Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Reflections on the Preceding History

The contest for the empire of India here described is very like that which preceded it, between the sons of Jahāngīr, in which Shāh Jahān succeeded in destroying all his brothers and nephews; and that which succeeded it, forty years after,[1] in which Mu'azzam, the second of the four sons of Aurangzēb, did the same;[2] and it may, like the rest of Indian history, teach us a few useful lessons.


First, we perceive the advantages of the law of primogeniture, which accustoms people to consider the right of the eldest son as sacred, and the conduct of any man who attempts to violate it as criminal. Among Muhammadans, property, as well real as personal, is divided equally among the sons;[3] and their Korān, which is their only civil and criminal, as well as religions, code, makes no provision for the successions to sovereignty.


The death of every sovereign is, in consequence, followed by a contest between his sons, unless they are overawed by some paramount power; and he who succeeds in this contest finds it necessary, for his own security, to put all his brothers and nephews to death, lest they should be rescued by factions, and made the cause of future civil wars. But sons, who exercise the powers of viceroys and command armies, cannot, where the succession is unsettled, wait patiently for the natural death of their father—delay may be dangerous.


Circumstances, which now seem more favourable to their views than to those of their brothers, may alter; the military aristocracy depend upon the success of the chief they choose in the enterprise, and the army more upon plunder than regular pay; both may desert the cause of the more wary for that of the more daring; each is flattered into an overweening confidence in his own ability and good fortune; and all rush on to seize upon the throne yet filled by their wretched parent, who, in the history of his own crimes, now reads those of his children.


Gibbon has justly observed (chap. 7): 'the superior prerogative of birth, when it has obtained the sanction of time and popular opinion, is the plainest and least invidious of all distinctions among mankind.


The acknowledged right extinguishes the hopes of faction; and the conscious security disarms the cruelty of the monarch. To the firm establishment of this idea we owe the peaceful succession and mild administration of European monarchies. To the defect of it we must attribute the frequent civil wars through which an Asiatic despot is obliged to cut his way to the throne of his fathers.


Yet, even in the East, the sphere of contention is usually limited to the princes of the reigning house; and, as soon as the fortunate competitor has removed his brethren by the sword and the bowstring, he no longer entertains any jealousy of his meaner subjects.'


Among Hindoos, both real and personal property is divided in the same manner equally among the sons;[4] but a principality is, among them, considered as an exception to this rule; and every large estate, within which the proprietor holds criminal jurisdiction, and maintains a military establishment, is considered a principality.


In such cases the law of primogeniture is rigorously enforced; and the death of the prince scarcely ever involves a contest for power and dominion between his sons. The feelings of the people, who are accustomed to consider the right of the eldest son to the succession as religiously sacred, would be greatly shocked at the attempt of any of his brothers to invade it.


The younger brothers, never for a moment supposing they could be supported in such a sacrilegious attempt, feel for their eldest brother a reverence inferior only to that which they feel for their father; and the eldest brother, never supposing such attempts on their part as possible, feels towards them as towards his own children.


All the members of such a family commonly live in the greatest harmony.[5] In the laws, usages, and feelings of the people upon this subject we had the means of preventing that eternal subdivision of landed property, which ever has been, and ever will be, the bane of everything that is great and good in India; but, unhappily, our rulers have never had the wisdom to avail themselves of them.


In a great part of India the property, or the lease of a village held in farm under Government, was considered as a principality, and subject strictly to the same laws of primogeniture—it was a fief, held under Government on condition of either direct service, rendered to the State in war, in education, or charitable or religions duties, or of furnishing the means, in money or in kind, to provide for such service.


In every part of the Sāgar and Nerbudda Territories the law of primogeniture in such leases was in force when we took possession, and has been ever since preserved.[6] The eldest of the sons that remain united with the father, at his death, succeeds to the estate, and to the obligation of maintaining all the widows and orphan children of those of his brothers who remained united to their parent stock up to their death, all his unmarried sisters, and, above all, his mother.


All the younger brothers aid him in the management, and are maintained by him till they wish to separate, when a division of the stock takes place, and is adjusted by the elders of the village. The member, who thus separates from the parent stock, from that time forfeits for ever all claims to support from the possessor of the ancestral estate, either for himself, his widow, or his orphan children.[7]


Next, it is obvious that no existing Government in India could, in case of invasion or civil war, count upon the fidelity of their aristocracy either of land or of office. It is observed by Hume, in treating of the reign of King John in England, that 'men easily change sides in a civil war, especially where the power is founded upon an hereditary and independent authority, and is not derived from the opinion and favour of the people'—that is, upon the people collectively or the nation; for the hereditary and independent authority of the English baron in the time of King John was founded upon the opinion and fidelity of only that portion of the people over which he ruled, in the same manner as that of the Hindoo chiefs of India in the time of Shāh Jahān; but it was without reference either to the honesty of the cause he espoused, or to the opinion and feeling of the nation or empire generally regarding it.


