The legacy of eighteenth-century French adventurers of Maratha army at Aligarh

Text by Rehan Asad & Photos by Ovais Ahmad|Sulaiman Hall at Aligarh Muslim University was once a garden house of French Army commandants De Boigne and later his successor Perron who served Maratha leader Madhaji Sindhia. It was widely popular among locals as Saheb Bagh.

Gateway of  French Commandants residence, Saheb Bagh. Now the main gate of Sulaiman Hall at Aligarh Muslim University.

Background and history of Aligarh: Aligarh, a city located 140 km southeast of Indian capital city, New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The name of Aligarh that came to prominence after the establishment of Mohammad Anglo-Oriental College by Sir Syed Khan (1875) traced as “Kol/Koil” in historical records. During Doab expansion of Qutub-Uddin Aibak in the late 12th century, it was mentioned as a fortress. Hisam-Ud-Din Ughlabuq, a Turkish noble during Aibak regime held the seat of Koil as a governor before his transfer to Oudh. It was during the reign of Ibrahim Lodi, the Koil was assigned to Muhammad Khan, a son of Suri Afghan, Umar Khan who built a fort here and the place was known as Muhammadgarh. During the reign of Farrukhsiyar and Muhammad Shah, a Turkman chief Sabit Khan was appointed as a Governor of Koil. During his reign, many major buildings were constructed and fort of Lodi days was renovated. The place was named after him as Sabitgarh. After the death of Sabit Khan, the Koil entered in turbulence as common with most of the North Indian districts due to struggle between Marathas, Jats, and Afghans to gain the control over declining Mughal Empire. In 1754, the Jat leader Suraj Mal appeared to took the possession of the central Doab and made Sabitgarh as a capital for a short period. Najaf Khan (1777) established imperial authority in entire Doab and Koil came under his governance until his death in 1782. It was during this period when Najaf Khan, Deputy Afrasyab Khan gave the name “Aligarh”. With the death of Najaf Khan, the politics over the seat of the reagent started at the court of Shah Alam II with Mirza Shafi Khan, Afrasyab Khan and Madhaji Scindhia as the main contender. This resulted in a bloody conflict with Mohammad Beg Hamdani, the Governor of the Agra who was reluctant to grab the power in decaying central administration. Finally, the Madhaji triumphed in the bloody conflict. Madhaji acquired the Aligarh fort from the brother of Afrasyab Khan who was responsible for the defense of the castle after the death of his brother. It was from this date Aligarh remained under Maratha control until its acquisition by British forces in 1803.

Benoit De Boigne (1751 1830). He became the member of the city council of Chambery in 1816 after his return from India. After his death, the son of his Indian wife Noor (Hellene) was considered as his legitimate heir. Picture from wiki images.

 

French Commandant in service of Madhaji Sindhia: In 1788, Ghulam Qadir Khan Rohilla, the grandson of Najib-Ud-Daula, stormed the fort of Aligarh when Madhaji Sindhia was engaged at war with Rajputs of Jaipur. He left behind small encampment at Aligarh after collecting a large amount of the booty. The Maratha leader ejected the armies of Rohilla leader and assigned Aligarh to the French officer, De Boigne. De Boigne was born as Benoit La Borgne at Chambery in Savoy, southeastern France in 1751. At the age of nineteen, the young De Boigne received his military training in Clare’s regiment of French Irish brigade. In 1776, he joined Russian army as the subaltern officer that was supporting Greek revolt against Ottoman occupation. Leaving Russian army, he turned to seek fortunes in India. Landed at Madras in 1778, he secured his job in the British army and commissioned as an officer in Madras (1783) in the bodyguards of Lord Macartney. Sought permission and recommendation letters from East India Company, the young adventurer moved to the court of Oudh at Lucknow. He accompanied with a British Officer, Major Robert Brown who was moving to Delhi on Emperor Mission.  It was in Delhi (1784); he came in the service of Madhaji Sindhia who was controlling all the affairs of Hindustan (North India) as a reagent of the Mughal Empire. Madhaji himself a military genius identified the worth of De Boigne and gave a responsible role in his army. De Boigne was asked to raise two battalions on the line of European warfare and handsome salary was allocated for his efforts. De Boigne recruited both Natives and Europeans for these battalions. He himself supervised every task from the preparation of uniforms to the procurement of ammunition. The battalions raised by De Boigne displayed an extraordinary performance to subdue Bundelkhand in an expedition led by Maratha chief, Appa Khande Rao. De Boigne played an important role in rescuing the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II in October 1784 from Agra who was held captive by rival camp headed by Mirza Mohammad Beg Hamdani. Whether it was the battle of Lalsot (July 1787), a rescue of blinded emperor Shah Alam II from the clutches of cruel Ghulam Qadir Rohilla, internal feuds of Sindhia with Holkars, the De Boigne military tactics played a key role in establishing Maratha success in North India. 

