Jack Sepoy

What cabalistic virtue lies in the word Jack? We see a short, broad, ugly sailor, in a state of beastly drunkenness, rolling about the street; we shrink from him in disgust, till somebody observes, ‘There goes poor Jack, drunk as usual,’ and our feelings are suddenly and completely changed. Disgust is exchanged for pity, loathing for compassionate sympathy; it is no longer a drunken vagabond that we behold, but poor Jack Tar, to whom an extra glass of grog, when he can get it, is as much a matter of course, as to burn, slay, sink, or otherwise destroy his country’s enemies when he catches them; to whom drunkenness is almost a professional necessity,—such a multitude of sins does the word ‘Jack‘ cover. Falstaff has a hold on the sympathies of us all; but when he wants to move us most, he is poor Jack Falstaff—honest Jack Falstaff; we feel that it is indeed a case of vanish old Jack, and vanish all the world. We know not what cunning friend of the Hindu first claimed tho benefit of this monosyllable for the sepoy, but he enjoys it now, and has done so for some time. The name in this case, no less than that of the British sailor, carries with it agreeable associations, is in fact rather an epithet of endearment. In this sense it may be said to be the reverse of nigger. ‘Those rascally niggers!’ is the indignant exclamation of the unfledged ensign, when he finds some veteran of Lord Lake’s time smiling at his inexperience. ‘Good fellows, the Jacks, sir, if properly treated,’ is the fond and deliberate verdict of the grey-headed colonel, who has known them for nearly half a century.

Soldiers are at a premium just now; and perhaps when all due enthusiasm has been expended on the British grenadier, there will still be some small store of interest left on behalf of the Indian sepoy. The day has been, and may be again ere long, when these brown warriors have taken a part in other than Asiatic warfare. Should the troubled course of events lead to any interruption of our mail and passenger transit through Egypt, should tho valley of the Nile become again the theatre of war, it may be seen, on nearer fields than those of Ferozeshah or Chillianwallah, that the descendants of the sepoys who fought in Africa under Sir David Baird are not degenerate. But the Jacks have an interest for us, even now, remote as they are, and, we trust, will remain.

We know something of the barrack life of an English soldier—what do we suppose that of a sepoy is like? See the gallant 75th Regiment of Native Infantry upon parade. Those white pantaloons, red coats, white cross belts, and upright collars, the brown musket, and glittering bayonets—what difference do we perceive between the 75th N.I. and H.M. 100th Regiment of Foot? In uniform and equipment absolutely none, except that tho sepoy wears a Kilmarnock cap instead of the Albert hat, and is perhaps no loser by the exchange. As regards the men, supposing the two regiments to contain exactly the same number of soldiers, and to be drawn up inline, one behind the other, the 75th will overtop the 100th more than an inch; you shall see their brown moustached visages rising behind and above the white regulation-shaved faces of the Europeans; but the line of the latter shall overlap that of the former by perhaps half a company—the Hindu being tall and narrow, the Englishman short and broad. Put the two regiments through their exercise, you will hear the same English word of command given to both; and if tho sepoy regiment is well-officered, and has a good adjutant, the performance of the two will be so much upon a par as to leave no fair room for invidious comparison. Look to the colours of the two regiments, or to the breasts of the men in each, you will find the same thrilling names distinguishing the former, the same honourable medals adorning the latter; and you will come to the conclusion that the sepoy is the same creature as a European soldier, save only the difference of the moustache, the complexion, and the Albert hat. But now parade is over, follow the European to his barracks, the native to his lines (already, observe, names begin to differ), and pursue the comparison there. The Europeans, ranged in companies, breakfast at the call of a bugle, on food first inspected by the officer of the day; they dine, they drink tea in the same methodical manner, and these three meals are the great and important events of the day. The intervals are filled up, perhaps in reading, perhaps working at some trade, perhaps getting up amateur theatricals, perhaps (I fear I must add) at the canteen in getting drunk. Belts are laid aside, the Albert shako is hung on a peg, the jacket is unbuttoned, perhaps taken off, otherwise the dress is retained—that is to say, the uniform still forms the substantive portion of the soldier’s costume, even off parade.

