Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomas, George (1756?-1802)

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THOMAS, GEORGE (1756?–1802), adventurer in India, an Irishman, born about 1756 at Roscrea, Tipperary, was a quartermaster, or, according to some accounts, a common sailor in the British navy. About the end of 1781 he deserted from a man-of-war at Madras, and took service under the Poligar chiefs of the Carnatic. Going to Delhi in 1787, he was employed by the Begum Sumru of Sirdhana, who made him commander of her army. In 1788, when the moghul emperor of Delhi, Shah Alum, with the assistance of the begum's troops, was laying siege to Gokalgarh, the stronghold of a rebellious vassal, Thomas repulsed a sortie of the garrison, saved the emperor from capture, and turned the fortunes of the day. Being degraded in 1792 for misconduct, or, more possibly, displaced in the begum's favour by the Frenchman, Le Vaisseau, his old enemy, Thomas transferred his services to Scindia's cousin, Appa Rao, the Mahratta governor of Meerut, for whom he raised troops, and drilled them, as far as he could, on the European system. As a reward the district of Jhajjar was assigned to him, and he was made warden of the Sikh marches. He now built the fort of Georgegarh, known to the natives as Jehazgarh, and established a military post at Hânsi, eighty-nine miles north-west of Delhi, as a bulwark against the Sikhs. In 1795 he made his peace with the begum Sumru, whom he helped to suppress a mutiny and to recover possession of her territory east of the Jumna. Shortly after Appa Rao's death (1797) Thomas asserted his independence, seized Hissar and Hânsi, and began to encroach on the neighbouring Sikh and Rajput states. By the end of 1799 his authority extended over all Hissar, Hânsi, and Sirsa, and a greater part of Rohtak; and he was the most powerful ruler on the right bank of the Jumna, or, as he said himself, dictator of all the countries belonging to the Sikhs south of the Sutlej. His headquarters were at Hânsi. His annual revenue was reckoned at 200,000l. He started a mint and gun factories, maintained a large military force, levied tribute from Sikh states, ‘and would probably have been master of them all, in the room of Ranjit Singh, had not the jealousy of Perron and other French officers in the Mahratta army interposed’ (Sleeman). In 1797 he had invited the principal Sikh chieftains to join him in opposing the Mahrattas and conquering northern India. He projected an expedition to the mouths of the Indus, intending to transport his army in boats from Ferozepore. Another scheme was the conquest of the Punjab, which he offered to carry out on behalf of the British government, hoping, he said, to have the honour of planting the standard of England on the banks of the Attock. But he had already reached the height of his power. The Sikh chieftains east of the Sutlej, driven to desperation by his frequent forays, sought help from Perron, Scindia's French general at Delhi, who sent a force under Captain Felix Smith, supported by Louis Bourquin, to besiege Georgegarh. Thomas faced his enemies with boldness and at first with success. He compelled Smith to raise the siege of Georgegarh, and defeated Bourquin at Beri. But the Mahrattas were quickly reinforced; Jats and Rajputs gathered from the south, Sikhs from the north, and Georgegarh was threatened by an army of thirty thousand men, with 110 cannon. Some of his chief officers now deserted him, and he fled by night to Hânsi. He was followed and again surrounded, and, with traitors in his camp, was compelled early in 1802 to surrender. It was agreed that he should be escorted to the British frontier, where he arrived early in 1802 with a lakh and a half of rupees and property worth another lakh. Proceeding on his way to Calcutta, he died at Burhampore, Bengal, on 22 Aug. 1802.

Colonel James Skinner (1778–1841) [q. v.], who with Scindia's troops fought against Thomas at Georgegarh and Hânsi, has described his tall martial figure, great strength, bold features, and erect carriage, adding that in disposition he was frank, generous, and humane, though liable to sudden outbursts of temper. Sir William Henry Sleeman [q. v.] says ‘he was unquestionably a man of extraordinary military genius, and his ferocity and recklessness as to the means he used were quite in keeping with the times.’ He is still spoken of with admiration by the natives of the Rohtak district, ‘whose affections he gained by his gallantry and kindness; and he seems never to have tarnished the name of his country by the gross actions that most military adventurers have been guilty of' (Rohtak Gazetteer).

There is a portrait of 'General George Thomas', apparently by a native artist, in his 'Memoirs', by Capt. William Francklin [q. v.]

[Francklin's Military Memoirs of Mr. George Thomas, Calcutta, 1803; Compton's Military Adventurers of Hindustan, 1892, pp. 109-220, with portrait; Asiatic Annual Register, 1800; Calcutta Review, v. 362; Punjab District Gazetteers (Rohtak and Hissar).]

S. W.