What on earth were three Americans doing in the Sikh Kingdom (in the 1800′s)?

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India in the 1800’s to the common North American would have resembled the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, ‘The Jungle Book’, an insect infested jungle terrain with wild exotic animals and less than civilized lungi-wearing, tree climbing, and possibly hugging, brown folk! The now infamous curry had not yet been inducted into the taverns and pubs of Britain; the royal coronation crown was without the Kohinoor and the corner shops, if they even existed, would have been missing the mystic odors of incense sticks. Yet this land called India was known as the ‘Golden Bird’ (Sone ki Chidiya), a land of Princely states and unimaginable wealth and assets, with the worlds largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for many a century, that is until the Europeans came along and attempted to ‘Europeanize’ its economy (India it is said will now have to wait until the 2040’s to recapture its economic glory). Of the 500+ princely states one in particular was getting a lot of free press. Murmurs could possibly be heard as far away as the new world, of a Maharajah that was offering vast sums of money and wealth to those that would join his ranks and government.

I was the first of my clan to be born in Great Britain. We lived in a town called Tipton, which was known to be the heart of the Industrial Revolution (James Watts first steam engine was developed/installed there). Therefore it should not come as a surprise that one of my passions in life has always been History, I was surrounded by it. I believe one of the first books I borrowed from my local library in Tipton, United Kingdom (UK) was History of the World. This book probably weighed close to 2 lbs, and I think subconsciously I must have compared its physicality to the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Scriptures and 11th Guru of the Sikhs), using the logic of a seven year old to confirm that in fact the larger and heavier the book, the greater its collection of knowledge. Thus began this intrigue with events of the past and stories of great civilizations and cultures from around the globe. One thing would remain steadfast, my search for ‘all things’ India and Indians within the pages of history, so I guess I could feel part of the story too.

“If you know your history then you would know where you’re coming from, then you wouldn’t have to ask me, who the ‘eck do I think I am”

(Bob Marley. Buffalo Soldier Lyrics)

In March 2007 whilst doing research on the Sikh Kingdom I came across a newspaper article titled, “A Yankee in the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh” which described the life of one Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner, an American who became a Colonel in the Sikh Kingdom. I found this intriguing, considering I knew about the British, French and Italians, not to mention the Spanish, German, Austrian and Russians serving the great Maharajah, some of whom had previously served the great Napoleon Bonaparte, was known to pay the Europeans handsomely for their knowledge of Industrial revolutionized arms and war tactics. (Though India was advanced in many other facets of life, the dynamic power of steel and steam had not quite reached its shores). A Yankee who travelled over 8,000 miles did make me raise an eyebrow.

As I began to read about Gardner I stumbled across Josiah Harlan, and then Colonel Canora; there was not one, but three Americans in the Sikh Kingdom. In September 2009 I discovered the article;  ‘Daughter to seek Dad’s lost riches – millions in jewels to be hunted in India’ (Ellensburg Capital newspaper, dated December 1, 1933). As I began to read the name Helene Gardner Botha, I began grinning like the Cheshire cat. Staring at my 14” monitor and thinking of one thing, and of one person only…Indiana Jones…yes I was about to undertake my own adventure, I had found a valuable clue…I just needed to buy khakis from the Thrift Shop, get vaccinated and apply for my Indian visa! It only took a chat over dinner with my wife for me to come right back down to earth. The only adventure I was about to embark on would have to be taking place in my home office, around my desktop computer.

The pages in the history books that I had been reading since childhood seemed to be narrow and linear in their description of our past interactions. The multicultural nature of humans seemed to be forgotten or purposely hidden. Why has this planet upon which we all reside been made to feel separated and vast, its people made to feel poles apart (culturally, physically and spiritually) from one another?

Global

pic1We all talk about living in a global society, a global village that has come about because of advancements in technology! The world wide web, telecommunications and possibly the cost structure of air travel has assisted in this assumption, but maybe this global village cliché is not a new phenomenon, maybe our perception of cultures and societies and their interactions in history are somewhat skewed. My American adventurers would help to smash this Illusion!

