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George Thomas: The common soldier who became a king

Ian Harvey

Ever heard the name George Thomas? It’s not surprising if you haven’t, given that his exploits were a well-kept secret to most. Yet although the British Army gunner was a military genius in many eyes, few would have expected this farmer’s son to be one day become a king.

Born around 1756 to a poor Catholic farmer in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Thomas was pressed into service for the British Navy at a young age. He worked as a laborer but knew he was destined for more than serving King and Country.

The Jaswant Thada cenotaph in Jodhpur, India Source:By Flying Pharmacist - Own work (own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3204599

The Jaswant Thada cenotaph in Jodhpur, India Source:By Flying Pharmacist – Own work (own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0,

During a voyage to India in 1781, Thomas decided to abandon the Navy, leaping overboard and swimming to shore. In India, Thomas soon met the retired Irish redcoat Thomas Kelly, who was working as an innkeeper in Madras state.

Kelly took Thomas in and sheltered him, telling him of the punishment that would befall him if he was ever discovered. Thomas was quite worried, being many miles from home, but Kelly calmed him by saying, “Do not worry! A man with a strong sword arm never goes hungry in India these days!”

At this point in history the Mughal Empire was failing, with many kingdoms already brought down and new ones rising in their place. This provided many opportunities for a soldier of fortune to try and make a name for himself.

 

Thomas took Kelly’s advice and set out for Hyderabad, where he would join the Nizam’s army. Here he knew he could make plenty of coin for himself as a strong sword arm.

Thomas, being illiterate in every language, should have felt like an alien in this strange new land he found himself in, but instead, he felt at home. Thomas slowly made a name for himself as a soldier in the Hyderabad army before disappearing from all records just a few short months later.

Thomas reappeared in Delhi six years later, though there are no records of his adventures from that time. During those years away he had somehow taught himself how to not only speak in Hindustani and Persian but also to read and write. Thomas had returned as a chiseled soldier who had made a small bit of his fortune already.

Many speculate that in his time away he met with the Pindaris, who helped him become a better swordsman, horse rider, and scholar, though no records can be found to prove this as fact.

The man from Tipperary was now ready to take on anything and in 1787 went into service under Begum Samru of Sardhana, a very powerful woman who owned a private army and many lands. Failing to lead her own army, she came to realize she needed a professional, which brought her to George Thomas. Thomas now found himself leading thousands of men and bringing in the hefty salary that came with the job.

With almost immediate success as a general, it was only two years before he was Begum Samru’s chief civilian administrator. Though when Samru decided to replace him with a Frenchman, Thomas left her employment and went onto an even more powerful Indian noble, Appa Rao.

By this time George was known far and wide as Jaharai Jung, or “Warlike George”; better known as General now he was not to be trifled with on the battlefield.

When Rao died, George had such a large reputation that he thought he should be the one giving orders as the leader of his own kingdom. To the west of Delhi was an almost abandoned state called Hariana. With the 2,000 men that had pledged themselves to him, George set out to take Hariana in 1797, showing that he had not only the battle skills but also the leadership skills to rule over a kingdom.

He became known as the White Rajah of Hariana; Hansai was chosen as his capital. His lands soon thrived to the point where he even minted his own currency. Though his success was short-lived, Thomas became power hungry and set his gaze upon Punjab, north of Hariana, he wanted to capture it and present it to the British Crown.

He was low on funds and decided to raise them by helping a neighboring ruler collect taxes, thinking little of how this might look to the ruler. The act was met not with kindness but with war. Thomas was heavily outnumbered but, being the Irishman he was, he would not lie down.

At the Battle of Fatephur, he was outnumbered ten to one, but his experience as a tactician and warrior helped him win the day, though he soon found his health waning. During a crucial battle, he retired to his tent where he found himself unable to speak.

Thomas never won Punjab. Instead, he was captured by the troops of Louis Bourquien, a French officer (this must have stung after being replaced by a Frenchman while under Begum Samru) and was allowed to retire to British Territory.

Yet en route to Calcutta, Thomas died of a fever on August 22, 1802, while aboard his pinnace at Berhampore, West Bengal.