“While the East India Company are permitted to hold the revenue of India, they must furnish money for the payment of military expenses upon the spot; but beyond that I cannot see any good reason why the British Empire in India is to be protected by any other troops than those employed for the protection of the rest of the Empire”. HENRY DUNDAS (President of the Board of Control)
To the evangelicals and utilitarians early in the nineteenth century, anglicizing India was to atone for the sin of its conquest. Given an opportunity, Indians would be delighted to adopt English attitudes and customs. Christianity in particular would consolidate British rule by introducing their subjects to ‘loyalty, submission, obedience, quietness, peace, patience and cheerfulness’. Christianity had other merits than truth: it would reduce the danger of rebellion. But in the late eighteenth century Englishmen were not so ashamed of their conquest, nor so confident that, even if they wished, they might atone for it. The possibility of conciliating Indians appeared doubtful and the danger of rebellion permanent. The danger was increased after 1798 by the equally permanent fear of European invasion. There was no alternative to ruling India by force: the question was how to do so most efficiently at the least cost. This provoked an argument both in India and in London about the proper role of the Indian Army.
The East India Company was a trading company whose principal export was men. These young men, uneducated and untrained had one outstanding merit; they did not run away in battle. The British conquered much of India, partly because they could rely upon the native princes to quarrel with one another, partly because they could rely upon their troops to run away. Of the value of European discipline and leadership the British had no doubt. While Bonaparte was in Egypt, they were certain that no Turkish army could bar his way to India. They were equally certain that if reinforced by one or two Englishmen the Turks’ behaviour would be transformed. For the same reason the British were anxious to prevent individual Frenchmen from travelling overland to India. Even if Sindhia, who employed them, should not choose at first to fight the British, he would be able to overpower the other native states. The Governor-General, the Marquess Wellesley claimed that these Frenchmen were Jacobins, but it was not their opinions but their presence that was dangerous. The security of British India depended upon their singular military system. If the native states who relied principally on irregular cavalry, should ever have put into the field an equal number of regular infantry, trained and commanded by Europeans, the British Indian Army would have lost its distinction. In the late eighteenth century everyone admitted that British India depended upon this army: they disagreed about what could be expected of it and how it should be organized.
The British did not have one army in India but two, the King’s and the Company’s; and both were split into three. Part of each was stationed in each of the presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay, each with its own commander-in-chief. The largest army was always in Bengal, or rather in Oudh, to guard the north-west frontier and to be paid by the Nawab-Vizier. The principal advantage of subsidiary alliances was in permitting increasing numbers of troops to be maintained at the expense of allies. The armies in Bengal and Madras were composed of three categories of troops: sepoy regiments officered by Englishmen, regiments of the Company’s European infantry, and regiments of the British army serving temporarily in India. At least the officers served temporarily; few of their men survived the journey and the climate to return to England. Rarely were any of the Company’s European infantry stationed at Bombay, because its principal function was to police the predominantly Hindu army in Bengal. In all three presidencies the army ostensibly depended upon the quality of the junior officers who commanded the troops of the Company.
These officers might be junior; they were not young. Whenever the Company enlarged its armies, it increased the number of junior officers because they cost less. Promotion was slow. The difference in age was one cause of the persistent tension between the officers of the Company’s army and those of the King’s, because whenever they served together, although often younger and junior in rank, the King’s officers took precedence. The other causes of tension were social and administrative. The King’s officers, who made their careers by patronage and purchase, considered themselves socially superior to the Company’s. They were, of course, but less so than if they had all been serving in England. Many of the most eligible bought themselves out of regiments being sent to India. One of the obstacles to all proposals to amalgamate the two armies was the social impossibility of permitting Company’s officers, who served only in India, to transfer into royal regiments for service in England. Another, from the opposite point of view, was the refusal of the Company’s officers to contemplate a system based upon patronage and purchase. You could not make a good living from the British army in the late eighteenth century: to guarantee a successful career you needed a private income. But to make their living was why the Company’s officers went out to India. This, more than anything, determined their view of the role of the Indian army.
