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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
East India Company and Colonial Regiments
A number of merchant companies were incorporated by British Royal or Parliamentary charter, including the Honourable East India Company, the Virginia Company, the Royal African Company, the Levant Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Russia Company, the Eastland Company, the South Sea Company, and the Merchant Adventurers. Many of our ancestors would have been involved in some way with them as they made their influence felt around the globe for perhaps 300 years. Trading was followed by colonization and both needed a military presence to ensure law and order.
The British had armies to boost its colonial presence around the world in India from the early 1700s, and then other continents and outposts during the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ll consider here the greatest and grandest imperial jewel, India, and cover briefly the colonial army presence in other countries. There were dozens of other places from Aden to Zanzibar in which the British Army served. Some idea of the scope can be found in the huge list of countries and their depots, barracks etc. by date given by Kitzmiller.
History of the East India Company
The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) was incorporated on 31 Dec 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I and was often called by its nickname John Company. HEIC was set up as a trading company importing silks and spices in return for guns and other metal goods, and became a very progressive and political organization, and a successful imperialistic force. Trading stations were established at Surat and later Fort William in north west India, then at Fort St. George near Madras on the south east coast, and in 1662 at Bombay in the north east. These formed the basis of the three major divisions of India (including what is now known as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma or Myanmar) controlled by HEIC, the Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidencies respectively. [The majority of references in British censuses etc. to East Indies refer to India, but include the Indonesian Archipelago.]
Other areas were ruled by a host of native princes, and called the Princely States. HEIC developed many subsidiary trading posts within their three presidencies, and they also had some others in the Spice Islands and other places in the east, with Bencoolen (Fort Marlborough) in Sumatra being a separate presidency for a time until the Dutch drove them out of Indonesia. A very lucrative East India Company trading station was established to deal in tea in Canton, China in the mid-eighteenth century. Each of these trading stations needed protection provided by their own army, familiarly known as John Company’s Troops. At first these were solely native men under native officers and with their own style of weapons.
The merchants became very wealthy indeed, and even the clerks and administrators were encouraged in entrepreneurial endeavours, such that service in John Company was much sought after. Entry largely depended on insider influence, and sons of merchants and others with influence were trained in special colleges in England to fit them for service in India. Many families served the company for three or four generations, the younger folk coming out to India and the older ones retiring in affluence to England.
The French were England’s main rival for trade and colonization in India, and both formed alliances with various Indian princes resulting in much warfare. The French were vanquished at Plassey in Bengal by Robert Clive in 1757. The company raised and collected taxes and administered justice over much of the Indian subcontinent. Corruption amongst the directors was supposed to be prevented by William Pitt’s 1784 Board of Control. The company tried to safeguard its interests by acquiring more and more Indian territory, naturally unpopular with the Indian people. This came to a head with the Indian Mutiny in 1857, suppressed by HEIC but at the cost of being taken over by the crown. Queen Victoria became Empress of India and the Government of India (known as The Raj) in Delhi, ruled through a governor-general called the Viceroy, and the India Office in London until independence in 1947.
Each of the three great administrative areas, the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies, were run autonomously simply because India was so huge, with difficult terrain and climate and practically no communications facilities. Each presidency had its own infantry, and later cavalry, that became the Indian Army under one Commander-in-Chief in 1748. The three areas each contained separate European and Native (sepoy) regiments, so named but commanded by European HEIC officers. Additionally the native princes operated their own private armies. These armies were at first small but numbers escalated from the mid-1700s until the 1857 mutiny. Thus, in addition to the British merchants, there was a huge number of British army officers and soldiers proud to be in HEICS - the Honourable East India Company Service. In 1861 the European regiments became part of the British Army, of which many regiments served tours of duty in India as the British Army in India. The sepoy regiments formed the Indian Army with British officers and controlled by the viceroy in Delhi. Further information on the history of the East India Company can be found in Fitzhugh’s The Dictionary of Genealogy, Fowler’s India and Family History in Family and Local History Handbook 6th edition, and Herber’s Ancestral Trails.
East India Company Records
Service in HEIC created a rich source of biographical material including:
- Records created at the India Office in London.
- Records of the factories (trading stations) in Asia.
- Records of the Company’s armed forces.
- Log-books and other records of the merchant ships.
- Christening, marriage and burial records in India.
- The printed India (Office) List from 1803, containing all Company servants (personnel).
Most of the records form part of the Oriental and India Office Collection (OIOC) of the British Library, and have now moved from south London to a new location near St. Pancras Station. Their records are described in their free leaflet Sources for Family History (Oriental and Indian Office Collections Guide #4.) Some material is held at the Public Record Office (mainly British Army in India), and at the Society of Genealogists. The only major source of records remaining in India are monumental inscriptions, and BACSA (The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia) have an ongoing programme of transcription and publication of these.
