Mobilising an Empire: Part 2 – “Not Calculated to Attract Any Particular Attention,” Or, How to Smuggle an Army Through Someone Else’s Country Without Anyone Making a Fuss

In 1857, as the Indian Uprising threatened the stability and integrity of the British Empire, the British Government and the East India Company engaged in a massive smuggling operation. The cargo was people: armed men, shuttled en masse and in disguise, across the territory of a sovereign state over which Britain had no jurisdiction, in order to suppress, with overwhelming force, an unprecedentedly large colonial rebellion.

In part 1 of this blog, we looked at how the global mobilization of 1857 played out in the Cape Colony. George Grey’s attempts to contribute to the empire-wide movement of troops towards India to suppress the uprising, while simultaneously managing his own problems of unrest and conflict, and putting his case to a metropolitan government that was far from convinced of the quality of his performance or his entitlement to the financial resources he was consuming, shows (we hope) something of the global nature of the crisis that overtook the empire in 1857, and the ways in which colonial administrators, in metropolitan and colonial settings, managed the conflicting and complex demands of responding to the crisis.

In part 2, we’re looking at how the apparatus of government managed, between August 1857 and the end of the uprising in early 1858, to smuggle about 5,000 British troops across the Suez isthmus in Egypt.

This effort involved, first, all the agencies of government in the capital: the East India Company and the Board of Control, the War Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Admiralty. Beyond the immediate circles of government, it necessitated the cooperation of the private companies which controlled ships, mails and telegraphs. Further afield, it drew in the representatives of government abroad: diplomatic and consular staff, Company agents, military and naval establishments overseas, colonial governors and their staff, and the Indian Government and Presidencies, each with their own military and civil administrative establishments and spheres of operation that went beyond the shores and land borders of British India itself. As we’ll see in our next blog, it also drew in the wider apparatus of empire: navigational and communications technology, geography and exploration, resource management and extraction, and questions of geostrategy and sovereignty which sat at the intersection of engineering, science, law, territorial possession and the use of force.

But first, why smuggle troops over Egypt at all, and what was involved?

First, there was a strong sense of necessity, exacerbated by a lack of information about what was happening in India. As we’ve seen, mails were carried by a system of fast steamers, from India to Suez, and then over the peninsular by horse transport and rail to Alexandria, and thence onward via mail steamer to Malta, Marseilles and Southampton. There were telegraph lines across the isthmus, and across continental Europe from both Marseilles and Trieste, but whether they were used or not, the time lag in communications was generally around a month. The first news of the Uprising itself took forty days to travel, by steamer and telegraph via Trieste, from Meerut (the site of the first outbreak) to London. With no idea how much of the Bengal army had revolted, how far the uprising had spread, and how many troops would be needed to put it down, officials in London were naturally eager to send as many troops to India in the shortest possible time.

Template map Indian Ocean and Red Sea_Cropped

The transport of troops and materiel would take even longer than that of information. The best estimates as of 1857 placed sailing times, by Egypt or the Cape, as follows:

TABLE sailing times 2

(It should be noted here that the Suez route was entirely dependent on the existence of steam, or at least of hybrid sail/steam technology: sailing ships without engines could find themselves becalmed in the Red Sea for months on end. This is why, as we saw in our blog on steam technology in 1838, the use of the Red Sea as a seaway depended on the establishment of a solid infrastructure of coaling stations. Another point to note about the above table is that the timings for Suez were derived from the feedback of information that came back to London as the policy was put into operation, in a kind of capillary interplay of trial and error, improvisation and analysis of constantly changing intelligence sources – here as ever, it’s important not to fall into the trap of viewing imperial policymaking as something which is manufactured in majestic isolation in the imperial centre and then simply applied, unidirectionally, to faraway places.)

As for the attempts at discretion (‘secrecy’ seems optimistic, given the numbers of troops who ended up making the trip), in 1857, transporting troops openly through Egypt presented several problems. A large body of troops on foreign soil, in military order, could be expected to cause enormous diplomatic difficulties: although relations with the Ottoman Empire were friendly after the Crimean War of 1853-5, some resistance might reasonably be expected. Besides, as we’ll see, Egypt’s relation to the empire which supposedly governed it was somewhat complex, and there were issues of prestige for all involved.

