Mercenaries in India

Mercenaries in India were fighters, primarily peasants, who came from India and abroad, to fight for local rulers in India in the medieval period. This mercenary work became an important source of income for some communities.

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]

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]

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]

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]

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


Mercenaries Background
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

Mercenaries Background
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. Dalrymple 2004, pp. 14–15
  4. 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. Prabhu 1999, p. 69
  7. Dalrymple 2006, pp. 238–239
  8. Disney 1995, p. 247
  9. Dalrymple 2004, pp. 24–25
  10. Dalrymple 2006, p. 153


  • Dalrymple, William (2006). The Last Mughal. Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0-670-99925-5..
  • Dalrymple, William (2004). White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-200412-8..
  • Disney, Anthony R. (1995). Historiography of Europeans in Africa and Asia, 1450–1800. Variorum. ISBN 978-0-86078-503-3..
  • Prabhu, Alan Machado (1999). Sarasvati's Children: A History of the Mangalorean Christians. I.J.A. Publications. ISBN 978-81-86778-25-8..
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