Boyish Masters

A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, Its Officers and Men

by Philip Mason
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 580 pp., $12.95

Empire is the domination of one race, nation or culture over others. This domination rests on superiority of two sorts. Military superiority comes first. It is the essential factor. Without it, no empire could come into existence. Without it, no empire could survive. But there is also cultural superiority, a belief—whether justified or not—that the imperial power is the more civilized. The Romans thought that they were bestowing benefits on the people whom they conquered, as did Napoleon, and historians, who, being feeble creatures themselves, worship power, have usually endorsed this view. Even those conquerors who merely degraded or even exterminated the conquered did so on the grounds of their own superiority, as witness the Ottoman Turks or Hitler.

India has had many imperial conquerors of whom the British were the last. The British, too, thought that they were culturally superior, particularly with the coming of muscular Christianity in the nineteenth century. Their power, too, rested on military superiority, but with a special twist: the army which sustained the British Empire in India was mainly composed of Indians. The Romans of course had recruited conquered peoples for their legions. These legions served in far-off lands—Syrians in Britain and Britons in Syria. The Indian soldiers served on their home ground. Their loyalty was not unbroken. Almost exactly halfway through the two hundred years of the empire’s existence, the Indian army was shaken by a terrible mutiny. It was re-created in a slightly different form and survived the empire that it had created.

Philip Mason, a distinguished historian of the Indian empire, was himself an officer in the Indian army in its last days. His book is written with affection as well as with scholarship, yet he does justice to the forces that brought the empire to an end. He tells a fascinating story. Unlike other conquerors, the British went to India with no idea of conquest. They went to trade and did so for 150 years under the protection of the Mogul emperor at Delhi. Their factories at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta had a few armed guards. Otherwise they bought peace and security by subservience to the Mogul emperor. They were driven into military activity by their European rivals, the French, not by any hostility to the emperor. War in Europe led the British to create an empire on the other side of the world. Within a few years, Robert Clive and a handful of Indian soldiers turned the British into the greatest military power in India. Within half a century—from Arcot to Assaye—their domination was complete.

What was the secret of British success? Philip Mason answers: discipline—regular pay, regular orders, a regular system. Other armies in India were far larger than the British, but they had no permanence and no military doctrine. They fought one day and went home the next. The sepoy, as the British called their soldiers, wore British uniform. He belonged to an established regiment and gave his loyalty to it. He knew his officers. He…

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