European Mercenaries Making Mark In The Subcontinent

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


October 2, 2022

Zoya Ansari describes quite an unusual phenomenon

European Mercenaries Making Mark In The Subcontinent – Once the centralised power of the Mughal Empire disappeared many successor states emerged on the political horizon of the subcontinent. States such as Oudh, Hyderabad Deccan and Mysore along with states carved out by Marhatta warriors gradually became prominent and continued to exist as allies of the dominant British power.

The European mercenaries grew in numbers by deserting their European employers, both British and France, whose service conditions were ruled by conservative and discriminatory systems for promotions that often favoured the nobility and deprived people coming from common backgrounds from promotion.

Mercenary army commanders like de Boigne and Perron earned great fortunes in their service for Maratha leader Sindhia and even common soldiers also benefited as it was known that the emoluments they were hired for were 23 and 62 per cent higher than the local soldiers and many of their European commanders ensured that they were regularly paid.

Among Europeans it was often believed that India was a region of endless opportunity to acquire wealth. Employment in an Indian army meant an opportunity for Europeans to rise to commanding and independent positions with high pay if they showed talent.

One example of a successful mercenary was de Boigne from Savoy who after a short career in the Irish Brigade in the French army and the Russian army, travelled to India in search of employment after a tip from a European merchant he met in Russia.

European Mercenaries Making Mark In The Subcontinent

In following years de Boigne became one of the most famous European mercenaries in India as the first European commander of the Maratha army and was widely credited with reforming the fiscal structure of the Maratha army to a system whereby regular pay was more or less guaranteed. This change of policy and practice resulted in significantly reducing mutinies among soldiers and helped create a disciplined army.

With the passage of time one such local power that emerged by the third quarter of the 18th century was the Sikh state of Punjab established by an extremely wily ruler Ranjit Singh who declared him as Maharaja and successfully held on to his throne till his death in 1839. Ably assisted by his natural guile and political acumen Ranjit Singh was kept in power by the force of his arms.

He was very keen to take advantage of the advanced European mercenaries whom he employed in large number who transformed his army into formidable force for an Indian. It proved to be beneficial to Ranjit Singh that at the end of Napoleonic wars in 1815 many former officers of the French army ventured to try their luck in India.

Prominent among them were General Ventura, who was originally Italian, General Allard and General Avitabile. They joined the service of Ranjit Singh in 1820 and were welcomed with open arms and rose to command positions spearheading Ranjit Singh’s army to widespread conquests increasing his empire to great lengths.

European Mercenaries Making Mark In The Subcontinent

It is mentioned in historical records that General Ventura became the driving force behind the reorganization of the Sikh army into modern brigades. Ventura became wealthy as he was paid up to 2,500 rupees per month, almost 500 times more than an ordinary Indian soldier and was also occasionally awarded with jagirs. At the end of his career Ventura returned to Europe a rich man in 1843 and lived a comfortable life in Paris in retirement.

General Jean-Francois Allard was given the task of forming a corps of cavalry in the style of the European armies and was also highly rewarded and earned plenty of money. Allard was highly respected by Ranjit Singh who was taken in by his excellent behaviour and courtly manners. He died in the same year as Ranjit Singh in 1839 leaving large family.

Ranjit Singh had such affection for him that his courtiers were reluctant to inform him of the general’s death. He showed a trait, loyalty, that always remained a doubtful aspect of mercenaries who were widely notorious for changing sides due to monetary rewards and other benefits. Allard was reputed to have radically transformed the cavalry of the Sikh state and introduced many new tactics giving an edge to it that was widely considered to be the vital difference in times of war.

Another prominent mercenary soldier was General Avitabile who came to India some years after Ventura and Allard, after first serving sometime in the Persian army. In service of Ranjit Singh he became governor of Wazirabad and later of Peshawar and was known for his extremely hard line attitude towards law and order. His strict conduct resulted in peace and tranquility of the areas he was given to manage though many considered his actions bordering on barbarism and were strongly resented.

European Mercenaries Making Mark In The Subcontinent

Avitabile was prudent enough to retire in 1843 as he collaborated with the British in three battles that were waged by the Sikh army that got out of control and resulted in the disintegration of the Sikh rule. His collaboration with the British enabled him to safely get out of the subcontinent with a large fortune estimated to be more than one million rupees.

Hailing from America, Alexander Gardiner was another adventurer that came to India in search of employment and his case exemplifies the high demand of Europeans and the almost legendary status as military experts that they had in the region. With hardly any military experience and no education, Gardiner immediately found employment in the army of Ranjit Singh after his arrival in 1832 as an instructor for Sikh’s artillery, without ever having fired a single gunshot.

Thanks to an English step-by-step manual that Gardiner found in a case of gun parts, he was able to successfully fire some shots for his employer and his court, proving his worth and as a result Gardiner was assigned to the command of the entire Sikh artillery, with an additional 800 infantry and 400 cavalry as defensive troops.

British Mercenary

Lewis Ferdinand Smith was a British mercenary in service of the Marathas and served under both General de Boigne and General Perron and took part in numerous campaigns. He is also recorded to have fought George Thomas and his private army sometime around 1800 though he ended up getting defeated.

Another mercenary to gain prominence was George Thomas, an uneducated sailor in the service of the English East India Company, who deserting the British was taken in the service of an ambitious Indian Begum Samru in 1781. It was his innate ability that made him to progress despite him having no military experience. By dint of his ability he soon rose to become an officer in Begum Samru’s army but fell from favour due to intrigues of his French colleagues.

Thomas was too resourceful a man to admit defeat and quickly went to raise his own mercenary army and through successful campaigns acquired a jagir in present day Haryana and became its ruler. He was dislodged from his principality by the Marathas under General Perron. Having lost his jagir but still in the possession of a modest fortune, Thomas died in 1802 on his way back to Ireland. He was singled out by being the only European mercenary to have carved out a state and ruled it on his own. The Weekender


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