Questions that need to be answered in relation to British men in India include:
- Was he a merchant or in the army or in some other capacity?
- Which presidency was he in - Bengal, Bombay or Madras?
- If in the army:
- Was he an officer or a regular soldier?
- Did he serve before about 1859 and therefore in HEICS, or during the Raj after then?
- If he served after 1859 was he in the British or Indian Army?
- Was he in infantry, cavalry or artillery?
Records of Service in India
Herber presents a very readable introduction to the embarrassingly large amount of records available. A few of the more important ones are described here.
Whitaker’s Naval and Military Directory and Indian Army List is available on film for 1899. Bengal Army Lists 1867-1849 ( IOR/L/MIL/10) can be found on film starting at FHL film 1867205; examples follow in charts 44-46. The Bombay ones from 1759-1855 are in IOR/L/MIL/12 starting at FHL film 1952297, whilst Madras 1759-1846 can be found starting at FHL film 1885505.
CHART: Bengal Army List 1794 Extract
Fort William Military Depot 14 May 1794
Infantry with Date of Commission and Remarks
Gilbert IRONSIDES 14 Sep 1774. Name crossed out - on furlough.
George BURRINGTON 7 Dec 1793
George RUSSELL 7 May 1781
John SCOTT 21 Sep 1781 In England on furlough
Thomas BOTTON 5 Feb 1784 Killed in action...
William SIBBALD 16 Jan 1793
Joseph CHANNING 6 Jun 1793 Home, resigned.
William PRESTON 7 Dec 1793 Brigadier Major
George S. BROWN 9 Dec 1793 Aide de Camp to Col. Briscoe
Robert DUNKLING 1 Aug 1778 Captain 22 Jan 1794
Christopher ROBINSON 6 Aug 1778 On furlough
Samuel JONES 7 Aug 1778 Adjutant 15th Sepoy Battalion, Capt 2 Sep 1794.
CHART: Bengal Army List 1791 Extract
| Fort William Military Depot
List of Promotions, Appointments, Removals and Resignations in the months of
November and December 1791
Acting Captain Andrew GLASS promoted to the full rank of Captain.
Acting Lieutenant Robert TULLAH promoted to the full rank of Lieutenant in the room of Lieutenant WITTET.
Mr Edward DARRELL cadet promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Fireworker to take rank as such in the Army and in the Artillery from the 16th December 1790
4 Nov Mr Charles DESBOROUGH appointed Surgeon to the station of the Collect of Mominsing (?)
7 Nov Colonel MORGAN appointed to the station of Puttyghur, and to the General Command in the Field.
16 Dec Lieutenant Charles WTTTET appointed an Acting Captain from the 12th November 1791.
28 Dec Major James SMITH appointed to the command of 8th Battalion of Native Infantry vacated by the death of Major Charles CHATFIELD.
16 Dec Assistant Surgeon William BOYD be removed from Tirhoot and appointed Surgeon to the Garrison of Buxar... Mr John BARCLAY deceased.
7 Nov Mr John James TOTTINGHAM cadet 16 Dec Ensign Thomas BOYDELL of the Corps of Engineers 24 Dec Captain John CAMPBELL
CHART: Bengal Army List 1787 Extract
| Casualty List of Commission Officers, Warrant Officers and Cadets on the Bengal Establishment from 1st July 1785 to 1st July 1787
The eight columns contain name, rank, corps, removed (from what cause and when), where, remarks, and in what ship embarked
Giles STIBBERT, Major Genera, Infantry, by supercession, 21 Jul 1785, Calcutta, on the arrival of General SLOPER.
Thomas ADDERLY, Major, Infantry, dismissed, 11 Sep 1785, Fort William, Embarked for England on the Severn Packet which was wrecked in the Bay.
R.C. BIRCH, Deputy Paymaster of Garrison and Artillery, struck off, 22 Sep 1785, --, post abolished.
John FOX, Captain Lieutenant, Artillery, Deceased, date unknown, on his passage to Europe.
Alexander BRIGGS, Lieutenant Fireworker, Artillery, Resigned, 24 Jan 1786, Fort William, on the pension.
Robert ARMSTRONG, conductor, Ordnance, deceased, 16 Apr 1786, Chunar.
Clavering WOOD, Minor, Cadets, struck off, 2 May 1786, pursuant to the orders contained in the Court of Directors General Letter in date 21st Sep 1785 Par.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
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