An Englishman Embraces Military Life in India


A SOLDIER OF THE COMPANY: LIFE OF AN INDIAN ENSIGN 1833-43 by Capt. Albert Hervey, edited by Charles Allen, London: Michael Joseph, in association with the National Army Museum, 226 pp., $27.50 IN early 1833, after a miserable, four-month voyage from Britain, an 18-year-old military cadet landed at Madras, on India's southeastern coast. Thus began the more than 40-year career of Ensign Albert Hervey (ultimately Major General Hervey) with the 40th Regiment of the Madras National Infantry. This engaging memoir, boiled down from three volumes published in 1850, recounts the first decade of his service.

The Madras Presidency, covering the southern tip of the subcontinent, was one of the three great districts administered by the East India Company, with the backing of the British government. These districts were garrisoned by the company's own forces, which were largely comprised of native troops, called sepoys, led by ``Indian'' (as the white colonialists called themselves) officers. Hervey, like most of the officers, had trained at Addiscombe, the East India Company's military college in Britain.

To Hervey's great disappointment, the Madras Presidency was pacified by this time, the last major native potentate in the south, Tippoo Sultan, having been defeated in a fierce battle in 1799. All the fighting during these years was in northern India, and Hervey never saw action in either India or Burma, where his regiment was posted for several years.

But if Hervey's narrative lacks the crackle of musketry, it is alive with the deftly drawn word pictures of an intelligent and thoughtful young Englishman in love - but not uncritically so - with the military life in an exotic land. His interest in his garrison world and his trenchant observations about his fellow ``Indians'' and the sepoys under his command keep the book from being as dusty as the baked Madras plains. With his fine eye for the details of everyday life, as well as in his ingenuous candor about himself, Hervey sometimes recalls Samuel Pepys.

One of Hervey's purposes was to instruct young ``griffins'' (newcomers to India) following in his footsteps, and he not infrequently interrupts his account to ``entreat my young readers to mark well what I say.'' In these hortatory passages he exhorts youth on matters from the perils of strong drink (drunkenness was a common garrison affliction), to avoiding thievery by native servants, to the proper treatment of sepoys. Charles Allen, the capable editor, mercifully has culled much of the sermonizing, but what's left gives us insight into the character of this slightly fastidious, but kind and decent, officer.

Hervey's life was far from uneventful, despite the absence of campaigns. He vividly describes, among other episodes, the murder of a brigadier general by an opium-crazed sepoy and the felon's execution, the attempted escape in women's clothing of an embezzling officer, and Hervey's own detention by angry natives after a minor hunting accident.

The book's great set piece is its account of the 40th Regiment's month-and-a-half trek across the breadth of the country, having been reposted from Mangalore to Vellore. Leading the column - which marched from 4 to 11 a.m. to escape the heat - were the troops in their scarlet tunics; behind, extending for miles, came a vast retinue of supply wagons, servants, soldiers' families, and other camp followers. (A similar scene is panoramically depicted in one of the book's many elegant watercolors and pen-and-ink sketches drawn from the archives of Britain's National Army Museum.)

Besides pulling us into a colorful world that exists no more, the effect of this book is to make for the reader a new friend. When we part from (now) Captain Hervey, about to embark for Britain on furlough, it's with an appreciative, and slightly heavy, heart.

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