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The Lions Firanghis: Europeans at the Court of Lahore

By Bobby Singh Bansal

In the early part of the nineteenth century against the backdrop of British colonialism, the East India Company had devoured almost all of the Indian provinces and its influence extended to the fringes of the Sutlej river, where British superiority was temporarily impeded by the ‘Lion of the Punjab'- Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The Maharajah, with the British menace positioned just beyond his southern frontier, was fully aware of the technological weakness of his native army and knew that its modernisation was imperative.

In 1822 the opportunity arose with the arrival of two European officers at the Court of Lahore, and the Maharajah acted without a moment's hesitation. To his astonishment, his newly arrived ‘soldiers of fortune' were indeed former officers of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and so the scene was set for a diplomatic confrontation between the competing powers in the region.

By the 1830s a multifarious array of French, Prussian, Spanish, Dutch and Italian officers had descended on the Anglo-Punjab frontier, hoping to enlist in the services of the opportunistic Maharajah - much to the alarm of the British authorities in Calcutta.

A sufficient number of these ‘European mercenaries' were now engaged in various regiments as well as in civil capacities as administrators of strategic provinces, thus sealing the boundaries of the Sikh Empire. But when anarchy reverberated throughout the kingdom after the assassination of Maharajah Sher Singh it compelled several of the European elite abruptly to abandon their masters in Lahore. Who were these ‘European mercenaries' who had served with such distinction, whose impact at the opulent Court of Lahore became legendary, and what became of them afterwards when they had returned to Europe.