Establishment of Maratha garrison in Aligarh on European line under De Boigne: In 1789, the Aligarh was conferred as a jagir to the French general, De Boigne by Madhaji Sindhia. With Koil (Aligarh) as an administrative unit, the total jagir was divided into fifty-two pargana. The revenue generated from the Aligarh was used for westernization of Maratha troops of Madhaji in Hindustan (North India).  Within the short span of one year, De Boigne has raised two brigades with hundred cannons on European pattern. By 1792, De Boigne was able to raise an army of twenty-four thousand soldiers trained on French warfare along with one hundred thirty-two units of artillery. Aligarh became a training camp for the troops raised by French General. The soldiers recruited from different ethnic and religious background of India represented in Europeanized Maratha army of De Boigne. Telinga and Najeeb (predominantly Muslims, Rajputs and Purbea) battalions of Maratha army were trained to use flint matchlock. The De Boigne troops trained at Aligarh were tested at the battle of Marita in 1790 AD, where they succeeded over chivalrous Rathore Rajputs. In the same year, the De Boigne military leadership and his trained troops of Koil brought victory to Sindhia army against joint forces of the Raja of Jaipur and Ismail Beg, the nephew of his arch-rival, Mirza Mohammad Beg Hamdani. For accommodating a large number of troops, De Boigne constructed barracks for the soldiers and apartments for the officers at Aligarh. Agra, Meerut, Shikohabad, and Aligarh in Doab became the hub for arms and ammunition factories. De Boigne and later on his successor Perron renovated historic fortress of Lodis on the design of French engineers. It was a polygon shaped structure having ten sides and bastion on each angle. A thirty-two feet deep ditch around the boundary was created to provide an additional defense to the fortress. As a skilled administrator, De Boigne managed his province in an effective manner. The revenue collected from fifty-two pargana was raised from two million INR/per annum to three million INR/annum during his reign. The brigades represented officers from France, Scotland, and England. The soldiers mainly natives comprised both Hindus and Muslims from different ethnicities of India. Thomas Twinning, a young civil servant who visited De Boigne in 1794 at Aligarh sketched that blend of eastern and western practices was reflected in cuisine, and culture of De Boigne durbar. Historical records showed De Boigne even started negotiations with John Murray for the restoration of Taj Mahal. He has two children, one son, and daughter from his Indian wife Noor Begum later baptized as Hellene.

The retirement of De Boigne and succession by Perron: On 12 February 1794, the Madhaji Sindhia died at Poona. The fifteen-year-old Dault Rao Sindhia was appointed as a successor of one of the most powerful leaders and Army chief of Hindustan. Daulat Rao gave command of army and governance of all the Maratha domains located North of Chambal to De Boigne. At this moment of time, De Boigne commanded one of the strongest armies of Hindustan and governing a vast dominion. Even East India Company sought armed assistance from De Boigne when the mutiny broke out at Bengal in 1795 AD. The deteriorating health of De Boigne in the same year compelled him for retirement in 1796. Claude Martin letters cited the death of Madhaji Sindhia and retirement of De Boigne as an initial event that leads to the fall of Martha power in 1803.

Titles awarded by Mughal emperor to French Adventurer for successful expeditions for Maratha army. It was inscribed by the Perron on the tablet placed at the gateway of Saheb Bagh. Both Gregorian and Hijri dates are inscribed in the Urdu text.

Perron, another French officer of Maratha army took the position of De Boigne in 1796. Perron original name was Pierre Cuillier, and he came to India in 1780 as an officer. After serving short tenure at Rana of Gohud and Bharatpur, he was recruited by De Boigne in 1790 in the army of Madhaji Sindhia. His successful expedition at Battle of Kurdla (1795) against the Nizam army led by another Frenchman, Raymond raised his credentials as a successor of De Boigne.  For the next seven years, Perron governed the military affairs of Hindustan from his seat at Aligarh. Soon after resuming De Boigne position, Perron subdued defiant Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur who refused to pay tribute to the Imperial government of Mughals controlled by Maratha chief. He was honored with the Imperial title of “General Perron Bahadur Muzzafar Jang, Intizam-ud-daula, Nasirul-Mulk” along with mansab of haft hazari. On the zenith of his career, General Perron was the military in charge of the forts at Agra, Aligarh, Ajmer, Khurja, Delhi, Saharanpur, and Firozabad in Hindustan. In addition, he was ruling over the twenty-seven district in Aligarh region. With changing the equation of British and Oudh relations, the entire Rohilkhand and Doab provinces of Oudh were ceded to East India Company in 1801.

