The Honourable East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I at the end of the sixteenth century for the purpose of extending trade into Asia as well as providing a cheap and diplomatically safe way of intruding into the Spanish Empire's (mostly Portuguese actually but the King of Spain was also King of Portugal at the time) backyard.
Its first captains were typical Elizabethan warrior-merchants seeking to gain profit by honest trade or by more primitive methods. In the process they set up a number of trading posts with the permission of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who at that time was the ruler of (most of) India. The Company generally made nice with the Mughal rulers. Some storied incidents such as the pirate Henry Avery's raid on the Mughal ship Ganj-i-Sawai provoked the ire of Emperor Aurangzeb which led to a major diplomatic incident that had the company make nice with the Mughals. Aurangzeb was a military expansionist who was also reversing his family's policy of religious tolerance and this led to a series of rebellions within India, and the rise of competing empires such as the Marathas and the Nizams of Hyderabad as well as other Kingdoms in the East. The Mughal Empire suffered a major body blow in the 1739 Sack of Delhi by the Persian conqueror Nader Shah. This was the Shocking Defeat Legacy from which the Mughals never recovered from. The Emperor's power was disintegrating in the face of European powers and internal pressure. Because of this, the Company began to hire local mercenaries to defend its trading posts. From this seemingly innocuous policy The Raj was slowly born. From its victory in the 1757 Battle of Plassey to the 1857 Mutiny, a series of conflicts took place which led to the growing hegemony of the East India Company.
The Company evolved into a state of its own that often was more like an ally than a subject of the British crown. The East India Company's security guards evolved into a full fledged army; indeed one larger then most European armies and just as well trained and armed. Each time a major war broke out, this provided a convenient excuse to gobble up possessions of the enemy and not coincidentally, to conquer and assimilate local powers accused of being to sympathetic toward said enemy - not entirely without merit, such as in the case of Joseph François Dupleix. By Waterloo, the Company - and by extension, Britain - was the only power in the subcontinent.
After this came a number of small scale wars and counter-insurgencies and the major rebellion of 1857. English and International historians call it variously the Sepoy Rebellion (Sepoy meaning "Indian Infantryman" deriving from the Urdu term Sipahi which means soldier or conscript). This was caused by discontent in the ranks and a feeling that the Company's Vast Bureaucracy was unsympathetic to their cultural traditions (demonstrably true - see the Greased Cartridges Incident). A number of regiments revolted and declared themselves for the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (at that point a figurehead for a Vestigial Empire) as well as a series of rival feudal kings who were chafing under the Company's annexation policies by which it would nullify existing claims to the throne using the "doctrine of lapse" (i.e. the EITC used the lack of heir as an excuse to claim territory, and if there were heirs present, they would arbitrary declare those claims illegitimate with more or less zero reasons other than Screw the Rules, I Make Them! and simple racism). The most storied of these include Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibhai of Jhansi, the latter of which captured the Victorian imagination as a Lady of War and is an Icon of Rebellion in India.
The East India Company proved shockingly incompetent at managing this crisis which it had more or less created and entirely deserved, and the spectacle of a non-white army attacking English lives and property was incredibly alarming to Victorian Britain and its white supremacist assumptions as well as its prestige as the world's unquestioned superpower. It would simply not do for them to be humiliated internationally by a bunch of darkies in some heathen land. So the Crown sent its own troops to suppress the mutiny with what modern historians consider to be the most punitive expedition unleashed in the history of the British Army. At the time, the English newspapers which controlled the global media favored the English side and focused on the atrocities of the mutineers namely at Cawnpore where English women and children were killed and their bodies dumped in the grave. Indian historians both in the lead-up to Independence, and after the war, focus on the far greater atrocities of the British Army, which involved the sacking and looting of Delhi and Lucknow, with much Rape, Pillage, and Burn of villages, and casualties of citizens in the thousands. It culminated in the exile of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zaffar into exile in Rangoon Burma, while his children, the heirs of the Mughal Throne were summarily executed by British officers and their bodies buried unceremoniously at Delhi's Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate in Englishnote ).
Incidentally, the 1857 Mutiny is still quite controversial in India. We've split it up into a few points for clarity -
- While the British and international historians call it the Mutiny some Indians call it the First War of Indian Independence or the 1857 Uprising. A more neutral term is the Revolt of 1857. During the Mutiny, many English papers called it "the Indian Insurrection" and Benjamin Disraeli himself called it "a national revolt".