Besides the diplomatic issues, there were practical challenges. The Suez Canal was in its early surveying stages, and would not be completed until 1869, after nearly ten years’ work. There was a railway between Alexandria and Cairo, and work was continuing on a line onward from Cairo to Suez, but it was far from complete. From the end of the railway, about twenty miles from Suez, the rest of the journey had to be done by horse-drawn van. Whatever course was taken, the logistics on the ground would have to be taken care of by Major John Green, the Acting Vice-Consul and East India Company agent in Alexandria – the same John Green who we’ve already seen struggling to manage the flows of news and information coming through Egypt, and already overburdened with responsibilities beyond his scope.

But first, there was the fraught business of policymaking to get through: how to get the different agencies of government to commit to such an eccentric course? Concurrently, the inevitable diplomatic effects and risks had to be anticipated and managed. Let’s look at these in turn.



Sending troops overland to India was never a foregone conclusion, and the decision to do so involved activating networks of communication and correspondence between the offices of government in London. The main archival series we’ve been looking at for 1857 is the Company’s Political and Secret Correspondence. This is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a slightly strange series: although the Committee was officially a part of the Company, set up to deal with all political and diplomatic policy (in peacetime its major function was to deal with the Princely States), in practice it was the link between the Company and the Board on political, diplomatic and geostrategic policy; and the Board, in turn, was the mediator between it and all the other offices of government. If the Company wanted to (let’s say, just for example) request the War Office to supply large amounts of Crown troops, that request went through the Political and Secret Committee, and then through the Board, to the War Office – and any reply came back, again, through the Board. The Board also exercised complete control over the information that reached the Company from India; if the Directors wished to share any of it with the Court at large, the Committee would have to ask the Board’s permission. When the Foreign Office received intelligence that bore on the situation at hand, or engaged in correspondence that the Directors would need to know about in formulating their own policy, they would send copies of it, through the Board, to the Committee. In sum, when the Company’s rule in India was faced with a grave and immediate threat, almost all its correspondence for dealing with it was mediated by the Board; and all the correspondence that passed was kept, in duplicate, in the records of the Political and Secret Committee.

Given all the conditions noted above, it was perhaps inevitable that the Company would at some point ask for troops to be sent through Egypt; but how those requests would go down with the Foreign and War Offices was a question of some moment. How the Board was to mediate what might well turn out to be a snarl of competing priorities and anxieties was another.

Initially, there were no apparent conflicts. In mid-July, around the time that the first drafts of Crown troops were leaving for India, the Company sent a letter to the Army leadership at the Horse Guards: the Court of Directors, wrote James Melvill (secretary to the Company), “…begs to inform [the Commander-in-Chief] that on the 10th Hussars proceeding to Bombay in 1846, a party of officers and men was sent overland to train Horses for the Effective mounting of the Regiment on its arrival in India. … [they] desired to suggest, whether a like course should be followed as respects the 2nd and 3rd Dragoon Guards, now under order for Bengal and Bombay respectively.”[1]

The suggestion was taken up: two days later the C-in-C communicated his assent. Two parties were to go out initially, consisting of a Captain, riding-master, vet, and nine NCOs and men. Each man was to receive £2 (out of the Company’s charge, it was swiftly decided) for civilian clothes as they crossed the isthmus: the parties were to go in mufti, posing as ordinary civilians. Before the first couple of parties, in mid-August, Green remarked to Lord Clarendon (the Foreign Secretary, and therefore his boss) that “[t]he passage through Egypt of the small party of men alluded to is not calculated to attract any particular attention here as being in plain clothes they pass as Officers’ servants and other second class Passengers such as it is not unusual to see amongst the transit travellers.”[2]

The initial parties were a success; more were sent, and as it became clear that they were encountering no difficulties, the Company began to consider a larger-scale operation. In mid-July, a Lt Col J. G. Fraser sent a memo to the Company, adverting to his logistical experience in Egypt and suggesting a plan for transporting large numbers of troops through Suez. Fraser suggests staggering the arrival of troops with the mails, so as not to overburden communications links; troops could be disembarked en masse in the morning, given breakfast in the train to Cairo, and then loaded straight onto vans for the desert crossing, to arrive at Suez by early the next morning for immediate embarkation. The troops, he writes, would be in groups of about 200, carefully watched the whole way “to prevent them communicating with the people of the company”; he envisages a permanent supply of troops passing to India by this route, to the number of 3,000 a year.[3] The plan was, perhaps, no more detailed than what the Company was already considering, but the unsolicited mail on the subject testifies, perhaps, to the idea’s rapid circulation.

