The Pirates of Malabar

Chapter V: The Company's Servants
The Company's civil servants-- Their comparison with English who went to America-- Their miserable salaries-- The Company's military servants-- Regarded with distrust-- Shaxton's mutiny-- Captain Keigwin-- Broken pledges and ill-treatment-- Directors' vacillating policy-- Military grievances-- Keigwin seizes the administration of Bombay-- His wise rule-- Makes his submission to the Crown-- Low status of Company's military officers-- Lord Egmont's speech-- Factors and writers as generals and colonels-- Bad quality of the common soldiers-- Their bad treatment-- Complaint against Midford-- Directors' parsimony

It may be useful here to consider the difference in the men sent out by England to the East and West Indies during the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth centuries. To the West Indies went out representatives of the landed gentry from every county in England. Charters were obtained from the Crown conferring estates, and sometimes whole islands, on men of ancient families. Slaves were cheap, and sugar cultivation brought in great wealth; the whole machinery of English life was reproduced in the tropics-- counties, parishes, sheriffs, rectories, tithes, an established church, etc. The same causes that sent the Cavaliers to Virginia, sent a smaller migration to the West Indies.

At the Restoration, the men who had conquered Jamaica for Cromwell were unwilling to return to England. Monmouth's rebellion and the expulsion of the Stuarts produced a fresh influx. But whether Cavaliers or Roundheads or Jacobites, they came from the landholding class in England. The evidence may still be read in old West Indian graveyards, where the crumbling monuments show the carefully engraved armorial bearings, and the inscriptions record the families and homes in England from which those whom they commemorate had sprung.

In the East Indies nothing of the kind was possible. The acquisition of land for agriculture was out of the question. Trade was the only opening, and that was monopolized by the Company. Except as a servant of the Company, an Englishman had no legal status in the East. The chief profits went to the shareholders in London. If at the end of twenty-five years or so a Company's servant could return to England with a few thousands made by private trade, he was a fortunate man. Private traders and a few of the governors were alone able to make fortunes. The shaking of the pagoda tree did not begin till after Plassey. The result was that the men who went to India were of a totally different class from those who went to America and the West Indies; they were young men from small trading families in London, Greenwich, and Deptford, or from seaport towns like Bristol and Plymouth.

Among them were some restless and adventurous spirits who found life in England too tame or too burdensome. For such men India was long regarded as a useful outlet. "If you cannot devise expedients to send contributions, or procure credit, all is lost, and I must go to the Indies," wrote William the Third, in bitter humour, at a desperate crisis in his affairs. Fryer tells us (1698) how the Company had entertained Bluecoat boys as apprentices for seven years, after which time they were to be made writers, if able to furnish the required security. The salaries they received from the Company were only nominal. A Bombay pay-list of January 1716 shows us the official salaries at that time. The Governor received £300 per annum. Next to him came eight merchants, who with him constituted the Council, and received respectively, one £100, one £70, two £50, and four £40 each.

Below them came three senior factors at £30 each, three junior factors at £15, and seven writers at £5./1/ The tale is completed by the accountant and the chaplain, who received £100 each. A writer on entering the service had to find security for £500, which was increased to £1000 when he rose to be a factor. The unmarried servants of the Company were lodged at the Company's expense; the married ones received a lodging allowance, and a public table was maintained. In fact, the Company treated them as if they were apprentices in a warehouse in St. Paul's Churchyard, and when the conditions of their service are taken into account, it is not surprising that there was a considerable amount of dishonesty among them. 

These conditions apart, they were neither worse nor better than the men of their time. As the original Company gained stability by the incorporation of its upstart rival established in 1698,/2/ which put an end to a condition of affairs that promised to be ruinous to both; and by the grant of perpetuity issued in the year following incorporation, there was a gradual improvement in the quality of their civil servants. Though no increase in the salaries of junior officers took place for many years afterwards, the greater facilities opened to them for trade attracted better men into the service, among them some cadets of good family.

Miserable as was the display of military incompetency at Carwar and on subsequent occasions, it is hardly surprising when the condition of the Company's soldiers is considered. The Company's policy was to keep officers and men in a state of degrading subjection; to prevent the officers from having any authority over their men, while pledges as to pay were often broken.

When the Company first received Bombay from the Crown, the royal troops in the island were invited to remain in the Company's service on the same rank and pay, on the condition that they might resign when they pleased-- a condition that made discipline impossible. The greater number of them accepted the terms. Two years later, a company was sent out under Captain Shaxton to fill vacancies. Shaxton was evidently a man of good abilities and position; one who had been trained in the stern military school of the civil wars. He was to be a factor in addition to his military command, and if after trial his qualifications would admit of it, he was to hold the office of Deputy Governor. The men were engaged for three years.

