George Thomas: The Irishman Who Would Be King - Part 2

Unfortunately Thomas’ new employer, like so many of chiefs in the region, was dishonorable and motivated by greed and little else. Still, as had been the case with The Begum, Thomas was an honorable man in a dishonorable world. He served his new employer well, refusing several chances to advance himself by betraying him, and he increased Rao’s wealth and power.

(Above, from a mural, circa 1800. Showing what may be George Thomas, mounted in the upper left, leading The Begum's troops. )

Read "George Thomas: The Irishman Who Would Be King - Part 1"

There could be no more definitive proof of the integrity and morality of the Jehazi Sahib than his actions when he discovered that The Begum had been displaced as a result of her association with Levassoult, who was despised by her army. The son of her departed husband Somru, Zafar-yab-Khan, was put in her place. Levassoult committed suicide and The Begum was being held prisoner, reportedly tied to a wagon wheel in the courtyard of her palace, by her weak and repugnant step-son. Word of these events got back to Thomas. It's possible she got that message out to him, which would indicate either her desperation, a faith in his decency, or perhaps a little of both.

(Right: A mounted Mahratta warrior)

It’s situations such as this where we are able to judge the content of the character of a historical figure. Thomas certainly had little reason to be anything other than pleased at the tribulations of his former lover turned nemesis. She had allowed another man to replace him, and had since then done her best to destroy him. And yet, Thomas could not abide the idea of her being humiliated and debased. In an action that most fiction writers might deem too improbable a plot twist, he marched on Sardhana. Using his influence with her army, some of whom still revered him and all of whom were simply terrified of opposing him, he returned her to control without having to resort to an attack. It was an indication of just how legendary he was becoming.

The reward The Begum gave him for saving her was a wife. She was one of her favorite attendants named Marie, who may have been of mixed French and Indian ancestry. She bore him three sons and one daughter. The mother and children were taken in by the Begum when Thomas departed the region.

(Below: Hariana and Thomas' capital of Hansi. Click on map for a larger view)

In 1797 Thomas’ patron, Appa Khandi Rao, died and his nephew Vavon Rao took his place and proved to be even more corrupt and immoral than his uncle. Thomas’ tolerance of incompetent leadership finally ended in 1798 and he parted company with Vavon. He now put a bold plan into action. He set out to claim of the territory of Hariana northwest of Delhi for himself. This he accomplished with much hard fighting. The humble lad from Tipperary was now the rajah of his own small state in India. The area had been contested by the Sikhs and Mahrattas for years, with neither able to control it. It was also known as “The Green Land,” which may have made Thomas feel a mystical connection to it.

He set up his capital at the town of Hansi and built a fort nearby called “Georgerah,” after himself. He established a mint to coin his own rupees and set up foundries to produce his own cannon and muskets. Unlike so many rulers of small states in India, he spend money making life better for its inhabitants, rather than simply collecting taxes and enriching himself.

And he was not satisfied with ruling this small area. He made plans to conquer the entire Punjab region to the north over the next three years. Thomas knew these plans would put him in conflict with Mahrattas, so he contacted the British, hoping to make an alliance with them but British control had not yet penetrated quite far enough into India and would be no help.

By 1799 he had expanded his area of control with several successful campaigns but the Mahrattas were beginning to look at him with alarm, even though some of his victories had come with them as his allies. Also eyeing him with distrust and envy were many of the other European officers serving the Mahrattas, especially a Frenchman, named Perron who was commanding the main Mahratta army. There was much French – British intrigue going on in India during that time of the Napoleonic Wars as well, and Perron may have been working for French interests there. In the context of that conflict, Perron would have seen Thomas as a possible ally of the British. All these conflicting influences would lead to Thomas’ downfall.

In early 1801, Thomas was once again in the north fighting the Sikhs. That summer Perron invaded Hariana with the Mahratta army. Forces were conspiring that would prove insurmountable for even the seemingly indomitable Thomas. The Sikh allied with Perron against Thomas, not surprisingly, and even the Begum sent troops against him. That treachery by her must have been a psychological blow to him, given all he had done for her. In addition to that, his best friend among his officers, an Englishman named Hopkins, whom Thomas called “an amiable man, a brave and gallant soldier,” was killed during this final campaign, further demoralizing him.

By November his army was under siege at his capital of Hansi and their position looked bleak. The enemy began sowing discontent among his men, firing arrow-born messages over the walls offering rewards to deserters. They began to work, causing his forces to melt away. He had already been outnumbered by some 20,000 to a mere 5,000 as the campaign began, and desertions made the odds worse. Still he held out long enough to inflict serious casualties on his enemies. At least twice Thomas personally led his reduced forces out of his fort against his besiegers, wading into the fight cutting and slashing and perhaps wanting to fall in battle to avoid living to see the final defeat he knew was coming. Col. James Skinner, serving with the Mahratta army, a veteran of the wars in India, was confronted by the sight of Thomas approaching him at one point during the siege and said, “He looked so ferocious that I eyed him for a moment, and then turned and ran, and my men after me.” You don’t often hear such an admission of fear from a soldier who fought on many battlefields.

(Left: Col. James Skinner, probably from Thomas Metcalfe's book "Reminiscences of Imperial Dehli, 1843)

Thomas had become so legendary and feared a military leader  that he was offered generous terms to surrender, which included safe passage for him and a considerable sum of money as well, in spite of his hopeless position. He accepted them on January 1, 1802. His time as “The Irish Rajah,” had come to an end.

Major L.F. Smith, an English officer serving under Perron spent time with him following his capitulation and said of Thomas, “This man was one of the most uncommon characters I have ever seen, and I knew him well. He was bold, indefatigable, active, cautious, and possessed of strong natural sense. He formed a considerable party from his own personal exertion, unassisted by the power of the treasure of any prince – without money and without country – opposed by all and supported by none.” And this Smith said in spite of the fact that his brother was killed by Thomas’ forces in this campaign.