An officer in the Indian Army went to India to make his fortune. Typically, the younger son of an impoverished Scot would be spurred on by dreams of returning to England to set up in society. Though very few returned to emulate Jos Sedley, by parading their wealth in Vauxhall Gardens, enough did to encourage others to follow them. The hazards were considerable. “The climate is vile and the natives beyond comprehension.” The East India Company provided neither retirement pensions, sick leave nor a return passage to England. Few of their officers lived to need one. Of the approximately 280 cadets sent to India each year between 1793 and 1808, one in four returned. In the ranks the death rate was as high: 2,000 reinforcements were needed each year to keep the King’s army in India up to strength.
The Indian Army was organized by its officers, not to make it an efficient fighting force, (because at the end of the eighteenth century, despite its deceptively easy victory in the Fourth Mysore War, it was not efficient), but to provide an equal chance for everybody to make his fortune. The three best ways to do this were booty, allowances and lending money. What the Indian Army most enjoyed was the leisurely siege of an Indian fortress. In a continent where the rich traditionally hoarded their wealth as treasure, the booty from a successful siege might be considerable; and the army had fought for the right to everything captured in fortresses taken by assault. Cornwallis acknowledged this fact. When Seringapatam was stormed in 1799, and the booty from the treasure of Tipu Sultan was reported to be between eight and ten crores of rupees, Wellesley tried to resist: ‘The army conceive [Wellesley told Dundas] that as the place was taken by storm, they are, of right, entitled to what was found in it. This is certainly an erroneous opinion, and if the principle had been established, and so large a sum . . . had been seized by the army and distributed, it is impossible to calculate the mischievous effects which would have resulted to our military power in India.’ Having resisted in principle, as always when pressed to stand firm against the army, Wellesley gave way in practice, much to the annoyance of the President of the Board of Control, Henry Dundas, who had hoped to use the captured treasure to pay off the Company’s debt, and even, should there have been enough, to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Second Coalition. Dundas never abandoned hope of surplus revenues from India; ideally, victories in India should subsidize the British defeats in Europe.
While booty occasionally brought spectacular rewards (General Harris, the commander-in-chief at Madras, retired to England with £150,000 after the fall of Seringapatam), the generals always received most of it, and most of them were in the King’s army. A more reliable source of wealth for the Company’s officers was their allowances. The three most important were batta, the bazaar fund and revenue money. Batta was a cost of living allowance and was usually highest in Bengal. The bazaar fund, the perquisite of commanding officers, on stations or in the field, was a levy on the bazaars that supplied their units. Revenue was the military equivalent to the allowances paid to the commercial residents of the government of Bombay out of the profits they made from selling the Company’s goods. A commission on the net revenues of each presidency was shared among the field officers on the staff according to their rank. These were official sources of wealth: unofficial, but equally lucrative, were contracting for bullocks, without which the Indian Army could not move, and lending money to Indian princes at exorbitant rates of interest. Most of the Company’s servants at Madras, both civil and military, were implicated in the scandal of the Nawab of Arcot’s debts. How important were these allowances and how jealously they were guarded, was acknowledged by Wellesley, who resisted the efforts of Dundas to reduce them.
‘I take the opportunity of requesting’, Wellesley told Dundas before the war with Tipu Sultan, ‘that you will take particular care not to permit any allowance, which I have found it necessary to make to any of the officers in this army, to be curtailed. A great effort was to be made, and it was essential to send the men of the first talents in the army into the field full of zeal and cordiality … If you reduce their appointments, it will be impossible to carry on government here in great emergencies.’At the end of the eighteenth century, going into battle was not conceived by the officers of the Indian Army to be part of their regular duties. The exceptional effort of fighting merited exceptional reward.
