The Rajah from Tipperary (the tale of how an Irish farmer ended up ruling his own kingdom in India)
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
There have been many great 'adventurers'. People who have through force of will or luck or the ability to bullshit really REALLY well, have carved their names into the pages of history. Little people who do extraordinary things.
One of my favourites is the illiterate Irish farmer who managed, without any support, to create for himself his own kingdom in India. Known as the "Jehazi Sahib" he briefly created a whole new state, with himself as a rajah, in the wild and dangerous era that fell upon India just before the British took over.
His story is a window into a time and place long ignored by many historians. And above all it's a hell of a tale.
The tale of George Thomas... George was born into utter poverty and shiteness. He never spent a day of his life in school, never learned to read or write, and his only true skill seemed be gaining a great love/mastery of horses from his father, a humble tenant farmer.
He was born near Roscrea, County Tipperary, and lost both his parents by the age of 20. No skills, no education, no experience doing anything but manual labour- let's be honest, his prospects were pretty grim. This is the 1770's in Ireland here folks. Trust me, it's a properly fucking awful place.
We know about 1776 or so George woke up one morning, looked at the backbreaking work he had for the day and went fuck that. He was a huge chunk of a man. His whole life had been spent lifting shit, and this had made him ripped to shit. So, he travelled south to the port of Youghal, in County Cork, where he got employment as a dock worker.
But in 1779 his crap life decides to double down and get even crappier. George was drunk one evening and ended up on the wrong end of a press-gang. And NOW he was part of the Royal Navy. Where you don't enlist so much as get kidnapped and have to serve or get screwed.
Discipline was kept with brutal efficiency and the job was worse than being on the farm. George found himself a crew man on a Man o'War captained by one Admiral Hughes; this Hughes guy was taking his ship and a decent sized flotilla and were sailing to India.
For several months George survived the awful conditions onboard a Royal Navy ship, and the second he arrived at the port of Madras? He deserted. He literally jumped ship.
Here was an Irish lad whose most exotic travel destination had previously been County Cork. And now he was in Madras in 1781. The sights, sounds, smells must have seen utterly alien to him.
Would have been a huge relief for him to run into another Irish man. And not just that- a man from Tipperary called Kelly. This guy was actually running a bar there and George literally stumbled upon him and asked his fellow countryman for aid. Kelly gave him immediate shelter and then helped smuggle him out, away from the Royal Navy looking to recapture this deserter.
It was Kelly who directed George to travel south to the Mysore region of India. Here were a group of locals called the Polygars.
The Polygars were a leftover remains of previous state- feudal lords who spent a lot of their time raiding each other and other neighbours.
Rough and ready and spikey, Polygars were mostly decent folks but were endlessly fighting.
And they, like everyone in India at the time, were on the lookout for European soldiers, as these white guys had turned up over the last few decades and had shown above all things- they were brilliant at war.
India at the time was a place where mercenaries could make a fortune. George Thomas didn't speak a fucking word of the local dialect, but he was a huge lad, and he basically bullshitted his way into a position of military advisor to one of the local rulers. And it helped that he knew how to handle a horse. Very quickly he finally found something he was good at. Violence.
Over the next few years George spent his life in almost constant battle. Big fights and small fights were constant and real life combat is a great teacher. You either get good real fast. Or you die.
George got good and actually became a decent cavalry commander. After a few years doing shit like this and with a bit of a reputation?
He travelled north, and sought out Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad (left). Khan had a LARGE army- and a proper one with infantry units, artillery and a brace of European officers helping install some harsh European war discipline into the ranks.
George was hired as a cavalry commander and was now able to begin a new life, all respectable and secure.
While he served with the forces of the Nazim, learning from French and British mercenaries who treated him as a peer, George found himself sent to control a very wayward bunch of soldiers.
The Pindaris were basically mounted outlaws; as the Mughal empire fell apart, they had gone from light shock cavalry units in the Muslim armies, to little more than mobile raiders and bandits. George was given the unlikely job of trying to tame a bunch of them for Ali Khan's army.
After all the years he spent with the Polygars, he and the Pindaris got on like a house on fire. To them, he was this white skinned foreigner; huge of build; natural on horseback and utterly insane/seemingly without fear most of the time. To him? They became his 'Irish Pindaris'.
