Friday, March 23, 2007

French military officers in 18th Century India

In Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, and other Indian languages the word “Kaptaan” was a common mispronunciation for the military rank of Captain from the English language. It’s strange that this should be so——for today’s generation of Indians would pronounce Captain as either “Cap-tin” or “Cape-ton”. It is not well-known even to students of Indian History that English military ranks were actually derived from Old French and Latin. They came into the Indian languages, not through English but through the original French——thus “Kaptaan” is in fact the Indian version of the original French word Capitaine.

Similarly the word “Jarnal/Jarnail” are mispronunciations of the old French Generalle and not the English General. “Karnal/Karnail” is from the French Coronel and not the English Colonel. So too “Kumedan” is the old Indian version of the French Commandante. And finally “Paltan” though ostensibly tallying with the English Platoon, is actually derived from the original French Peloton.

Now we know that the British Raj in India grew and perished in a period of under 200 years (1757-1947) and that the British Indian Army was created in this time period. So when and how did French military ranks come into use in the Indian languages?

In fact before the British Empire existed and down at least to 1800 when it was in the midst of forming, French military officers led and organized the armies of Indian Kings——from the Kingdom of Mysore in the very south of India up to the Kingdom of Punjab in the northwest.

Infantry, artillery and the Europeans

Through a period of centuries, Western Europe, isolated from the current of cavalry-dominated lands in Asia, slowly perfected the art of managing foot-soldiers (infantry) and the science of delivering shots from cannon and mortar (artillery) in the battle-field.

This change did not take place in other parts of the world due to the immediate threat from cavalry hordes. Areas facing repeated threats from such cavalry as that of the Huns, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, built up and perfected their own capacities in horse-rearing and training——in India the Rajputs, Marathas, and Sikhs excelled in cavalry fighting and maintained independence in parts of India throughout the long period of Islamic invasions (13th to 18th centuries).

This singular fact prevented the gradual improvements in infantry formations as was taking place in Europe in the same period. Artillery though was quickly commandeered by these cavalry groups because of its usefulness in besieging forts. By the 17th Century European gunners (mostly Italians, Portuguese, and a few Dutch) had made their place as artillerymen in the Indian armies——their talents were showcased in the battles fought for the succession to the Mughal throne (Dharmat, Samugarh, and Khajwa).

During the Mughal-Maratha wars (late 17th Century) the usefulness of infantry groups like the Mavles and Berads were clearly displayed——the latter in particular were noted for their skill in handling muskets. In the north such skill was displayed by the Jats and Ruhelas——but the group to attain nationwide fame as disciplined infantry were the Purbias of UP and Bihar.

This period also saw the rise of the French and English trading companies. In their respective regions these two recruited these infantry groups into their own armies. Select officers were sent to train and command the infantry and artillery sections of the armies of neighboring Indian rulers——in some cases individual officers struck out on their own to try their luck as mercenary commanders in more distant kingdoms.

The English were more successful as a trading-conquering company than the French, but paradoxically French adventurers were more prominent in the armies of Indian kingdoms. The first to attain fame was Marquis de Bussy who trained the army of the Muslim Kingdom of Hyderabad in southern India——the infantrymen for this army were local Hindu Telegus. A section of this army, under the native commander Ibrahim Khan Gardi (commandant de la guard), joined the services of the neighboring Maratha Empire and fought with distinction in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761). Armed with French-made Fusils the Telegu soldiers repulsed the advancing army of Ahmad Shah Abdali as long as they had ammunition.

Other noted officers were Rene Madec and Walter Reinhardt Le Sombre——both of them emerged in North India alternatively serving kingdoms like Bharatpur, Dholpur and Jaipur but ultimately joining the shadowy Mughal Emperor and carving out their own personal estates in his service. While Madec returned home to France with his accumulated wealth, Le Sombre settled down in his estate of Sardhana and married and converted (to Christianity) a Kashmiri dancing girl——known to history as Begam Samru (here another French word Sombre, was pronounced in the Indian languages as Samru).

The emergence of modern Hindi as a pan-Indian language has a long history described elsewhere, but its speakers; namely the Purbias formed the largest component in the new Indian armies led by French officers. Hence French military ranks entered the lexicon of Indian languages like Hindi.

Personal character

The most remarkable Frenchman in this period was Le Borgne de Boigne——he entered the services of the Maratha chieftain Mahadji Sindhia and helped him win many famous victories in North India (Battles of Agra, Patan, and Merta). Sindhia promoted him to the rank of “Jarnal” when he raised an entire army corps of Purbias and Ruhelas for his master. He was also noted for his civility, personal honesty, and realistic appraisal of the British power.

But de Boigne was an honorable exception to the mass of European adventurers, who were mostly illiterate, possessed basic military knowledge, and were notorious for their greed, thievery, and lechery. An example was Lesteneau, who while serving under de Boigne, deserted his service when he discovered a wandering horse loaded with saddle-bags of jewels during a campaign against an enemy chieftain (1789). The unscrupulous officer concealed the jewels from his superiors, waited to draw the monthly salary of his entire unit, and then promptly decamped with both to France!

Other interesting characters were Le Vassou (reputed lover of Begam Samru), Dudrenec (the commander of Holkar’s newly-raised army which met its doom at the hands of Sindhia), Louis Bourquien and Jean Baptiste Filose (both served under Sindhia).

Relations with the British

Surprisingly, despite serving Indian Kings who viewed the English East India Company as a growing threat to their power, all the Frenchmen maintained good personal relations with the British. De Boigne actually settled English farmers in his estate to grow indigo and exported it down the River Ganga to the British port of Calcutta for export.

His successor Cuillier Perron, a particularly dishonest officer, secretly transferred his accumulated hoards to English banks for safety. At that time he was constantly urging his Indian masters to fight the same English! But when the time came for that fight (1803, the Second Anglo-Maratha War) Perron led his personal bodyguard across the River Yamuna into British territory, then bribed the boatmen to prevent the rest of the army from crossing over, while he obtained safe passage from the British back home to France.

The other European officers at Aligarh, Agra, and Delhi, were also in secret communications with the advancing British. They had all planned to desert to the English at the first opportunity and return to Europe with their accumulated wealth. But here the heroic Indian soldiers; Purbias, Marathas and Ruhelas, put their treacherous European commanders in prison and fought gallantly against the British. They were defeated, the units were disbanded, and many of these able-bodied men joined their Purbia brethren under British service.

Thus ended the saga of French-dominated armies in India leaving behind only quaint words like Kaptaan as a reminder of that age!