The best guarantee that everybody would have an equal chance to make his fortune and to return in moderate style to England was promotion by seniority. No newcomer from home was to overtake his elders because he had influential or wealthy friends. To this otherwise rigid system there were two striking exceptions. There was no equivalent barrier to profiting from connections in India, and the opportunity for doing so was increased because, by the end of the eighteenth century the most coveted posts in the Indian Army were not military at all but administrative and diplomatic. The only exception was the few promotions to major-general, and they were less attractive than they would otherwise have been while Dundas, who would not admit it, refused to appoint a Company’s officer commander-in-chief. This situation was most apparent in the government of Madras. So inadequate were the Company’s civil servants at Madras, the juniors ‘idle, dissipated, and extravagant’, and their seniors ignorant and stupid, as Wellesley called them, that it had become almost a principle to employ soldiers throughout the department of revenue.
If these appointments appealed to junior officers, a senior hoped to be made a resident at one of the native courts. This was the quickest route to the coveted baronetcy, the guarantee of social position in England and the highest honour, excepting the occasional Bath, to which an Indian Army officer might aspire. In 1801 Colonel William Palmer was considered to be disgraced because, after 10 years as the resident with Sindhia, followed by four as the resident at Poona, he was recalled without a knighthood to command a station in the Upper Provinces. The habit of employing soldiers as diplomatists had begun early, with marked effects on Anglo-Indian diplomacy. By the time Sir John Shore left India in 1798, the residencies at Poona, Hyberabad and with Sindhia, were all staffed by soldiers. Wellesley continued the habit by sending soldiers to Mysore, Lucknow and Teheran. Despite the board of control’s insistence that soldiers were not to be employed in situations intended for civilians it was not until 1831 that this was brought about, ironically at the insistence of the Duke of Wellington. Even then the political agencies in the near east remained the perquisite of soldiers.
These coveted positions were not obtained by seniority but by the notice of the governor-general; and they often carried with them promotion at least to acting rank. In 1798 the resident at Hyderabad, Major William Kirkpatrick, was convalescing at the Cape of Good Hope where he met Wellesley on his way to India. He returned a lieutenant-colonel and military secretary to the governor-general, in time he became his private secretary. The outstanding example, however, was the career of Sir John Malcolm. In 1800, when a captain, Malcolm was sent on a mission to Persia, as a reward for attracting the notice of Wellesley during the Fourth Mysore War. He rose within seven years to lieutenant-colonel and, when Minto arrived in India, Malcolm had no hesitation in applying for preferment through Minto’s son with whom he was acquainted. The outcome was a second mission to Persia and the acting rank of brigadier-general. When Malcolm suggested that this should be an actual and not merely a diplomatic rank, designed to give him equal precedence with the French ambassador, General Gardane, he, apparently, overreached himself. Malcolm, protested the commander-in-chief in the terms you might expect. ‘. . . may certainly possess military talents of a superior kind, but I cannot learn by any enquiry in this part of the country that they have been manifested; the opportunity only may have been wanting, for I have been informed that he has never been so situated as to command even a batta[lion] in time of peace. There can consequently be no evidence of his competency to conduct an army, but the open manifestation of great superiority seems necessary to support a measure of supersession and to reconcile the minds of the superseded.’
Malcolm, nevertheless, had his way. At Minto’s insistence he was given command of the army that Minto was planning to send to the Persian Gulf. These exceptions to the general rule of promotion by seniority reveal the extent to which, by the end of the century, the Indian Army saw itself less as a fighting force than as a military bureaucracy. It was there neither to conquer, nor to colonize (the English never colonized India) but to administer. Nevertheless its officers behaved as colonists. The East India Company, however badly it may have ruled, tried to rule everyone similarly. That was why it was determined to prohibit colonists who would demand to be treated not as subjects but as Englishmen. So did the Indian Army. A typical example is that of Captain Shuttleworth, assistant-surgeon at Seringapatam who, in 1801, flogged an Indian for refusing to provide him with hay for his horse without payment. At his court-martial the court did not find his behaviour ungentlemanlike and he was let off with a reprimand. Another example is that of Lieutenant Dodd who forcibly obtained money from Indians by torturing them but whose only punishment was suspension of rank and pay for six months. When Arthur Wellesley protested, Dodd deserted to Bombay to join the Marathas. Serving the Marathas might be more hazardous, but plunder was a way of life.
