Review by: Adam Prime
2006 saw Richard Sharpe, played by Sean Bean, return to television screens for the first time since he had helped the Duke of Wellington defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1997. Unlike the original fourteen episodes, which had been set during the Peninsular War, this new episode, Sharpe’s Challenge, was set in India. Two years later he would return again in Sharpe’s Peril, which followed where Challenge had left off. These two episodes are set after the events of Waterloo towards the end of the Anglo-Maratha Wars. The first of these episodes is based largely on the book Sharpe’s Tiger, a prequel book set in 1799. Sharpe’s Challenge will be the focus of this post; the British East India Company features prominently in the episode.
Sharpe’s Challenge opens with Sharpe as a sergeant in the British Army in India in 1803. The fort Sharpe is in is attacked by a renegade officer of the British East India Company, Lieutenant Dodd. Fourteen years later Sharpe, now a colonel, is despatched to India to find is old comrade and series stalwart, Patrick Harper. This sees Sharpe become embroiled in a fight between the East India Company and a Maratha Prince, Khande Rao. The renegade officer seen in 1803 reappears as Khande Rao’s Commander-in-Chief. What follows is a struggle to defeat Khande Rao’s army, capture his fortress and, for Sharpe, settle a score with Dodd.
It is the character of Dodd, played by Toby Stephens, who raises a number of interesting issues regarding the British East India Company. In the opening sequence, Dodd enquires of a fellow officer if he is English. Proclaiming ‘too many damn Scots in the Company these days… too many Scots and Irish.’ The men of both Scotland and Ireland have a considerable military heritage. This scene is set in 1803 but it was only after the Napoleonic Wars that Scots and Irish officers found their way to India in large numbers. For instance, during the wars against France Scots accounted for a quarter of the officers of the British Army. As the British Army began to downsize after Napoleon’s defeat Scottish and Irish officers began to look for opportunities elsewhere, rather than stay in Britain on half-pay. The sub-continent offered just such an opportunity. Surgeons were some of the first Scottish personnel to serve with the EIC in large volumes. Men of impoverished genteel Scottish families could hope to gain a position of power within the EIC or to make their fortune through trade whilst in the country. A study of East India Company officers between 1758 and 1834 has shown one quarter of the Indian Army officers being born in Scotland.
Dodd also explains why he elected to leave the East India Company and take up arms with the Marathas. See the clip below:
Dodd explains that he found the promotion system of the East India Company disagreeable; promotion was based on seniority. It was a slow process. An officer had to wait for the man in front of him in the regiment to be promoted so that they in turn could be promoted. Whilst, as Dodd claims, officers of the British Army could purchase their commissions and subsequent promotions, making their rise through the officer ranks much quicker, it could take as long as thirty years for a Company officer to reach the rank of Major. This discouraged men of higher calibre from joining the Company Army and lead to many officers who did join to become disgruntled. The efficiency of the Company’s officers dropped and the mutual respect between the officers and their Indian troops was eroded. This was a contributing factor to the Great Rebellion of 1857. Only after the Rebellion was suppressed and the East India Company replaced by the British Raj was the promotion process for officers in the Indian Army altered. It was to be based on length of service and examination from 1861 onwards. Interestingly, in the episode Dodd complains of being a Lieutenant in the Company for six years. This is actually a relatively short time. From 1861 the length of service required before promotion from Lieutenant to Captain was sixteen years. This was reduced to twelve years in 1865.
As Sharpe arrives at the East India Company Army camp, the army is gathered to watch an Indian sepoy be flogged. Flogging is a regular feature of the Sharpe series – Sharpe himself was flogged during his time as a private soldier prior to the events of the series. During the Peninsular War flogging was frequently used on an Army described by its commander Lord Wellington as ‘the scum of the earth’. In comparison the men of the Indian Army were not drawn from the lower echelons of Indian society. Dismissal, and the dishonour that came with it, was the most effective punishment in the Indian Army. When the flogging of Indian soldiers was prohibited between 1835 and 1845 the discipline of the Company’s Indian regiments was not compromised, demonstrating that the lash was not necessary for good discipline. In late Victorian debates regarding the use of flogging in the Army of India it would be claimed that the fathers of Sepoys would plead for their sons to be flogged rather than dismissed from the service for wrong doing as it would bring shame upon the family. The sight of a flogging in India would, therefore, be relatively rare.
A work of fiction Sharpe’s Challenge may be, but it captures several important points. Firstly, it highlights the composition of the East India Company’s officer corps. It also demonstrates the failings of the Company’s promotion system, which would eventually contribute to the Uprising of 1857. In contrast the use of flogging is a tool of the series and has less grounding in history, as the lash was not a frequently used form of punishment in the East India Company’s Regiments.
Adam Prime is a PhD candidate at the School of History, University of Leicester. His thesis is a study of the British officers of the Indian Army between 1861 and 1921.