James Skinner: From Half-Born Mercenary to Sikandar Sahib



Back in the 18th century, when the British were still trying to get a handle on this new land they had claimed, an adventurous Anglo-Indian solider burst onto the scene in the most dramatic way. Born to a Scottish father and a Rajput mother in Bengal, he grew up to become one of the most colourful men of his time – at times more ‘Indian’ than ‘Anglo’; at times a loyal soldier, at others a mercenary.

But straddling two worlds was not a curse for James Skinner. Although a disadvantage at times, he elevated it to an art and used it to earn great fame and fortune. Knighted by the Mughals, respected by the Marathas as well as the British, and fondly referred to as ‘Sikandar Sahib’ by common folk, Skinner enjoyed the best of all worlds.

The cavalry regiments he raised during his exploits against various political rulers are his enduring legacy to the Indian Army. Called ‘Skinner’s Horse’ when he raised them in the early 19th century, they live on as ‘1st Horse’, one of the most prestigious regiments of the Army today.

Visit Old Delhi and you will find another memorial to this audacious, opportunistic, intrepid and versatile Anglo-Indian, for whom no adjective seems adequate. Here stands Delhi’s first church, St James Church, which Skinner built to keep a promise to God. For all his fame and glory as a soldier, he was also quite learned and wrote an exhaustive account of different castes in India, in Persian!

Close friends James Skinner and James Fraser (bearded)
Close friends James Skinner and James Fraser (bearded)

The story of James Skinner begins in Calcutta in 1778, when Skinner was born to a Scottish father, Hercules Skinner, and a Rajput mother (known to her Scottish in-laws as Jeannie). Not much is known about her besides what Skinner wrote in his memoir, which was put together posthumously by a close friend and Scottish travel writer and artist, J B Fraser.

Skinner wrote, “My father was a native of Scotland, in the [East India] Company's service; my mother was a Rajepootnee, the daughter of a zamindar of Bojepoor country, who was taken prisoner at the age of fourteen, in a war with Rajah Cheit Sing… My father, then an ensign, into whose hands she fell, treated her with great kindness, and she bore him six children, three girls and three boys.”

The times in which Skinner grew up were confusing. Despite strong social barriers, the British East India Company had begun mingling with the ‘natives’ and many were enamoured of Indian culture. Many British men adopted the clothes, language and even religious elements of Indian culture, and formed relationships with Indian women. This, in time, birthed the Anglo-Indian community.

But with all the colour also came chaos and cultural conflict. When Skinner was just 12, his mother killed herself in ‘shame’. His father wanted to educate all his children but his mother could not bear the thought that her daughters should be forced from her and sent to school. To her religious mind, by being wrenched from her protection, the sanctity of the purdah was being violated, and the legendary Rajput honour destroyed. Worried that they would be disgraced by being removed from the care of all their female relatives (which was contrary to Rajput customs), she took her life.

It took the young Skinner a while to find his feet. After his schooling, he did odd jobs in the local market. He apprenticed with a printer but soon lost interest and started working in the office of one of his brothers-in-law, who was a lawyer. But Skinner found these apprenticeships insipid. His restless soul yearned for adventure and, like his father, he wanted to pursue a military career. So his godfather, Colonel Burn, introduced him to Benoit de Boigne, the celebrated French General in the Maratha army of Mahadji Scindia of Gwalior.

One reason for the Marathas’ success had been their skilful use of European and Eurasian mercenaries and, in June 1796, they welcomed Skinner into their ranks. He was appointed as an ensign at Rs 150 per month.

Fort of Hansi
Fort of Hansi

Finding his Calling

This was exactly what Skinner was searching for and he instantly began to flourish. He lost no time learning the art of warfare under the Marathas and began to acquaint himself with the native chiefs. He served in the Maratha army for over seven years, against rival Maratha factions, as well as the Rajputs. During this time, the military campaigns he participated in included the capture of Delhi in May 1798, and the storming of Hansi (in present-day Haryana), the stronghold of Irish adventurer George Thomas, in 1799.

But Skinner’s spectacular career in the Maratha army came to an abrupt end. In 1803, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War, when the Marathas prepared to take on the British, two of Skinner’s colleagues, Captain Stewart and Captain Carnegie, tendered their resignation to General Pierre Cuillier-Perron, Boigne’s successor, saying they could not bring themselves to fight the British. This enraged Perron so much that he ordered a general discharge to all British and Anglo-Indians in his service.

Dejected but never one to throw in the towel, Skinner took refuge with the British army. Its commander-in-chief Lord Lake was amazed by his knowledge of the military and asked him to serve under him immediately. Skinner refused, saying, “he never could fight against his old comrades, nor draw sword against Scindia or Perron”.

