Captain Welsh’s Expedition To Assam
*This hasn’t been prepared by any expert, but by a journalist with some interest in military history. That’s me! So don’t kill me for this!*
In the twilight years of the 18th century, the Honorable East India Company held sway over most parts of the country with only two major Indian power centers remaining— the Marathas and Mysore. In the east, Bengal was firmly in British hands and Company Bahadur wasn’t interested in expanding beyond that. But trouble in the Ahom kingdom presented the Company an opportunity to study the region. It was the Moamariya rebellion.
King Gaurinath Singha, after losing his capital to the rebels, contacted Governor General Lord Cornwallis and sought his help. The Company vacillated initially, as it was fighting a taxing war with Tipu Sultan of Mysore. But after the Siege of Srirangapatnam and eventual signing of treaty in 1792, the Company was once again in a position to concentrate on
other affairs. That same year, Captain Thomas Welsh of the Bengal Army was sent to help the King of Assam with six companies of sepoys (each company having 60 fighting men). The whole unit didn’t exceed 550 men and included
a small medical corps under Dr John Peter Wade.
The Bengal Army’s first military encounter with the local population happened towards the end of November, 1792. Darrang raja Krishnanarayan had occupied northern Kamrup, including North Guwahati, and several requests by the English to disband his barkandaz army were ignored. So the Company forces gave battle. After two engagements, the king accepted defeat, expelled barkandazes from his army, and accepted vassalage of the Ahom king.
Barkandazes were Hindustani irregular infantrymen or cavalrymen, who were basically freebooters
By early 1794, Captain Welsh began negotiations with the Moamariyas in upper Assam. Those fell through and once again, an armed encounter became imminent. The English gave battle once again, and once again, the militia was no match for the Bengal Army. Gaurinath Singha was reinstalled as king and the English army retired to Bengal.
*What made the Bengal Army invincible?*
Considering the fact that this small detachment had just about 360 fighting men and opposed an enemy several times bigger, it’s really amazing how it could post defeat after defeat on the rebels. This hasn’t been studied in depth by scholars; at least the military importance of it has been ignored by many. So, I thought about writing it. Of course, I’m no expert, but I have some knowledge about battle tactics.
*Philosophy of war*
The Company armies fought in true European fashion when it came to infantry. The Honourable East India Company, for a long time, didn’t have proper cavalry units, unlike their counterparts in the British Army. This was in stark contrast to the Indian armies, which relied totally on cavalry and gave minimum importance to infantry. Ahom army was an exception in this regard. It was probably the only army in the country that had no cavalry arm at all. Assamese had always been foot soldiers and brilliant in guerrilla warfare. Despite that, why couldn’t the Moamariyas fight at all with such a small infantry detachment?
It goes without saying that the Company’s sepoys were better trained and led. They had better arms as well. The troops were well drilled and infused with the doggedness that English armies throughout the world at different theatres of war have displayed. Whatever be the circumstances, a British army would never break up and flee; they would hold their ground, no matter what. It was this superior will to prevail that probably made all the difference.
*English battle strategy*
The English believed in fighting as a unit, more or less like the Roman centurions. They marched in columns and formed up in line formation in front of the enemy. The firing methods varied according to formation.
In a typical line formation, troops would fire their muskets one after the other. So, if it the line had 60 men, then 60 shots would ring out in a minute, sometimes in less than a minute. When the last man on one side had fired his weapon, the first man on the other end was ready for his next shot. This way, constant fire could be maintained. And no man, either on foot or on horse, would find it easy to advance in face of constant gun fire.
In the row formation, troops would form two rows, and the front row would kneel. All guns would open up at the same time. This tactic was called volley fire. Against a superior force, the English deployed a third tactic
by keeping four rows of infantry. After the first two rows had discharged their guns, they would fall back and two fresh rows would take their place. This type of formation had another advantage: it could be easily converted
into a phalanx formation, four-men deep. In case the enemy broke past defences and reached the line, the troops would fix bayonets and hold the advance. This was particularly effective against cavalry charges.