According to Henry Dundas, as the officers of the Indian Army gained so much from the empire, they had the greatest vested interest in preserving it. Dundas wanted the Company’s civil servants to volunteer for the militia, to prove their willingness ‘to sacrifice their lives in defence of those interests upon which everything essential to them in life must depend’. Of the army Dundas might have said the same; but for the defence of those interests the Indian Army was hardly adequate. It was not only, in the eyes of the King’s officers, unorthodox, it was unwieldy. The symbol of the Indian Army was a baggage train. Its most splendid victories were perilous; it proved decidedly incompetent against Tipu Sultan in the Third Mysore War; and his defeat in one campaign in the Fourth took even Arthur Wellesley by surprise. The most serious deficiency was not performance in the field, but the time it took to get there. When Wellesley in the summer of 1798 demanded an immediate invasion of Mysore, the commander-in-chief at Madras replied that it would take six months to mount an offensive, and three to mobilize for defence. One of the principal causes of the delay was precisely the privilege of contracting for bullocks, that officers of the army held so dear. Although the organization of the army at Madras had suffered from continuous interference by the previous governor, Lord Hobart, it was the opinion of Wellesley that if this was the best that they could manage, they were ‘a useless burden upon the finances of the Company.’
How inadequate the Indian Army was depended upon what was thought its proper function. On this question there was serious disagreement, not only between Dundas, the officers of the army and the East India Company, but also between Dundas and his Governors-General, Sir John Shore and Lord Wellesley. Once America was lost, Dundas decided that Britain’s future wealth and greatness depended upon India. The challenge, when it came, would come from France: the next time Britain would fight France, Dundas took it for granted that ‘India is the quarter to be first attacked’. This assumption determined his attitude to the Indian Army. Its size must depend upon the size of the other European armies in the East, and ‘we must never lose sight of having such a force there as to baffle all surprise’.Given the time it took to send reinforcements, Dundas wanted permanently in India an army large enough and dashing enough to capture the French territories at the outbreak of war, to defend the British territories against a subsequent European invasion, and to attack the enemy anywhere in the East. In the autumn of 1798 Dundas speculated whether he would be able to mount an offensive in the Red Sea of between 10,000 and 20,000 men, to drive Bonaparte from Egypt. His purpose was not Indian but Imperial: ‘it is laid down as an axiom applicable to the conduct of extensive warfare by this country, that our principal efforts should be to deprive our enemies of their colonial possessions’. In the East this would be the responsibility of the Indian Army: to Dundas it was merely part of the imperial army that happened to be serving in India. Dundas was in a quandary. He had an army in India for which he had designed an imperial role, whereas the officers who commanded the army had an overwhelming local interest that restricted them from fulfilling it. The solution to this problem appeared to be Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis made his reputation by being defeated. In the British Army it has always been wiser to lose the right battle than to win the wrong one. Defeats in America easily outranked victories in India. Cornwallis went out to India in 1786 with a plan to amalgamate the Company’s army with the King’s; the Company’s officers would be given local commissions from the King, valid only in India. At the same time 5,000 more troops would be sent out from England, to be paid by the Company, and an equal number of native infantry disbanded. Once responsible to the Horse Guards, the Indian Army would become the imperial task force Dundas needed. Once Cornwallis reached India the plan was promptly abandoned. Cornwallis decided that, until the Indian Army was reorganized and retrained, it was incapable of fulfilling such a taxing role. The sepoys would have to be persuaded to travel, because they disliked going outside their own presidency, and refused to go overseas, and their officers persuaded to ape their British regular colleagues. Cornwallis was anxious to reduce both their official and unofficial methods of making money: to eliminate, as Dundas wished, ‘that pernicious idea of plunder and corruption which exists in the Indian Army’. His attitude towards these abuses, as he considered them, paralleled his attitude towards the civil service; he was determined to purify both. If they were paid sufficient salaries and guaranteed sufficient pensions, the Company’s servants would have no need to peculate. Cornwallis, whatever his limitations, was an upright man: rather in a Victorian than a Georgian idiom. But Dundas was of his own time; he was more perturbed by the inefficiency than the corruption in the army.
