European Soldiers and Asian Armies

[Left]: Peon, 1740 [Centre]: Madras European, 1748 [Right]: European officer, 1750s

The original native soldiers employed by the Company were normally referred to not as sepoys but as peons, or countrymen, which accurately reflected their irregular and untrained status. Rather than being directly enlisted into the Company’s service they belonged to mercenary companies serving under their own leaders, and were indistinguishable in character and appearance from those in the service of native rulers and local zemindars or petty landowners. [Left] is based on contemporary watercolours of typical footloose young men of the time; in this case he is properly armed with a musket (albeit a matchlock), although in the very early days tulwar swords, shields and spears or lances were rather more common. While adequate for dealing with dacoits or bandits, or for casual intimidation, such companies were quite ineffective against properly trained troops. When ordered to take part in a sortie during the unsuccessful defence of Madras in 1746 the garrison’s peons made a noisy demonstration and then gratefully took the opportunity to get away.

The European companies, as illustrated by [Centre], wore surprisingly practical uniforms in the early days. Soldiers serving in Madras in the 1740s were ordered to be `new cloathed once in two years with English cloth out of the Company’s warehouses’. In June 1748 Stringer Lawrence’s orders laid down that while each captain was to be responsible for clothing his company, `for regularity, the Major [Lawrence] or Officer Commanding the Companys shall appoint a pattern coat and hat or cap suitable to the climate to be approved of by the Governor, and to which every Captain will conform at the first making of the new cloathes. and that the stoppages from the non-commission officers and private men to be no more than is reasonable and that it be made gradually, and in such equal parts as to re-imburse the Captains from new cloathing to new cloathing for his first cost and a moderate profit thereon.’ As the red woollen coat was to be `suitable to the climate’ it was presumably unlined, or lined with a cotton material rather than with wool as at home, and was probably cropped short as well. Unfortunately there is no indication as to the form of the hat or cap, but once again the qualification that it was to be `suitable to the climate’ indicates that it was not the familiar three-cornered hat then worn in Europe. It was either broad-brimmed or, rather more likely, the solar topee style shown here, taken from a slightly later illustration of a Company artilleryman; this was not made of felt but of white cotton or linen stretched over a rattan framework.

The provision of `English cloth’ probably only extended to the actual coats, as a list of `necessaries’ being issued to troops serving at Trichinopoly in 1755 included Pariar shoes, coarse shirts, coarse stockings, with gingham breeches and waistcoats – gingham being a cotton material which at this time was often striped rather than checked, and usually in blue and white, although it is unclear why this material should be preferred to plain or uncoloured cotton.

Accoutrements appear at this early date to have been of tanned rather than buff leather – probably black – as being better suited to the climate. There is no reference to them in the documents referred to, but the lightweight combination shown here was a popular one amongst colonial troops at this time. A narrow waist belt supports a rather basic bellybox, featuring a simple leather flap fixed directly to a wooden block drilled for seven or eight cartridges, and an equally simple bayonet frog. Knapsacks were invariably carried with the heavy baggage on bullock carts, and canteens were unnecessary as water was supplied on the march and in action by bhistie boys carrying goatskin bladders.

Faced with the perennial difficulty of finding enough suitable recruits for its European companies, in the face of what often amounted to official obstruction at home, the Company decided in 1751 to hire some Swiss mercenaries. In July of that year articles were signed with a military entrepreneur named Schaub for the provision of two companies, each comprising four officers, six sergeants, six corporals, a drum-major, two drummers and 120 rank-and-file. All of the men were to be Protestants, and although the contract stated that they were to be raised primarily in Zurich, Geneva and Basle, recruits from Alsace and Hanover were also to be accepted (which in practice meant that Schaub was going to take whatever he could find). Between 1751 and 1754 it seems that about 500 men were sent out, and initially the Company agreed to maintain the traditional Swiss mercenary privileges with regard to discipline, drumcalls and so on. However, the arrangement seems to have lapsed by 1754, and when the various European companies were regimented by Stringer Lawrence the remaining Swiss personnel were fully integrated into the two battalions of Madras Europeans (and in some cases into the artillery) rather than being maintained as a separate battalion.

