Sepoys were Indian soldiers employed within European military garrisons to provide the much-needed manpower for the defence of European colonies in Asia. The term “sepoy” is derived from the Persian word sipahi, which had been translated into the Urdu and Hindi languages as a generic term for soldier.1
Sepoys played an important role in helping to maintain law and order in the new British settlements.2 They were one of the first Indians to arrive in the newly established trading port of Singapore.3 Apart from defending the island, the sepoys also helped to clear land for settlements and building batteries for defence.4
Sepoys were Indian soldiers recruited from the native population of India by the European colonial powers. The sepoys were trained and armed in the European manner, and were organised into battalions led by European officers. The units were called “native sepoys” up till 1885, after which the term "native" was dropped.5
The British East India Company (EIC) recruited Indians into their army for the first time in 1677. However, these Indian troops were not trained and were treated as irregular auxiliaries. The first battalion of sepoys was formed by the French in 1744.6 These sepoys, led by the French, defeated the untrained Indian soldiers in the British army and briefly captured Madras.7
After this defeat, the British adopted the French model by raising their own sepoy companies and grouping them into battalions that were based in Bengal and Madras.8 The first sepoy regiment, the Bengal Native Infantry, was formed in 1757.9 Till 1858, the recruits in the Bengal Native Infantry were primarily from Bengal, Punjab and other northwestern regions in India.10 The British believed that these men made better soldiers because of their taller stature.11
Subsequently, the British also established sepoy regiments in Madras and Bombay. The British army was made up of three territorial divisions, and based in Madras, Bombay and Bengal.12 Soon, the sepoys outnumbered the British soldiers in India – a pattern that continued until India’s independence in 1947. By 1856, sepoys outnumbered European troops in the EIC at a ratio of 10 to 1.13
The British frequently used Indian troops to defend their territories in Southeast Asia. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, sepoys from the Bengal Native Infantry were stationed at Fort Marlborough at Bencoolen in Sumatra, as well as in Penang and Malacca. Later, sepoys from the Madras Infantry began to arrive in the Straits Settlements.14 Munshi Abdullah noted in his autobiography, the Hikayat Abdullah, that the sepoys from the British forces in Malacca were all Bengalis and Madrassis during the early 19th century.15
Towards the end of 1810, five battalions of sepoys were deployed to Java to recapture the island from the French.16
Sepoys in Singapore
The sepoys were one of the first Indians to arrive in Singapore.17 When Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar landed in Singapore in January 1819, their entourage included 120 sepoys from the Bengal Native Infantry as well as a motley crew of washermen, tea-makers (chai wallahs), milkmen and domestic servants.18 There were no records of Indians in Singapore prior to 1819.19
More sepoys were deployed when there was a threat of invasion from the Dutch who were unhappy with Raffles for acquiring Singapore as a British trading post. A total of 200 Indian troops arrived from Penang, while Farquhar managed to intercept another 485 troops returning to India from Bencoolen.20
As in India, the sepoys in Singapore outnumbered the British regulars in the army.21 However, the populace of Singapore, especially the business community, regularly voiced out their dissatisfaction over the inadequate defences for Singapore in view of the increasing population figures as well as the influx of mercenaries and men of ill-repute.22
In 1827, the 35th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry replaced the Bengal Native Infantry.23
Sepoys in Malaya, including Singapore, were allowed to engage in farming and commercial activities. They were one of the first groups to take up plots of land for commercial farming and were also involved in the money lending business.24
Because of rampant crime and a scant police force in Singapore then, sepoys were sometimes deployed to put down riots and maintain public order. This included the 1846 Chinese funeral riot and 1854 Hokkien-Teochew riots.25
When the Bengal troops first arrived in Singapore, the military garrison set up camp at the foot of Bukit Larangan (now known as Fort Canning Hill).26 They subsequently moved to a site along Pearl’s Hill, which later became known as Cantonment Road, named after the troops’ cantonments. The area around Cantonment Road was identified by Raffles in 1819 as suitable land for the building of a fort and barracks for the troops of the EIC.27 However, the living conditions at the Pearl’s Hill barracks were poor. Dirty water flowed into drinking wells, and locals created a nuisance at the barracks.28
The main military cantonment was constructed at the area bounded by Prinsep Street, Albert Street and Bras Basah Road. The area is now called Short Street. In 1827, barracks were built at the area around the junction of Outram Road and New Bridge Road. This place came to be known as Sepoy Lines, and the site is currently occupied by the Singapore General Hospital. To the Chinese community, the area was known as sipai-po (Hokkien for “sepoy plain”). Sepoy Avenue and Sepoy Lane used to be on the hospital grounds, but these roads have since been removed.29
In 1859, a massive fort was constructed on Government Hill (renamed from Bukit Larangan).30 New barracks were also planned for the regiment stationed at Tanglin. The government acquired the 70-acre site in Tanglin from private landowners at a cost of $15,000. By 1860, the new barracks had been constructed.31
By 1891, it was reported that barracks for sepoys had been built at Tanglin, Fort Canning, Pulau Brani and Pearl’s Hill.32