A fourth tactic, the square style of infantry fighting, was used only when there was a cavalry charge. At Waterloo, at a critical juncture, when the Duke of Wellington moved his troops back in order to protect them from cannonade, Marshall Ney thought the English were retreating. At once, the French cavalry charged; but upon reaching the English line, they found that the enemy hadn’t retreated, but formed fighting squares. Napoleon’s elite
cavalry was massacred as the English resorted to volley fire (the English weren’t any lucky with their cavalry either: earlier in the day, the British had made a cavalry charge, too, with the Royal Scots Greys at the helm. This charge broke up as Napoleon matched them with his Polish lancers.).
An infantry square was a reliable form of offensive defence when faced with a cavalry charge. The front line would kneel, point their bayonets at the charging enemy, and fire. Horses don’t go over sharp objects.
During the climax of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, which was fought during the Spanish War of Succession, nine battalions of French infantry tried to hold their line by making an abortive bid of forming infantry squares after General Tallard’s cavalry broke up. However, Colonel Blood’s close artillery fire combined with platoon volley fire cut them down.
Even before the advent of firearms, military strategists had found out that horses couldn’t jump over pike formations. At the battles of Falkirk (1298) and Bannockburn (1314), the Scottish pike formations or schiltrons had
frustrated English heavy cavalry charges. This evolved into infantry squares in the gunpowder age.
*The weapon that made the difference*
By the 1790s, the Company’s troops were provided the Short-land Pattern .75 calibre flintlock musket and the India pattern (highly accurate) of the same musket. This weapon, popularly known as the Brown Bess, was used in
the Napoleonic Wars, too, with great success. Troops in Captain Welsh’s detachment had any of these two muskets or both. This was a high-performance musket, which was easier to load; in fact, it took about a
minute (average 43 seconds for three shots) for an expert soldier to fire four rounds.
Brown bess musket: Weighing a little over 4 kilos and having a barrel length of 39 inches, this was a highly accurate musket and required minimum maintenance. It also had a high rate of fire (three shots in 43 seconds), making it a reliable infantry weapon.
In contrast, the Moamariyas were poorly armed and poorly led. They were completely alien to European fighting style. Besides, they didn’t have any firearms worth the name, barring a few matchlocks, which were obsolete and
stood no chance against the Brown Bess. The Ahoms themselves didn’t have any muskets. Purnananda Burhagohain was particularly impressed by the British weapons and their drilled infantry. Most Moamariyas fought with whatever weapon they could find: swords, pikes, pick-axes, spears, and even bamboo sticks. The battles were over even before they began.
In 1794, when Sir John Shore replaced Lord Cornwallis, he recalled the expedition of Captain Welsh. The team went back with tales of Assam, which helped the Company Bahadur to intervene in its affairs once again in the
On Judgment Day, only Ram was the Loser
At 3.30 pm on September 30, when the Lucknow Bench of the Honourable Allahabad High Court pronounced the verdict on the Ayodhya case, there were tears of joy and sorrow across the country. While some were happy with the verdict, some rued the ‘partial’ attitude of the judiciary towards the majority community of this country. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the self-proclaimed custodian of Hinduism, proclaimed that nobody is a winner or a loser; the Congress proudly announced that it’s a good verdict and nobody should have any qualms about accepting it. But did anybody, even for once, spare a thought for the ‘man’ who was at the centre of all this mess—Raghukul nandan and son of King Dasaratha, Prince Ram? If there was any real loser, it was none but him, for he lost his ‘God’ status with the court saying in no indirect phrase that he was indeed born at the place where the Babari Masjid once stood. Gods are not born at historical places, reason tells us.
For over a millennium, Hindus took pride in calling him their God. He was known as Lord Ram, a maryada purushottam (the best of man) whose qualities of the head and heart every parent wanted his/her son to emulate. For over a thousand years, Hindus of all castes and races have known his story by heart. And suddenly today, we have been forced to believe that he was someone like us, very mortal in character and spirit, thanks to nearly 60 years of litigation over his ‘birthplace‘ and an even longer battle outside court between two communities willing to snap one another’s neck in the name of their respective Gods.
When Mughal Emperor Babur “ordered” the desecration of Hindu temples in Ayodhya and construction of the Babari Masjid in 1527-28, little did he know that his own grandson, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, would be known to his Hindu subjects as an incarnation of Lord Ram! It was poetic justice anyway. The Hindus never realized this, and unfortunately, even the judiciary didn’t.
