Harking back : George who almost captured Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 27 , 2014


Of all the characters who aspired to rule Lahore over the centuries, surely there was not one as colourful and bizarre as George Thomas (1756-1802) of Tipperary. In 1801, two years after Ranjit Singh had conquered the city and was in the process of consolidation, George stood by with a larger and better army to take over.

My late father always kept checking me when I went on my flights of fancy with a remark: “Sonny, to discuss the ‘ifs’ of history is silly”. So I trained myself to stick to facts and facts alone, and that is what I will do with the story of George of Tipperary in Ireland. To the west from Gujranwala had emerged the Sukerchakaria ‘misl’ chief Ranjit Singh with his 9,600-strong army of ‘nihangs’, a product of the vacuum created by the Anglo-Afghan rivalry over the territory. To the east stood the 10,000 strong fierce army of George Thomas, which included a lot of cannons and fierce Rohilla cavalry, a product of the ‘free company’ encroachers thanks to the vacuum created by the feeble and crumbling Mughal empire and the slow yet sure advance of the East India Company, checked mainly by French military influence over Scindia and other Indian States.

George Thomas was born in Tipperary to a poor Catholic tenant farmer. His father died when he was young and he was press-ganged to work on the docks. He joined the British Navy as gunner and deserted at Madras in 1781. Thus started a military career that has few parallels. He initially worked for a French ‘free company’ of the mercenary Marchand as a ‘freebooter’. While fighting he was merciless and ruthless, but in civil life a charmer with a pleasant disposition. This won him admiration wherever he went.

After five years with Marchand, in which he learnt Persian and other Indian languages, he moved to the army of the Nizam of Hyderabad as a gunner. After six months he left for Delhi and joined the army of Begum Samru of Sardhana. She immediately took to him and many claimed he was her lover. Begum Samru was a woman with a history, which I will very briefly go over. She was a 14-year old dancing girl from Kashmir working in the red-light area of Lucknow. A French ‘freebooter’ Walter Reinhardt Sombre of Luxembourg, then aged 45, took a fancy to her and married her. She thus became Begum Sombre, and came to be called Begum Samru. She moved to Delhi and managed to become ruler of Sardhana near Meerut with her own 10,000-strong army, one that she led and protected the Mughal emperor in Delhi. Few could match her in intrigue.

The crafty begum awarded a ‘jagir’ to George, who through sheer deft and hard work raised an army of over 5,000 trained men. Their task was to keep the growing Sikh influence at bay. But French jealousy managed to influence the begum and she took back the ‘jagir’. But George was now strong enough to move on and capture territory and declared his own State ‘Tappal’ as independent. He immediately collected 250 known robbers and dacoits and turned them into a formidable fighting force. He robbed villages and took away their brass utensils, melting them into a series of modern six-pounder cannons. As a safety move he hired out his army to supplement the forces of the Maratha chief Appa Khandi Rao, who was opposed to the ruler and whose army was headed by the French General Pierre Cuillier-Perron.

He was awarded another ‘jagir’ and expanded his army to a massive 10,000 men, known as ‘Thomas’s Rascals’ with their headquarters at Jhajjhar. He was known as ‘Jowarg Jang’. At this juncture George knew that he could survive only by expanding. To the west were the Sikhs under Ranjit, yet a new force and one he could overcome. To the east was the massive 20,000-strong Scindia army that would surely decimate him. He moved with Irish guile and managed to meet Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General of the East India Company. The English had already moved to the west of Ranjit Singh. So George presented this as an Anglo-French fight. The British wanted to weaken the French first and then take on the Sikhs. George undertook to demolish the Sikhs for them.

At this juncture George undertook a secret mission to Lahore to judge the Sikh forces. He returned satisfied that he would beat them and prepared for battle. He first cleared Saharanpur of the Sikhs. To the east Scindia took these preparations as an attempt to attack them. The British held their hand and let George first talk to Scindia and his French general. The talks failed and one account says the British encouraged its failure. Battle followed. George put up a good fight but lost. He was allowed to leave India but died on his way back on the Ganges on the 22nd of August, 1802.

Surely in 1801 the forces of George would have been strong enough to dent Ranjit and his emerging empire. But then this is an ‘if’ of history, and it is best left to the imagination just how characters like George and Begum Samru and other freebooters influenced our collective history. Incidentally, Begum Samru died a very rich woman in 1836. In 1953 her inheritance, willed to the Reinhardt family, was estimated at 18 billion German marks. That legal battle still continues. Amazing.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2014




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