In action the Swiss generally upheld their high military reputation, but as mercenaries they were nevertheless prone to taking their individual services elsewhere and informally transferring either to the Swiss and German companies in the French service, or to freelancing with the Indian princes. The most notorious was an Alsatian named Walter Reinhardt, otherwise known as Somroo, who gained a startling reputation for ruthlessness during the 1750s and afterwards.

However, [Right] is largely reconstructed from both a portrait and an actual coat belonging to the far more respectable Daniel Frischmann, who went out to India as a cadet with the first contingent in 1751 and survived to return to Basle as a colonel in 1770. Once again it was laid down in 1748 that `the Major shall appoint the uniforms for the commission officers, to be approved by the Governor’. The coat and waistcoat shown here present something of a puzzle since with the exception of an epaulette on the left shoulder – omitted from this reconstruction – its style strongly suggest a date in the 1750s. Its survival, and the fact that Frischmann chose to be painted in it on his return home, suggest that it was in continuous use throughout his service, but its good condition also suggests that it was reserved only for the most formal of occasions and that something rather lighter and better suited to the climate was preferred for everyday wear. The portrait shows nothing of Frischmann’s breeches, but the red velvet ones depicted here appear in an inventory of the effects of a Scottish officer, Capt Robert Bannatyne, killed at Conjeveram in 1759, and are appropriate to the heavily braided formal coat and waistcoat. Interestingly, Bannatyne also had two `old’ regimental coats besides his embroidered one, and five pairs of `old gingham breeches’ as well as a fair variety of civilian garments.


Between 1500 and 1750, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English recruited thousands of soldiers for service in their Asian colonies and soldiers made up the largest part of most shiploads of men bound for Asia. While they were needed for garrison duty and for occasional small campaigns, their presence was a mixed blessing—these same soldiers were also a large part of what the Portuguese, English, Spanish, and Dutch elites regarded as the undisciplined and potentially dangerous working poor. Since most soldiers were either conscripted against their will or hired as mercenaries, every ship sent to Asia carried sailors and soldiers whose loyalty was tenuous and lasted only as long as they were paid and supplied.

While most soldiers were assigned to garrison duty, the Portuguese Estado da India often brought troops from Portugal for specific campaigns. In practice they were paid only when military operations were actually under way. Between campaigns, the soldiers were left to fend for themselves. The Dutch provided for their troops somewhat better, and the Dutch East India Company’s private army included up to ten thousand men, many of them mercenaries from various European countries. Their loyalty was strongest when they were paid properly.

This points us to one of the reasons European governments in Asia were always short of soldiers. Even in Europe itself, the advantages of joining a non-European army were well established by the 1400s. The Ottoman Empire, Europe’s immediate neighbor, recruited large numbers of European mercenaries, and we know there were Europeans in the Moroccan army in 1500. Many of them were “renegades,” who began as prisoners being held in Morocco for ransom. They chose not to be ransomed, stayed in Morocco, converted to Islam, and married Moroccan women. Integrated into local society, some of them became soldiers in the Moroccan army and often ended up as officers.

Thus, the presence of European mercenaries in Asian armies was not new when the Portuguese reached India. Thousands of men, disillusioned by service in European armies or navies, signed on as mercenaries in various Asian armies. The first Portuguese soldiers to join Indian armies in the early 1500s reported the presence of long-established Italian and French mercenaries. By 1600, Asian armies included Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Germans, Greeks, Danes, and Swedes. Rulers in Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, and Japan were especially interested in European seamen, engineers, gunners, gun founders, ship pilots, commanders, and shipwrights. Some of the Indian principalities went so far as to post professional recruiters outside the gates of the larger European forts. Attracted by the possibility of better pay and greater social mobility, thousands of European soldiers could be found in the armies of almost every country from Morocco to Japan.

Aside from better, or more reliable, pay, Asian armies offered more possibilities for advancement than were available in European armies. In a European army, appointment as an officer required noble status and good patronage connections. Few mercenaries had that kind of background. In India the same soldiers, once they had “gone over” and converted to Islam, often rose to command positions in charge of other European mercenaries. More than a few European soldiers working as mercenaries in Asia achieved fame and command authority that exceeded anything that they could hope for at home.

One source suggests that in the early 1600s, some three thousand Portuguese mercenaries were serving in Bengal, five hundred in Makassar, and fifteen hundred in the Southeast Asian mainland kingdoms. Another contemporary source estimated that as of 1627, there were five thousand European mercenaries in the Mughal army alone and another thousand Portuguese sailors in the Mughal navy. Assuming these are not overlapping reports, their estimates suggest that in the seventeenth century, the various Asian armies included more than ten thousand European mercenaries.

