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"An Adventurous Yankee in Khalsa Court"

by Darshan Singh Maini

Sikh Gurus | Martyrs | Sikh Warriors
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This page was last updated on January 15 2002.





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Even as the bi-cetennial of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's coronation is being celebrated with great fanfare, I thought of reviving that bloody and shameful page of the Empire's history which had become a theme for the tragic muses, and for a corporate nostalgia at one time. My aim here is limited to touching upon the story of an American 'soldier of fortune', Alexander Gardner, who has remained a marginal, somewhat obscure player in that theatre of king killing, palace intrigues and betrayals in most Sikh chronicles. While the great French and Italian generals and other foreign officers-over one hundred in the Maharaja's pay from time to time have received a fair amount of commentary, the lone Yankee, a witness, a participant, a close watcher and chronicler had somehow not received his due, though his brief 63-page memoirs entitled The Fall of Sikh Empire published half a century after the catastrophic events, written in lucid, graphic and picturesque prose, gives the reader some unique insights into the feudal Sikh psyche, as indeed into the darker side of the great Maharaja's declining years. His narrative is, in that respect, more suggestive and oblique, though close enough to the pulse of events and to the pulse of the principal protagonists. In the words of Sir Richard Temple, Gardner had a very high opinion of the Maharaja's greatness as a ruler, but "he abstains from noticing-perhaps he even throws a veil over the King's vices which were scandalously overt and destructive of respectibility in the State".

Since I owe the title to Mark Twain's celebrated dark romance and fantasy, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur as Courts, it may in order to dramatize Gardner's story as a Yankee (who unlike Twain's Hank Morgan, remains a Yankee only in name at the and of his journey), dying in Srinagar (Kashmir) at the ripe old age of 90 like a Sikh Dogra grandee, an amusing reconteur with some traces of his native wit. His wanderlust, a typical American itch till today, and a theme of many a song and story, somehow brought him to the Lahore Darbar just when the Maharaja, old and in ill-health, was losing hold over the Empire he had built and extended through his remarkable deeds of valour, insight and governance, Gardner's portraits of his masters and minions are striking enough to become a part of the swelling theme".

In his "Introduction" The Right Hon. Sir Richard Temple, a high-ranking officer in the British Army serving in the region at that time has recorded his admiration for Gardner's narrative, and vouched for their veracity. And, indeed, had he gone back to his obscure American home after a long stint as "a soldier of fortune", he could have, as Sir Richard observes, carried with his a whole pack of romantic tales of adventures of Oriental harems etc. to keep a Desdemona enchanted in the manner of the Moor, Othello. But no, he never could charm the American belles, and lingered on to hold a little 'court' in Jammu and in Srinagar, and regale his audience of the natives around.

Now to turn to Gardner's own account which is deeply engrossing in its own way "I went to Peshawar in the month of August 1831", that's how he commences the narrative of his arrival in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court .... and very soon, he impressed the Sikh monarch with his skills as a soldier, as a mechanic good at making guns and soon is made "Commandant of Artillery" in the Maharaja's forces, a position be occupied for several years. And finally, he was transferred to the service of the Prime Minister, Raja Dhyan Singh, and later promoted Colonel under Maharaja Gulab Singh, the Dogra satellite ruler after the First Sikh War.

Gardner was born in 1785 in North America on the shores of Lake Superior, close to the Canadian border, his father having been a Scottish immigrant to the then-British colonies, who took part in the American War of Independence, according to Sir Richard. From his mother's side, he had English blood in his veins, and later, the adventurous son wrote handsomely about his mother s personality, values and spirit. We further learn that Gardner, to begin with, endeavoured to secure a position in the Russian Arrny, but he somehow lost that opportunity and then in his wide peregrinations and search for fresh fields of adventure, he managed to reach Herat in Afghanistan with many a tale of his encounters, escapes and duels en route It was from that mountainous wild region, redolent of ancestral voices of war and valour, that he joined the forces of the Afghan chieftan, Habibulah Khan who had been a sworn enemy of the ruler Dost Muhammad Khan in Kabul. That was to be his final "port of call" in the seas of high adventures and high romance before he finally entered the Punjab of the Sikh ascendancy and glory, and was sent from Peshawar by his Afghan patrons to the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore. Something, one feels, must have sounded a bell in his mind to bring him there the land of the Five Rivers-where he could, at last, prove his skills and his mettle as a great soldier, as a mechanical hand, as an insightful watcher of the royal scene, as well as an "insider" who had the ability to remain afloat amidst palace politics, factional loyalties and viciously divided ranks in the end. The manner in which he went wholly "native", taking to the new court milieu, new religions, new cultures and tongues etc. with ease and aplomb only proved that there were extraordinary elements of courage, ingenuity and adaptability in his American make-up. He had left far behind his Puritan-Settler rigidities in the land of his birth, and carried only a baggage of endowments from "the Promised Eden" to test their truth in the fabled East. And the tales of the fabled and fabulous Indian warriors, princes and potentates must have charmed his ears whilst he was sojourning and fashioning his future in those hostile, unsettled kingdoms and principalities that lay in his way. He had heard much about "the Lion of the Punjab", of his meteoric rise to glory, of his magnanimities and civilities and, above all, of his keen sense of the European martial ethos and their strategies of warfare, command, discipline and regimentation.