Because of the Indian Army’s tawdry performance in the Third Mysore War, Cornwallis, as he was about to return to England, revived the plan of amalgamating the Company’s army with the King’s. When his intention became known it wreaked havoc. The army formed a committee of officers to fight its cause in London, and all but refused to fulfil any duties, until Shore agreed to disregard the orders he received to reduce allowances. Shore’s policy towards the native states has traditionally been criticized. While he considered that it was not his business to meddle in their quarrels, and that nothing threatening to the British would come of them, he had no choice. Given the doubtful loyalty and doubtful competence of the Indian Army, the known incompetence of their commander-in-chief, Shore could not afford to risk a general war.
Cornwallis must not be held solely responsible for the controversy he caused. It would have been settled more easily, except that it became entangled in a more serious controversy between Dundas and the East India Company. Where Cornwallis miscalculated was in asking the officers of the Indian Army to behave in India as they would have been required to behave in England. This requirement offended against the first law of English social life — that your behaviour matters more than your birth or the source of your wealth. The nabobs were criticized upon their return to England, not for the way they had amassed their fortunes, but for the way they spent them. The officers of the Indian Army were aspiring to a social position in England, not in India. To ask them, as Cornwallis did, to behave in India as if they had already attained this position, would of itself have prevented them from making sufficient fortunes to be able to attain it. The British have often behaved like natives; they have often claimed, that in the colonies this was the only sensible way to behave. English standards would be unsuitable. But recognition locally would be equally unrewarding. The British, when they returned home, as they inevitably would unless they did not live to do so, wanted recognition in England for their work in India. This was why the officers of the Indian Army were there.
In his quarrel with the East India Company Dundas could not rely upon any support from the successors of Cornwallis as Governor-General. Being himself a servant of the Company, the support of Shore on any matter except finance would have been ineffective. Wellesley proved an accomplished administrator, and pretended to be a statesman (this was perhaps why Dundas had been opposed to his appointment) but he disagreed with Dundas, both about the pace and the extent to which the British should expand in India and about the best way to organize the Indian Army. Wellesley saw the Indian Army as a police force, to police not only the British territories but the territories of allies. What Wellesley meant when he talked of the waning strength of the British allies was that he wanted to take them over. Nowhere was this clearer than in his dealings with the Nizam of Hyderabad. Wellesley did not want the Nizam to become a strong and independent ally, but a stronger client. He objected to the French mercenaries who commanded the Nizam’s army, not because they were incompetent, as they were, not even because they were French (at the time he said nothing of Sindhia’s Frenchmen), but because he could not control them. He objected equally strongly to encouraging the Nizam to employ mercenaries who were British. in what became his characteristic manner, Wellesley pressed the Nizam to disband his mercenaries and to replace them by further units of the Indian Army. Any other reform of his army ‘might render it more efficient for his purposes, whatever they may be’. But an enlarged subsidiary force, concluded Wellesley, ‘would tend to strengthen him for our purposes only, and would give him no additional means, but rather weaken him, in any contest with us’.
Wellesley’s expansiveness brought him into collision with Dundas about the proper size of the Indian Army. Each time that he annexed a new territory or concluded a new subsidiary alliance, Wellesley tried to increase the size of the Indian Army. Wellesley had also inherited Cornwallis’s suspicion of the sepoys. As a result, each time he enlarged the Company’s army, he demanded equivalent reinforcements for the King’s, so that it might continue to police the Company’s army. The agreed proportion was usually one in four or one in five. This meant that in 1800, when Wellesley had a native army of at least 90,000 men, he was demanding increase of the number of European troops in India to 30,000. Dundas could find only 27,000 troops to defend Portugal and for invading Egypt, and he resented Wellesley’s insistence that his demand was not excessive, because at least one quarter, and possibly one third, of the European troops stationed in India must be assumed at any moment to be unfit for duty. An establishment of 30,000 might put only 20,000 troops into the field. Dundas repeatedly rejected Wellesley’s demands for reinforcements, arguing that it was absurd to increase the size of the Indian Army every time that the British defeated a dangerous enemy. According to Dundas’s calculations, the number of troops in India (King’s and Company’s together) had risen from approximately 70,000 in 1793 to 112,000 in 1799. After the partition of Mysore, to reduce it to 80,000 and to recall three King’s regiments home to England (despite Wellesley’s protests) should be perfectly safe.
