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The Lion's Firanghis: Europeans At The Court Of Lahore

A Book Review by HARBAKSH SINGH GREWAL

 

 

 

The following book has been selected as sikhchic.com's BOOK OF THE MONTH for November, 2010:

 

THE LION'S FIRANGHIS: EUROPEANS AT THE COURT OF LAHORE, by Bobby Singh Bansal. Coronet, United Kingdom, 2010. pp 192, Illustrated, £26.99. ISBN 10: 0956127010,  ISBN 13: 9780956127013.

 

THE REVIEW

The United Kingdom's National Army Museum recently saw the launch of a new book unearthing the untold stories of several of the prominent foreigners who served Maharajah Ranjit Singh. 

The Lion's Firanghis: Europeans at the Court of Lahore by Bobby Singh Bansal picks up the trail some of these generals, military advisors, administrators and physicians after the demise of the Lahore Darbar and the annexation of the Sikh Kingdom. 

What became of these mercenaries who had helped consolidate the Sikh Empire, maintain its borders and reorganise its military might along European lines? 

Bobby Singh's painstaking and at times fearless detective work took him to Lahore, Peshawar and right up to the Khyber Pass on the Afghan-Pakistan border and across Europe from Madrid to Bucharest via Paris, Marseille, Vienna, Zurich, Napoli, Berlin and beyond. The results, including a wealth of never before seen rare material, are to be found in this unique book.

The launch was also in its own way a unique event as some of the descendents of those men of fortune gathered in London from across Europe. These included the family of Signor Colonel Domingo Hurbon, probably one of the very few of the firanghis to serve at the Lahore Durbar till the very bitter end, who along with Colonel Francois Henry Mouton supervised and engineered the pontoon bridge for the Sikh Army at the Battle of Sobraon in 1846.

Descendants of Victor Jacquemont, General Jean Francois Allard, General Paolo Crescenzo Martine Avitabile, as well as Sir Henry Lawrence and Lord Bentinck added to the cast of names in attendance.

Speaking alongside Bobby Singh was Professor Jean Marie Lafont, who provided the foreword to the book. An expert in Indo-French history and author of the books Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Lord of the Five Rivers and Maharajah Ranjit Singh: The French Connections, he spoke warmly in a heavy French accent about the reign of the Maharajah and his achievements.

Achievements which included having the foresight to appoint western military men, the first of whom, Allard and Ventura, were enlisted into the services of the Maharajah after seeking him out having first heard tales of his reputation and the grandeur and opulence of his Court. Both men went onto play pivotal roles in reorganising the Sikh army, in particular the infantry, along modern European lines. 

By the 1830s a multifarious array of French, Prussians, Spanish, Dutch, Italians, Americans, Greeks, Russians and more came in search of new opportunities, hoping to enlist in Ranjit Singh's service. On the whole they served with distinction and honour and were vital to the empire's ability to further its own borders, simultaneously withholding British ambition in the east and controlling restless Afghans to the west whilst maintaining internal stability throughout the Kingdom.

The book itself tells the stories of some of these men, who often married local women and adopted local ways, and traces their family stories, sometimes tragic, back to their European homelands. 0

It was a personal journey of discovery for the author who over several years tracked down many of the descendants and that took him from the harshness and dangers of the North West Frontier to the glamour of the south of France.

Notable amongst the Firanghis were, as noted, Frenchman General Jean Francois Allard and Italian General Ventura who both arrived in Lahore in 1822 from the remnants of the army of Napoleon Bonaparte - a name synonymous with Maharajah Ranjit Singh who became known as the Bonaparte of the east. Both Ranjit Singh and Bonaparte were small in stature but immense in their military prowess and ambition, who both created empires out of modest beginnings to become feared and admired by their counterparts, but whose empires both in the end fell as quickly as they had risen.

Ventura was an Italian Jew who hid his religious identity in Europe by adopting the names Jean Baptiste, underwent another transformation, like most Firanghis, as he grew his hair and abstained from beef and smoking under the orders of his patron. Ventura commanded the Fauj-i-Khas, helped reorganise the infantry and constructed an imposing residence and gardens in the precincts of Anarkali's tomb in Lahore.  It later became the residence of the new governor of Lahore, Sir Henry Lawrence. 

General Ventura also served under Maharajah Sher Singh, and was decorated for his services to the Lahore Darbar but his family story as uncovered by Bobby Singh is later tinged with tragedy. 

Allard's contribution was no less conspicuous and he married a princess from Chamba later having several children with her.  

The book gives an insight into the life of Baron Karl Alexander von Hugel who refused the post of supreme command of the Sikh army in order to pursue his passion for botany and collected hundreds of plant species in the Punjab Kingdom for what became the Vienna Horticultural Society. He was a witness of the Lahore Court from 1833-35, and whose collection of artefacts from Punjab now form part of the Hugel Collection in Vienna. 