By the time he had been two years in Bombay, Shaxton found that under the penurious rule of the Company, efficiency was impossible, while the two European companies maintained for the defence of the island could only be kept up to strength by filling the vacancies with natives. Four years later,/3/ a mutiny broke out, in which Shaxton supported the demands of his men. They complained that a month's pay, promised to them on engagement, was due to them; and claimed their discharge, as their time of service had expired. President Aungier behaved with prudence and firmness. He pacified the men by granting their demands, and brought the ringleaders to trial by court-martial. Three of them were condemned to death; of whom one, Corporal Fake, was shot, and the other two pardoned. Shaxton was then brought to trial, found guilty of some of the charges, and sent to England for punishment according to the King's pleasure.

Two years later a troop of horse was formed, and sent out under Captain Richard Keigwin, who was to command the garrison on a salary of £120 a year. Keigwin was a man of good Cornish family, who had entered the King's navy in 1665, and taken part in Monk's memorable four days' battle against the Dutch in the following year. When St. Helena was recaptured from the Dutch (1673), he had distinguished himself in command of the boats that made the attack, and was left as Governor of the island till it was taken over by the East India Company. As a reward for his services, the Company made him their military commandant at Bombay.

Two years later again, the Company, in a fit of economy, reduced their military establishment to two lieutenants, two ensigns, and one hundred and eighty-eight rank and file. The troop of horse was disbanded, Keigwin was discharged from the service, and thirty soldiers, who had been detached to Surat to defend the factory against Sivajee, were refused any extra allowance, which caused much discontent. Before long the Directors became alarmed at the defenceless state of Bombay, and sent out Keigwin again with troops and artillery, to have the chief military command and the third seat in Council. To meet the expense, the other officers were made to suffer in rank and pay, and the whole of the small force fell into a dangerous state of discontent. Among other reductions in the pay of their military force, the Directors reduced the rate of exchange, a measure that affected the men as well as the officers; and not content with making these changes prospective, insisted that the officers should refund the surplus of what they had received.

Keigwin also had his personal grievance. He claimed subsistence money, like the rest of the merchants and factors, the Company's table having been abolished./4/ After much altercation, a grant was made to him, on the condition that it would have to be refunded if disallowed by the Directors. He was sick of the Company, with their greed and their selfish economies at the expense of their servants, their broken pledges and stupid changes of policy in military affairs, the intrigues of Sir John Child at Surat, and the schemes of his brother, Sir Josiah Child, in England. Like many other Englishmen, he considered [that] the Company was an anomaly, dangerous to the authority of the Crown, and his distrust was increased by the mismanagement and corruption that existed among their servants in the East.

On the 27th December, 1683, he seized Mr. Ward, the Deputy Governor, and such of the Council as sided with him, assembled the troops, and issued a proclamation declaring the Company's authority at an end, and that the island was henceforth under the King's protection. By general consent he was elected Governor, and at once proceeded to restore order. The troops and inhabitants were called on to take an oath of allegiance to the King, and to renounce their obedience to the Company, a demand that was universally complied with. Officials were appointed, grievances were redressed, and trade was encouraged, to be carried on without molestation so long as Keigwin's authority was not challenged.

Money arriving from England was lodged in the fort, with a declaration that it would be employed only in defence of the island, and letters were addressed by Keigwin to the King and the Duke of York, stating his determination to hold the island for the King till his Majesty's pleasure should be known, together with the causes that had led to the revolt; one of them being the necessity of preserving it from becoming a conquest to the native powers.

Never had Bombay been so well governed as it was during the eleven months of Keigwin's rule. The Seedee sent a friendly deputation to him. From the Rajah of Satara he obtained confirmation of the articles agreed on by Sivajee, a grant for the establishment of factories at Cuddalore and Thevenapatam, an exemption from duties in the Carnatic, and the payment of twelve thousand pagodas in compensation for losses sustained at different places formerly plundered by the Mahrattas. There was no disorder or bloodshed; the only thing of the kind that has been recorded being a wound received by Keigwin himself in a quarrel at table.

So great was the enthusiasm for Keigwin that when, first commissioners, and then Sir John Child himself, came from Surat to try and re-establish the Company's authority, it was with difficulty that the crews of their vessels could be prevented from joining Keigwin and his adherents./5/ It was well for the Company that he was a man of solid character and not an adventurer. On the arrival of Sir Thomas Grantham from England in November, 1684, Keigwin surrendered the island to him, as a King's officer, on condition of a free pardon for himself and his associates, and proceeded to England./6/ The Company's treasure was intact, and except for the dangerous spirit against the Company that had been aroused, Bombay was in a better state than it had been at the time of the revolt.