Thomas stayed in the camp of his enemies for a time, treated more as an honored guest than a prisoner. He had become a near mythical figure. They had a banquet in his honor in which Thomas, still armed, chased the French general Bourquoin from the room with sword waving over his head, after he offered a toast Thomas found offensive. “One Irish sword is till enough for a hundred Frenchmen,” he cried out as he chased him. The British officers managed to calm the somewhat intoxicated Thomas down and the Frenchman later came back and apologized.

Thomas had had his fill of India. He decided it was time for him to return Ireland. He was probably unaware of the horrors of the recently concluded 1798 Rising, and those British he ran into there were probably not anxious to tell the ferocious Irishman about it. His wife Marie, as was often the case with the Indian wives of Europeans there, did not want to go with him. Amazingly, in spite of all her treachery, he asked The Begum to keep Marie and his children safe, and she agreed. And indeed she did finally show him some loyalty and respect, seeing they were kept safe and given the advantages of her wealth and position as if they were her own children.

(Right: Arthur Wellesley (mounted) at the Battle of Assaye, from an engraving by W.Heath)

Thomas traveled slowly toward Calcutta with a British Captain named Francklin, dictating his memoirs to him on the way. In Delhi he spent some time with Lord Wellesley, who would one day be world famous as the Duke of Wellington, regaling him with tales of his extraordinary adventures in India. He also imparted useful information about the Mahrattas, whom Wellesley would soon be fighting, and other groups in the area.

Thomas’ dream of seeing his beloved green fields of Tipperary again would not come to pass. When they reached Bahrampur he came down with a fever. He was only 46, but he had put his body through more hardship than most men decades older. Since he stepped off the boat some 20 years earlier, he had been in the stress of battle or political intrigue almost constantly. And perhaps the personal disasters of the last year had finally broken his seemingly boundless spirit as well. On the 22nd of August, 1802 the Jehazi Sahib drew his last breath and was buried in the British military cemetery there.

Thomas, like most humans, was less than perfect. He was said to have gone on many drunken binges during his time in India, and had a very quick temper which sometimes caused him to do things he later regretted, like his near murder of Bourquoin over a ill-advised toast. But he never betrayed an ally, or abandoned a friend in spite of living in a land where betrayal was almost expected of chiefs and military leaders and despite often having them betray him. And unlike most European mercenaries in India he treated his solders with fairness and made sure they were always paid, while others only concerned themselves with their own accumulation of wealth. But what shines above all in examining his life are the astounding accomplishments of the man in this exotic land, given his humble origins on an Irish tenant farm, and especially when one considers that he accomplished all of this starting out virtually penniless, entirely alone, with no knowledge of this new world beyond what one Irish pub owner imparted at the start of his adventure. As pub owner Kelly sent him off from Madras to seek out the Polygars, he probably would not have wanted to bet on Thomas still being alive in a year or two, never mind him for a time ruling his own state some 15 years later.

Thomas lived in a time when the worst place in the world for an Irish Catholic to live, was Ireland. Had he lived out his life there all the qualities he possessed that shone so brightly in India would have been stifled, much like a slave on a 19th century southern US plantation, never doing more than picking cotton, no matter how much more he might have been capable of doing. But like so many of “The Wild Geese” who ventured out into the world, he showed that once given a chance to spread his wings away from the oppression of his native land, there was no limit to how high he might soar.

(Above: An Indian Prince hunting waterfowl, ca. 1750 - 1775 ... are those perhaps soaring Wild Geese?)

RELATED LINKS:

"The Rajah from Tipperary" Hardcover by Maurice Hennessy

The Begum Samru - Wikipedia

Map showing changes in India 1765 to 1805

Memoirs of George Thomas

Rajahs of the Punjab

The Roscrea Rajah

Our Indian Empire: Its History and Present State

Chamber's Journal of Popular Literature

George Thomas - The Rajah from Tipperary - Taken from The Calcutta Review No. CXL (1880)

George Thomas - Wikipedia

Views: 937

Tags: George Thomas, India, Tipperary

Comment by kevin j dalton on March 6, 2016 at 5:18pm

A fine story teller, A great story, and another example of the indomitable Irish.

Thanks

Kevin J Dalton, Trumbull Ct...U S A

Comment by Frances-Marion Brunner on March 9, 2016 at 1:45pm

My God almighty! This story is so fantastic, you couldn't make it up! Nobody would believe you. I can't imagine why no one has made a movie out of it till now. Next time you get to thinking there's something you can't do, think of this story! It's super. Thanks for posting.


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on March 9, 2016 at 2:26pm

I was thinking the same thing as I researched him, Francis: why in the world has no one ever tried to make a movie of his life? What more could Hollywood want than this? You've got his incredibly humble beginnings in Ireland, an exotic setting in India where he succeeds against astronomical odds, a love triangle, a lovers quarrel involving lovers with armies at their command, an amazing rescue of the ex-lover who has betrayed you, an Irish peasant setting up his own "country" in India, and then a tragic ending for our hero just as he's about to return to Ireland. If there is something missing there to make an amazing movie, I can't possibly imagine what it is.

Comment by Frances-Marion Brunner on March 9, 2016 at 3:56pm

I'm saying it now-somebody will make that movie!

Comment by Gerry Regan on March 9, 2016 at 6:59pm

There are many dramatic and colorful stories out there -- few are made into movies. The remedy to this omission is simply to undertake the screenplay. I've got another project going, but I agree -- this is highly cinematic, this story. But it will take somebody to write the screenplay, Step !.

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