Not only was Dundas rejecting Wellesley’s figures (although Wellesley was right to insist that large numbers of the British troops in India were always sick; one of the best arguments for keeping the Cape of Good Hope was its use as a conditioning and reconditioning centre for British troops on their way to and from India), he was also rejecting his purpose. Dundas refused to regard the Indian Army solely as a police force. To be more efficient than the armies of the native states was not enough. Dundas wanted to use the Indian Army for imperial ends; Wellesley was determined, if possible, not to let him. Their differences merged clearly over the Egyptian Expedition. Dundas had talked of sending an expedition to drive the French from Egypt almost from the moment they had landed. Wellesley, in a rash moment after conquering Mysore, had offered to send an Indian army to the Red Sea. He immediately withdrew his offer, and thereafter consistently resisted all persuasion. Wellesley knew, of course, that should he ever receive direct orders from Dundas he would have to obey, but until then the campaign against the French in Egypt should be fought from Europe with European allies, the Russians and, if unavoidable, the Turks.The Indian Army would be more suitably occupied in preparing for war against the Marathas or, in moments when it seemed that Wellesley might be able to impose his will on them by diplomacy, in attacking Batavia or preferably Mauritius. Wellesley had sound Indian reasons for wishing to attack these outposts, because the depredations of the French privateers caused an outcry at Calcutta, but doing so would also have had the advantage of coinciding with Dundas’s imperial vision.
Partly because of the controversy provoked by Cornwallis and partly because of the opposition of Wellesley, Dundas never did succeed in imposing on the Indian Army a role that would have fitted it to sustain his imperial vision. The troops that he finally ordered to the Red Sea, to co-operate with the Egyptian Expedition, by moving slowly and failing to respond to changing circumstances, arrived in Cairo long after the French had surrendered, and contributed nothing to the victory. In London the East India Company had given up all hope of their doing so; but ‘I hope in God . . . [they] will still reach Egypt’ remarked the chairman to Wellesley ‘. . . if only as an excuse for the vast expense’. The most significant reason, however, for the success of the Indian Army in withstanding Dundas’s schemes for reform was the behaviour of the East India Company itself. The officers succeeded in preserving their allowances, and their opportunities multiplied as Wellesley continued to enlarge the army, because they formed an unnatural alliance with the Company, theoretically their employer, against Dundas and the board of control.
The issue over which this battle was waged was not the reforms themselves, but the fate of the Company’s European infantry. To suggest that the Indian Army was inadequate is not to imply that the King’s troops in India were necessarily better, but they had one great advantage that they could be sent overseas. Even if nothing else was changed, if the Company’s European regiments could be amalgamated with the King’s, there would be a larger force more readily available in India for strategic deployment throughout the East. Dundas might be able finally to combine his two loves, his love of surplus revenue and his love of colonial wars. According to Dundas, there were additional advantages to this plan, both political and financial. In 1793 the King’s army in India was established at approximately 9,500 infantry and the Company’s European regiments at 7,000. Their actual strengths were closer to 6,000 King’s and 6,500 Company’s. By 1799 these figures, as Dundas wished, were reversed, for the numbers of the Company’s European infantry had sharply declined. The King’s authorized establishment had risen to approximately 22,000, while the Company’s had fallen to 5,000: their actual strengths were 14,000 and 4,000. The East India Company had great difficulty recruiting for its regiments, because the Horse Guards did everything possible to hamper them. Consequently not only did their numbers fall but, according to Wellesley, because they were recruited from foreigners at the Cape, their loyalty was questionable. To amalgamate the two forces might make them more useful and more reliable.