Over the years, several infantry regiments came from India to Singapore, Penang and Malacca as part of the defence forces within the Straits Settlements. However, British reliance on Indian troops for defending their colonies was reduced as a result of the 1915 Indian mutiny in Singapore. Amid grievances with the British army, the mutiny erupted on 15 February when a shot was fired at the Quarter Guard of the 5th Light Infantry based at Alexandra barracks. Upon seizing ammunition from the baracks, the mutineers headed for the town area by Pasir Panjang Road and Tanglin barracks. By evening time, martial law was proclaimed in an attempt to control the mutiny. By 3 March, only 62 of the mutineers were unaccounted for, easing tension in the settlement.33
To reduce the dependence on Indian soldiers, the British recruited from the Malay populace and increased the number of British men in their garrisons through a compulsory military-service scheme.34 However, with the onset of World War II (1942–45), the British had to rely on Indian soldiers once again in their fight against the Japanese.35
Most of the Indian soldiers returned home in 1947 when India gained independence. Only eight Gurkha battalions remained in Singapore and Malaya.36
1. David E. Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860 (Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with King’s College, London, 1994), xv. (Call no. R 954.035 OMI)
2. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, 2–3, 233–34.
3. Kernial Singh Sandhu, Indians in Malaya: Immigration and Settlement (1786–1957) (London: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 178. (Call no. RSEA 325.25409595 SAN)
4. Rajesh Rai, Indians in Singapore, 1819–1945: Diaspora in the Colonial PortCcity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6. (Call no. RSING 909.049141105957 RAI)
5. James Stuart Olson, et al. eds., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996), 995–96. (Call no. RSING 941.003 HIS)
6. Olson, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 995.
7. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, 3.
8. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, 3; Olson, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 995.
9. John Williams, The Bengal Native Infantry: 1757 to 1796 (London: Muller, 1970), 3–4, 334–37. (Call no. R 356.10954 WIL)
10. Olson, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 995.
11. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, 4.
12. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, 3.
13. Olson, et al., Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, 995–96.
14. Alan Harfield, British and Indian Armies in the East Indies (1685–1935) (Chippenham: Picton Pub, 1984), 8, 54, 180, 386. (Call no. RSING 959 HAR)
15. Abdullah Abdul Kadir Munshi, The Hikayat Abdullah: The Autobiography of Abdullah Abdul Kadir, 1797–1854, trans. A. H. Hill (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1969), 22. (Call no. RSING 959.51032 ABD)
16. Harfield, British and Indian Armiesy, 90.
17. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, 178.
18. Tommy Koh et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 468. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Brij V. Lal, Peter Reeves and Rajesh Rai, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora. (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National University of Singapore, 2006), 176. (Call no. RSING 909.0491411003 ENC); Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, 178.
19. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, 178.
20. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 468; Malcolm H. Murfett et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004), 51–52. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET); Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 10–11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
21. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 468.
22. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 57–58.
23. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 50; Alan Harfield, British and Indian Armies in the East Indies (1685–1935) (Chippenham: Picton Pub, 1984), 386. (Call no. RSING 959 HAR)
24. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, 130.
25. N. Nedumaran, The Forgotten Sentinels: The Sepoys of Malaya, Singapore & South-East Asia (Singapore: N. Nedumaran, 2017), 201–04. (Call no. RSING 355.00959 NED)
26. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 468.
27. Victor R Savage and Brenda S A Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 63. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
28. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 81.
29. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 341; Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 61.
30. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 675. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
31. Harfield, British and Indian Armies, 270; Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 81.
32. Harfield, British and Indian Armies, 291.
33. Harfield, British and Indian Armies, 355, 357–59, 363.
34. Harfield, British and Indian Armies, 366.
35. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 468.
36. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 468.
Farish A. Noor, From Empire to the War on Terror: The 1915 Indian Sepoy Mutiny in Singapore as a Case Study of the Impact of Profiling of Religious and Ethnic Minorities (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2010). (Call no. RSING 303.025 A)
R.W.E. Harper and Harry Miller, Singapore Mutiny (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984). (Call no. RSING 355.13340959 HAR)
Seema Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770–1830 (Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). (Call no. R 355.350954 ALA)
Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991). (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
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