The Hindoo territorial chiefs, like the feudal barons of the Middle Ages in Europe, employed all the revenues of their estates in the maintenance of military followers, upon whose fidelity they could entirely rely, whatever side they might themselves take in a civil war; and the more of these resources that were left at their disposal, the more impatient they became of the restraints which settled governments imposed upon them. Under such settled governments they felt that they had an arm which they could not use; and the stronger that arm, the stronger was their desire to use it in the subjugation of their neighbours.


The reigning emperors tried to secure their fidelity by assigning to them posts of honour about their court that required their personal attendance in all their pomp of pride; and by taking from each a daughter in marriage. If any one rebelled or neglected his duties, he was either crushed by the imperial forces, or put to the ban of the empire', and his territories were assigned to any one who would undertake to conquer them.[8]


Their attendance at our viceroyal court would be a sad encumbrance;[9] and our Governor-General could not well conciliate them by matrimonial alliances, unless we were to alter a good deal in their favour our law against polygamy; nor would it be desirable to 'let slip the dogs of war' once more throughout the land by adopting the plan of putting the refractory chiefs to the ban of the empire. Their troops would be of no use to us in the way they are organized and disciplined, even if we could rely upon their fidelity in time of need; and this I do not think we ever can.[10]


If it be the duty of all such territorial chiefs to contribute to the support of the public establishments of the paramount power by which they are secured in the possession of their estates, and defended from all external danger, as it most assuredly is, it is the duty of that power to take such contribution in money, or the means of maintaining establishments more suited to its purpose than their rude militia can ever be; and thereby to impair the powers of that arm which they are so impatient to wield for their own aggrandizement, and to the prejudice of their neighbours; and to strengthen that of the paramount power by which the whole are kept in peace, harmony, and security.


We give to India what India never had before our rule, and never could have without it, the assurance that there will always be at the head of the Government a sensible ruler trained up to office in the best school in the world; and that the security of the rights, and the enforcement of the duties, presented or defined by law, will not depend upon the will or caprice of individuals in power.


These assurances the people in India now everywhere thoroughly understand and appreciate. They see in the native states around them that the lucky accident of an able governor is too rare ever to be calculated upon; while all that the people have of property, office, or character, depends not only upon their governor, but upon every change that he may make in his ministers.


The government of the Muhammadans was always essentially military, and the aristocracy was always one of military office. There was nothing else upon which an aristocracy could be formed. All high civil offices were combined with the military commands. The emperor was the great proprietor of all the lands, and collected and distributed their rents through his own servants.


Every Musalmān with his Korān in his hand was his own priest and his own lawyer; and the people were nowhere represented in any municipal or legislative assembly—there was no bar, bench, senate, corporation, art, science, or literature by which men could rise to eminence and power. Capital had nowhere been concentrated upon great commercial or manufacturing establishments. There were, in short, no great men but the military servants of Government; and all the servants of Government held their posts at the will and pleasure of their sovereign.[11]


If a man was appointed by the emperor to the command of five thousand, the whole of this five thousand depended entirely on his favour for their employment, and upon their employment for their subsistence, whether paid from the imperial treasury, or by an assignment of land in some distant province.[12]


In our armies there is a regular gradation of rank; and every officer feels that he holds his commission by a tenure as high in origin, as secure in possession, and as independent in its exercise, as that of the general who commands; and the soldiers all know and feel that the places of those officers, who are killed or disabled in action, will be immediately filled by those next in rank, who are equally trained to command, and whose authority none will dispute.


In the Muhammadan armies there was no such gradation of rank. Every man held his office at the will of the chief whom he followed, and he was every moment made to feel that all his hopes of advancement must depend upon his pleasure. The relation between them was that of patron and client; the client felt bound to yield implicit obedience to the commands of his patron, whatever they might be; and the patron, in like manner, felt bound to protect and promote the interests of his client, as long as he continued to do so.


As often as the patron changed sides in a civil war, his clients all blindly followed him; and when he was killed, they instantly dispersed to serve under any other leader whom they might find willing to take their services on the same terms.


The Hindoo chiefs of the military class had hereditary territorial possessions; and the greater part of these possessions were commonly distributed on conditions of military service among their followers, who were all of the same clan. But the highest Muhammadan officers of the empire had not an acre more of land than they required for their dwelling-houses, gardens, and cemeteries.