In its 12,000-page verdict, the HC said, “there is no evidence to suggest that the mosque was constructed by Babar, or upon his order, by someone else”. What the court refused to acknowledge was the plaque at the site written in Persian that credits the construction of the mosque to one Mir Baqi, a noble of Babur, who says he built it in the honour of his emperor. Also, numerous contemporary accounts and those by the British Government calling it ‘Babur’s mosque’ were set aside by the court. Instead, the court chose to accept legendary accounts that Ram was born in Ayodhya, although no account exists that pinpoints Ram’s birthplace to the disputed site.
I’m no legal expert, but the way two parts of the disputed land was handed to the Hindus and only one part to the Muslims, I somehow feel it would only create a feeling of mistrust among the minority community for us, Hindus. As a serious student of history, I would have preferred the entire land being declared as national property with the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) acting as its custodian. It would have proved as a great gift for history of mankind had the ASI been allowed to dig deep into the ruins and find evidence of prehistoric cultures existing there—something even older than the legend of Ram. That’s how, I believe, a pragmatic society should function.
In a 21st century democratic country like India, it was expected of the judiciary to act rationally and count on historical sources, not mythical epics; but the verdict leaves room for speculation that someday, the ancient law of Manu would supplant the Constitution of India. The mere thought of it sends chill down my spine. In such a situation, it would be the women who would be at the receiving end, for everyone knows how fair Manu was to the fairer sex.
But maybe, the HC had a point when they passed the verdict yesterday: they didn’t want Ram to be seen as a God when he had so many qualities possessed by men in Ekktaa Kapoor’s television epics. After all, he was the one who suspected his wife of adultery and banished her from the kingdom – this was certainly no God-like quality. I’m sure Ravana must be sniggering at his nemesis, for he still remains the Demon King, but Ram is now very much a human susceptible to follies. At least, Ravana will be remembered as someone who abducted another man’s wife, but didn’t outrage her modesty. Ram, unfortunately, will now be open to attacks by feminists for being, in their words, an MCP of the worst kind.
Anyhow, before this sounds like a rant, I would like to end it with the hope that India will not become the next destination of religious fundamentalism and lunacy. Nobody is alive today who remembers what happened in the 1520s; the pains inflicted by a Muslim conqueror on his Hindu subjects have been long forgotten, for none of us know who our ancestors were at that point of time. Therefore, this frenzy of altering the course of history should be discouraged in a strong voice. And in a land where Rule of Law supposedly exists, whom do we turn to for that sound piece of advice if not the judiciary?
This verdict, I’m afraid, would only encourage a generation of people to try to alter the course of history. And given a chance, I too would like to change a lot of things: that Mamta Kulkarni ever existed in Bollywood, Mohinder Amarnath’s annoying style of bowling, Kirti Azad’s forgettable innings in the ’83 World Cup…the list is long.
Hic (!) Hic (!) Hurray !
Pop! I have unscrewed the cork and the mellowing fragrance of fermented grape has filled the room. I’m now pouring the sparkling red wine into the chalice, and I’m already feeling good about it. I am also trying to imagine the soothing effect the aqua vitae would have on me the moment I empty the cup. After a hard day in the office, a man needs something to cool him down. And to relieve your mind from all the stress, you need to tune in to the idiot box.
Well, I have switched on the TV, and I’m with HBO now. They are playing Demi Moore’s famous scene with Patrick Swayze from Ghost. Well sorry to say but I just cannot help myself from ogling at Moore. In her heyday, she did raise a few eyebrows with her dare-bare roles. Although she has lost her screen presence of late, she apparently has retained her charm. Otherwise can you expect a woman on the wrong side of forty marrying a man almost half her age? I must say Ashton Kutcher is a brave man (it requires guts to marry a thrice divorced woman who has a history of troubled relationships)! He has finally come of age. But isn’t it a style statement of the rich and the famous nowadays to hook up with people much older/younger to their age?
The only other Hollywood actress who can strip Demi Moore of her sex siren image is Sharon Stone. She is one irresistible woman! There are not many people who haven’t seen her landmark movie Basic Instinct. When she did King Solomon’s Mines (in 1985), no one could imagine that the Plain Jane Sharon would turn into a sex siren a few years later. But that is basic human instinct: if you want to be famous, you will do anything to achieve it. Nevertheless, fame does come by your way unawares sometimes. Did King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba realise in their age that they would become legends to their posterity?