Did you know: Scientists and Historians researching the migration of modern man from Africa talk about a breakaway group who walked around the shores of the Arabian sea and down to south India. These migrations occurred some 70,000 years ago and believe it or not, all non-Africans can trace their ancestors to these early Indians! Villagers outside of Kerala have been tested positive by geneticist for the gene M130, known to be the DNA strand carried by those early settlers; these people then moved northwards through India and across to Central Asia, populating present day Europe.

The barrier of oceans and seas may have been a hurdle in most cases, but man persisted; there have been interactions amongst one another since the modern man arrived. You see, curiosity is a blessing which all living creatures are gifted with; modern humans have this trait in abundance. Many early civilizations traded with one another, this was an integral part of growth and advancement for people. When exploring the Indus valley civilization, Mesopotamia, Egyptian, Olmec or later the Greek, Roman or the Chinese dynasties, all of them practiced and promoted global commerce. Spice and Silk trade routes were important channels of business that brought trade between the western and eastern hemispheres.  So why are we surprised to find American ‘soldiers of fortune’ in the Sikh Kingdom?

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Maharajah Ranjeet Singh (59) – ‘Small Man’ Syndrome.

pic3For those that do not know too much about this great Sikh Maharaja (who was only 5ft 3 inches tall), the ruler of lands which today would have included parts of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet and up to China,

allow the sister of the then British Governor General, George Eden (1st Earl of Auckland), Emily Eden, describe to you in a few words the splendor of his Sikh Kingdom. “…reduce European magnificence to a very low pitch”.

The following snippets of information should help to provide the layman with an overview of this most remarkable Sikh Maharajah;

  • Born 13 November 1780, Died 27 June 1839;
  • Founded the Sikh Empire by overthrowing autonomous Sikh Clans (Misls);
  • As a child he suffered from smallpox which resulted in the loss of one eye;
  • In 1799 Ranjeet captured Lahore (an important city in Punjab which predates the Sikh and Mughal empires), and this was the beginning/turning point of the Sikh Empires creation. He was crowned in 1801 at the age of 20;
  • Had many children, those that were recognized are Kharak Singh, Sher Singh, Peshawara Singh & Duleep Singh;
  • Some of his more recognized wives, the mother of his children (of the 20+ Maharani’s) are; Rani Mahtab Kaur, Rani Raj Kaur, Rani Ratan Kaur, Rani Daya Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur;
  • Ran an idiosyncratic empire, allowing men from religions, other than his own, to rise to commanding positions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindus);
  • In the Sikh Empire places of worship belonging to the enemy were never razed. The empire was secular; the Sikh faith was never forced upon its subjects;
  • After forty years the Sikh Empire came to an abrupt end. Deceit, corruption, and a lack of planning for the future by the great Maharajah himself provided the jewel in their crown to the British.

Those forty years saw an empire that was described as one of the most advanced in the East and richest in Asia (some of the soldiers of fortune that did return home accumulated so much wealth that their ancestors today are still living comfortably off their riches); frequently being talked about in the teashops of Europe just simply disintegrated…

The Americans

pic4‘Can’t find much on him’ Canora

Colonel Canora,whom very little is known about, even Alexander Gardner agrees with this in his own memoirs, though we do know he died in the small scrimmage that broke out at the Fort of Hazara with Sardar Chattar Singh Attariwala men in 1848. Some historians will debate if he was in fact European rather than American.