Again after a few years George gave up this contract and travelled north. But this time the Pindaris cavalrymen came with him.
They headed north towards Delhi, looking for mercenary work and in 1887 he found himself in Sandhara. And it was here he met a woman.
One HELL of a woman.
Begum Samru: the Iron Queen of Sandhara.
Right this lady needs her own entry as she is fucking ferocious. And her story is even more impressive than George's.
She was born Farzana Zeb un-Nissa, and she also came from a piss poor background, most likely born in Kashmir.
Farzana was about 13 or so when she got a job as a nautch and soon caught the eye of a 45-year-old German mercenary called Water Reinhardt Sombre.
Sombre led a large mercenary army which was in the service of fading Mughal Empire. By all accounts he was an untrustworthy swine, who swapped sides endlessly, with a reputation for cruelty.
He rather liked the look of the dancing girl and she instantly saw a chance to improve her station. And while she was a small petite wee thing (four and half feet tall barefoot), she was tough, and extremely smart. She not only beguiled him, she complimented him.
Quickly she supplied the brains to Sombre's army, and he and his European and Indian commanders quickly learned that this young woman knew what the fuck she was talking about.
While she held no rank and she wasn't even married to him, Ferzana became second in command to Sombre.
He spent years travelling around northern India, was heavily involved in the vicious internal politics of the place and she was his guide and his main advisor. He eventually became a governor of a region called Sandhara.
Nine years later Sombre died and aged only 24 or so, this pint-sized powerhouse actually managed to become commander of this large ramshackle mercenary force, gaining the respect of Indian warriors and European mercenaries alike. She took the title Begum Samru and took over running Sandhara. She was brilliant at it.
Seriously the woman was a genius. She became so rich that even today there is legal action taking place about the fortune she left behind. She was one hardcore lady.
She was aged about 40 when George turned up to take the position as head of her artillery. She had a thing for European men and she obviously still had it... as she and George quickly became an item.
She was self-created as he was; she was catholic (she had converted a few years earlier- making her one of only two Catholic rulers in Indian history) and he was a huge slab of Irish adventurer.
George had become quite fluent in Hindustani by now, and she taught him Persian as well (oddly enough while he never learned to read and write English, he did learn to read/write those two languages) and they became quite the team. They were not a 'sit around and be pretty' type couple.
This was a union based upon their self discovered an affinity for war. She had an army and together they led it into the field several times to defend the Shah. While mercenaries, they served the Mughal Empire with honour and their forces made a real difference as the empire faced endless rebellions.
Indeed at the siege of Gokalgarh, the Begum Somru led her mercenary forces into the battle personally and at a crucial moment when the Shah seemed on the verge of capture,
George led a desperate cavalry charge; he and his Pindaris plunged into the thick of the fighting, rescuing the Mogul Shah personally and turning the battle.
You did not fuck with this couple. Across India word soon spread that the army of the Begum Somru was arguably the best fighting force out there after the East India Company's and their prestige grew.
These were the good times. And they came to a swift end.
The Begum grew bored of George and kicked him out of her bed and company, replacing him with a Frenchman named Levassoult.
Even though he was now her general in charge of all her forces, she wanted him gone. George took employment with a guy called Appa Khandi Rao (the Mahratta governor of Meerut).
This guy was basically a little shit, motivated by greed and more venal needs. George drilled his forces and lead them into battle after battle as Rao subjugated the nearby Rajputs.
After a string of victories George was granted a noble rank (jagir) for his services. Meanwhile his ex the Begum Samra found her new lover had begun alienating many of the army and the good folks of Sandhara, to the point where she was replaced by a guy named Zafar-yab-Khan.
George was away serving Rao at the time, and only got word of the situation when his ex-lover sent him a desperate appeal. Levassolut was dead and she was being kept tied to a wagon wheel under armed guard.
George immediately rode back. It was a measure of how respected and feared he was by now, especially by the troops he had formally led into battle, that the army switched their allegiance back to the Begum at his request without a single shot being fired.
This crazy Irishman now had serious chops. She rewarded him by arranging the marriage of George to an Indian-French girl later called Marie, and they had four kids.
When George was away campaigning, his ex-lover took them in and raised them in her court. In 1797 Appa Khandi Rao had died and his nephew took over. George had had enough working for useless employers.