Initially, however, the Board, in consultation with the Government – or perhaps anticipating what they expected the government’s position to be – were resistant. The Court persisted: in early September they communicated to the Board that they had consulted with the Pacific and Oriental Steam Packet Company (P&O), who had proposed a timetable and costing; in the letter, the Court note that, “HM Govt being the best, if not the only competent, judges of the difficulties which may be opposed to the adoption of the course in question…”, the matter might be considered again.[4] Despite the ingratiating tone, a separate letter sent the same day informed the Board that the Court had already accepted P&O’s offer.

The affair caused a bruising exchange between Court and Board: while the Court contended, with no apparent justification, that they believed they had been given tacit permission in a private conversation between Robert Vernon Smith (President of the Board of Control) and the Directors, Vernon Smith understood no such thing:

It is time that this subject, with very many others relating to the speedy dispatch of troops to India, had been discussed in the conversations which I have frequently had the honour of holding with you since the commencement of the late unfortunate events. But, as no steps had been taken of a formal nature to bring before HM Govt the views of the Court of Directors upon this head, and of course concluded that they agreed, through you, in the objections urged against them views of HM Govt, and I think it would lead to any end rather than that of the united government of the Court of Directors and the Board, if every proposal that had been broached at our confidential interviews was, in times of great public emergency, to be addressed as scheme submitted to, and rejected by, the Board.[5]

What is at stake, he admonishes, is the running of imperial government itself; should such actions be taken on debatable interpretations of verbal contact, he writes, “it is obvious that the President of this Board would be under great disadvantage, and that, instead of facilitating, [the Court] would impede, by the most unpleasant recriminations, and differences of recollection as to what had passed, the united action, as well as the good feelings, of the component parts of the government of India.”[6] In the same letter, however, he informs the Court of arrangements for the passage through Egypt of a company of soldiers being moved from Malta to Aden, to make up a shortfall of troops sent from Aden to Bombay. It’s possible to see here, perhaps, how the extreme compression of crisis management brings into a sharper focus the cross-purposes, conflict and animosity – the friction, if you like – between agencies of government within the imperial centre. The copies of Vernon Smith’s letters in the Political and Secret correspondence are drafts, so that, as above, we can see how stronger phrases have been stricken out and replaced by more diplomatic ones: this is a recurring feature of draft correspondence during the crisis, in which it’s possible to see the strain that went into maintaining a constructive dialogue. The need to act fast and decisively forces simultaneous protest and assent; agencies are forced, as it were in the same breath, to co-operate on the business of governmentality while decrying breaches of protocol and questioning each others’ commitment to the functioning of government itself.

In this particular clash, certain points of protocol are at least provisionally clarified. The exchange ends with Vernon Smith expressing his dismay that what he took to be a relatively informal or semi-formal meeting was to be interpreted by the Court as a discussion of concrete policy or communication of intent:

I never understood that the propriety of sending troops though Egypt had been discussed between me and yourselves on the part of the Court; nor do I understand how you could speak on the part of the Court, without having ascertained the opinion of the Court in the usual manner, as I have so often found in our intercourse that the Chairman and deputy Chairman have been entirely mistaken in what they believed would be the decision of the majority of the Directors. … I must, therefore, request that whenever the Court make you the channel of imparting to me their views, with the intention of bringing them before me as a matter of official record, to which public reference may thereafter be made, you will have the goodness to set forth those views formally in writing.” [7]

If anything, Vernon Smith is in a position of extreme embarrassment: the Board’s job is to be the channel of all communication between the Company and the Government at large, and here it has effectively been circumvented on the flimsiest of pretexts. (As it happens, the protocol he clarifies at the end of this passage was not fated to last long: within a year, and before the crisis was even fully over, both Board and Company would be formally abolished and replaced by the India Office, a fully-fledged agency of Government itself, with India transferred to Crown rule. After 1858, administrative spats would have to find other channels.)

By late October, the War Office was giving full assent to sending troops through Egypt, “as our experience in sending small parties of troops by that route justifies the attempt with a complete regiment”.[8] As far as the Company and the Board were concerned, policy was set: from here on, troops would travel to India by both Cape and overland routes.


