Why an American Became General of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

American Alexander Gardner born in Wisconsin, USA was General of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

“In August 1831 he left Afghanistan as an outlaw for the Punjab, where he was appointed Commandant of Artillery.”

He served in this position for many years before he was transferred to the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, where he was one of between 32 and 100 Western soldiers in Ranjit’s army.  He was later promoted to the rank of Colonel by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.


“The untented Kosmos my abode,
I pass, a wilful stranger:
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of danger.”

Epigraph of Alexander Gardner’s Autobiography

He remained in the Sikh army after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, til the First Anglo-Sikh War.

Gardner was involved in numerous gun fights and sword fights during his career. He was described as being six-foot, with a long beard, an all around warrior and fighter. Gardner was known to have saved the City of Lahore in 1841 when his comrades abandoned him and he fired the guns that killed 300 enemies. He is described by Keay as continuing to suffer the effects of 14 wounds in later life.

Gardner remained in the service of the Maharajas as they came and went, and witnessed the fall of the Punjab as a sovereign kingdom. This he vividly described in his book on the Fall of the Sikh Empire.

Gardner kept a journal, much of which was lost. Extracts were published in 1853, and attracted controversy. His exploits were so bizarre that the geographer Sir Henry Yule disbelieved them. In later life, Gardner related his adventures to several prospective biographers, and after his death the surviving material was published in Soldier and Traveller: memoirs of Alexander Gardner; edited by Major Hugh Pearse.

Gardner appears as a major supporting character in the novel Flashman and the Mountain of Light. Parts of his journey are added into The Man Who Would Be King, particularly his visit to Kafiristan.

Early Life:

By his own accounts he was born in Wisconsin to a Scottish father and an Anglo-Spanish mother.

Gardner went to Ireland in about 1809. He returned to America in 1812, but finding his father dead he returned to Europe and never went back to America.

From Europe he travelled to Astrakhan where his brother was working, but when his brother died in 1817 he tried to secure a position in the Russian Army. When that failed he left Russia and spent the next 13 years wandering through Central Asia.

In 1823 he was captured in Afghanistan by Habib Ullah Khan, the nephew of Dost Mohammed Khan. Habib Ullah was fighting his uncle for the throne of Kabul, and he recruited Gardner to his cause as the commander of 180 horsemen.

After an attack on a pilgrim caravan Gardner married one of the captives and went to live in a fort near Parwan where a son was born to the couple. When Habib Ullah was defeated in 1826, Gardner’s wife, a native woman, and his baby boy were murdered by Dost Mahommed’s forces.

Gardner fled north with a few companions and near the River Oxus his party were attacked by 50 horsemen: they lost eight out of their thirteen men and the survivors were all wounded but were able to escape. Their route now lay towards Badakhshan and the valley of the Kokcha; the Oxus was finally crossed opposite the Shakhdara to reach the valley of Shignan, still in the year 1826. From this point his narrative is fragmentary and very hard to understand, large parts being highly improbable or impossible.

He claimed to have reached Yarkand on 24 September but the year is uncertain, either 1827, 1828 or 1829 are possible, certainly he was there by 1830.

He returned to Afghanistan, and visited Kafiristan, possibly the first westerner to do so.

For Further reading: Autobiography of Alexander Gardner

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