When Madrasis invaded Manila

Madras Sepoys 1757

One of the iconic exploits of the Second World War that has stirred public imagination the world over, through literature and movies that celebrate it, is the famous landing of MacArthur’s US Marines in Philippines. Whoever heard of Madras Sepoys assault landing on the same shores almost two hundred years before the Americans accomplished that feat? In early August 1762, barely four years after the English East India Company had raised the first of its three Presidency Armies, the Madras Army, in Fort St. George, a 3000 strong expeditionary force of that army, commanded by Brigadier General William Draper, set sail for the Spanish colony of Philippines, on board a 15-ship invasion fleet, under Admiral Sir Samuel Cornish.

But for a lone British regiment, the entire force consisted of Madras Sepoys. The occasion was the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War between Britain and Spain in Europe, and the English East India Company, keeping with the praxis those days, mobilised its forces to invade the nearest enemy bastion. Although the men in the ranks of the force undertaking this first-ever overseas assignment by any sepoy force from India might not have realised it then, they were replicating the great maritime feat of their Chola ancestors after a gap of seven centuries.

Anchoring off Manila on 23 September, the fleet subjected the formidable looking fort to bombardment, while the troops began landing operations. The Spanish garrison, consisting of mostly Mexican soldiers supplemented by Pampangos, the Filipino irregulars, tried to put up a stiff resistance initially. While the Mexican soldiers proved none too effective, the Pampangos turned out to be fiery fighters. Though armed with only primitive weapons like spears and swords, these locals managed to give the attackers a hard time. Nevertheless, with superior firepower and organization, the Madras Army overwhelmed the garrison in a consistent battle of attrition lasting almost a fortnight. 

The Manila Expedition Fleet
Finding further resistance futile, the acting Governor General of Philippines, Arch Bishop Manuel Rojo, surrendered the city on 6 October to avoid further bloodshed. The resulting British occupation of Manila would last 18 months, until April 1764, when the city would be handed over back to Spain as per the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war.
The capture of Manila by a predominantly sepoy force was the beginning of a continuous engagement that would go on for more than a century thence, when the sepoys, mostly of the Madras Native Infantry, would play a crucial role in the British dominance over settlements lining the Malacca Straits and the whole of South East Asia itself.
Interestingly, several sepoys who took part in the Manila expedition, though they were all volunteers, either mutinied or deserted, probably owing to the hardships and privations of the voyage and unfamiliar experience of being far from home. One group was even believed to have taken over a ship. In many instances such men stayed behind, later to co-habit with or marry Filipino women. Filipino lore has it that the descendants of these men live on the outskirts of Manila presently. The fact that people with Indian features can indeed be seen in these places today, corroborates the story. So, don’t be surprised, if you turn up in Manila as a tourist and run into guys with Tamilian looks. That’s a legacy the erstwhile Madras Army left for you.

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