After this the Company decided to have nothing more to do with professional soldiers. It was the time when the great feeling of hostility to a standing army was growing up in England, under the mischievous preaching of agitators, which reached its height thirteen years later. They took into their service men of low origin, devoid of military training, who would have no influence over their men, and who would submit to any treatment. Boone, writing to the Directors in 1720, says--

    "It is well known the Company's servants, in all the settlements I have been in, seldom keep company with the military, especially the Council. Now and then they may invite one to take a dinner, which is a favour; but the men which he distinguishes are not company for your second." 
The social status of the Company's officers appears later, when an Act was passed to extend the Mutiny Act to the East Indies and St. Helena, in consequence of the Company's right to exercise martial law having been questioned. In opposing the bill, the Earl of Egmont said--
    "If I am rightly informed, there are some of the Company's officers of a very low character. One of them was formerly a trumpeter at a raree show in this country, and when he was discharged that honourable service he listed himself in the Company's service as a common soldier, and I suppose was made an officer by one of those governors for trumpeting to him better than any other man could do it in the country. Another, I am told, was a low sort of barber-- one of our shave-for-a-penny barbers-- here in London. And another of them was a butcher here, and when he is not upon duty I am told he still exercises his trade there. Can we think that such officers will not be despised by gentlemen who have the honour to bear his Majesty's commission?"
He based his opposition to the bill on the unfitness of the Company's officers to exercise authority, and to the bad relations sure to arise between them and the King's officers./7/

In quarters they were not allowed to give any orders to their men, or to have any control over them, the most trivial matters being kept in the hands of the merchants and factors. To such an extent was this carried, that for fifty years afterwards no military officer was allowed to give out the parole and countersign./8/ Their only duties were to command the men when under arms. Commissions were granted and taken away by the Council without reference to the Directors.

Under such treatment there could be neither self-respect nor pride in their profession. Of their general behaviour, we may gather some idea from an entry concerning Lieutenant Parker at this time. He was arraigned before the Council for drinking, brawling with his men, and frequenting base houses, for which the Council deprived him of his commission; but as he was 'an extraordinary person in disciplining (drilling) soldiers,' he was appointed adjutant of the regiment till he should give a specimen of improved behaviour. 

When there was fighting to be done, the command was taken by factors and writers, who were given temporary commissions as captains, colonels, etc. Midford, Brown, Cowan, and others we hear of in command of troops, were only soldiers for the occasion. So far back as 1676 the Directors had enjoined on their civil servants to acquire a knowledge of military discipline, that in the event of any sudden attack they might bear arms. Clive was far from being the first of the Company's servants to lay down the pen for the sword, but he was the first to do so permanently.

The inferior quality of the Company's officers through the first half of the century is reflected in the fact that among the many who distinguished themselves in the hard fighting that went on from 1751 to 1764, we find only two who had not graduated in the King's service. These were Clive, who entered the Company's service as a writer, and Preston, who was sent to India as a civil engineer. Of the Company's purely military officers we hear little or nothing.

The men were worse than the officers. Instead of the sturdy agricultural labourers and farmers' sons that filled the ranks of the King's regiments, they were 'the refuse of the vilest employments in London,' as Orme described them fifty years later; 'the worst of their kind,' according to Clive. Of all nationalities, ages, and colours, badly armed, badly fed, and badly paid, they were almost without discipline. The native chiefs vied with each other in getting Europeans into their service, so that none but the most wretched would stay to serve the Company. At the best they were only factory guards, and maintained for purposes of escort and display; and it was always the Company's practice to retain officers and men in their service up to any age. On one occasion we find Boone writing to the Directors that 'it would not do to disgust the men too much.'

Miserable as was their pay of sixteen laris/9/ a month, we find them complaining to the Council that Midford had kept back two laris a month from each man. To which Midford replied that he never received nor took any more profit from the soldiers than what other officers did, all through the island of Bombay; with which answer the Council was apparently satisfied. The real grievance of the men appears to have been that Midford, not being a military officer, was not entitled to make the deduction. The Directors were careful in enjoining that powder was not to be wasted at exercise; "but sometimes the men must be used to firing, lest in time of action they should start at the noise or the recoil of their arms." To bring such officers and men into the field was to invite disaster. Soldiers are not made by dressing men in uniform and putting muskets into their hands.


/1/ According to the Company's instructions in 1675, writers were to receive no salary at all for the first five years, and after that £10 a year. In 1699 the Court of Directors settled the salaries of merchants at £60, factors at £40, and writers at £20 per annum (Bruce); but in 1716 the salaries were as above stated.
/2/ The London Company and the English East India Company were amalgamated in 1708.
/3/ 1674.
/4/ It was afterwards re-established, and again abolished in Boone's time.
/5/ Bombay was subordinate to the Surat factory till 1685.
/6/ Four years after returning to England, Keigwin was given the command of a frigate. In 1690 he accompanied the expedition against the French in the West Indies, and fell at the head of his men in the assault of Basseterre, St. Christopher's.-- Dic. Nat. Bio.
/7/ Hansard, 1754.
/8/ The first General Order issued by the Commander-in-Chief in Madras was dated the 22nd November, 1772.
/9/ The lari was the well-known hook money of the Persian Gulf. It was worth about sixpence.

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