Benoît de Boigne fully embodies the figure of the adventurer. After a career full of ups and downs, he spent almost twenty years in India, where he acquired military glory and prosperity. The town of Chambéry still bears the mark of his journey between Europe and India at the end of the 18th century.
From one military commitment to another
Benoît de Boigne was born in 1751 in Chambéry, at a time when Savoy was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. His real name was Leborgne, which he changed to de Boigne, and he was the son of a furrier. In 1768 he joined the Clare regiment of the Irish Brigade of the French army, with which he stayed in Mauritius. He resigned after his return to France and joined the Russian army in the eastern Mediterranean. Captured by the Turks in 1774, he was released shortly afterwards. Little is known about his career in the years that followed. In 1777 he was in Alexandria, from where he sailed for India. When he arrived in Madras, he joined a native infantry regiment of the East India Company. He resigned a few years later and went to Lucknow, where he became friends with William Palmer, Antoine Polier and Claude Martin. In 1784, he entered the service of the Maratha chief Mahaji Sindhia.
The commander of Sindhia's armies
Sindhia, to whom the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II had granted the title of plenipotentiary regent, was then the strongman of Hindustan. De Boigne formed two infantry regiments of 850 men for him, then several brigades. His well-trained and well-maintained troops helped establish Sindhia's domination in North India. They distinguished themselves in 1790 during the battles of Patan and Merta against the Rajputs of Jaipur and Marwar. In 1793, another opponent of Sindhia, Tukaji Holkar, Maratha prince of Indore, was defeated at Lakheri.
A wealthy and influential European in 18th-century Hindustan
In exchange for his services, Sindhia granted de Boigne tax concessions called jagirs. As de Boigne's responsibilities grew, so did the size and value of the land involved. He generated large surpluses and began trading in indigo.
De Boigne is often credited with helping to restore the Taj Mahal. In 1794, Sir John MacGregor Murray asked him to intervene with Sindhia to ensure that the building was maintained in good condition. Murray and De Boigne exchanged several letters about the Taj Mahal and the fate of the imperial family. Although their correspondence does not seem to have led to any real measures to preserve the mausoleum, it illustrates the influence acquired by de Boigne on the Indian political scene. In contact with the Maratha chiefs and the emperor himself, he received prestigious titles, such as I'timad ud-Daula (Pillar of the Empire).
Like other Europeans of the same period, de Boigne had relationships with Indian women. He married William Palmer's sister-in-law, Nur Begum, and had two children, Banu Jan and Ali Baksh.
Return to Europe
In 1795, after ten years in the service of Sindhia and his heir, Daulat Rao, de Boigne left India with his family for health reasons. He took with him a large consignment of weapons, miniatures and precious objects, such as a gold houka with its accessories. De Boigne and his family disembarked in England, while the Danish ship on which they had travelled continued on its way. The ship was wrecked before it reached Copenhagen. De Boigne's trunks, which he had left on board, were lost at sea. They were later partially recovered, saving his personal effects and collection.
De Boigne and his family settled in England under the name Bennett. His wife and children were christened Helen, Ann Elizabeth and Charles Alexander. De Boigne provided for them, but he married Adèle d'Osmond, the daughter of French immigrants, in 1798. The marriage fell through and he returned to Savoy alone in 1802.
The benefactor of Chambéry
He settled in Chambéry, where he acquired and embellished the castle of Buisson Rond. He used his fortune to give large sums of money to the town. His largesse, which amounted to more than 3 million pounds, was mainly destined for pious and charitable works. De Boigne received honours from the kings of France and Sardinia. After becoming a count, he was appointed lieutenant-general of the armies of the King of Sardinia. He died in 1830, with Charles Alexandre as his heir.
A monumental fountain was erected in his honour in Chambéry. Inaugurated in 1838, it comprises four elephants surmounted by battle towers and trophies of arms, on which rises a column bearing the statue of the general. The inscriptions, bas-reliefs and objects depicted illustrate the high points of his Indian career and his generosity towards his native town. Classified as a historical monument in 1982, the Elephant Fountain has become one of the emblematic monuments of Chambéry, symbolising the reputation that de Boigne has built up in India.
Published in january 2022