The Batta Mutiny of 1766
Lord Robert Clive, Governor-General of India, commenced his third tour of duty in Bengal in April 1765. It will be recalled that, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Clive had assisted Mir Jaffar to displace the usurper, Siraj-ud-Dowlah, as Nawab of Bengal. In gratitude, Mir Jaffar had granted the East India Company – and Clive himself - many privileges. These included the payment of the costs and expenses of the Company’s Bengal Army. During the course of 1765, the two concluded a final agreement whereby the Company would control and receive revenues (diwani) from a very large area of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In exchange, the Company would itself assume responsibility for paying its Bengal Army.
It was customary in India to pay soldiers, garrisoned or on field service away from the Presidency, an allowance, supposedly to cover their extra costs of living. Although this allowance, called ‘batta’ was originally meant to be a privilege, it was commonly considered a right and complaints and disputes about it were frequent in all three of the Company’s Armies. To curry favour with the officers of the Bengal Army, Mir Jaffar had been allowing them ‘double batta’. Now, from 1st January 1766, the Company paid for its own army and, despite protestation from many of its officers, double batta was withdrawn.
The Bengal Army in 1766 comprised three brigades. The First, under Lt.-Colonel Sir Robert Fletcher, was based at Monghyr, 300 miles west of Calcutta. The Third Brigade, under Sir Robert Barker, was at Bankipore, 100 miles further west, and the Second Brigade, under Colonel Smith, at Allahabad, 200 miles further west again. Outraged by the threatened loss of income, a large number of the officers of the First Brigade made a pact to resign their commissions ‘en masse’ unless their double batta was re-instated. This pact was communicated to their colleagues in the Third and the Second Brigades with an enjoinder to do likewise. The officers of the Third readily agreed but the Second hesitated before finally agreeing too. The date set for the resignations was 1st July 1766.
The secret got out and Clive, on a visit further north in Bengal, learned of his officers’ intentions by the 28th April. His reaction was characteristically defiant. He would not yield to pressure of this sort. He determined that he could rely on a small number of loyal officers locally, plus more at the Presidency at Calcutta. Importantly, he wrote on 1st May both to the Free Merchants at Calcutta, requesting them to accept Commissions, and to the Council at the Madras Presidency to urge them to “hold in readiness for embarking on a moment’s warning all the Captains and Subalterns you can possibly spare for immediate service, as also such cadets and other gentlemen as you may think qualified to bear commissions; and we would recommend to you to lose no opportunity of securing means of conveying them hither….”
Clive and his senior general, John Carnac then raced to Monghyr where they arrived on 15th May and immediately ordered a parade of all European soldiers. He explained that his officers’ actions amounted to mutiny and that they would be subject to the most serious punishment. Those less guilty would be returned home to England. He then issued extra pay to his native soldiers and ordered them to seek out the mutineers and escort them to Calcutta where they would face court martial.
The ‘Mutineers’ had no backup plan: their bluff having been called, their resolve soon dissipated. Clive moved on to Bankipore where, arriving on 20th May, he achieved similar results. He then communicated with Col. Smith at Allahabad, instructing him to retain those officers that he wished and to send the others for trial in Calcutta. The mutiny had effectively been quelled – but the army had now but few officers!
Normally, a full set of letters, Council Minutes, etc., covering events of this nature, would be available in the ‘Bengal Secret Proceedings'. Unfortunately, indeed suspiciously, all records between 13th March and 12th August 1766 are missing! The proceedings contain a note stating “So much of our time and attention have been engaged in quelling the late dangerous mutiny amongst the officers that we could not transmit to you (The Court of Directors in London) an account of the Political and Military Operations…..”. Thus, researchers are constrained to trawl through other sources for details of the mutiny and, in particular for the names and attitudes of the individual mutineers. Such records include letters between Lord Clive, General Carnac, his Commander-in-Chief and Sir Harry Verelst, President of the Bengal Council. However, nowhere seems there to be a list of those officers involved and one must conclude that the omission or removal was deliberate.
The Council in Madras received Clive’s letter of 1st May on 28th May. They immediately set about the difficult task of complying with his request. The Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, General John Caillaud, himself at some four days from Madras, eventually proposed a reduction of the number of Companies of European soldiers and increasing the size of each. This would release, for loan to Bengal, a total of 65 officers, including three named non-commissioned officers who were given commissions: Quartermasters of Cavalry Nairn (Ensign) and Pattison (Cadet), plus Serjeant-Major Dunn (Cadet). McGowan receives no mention. Additionally, three un-named sergeants were sent to Calcutta in charge of 3 corporals, 2 drummers and 62 privates as a general support for Clive. It is possible that McGowan was one of these sergeants.
The total number of resignations offered has been variously calculated at just short of 200. Without losing face, Clive found reasons to permit many of his officers to be re-accepted into service. The names of the officers concerned do not appear to have been officially recorded at the time or, if they were, which was likely, they seem subsequently to have been expunged. In 1773 Henry Strachey, Secretary to Clive during the mutiny, was commissioned to report on it to the House of Commons Select Committee, and summoned to give evidence. This document, of some 172 pages, includes several copies of correspondence relevant to the orders and activity of the Bengal Army in 1766. Again, apart from reference to the leading players such as Clive, Carnac and Fletcher, no single officer is named.
The recognized authority on the services of Officers of the Bengal Army, from its inception until 1834, was Major V.C.P. Hodson. His well-researched four-volume work gives a synopsis of the background, career and war services of almost every officer that served and is accepted as the cardinal reference on the subject. That his researches indicate no systematic list of the mutineers supports the hypothesis that such was probably destroyed. However, analysis of Hodson’s work provides the names of 82 officers, whom are recorded as ‘definitely’, ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ having resigned during the Batta Mutiny. All but very few are reported as having been re-admitted, mostly within the six months before the end of 1766. Although the devious Sir Robert Fletcher was eventually exposed as the Mutiny’s chief instigator, and sent for Court Martial, even he was re-admitted!
For those interested to read a detailed account of the Batta Mutiny, Strachey’s ‘Narrative’ is recommended. (See link to online edition in Historical Books section below)
- A detailed list of the 82 mutineers identified by Hodson, plus a list of officers sent to Bengal from Madras, are both available on the web-site of the Families in British India Society
- FIBIS Podcast -The Batta Mutiny of 1766 Lecture given by FIBIS Chairman, Peter Bailey, at a FIBIS open meeting describing The Batta Mutiny of 1766 and how Alistair MacGowan’s ancestor, John McGowan, was given his first Commission in the Bengal Army.
Historical books on-line
Narrative of the mutiny of the officers of the army in Bengal, in the year 1766 by Sir Henry Strachey 1773 (Google Books)
- IOR P/251/55 & 56 Madras Military & Secret Proceedings including Clive’s enjoinder to the Madras Council
- IOR P/A/7 pp.335-472 Bengal Secret Proceedings
- Sundry Papers, including:
- a. Clive’s Papers in the National Library of Wales
- b. IOR Mss Euro E231, K16. Letters to Harry Verelst, President of the Bengal Council.
- a. Clive’s Papers in the National Library of Wales
- "Narrative of the Mutiny of the Officers of the Army of Bengal in the Year of 1766" written by Henry Strachey Esq., Secretary to Lord Clive during his last Expedition to India and lately given in Evidence to the Secret Committee of the House of Commons. London 1773. IOR Mss. Euro F128/152
- 'Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834” by Major V.C.P. Hodson, Published by Constable & Co. 4 Vols. between 1927 and 1947.