The book, The Forgotten Sentinels: The Sepoys of Malaya, Singapore & South-East Asia (Chennai: Pixar Graphics, 2017) by N Nedumaran, is based on the significant role of the sepoys/ native soldiers of the East India Company (EIC), a history that is little known and often ignored in the colonial narrative.
Ironically, the story of the native soldiers and their representation is regarded as a part of subaltern discourse with little or no agency, yet they formed the inevitable pillars of the Company’s machinery and the real strength of running the Emporium. They were armed and trained and employed (mostly) from different parts of the Indian sub-continent by the EIC to safeguard colonial interests for their settlements, to fight their wars, and jealously guard their prized acquisitions against natives, local rulers and other European competitors.
In this perspective, this publication makes a noteworthy contribution in documenting EIC’s organisational approach to military institutions – the detailed stories of their ranks and regiments, arms and ammunitions, battles and battalions, cantonments and the Company. In aptly positing these men as the ‘blind spot’ in the British army, Nedumaran weaves a lucid story from their recruitment to training and raising them with stringent discipline, and then sending them off to different distant adventures of aggressions and conquests in Southeast Asia, China and the Far East. The pictographic representations, maps and town plans included in the volume make the reading more interesting.
The sepoys have not only been peculiarly posited in the conventional colonial narrative, but also lived in a constant dilemma of sorts. On the one hand, they were despised by different groups of people in different settlements for owing allegiance to their employers as they were involved in diverse activities like fighting wars against peoples with no clear motives of enmity, maintaining local law and order by controlling protests, gang wars, riots, guarding colonial bastions, escorting the British officers, and activities that made them an ally to the imperial establishment. On the other hand, they were visibly and culturally starkly different from the British officers they served, the only thread of bonding being the red uniform.
They lived a “Spartan life” with “brutal discipline,” received low wages, could not rise above certain ranks in spite of their loyalty and service, discriminated with British officers, became homesick and also died with outbreak of diseases in distant lands, and were most vulnerable to any public wrath and anger in times of trouble.
The publication does not analyse the dilemma and the psychological condition of the sepoys except mentioning desertion of some soldiers in certain events. The limitation of such analysis can be comprehended without any substantial sources of information or first-hand accounts of these sepoys. Thus, the actual story of their everyday struggle and predicament, beyond the colonial archives, may never be told.
The volume also narrates an intricate tale of interactions and connectivities across the Bay of Bengal into the South China Sea in the colonial period that was a marked departure from the trajectories of exchanges in the pre-colonial times through peaceful exchanges of trade, religion and culture. The colonial ambitions brought about increasing mobility of people, however, with interjections of discriminations and new boundaries.
Jayati Bhattacharya is a Lecturer at the National University of Singapore.