Just as the Company were dependent on the War Office to grant them troops and arrange their readiness, they could only undertake diplomatically risky projects like the Suez gambit with the assent and co-operation of the Foreign Office. The FO had to mobilise its own networks of consular agents, ambassadors and spies, and its own documentary logistics of sealed packages, diplomatic mail, cryptography and flying seals, to assist the war effort and provide intelligence on proximate and remote threats. Although the FO readily gave assent to the early small parties crossing the isthmus, the whole affair clearly jangled diplomatic nerves: only a few days after approving the plan, the FO wrote to the company (marked “IMMEDIATE AND CONFIDENTIAL”) that “the Earl of Clarendon …request[s] that you will state to the President of the Board of Controul that it is of the utmost consequence that the intention to resort to this measure should not be suffered to transpire, and that on the contrary all parties concerned in carrying it out should be strictly cautioned not to allow the nature of the orders given on the subject in any way to become public.”[9] Even when the pretence of secrecy was entirely token, the Foreign Office continued to counsel caution.

In the meantime, delicate diplomatic approaches had to be made to the Ottoman authorities. Lord Stratford, the British Ambassador to the Porte, managed to secure the assent of Sultan Abdülmecid I to the early parties. Egypt, however, was in practice almost an independent state, in which the Sultan’s Wāli, Muhammad Sa’id Pasha, exercised a degree of autonomy that the Foreign Office seems to have wished it understood the precise dimensions of more fully. It fell to Green to manage the Pasha, Stratford to manage the Sultan and the authorities in Istanbul, and Clarendon to manage them both, resulting in a frequent and meticulous three-way correspondence between them. Directing his initial approaches as the overland policy grew in scope, Clarendon wrote to Green:

…this Govt think it due to the Pasha, who has always evinced so much consideration and attention for their wishes, not to leave him in ignorance of the real character of the large body of passengers who will pass through Egypt with the next mail… You may add that the men will not remain on shore in Egypt beyond the time absolutely required for their passage through the Country.[10]

To Stratford, he wrote:

Your Lordship will mention this arrangement to the Porte, as Mr Green has been instructed to mention it to the Pasha of Egypt; but as the men pass ostensibly as Civilians, it is scarcely to be expected that the measure will call for forth any observation on the part of the Turkish Govt[11]

The policy here, clearly, was that the operation would be soft-pedalled as much as possible. When the first rather larger group of soldiers was sent through in September, Stratford was encouraged not to say anything unless specifically asked; and, if asked, to emphasize that the men would not be in military array, their arms would be travelling separately, and that they would not stay in Egypt “beyond the time absolutely required for their conveyance through the Country”.[12] Once it had been decided to send through larger bodies of troops, stronger expressions of assent would be required.

The mail ship carrying the Sultan’s letter of assent arrived at Alexandria in early October, and it fell to Green to present it. He reported back to Clarendon that:

I will require a little judgment to communicate the Sultan’s letter to the Vice Roy without offending the Vice Roy’s dignity, but the written declaration of HH … enables me, by not hurrying the presentation of this document, to place it in the light of a sanction rather that an order. The exceptional state of things here induces me to use a certain discretion in these proceedings, as it is better that I should take some responsibility on myself, than risk the inconvenience which might result from annoying the Vice Roy at a moment when he might easily retaliate…. without the complete cooperation of the Egyptian Govt it would be impracticable to carry out any measure of this kind, and indeed if the Vice Roy had any disinclination to it, it would be utterly impossible to get over the difficulties that might quietly be thrown in our way.”[13]

A week or so later, Green reported their meeting:

“Said Pasha then alluded to two letters he had received from the Porte, and gave me an opportunity of explaining that I wished him to have his correspondence from Constple before presenting the letter that had been forwarded to me & which I then handed to him. As HH mentioned two letters, I mentioned I had only read one, when he stated that the other letter informed him that instructions would be sent to him as to the number of Troops to pass through Egypt. I observed that I might report this to Yr Ldshp, when he said it might subject him to annoyance at Constple. … I do not attach any importance to this matter, but it is as well to know that something has been said by the Porte as limiting the number of Troops passed through Egypt.[14]

What’s striking here is the level of care that Green, Stratford and Clarendon, all talented diplomats, put into testing the temper of the Ottoman authorities, and trying to descry, from outward signs, the inner workings and tensions of another imperial government – a government with its own ways of doing things and its own complex relationship between core and periphery. While engaged in their own networked correspondence, they’re constantly trying to deduce what correspondence has occurred between their opposite numbers, and to understand the relationships between actors from each of whom they need to exact a certain kind of compliance.

