Mercenaries in India

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Throughout the medieval period in India, mercenary work became an important source of income for some communities.

India Country in South Asia

India, also known as the Republic of India, is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh largest country by area and with more than 1.3 billion people, it is the second most populous country as well as the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the northeast; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, while its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

Mercenary Soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary, sometimes known as a soldier of fortune, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for personal profit, is otherwise an outsider to the conflict, and is not a member of any other official military. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms of payment rather than for political interests. In the last century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of mercenaries, arriving from several countries found employment in India. Some of the mercenaries emerged to become independent or independent rulers.


In the medieval period, Purbiya mercenaries from Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh were a common feature in Kingdoms in Western and Northern India. They were also later recruited by the Marathas and the British. [1] They also played a prominent role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. [2]

Purbiya was a common term used in medieval India for Rajput-led mercenaries and soldiers from the eastern Gangetic Plain - areas corresponding to present-day western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Purbiya Rajputs translates as Eastern Rajputs. In contrast, the Rajputs living in Rajasthan were historically referred to as "Western Rajputs".

Bihar State in Eastern India

Bihar is a state in eastern India. It is the thirteenth-largest Indian state, with an area of 94,163 km2 (36,357 sq mi). The third-largest state by population, it is contiguous with Uttar Pradesh to its west, Nepal to the north, the northern part of West Bengal to the east, with Jharkhand to the south. The Bihar plain is split by the river Ganges, which flows from west to east. Three main regions converge in the state: Magadh, Mithila, and Bhojpur.

Maratha Empire Indian imperial confederacy that existed from 1674 to 1818

The Maratha Empire or the Maratha Confederacy was an Indian power that dominated large portion of Indian subcontinent in the 18th century. The empire formally existed from 1674 with the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji and ended in 1818 with the defeat of Puppet Peshwa Bajirao 2 installed by Maratha nobles under Monarch Chhatrapati Pratapsingh. The Marathas are credited to a large extent for ending Mughal rule in India.

European mercenaries in India

Thousands of Europeans took up service at the courts of rulers all over India. [3] These mercenaries for the most part came from the margins of their respective societies. [4] During the first war between Bahamani Sultanate and Vijayanagara Empire, launched in 1365 by Muhammad Shah I, both sides imported their artillery guns and employed Turkish and European gunners to man them. [5]

Vijayanagara Empire Hindu kingdom in Southern India (14th–17th century)

The Vijayanagara Empire was based in the Deccan Plateau region in South India. It was established in 1336 by Harihara I and his brother Bukka Raya I of Sangama Dynasty. The empire rose to prominence as a culmination of attempts by the southern powers to ward off Islamic invasions by the end of the 13th century. It lasted until 1646, although its power declined after a major military defeat in the Battle of Talikota in 1565 by the combined armies of the Deccan sultanates. The empire is named after its capital city of Vijayanagara, whose ruins surround present day Hampi, now a World Heritage Site in Karnataka, India. The writings of medieval European travelers such as Domingo Paes, Fernão Nunes, and Niccolò Da Conti, and the literature in local languages provide crucial information about its history. Archaeological excavations at Vijayanagara have revealed the empire's power and wealth.

Muhammad Shah I, born Tatar Khan, was a ruler of the Muzaffarid dynasty, who reigned over the Gujarat Sultanate briefly from 1403 to 1404 disposing his father Muzaffar Shah I.

