Book Review: The Lion's Firanghis
The Lion’s Firanghis
Europeans at the Court of Lahore
Bansal SK Foundation 192pp £26.99 ISBN 978 0956 127013
European adventurers in 19th-century India were often shady characters in search of a fortune and attracted by the riches of independent native kingdoms. But not all were rogues. In this lively and original book we meet talented men at the glittering Lahore court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’. Its extravagant ceremonies were colourfully captured on canvas by Auguste Theodor Schoefft, the talented and little-known Hungarian artist, who spent the winter of 1841 at court. Other travellers included the Romanian physician Dr Johann Honigberger, one of the first people to experiment with vaccination against smallpox and the Parisian botanist Victor Jacquemont, whose Indian nickname was Jakman Sahib. Jacquemont described the Maharaja as ‘a miniature version of Napoleon Bonaparte’, so the ruler must have been very small indeed; but he was an immensely powerful man who had welded together the first – and last – Sikh kingdom from a post-Mughal mess of warring tribes. Not surprisingly some of the best known firanghis (foreigners) were mercenaries who trained the Maharaja’s raw Punjabi recruits in modern European warfare. The Italian General Paolo Avitabile had already spent six years training the Persian army when he was persuaded by a fellow countryman, General Jean-Baptiste Ventura, to travel further east to the Maharaja’s kingdom. Together with the Frenchmen General Court and General Allard, these four men transformed Ranjit Singh’s army and were very handsomely rewarded for their work, picking up enormous monthly salaries, grants of land and beautiful Indian women. Even the English diplomat, Lord William Osborne, on a brief mission to Lahore in 1838 came away with a string of pearls, priceless Kashmir shawls, diamond armlets, a sword and a horse with gold and velvet trappings. Osborne described the maharaja as sitting cross-legged on a golden throne, dressed simply in white, with a belt of enormous pearls, and the Koh-i-noor diamond on his arm.
All this is fascinating stuff, but what makes the book unique is that the author, himself a Sikh, has doggedly tracked down the descendants of these legendary characters to the present day. On the British annexation in 1849 of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, a decade after his death, there was little scope for the European adventurers in the chauvinistic British East India Company. Most returned home with little to show, like the Spanish soldier Colonel Domingo Hurbon de Alcantara, who was deprived by the British of his salary, his pension and even the jewels he had collected. He sank into poverty and his burial place is today unknown, according to a descendant, Maximino Hurbon.
General Henry Charles van Cortlandt, of Dutch descent, was exceptional in that, after leaving the Sikh court, he was employed by the British and ended his career as Deputy Commissioner of Multan. He retired to London and is buried in Brompton cemetery. Others suffered mixed fortunes. General Ventura left behind his Armenian wife, but brought his daughter home to France where she married a Belgian nobleman but died a pauper. General Allard, having settled his Indian wife Bannu Pan Dei and children with his family in St Tropez, returned to Lahore where he fell ill and died. An Allard descendant is today the Mayor of St Tropez.
Very few relics from the kingdom remain in the families of the adventurers. As with many exotic heirlooms, they have been lost, sold, stolen, or simply unrecognised.
The Lion’s Firanghis, with numerous photographs and family trees, is a spicy mix of genealogy, gossip and fact. This is the first time that the story has been told of what happened to Ranjit Singh’s foreigners when the party was over and they had to return to life in Europe. The author is not a historian, as he admits, but his years of research and travels through Europe and the Indian subcontinent, have resulted in a very readable political and social history.
Rosie Llewellyn Jones is the author of The Great Uprising in India, 1857-58: Untold Stories, Indian and British (Boydell Press, 2007).
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