If we add the desertion of a possible ten thousand soldiers to the loss of two thousand assimilated or renegade civilians—and remember that before 1750 there were fewer than twenty-five thousand Europeans in all of Europe’s Asian trade empires—the European presence in Asia was precarious. It survived in good measure because no major power felt it worth the trouble to shut it down. As it was, the Chinese kept the Europeans at arm’s length, hoping to avoid corrupt Western influences. The Japanese appear to have shut out foreign influences except when they looked useful. At the western end of the Portuguese trade network, the sultan of Oman drove the Portuguese out of East Africa, and until the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire used clever diplomacy to pit the Europeans against one another. The Portuguese Estado da India was a weak remnant of its old self after 1639–1641, when it lost both its Japanese trade and the crossroads port of Melaka.

A Lesson from History?

European trade in the East, however important it was to Europe, had only a marginal impact on the social and political history of Asia. At times Portuguese, Dutch, or English sea power was a factor that Asian states had to reckon with, but European military resources were used more often against other Europeans than against Asians.

The masculine nature of the migration we call European expansion, the widespread acceptance of racial intermarriage, and the normalization of miscegenation in Europe’s main Asian outposts represent a European behavior very different from the imperialism of the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century imperialism brought women as well as men to its colonies. Colonial society imposed increasingly rigid class and racial boundaries upon colonial society and rejected intermarriage. Households minimized contact between white Europeans and Asian servants. The children of interracial marriages, once an asset in a diverse commercial world, were rejected by their European relatives and assimilated into the families of their Asian relatives. The part-European Creole elites of the old colonial capitals were subordinated to a new, all white governing elite.

In a longer historical perspective, the limits of nineteenth-century Western domination are apparent. As early as 1896 a modernizing Ethiopia destroyed a modern Italian army at Adowa. It took more than two hundred thousand troops and twenty thousand British fatalities to defeat thirty thousand militia and guerillas during the Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902). In the 1890s Japan began its climb as a major power by purchasing state-of-the-art industrial machinery and battleships from Europe. By 1910 Japan had developed its own radio communications technology and was building the fastest and most powerful warships in the world. By the 1920s the English had endowed India with an industrial infrastructure that included textile mills, railroads, and steel mills. They were managed by Englishmen but operated by Indians. The educated Indians who staffed the emerging civil service and second-tier positions in industry energized the Indian independence movement of the 1930s. Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of passive resistance was close to victory when postponed by World War II. The Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, when Israeli, French, and British troops invaded Egypt, did not stop Egyptian nationalization of the canal, nor did five hundred thousand American troops and fifty-eight thousand American fatalities stop North Vietnam from taking control of all Vietnam. Both great world powers—the Soviet Union and then the United States—encountered a formidable foe in the guerillas of Afghanistan. The disintegration of political stability in the Middle East since the second Iraq war and the presence of nuclear weapons in places like North Korea and Pakistan all suggest the limits of Western authority.

With Western hegemony on the wane after only two centuries, the current reality resembles that of the seventeenth century, when the world was dominated by several centers of power. Currently about 40 percent of our imports come from East Asia, including products of heavy and high-tech industries that once defined Western primacy. China’s gross domestic product (GDP), calculated as Purchasing Power Parity, is larger than that of the United States. The United States is now second, followed by India (3) and Japan (4). Moreover, every country from Korea to India is growing two or three times faster than the United States and Europe. Asian companies sell more cars in the United States than Ford and GM together. Brazil, a rising industrial power, builds commercial airliners; Volvo is a subsidiary of a Chinese automaker; and Jaguar is a subsidiary of India’s Tata Industries. The Chinese car market is bigger than that of the United States, and its economically comfortable middle class is larger than the entire population of the United States.

The world increasingly looks like a high-technology version of the seventeenth century. The counterparts to silver as a high-value commodity are now oil and foodstuffs. As the climate continues its shift, more and more areas will be vulnerable to rising oceans, while drought-induced shortages will make freshwater as valuable as oil. A careful look at the realities of European influence in Asia during the seventeenth century might suggest ways to manage the problems and advantages of the multipolar world we see taking shape around us.


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