Cavalryman of Skinner’s Horse
Cavalryman of Skinner’s Horse

It was just as well he did as it led to a historic turning point in Skinner’s dramatic career. The Marathas were defeated in the Second Anglo-Indian War and around 800 of Perron’s horsemen were seeking employment. Since they were willing to throw in their lot with British forces, Lord Lake asked Skinner if he would be willing to raise them as a regiment of ‘irregular cavalry’. Skinner happily obliged. The year was 1803 and it was a decision that would help the young soldier come into his own.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was regular practice for resourceful men to raise independent irregular fighting units and pledge them to the various factions fighting territorial wars. Skinner’s cavalry corps came to be known as ‘Skinner’s Horse’ and fondly referred to as ‘Yellow Boys’ because of their vibrant yellow uniforms.

Skinner’s Horse was made up of local men drawn from Sikh, Maratha, Rajput and Rohilla backgrounds. The finest regiment of the Indian cavalry started taking shape and as irregulars, unequalled in India, they were famous for their efficiency and skills.

Skinner’s Yellow Boys were extremely busy from the get-go. They won a string of battles for the East India Company and forced Indian chiefs of all hues to accept terms imposed by the British government. In due course, they enabled the Company to secure great chunks of India for the Union Jack.

But it wasn’t just skill and rigorous training that made Skinner’s Horse an enormous success; it was the relationship between the leader and his men that accounted for their loyalty and commitment. Skinner, with his mixed heritage, identified with them and spoke their language. John Malcolm, a friend of Skinner who went on to become Governor of Bombay, once in a letter to him wrote, “I do not mean to flatter when I say you are as good an Englishman as I know; but you are also a native irregular, half-born and fully bred; you armed them, understand their characters, enter into their prejudices; can encourage them without spoiling them; know what they can and, what is more important, what they cannot do. The superiority of your corps rests upon a foundation that no others have.”

  Six recruits to the second regiment of Skinner’s Horse
  Six recruits to the second regiment of Skinner’s Horse

Reversal of Fortune

Skinner's corps had served the British so well and it was a huge setback for him when, just three years later, in 1806, he was ordered to disband it for want of funds. He was allowed to retain a nucleus of the regiment and given a grant of land and an income of Rs 20,000 a year. This too was revoked when it was decided that he wasn’t a ‘British subject’, so he could not own land in India. Alternatively, he was given a colonel's pension of Rs 300 a month.

Disgusted and outraged at the way he had been treated after his stellar contribution to the Company, Skinner wrote in his memoir, “I imagined myself to be serving a people who had no prejudices against caste or colour. But I found myself mistaken. All I desired was justice. If I was not to share in all the privileges of a British subject, let me be regarded as a native and treated as such.”

Three years later, in 1809 Skinner’s fortunes were reversed, when he was ordered to re-raise the corps to 3,000 men and given the management of Hansi (present-day Hisar district in Haryana). The mighty fort of Hansi (also known as Asigarh Fort) became the headquarters of Skinner’s Horse. In fact, there were now three regiments – Skinner’s Horse 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

Skinner was a natural leader and he knew each of his men by name and the village to which they belonged. The units served the British in the Pindari War of 1817-18, when the British sought to put an end to the plunder and looting of the Pindaris, who were violent mercenaries employed at various times by the Mughals and the Marathas to fight as a militia alongside their own armies. They were unpaid mercenaries and their compensation was the loot they plundered during the wars they fought. In 1825, Skinner’s Horse assisted the British in the successful Siege of Bharatpur.

In 1826, Skinner’s mixed heritage returned to haunt him. He was to be made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (a British order of chivalry) until it was realised that he was not of ‘high enough rank’. Simply put, being a ‘half-born’ disqualified him for the honour. He had reached a point where he commanded at least 3,000 men but was only a Major by rank. A couple of years later in 1828, he was to be promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel not because he was one of the ablest commanders in the British army, but because King George IV had decided to confer ‘an honour’ on him. Lt-Colonel was his British Army rank, he was to hold the rank of Brigadier locally. His mixed heritage was, Skinner concluded, “like a two-edged blade made to cut both ways against me”.

A copy of Skinner’s portrait by William Melville, 1836
A copy of Skinner’s portrait by William Melville, 1836

Living Life King-Size

By now, Skinner’s military career was largely over and he retired from active service. He had always lived life on his own terms and now, he decided, he would live life king-size. Over the years, he had acquired considerable property in the form of land grants given by the British administration as a reward for his invaluable military service.

