British Indian sepoys weren’t silent spectators to colonial brutality. They led quiet rebellions

Our imagination of Indian sepoys who served the British is often tinged with nationalist yearning. Today, they are typically portrayed as revolutionaries and forgotten heroes of the World Wars. There is, however, much more to these men. As sepoys left their homelands and crossed the oceans, they witnessed a world being conquered and exploited by Western might—of which they were an integral aspect. And they sought to understand, interpret, and occasionally, even profit from it all. From planning revolts in Java to condemning British rapacity in China, overseas sepoys emerge as some of the most fascinating figures of the early modern era.

Small cosmopolitanisms

In previous editions of Thinking Medieval, we have repeatedly mentioned the Sanskrit Cosmopolis—a sprawling geocultural world extending across medieval South and Southeast Asia, characterised by the circulation of texts, attitudes, and symbols. Highly skilled personnel moved throughout this world, especially Sanskrit-speaking ritual experts and poets. By the 14th century, new forms of cosmopolitanism had spread through the Indian Ocean region, privileging Persian speakers instead. And so, by the time European trading companies established themselves here in the 17th and 18th centuries, this oceanic space had already seen cosmopolitanism (if somewhat unevenly) for many centuries.

In the late 18th century, as the British East India Company (EIC) began recruiting and deploying Indian troops across the ocean, meticulous records were kept regarding their conduct. This offers us an insight into how common people experienced cosmopolitanism as well—it was not limited to the elite. Historian Claude Markovits, in Armed Cosmopolitans? Indian Sepoys and their Travels in the Service of the East India Company (1762–1815), studied various letters and documents left behind by British officers discussing their Indian troops. They made much of the fact that sepoys followed dietary restrictions, requiring ghee, fresh vegetables, and so on. Despite all this, sepoys were crucial to colonial expeditions across the eastern hemisphere. Markovits notes that they were not only more cost-effective—almost 40% less—than European troops (due to their lower pay and fewer demands for meat and liquor) but also considered more disciplined and ‘docile’. Consequently, as early as 1762, Indian sepoys were deployed to the Philippines.

Yet, British records contain many hints that the Indian troops were a more complicated group than expected. Complaints were lodged against their bad behaviour with women. Some sepoys deserted their regiments, while others were left behind in the Philippines when the expedition was completed—either because they were too ill to travel, or because they had taken local wives. (Their descendants, according to historian Ajit Singh Rye, in Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, still live near Manila). During expeditions in China, British officers voiced concerns that Indian troops might mutiny due to inadequate provisions of purified rations. Yet, very few actual disturbances occurred over food, leading Markovits to suggest that Indian sepoys were amenable to eating food in foreign lands. It is possible that such encounters also introduced new tastes to Indian markets.

One of the most fascinating stories of overseas sepoys comes from Egypt, as recounted by historian Maya Jasanoff in her book Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750–1850. In July 1801, Captain John Budgen, accompanied by two Brahmin sepoys from the Bengal Army, explored the ruins of an ancient Egyptian temple. Outside the temple, the sepoys found idols they identified as the god Vishnu. They also interpreted the bas-reliefs on the walls and pillars as Hindu deities. This was an extraordinary moment, noted Jasanoff, “when ancient Egypt and modern Hindus came face to face for the first recorded time”. How remarkable that South Asians sought to understand a long-forgotten culture through the lens of their own gods and beliefs. Religious affinities could also lead to cosmopolitan friendships. As Markovits writes, in 1811, a Malaccan Muslim teacher mentioned befriending some Indian Muslim sepoys who taught him Hindustani.

Also read: Celebrate Ahom wars against Mughals. But don’t miss how neo-Vaishnavites weakened them

Revolts, Indian and Chinese

Sepoys also found ways of striking out on their own. In 1815, writes Markovits, a contingent from the Bengal Army was dispatched to Java to fight against the Dutch. At some point during the expedition, the troops encountered the colossal medieval Hindu-Buddhist relics of Prambanan and Borobudur, and began to envision Java as the “land of Brahma”. Soon after, a certain Subedar Dhaugkal Singh established contact with the rulers of the Sultanate of Surakarta in Central Java. The Sultan, a Muslim, was regarded as a descendant of Rama. ‘Upper-caste’ sepoys soon intermarried with Javanese aristocrats and plotted to stage a mutiny and set up a small kingdom. However, their scheme was uncovered and mercilessly crushed. It is fascinating to witness, on the ruins of a medieval Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism, a nudge towards a modern one.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of a dissenting cosmopolitan sepoy is Thakur Gadhadhar Singh, who published a book titled Chin Mein Terah Mas (Thirteen Months in China) in 1901, lucidly translated by academics Anand A Yang, Kamal Sheel, and Ranjana Sheel. In 1900, Singh had been part of the International Expedition of 20,000 men that crushed the “Boxer” Uprising, ransacked Beijing, and humiliated the imperial Qing Dynasty. He promptly penned his account upon returning to India. Singh was one of the few literate sepoys, having completed his matriculation, and throughout his life, he authored nine books covering subjects ranging from Japanese Bushido to women’s empowerment in England. Today, he is considered one of the foremost pioneers of modern Hindi literature.

Singh’s account of the uprising is particularly noteworthy for its anti-colonial stance, verging on Pan-Asianism. Describing his regiment’s march from the shore to Beijing, he paints a despondent scene, with bodies strewn everywhere, villages reduced to ashes, and dogs chewing on corpses. “Even hearts of stone would be moved by such a sight!” he writes. “There was no need for us to feel compassion because we had come to fight the Chinese. But… seeing people of our same colour generated an ‘emotion’ for them in our minds, if not in our actions. The Chinese are Buddhists… They share a religion with Hindustanis. As inhabitants of Asia, they are also almost fellow countrymen. In complexion, tradition, and culture, too, they are not dissimilar. Why has God inflicted this distress on them! Did God not want to help them?”

There is much more to explore about sepoys, merchants, and other Indian globetrotters in the colonial world. While these accounts are truly fascinating, they could not have taken place without enthusiastic engagement with European powers. Perhaps the moral complexity of their position is best encapsulated by Gadadhar Singh himself when reflecting on the brutal looting of Beijing after the International Expedition had ended the Boxer Uprising. “What more to say? Hindustan is a neighbour and also a brother of China, but did Hindustanis indulge any less in looting and atrocities?”

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Prashant)