari looks at an intriguing historical phenomenon – Mercenaries In the Post-Mughal Period
The gradual dissipation of European mercenaries in the Post-Mughal period power resulted in many familiar after-effects in matters of statecraft, particularly the formation of regional states across the subcontinent formed by members of contending Muslim Mughal nobility as well as Hindu Rajput and Marathas warrior factions.
However, the most intriguing development was the very visible presence of European adventurers who carved out a niche for themselves and became a preponderant factor in the warfare and conflict that gripped the sub-continent after the fall of the Mughal Empire.
Though the Europeans kept on visiting the subcontinent during Mughal rule they mostly dealt with trade matters and were not accorded any special treatment. On the contrary, they were mostly looked down upon by the indigenous people as being uncouth and prone to making a mockery of religiosity.
They joined households of nobility but were not assigned any major roles to play and most of them ultimately returned to Europe. The remarkable development of practices of warfare in Europe soon made it possible for the Europeans to be considered of value as competent warriors who gradually became mercenaries in the local armies.
They possessed remarkable military skills and some of them proved to be born commanders and leaders of men. They also proved to be ambitious and possessed strong nerves to face and thrive in tough conditions prevailing in their trade. And they also calmly overcame the rigors of the Indian climate and also got used to the local social conditions.
European mercenaries hailed from more than fifteen European countries and also differed from each other in terms of their socio-economic position in their home countries and this difference in background impacted their conduct while serving in indigenous military forces.
European Mercenaries Ranged
These mercenaries ranged from de Boigne from Savoy, George Thomas from Ireland, James Skinner who was half English, half Mughal, Alexander Gardiner from England, and Lewis Ferdinand Smith, who was also English. Historical sources point out that their presence became a prominent factor in the local armies from the beginning of the seventeenth century, the last half of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth century, and these periods are ranked as their golden age.
These times were tumultuous for the subcontinent when one power had eclipsed and the other was slowly taking its place. This situation was widely described as anarchy with different armed contestants vying for supremacy in the absence of strong centralized power to exercise effective control.
The local rulers had no sense of nationalism and only cared about achieving their limited objectives consistently intriguing and counter-intriguing with no respect for the sovereignty of the other states. The rise of the European mercenaries began in the backdrop of an intense spate of conflict and violence between different Indian successor states with Sikh, Maratha, British, and numerous other armies engaged in one or more conflicts.
A comparatively large number of such mercenaries hailed from France and the ostensible reason for this was the collapse of French rule in India between 1754 and 1761 when the British emerged victorious. This resulted in a large number of French soldiers losing their employment and left with no option but to look for alternate venues for work.
European Mercenaries In the Post-Mughal Period
Their military skills helped them greatly and they found gainful employment in the armies of local states who were more than willing to employ them. It so happened with the passage of time that the lure of a good contract as a mercenary in an Indian army became so attractive that many stayed back and made good their roles in various state armies.
The role played by these peoples in India varied from place to place depending upon the nature of the armies they were working for. In some places, they stood at the head of their own that was raised and trained by them. They received a fixed pay from their client who also paid the soldiers though they kept their contingents practically separate from the main army of their employers.
It was widely known that this type of arrangement suited the commander of the mercenary force but was looked at with apprehension by the ruling head of the state. There were many examples of such contingents found intriguing with enemy forces and even against their own employers in collusion with forces opposed to him.
The ruler was kept under pressure by the ruling clique that advised him to remain vigilant and such doubts often mushroomed into full-blown differences. Despite such constraints, this type of mercenary arrangement was the most preferred one and was followed in most cases.
In some cases, a group of these peoples were directly employed by the Indian lord and were hired to give training to his employers’ troops. Such arrangement was more of a consultancy nature as the army he was employed with was led by the ruler of the state.
Mercenary Consultants And Control In The Post-Mughal
This practice was adopted in order to keep better control over the activities of these people and to keep them on a leash. In this case, the employing state paid for the troops trained by the consultant that also paid for their weapons and other needs. Such consultant missionaries displayed a marked tendency to switch over to the other master when offered better financial emoluments and facilities.
Some of such mercenary consultants were highly valued and their demand frequently decided their loyalty. With time this arrangement lost its value as more and more consultants joined the ranks of the mercenary making it easy for the rulers to choose from.
There was yet another group of mercenary that comprised soldiers and lower-ranking officers who preferred to fight under the command of a European but also, at times, fought under a native commander. They were regularly paid as compared to the native troops whose pay was delayed by months and even years.
Separate Places To Live In the Post-Mughal Period
The employer of European lower ranks was acutely conscious not only to pay them on time but also showered them with gifts and cash rewards. They were given separate places to live and often maintained their own kitchens. And they were also allowed to practice their religion and accordingly built small churches and other places of religious observances.
They were reputed to stay steadfast in the thick of battle and on many occasions their hard fighting won the battles for their employers considerably enhancing their value as mercenaries. There was hardly any doubt that all types of Mercenary profoundly influenced practices of warfare in India and aided the success of their employers.
They transformed the techniques of warfare by employing European methods and arranging different battle formations. Their influence was felt in all fields of war including infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The techniques they introduced were widely emulated by all local armies and the old patterns of warfare were abandoned.
The most prominent and successful of these enterprises was witnessed by the army they built for Punjab’s Maharaja Ranjit Singh which made life difficult for the British army when they fought in the middle of the 19th century.
It is stated that the British arms met their match for the first time when they confronted the Khalsa army raised and trained by these. During the three battles, they fought the myth of the invincibility of the British military superiority was badly dented and on many occasions, they came close to being humbled by the Khalsa army. The Weekender