The unlettered Maharaja had been, from the start an open admirer of new, innovative, "modern" methods of licking the wild and loose soldiery of the day into a firstrate fighting machine, capable of carving out new empires, and carrying the royal flag to far-flung regions. And, no wonder, he intuitively perceived the ground realities and sought to keep the powerful Imperial British forces in India away from the lands he had won to establish the first Sikh Kingdom. Ranjit Singh's mind was nimble and supple enough to understand the virtues of creating a cohesive, well-organised, well-commanded force under French and Italian generals, although as a most-shrewd monarch, he also knew how to keep the diverse elements in his kingdom united as much through the forte of his character as through the native methods of largesse, patronage and 'small change' of power to the more recalcitrant feudal lords around him. Again, as a devout Sikh, he had imbibed the virtues Of catholicity, accommodation and respect for other faiths, and these traits helped advance his image as a most benevolent ruler. He did have many an infirmity of character, as hinted at by Gardner in a guarded manner in his compact narrative-but his many-splendour'd personality had the power to retain those energies that help create a kinetic, dynamic vision of the world.

And it is to the name and fame of this unique Sikh monarch that Alexander Gardner responded with his own characteristic cunning of mind and hand. He was, thus, seeking to harmonisc the warring elements in his own character. As his narrative proceeds, we watch the rise of "Gardna" (as the Sikh soldiery called him), in the midst of insurmountable contradictions and challenges. The Lake Superior Yankee had not moved to "the Wild West" of the land Columbus lad providentially discovered while in search of the fabulous land of India, but he moved out in the reverse direction to gather fortunes and fame.

Indian historians and readers are fairly familiar with some of the American visitors to our Western shores-in merchant vessels, in fishing boats, in pirate ships etc. during the 17th-18th centuries, and some fine accounts by the American scholars themselves are available to give authenticity to their tales of travels in India. For instance, the celebrated American novelist and romancer, Nathanial Hawthorne, a navigator, left an account of his own adventures and exploits in these parts. But on the whole, the American reader in general, knew next to nothing about India, and if he had vaguely heard of that land of pearls, tea, coffee and spices, he was apt to regard it an some part of the finisterra. Alternatively, most of them had also heard of a land of snake-charmers, cows and elephants, beggars and magicians and so on, and thus seen India as a strange, exotic land on the one hand, and a hopelessly primitive place on earth at the other.

It was only in the mid 19th-century that the India of the Vedas and the Hindu epics of the Gita and Sanskrit classics canoe to be known through the enchanted Transcendalists like Emerson and Walt Whitman. Whitman's famous long poem, "Passage to India", has still a deep and abiding interest and it was Whitman's poetry that inspired Puran Singh a magnificent singer of the Sikh spirit and of the Punjab landscape. (The Nishaan, in one of its earlier issues, has carried my article on the deep affinities between the two poets from two different continents and cultures.) Thus, India remained in the American eyes, in general, a remote, obscure country which almost never engaged their imagination.

It is not, therefore, surprising that Alexander Gardner's small book, a vivid and striking account of the Sikh Kingdom during its period of decline and fall remained out of the line of their vision, or, for that matter, even of the line of vision to be seen in the work of American and Indian historians. This "find" then, is a remarkable event and its reprint (National Book Shop, Chandni Chowk, Delhi [1999]), now freely available, a matter of considerable gratification.