Let us follow ‘the Jacks’ to their lines, and let us especially watch the movements of that company—say the grenadiers; and among those tall and stalwart grenadiers let us still more particularly watch the course of that hero of the corps, whom you see there on the extreme right of the front rank, towering by half a head over the English officer who marches beside him, and rejoicing in the Brahminical name of Ram Sewak. The company reaches its private parade ground, and is there dismissed. The men go to their lines, that little row of mud huts, each containing three or four soldiers. Now, what is Ram Sewak’s first occupation? Like the English soldier, he lays aside his weapons of war; like him he unfastens his breast-plate and removes the pipe-clay waist and cross-belt; like him he takes off his coat, but unlike him he proceeds to divest himself of his shoes—not his stockings, for he has none—of that which answers to him for a shirt, and lastly of—I must write it—his trousers. Let it not be supposed, however, that this process reduces Ram Sewak—as it assuredly would his European comrade—to a state of nature; beneath that detested garment, the donning of which is the severest sacrifice which the recruit is called upon to make at the altar of discipline, beneath that is coiled in ample folds, as ample as the hostile adjutant can be induced to tolerate, the sacred dotee, the one article of linen raiment which stands between a Hindu and the air of Heaven. This garment, rudely compressed beneath the injurious trousers, now assumes its natural drapery-like appearance, and in like manner Ram Sewak, removing his regulation cap, proceeds to set at liberty his back hair. Then, having completed his negative toilet, he starts up like a liberated slave, stretches himself, leaps in the air as though to prove his recovered freedom, then draws himself up to his full height—looking more of a man and (hear it, oh, spirit of pipe-clay) not one jot the less a soldier;—he cleans his belt, be furnishes his arms with most puerile and military attention: no soldier in the world is so scrupulous as your Brahmin in the great military virtue of cleanliness; and having thus done the duty he owes to the state, proceeds to the discharge of that which he owes to himself. He takes his lotah—his small brass cup—and goes with it to the well. There he finds many of the other Brahmins and high Hindus of the regiment, each armed with his own bright brass lotah, come upon the same cleanly errand. Each man draws his water from the well, and, be the weather hot or cold, performs his ablutions, an act not merely of personal convenience but of religious duty. The one care is to perform the necessary complement of washings and involutions, the one anxiety to escape pollution or coming in contact during the performance of the act with any thing or any man common or unclean, that is to say, of inferior caste, steering safely through this peril with greater ease because in the Bengal army no sepoys of inferior caste are admitted. Ram Sewak returns to his hut a cleaner and, in his own eyes, a holier man, and there proceeds to make preparations for the one great event of a Hindu’s life—that event in which his hopes, his fears, his religion, are all concentrated—his dinner. No regimental cook may prepare his meal, no arbitrary bugle summon him to it, no ill-assorted herd of messmates share it with, him; his own hands construct the earthen fire-place, his own hands knead the bread and bake it, and pour the ghee—odious to English, but dearest of all delicacies to Hindu stomach—which constitute his simple, very frugal, but to his mind, and still more to that of less fortunate, less well provided Hindus, sumptuous repast. Perhaps half-a-dozen Brahmins of the same caste of his own company, perhaps of his own village, who years ago enlisted together with him, form his mess, cook with him, and finally consummate the highest social act of Oriental life by eating with him. The gallant soldiers make their easy dress if possible a little easier, till the least conceivable restraint is left upon the free movement of their muscular pliant limbs, and, seated on the ground, proceed—to gorge. For there is no false shame about a Hindu in this respect—he eats once a day only, but then he eats like a serpent, till he is almost insensible. Stuff, stuff, he goes on till at last nature can endure no more; and, with a smile of bland enjoyment, he announces to his companions that ‘Pet bhurgiyei,’ in plain English, he has got a bellyfull. They declare themselves to be in a like happy state, and so hookahs are lighted, and easier than easy postures are adopted, and Ram Sewak and his friends enjoy that other dear delight of Eastern, not to say Western, mortals—gossip. Not such gossip however as would edify Mrs. Marpeace; no character is blackened, no friend is maligned, no guilt is gloated over, no innocence is calumniated; the price of flour, the stoppages of the next payday, the accumulated savings of the year, the prospect of batta for the last campaign, the accidents of caste, how Gunga Pandy has tumbled into a pool of dirty water and lost his caste in consequence, and is to give a dinner to get it back again; perhaps the last news, now some twelve months old, from their native village, the tidings which Sall Sing is to bring from there on his return from furlough next year, till which time frugal Jack will wait patiently, and never think of incurring a criminal expenditure of three half-pence, in consideration of which he might in a week’s time have all he wanted to know by post; perhaps the new station to which the corps is ordered, speculation as to what kind of air and water will be found there; perhaps the character of the commanding officer, the temper of a newly joined ensign, with a good-natured joke at some of his inexperienced blunders; perhaps, too, for Jack is a true soldier, the glories of the last or the hopes of the next campaign,—these are the subjects of conversation, salted, it may be, by the occasional utterance of some very aged joke, which has done duty in the grenadier company any time these last fifty years, but is always good to draw a laugh still from blithe and simple-hearted Jack.