Wannabe King Harlan

pic5Josiah Harlan the man who some claim Rudyard Kipling had based his story The Man Who Would Be King on (which in 1975 became a motion picture with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, in this John Huston film) was born in Newlin Township, Pennsylvania in 1820. At the age of 21 he made a voyage to India and China, and in 1824 he joined the British East India Company as a surgeon (without any formal medical education and training, only the knowledge of medical books that he had read as a teenager). Harlan must have heard or read stories of the grand riches and wealth to be had, of the respect and intrigue that followed ‘Firanghis’ (foreigners) in the royal courts of the Indian Maharajas. Remember India was at this moment in time just ‘Bharat’, a large geographical piece of land filled with princely states, small kingdoms that operated as autonomous states, each protected by its private armies. Each ruled and governed by its own laws. Firanghis from the West offered advancements, particularly in the art of warfare. They held as much intrigue to the Indians as the Indians must have held to these soldiers of fortune.

Harlan was headed for Punjab after spending time in the British Summer Capital, Shimla, however was denied access to Punjab and therefore changed his route to Kabul. When Harlan was finally granted permission to enter Punjab in 1829, he managed to negotiate the lucrative position as the Governor of Gujarat District. He was relieved of this position some nine (9) years later after the Maharajah accused him of stamping his own money and not declaring it to the state. Harlan was not quite done with the North West Frontier, he was a driven individual, someone who by now knew all the internal politics and power struggles being fought out in this part of the world. The internal urge within Harlan was driving him to greater heights, being a Governor was never going to be enough, he wanted more. In 1838 whilst supporting a local Afghan, Mohammad Reffee Beg Hazara, a Prince of Ghor, Harlan agreed to train his armies on the agreement of being given the title, Prince of Ghor.

In 1840 Harlan headed back home to the United States and was welcomed as a national hero. Of the three Americans mentioned above, he was the only one that returned.

(Side note: Hollywood Actor, Scott Reiniger is the great, great, great grandson of Josiah Harlan)

Steamboat Gardner

pic6As colorful a life as Josiah Harlan lived, I fear that it would be a shade of grey in comparison to this Scottish descendant, for Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner could only be described as ‘more colorful than a tartan’, the man who bore witness to every single calamity and tragedy undergone by the Sikh Empire after the death of Maharajah Ranjeet Singh. Gardner like a modern day journalist would witness the deeds but would be whisked away in the nick of time. Historians have questioned the authenticity of the ‘Soldier and Traveler – Memoirs of Alexander Gardner’ (also printed under the title of ‘The Fall of Sikh Empire’). But let me tell you something, it’s a hell of a read.

Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner. Life in a Diagram.

pic7

Born on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth/Superior to an Irish/Spanish mother and a Scottish father who fought alongside George Washington in the War of Independence. The family moved from the northern hemisphere back to the current borders of California and Mexico, near the Colorado River (near the town of St. Xavier). Very little is known about Alexander’s early years, however we do know he attended a seminary in St. Xavier, which he left at the age of 14. By the age of 21 Alexander lost his mother and in 1812 at the age of twenty-seven his father passed away as well. It is very clear that Alexander seemed destined for a maritime life, a life of Sailboats, foreign ports and fortune.

It was in August 1831 that Alexander reached Punjab, the land of five rivers, but only after fighting against the Sikhs whilst serving Mir Alam Khan Syad, in Kabul. The Maharajah was famous for delaying the approval process of entry by foreigner’s to his kingdom, whilst the Lion of Punjab had his court conduct background checks on these individuals, trying to root out the spies from the Soldiers that were going to give his armies an edge.

The Maharajah made Alexander a Colonel of Artillery with 800 regular infantry and 400 irregular cavalry. In 1838 the Maharajah commissions Alexander to build him a steamboat, yet this never seemed to daunt him. By now Gardner was fifty-three years of age, travelled from the United States to Ireland, Spain, Russia, Persia and Afghanistan then on to India. He had been a sailor, a mineralogist, gunsmith, advisor and Colonel. Nothing seemed impossible for him; he only left lasting impressions of how skillful an artisan he and his generation were. The paddle steamboat would have been another watershed moment for the visionary Maharajah. To set sail a large metallic device that floated rather than sank (the actual accounts of the boat do suggest it barely floated, but the Maharajah was only too happy and rewarded his Firanghi engineers well).

