Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sir Charles Napier on Indian Misgovernment

In every debate on the Indian Mutiny, and in almost every public discussion of the subject, reference is made to the name, the career, and the opinions of Sir Charles Napier. It could not be otherwise. Not only was Sir Charles Napier a great general, and an able administrator, but he was a most positive, pugnacious, and outspoken man, always ready to state his opinions, and more than ready to defend them. Having been in India, and held a high command, he was sure to have said many things likely to arrest attention. The Napiers never let us alone. They are for ever drumming into our heads that they are infallible, and that persons who question their infallibility are profligate liars. We have no desire to speak of Sir Charles Napier with anything but the respect due to his great abilities, and to his single-minded desire to serve his country; but every day forces on us the conviction that his services would have been much more valuable, and his influence enormously greater, if he could only have persuaded himself to write with moderation, temper, and decency. His opinions, however, are well worth considering, although his language is obscure and scurrilous. And at the present crisis, the mere fact of his having written a formal treatise on Indian Misgovernment might seem to show that he would be a guide to us in tracing the causes of the present disaster. But his book is not suited to general reading, as it is very involved, and relates mostly to the particular circumstances of the mutiny which occurred during the period of his own command. It may, therefore, be a convenience to our readers to state as clearly and succinctly as we can, what were the defects which he censured in the Madras Government, what were the changes he proposed, and what was the nature of the warning he gave, or is supposed to have given, of a catastrophe like that which we have to deplore.

We will take this third point first, and estimate as fairly as we can the amount of warning of a great mutiny impending over India, which a person invested with authority might, or ought to, have gathered from Sir Charles Napier's work. In July, 1849, certain native regiments showed insubordination, amount in almost to open mutiny, at the stations of Wuzzeerabad and Rawul Pindee, the alleged grievance being a diminution of the pay promised to them. Partly by the execution of ringleaders, and still more by concession, Sir Charles Napier suppressed this mutiny. He suspended the order under which the threatened diminution of pay was to be made; but this suspension was judged unnecessary by the Government, and Sir Charles Napier consequently resigned. In his book, his object was of course to show that the mutiny had threatened to be a very serious one, and that the strong step of suspending a general order of Government was justified by the danger which the probability of a mutiny involved. He points out that a passive resistance, like that of refusing pay, would soon grow, necessarily and by the mere force of circumstances, into an open outbreak. For the Sepoys have nothing but their pay to support them, and if they refused that, and then found themselves starving, with arms in their hands, they would be sure to murder their officers and plunder the country for food. He also dwells on the dreadful consequences which a mutiny would involve, as the European troops were much inferior in numbers and were dispersed in cantonments. He therefore tried the policy of conciliation, and thinks that his success justified him. No one can doubt that this part of his book points out very clearly that a wide mutiny may spring from a trifling cause, and that a mutiny once begun would be a most awful calamity.

Sir Charles Napier also saw the danger with which the religious supremacy of the Brahmins threatened the army. “When it was made known,” he says, “that Brahmins were at the head of the insubordinate men of the 13th and 22nd, and that in the first regiment alone there were no less than four hundred and thirty, the necessity of teaching the race they should no longer dictate to the Sepoys and the Government struck me, and my thoughts at once turned for means to the Goorkas, whose motto was, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry.’ Their tenets are unknown to me; it is said, they do not like cow-beef-yet a cow would not be long alive with a hungry Goorka battalion; they mess together, these Goorkas, and make few inquiries as to the sex of a beefsteak. These, therefore, were men with which to meet the Brahmins of Bengal, and their bristling prejudices of high caste.” He goes on to say that he is confident these men would enlist and be faithful, and then with 30,000 or 40,000 Goorkas, added to 30,000 Europeans, the possession of India will not depend on opinion, but on an army able with ease to overthrow any combination among Hindoos or Mahommedans, or both together.

On the other hand, he does not appear to have felt any distrust of the native army in ordinary times. He recommends that Delhi shall be made a great arsenal, but he does not say a word as to the necessity of entrusting it to Europeans. He expresses, on more than one occasion, a general confidence in the Sepoys. It is true that he remarks that the praise which he bestowed on the Bengal army at the time of the mutiny was dictated by expediency, as he thought it impolitic that large bodies of men should consider themselves under a cloud. But in his famous memorandum to Lord Dalhousie on the “Defence of India”—a perfectly confidential document—he says that Lord Hardinge had objected to assembling the Indian troops for fear they should conspire, but that he himself had “commanded and studied Bengal and Bombay Sepoys for nearly eight years, and could find nothing to fear from them, except when ill-used, and even then they are less dangerous than British troops would be in similar circumstances.” The general result, therefore, is that Sir Charles comprehended the horrors of an Indian mutiny, if once begun—that he recognised the possibility of a mutiny springing from an insignificant cause, and that he looked to the formation of a large irregular force as a security against the high-caste troops—but that he did not treat a great mutiny as an issue to which things were gradually tending, or even as a probability.

The changes which Sir Charles Napier desired in the general administration of India were principally three. He wanted a military instead of a civil government in all the districts that were the least unsettled. He dwelt on the danger from divided power in war, on the cheapness and efficiency of a military government, and on the certainty that India was only ruled by ear, and that to show the power and presence of troops was the real secret of a cheap and successful government. Secondly, he wanted a well-organized police, to save the troops from being dispersed and employed on tax-gathering and other civil duties, which impaired discipline, and prevented proper training. Thirdly, he wished the troops to be kept in masses, well disciplined and well placed for meeting, invasion or supporting the police. In his memoir to Lord Dalhousie, he specifies the stations at which he should wish the troops to be collected, and the numbers he would allot to each. He calculates that, by a judicious distribution of their forces, the Company might get rid of 25,000 of their Bengal army.

Besides these three leading topics of comment and advice, he offered several suggestions and observations on points of military detail. Many are too closely connected with the topography of India to have any general importance, and refer to the fortifications of particular towns, the strength of particular regiments, or the healthiness and convenience of particular stations. But some are of wider interest. Especially he complains of the miserable barracks which he found almost everywhere, and by which hundreds of lives were sacrificed. He dwells on the importance of having sufficient European officers. He does not think the promotion of Sepoys by seniority could be changed with respect to men already enlisted; but he wishes to see native officers take rank with European officers, and therefore to be promoted by merit, which he thinks might be arranged by applying the regulation only to new recruits, and by giving the native non-commissioned officers a speedier and larger pension. He goes into a minute calculation of the necessaries or a soldier serving in India, and of the weight of the whole, and shows how, in his opinion, the burden of the soldier might be reduced from 65lbs., its then weight, to 25lbs. We might specify other points, but they are so completely points of detail that they can only interest professional readers. It must be said, however, that he himself treats all his points as of almost equal importance, and is alike unsparing of abuse and alike suspicious of iniquity, whether the matter is great or small. Certainly he had not much of the charity that thinketh no evil. This tendency to make the worst of things reaches its climax in a passage where he regrets the change of the breeches of the artillerymen from leather to cloth, and expresses his conviction that the alteration must have been the work of some director who had a clothier among his relations.

Saturday Review, August 15, 1857.

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