Factors in European Military Superiority in India

  • The Mughals fire arms remained slow-firing and cumbersome, so that they were outclassed both in rate of fire and in range by the 18 th-century European musket, and the cannon transported by European fleets.
  • In the face of charging Mughal cavalry, infantry armed with such faster and more accurate weapons could fire three times instead of once, thus destroying the traditional dominance held by heavy cavalry in Indian warfare.
  • Beyond these weapons advantages, the Europeans also had the advantage of being discipline.
  • Troops with loyalty guaranteed by regular pay were generally superior to the personal retinues or mercenary soldiers of the Indian kings, however brave the latter might be individually.
  • A chronic problem with Indian armies at that time was the lack of means to pay them; campaigns often had to be diverted for collecting revenue for this purpose.
  • When Europeans later trained Indians in the European manner, their advantage increased; discipline removed the unreliable factor of personal leadership, and regular pay reduced the fear of mutiny.
  • European troops had a further advantage with respect to civil discipline; the European forces were directed by men who were themselves disciplined, who were without hereditary connections or ties to the local population.
  • Indian loyalty was to an individual leader who might be killed, and to governments that often failed to pay their troops.
  • On the Indian side there were often persons willing to betray their leaders, because of the hope of some personal gain by doing so.
  • Thus, the European possessed not only an expertise not available to the Indians but also a spirit of confidence, a tenacity, and a will to win that was rare in the Indian forces of the time.

The British Takeover of Bengal

The revolution in Bengal was the result of a number of disparate factors. The imminence of the Seven Years’ War prompted the British to send out Clive with a force to Madras in the year 1755. Succession troubles in Bengal combined with British mercantile incompetence to produce a crisis at a moment when the French in south India were still awaiting reinforcements from France.

Ali Vardi Khan-the nawab and virtual ruler of Bengaldied in April 1756, leaving power to his young grandson SirajalDaulah. The latter’s position was insecure because of discontent among his officers, both Hindu and Muslim, and because he himself was at the same time both headstrong and vacillating. Hearing an exaggerated report that the British were fortifying Calcutta, he attacked and occupied the city after a four-day siege, on June 20, 1756. The flight of the British governor and several councillors added humiliation to defeat. The survivors were held for a night in the local lockup, which became notorious in British accounts as the Black Hole of Calcutta and many of the prisoners died by the next morning.

When news of this disaster reached Madras, a force preparing to oust Bussy-Castelnau from the Deccan was diverted to Bengal, giving Clive an army of 900 Europeans and 1,500 Indians. He relieved the Calcutta survivors and recaptured the city on Jan. 2, 1757. An indecisive engagement led to a treaty with Siraj al-Dawlah on February 9, which restored the company’s privileges, gave permission to fortify Calcutta, and declared an alliance.

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