Following expansionist policy for North India, the East India Company ended the peace treaty with Marathas that was signed in 1781 for North India. In 1803 AD, the British army under command of Lord Lake moved towards Aligarh with a cavalry of eight thousand.  Perron ordered all his brigades to join him Aligarh. Before the start of Battle, the English officers and soldiers from different Brigades deserted their French general as they refused to fight with the fellow citizen. Captain Stewart and Captain Carnegie were among the first English officers on the list who deserted Perron. It was at this moment Perron opened a secret talk when he finds the doors of truce were closed by General Lake. At Sasni, the Perron met British forces with eight thousand cavalries but fled from the battle in the early stage. He took a confinement at Munda, a village located eight miles from Aligarh. Colonel Pedron with two thousand trained army held charge of Aligarh fort after flight of Perron. The forces of General Lake captured the fort on 4 September 1803 at the expense of fifty-five casualties with the death of some experienced British officers. This battle marks the end of the more than one-decade French legacy in Hindustan. After negotiations, the general Perron was given a safe passage and he left for Europe after the short stay at Lucknow and Calcutta. In the same month, 1803, the British forces captured Delhi after a battle with Bourquin another French officer of De Boigne days and Marathas lost their ground in North India.

Tablet inscribed at Aligarh fort depicting the name of the British forces who lost their lives in 1803 during takeover of the fort from French troops of Maratha Army

 

 

The apartment of De Boigne and later used by Perron in Saheb Bagh. This was later renovated by University authorities probably on the same design and used as Provost Office of the residential hostel at AMU.

Saheb Bagh

De Boigne made a beautiful mansion close to the historic fort of the Aligarh. It was a huge garden complex bounded a wall and gateway built in Indo-Saracenic style. Located on Anupshahr road between fort and city, the area around the Saheb Bagh became a cantonment of French General. Delhi Gazette (1874) cited the residence of De Boigne in these words: “De Boigne lives in his famous mansion, called Saheb Bagh, between the fort and city and on leaving for France he gave it to Perron who considerably improve the building and garden which was well laid out with all description of fruit trees procured from different climes. He adorned the place that was said by French officers that garden was next to that of Ram Bagh, on the Agra River, so beautiful was the scenery”. The gate of Perron garden house withstands the time of more than two hundred years. The tablet with the inscription written in both Persian and English is still present on the main gateway to the Sulaiman Hall. It mentioned the name of the Perron and date of inscription i.e., 1802 AD in English. In Persian, the titles conferred by Mughal emperor to the Perron were inscribed in on the tablet: “Khudaya Bagh Nasir Ud Daula, Intizamul Mulk, General Perron Bahadur Muzzafar Jang, and Date: 1802 Gregorian and 1217 Hijri”. The last two Persian words after Muzzafar Jang on the tablet are not readable. Perron garden house was allocated to Aligarh Muslim University and it was converted as a residential hostel in 1945 AD by Dr. Sir Ziauddin Ahmad, then vice-chancellor of the University. It was named after ex-Judge (1923 AD) and Vice Chancellor (1929) of the University, Sir Shah Mohammad Sulaiman. The residential apartment of Perron Garden house is converted to Provost Office after necessary renovations. Today it lodges more than six hundred fifty students. The strategic fort of Maratha period is used as botanical garden of University. The tablet inscribed at fort displayed the name of the British officers killed during Anglo Maratha war of 1803 AD. Today these two monuments are the testimony of the De Boigne and Perron (stalwarts of Sindhia army) days at Aligarh (a power center of Hindustan during late 18th century). Now the residential locality in the area lying in the front of Sulaiman Hall is identified as Saheb Bagh. Quite a few of the residents know the actual story of the Sahib Bagh and story of the name engraved on the gate of Sulaiman Hall.

 

The only preserved structure of Saheb Bagh. Designed in Indo-Saracenic architecture, the Perron garden house gateway is two hundred fifteen-year-old structure at Aligarh Muslim University.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Mr. Ovais Ahmad, a student at Aligarh University for providing photographs.

References:

Atkinson, Edwin Thomas, ed. Statistical, Descriptive and Historical Account of the North-Western Provinces of India: 2. Meerut division part 1. Vol. 2. North-Western Provinces Government, 1875.

Burke, Edmund. The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year. Printed for J. Dodsley, London, 1799.

Keene, H.G., 2000. The Fall of the Moghul Empire. Atlantic Publishers & Dist.

The European military adventurers in India.* the last few years, the spectator archives, 1893. retrieved from: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/24th-june-1893/6/the-european-military-adventurers-in-india-the-las

Nevill, H. R. “Aligarh: a gazetteer, vol. VI of the District Gazetteer of the United province of the Agra and Oudh.” (1909). Printed at Government Press, Allahabad, United Provinces.

Marshman, John Clark. History of India from the Earliest Period to the Close of the East India Company’s Government. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Roy, Kaushik. War, culture, and society in early modern South Asia, 1740-1849. Vol. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Singh, K., 1999. Obituary: Lt-Col Michael Skinner. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-lt-col-michael-skinner-1094142.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The legacy of eighteenth-century French adventurers of Maratha army at Aligarh

  1. A knowledge boosting article, I spend 5 years of my life in AMU but unaware of historical facts about Suleiman Hall. Thanks for this, now whenever I will visit AMU, will try to see all these historical places in the light of these facts.

  2. Nice read.
    I spent my +2 days in Sulaiman Hall. Always wondered about the inscription ‘Perron’!. Just came to know of its glorious past after 15years of leaving Sulaiman Hall.
    Thanks 🙂

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