Making the trip

The way had been opened, then – albeit provisionally, and with a certain sense of precariousness. From here on, between the steam companies, the War Office, the Board and the Company and the Foreign Office, a workable logistics began to take shape. The Foreign Office were keen that, once arrived at Alexandria, the troops should not even leave their ships until a telegraph from Suez indicated that ships are waiting ready for embarkation: and that, once ashore, they should be moved as quickly as possible. All parties agreed that the passage of troops should not impede that of the mail: governmental agencies and the Company itself would not brook any obstruction to the vital flow of information, and the steam and telegraph companies’ credit depended on delivering it. Where there is conflict between troops and information, information takes priority. Remarkably, the troops continue to travel in mufti, at least nominally: factored into shipping companies’ and the War Office’s plans, there is always a charge for a civilian overcoat, and equipment is often mentioned as being disguised as luggage – how successfully is open to question.

How the journey actually was for those who experienced it – if not troops, then those who went with them – was recorded, with a dyspeptic eye and Dickensian bathos, by William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent who had made his name in the Crimea. Russell passed through in early 1858, and apart from his complaints about food and accommodation, the impression he gives is of an operation that, though ramshackle and apparently, seemed to get the job done. His account is vividly alive to the juxtapositions and displacements of intense colonial and military activity in a small area suddenly invested with geostrategic significance, and of an infrastructure under rapid construction and unexpected strain. He writes of the train from Alexandria being held up for two hours to make way for the Pasha’s private train, which never comes (the message is relayed by telegraph to “some distant station along the line”, and then conveyed to the train by foot); he also writes of coaling stations along the line as “helpless, hot, ovenlike erections generally eked out by old Crimean wooden huts, within which may be seen an undoubted Englishman, smoking his pipe”. He notes European and quasi-European food and drink being advertised at various stops, or transported out from Cairo for the passengers and soldiers; of passengers and soldiers themselves, rather against what the Foreign Office had hoped, crammed into crowded trains together; and lends a Dickensian absurdity to his description of the vans that took the troops the last few miles to Suez: “Brighton bathing-boxes laid longitudinally on wheels, to which were attached creatures of an uncertain number of legs, resembling very much Scarborough ponies at the end of the season”.[15]

A more straitlaced account comes from The Times, in October of 1857, as the first large levies began to pass through:

The conduct of the men was most orderly. A lusty chorus, which in several occasions proceeded from the carriages, testified to their good humour; and any petty discomforts of the journey through Egypt were quite unheeded in their satisfaction at travelling ‘like gentlemen’.[16]

In the end, the policy of transporting troops by the overland route had few alarming repercussions. Certainly, there will be a lot to write about how it shifted or accelerated the development of communications and navigation infrastructure in the Middle East, and how this fits into the broader diplomatic and geostrategic effects of the Uprising on an international level. There must also be room, I think, for more granular studies of the logistics and the administrative processes behind the policy itself. Of the approximately 40,000 troops that traveled to India from all over the Empire, only about 5,000 traveled through Egypt; by early 1858, when it was clear in London that the need for further drafts was no longer urgent enough to make the shorter route necessary, transports reverted to travelling almost entirely by the Cape route. Although the conflict would continue into the spring, the first scramble to respond was over. The final item in the Political and Secret Correspondence for 1857 is dated the 31st of December. It is a response from the Directors to a notification from the Board that they will be seeking to have the Company abolished.


— Peter Mitchell


[1] Melvill to Yorke, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 657

[2] Green to Clarendon, August 19 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 327

[3] Fraser to the Company, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 175-183

[4] Mangles and Currie to Vernon Smith, Sept 9 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 343-4

[5] Vernon Smith to the Chairs, Sept 17 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp.479-80

[6] Ibid, p. 480

[7] Vernon Smith to Chairs, Sept 25 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55 pp. 705-10

[8] Storks (War Office) to Clerk, Oct 26 1857; IOR L/PS/3/56 p. 271

[9] Hammond to Clerk, July 24 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 691

[10] Clarendon to Green, Sept 16 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 681-2

[11] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 22 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 685-6

[12] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 16 1857: IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 667

[13] Green to Clarendon, Oct 12 1857 (copy): IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 349-51; Green to Clarendon, Oct 9 1857, Ibid. pp. 353-5

[14] Green to Clarendon, IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 384-6

[15] Quoted in Anthony Sattin, Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt (Tauris Park: London, 2011), pp. 56-7

[16] The Times (London, England), Thursday, Oct 29, 1857; pg. 10; Issue 22824.

Posted in 1857, India Office, Military

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