Aligarh’s French Connection



‘Benoit De Boigne’ is not a name you’d normally think of as a jagirdar in the Doab region in Uttar Pradesh. And yet the Frenchman, and another who succeeded him, are among the men who virtually ruled the Doab from Aligarh, a historic city that lies 140 km south-east of Delhi, in the late 18th century.

In the 1780s, the Doab, the fertile region between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, came under the possession of Maratha chief Mahadaji Scindia, who by then had become the virtual ruler of North India. Scindia had employed a number of European mercenaries in his army to train his troops in the latest military techniques.


Most notable among these Europeans were General De Boigne and his successor General Perron.

To ensure control of the Doab region, Mahadaji Scindia handed over the reins of Aligarh and the Doab to General De Boigne in 1784, signalling the beginning of a brief but intense French phase of Aligarh’s history.

De Boigne Painting  from Battle of Patan, c. 1790
De Boigne Painting from Battle of Patan, c. 1790 |Wikimedia Commons

General Benoit De Boigne

Benoit De Boigne was born in 1751 at Chambery in Savoy in France. At the age of 25, he served for two years as a subaltern officer in the Russian army, fighting against the Ottomans. In 1778, he landed in Madras to seek a fortune in the British Empire. After serving for short time in the British Indian Army and then under the Nawab of Awadh, he joined the service of Mahadaji Scindia, who had recognized his military genius.

De Boigne was asked to raise battalions trained in European warfare. From ammunition to uniform selection, De Boigne personally supervised these battalions and a created a powerful fighting force that dominated North India.

Statue of Benoit de Boigne at the old age home Maison Saint-Benoit in Chambéry
Statue of Benoit de Boigne at the old age home Maison Saint-Benoit in Chambéry

The jagir (land grant) of De Boigne with Aligarh as an administrative centre consisted of 52 parganas with a revenue of Rs 20 lakh, which were used to maintain the troops. Within a year, De Boigne raised two brigades with a hundred cannons on the European pattern with Aligarh as a training camp.

By 1792, he was able to raise an army of 24,000 soldiers trained in French warfare techniques along with 132 units of artillery. The brigades were commanded by officers from France, Scotland and England. Modern barracks were constructed for the troops at Aligarh, while Meerut, Agra and Shikohabad in the Doab became hubs for arms and ammunition factories.

De Boigne maintained a grand court in Aligarh in the style of the ‘White Nabobs’ of the period. The book Edge of Empire: Lives, Cultures & Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 by American historian Maya Jasanoff gives us a glimpse into De Boigne’s life when a young civil servant, Thomas Twinning, visited him in Aligarh, in 1794:

Young Twinning was immediately captivated by this tall, craggy officer who fed him a lavish dinner of pialus and curries and took him on elephant rides. Next morning, De Boigne called for his hokkah. His little three-year-old son, Ali Buksh, came as a child of eastern prince dressed in turban cap, sandals worked with gold thread in feet.

<b>French days’ traverse on entrance of Aligarh Fort</b>
French days’ traverse on entrance of Aligarh Fort|Faisal Hassan

After the death of Mahadaji Scindia on 12th February 1794, 15-year-old Daulat Rao Scindia was appointed as his successor. Entire Maratha dominions north of the Chambal were assigned to De Boigne by Daulat Rao, making him one of the most powerful men in North India at the time.

Even the East India Company sought armed assistance from De Boigne when the mutiny broke out in Bengal in 1795 CE. However, the deteriorating health of De Boigne in the same year compelled him to retire in 1796.

Herbert Compton wrote in A Particular Account of the European Military Adventures of Hindustan, from 1784-1803 (1892):

De Boigne left Koil (the medieval name of Aligarh) on Christmas, 1795 with 610 cavalry, 4 elephants, 150 camels and multiple bullock wagons. After a short stay at Lucknow, he reached Calcutta, where he was received by the Governor General. His horses and equipment were purchased by the British government. In September 1796, he sailed with Cromberg and reached England with fortunes of 4,00,000 pounds.

His Indian wife Nur (Hellene) along with their two children’s accompanied De Boigne to Europe, where he passed away in 1830, at the age of 79.

Pierre Cuillier-Perron
Pierre Cuillier-Perron|Wikimedia Commons

General Perron

De Boine was succeeded by General Pierre Perron (1755-1834). He came to India in 1780 and after serving the Rana of Gohad (Dholpur) and Maharaja of Bharatpur, he was recruited by De Boigne in 1790 in the army of Mahadaji Scindia. For the next seven years, Perron governed the military affairs of North India, on behalf of the Scindias, from his seat in Aligarh.


For his victories, he was even honoured with the imperial title of ‘General Perron Bahadur Muzzafar Jang, Intizam-ud-daula, Nasirul-Mulk’.

At 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 addition, he ruled over the 27 districts in the Aligarh region.

The Asiatic Review (1799) wrote:

General Perron, a French officer of great experience and consummate ability, both as a statesman and a soldier, represents Dowlut Rao Scindia in Hindostan, and is invested with the most full and absolute authority over every department, both civil and military.