- Even among Indians, seeing 1857 as a nationalist revolt is contentious because the motivations of the sepoys were in a lot of cases religious, and in other cases reactionary (one such case being that Warrior caste Hindus were offended that lower-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity (which was - and still is in some parts - seen as them being a Category Traitor) were being treated equally by the British).
- The Mutineers and their factions were backed by Indian rulers and kings who, while having legitimate grievances against the Crown and who were popular figureheads, did not generally sympathise with the movement. They were in no mood to relinquish their authority over their subjects, so for most people, it was mostly a case of Meet the New Boss one way or the other.
- The Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zaffar was a poet and had no intention to support or serve the mutiny but he more or less Got Volunteered to serve as Emperor in full rank and meaning. In most cases these rulers were regional powers with no real plan for national unification, (which in that context meant the Mughal Empire revived) which would not appeal at all to Hindu rulers and those in Southern India.
- In addition, there were many revolts and mutinies before 1857, such as in Mysore, and South Indians resent the implication that a revolt largely centred in Northern and Eastern India is considered more nationalistic than earlier ones in the South.
- There's also the problem that the British Crown suppressed the Mutiny with the help of Sikhs and other Indian rulers who hated the Mutineers and the Sepoy revolt. For the Sikhs, it was because the soldiers of the Mutiny had served the English Crown during the Conquest of Sindh and had committed a hell of a lot of atrocities then. Seeing it as a nationalist revolt meant that the local groups of people who fought for the English become Les Collaborateurs, while in the perspective of the local allies of the Crown the Sepoys were the original collaborators and stooges for the English crown and their mutiny. As Karl Marx noted (the only voice in the English press that openly supported the Mutiny), it was little more than a case of them biting the hand that fed them.
So as such, while the 1857 Mutiny and Uprising is a major event in Indian nationalism, and the history of India, it was then and remains later, a highly polarizing event with contradictory and mixed opinions upon its results, which were pretty murky to be quite honest.
The Mutiny was the End of an Age. It marked the end of the East India Company as a N.G.O. Superpower and in so far as the Mutiny was a revolt against the company, it did succeed in toppling the government. It was also the most significant military revolt by Indian rulers, and it was the last time Indian kings and rulers commanded soldiers and armies in battle, and it marked the end of Indian feudalism. After this, the English government ruled directly under Queen Victoria who was bestowed the title Empress of India by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, making the new colony the Empire of India, allowing the Monarch to be an Empress.
The British Indian Army (as it is referred to in Wikipedia) fought in a number of local wars, notably in actions against tribesmen in Afghanistan and along its borders. During the Great Game, the Indian Army would have been responsible for providing the primary defence of the colony if the Russians decided to invade India.
It also performed gallantly in World War I and World War II. It was in these wars that the Gurkhas became famous for their ferocity and valour, as well as being eternally optimistic. It also produced the image of the mustachioed, exotic Indian soldier with lilting accents and total obedience to his British officers, as well as being utterly steadfast on the field. The statement was that you didn't see their backs until they were dead. Their contribution (and for that matter, that of Imperial forces in general) is often overlooked by Western Media, much to the chagrin of the Indians - which is understandable, considering that they contributed over two million men for the British Empire's war machine - all volunteers. And who were the ones picking up the slack - with roughly a million other Imperial troops (Australians, New Zealanders and Burmese forming the bulk of them) as the British Regulars were licking their wounds in impotence after the curb-stomping they got at the hands of the Axis. And being instrumental in driving back Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, and were the ones to give Field Marshal Harold Alexander the distinction of being the first General to conquer Rome from the south since Flavius Belisarius.
The Indian Army had what the British considered a number of colourful eccentricities. More specifically, it smoothly adapted the famous British regimental system to harness local ethnic loyalties into the government's service. One (somewhat) controversial aspect of this was the Martial Race theory which held that certain cultures provided better soldiers. Those who favoured this claimed that these were people who grew up in tough places where they Had to Be Sharp. Others point out that this was simple bigotry that helped the English Divide and Conquer. Of course, not all of the Army was from "Martial Races" and some notable regiments like the Bombay, Bengal and Madras Sappers and Miners - who are generally regarded as the absolute best - were from "non-Martial" cultures. By World War II the demand for Cannon Fodder was so high that even "Untouchables" castes or tribes were fighting and accounted themselves fairly well. This "dilution" does not seem to have hurt the efficiency of the Indian Army, although it paled compared to the institution of Subhash Chandra's Bose rebel Indian Nationalist Army which despite being numerically smaller, and allied with Imperial Japan was the first Indian army without caste and religious segregation that was also open to women. The modern Indian army resembles Bose's structure more than the British.