The following year saw the death of the Lion of Punjab. He suffered from cardiovascular complications leaving him paralyzed after having suffered more than one stroke. What followed next was the crash of the Sukerchakia house of cards. In June 1839 the Maharajah dies, followed by the death of his heir, Kharak Singh in November, and Ranjeet’s favorite grandson, Nau-Nihal (who died while attending his father’s funeral). This Shakespearean tragedy soaked in blood and undertaken in both broad daylight and under the cloak of darkness, unfolds at an alarming rate. Within months this royal family has been shredded. Alexander witnessed all of theses tragic events, and despite having viewed these events from the treacherous camp of Raja Gulab Singh Dogra (eldest of the Dogra brothers; Dhian Singh and Suchet Singh) he does provide a sympathetic view.

What followed was treason of the highest order, Shakespearian in many ways. As Sikhs we continue to blame the Dogra’s and the British for the collapse of the kingdom, however we need to look back to the period of the Misls and possibly even to the time of the Sikh Gurus. It is well documented that the Misls would be at war with themselves when not being invaded through the Kyber Pass. The ‘unity of the community’ has always been, how do I put it, nonexistent. The fact is that the collapse of the Sikh Kingdom was being planned internally since 1801, though the First Anglo Sikh War broke out in December 1845.

Our colorful character witnessed all these events, in 1847 the now Maharajah of Kashmir/Jammu, Gulab Singh, made Alexander the commander of his ‘Ranbir’ regiment of infantry and artillery. The remaining thirty years of his life are spent in Kashmir where he marries and around 1851/2, has a daughter named Helena who later marries (a South African Judge with the surname Botha) and has two children, a boy and a girl.

The famous picture of Alexander Gardner dressed in the 79th Tartan, adorned with the egret’s plume was taken in 1859, at a ripe old age of 74. His final days are passed meeting old Khalsa army soldiers and reminiscing about the good old days, or writing to the British about the on-coming advancement of the Russians.

In 1877 Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner passes away in Srinagar, Kashmir. He is buried in Sialkot Cemetery near the British cantonment. Surely he must have had the opportunity to head back home to the United States, but why would he? He was on a pension and received revenues from several villages, living like a prince, if not a Raja. Those around him respected him; however had he returned he would have been a foreigner to family and friends he had left behind.

Great, great, great grandfather figures from the United States travelled with open minds and possibly a yearning to fit in, to find their people. Some might be surprised to find that these so-called people spoke another language, worshipped other God(s) and lived on the other side of the world, yet the Canora’s, Harlan’s and Gardner’s found a connection with their true kinsmen. Why are we at all surprised?

My objective was to help shed light upon the global village in which we all reside. To help shatter the myths and delusional barriers that nations have erected, for both selfish and self-gratifying purposes and to help remove the circus mirror illusions of a non-global society (FACT: Black Africans were living in Britain long before the Saxons, Normans and Vikings arrived. How many of us knew this?) Since modern man moved northwards from south India seeking the unknown, wanting to know what is beyond the next hill, mountain and river, and when they settled down other groups would do exactly what people before them did…move freely, globally.

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About Kulbir Colin Singh Dhillon

Kulbir is a Director for a global Automotive Company, a College lecturer of Design & Innovation, the Chair of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, a husband and father. Having emigrated from England in the early 1990’s, Kulbir has worked tirelessly to integrate Sikh Culture & Values into Canada’s great National identity by breaking down societal and community barriers through his work. In 2012, Kulbir was a recipient of the Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal for his service to Canada.

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  • G. Singh

    a fantastic tale brought back to life by Mr. Dhillon.
    I still shake my head in amazement that Maharaja Ranjit Singh controlled such a vast empire
    and employed a United Nations of religious & military personnel.
    I would love to read a follow-up article going in-depth on Alexander Gardner and debating the finer points
    in his Memoirs. It just seems like he was always in the right spot at the right time.

  • Col. Surinder Singh, Retd

    Colin you must publish a book on this, amazing story. Really enjoyed reading.