He knew the land by now, and he had his eye on a choice price of real estate... Harinara.
The Green Land' was a much contested piece of real estate. The Sikhs and Mahrattas had been fighting each over for it for years. Located to the northwest of Delhi it was a decent place to start his own kingdom...
Thus in 1789, our George led his own army into the region. What followed was some damned hard fighting but, by year end, this illiterate farmer's boy from Tipperary was ruler of his own little Indian kingdom and was now, formally, a bloody rajah.
An Irish rajah.
Setting up his capital in the town of Hansi, he immediately constructed a fortress to secure the area (called Georgerah because what self-respecting adventure doesn't name a fortress after himself) and actually began RULING his little kingdom.
He founded a mint to make his own currency, and established a bunch of foundries to make canon and muskets. His army was disproportionately large but he covered the cost by expanding his territory.
He was by all accounts pretty decent- seems that in the chaos of the disintegrating Mugal Empire the criteria for being a good leader was basically 'don't act like a total bastard and actually give a shit about folks'.
I know- seems revolutionary. But it worked for him.
Those who were loyal to him were rewarded handsomely and he is still spoken about fondly by local historians as a somewhat enlightened ruler given the times. He wasn't content with just a small little kingdom.
George had plans guys. Serious plans. He wanted to own the entire Punjab. That's some serious real estate.
And what's more? He had the army and the balls to do it. Over the next three years George Thomas carved more and more territory out as his own.
A little bit of Ireland in India. By 1800 he was quite the growing power. It's easy to forget however- George was still a foreigner. And he was carving a kingdom out of the remains of a decaying empire.
Borders were porous, allegiances and alliances came and went quickly, and Wars were waged over minor issues.
To the south the Mahrattas viewed George as a real threat. To the north, the Sikhs saw him as the bastard who kept beating their armies. His ex lover the Bagrum saw him now as a threat to her power.
And the Mahrattas armed forces were led by a French general called Perron who saw George as a British agent and feared growing British control... By all accounts George HAD contacted the East India Company in the hope that they would see him as a natural ally and support his campaign.
For the record, they thought he was the tits. BUT... their influence didn't spread that far. They couldn't help him.
In 1801 while George was away to the north of his new kingdom kicking ass, his enemies invaded to the south led by General Perron. Within a few months George and his forces (numbering around 5,000) were besieged in his capital by an allied army of about 20,000+
The siege lasted weeks and several times when the enemy attacked, the attack was blunted as George personally led desperate counter attacks. By now his reputation as a giant damn near psychotic who was pure death in combat preceded him.
At one point a Mahrattas detachment led by a British officer ran into George during an attack... The officer was the veteran of several Indian wars, was know for his bravery and yet he said upon seeing George Thomas, "He looked so ferocious that I eyed him for a moment, and then turned and ran, and my men after me.” Some say George was seeking death at this point.
But his suicidal bravery was actually causing serious losses for his enemies. Even with many of his small garrison jumping the walls and surrendering, George held off and kept inflicting grievous casualties. Eventually they offered him really good terms if he surrendered. Reluctantly he did. And was treated more as an honoured guest than a vanquished enemy.
George took this as a sign. He decided it was time to return home (this is Ireland in the early 1800's- if he had any idea how bad shit was there he would never had said this).
His wife didn't want to go as she did have an inkling as to how well a half Indian woman would be greeted back in Europe.
She stayed with his ex, the Bagram (George didn't take it personally she had sent troops to aid his downfall). But George never made it.
He travelled to Bengal, telling his tales of adventure to an English officer who wrote it down, before apparently meeting his fellow Irishman the future Duke of Wellington, who he happily told all about the Mahrattas (Wellington would soon after go and kick their arses in battle).
And there in a place called Baharamphur, on a river boat sailing down the Ganges, George was struck down with a fever and died, aged only 44.
George Thomas brings us to a world often overlooked. India just before the British took over. A series of warring states, where mercenaries could make a fortune and actual adventurers like him could even carve out their own kingdom.
It wasn't easy. It was a brutally tough life. George died so young because he had spent 15 years living this mad lifestyle.
He had by all accounts fought dozens of battles, winning damn near all of them. For a few years this Irish farm boy dared to dream, and created his own kingdom in the lush fields of India.