View of the moat from inside of the fort
View of the moat from inside of the fort |Faisal Hassan

However, in 1803, the second Anglo-Maratha war broke out. The British army under the command of Lord Lake moved towards Aligarh with a cavalry of 8,000.  Taking defensive action, General Perron had ordered all his brigades to join him in Aligarh. However, just before the battle, in an act of treachery, British mercenaries in the Scindia army defected to the British.

This left Perron with no option but to negotiate with the British for a safe passage to Europe. General Lake captured the Aligarh fort on 4 September 1803, ending the decade-old French connection to Aligarh. After negotiations, General Perron was granted safe passage and he left for England in 1805, after a two-year stay at Chandannagore, Hooghly.

Moat with bridge added on the causeway by British
Moat with bridge added on the causeway by British|Faisal Hassan

While Aligarh came under British rule and would later gain fame as a university town, there are some remnants of a distant past that still can still be seen today.

Aligarh Fort

The fort was originally built during the Lodhi dynasty of Delhi and further rebuilt by Mughal governor Sabit Khan in 1717. It is located 3 km north-west of Saheb Bagh (the French General’s residence). Both De Boigne and Perron made enormous efforts to strengthen the monument with the help of their French engineers. They built a ten-sided polygonal enclosure with a bastion on each angle. The defence was further strengthened by faussebraye (false walls) and a deep ditch. A narrow causeway surrounded by the traverse leads to the main entrance of the fort.

Moat with boundary wall, Aligarh Fort
Moat with boundary wall, Aligarh Fort|Faisal Hassan

On British occupation, several modifications were undertaken – causeways were replaced by drawbridges; a gate was added and strengthened by a ravelin; and the number of bastions was reduced. The fort was occupied for a short time by rebel forces during the Mutiny of 1857 (Revolt of 1857) and most of its inner buildings were cleared away to construct barracks for the British army.

A well grave from the time of the Mughal era as believed by local followers
A well grave from the time of the Mughal era as believed by local followers |Faisal Hassan

In the 1860s, the fort was abandoned as a military station and the District Gazette of Aligarh (1903) cited it as an abandoned monument that is symbolic of the British army’s achievements over French battalions of the Maratha army. A tablet inscribed at the fort displays the name of the British officers killed during the Anglo-Maratha War of 1803 AD. The present structure is under the maintenance of the Botany Department, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

Gateway of the Saheb Bagh now Sulaiman Hall at AMU, Aligarh
Gateway of the Saheb Bagh now Sulaiman Hall at AMU, Aligarh|Owais Ahmad

Saheb Bagh

This was a huge garden complex bounded a wall and a gateway built in Indo-Saracenic style by De Boigne. Located on the Anupshahr road between the fort and the city, the area around Saheb Bagh became a cantonment of French Generals. The Delhi Gazette (1874) describes 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 improved the building and garden, which was well laid out with all description of fruit trees procured from different climes. He adorned the place, and it was said by French officers that the garden was next only to that of Ram Bagh on the Agra River, so beautiful was the scenery.

Tablet on gateway with inscription of Perron name, titles &amp; date
Tablet on gateway with inscription of Perron name, titles & date|Owais Ahmad

The gate of Perron’s garden house has withstood more than 200 years. There is a tablet with an inscription in both Persian and English on the main gateway to Sulaiman Hall, a residential facility for students at the university. It mentions Perron’s name and the date of inscription i.e. 1802 AD in English. In Persian, the titles conferred by the Mughal emperor to Perron are inscribed on the tablet: “Khudaya Bagh Nasir Ud Daula, Intizamul Mulk, General Perron Bahadur Muzzafar Jang, hamesha baharabad and Date: 1802 Gregorian and 1217 Hijri.”

The mansion was allocated to AMU in 1945 and converted into a residential hostel by Dr Sir Ziauddin Ahmad, then vice-chancellor of the university. It was named after ex-judge (1923 AD) and vice- chancellor (1929) of AMU, Sir Shah Mohammad Sulaiman. The residential apartment of Perron’s garden house was converted to the Provost Office after necessary renovations. At present, it lodges more than 650 students.

Provost Office of Sulaiman Hall where once Perron residential quarters were located
Provost Office of Sulaiman Hall where once Perron residential quarters were located|Owais Ahmad

The residential locality in the front of Sulaiman Hall is still identified as Saheb Bagh. Colonel Pedron, who was next in command to Perron and held the command of Aligarh fort during the British assault, had a beautiful mansion with huge garden that was later converted by the British administration into a Judges’ Court.

These two remnants are reminiscent of De Boigne and Perron’s rule at Aligarh. During the late 18th century, the town became a power centre in India for a short time. Now all that remains of Aligarh’s French connection are a couple of renovated grand monuments – and a name engraved on a stone tablet at a residential facility at Aligarh Muslim University.


AUTHOR

Rehan Asad is a history enthusiast who has been exploring and documenting the lost heritage of Uttar Pradesh.

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