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In a 14-day battle, the Madras Native Infantry — the forerunner of the present-day Madras Regiment of the Indian Army, it’s oldest regiment — landed on the shores of the Philippines and overwhelmed the defending Spanish troops in its first overseas expedition
The year was 1758, the month December. Madras (now Chennai) was reeling under a siege laid by an invading French force led by its firebrand commander Count Thomas Arthur Lally. Stringer Lawrence, the dauntless commander of the English garrison in Fort St George, decided the time was right to organise the sepoys he had recruited and trained for over a decade as irregulars (non-enlisted soldiers) into 1,000-man battalions.
Thus was born the Madras Native Infantry, the first modern, indigenous fighting force to be created in India. It was the forerunner of the present-day Madras Regiment of the Indian Army, its oldest regiment.
Barely four years later, a contingent of the Madras Native Infantry set out on the force’s first overseas expedition, which was also the first by a sepoy force from India.
The expedition headed for the Spanish colony of the Philippines at the beginning of the outbreak of the Seven Years' War between Britain and Spain in Europe.
The Battle of Manila
The East India Company, assuming its role as the flagbearer of British interests in the East, was on the warpath, and Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was its nearest enemy bastion to be subdued. The sepoys who sailed on that expedition wouldn’t have realised they were replicating the maritime feat of their Chola ancestors seven centuries ago.
The 15-ship invasion fleet that weighed anchor from Madras on August 1, 1762, commanded by Vice-Admiral Samuel Cornish, carried on board a 3,000-man expeditionary force under Brigadier-General William Draper, mostly sepoys with one British Regiment, the 79th Foot. Anchoring off Manila on September 23, the fleet bombarded the menacing fort incessantly, while the troops began to land.
The Spanish garrison, consisting of Mexican soldiers and Filipino irregulars called Pampangos, tried to put up a stiff resistance. While the Mexican soldiers were none too effective, the Pampangos proved to be fierce fighters. Though armed with only primitive weapons such as spears and swords, these locals succeeded in giving the attackers a run for their money.
Nevertheless, the Madras army, with its superior firepower and organisation, overwhelmed the garrison in a battle of attrition that lasted almost a fortnight. With the collapse of the resistance, the acting Governor-General of the Philippines, Archbishop Manuel Rojo, surrendered the city on October 6 to avoid further bloodshed.
The resulting British occupation of Manila would last 18 months, until April 1764, when the city would be handed back to Spain as per the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war.
Several sepoys who took part in the Manila expedition, though they were all volunteers, either mutinied or deserted, probably owing to the hardships of the voyage and the unfamiliar experience of being far from home. One group was believed to have taken over a ship. Some stayed behind and married Filipino women. Filipino lore has it that the descendants of these men live on the outskirts of Manila presently.
Rise of the sepoys
The capture of Manila by a predominantly sepoy force was the beginning of an engagement that would go on for more than a century thence, when the sepoys, mostly of the Madras Native Infantry, would play a crucial role in British dominance over settlements lining the Malacca Straits and the whole of Southeast Asia.
After the Manila expedition, the British made their entry into the Dutch-dominated Malay archipelago, with the establishment of their first fort — and Southeast Asia’s first sepoy garrison — at Bencoolen, Sumatra. A post so remote and inhospitable that it put the sepoys through an acid test of endurance and resolve, with the horrendous experience of fighting locals who practised cannibalism.
The British quest to establish a strategic base in the Bay of Bengal — with the Straits of Malacca under Dutch control for their possession of the Malacca port — led to the founding of Penang in 1786 by the intrepid merchant mariner Francis Light. It was a historic event that signified the arrival of the first sepoys to the Malay peninsula.
With no agency to maintain law and order in the newly found settlement, the sepoys took on a police role, installing themselves as the first policemen of the Straits.
Barely a decade after the founding of Penang, Malacca was turned over to the British by the Dutch, for fear of it falling to a resurgent militarist France. Soon, a mighty armada set sail from Madras with a 2,000-strong British-Indian expeditionary force.
The contribution of the sepoys in the early growth and development of Singapore and the rest of the Straits Settlements has been immense. It varied from fighting all-out wars such as Naning and Perak — often precipitated by East India Company’s belligerent attitude — to putting down gang wars of the Chinese immigrants, and policing to maintain law and order. The involvement of people from the Indian subcontinent, both soldiers and civilians, many who were to become permanent settlers, is an integral feature of the city-state’s history.
Though the rivalry between European powers in the Straits had come to an end after the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, the sepoys’ association with the region was to continue for another half a century. The British continued to maintain the sepoy garrisons in their settlements (at one stage these settlements were collectively elevated to the status of a fourth Presidency — after Madras, Bengal and Bombay — headquartered in Penang). The more-than-a-century old deployment of sepoys in the Straits came to an end in 1876 when all their units were shipped home, being replaced by British troops. Apparently, the British Empire needed these hardcore fighters for their newer wars elsewhere like the Afghan War towards the end of the century. Malaya would echo the sepoy boots once again during the Second World War when the Indian Army would form the prime force fighting the Japanese. The writer is a war veteran who specialises in India's military history and martial heritage