Although applauded as a military genius, the exploits of former British Army gunner George Thomas have been a well-kept Irish secret, or rather, a well-kept Indian secret.
Born in Roscrea, County Tipperary around 1756, Thomas was a one-time Irish mercenary in 18th-century India, who succeeded in carving out a small kingdom for himself after years of serving as a military general to Indian chieftains and rulers.
The son of a poor Catholic tenant farmer, Thomas had been press-ganged – taken by compulsion, with or without notice – into the British Navy from Youghal, Co. Cork, where he worked as a laborer on the docks, but he was not destined to spend the rest of his life serving King and ruling country.
According to “Look and Learn” magazine, Thomas leaped from the ship and sawm swam ashore in 1781, meeting with the time-expired Irish redcoat Thomas Kelly, who then worked as an innkeeper in Madras state in the Republic of India.
Kelly sheltered Thomas and warned warning him of the punishment awaiting him if he was ever caught. Kelly told his fellow countryman, now many miles away from home, “Then it’s a fine soldier you’ll be! A man with a strong sword arm never goes hungry in India these days!”
At this time in India, the Moghul empire was in decline, with old kingdoms breaking up and new ones ready to be taken and formed.
Thomas took the innkeeper’s advice that there was much to be made for yourself as a fighting sword in those times of upheaval and he set off for Hyderabad, where he joined the ranks of the Nizam’s army.
Although completely illiterate in any language, Thomas felt at home in this new world and began making a name for himself serving in the army of Hyderabad before vanishing from all records just a few months later.
Thomas reappeared after six years, finally turning up further north in Delhi, but nothing is known of his adventures for those few years he was missing. Despite still being illiterate in English, he had somehow taught himself not only to speak Hindustani and Persian but to read and write and was now a tough and assured soldier who had gone some way to making his fortune.
Many believe that the new toughness in the Irishman and his skill as a horse rider, swordsman, and his prowess as a scholar flowered with the freebooting Mahratta horsemen the Pindaris during his six-year absence.
Ready to take on anything, the Tipperary man took service under Begum Samru of Sardhana in 1787, a great landowner with her own private army. She had previously attempted to lead her army herself, but after realizing that it called for a professional hand, she called upon George Thomas to take the helm. The Irishman thus found himself in charge of thousands of men and in receipt of the handsome salary that went along with such a position.
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He organized the army into regiments of infantry, troops of cavalry, and corps of artillery. Thomas had great success as general almost immediately and within two years he rose to be Samru’s chief civilian administrator as well.
When he was replaced in her favor by a French man for no known reason, Thomas abandoned his employer for an even more powerful Indian noble, Appa Rao.
By this stage George Thomas had earned a fierce and powerful reputation in his own right, being known as Jaharai Jung, or “Warlike George,” as he still showed great prowess on the battlefield as well as his good reputation as a general.
When Appa Roa died three years later, such was the extent of Thomas' reputation that he began to think he could go one step further and be the one making the demands as a leader of his very own kingdom.
Just to the west of Delhi, there was a state called Hariana which was all but abandoned thanks to civil war. His acts as a fighter and as general had won the Irishman many followers and won him the support of some 2,000 troops who had vowed to follow him into battle. It was with the help of these men in 1797 that he decided to make his move on the state, quickly showing he had not just the battle skills to acquire a kingdom but the leadership skills to fairly rule one also.
Known as the white Rajah of Hariana, he chose Hansai as his capital and the country around was soon flourishing, with carpenters, builders, and craftsmen encouraged to visit. Thomas even established his own mint in the city.
His success as a leader was short-lived, however, as the hunger for more power that got him to where he was soon led to his downfall. Thomas was drawn to Punjab, north of Hariana, and he Thomas decided to claim it and present it to the British Crown (despite abandoning them all those years ago).
In order to fund this endeavor he began to help a neighboring ruler collect taxes in the Rajput state of Jaipur, little thinking of how this could be seen as an act of aggression by the state’s ruler.
The act was not greeted with happiness but with further war which saw The Irish Rajah greatly outnumbered but unwilling to lie down.
Outnumbered at the battle of Fatephur by no less than ten to one, his skill as a tactician and as a fighter shone through and he won, only to find his health gradually fading afterward due to the effort of years of strenuous war.
In the midst of a crucial battle, he was forced to take to his tent and such was his exhaustion that he could no longer speak.
Thomas was never to win Punjab but was captured by the troops of Louis Bourquien, a French officer, and allowed to retire to British territory.
En route to Calcutta, he died of a fever on board his pinnace at Berhampore, West Bengal, on August 22, 1802.
*Originally published in 2016. Updated in April 2023.