Foreign Officers that served under Ranjit Singh

	General Ventura		Italian		Infantry
	General Allard		French		Cavalry
	General Avitabile		Italian		Infantry
	General Court		French		Artillery
	General Harlan		American		Infantry
	General Van Cortlandt	English		Infantry
	Colonel Ford		English		Infantry
	Colonel Foulkes		English		Cavalry
	Captain Argoud		French		Infantry
	Colonel Canora   		American 		Artillery
	Colonel Thomas		Anglo-Indian 	Infantry	
	Lieut-Col. Leslie 	Anglo-Indian 	Infantry
	(alias Rattray)
	Colonel Mouton		French 		Cavalry
	Colonel Hurbon		Spanish 		Engineer
	Colonel Steinbach		German		Infantry
	Captain de la Font	French		Infantry
	Captain M Pherson		English		Infantry
	Campbell			Anglo-Indian	Infantry
	Garron			French		Cavalry
	Gordon			Anglo-Indian	Cavalry
	De Fasheye			French		Cavalry
	(father and son)
	Alvarine			Italian		Infantry
	Hommus			Spaniard		Infantry
	Amise				French		Infantry
	Hest				Greek			Infantry
	De la Roche			French		Infantry
	Debuingnon			French		Infantry
	John Holmes			Anglo-Indian	Infantry
	Vochus			Russian		Infantry
	De l'Ust			French		Infantry
	Hureleek			Greek			Infantry
	Fitzroy			English		Infantry
	Barlow			English		Infantry
	Martindale			Anglo-Indian	Infantry
	Jervais			French		Infantry
	Moevius			Russian		Infantry
	Bianchi			Italian		Infantry
	Dottenweiss			German		Engineer

Medical Officers
	Dr. Harvey			English
	Dr. Benet			French
	Dr. Marhn Honiberger	Austrian

Chronology of Personalities and events in the kingdom of Punjab from death of Ranjit singh to the British Annexation.

  1. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, died June 27, 1839.
  2. Maharaja Kharak Singh (son of 1), deposed, and subsequently poisoned, November 5, 1840.
  3. Maharaja Nao Nihal Singh (son of 2), killed, Nov. 5, 1840.
  4. Maharani Chand Kaur (widow of 2 and Regent); murdered by order of No. 5, June 1842.
  5. Maharaja Sher Singh (son of 1), murdered by No. 15, September 15, 1843.
  6. Maharaja Duleep Singh (son of 1), deposed, March 29, 1849.
  7. Kashmira Singh (son of 1), killed by the Sikh army, July 1843.
  8. Peshora Singh (son of 1), murdered, August 1844.
  9. Partab Singh (son of 5), murdered by No. 15, Sept. 15, 1843.
  10. Chet Singh Bajwa (Minister to Kharrak Singh), murdered by 11, October 8, 1839.
  11. Raja Dhyan Singh (Prime Minister), murdered by 15, September 15, 1843.
  12. Raja Gulab Singh, afterwards Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
  13. Raja Suchet Singh, killed by the Sikh army, March 1843.
  14. Hira Singh (son of 11), killed by the Sikh army, December 21, 1844.
  15. Ajit Singh, Sindhanwalia & Lehna Singh, Sindhanwalia (brothers) killed by the Sikh army, September 1843.
  16. Pandit Julla (Secretary to 14), killed by the Sikh army, December, 21 1844.
  17. Jawahir Singh (uncle of 6), killed by the Sikh army, September 21, 1845.
  18. Maharani Jindan (mother of 6), banished.

The day Alexander Gardner was presented to the Sikh monarch in the Shalimar Gardens at Lahore, an interesting and amusing incident involving the Maharaja's shrewdness as a swift evaluator of newcomers and Gardner's own native courage, gallantry and sword-skill, is set down by the narrator to describe his own initiation.

"A certain Nand Singh, an officer of the Maharaja's cavalry, rode his horse intentionally against me and endeavoured to jostle me into the ditch, which was deep and filled with running water. I touched the rein of my good steed, gave him half a turn, pressed him with my sword-hand the veriest trifle on the loins, and in an instant Nand Singh and his horse were rolling on the ground. I calmly expressed a hope that the fallen man was not hurt, and was treated with much civility during the remaining time that I was kept waiting ".

It is now the time to let Gardner speak for himself. His style is picturesque, vivid and muscular on the whole, though I did not find much evidence of the Yankee idiom or humour in it. one imagines that had he is in his days of retirement in the Kashmir Valley, taken up the task of doing a major work of a scholarly nature-something that he seemed capable of doing-we would have bad a collateral account of the Sikh Raj from an admirer and perceptive recorder to match the chronicles of other European and Indian historians. But his account, alas, remained a relatively brief, though striking, essav Still it is not the work 'of a journeyman raconteur, but that of a man whose literary sensibility and sense of history were sharp enough to sketch the scenes that we see dramatically described in The Fall of Sikh Enlpire.

The narrative starts on a sudden note as though the memoirs had been put to pen and paper in a kind of urgency. There is no past landscape, no build-up, no backward glance. The titles of the chapters are striking and dramatic, and it is not clear if they erere his own handiwork, or more likely that of one Major Pearce, who later helped arrange, place and finalise the present text. In the opening chapter entitled, "The Lion of the Punjab", we find him telling the story of his call to the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a brief, laconic manner. He is soon a Colonel in the pay of Maharaja Gulab Singh, the Dogra chieftan. The little portrait of his new master is not very flattering. He was, to quote Gardner, "in reality, a very leech, sucking their life-blood, the shameless trader of their sons and daughters, the usurer, the turn-penny, the briber and the bribed."

