Wednesday 8 November 2023

The Martial Race Ideology

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a discourse celebrating what he called the most natural state of man. He believed that in this state of nature, man was ultimately good and not inherently evil. As the stages of nature progress, Rousseau continued, the decadent society corrupts man by making him weak and unable to defend himself. He praised the primitive man's "military virtue", the "noble savage" rather untouched by civilisation, not polluted and weakened by modern society, hence perfect soldiering material (Spivey, 2017). 

One logical extension of his argument is that the “civilized” and “sophisticated” English would be forced to rely upon so-called “lesser” people for protection. (Spivey, 2017:16)

These ideas had an impact on the British Army and played a factor after the Indian Mutiny or First War of Independence, an unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India from 1857 to 1859. After this war, the British Army introduced the classification of "martial" and "non-martial" groups in their armed forces. According to the Peel Commission Report (1859), the revolt began with Bengal Army filled with Brahmins (via). The British reacted to the report and the Martial Races Theory became part of their reorganisation strategy. They preferably recruited Sikhs and Gurkhas from the northwest frontier, but also Marathas and Rajputs and avoided Bengali who they thought had become weak and effeminate through the growing urbanisation. High-caste Brahmins were regarded as dishonest, disloyal and scheming. Later, the notion of martial and non-martial culures or ethnicities was transferred to other contexts, such as the British Isles. There, the Highland Scots became the most desired soldiers while the Irish - Celt, Catholic, peasant - were seen differently. Scientific racism helped to keep this view unchallenged (Spivey, 2017). Quoting Darwin:

The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts-and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of the Saxons that remained. (cited in Spivey, 2017:14)

Gurkha also played a role in the Falkland War when the 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles Regiment - part of the British task force- was sent to fight Argentina on the Falkland Islands.

The Brigade of Gurkhas, composed of more than 3,000 soldiers of Nepalese descent, who traditionally served in the British Indian Army before India became independent in 1947. (via)

The image of the Gurkha - a born soldier turned into a killing machine - survived the British departure from India in the 1940s (Barua 1995).

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- Barua, P. (1995). Inventing Race: The British and India's Martial Races. The Historian, 58(1), link
- Spivey, A. (2017). Friend or Foe? Martial Race Ideology and the Experience of Highland Scottish and Irish Regiments in Mid-Victorian Conflichts, 1853-1870, Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Paper 3216, East Tennessee State University
- photograph (by Masterji of Kelly, a bus conductor, 1950s) via