– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro
The presence of European mercenaries among the hosts of the Asian armies has a long history. Already at the time of Vasco da Gama’s historic voyage to India in 1498, the existence of Italian military officers at the service of several rajas of the coast of Malabar was noted. It is said that two of the crew of the Gama fleet, attracted by more appetizing salaries, ended up following the example of the Italians. It may be said that the European mercenary tradition in Hindustan, which would be perpetuated over three centuries, will have begun with the desertions of Portuguese soldiers of Goa – usually underpaid, sometimes having to resort to foreign aid to survive – attracted by the prospects of a loose life elsewhere on the continent where polygamy and concubinage were not condemned.
The chronicler João de Barros affirms that in 1565 there would be at least two thousand Portuguese combatants “in the armies of several Indian princes,” many of them natives of Goa, specialized especially in the branches of artillery and cavalry. These mercenaries were concentrated in the armies of the sultanates who controlled much of Central and South India, the Decan. One of the most prominent was Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho, a nobleman and former landowner in Goa, accused of murder and arrested in 1542, before escaping to the Sultanate Bijapur. There he converted to Islam with his wife and children, and was given lands with large incomes by Ibrahim Adil Shah I (1534 – 1558). Twelve years earlier also the Portuguese-born gunner Sancho Pires had deserted in similar circumstances, but for the sultanate of Ahmadnagar. Pires converted to Islam and adopted the name Firanghi Khan, and would come to acquire a position of great influence in the court of Nizam Shahi.
During the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658), such was the quantity of Europeans at his service that a suburb of Delhi was reserved for them. Firingipura was denominated City of the Foreigners, and among its inhabitants there were not only Portuguese, but also French and English, many of them converted to Islam. They constituted a special regiment under the command of a Frenchman named Farrashish Khan, allegedly of French nationality.
At the end of the 16th century and throughout the 17th Mogul power collapsed and other powers emerged, with particular emphasis on the Marathan leadership. This led to the arrival of a new shipment of mercenaries from different backgrounds in search of good jobs in India. And if many had long experience in the trade, as was the case with the peoples of central Europe, others became soldiers of fortune on the ground and by force of circumstances. There were those who managed to catapult themselves to the highest positions of power and many were even lords with the power of life and death over their subjects. It is known that the Emperor Martha Shivaji (1674-1680) employed countless Portuguese and hundreds of Goan and Indian Catholics in his navy, despite the insistence of Portuguese colonial authorities to abandon their activity. When the Moguls, weakened, complained to Viceroy António de Melo e Castro about the Portuguese soldiers serving under the Maratha, he replied that he had no control over the Portuguese Christian officers and natives of the Shivaji army, such as had no control over so many who served in the Mughal army or elsewhere.
Many Britons defected to the service of the Mongols and Sultanates of the Deco throughout the seventeenth century. Mention here Joshua Blackwell, an officer who in 1649 converted to Islam and assumed service in the Mughal army, and the cornetist Robert Trulleye, who served in the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. Only in 1654, in Surrate, there was a mass defection of twenty-three officials of the British East India Company. In the 1670s, the British authorities would discover an active network of secret recruitment agents in Bombay. In the 1680s, the growing desertions of British soldiers and East India Company officials led Charles II to issue a “call order” to all Englishmen in the service of Indian princes.
The Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (1759-1806), for example, would grant the German mercenary Walter Reinhardt Sombre a large estate in Doab, north of Delhi, where he would settle with the woman Farzana Zeb un-Nissa (known as Begum Samru) and made Sardhana (today Bagpat, in Uttar Pradesh) its capital. The ruling class of this principality would be formed from a variety of Mughal nobles and two hundred mercenaries from France and Central Europe, many of whom were recently Islamized. After the death of Sombre the woman took the command of the troops and proclaimed itself governor of Sardhana, being thus the unique Roman Catholic leader of all India.