European mercenaries served in the courts of Indian rulers for 300 years, beginning with the large-scale defections of Portuguese soldiers from Goa in the 16th century, followed by a series of defections of British soldiers and laymen from the British East India Company bridgehead at Surat in the 17th century. [4] During Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's first historic journey to India in 1498, he observed that there were Italian mercenaries in the employ of various Rajahs on the Malabar coast. [3] Two of da Gama's own crewmen had left him to join the Italians in the service of a Malabar Rajah for higher wages. [3]

Goa State in India

Goa is a state on the southwestern coast of India within the region known as the Konkan, separated from the Deccan highlands of the state of Karnataka by the Western Ghats. It is bounded by Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka to the east and south, with the Arabian Sea forming its western coast. It is India's smallest state by area and the fourth-smallest by population. Goa has the highest GDP per capita among all Indian states, two and a half times that of the country. It was ranked the best-placed state by the Eleventh Finance Commission for its infrastructure and ranked on top for the best quality of life in India by the National Commission on Population based on the 12 Indicators.

Surat Metropolis in Gujarat, India

Surat is a city in the Indian state of Gujarat. It used to be a large seaport and is now a center for diamond cutting and polishing. It is the eighth largest city and ninth largest urban agglomeration in India. It is the administrative capital of the Surat district. The city is located 284 kilometres (176 mi) south of the state capital, Gandhinagar; 265 kilometres (165 mi) south of Ahmedabad; and 289 kilometres (180 mi) north of Mumbai. The city centre is located on the Tapti River, close to Arabian Sea.

Vasco da Gama Portuguese explorer

Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India (1497–1499) was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and therefore, the West and the Orient.

Portuguese historian João de Barros stated that there were at least 2,000 Portuguese fighting in the armies of various Indian princes in 1565. [3] Among these mercenaries included the indigenous Goan Catholic and East Indian soldiers and sailors. [6] The Maratha Emperor Shivaji employed many Portuguese and hundreds of Goan Catholics and East Indians in his navy, until they were persuaded by the colonial authorities in Goa to desert. [6] They were generally sought after as artillery experts by the Mughals and Marathas. [6] When the Mughals complained to the Portuguese Viceroy António de Melo e Castro about the Portuguese soldiers serving under the Marathas, the latter was forced to respond with a letter stating that he had no control over the Portuguese and native Christian officers in Shivaji's army, just as he had no control over the mercenaries serving in the Mughal and other armies. [6]

João de Barros Portuguese historian

João de Barros, called the Portuguese Livy, is one of the first great Portuguese historians, most famous for his Décadas da Ásia, a history of the Portuguese in India, Asia, and southeast Africa.

Goan Catholics are an ethno-religious community of Roman Catholics from the state of Goa on the west coast of India who speak Konkani as well as English. Portuguese seafarers arrived in Goa in 1510, and Catholic missionary activities soon followed, as Pope Nicholas V had enacted the Papal bull Romanus Pontifex in 1455 which granted the patronage of the propagation of the Christian faith in Asia to the Portuguese.

East Indians Inhabitants of Mumbai

East Indians or East Indian Catholics, are an ethno-religious Indian Christian community who are members of the Catholic Church. They live primarily in the city of Mumbai, with smaller populations in portions of Palghar and Thane districts in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

During the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, so many Europeans took up service at the Mughal Army that a distinct suburb was built for them outside Delhi named Firingipura (Foreigners' Town). [3] Its inhabitants included Portuguese, French and English mercenaries, many of whom had converted to Islam. [3] These mercenaries formed a special Firingi (Foreigners') regiment, under the command of a Frenchman named Farrashish Khan. [3] Shah Alam II gave the German mercenary Walter Reinhardt Sombre a large estate in the Doab, north of Delhi. [7] Sombre settled in the estate with his wife Farzana Zeb un-Nissa (also known as Begum Samru), and made the village of Sardhana his capital. [7] The ruling class of this principality was drawn from an assortment of Mughal noblemen and 200 French and Central European mercenaries, many of whom had converted to Islam. [7] Sombre was succeeded after his death by his wife who took command of his mercenary troops and became the ruler of Sardhana, earning the distinction of being the only Roman Catholic ruler in India. [7] Among these mercenaries was John-Augustus Gottlieb Cohen, a German-Jewish mercenary who was the father of Urdu poet, Farasu. [7]