He spent time between his two homes, one at his jagir of Hansi and another in Delhi. Both of them were charming havelis. In Hansi, Skinner was a much-loved land-owner and referred to by the natives as ‘Sikandar Sahib’ (‘Sikandar’ is Persian for ‘Alexander The Great’), thanks to stories of his incredible military achievements.

Historian and author William Dalrymple calls him a ‘White Mughal’ as his lifestyle was equal to that of a Mughal Emperor. Skinner threw the most lavish parties notorious for their guest list and nautch (dance) performances. It is said that these parties were attended by Rajas, Nawabs and senior British officials, who, fuelled by wine and song, would revel in debauchery. Skinner was an equal participant and lived life to the fullest. It is said he had 14 wives and fathered a very large line of descendants.

Commisioned portraits of Maharana Javan Singh of Udaipur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in Persian book<i> Tazkirat al-umara </i>
Commisioned portraits of Maharana Javan Singh of Udaipur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in Persian book Tazkirat al-umara

But it wasn’t only the baser things in life that he enjoyed. Skinner was also a lover of art and literature, and while his English was stilted and ungrammatical, his Persian was impeccable. In fact, he even wrote a few books in Persian including Tazkirat al-umara and Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam, besides his military memoir. Tazkirat al-umara contains family biographies of princely families in the Sikh and Rajput territories, and 38 exquisite portraits of their current representatives.

Commisioned portraits of a chipi (cloth printer) and a tarkhan (carpenter) in book Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam
Commisioned portraits of a chipi (cloth printer) and a tarkhan (carpenter) in book Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam

Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam is an exhaustive book that translates to ‘History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India’. It consists of 358 folios and 119 illustrations of people belonging to various castes, tribes and professions. He includes history, geography, politics and mythology to his description of each community. His discussion of different professional groups – he mentions feelbans (elephant drivers), jarrahs (surgeons), zargars (goldsmiths), telis (oil-pressers), and kamangars (bow-makers) – and their detailed illustrations are extremely informative and interesting.

Colonel James Skinner  holding a Regimental Durbar, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan, 1827
Colonel James Skinner holding a Regimental Durbar, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan, 1827

His love for art made him a leading patron of Delhi’s artists and he even commissioned three watercolours of his regiments and his estates from the popular painter Ghulam Ali Khan in 1827-28.

Since he had a base in Delhi, Skinner also forged strong connections at the Mughal Court and eventually helped bridge the gap between the Red Fort and the East India Company. A popular courtier among the royals, he was honoured with the title of ‘Nasir ud-Daulah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jang’ by Emperor Akbar II. This is how Skinner signed his Persian seal and also liked to be addressed!

Skinner died on 4th December 1841 at the age of 64 in Hansi. He was first buried in the Cantonment Burial Ground there and, after 40 days, disinterred and his coffin brought to Delhi, escorted by 200 men from Skinner's Horse. He was buried in St James Church on 19 January 1842, in a vault of white marble just below the Communion Table.

The church was, in fact, built by Skinner as an act of gratitude to God for sparing his life. Located smack opposite his mansion near Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi, it was consecrated on 21st November 1836, making it the first church of Delhi.

St. James Church, Delhi
St. James Church, Delhi

The story of the church goes back to the year 1800, when Skinner was near-fatally wounded in the Battle of Uniara (in present-day Rajasthan). Then an ensign with the Maratha forces, Skinner and his colleagues were defeated and battling life-threatening gunshot wounds. Left for dead and bleeding profusely, the young soldier fought off jackals at night and was rescued only the next morning by an old couple who was passing by.

It was in those hopeless hours that Skinner made a vow to build a church which he promised to fulfill if he was given a second chance at life. St James Church, which Skinner built at his own cost, is a testament to a promise he kept.

Skinner left behind a very large family of Anglo-Indians. Dalrymple notes, “During the Raj, both Indian and British tradition conspired to place people in rigid class, caste and religious compartments; there were few families who managed to break out of these communal entrenchments the way the Skinners did. But this success placed the family in a particular quandary at Partition: where did they really belong – Pakistan, India or Britain? In the event, most of the Muslim Skinners fled to Pakistan, while many of the Christian Skinners emigrated to Britain, the USA and Australia. Only a few remained in India to try and maintain the family estates, while also keeping a lifeline to Britain."

James Skinner died almost two centuries ago but his spirit lives on through the cavalry regiments he so lovingly and thoroughly raised. Skinner’s Horse continued to distinguish itself in campaigns all over Asia – in India, Afghanistan, China and on the battlefields of the First World War (in France) and the Second World War (East Africa, North Africa and Italy). After Independence, the horses were replaced by tanks, and it became the senior regiment of the Armoured Corps of the Indian Army, second only to the President's Bodyguard.

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