The Tragic Illusions of William Moorcroft – and how they have misled generations of historians
Department of History, University of Texas at Austin
William Moorcroft (1767-1825) is now mainly remembered as an explorer. But the English East India Company financed his expensive expeditions into Inner Asia with a major strategic goal: securing a large supply of quality war-horses for their empire. He never found these mythic beasts and died on his return journey with only 50 animals. But his obsessions have misled generations of historians. I will show that while the EIC was pursuing this chimera, indigenous South Asian traditions of horse-rearing were allowed to disappear.
Moorcroft’s equine theories re-emerged after 1971, when Simon Digby published a novel explanation for the rise of the Sultanate of Delhi to imperial power in South Asia (c.1200-1398). Digby saw this as stemming from a combination of warhorses from Inner Asia with war-elephants from interior India that gave the Sultans irresistible military capacity. Jos Gommans then sought to use fragmentary early evidence supplemented by abundant records from the British empire to quantify the horse trade. These records were created by an empire that was chronically anxious about securing horses for its army from dependable sources.
Efforts at horse-breeding began in 1794 at Pusa in North Bihar. Early results were unfavorable: by 1805 the stud had cost a million rupees (₤120,000) and produced only 47 horses fit for the cavalry. William Moorcroft was then a well-regarded veterinarian in London, patronized by many British horse fanciers. His allies included Edward Parry, a Director of the EIC. From 1800 Moorcroft was consulted on sending English horses for the failing Company stud. In 1808, he to India with a princely salary and took charge of horse-breeding. But the stud farm never delivered the results expected of it. Moorcroft kept seeking an El Dorado of wonderful horses somewhere to the North of wherever he was. His writing slanted to the idea that horse-breeding and/or trading had flourished until quite recently. It was then reported to have collapsed as a consequence of pacification (Kathiawar), or the removal of a patron (Banaras) or the impoverishment of a regional elite (Rohilkhand) or something else.
Moorcroft was a sincere theorist but an expensive practical failure. He spent many millions of Company money beyond his large salary and produced a pathetically small number of good horses. He began finding reasons for failure as early as 1810 – after his predecessors’ mismanagement could no longer be held responsible, it became the soil, climate and food. Nor were his successors any more successful. In 1874, more than sixty years after Moorcroft’s arrival, even the defenders of the government stud system admitted that it could not even supply the 750 remounts needed by the Bengal Army annually, providing only about 550.
Heated ‘minutes’ and furious memos flew back and forth. This was the era when Jorrocks declared that “there was no young man wot would not rather have an himputation on his morality than on his ‘ossmanship.” And old men had built their careers as horse experts had even more at stake. Finally we should remember opne officer’s warning in a private report of 1885:
I know too well how the Saxon pride disdains to accept opinions foreign to its own ideas at the hands of a race which regards everything from an entirely different point of view.
But he added, “although I have long felt the strength of Asiatic prejudices, I have often had to acknowledge to myself that in all that relates to their benefit and interest”, the natives of Asia were shrewd and knowledgeable. That included horse-breeding and trading.
Indigenous grooms and traders’ methods may not have worked in theory, but worked in practice. So the practice of keeping colts hobbled and closely guarded denounced by many British experts was used by the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh (d.1839). It did not prevent him from maintaining an effective force of 60,000 horses. The Company meanwhile struggled in even in peacetime to obtain remounts for its 25,000 cavalry.
A Rajput warrior on a horse holding a spear. Gouache painting by an Indian painter, u.d., https://iiif.wellcomecollection.org/image/V0045965EL/full/1024%2C/0/default.jpg [accessed 3 August 2022]
Even more notably, around 1800 while the Pusa stud was struggling, the Maratha kingdoms had become the predominant cavalry power in India, and mustered 210,000 horsemen, mainly on India-bred mounts. These were admittedly light men on small horses.
An artist's impression of Peshwa Baji Rao I (1699-1740), a Maratha general and Prime Minister to the fourth Maratha Chhatrapati (Emperor) Shahu, 18th Century, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e6/Peshwa_Baji_Rao_I_riding_horse.jpg [accessed 3 August 2022]
But when pressed, a British dragoon regiment discovered that 350 small horses fed irregularly on sorghum grain and stalks performed well and suffered few losses in Sudan, 1884-85. Almost all their English horses died soon after arrival. Conditions in the Sahel were very similar to those found in the dry interior of the Indian subcontinent. This suggests how and why the Marathas were able to develop a formidable cavalry without much recourse to imports. But we have only one external observer’s account of this.
W.H. Tone wrote that a large part of the army was composed of free-lance squadrons who brought their own horses. Each captain’s
sole occupation when not on actual service is increasing his pagah or troop by breeding out of his mares, of which the Maratta cavalry almost entirely consist… They have many methods of rendering the animal prolific: they back their colts much earlier than we do, and are consequently more valuable as they come sooner on the effective strength. It is this persevering industry and consummate knowledge that is the true cause of the immense bodies of cavalry that the Maratha states can bring into the field …”
The defeat of the Marathas in 1818 was followed by militiamen not replacing their surviving horses as they turned to agriculture for a livelihood. Neither troopers nor grooms could or would write treatises on methods learned by active apprenticeship.
So the methods of breeding and feeding they used are probably irretrievably lost, like the tactile skills that made Dhaka muslins or the color-fast organic dyes of the seventeenth century.
 C.T. Chamberlain The Horse Industry in Bengal, Past and Present. Printed for private circulation, 1885. In L/MIL/7/9639 Coll. 224, File 14
- British Colonial History
- British Empire
- Indian History
- Indian History/Studies
- Maratha and British period
- British East India Company
- horse history
- Cavalry horses
- history of empires
- Imperial History
- colonial and imperial history
- Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies
- animal history
- East India Company