European military dominance in the subcontinent

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


November 13, 2022

European military dominance in the subcontinent

Zoya Ansari delineates an
important historical cause

There is hardly European military dominance in the subcontinent any doubt that the chances of an over-centralized Mughal Empire holding its overarching dominance in the subcontinent gradually diminished but the military acumen of multiple races vying for dominance hardly abated. In fact the gradual dissipation of Mughal military prowess was viciously contested by Marathas, Jats, Sikhs, Rajputs and many Europeans who had made inroads in the subcontinent. The most potent destabilising factor of the Mughal rule was the foreign invasion of Nadir Shah that led to the most potent indigenous challenge of Marathas that ultimately gave way to the rise of the military dominance of European arms. European traders operating in the subcontinent since the beginning of the seventeenth century took advantage of the rather loose governance prevailing in India and their organised trading practices along with ordered life pattern followed in their settlements attracted local population that turned such towns into burgeoning centres provoking jealous attention of local rulers.

It is often commented upon that many view the Europeans traders particularly the English following a set-out top-down policy but many see them following an unwanted but irresistible bottom-up process wherein local agents were unable to resist exploiting the opportunities that arose from time to time to acquire substantial financial resources for them by assuming political and military dominance over increasing areas of the subcontinent. This looks a probable explanation of the situation as it is well-nigh impossible to avoid favourable opportunities coming one’s way and not taking advantage of them. The Europeans were particularly vulnerable to military struggle as both the English and French had a long history of rivalry that continued viciously in the subcontinent as well and invested heavily in their military capabilities. After the French East India Company was defeated in 1761, the English started using their military power against Indian forces as well, attempting to build a greater sphere of influence.

In the meanwhile the British government also realised the profitability and influence of the East India Company and started sponsoring it through various regulations along with supporting it militarily through troops. This development implied introduction of the evolving modern techniques of war and new weapons of war providing decisive edge to the forces of company waging military campaigns in India. The application of modern war strategies rendered the traditional Indian style of warfare obsolete and this was the result of gradual improvements on both organizational and technological fields in European militaries over the passage of time. The Mughal artillery was highly regarded till then but it was just siege artillery and was devoid of the kind of mobility that the Europeans brought about.
One of the most notable examples of Indian military obsolescence against European armies can be found in 1746, when a few French companies destroyed an entire Indian army of the Carnatic Nawab at Adyar.

Being lured into an ambush and being heavily outnumbered, the French forces were able to defeat the Indian army through disciplined and trained artillery fire that was highly effective against the frontally charging Indian cavalry. The maneuvers of the infantry brought chaos to the Indian army that expected the French to flee at the sight of their overwhelming numbers. The events at Adyar caused a shock among Indian military leaders. After this battle the Indian forces were not able to sustain the artillery barrage of the European forces and successive battles proved this superiority and even with fewer guns the European forces defeated Indian opposition.

While the Indian armies mostly relied on large numbers of unorganized cavalry that were difficult to control that was complemented by some artillery and infantry, European armies relied on relatively highly disciplined units of infantry working together with artillery and small units of cavalry. The rise of infantry was a British specialilty as in it the onus of responsibility in it was on the individual instead of the horse. The British line infantry was a ferocious innovation and had proved its mettle in the European theatres of war and its steady performance was heavily depended upon. European military superiority also was the result of specially designed drill and war games and their armies were exposed to consistent war exercises and it was part of their professional careers. For this reason they were kept in cantonments and specific courses were designed both for the troops and the officers that took place regularly.

The superiority of European military techniques caused revolution and its fatal impact was that the Indian rulers fell for it headlong. They started employing European mercenaries to modernize their armies in order to keep up with modern trends of warfare thereby creating a cadre of military force whose loyalties remained doubtful till the very end. This trend also created an unprecedented situation whereby some of European adventures managed to create their separate territorial states and ruled them as independent entities. In the longer run it helped provide assistance to the ultimate dominance of the British who finally managed to subdue all such adventurers and brought them to their side. It must be kept in view that the element of nationalism was more pronounced in Europe than in India and the British could play upon it easily in comparison and they did in this case.

It was also a fact that the typical Indian army heavily depended on the highest commander because further hierarchical structures were almost non-existent. It was the traditional norm that chaos in the ranks could ensue if the leader disappeared from sight for only a short amount of time and this disappearance usually ended the battle in the defeat of the army. In contrast, the modern European army was subdivided into smaller units with their own leaders that could act independently and thus allowed for a far more flexible army. The regular training of European troops also meant that ranks would break far less often when under pressure and maneuvers could be carried out swiftly and orderly. Another crucial factor was the independent character of European artillery that was given to fire at a far higher rate and more precise than the artillery of the Indians, as every step of loading a gun was perfected during training. This type of professional military was very expensive as it meant maintaining a standing army which had to be maintained in peacetime and as such was only made possible by the economic developments and state formation in Europe in the early modern era.

European military superiority also had a lot to do with the naval support they were provided throughout their colonial dominance. The military superiority of the French began when their viceroy Dupleix was ably supported by the French naval support and the British could only counter him when the British navy started providing equal support to the Madras and Calcutta presidencies. In many instances the British could save their skin by retreating by sea to safer positions particularly after Nawab Sirajudaula captured Calcutta letting the British the chance to fight another day. The sea option also provided them the safest means of transporting their troops, weapons and munitions fast and without opposition to long distances overcoming many hindrances. The naval supremacy was novel to the subcontinent and remained the decisive edge of the European dominance. TW


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