Today in military history: conscripts in Savoy barracks bound for service in East India Company, riot; all shot dead. 1763.

As covered in an earlier post, part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

The East India Company formed in the late 16th century, receiving its Royal Charter in 1600. Its original aim was to expand trade in India and in other Asian countries. It was to grow into one of the most powerful transnational businesses ever created, and backed by the British state, to become a major agent of imperial conquest and domination, with its owned private armed forces. “the company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.”

Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the Company’s shares; the vast profits to be made in commodities the Company handled ensured shares traded at premium prices. The EIC made huge wealth for its shareholders, but also contributed to Britain’s massive enrichment in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the expense of local, regional and transnational economies in the East, which were often shattered, destabilised or re-oriented (arf) in the Company’s interest. This is not even to mention the famines, wars of conquest, the torture and expropriation carried out by the Company and its agents (check the looted contents of a museum or aristocratic mansion near you), and, yes, genocide…

At a similar time other European East India Companies were forming, notably the Dutch and French versions, which became competitors, and later struggles over trade routes and contracts became outright wars.

“During its first century of operation the focus of the Company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.”

Although the Company could later often rely on the military support of the British army and navy to back up its trading/military interests, the early days of the wars in India against the French of the 1740s-60s required the Company bolster up its own forces, from a slightly shambolic guard force to a proper army, which was to become the strongest military force in the subcontinent.

The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

In its first century and half, the Company used a few hundred soldiers as guards, but after 1750, (when it had 3000 regular troops), its military power rocketed. 13 years later it controlled 26,000 soldiers; by 1778, this had risen to 67,000. “The military arm of the East India Company quickly developed to become a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force, and became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent.”

Most of its troops were local Indian recruits; however men were also hired in Britain. Some of these may, as was widespread practice at the time, have been ‘volunteered’ rather than enlisting of their own accord.

A problem for the Company was the entrenched opposition to them recruiting in Britain, first and foremost by the British armed forced themselves (as is suggested in the last line of the brief Annual Register entry).  “The Company’s efforts had long been hampered by Parliamentary feeling against standing armies – indeed an act of 1781 limited the number of recruits who could be held in England awaiting embarkation to 2000 in time of war and 1000 in peace time.”  British recruits were also, as late as the 1760s, legislated to make sure they must be Protestants, who could also be part of a general attempt to spread god’s own religion among johnny foreigner, meaning not papistry. But the quality of recruits was often criticised by the Company’s officers on the ground as being poor, though whether this was regarding their health, morals or ability, isn’t clear…

Professional and national forces generally resent ‘amateurs’, private security set-ups, even today (until they have to retire, then they all get lucrative jobs with private outfits).

Another reason for army sabotage of Company recruiting may have been that opportunities for advancement were easier in the Company’s service than with the Redcoats… “The army took responsibility for many civil and social activities in the country, particularly in the vicinity of the cantonments. These responsibilities were undertaken by Warrant Officers generally acting through Sergeants of differing titles. These were positions of significant importance and standing and the chance to attain them was one of the attractions of joining the Company’s army rather than the King’s/Queen’s army. Many NCOs were able to take on other work and attract an extra income. By doing so, they could frequently buy themselves out of their units, could earn more money and qualify for a pension much sooner.”

Whether pressganged, genuinely voluntary, or regretting it, many must have decided early on that service in the EIC’s army wasn’t for them… The brief account that follows suggests less than complete consent:

“Some recruits, confined in the Savoy for the East India Service, rose upon the centinels, wrested their arms from them, and made themselves masters of the keys; but the guards in the barracks being alarmed, another fray ensued, in which three of the recruits were shot dead, some others mortally wounded, and one of the soldiers had his hand so shattered that it had to be cut off. The propriety and justice of confining men in this manner for any service, except his majesty’s, has been matter of much dispute, however favoured by the coroner’s inquest upon this melancholy occasion.” (Annual Register, 1763).

On the face of it, it sounds like the ‘recruits’ were locked up. Not volunteers, then. Press-ganged? Regretting signing up?

The Company was a major player in the colonisation of the world in British interest, and a forerunner and inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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