Tropes associated with Kipling's Finest :
- The Assimilator: A lot of the best troops in this army had once been enemies of the British.
- Badass Army : It had the advantage of drumming up volunteers from a large population which had a low standard of living and regarded soldiering as a highly honorable trade. Thus The Raj could pick and choose and create one of the most effective armies in the world, arguably better on average then native British. Even the Wehrmacht was afraid of them.
- Bayonet Ya: British were fond of the bayonet as were British trained native troops India. This is worthy of special note though, because the tough logistics of India and the resulting ammunition shortage made both Crown and Company regiments more close combat happy then usual. Another and related reason is that while in Europe a charge didn't usually begin until the target had their morale shot out of them, there was not enough ammunition to do this in India, and the opponents were often trained aristocratic warriors who had their own traditions of hand to hand combat. Because of this bayonets, and swords and other edged weapons saw more actual work then in Europe until the advent of repeaters.
- Bling of War : With regiments representing scores of tribes and castes, and wearing the traditional costumes of each, they looked awesome on parade.
- Forever War: The Northwest Frontier (Afghan border). Some books claim that officers thought this place a Warrior Heaven.
- Mega-Corp: The East India Company grew so large from its trading that at times it appeared to be a government all its own, more allied with the British Empire than a subject of it.
- Mighty Whitey: Subverted. Until Independence almost all the officers were British. However this was mainly because Asian-born officers were not allowed until well into the twentieth century and they had a lot of red tape to cut through first even after that.
- Multinational Team: The structure of the British India Army included people from all the castes and even some who weren't from India.
- Never Live It Down: After the Great Mutiny, several generations of Indian soldiery had to live with the fact that The Government didn't quite trust them.
- Opposing Combat Philosophies: The Military technology match up between Europeans and Asians was roughly equal in the eighteenth century. The chief difference was tactics. India had some of the finest cavalry in the world. However many Indian princes were too sloppy to train their Infantry properly while Kipling's Finest had long learned that with very good Sergeant Rocks (which they had) they could train an infantry force out of anything, whether Europeans or local mercenaries. Sikhs were an exception. Their army was a European copycat and probably as well drilled as any Army from an equivalent-sized European nation.
- Old Shame: The Indians with Iglas regard some battle honours from this era (mainly those deemed to have been oppressive towards India or her neighbours) as "repugnant" and do not commemorate them. These include Carnatic, Assaye, and the Mysore and Punjaub campaigns.
- Proud Warrior Race: The "martial race" belief resulted in the recruitment of hunters and those from areas with a long history of conflict.
- Puppet State: A number of troops were contributed by officially independent rajahs who were allied to the British government. This status remained until the present Indian government assimilated them.
- Rival Turned Evil: At least from the perspective of the British Empire. The Indian National Army in World War II were a group of Indian nationalists who formed an army that had the goal of forming an independent country with the help of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It is not clear what kind of country it might have become. On one hand, Bose and his followers did have some authoritarian and Fascist tendencies. On the other hand, they also disregarded the complex race rules that characterized the British India and all ethnicities of India served equally among its ranks (British, on the other hand, carefully segregated various ethnic groups in India among its ranks and carefully drew distinction between "Martial" races and others.) 1946 trials of Indian National Army officers for treason at Delhi's Red Fort (with Jawahalal Nehru as the chief defense counsel) led to nationwide mutinies and protests throughout India where the secularists and religious, Hindus and Muslims, military and civilians stood hand in hand against British imperialism that effectively broke the British Empire on Indian subcontinent. In India, Bengal and Pakistan today, however, its leader Bose and the army itself are widely celebrated (one of the few things all three countries agree on); given the sort of company the INA kept, that may say something about the twilight years of British rule in India.
- Despite its authoritarian backers, the INA was also years, if not decades, ahead of the British armed forces establishment with its placement of women, creating an all-women Rani of Jhansi regiment for both combat and medical uses, named after the famous woman who resisted the East India Company.
- Sibling Team: Richard and Arthur Wellesley. Richard was Governor-General. His more famous brother became the Duke of Wellington.
- Took a Level in Badass: This army started as warehouse security. It became one of the best armies in the world in a few hundred years. That is really taking a level in badass.
- True Companions: Each regiment is supposed to be made up of these.
- Underestimating Badassery: Napoléon Bonaparte once sneered at The Duke of Wellington for being a "sepoy general". Presumably he thought that an insult. He was later corrected in his mistake. Though according to historians, Napoleon did not really underestimate Wellesley, he said that to defuse tensions among his Generals and build morale.