Other famous names include General Avitabile who rose to be Governor of Peshawar but who met a tragic end in Italy at the hands of his wife in 1850; General Henry Charles von Corthauld who became governor of Multan, a man of mixed Dutch and Indian parentage, and a commander who was well respected by his troops and who was decorated by Maharajah Duleep Singh. 

Another name synonymous with the period is artist August Schoefft, born in Budapest and who was invited to Lahore by the Court Physician Dr Johann Honigberger to paint the courtiers and noblemen of one of the world's most lavish courts. His wife however was impatient to travel to other regions of India and so he was compelled to obey her orders. 

So to save time he painted one huge canvass encompassing the entirety of the court of Lahore at its peak with men of various faiths and cultures that became a masterpiece in its own right. Princes, commanders, diplomats, noblemen and courtiers are shown surrounding the Lion of the Punjab.

The fact that it was once displayed at the Vienna Exhibition of 1855 but today it sadly sits forlornly in a darkened room in the Fort of Lahore tells its own story of the passing of that period in history, whilst its painter died a bankrupt in the Hammersmith Institute in London.

For such poignant and until now hidden history we should be grateful to Bobby Singh Bansal for his efforts in helping resurrect memories of the Lion of Punjab and his Firanghis.

 

[Courtesy: ukpha.org]

Conversation about this article

1: Rupinder Singh (Chicago, Illinois. U.S.A.), November 02, 2010, 12:47 PM.

Congratulations on the great achievement. Maybe someday soon publishers will recognize the value of such work so that more reputable publishers will pick up the rights, rather than forcing authors to spend their own money to publish their hard work!

2: Taran  (London, United Kingdom), November 03, 2010, 6:21 AM.

There is no Sikh religious body or organisation, neither is there any governmental effort to preserve Sikh history and heritage. Nor will Bobby Singh, I expect, get any serious support from any institution. I salute people like Bobby Singh who put immense efforts and have love to do something for the Sikh past or present. Very well done!

3: Karnail Singh (Bidston Wirral, Merseyside, United Kingdom.), November 03, 2010, 8:11 AM.

I too wish to congratulate Bobby Singh on his achievement ... and I want to thank Rupinder Singh above for recognizing and flagging up the fact that it's about time publishers (and may I add, the community) realizes the need to offer help in anyway they can to support such projects. I don't think people realize how hard it is for authors and artists in general to work in such isolated and financially difficult conditions!

4: Rupinder Singh (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), November 03, 2010, 12:49 PM.

S. Karnail Singh ji: Unfortunately, these sorts of undertakings are not taken seriously by publishers unless they are written by academics. Thus, despite a forward/ preface by an academic, Bobby Singh ultimately lacks the cultural capital and disciplinary training that would merit its publication by most viable presses. A call for more individuals to take up serious study of the Sikhs and Punjab, perhaps!

5: Gurdeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), November 08, 2010, 12:44 PM.

Taran Singh is more or less right. The last century has seen very little effort to pursue the preservation of Sikh heritage and most importantly to present it in a way which does it justice. We need scholars, publishers, artists that can research the gems of the past but also present them in innovative ways in line with today's needs (so that the past knowledge may continue to manifest, be utilised and grow). Among other projects and attempts, one organization sticks out in my mind. Ukpha and Kashi House have a track record that is ready to spearhead the much needed renaissance. They are there ready to support the rest of the community (people like Bobby Singh) with their much meticulously accumulated knowledge and experience of running a publishing house and churning out quality with a strong team and network. They are ready to provide inspiration and help to those moving forward in the arts or research with their extensive archive. Yet they too still find themselves trying to accelerate further against the friction of need for support (money, so that their core team and projects can survive). Much time and full dedication is needed in any field if one is to reach excellence, which our Gurus exemplify. In the past, the great and the good of Sikh society filled this critical role ... from the Sikh Gurus, through to the royal families and nobles such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh, as well as other equally devoted individuals, albeit of more modest means. Unfortunately, this tradition of support has dramatically declined, leaving individuals like Bobby Singh and publishers like Kashi House to undertake this vital work often unsupported.

6: Pritpal Singh (Delhi, India), November 10, 2010, 10:21 AM.

I have also read an article about your book in The Sunday Tribune. It's our misfortune that we never had enough of our own historians dedicated to record the events, development and growth of the community. The efforts of Bobby Singh Bansal are praise worthy. Really a good job accomplished.

7: Jamil Mirza (Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan), November 10, 2010, 10:20 PM.

Very interesting and informative.

8: Karan Singh Deol (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), February 05, 2011, 4:37 PM.

I commend Bobby Singh for his amazing work. The book is highly recommended to readers of history, especially on the era of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The book is a vast source of rare information for history enthusiasts - a must purchase. Bravo, Bobby Singh.

9: Bhupinder Loyal (Leicester, United Kingdom), February 25, 2011, 5:07 PM.

Sat Sri Akal, Bobby Singh Bansal ji. My name is Bhupinder Kaur. I am from Leicester. I read about the book that you have written and think it is very inspiring. I have not seen anything like this done before in Sikh History. I just want to say, well done, and keep up the good work!

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