Solomon the Wise was the legendary ruler of Jerusalem, and the son of the great King David. He was the constructor of the first temple in Jerusalem and the last ruler of the united Jewish kingdom of Israel. Solomon is associated with the Golden Age of the independent Kingdom of Israel, and he is also considered to be the source of judicial and religious wisdom. According to Jewish tradition, King Solomon has written three books of the Bible: Mishlei (Book of Proverbs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs).
After Solomon’s death his son Rehoboam ascended the throne. But the ten northern tribes of the Kingdom of Israel revolted against the Davidic line, refusing to accept Rehoboam, and instead chose as king Jeroboam who was not a member of King David’s family. The fate of this northern kingdom was sealed when they were eventually conquered by Assyrians who exiled them completely until they became “The Ten Lost Tribes”. It is believed that the Mizos of Northeast India are one of the lost tribes.
Mizoram! Ah, dear! It is such a beautiful state! At one point of time, it was the state with the highest literacy ratio in India. Today, it is the state with the second highest literate population in India, after Kerala. For this, the Christian Missionaries have to be thanked. They have done a yeoman’s service in penetrating deep into the interiors of the Northeast, carrying with them the light of education and the Christian faith.
Christianity today is the most dominant religion in the world. When Jesus of Nazareth was born, no one thought that this King of Jews would become the father of a faith that would transcend all borders and generations. Only the Three Magi—Balthazar, Melchior and Casper had some idea that they were
amidst greatness when they came to meet him. It horrifies me whenever I recall the fate of the Son of God: how he was persecuted in his lifetime, and how he was put to a painful death. The Roman fiends were so nasty, they used to make Jesus drink raw vinegar, so that his flesh would rot from inside while he was still alive, pinned to the crucifix.
Hey hold on! If you think what’s wrong with me, let me tell you that I always start blabbering after a few glasses of wine (I never forced you to read this, did I?) Of late, I am rambling too much. Man, I have lost my mind! I am finding it very difficult to balance my private and professional lives. It is like walking on a Chopine (I wonder how women balance their weight on stilettos). I will go insane if I continue this way.
I have realised only recently that it is actually my boss who is making my life hell. He has returned from the US and you could call him a Standard American in Indian skin. He dumps all the hard work in the world upon me, as if I am some trash can. Wish I could tie him up to the Methuselah grove and shoot him down with a Double Magnum! He is fiddling with my life as if I were a Piccolo, which he can pick up and play whenever he feels like.
Well enough of TV watching! I need to listen to some good music now or I will burst. I have Lady Sovereign numbers. I can play that. She is a grime artist, and her music somehow fits my mood (as it is always screwed up). Do you like such music? I mean, I’m playing it now so don’t want you to feel left out. It’s relaxing…you can try music therapy, too. The wine is already enlivening my spirit. Man, someday I will be King Nebuchadnezzar and make my own Hanging Garden of Babylon at office. There, I will hang all my enemies, including my boss—people who drive me crazy and make my life hell.
Hold on a second, I think I have an SMS. It’s my boss! @#$%^&! Just see what he has written: “Mani, do a story on wine. I need it by tomorrow evening. Get on with it.” What does he think of himself? He expects my head to churn out ideas every time he needs a story. But that’s not always possible, is it? What do you expect from a dead tired, half-drunk man who has only started meditating upon his frustrations in life? And see the irony, the same wine that I am enjoying (…well I was until now), is to become the subject of another experiment. This is life, mate!
But hey, I think whatever I have talked about can become my story. After all, Demi, Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Balthazar, Melchior, Chopine, Standard, Methuselah, Double Magnum, Piccolo, Sovereign, and Nebuchadnezzar are all names of different wine-bottle sizes. I didn’t even realise it! Did you?! Man, it’s time to celebrate! Hic (!) Hic (!) Hurray!
- Written by Manimugdha Sharma. He is an Editor in Indian Express, (a national daily) and also an avid quizzer who has hosted prestigious quiz shows all over India. A self confessed history buff with an inclination towards Urdu literature.
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