They had nothing but their office to depend upon, and were always naturally anxious to hold it under the strongest side in any competition for dominion. When the star of the competitor under whom they served seemed to be on the wane, they soon found some plausible excuse to make their peace with his rival, and serve under his banners. Each competitor fought for his own life, and those of his children; the imperial throne could be filled by only one man; and that man dared not leave one single brother alive.


His father had taken good care to dispose of all his own brothers and nephews in the last contest. The subsistence of the highest, as well as that of the lowest, officer in the army depended upon their employment in the public service, and all such employments would be given to those who served the victor in the struggle. Under such circumstances one is rather surprised that the history of civil wars in India exhibits so many instances of fidelity and devotion.


The mass of the people stood aloof in such contests without any feeling of interest, save the dread that their homes might become the seat of the war, or the tracks of armies which were alike destructive to the people in their course whatever side they might follow. The result could have no effect upon their laws and institutions, and little upon their industry and property.


As ships are from necessity formed to weather the storms to which they are constantly liable at sea, so were the Indian village communities framed to weather those of invasion and civil war, to which they were so much accustomed by land; and, in the course of a year or two, no traces were found of ravages that one might have supposed it would have taken ages to recover from.


The lands remained the same, and their fertility was improved by the fallow; every man carried away with him the implements of his trade, and brought them back with him when he returned; and the industry of every village supplied every necessary article that the community required for their food, clothing, furniture, and accommodation. Each of these little communities, when left unmolested, was in itself sufficient to secure the rights and enforce the duties of all the different members; and all they wanted from their government was moderation in the land taxes, and protection from external violence.


Arrian says: 'If any intestine war happens to break forth among the Indians, it is deemed a heinous crime either to seize the husbandmen or spoil their harvest. All the rest wage war against each other, and kill and slay as they think convenient, while they live quietly and peaceably among them, and employ themselves at their rural affairs either in their fields or vineyards.'[13]


I am afraid armies were not much more disposed to forbearance in the days of Alexander than at present, and that his followers must have supposed they remained untouched, merely because they heard of their sudden rise again from their ruins by that spirit of moral and political vitality with which necessity seems to have endowed them.[14]


During the early part of his life and reign, Aurangzēb was employed in conquering and destroying the two independent kingdoms of Golconda and Bījāpur in the Deccan, which he formed into two provinces governed by viceroys. Each had had an army of above a hundred thousand men while independent. The officers and soldiers of these armies had nothing but their courage and their swords to depend upon for their subsistence.


Finding no longer any employment under settled and legitimate authority in defending the life, property, and independence of the people, they were obliged to seek it around the standards of lawless freebooters; and upon the ruins of these independent kingdoms and their disbanded armies rose the Marāthā power, the hydra-headed monster which Aurangzēb thus created by his ambition, and spent the last twenty years of his life in vain attempts to crush.[15]


The monster has been since crushed by being deprived of its Peshwā, the head which alone could infuse into all the members of the confederacy a feeling of nationality, and direct all their efforts, when required, to one common object. Sindhia, the chief of Gwālior, is one of the surviving members of this great confederacy—the rest are the Holkars of Indore, the Bhōnslās of Nāgpur, and the Gaikwārs of Barodā,[16] the grandchildren of the commandants of predatory armies, who formed capital cities out of their standing camps in the countries they invaded and conquered in the name of their head, the Sātārā Rājā,[17] and afterwards in that of his mayor of the palace, the Peshwā.


There is not now the slightest feeling of nationality left among the Marāthā States, either collectively or individually.[18] There is not the slightest feeling of sympathy between the mass of the people and the chief who rules over them, and his public establishments. To maintain these public establishments he everywhere plunders the people, who most heartily detest him and them.


These public establishments are composed of men of all religions and sects, gathered from all quarters of India, and bound together by no common feeling, save the hope of plunder and promotion. Not one in ten is from, or has his family in, the country where he serves, nor is one in ten of the same clan with his chief. Not one of them has any hope of a provision either for himself, when disabled from wounds or old age from serving his chief any longer, or for his family, should he lose his life in his service.


In India[19] there are a great many native chiefs who were enabled, during the disorders which attended the decline and fall of the Muhammadan power and the rise and progress of the Marāthās and English, to raise and maintain armies by the plunder of their neighbours.


The paramount power of the British being now securely established throughout the country, they are prevented from indulging any longer in such sporting propensities; and might employ their vast revenues in securing the blessing of good civil government for the territories in the possession of which they are secured by our military establishment. But these chiefs are not much disposed to convert their swords into ploughshares; they continue to spend their revenues on useless military establishments for purposes of parade and show.