Gradually conversation subsides and torpor ensues, a state which Ram Sewak himself would dignify by the higher name of meditation, for hours he will sit there in a state of serene enjoyment, smoking and ruminating, looking like a philosopher and feeling like a gorged boa-constrictor, unless some hated evening drill bugle is heard; then he gets up with a sigh, and with pain and grief wriggles into his scarcely consenting trousers, and with a fierce effort buckles his bursting belt, and takes his musket and goes sleepily on parade, where the colonel wonders why the regiment is so much less smart than it was in the morning. Or as the cool evening descends, he will select some brother Brahmin as his companion to go with him into the neighbouring city ‘to see the world.’ Very mild are the jests which entertain Ram Sewak and Sall Sing, as, hand in hand like two school-girls, they walk down to tho city; very mild, to an Oxford under-graduate, would appear their notion of seeing the world. But the tattoo beats, and Ram Sewak is too good a soldier to be absent at the roll-call, and he retires again to his hut, where he sits with his brethren, smoking, talking, sleeping alternately, still somewhat under the influence of that prodigious dinner, till the night is far spent, and he draws his blanket well over his head and fairly goes to sleep till the morning reveillé wakes him, and with a start and a yawn and a stretch, Jack is himself again.

But evil accidents will occur to mar the even tenor of this peaceful life, and of these caste is the fruitful cause. For if in his morning ablution, poor Ram Sewak’s lotah was inadvertently used by some passing inferior Hindu; or if in that evening walk to the city he incurred the luckless fate of Gunga Pandy, and fell into a dirty pool: or if, in an hour of ill-advised dissipation he suffered some low caste cahar to partake of his hookah, then there is for him no convivial meeting, no social meal. He goes indeed at the wonted hour to the well-known place where his messmates are assembled, expecting his good company; they see him, and shout out, ‘Hey, Ram Sewak!’ in tones expressive of welcome; but he, with downcast air and faltering voice, relates his transgression. Do they try to talk away the misfortune? do they say, ‘Well, never mind, Ram Sewak; it is a pity, old fellow, but it can’t be helped; sit down, and we’ll say nothing about it?’ Nothing of the kind is said, nor does the unfortunate Ram Sewak expect it. They condole with him, indeed, with as much sincere pity as we all are said to feel for the misfortunes of our best friends, especially those by which we ourselves are to profit, but they let him depart, and he goes back to his solitary hut, to eat his solitary dinner and smoke his solitary pipe till the fraternity of his caste in the regiment shall have met, and decided how large an offering to the poor—in other words, how big a dinner to themselves—may serve to expiate Ram Sewak’s offence, and win him back his caste. Ram Sewak is a popular man, and will get off easily. Were he disliked, or had there been no such faux pax committed for a length of time, and the Brahmins in the company were getting hungry, in that case his pay would be heavily mortgaged for some time to come.

In due time, Ram Sewak becomes a havildar or serjeant, and wears stripes and a sash; and again in due time he becomes an officer and receives a commission, full of flattering assurances from the Supreme Government, and wears a gold collar round his neck, and has no more sentry duty to perform, and wears tails to his coat, and carries a sword which he cannot use, instead of a musket which he can, and receives a great deal more money than he can spend (as is right, after long service), and in other respects is much in the same position as when he was a private. At last, when he is seventy years old, and has served the Government for fifty, he retires on his well-earned pension; goes back as a matter of course to the village which he left as a boy; finds it, thanks to the conservatism of the East, still unchanged,—his old parents perhaps dead and gone; but the old village families, the old village officers, the old village landmarks, the old village disputes, interests, lawsuits, hopes and fears, and there he sits in peace and quietness, glad to welcome occasionally some comrade on furlough, and talk over with him the regiment and old friends in it, and there he eats, and smokes, and ruminates, and dies.

Poor Gunga Pandy, his contemporary in the service, his rear rank man in the company, does not live to attain the like otium cum dignitate. He is taken ill one day, after a more than ordinarily portentous meal; he goes into hospital; then Ram Sewak and other of his fellow soldiers assiduously visit him, but he grows worse and dies, and the doctor reports to the commanding officer that ‘Gunga Pandy, of the grenadier company, is dead,’ and the commanding officer issues a somewhat superfluous order, ‘that Gunga Pandy, of the grenadier company, should be struck off the strength of the regiment,’ and a pyre is erected across the nullah which bounds the cantonment, and then poor Gunga Pandy is carried and decently burnt; and the officer of his company misses him a few days afterwards on parade, and asks for him, and is told that he is dead, and sums up his merits in the expressive epitaph—‘Poor old Jack!’

W. D. A.