Derived from the Persian word sipahi, meaning "regular soldier," the term sepoy designates Indian infantrymen trained and equipped to European standards and employed in the armies of the East India Company and later the British Crown. A significant majority of the East India Company's armed forces from the middle decades of the eighteenth century, sepoys were absolutely crucial to the expansion, consolidation, and maintenance of the company's interests in India and Asia. As the British diplomat, soldier, and historian John Malcolm (1769–1833) wrote in 1826, "Our government of India is essentially military and our means of preserving and improving our possessions through the operation of our civil institutions depends on our wise and politic exercise of that military power upon which the whole fabric rests."
The sepoy was the foundation of this military power, and the mutiny that sparked the great Revolt of 1857 did not alter this reality. Though the proportion of sepoys to European troops was reduced thereafter, they remained majority participants in every campaign undertaken by the Indian Army through 1947.
From the early seventeenth century, the East India Company employed modest numbers of Indians as an economical solution to the need for guards and escorts, particularly in troubled times. However, these troops should not be confused with sepoys, since they were neither trained nor equipped in European fashion. The East India Company's first sepoy units were raised in 1748 by Major "Stringer" Lawrence (1697–1775). He simply emulated the French, who had shown the potential of Indian troops that were trained and equipped to European standards in the Anglo-French struggle over the Carnatic (1744–1748), a region in southeast India.
Sepoys proved to be cheaper than European recruits, as well as morally and physically superior. Thanks to the extensive military manpower market that existed in India, especially in the north, potential sepoys were also easy to find. From their perspective, service in the East India Company's armies was attractive because it provided relatively high and regular income, as well as certain legal and social privileges. These factors, combined with perceived threats from European rivals and local potentates, ensured that company armies became increasingly reliant on sepoys from the 1750s.
The British military leader and colonial administrator Robert Clive (1725–1774) was quick to appreciate their value: sepoys comprised two-thirds of the troops at his command during the heroic defense of Arcot (1751). It was he who raised the first battalion of sepoys, known as the "Lal Paltan" (red coats). Clive also took the innovative step of introducing three European officers to train and command each sepoy battalion. His expansion and reorganization of the sepoys paid considerable dividends at Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), where sepoy-dominated forces won the victories that made the East India Company a territorial power in Bengal. From this point forward there existed a profound disparity between the number of sepoys and the number of Europeans in the company's armies. By 1782 to 1783 the ratio was four to one. In 1805 it was six to one. As of 1856 it was nearly nine to one.
The prevalence of sepoys in the East India Company's armed forces made them the most significant military contributors to the expansion of company authority through the Indian Subcontinent. Sepoys participated in the campaigns against Mysore (concluded in 1799), as well as the long struggle against the Marathas (concluded in 1818). They were equally important in the conquest of the Sind (1843), the Punjab (1845–1849), and Awadh (1856). The systematic reduction of these regions enabled the growth of the East India Company's armies to 350,000 in 1856 by providing pools of newly unemployed, experienced soldiers from which to recruit.
Even as the process of expansion continued, sepoy units were deployed to consolidate the East India Company's authority in the face of "civil" disturbances, including communal disputes, agricultural and economic disaffection, succession crises in princely states, banditry, and religious or political movements bent on destroying or diminishing the company's influence. Nor was their utility restricted to India. As early as the 1762 attack on Manila in the Philippines, sepoys were deployed overseas. From that point forward they were instrumental in the expansion of the East India Company's, as well as Britain's, power in the region. They provided the backbone of the forces used to secure Sumatra (1789), Ceylon (1795), Egypt (1800–1801), Java and Mauritius (1810–1811), Burma (1823–1824 and 1852), Aden (1839), Afghanistan (1839–1842), and the treaty ports in China (1839–1842).
In spite of all this, the British displayed a marked ambivalence toward the sepoys practically from the moment of their incorporation into the East India Company's armies. While most British officers praised the sepoys for their valor, discipline, regularity, and loyalty, certain company policies betrayed a degree of mistrust. When the first sepoy units were formed in 1748 they were excluded from the artillery, a proscription that was reaffirmed in 1770. Likewise, Clive's division of the Bengal army into three separate brigades (1765), each with a sepoy and European element, has been interpreted as an attempt to divide and rule by ensuring that the sepoys would not form a single corporate identity. Moreover, payment and seniority policies placed sepoys on the lowest rung of the company's regular infantry forces, beneath Crown troops seconded to the company and the European troops in company service. Such inequities contributed to the series of sepoy mutinies that began in 1764 and culminated in 1857.
Pay became a particular point of acrimony from the 1820s, when the East India Company's position seemed secure enough to warrant a reduction in military expenditures. This meant stagnant salaries and the reduction of field pay, which lowered real wages and threatened the social standing of sepoys. Just as serious in terms of long-term sepoy disaffection was the issue of promotion. From the moment Clive introduced European officers into sepoy battalions in 1757, the status of Indian officers declined. The army reforms of 1796, which mandated twenty-two European officers for each sepoy battalion, effectively ended opportunities for promotions to positions of command.
The reforms of 1824 confirmed this situation. Continuing resentment over pay scales; changes in the conditions of service insensitive to sepoy religious and cultural concerns, such as those that sparked the Vellore mutiny of 1806; and the continued exclusion of sepoys from higher ranks provided fertile ground for more specific grievances to take root. While the East India Company's policies were intended to put the army that had won and maintained its empire on a more secure footing, they in fact progressively alienated the sepoys who were that army's mainspring, which ultimately sparked the mutiny of 1857.
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Guy, Alan J., and Peter B. Boyden, eds. Soldiers of the Raj: The Indian Army, 1600–1947. London: National Army Museum, 1997.
Longer, V. Red Coats to Olive Green: A History of the Indian Army, 1600–1974. Bombay, India: Allied Publishers, 1974.
Malcolm, Sir John. The Political History of India from 1784–1823. London: J. Murray, 1826.
Menezes, S. L. Fidelity and Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. New Delhi, India: Penguin, 1993.
Singh, Madan Paul. Indian Army Under the East India Company. New Delhi, India: Sterling, 1976.