Gardner seldom stays long enough to sketch out an event of military glory or catastrophe, but usually he has the abilitv to make the scene memorable and significant. Thus, he described the death of the great Sikh General, Hari Singh Nalwa, who had "fallen bravely at the head of his Sikh troops under the sword of the Afghans". Similarly, he describes briefly how he was commissioned to make the Maharaja's paddleboat which became later "the only steamer built for the Sikh army". His skills as an American artisan and an all know-how man proved of immense value to him in the Maharaja's court. After all, there was something of Morgan Hank, Twain's yankee in King Arthur's court, even in our American "hero", though his engineering skills, unlike Morgan's, are too modest to have much meaning as against the large metaphorical meaning of the huge inventions made by Twain's hero.

The events of foul assaults and assassinations, of the Dogra treachery etc. follow in rapid succession, and in some cases, Gardner was not only an eye-witness but a participant in this tragic drama which had the macabre nature of the Jacobean Tragedy in England.

Gardner was on the Sikh side with the Maharaja's select troops in the First Sikh War, and later eye-deep in the events of blood-bath during 'the defense of Lahore". Prince Sher Singh, crowned the realm's king in a hurry is seen by Gardner as an ugly, ruthless, lawless person, who had even given a license to his maurding soldiery for the loot and pillage of his own people.

At this time, Gardner had already, as mentioned earlier, joined Gulab Singh's forces. He describes the treachery of Tej Singh and then goes on to the exploits of Gulab Singh, "who roared out to Sher Singh demanding his surrender". And adds, our American chronicler, "Seventeen of my party were blown to pieces, part of the bodies flying over me... I managed to fire the five guns, and literally blow them into the air".

In the chapter entitled, "Horror on Horror's Head"- an obvious echo from Shakespeare tragedy of king-killing, Macbeth-we learn how events in swift succession brought about the fall of an empire built in a moment of the ascendancy of the Sikh spirit, and lost in a matter of 7 years or so through a tragic flaw in the character of the feudal Sikh Chieftans-the perennial lust for power which continues to plague the Sikh polity even today after a lapse of over 150 years: Gardner's story tells graphically the fate of the guilty and the faithless-of the biters bitten, of the killers killed, a mayhem of such proportions as to agonise "the imagination of disaster" till this day.

In this tale of "royal" horrors in which revenge is the refuge of all renegades, in which the shameful act of sati (the young royal widows primed for this is a highly offensive crime in Sikh thought) thus, is indeed a plateful for the depraved the degraded. And one inset portrait in miniature-of Maharaja's youthful Dogra "weakness", Hira Singh son of Raja Dhyan Singh-is something to muse and mull over. This is what Gardner writes:

"Hira Singh was indeed but a poor copy of his fathers, whom he in vain attempted to resemble. His character was compounded of many conflicting qualities, Crouching and mean to his superiors, silent and suspicious with his equals proud, supercilious and arrogant to his inferiors, subtle and deceitful to all. Too much puffed up to return, or even notice, the salutations of better men than himself, reared as the lapdog of Ranjit Singh and his dissolute companions with a smattering of English, Persian and Sanskrit and pretending to a perfect knowledge of all the three languages. Clean, nest and showy in person, like his father, but too effiminate to resemble him truly, unstable, and, as It seemed, not daring to walk, stir, sit, rise, eat, drink, sleep, or speak without-what? A trifling sign a careless nod, or some such sufficient guiding taken from his mysterious jailer, his familiar spirit, his preceptor, master, father and brother, inferior and superior, Pandit Julia".

This, indeed, is a masterly piece of writing, the art of portraiture in literature having the quality of a Renaissance painting executed by an artist whose eye could catch each little mannerism of such royal pets and freaks.

Gardner has also a few trenchant strokes to display in his hurried sketch of that ravishing charmer, Rani Jindan, mother of Prince Duleep Singh, but he seems to use discretion in adding colour to the outlines:

Towards the close of his narrative, he describes in a vein of painful reminiscence the betrayal of the Khalsa armies by its own "secret agents", its harem Quislings like Lal Singh and others. This is the battle of Mudki:

"Lal Singh ran at Mudki; he preferred the embraces of Venus at Lahore to the triumph of Mars; and was, as all Brahmans are, held in the highest contempt by the Sikhs. He fled, hid himself in a haystack and skulked off from the Army"

And Gardner's wonderful gallery of the portraits in the Hall of Shame comes to an abrupt close here.

It is now the time to recognise Alexander Gardner's insightful, truthful and dispassionate account for a reassessment of the principal character in that pageant of the princes we seem still to celebrate-often so heedlessly.

Written by Darshan Singh Maini

From the Periodical "Nishaan III/2001" Published by "The Sikh Foundation"



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