There were many mercenaries working in the armies of the Deccan sultanates that controlled much of central and southern India. [3] One of the most prominent mercenaries in the Adil Shahi court was Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho, a Portuguese former landowner in Goa, who was imprisoned there on a murder charge before escaping to Bijapur in 1542. There he converted to Islam with his wife and children, and was given lands with great revenues by Ibrahim Adil Shah I. [3] A Portuguese-Jewish gunner Sancho Pires defected in similar circumstances to the Ahmadnagar Sultanate in 1530. [8] Pires converted to Islam and took the name Firanghi Khan; acquiring a position of great influence in the Nizam Shahi court. [8]

Many British renegades defected to the service of the Mughals and Deccan sultanates during the 17th century, as in the case of Joshua Blackwell, a British East India Company official who in 1649 converted to Islam and took up service in the Mughal army. [9] Most of these renegades, like the trumpeter Robert Trulleye, however, went into the service of the Deccan sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. [9] In 1654, 23 British East India Company servants deserted Surat in a single mass break-out. [9] In the 1670s, the British authorities uncovered an active network of covert recruiting agents in Bombay. [9] By the 1680s, the increasing defections of British soldiers and East India Company servants led Charles II to issue an order calling back all Englishmen in the employ of Indian princes. [9]

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a British convert to Islam named Abdullah Beg was one of the most active insurgents in Delhi against British rule. [10] Beg was a former Company soldier, who upon the arrival of the mutineer sepoys on 11 May, self-identified with them and virtually became a leader and advisor to the rebel forces in Delhi. [10] He was last seen manning the rebel artillery along with another British defector and Muslim convert, Sergeant-Major Gordon. [10] On account of his faith, Gordon was spared during the massacre of Christians at the outbreak of the uprising. [10] In due course Gordon was taken to Delhi, where he manned the guns on the northern side of the city walls. [10]

Notable mercenaries


Anthony Pohlmann Hanoverian who served in the armies of the Daulat Scindia and British East India Company
Benoît de Boigne French military adventurer who made his fortune and name in India.
Fernão Lopes 16th century Portuguese soldier who defected to the Adil Shahi general, Rasul Khan.
Claude Martin French army officer in India
Jean-Philippe de Bourbon-Navarre French mercenary and progenitor of the Bourbon lineage in Bhopal
Pierre Cuillier-Perron French military adventurer in India
Michel Joachim Marie Raymond French General in Nizam's military and the founder of Gunfoundry Hyderabad, Hyderabad State.
Walter Reinhardt Sombre French mercenary and husband of Begum Samru, ruler of Sardhana, a principality near Meerut
George Thomas Irish mercenary who was active in India during the 18th century
Jean-Baptiste Ventura Italian mercenary and adventurer who served the Sikh Empire in the Punjab
Jean-François Allard served in the Sikh Armies & Maharaja Ranjit Singh
John Holmes served in the Sikh Armies & Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Afghan/Central Asian

Ahmad Baksh Khan Bukharan mercenary who founded the Princely State of Loharu
Dost Mohammed Khan Afghan mercenary and founder of the Princely State of Bhopal


  1. Dirk H.A. Kolff (2013). "Peasants fighting for a living in early modern North India". Fighting for a Living. Amsterdam University Press: 243–266. JSTOR   j.ctt6wp6pg.11.
  2. Roy, Kaushik (6 October 2015). Military Manpower, Armies and Warfare in South Asia. p. 6. ISBN   9781317321286.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Dalrymple 2004 , pp. 14–15
  4. 1 2 Dalrymple 2004 , p. 16
  5. Balaji Sadasivan (2011). The Dancing Girl: A History of Early India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 214. ISBN   9789814311670.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Prabhu 1999 , p. 69
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Dalrymple 2006 , pp. 238–239
  8. 1 2 Disney 1995 , p. 247
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Dalrymple 2004 , pp. 24–25
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Dalrymple 2006 , p. 153

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