The amalgamation might also have made the European army in India less expensive. Dundas claimed that the Company’s European troops were paid more than the King’s, and that their authorized establishment usually provided proportionately fewer troops. The chairman of the East India Company did not challenge this claim. Dundas always hoped that he would be able to draft the Company’s four remaining European regiments either into the King’s army or into the Company’s artillery; but he was aware how strong would be the opposition from the Company, and admitted to Wellesley in 1799, ‘I am not disposed to resume the contest again, unless there were sufficient ground to induce me to do so’. There was neither an occasion nor a sufficient ground before Dundas resigned from the board of control.
There were two reasons why the East India Company was so opposed to this reform. Firstly, the Company was afraid of losing its patronage. The directors nominated the cadets who went out to India to become officers. This was a powerful argument against the board of control, because the slightest indication that the government appeared to be attempting to gain control of patronage in India always provoked an uproar in the House of Commons. Even Dundas was sufficiently sensitive to this that in 1788 he and Pitt accepted amendments to the Declaratory Bill that were designed specifically to check any increase in ministerial patronage; and in 1799 Dundas was willing to allow the Company to raise four more regiments of sepoys to replace their European regiments, precisely so that their patronage would not be dimished. Secondly, the Company was equally afraid that disbanding its European regiments was only the first step towards taking away all its political power, which was certainly what Dundas had originally intended. It feared being obliged to pay for policies over which it had no control. That it would have to pay was certain. In 1798 when the East India Company attempted to obtain funds from Pitt to pay for mobilising the Indian Army against a possible coalition of Tipu Sultan and the French in Egypt, Pitt refused to admit that the defence of India was a vital national interest. It was, of course, but he wanted the Company to pay for it. The greatest virtue of the Indian Army was its freedom from the control of parliament.
Pitt’s attitude in 1798 only confirmed the attitude implicit in the Declaratory Act passed ten years previously. The board of control had insisted, against the spirited opposition of the East India Company, that it had the right to send reinforcements to India whenever it wished, and to require the East India Company to pay for them. The government, claimed Pitt and Dundas, had ‘the undoubted right . . . to send any part of the King’s forces to the British possessions in India . . . [and] by the powers with which we conceive ourselves legally invested, to direct the application of the revenues of those possessions to the objects necessary for their security’. Although Dundas later admitted that the Company could not be required to pay for more than 10,000 King’s troops out of its own revenues, and that any additional troops would have to be paid out of the revenues of Oudh and also of Ceylon which Dundas was preparing to annex to the Crown, the point had been made that the government was determined to use the revenues of India as it wished. The proposal to disband its European regiments, therefore, was stoutly resisted by the East India Company, and its resistance forced it into an alliance with its own recalcitrant officers. It was the more willing to compromise with them, because it shared the officers’ premise, that the Indian Army was an Indian police force, and not an imperial expeditionary force. Dundas’s imperial wars in the East would also have to be paid for from the revenues of India.
To blame Cornwallis for the failure of his plans to reform the Indian Army would be unreasonable. The officers had too strong an ally in the Company. The strength of the East India Company in English politics is too easily under-estimated. Despite all the criticism of its maladministration, the support of the Company had been necessary for Pitt, and an open attack upon its privileges would have been an attack upon chartered rights, the bastion of the English system of government, that would have incited, at least, the City of London to rally to the Company’s assistance. The Declaratory Act had had a serious effect on Dundas’s career. The government’s majority had been so slight that, although Dundas successfully took more vigorous measures to manage the East India Company, he would never again risk clashing with it in the House of Commons. His attempt to disestablish the Company and to become the first Secretary of State for India had failed. While Cornwallis and Dundas undoubtedly prejudiced the Indian Army against all reform, their opponents were successful because they enmeshed themselves in the continuing struggle for the supreme control of India, between Dundas on the one hand and the dominant groups in the East India Company on the other. The one hoped and the others feared that the reform of the Indian Army was but a means to resolve this struggle. Until it was resolved, no new role would be prescribed for the Indian Army. Ruling India through the Company had many conveniences: militarily it was a handicap. By the time the struggle had been resolved and a new role had been prescribed, the Indian Army was too set in its old ways. It was headed towards its signal catastrophe, the First Afghan War.