The 1790s were a period of profound political upheaval in India. The Mughal Empire was in decline, the emperor Shah Alam II under the “protection” of the Marathas. Between the Holkars in Indore, Scindias in Gwalior and the Peshwa in Pune, the Marathas were a divided house. The French East India Company had lately lost battles to the British, but retained a presence in some kingdoms. Among the remaining powerful states were Mysore and Hyderabad.
With things in flux and states vying for power, a space opened up for adventurers and mercenaries. These men for hire had no community loyalties, no kinship networks to guarantee affiliation. Money was their primary consideration and princely kingdoms and trading companies were only too happy to avail of their services.
One such adventurer was a young American named John Parker Boyd.
A former soldier, Boyd had arrived in India in 1789. He was tall, well-formed, handsome and known to be courteous and generous. With funds from the Nizam of Hyderabad, he raised two battalions (“kausolars”) of 500 infantrymen each. Over the next few years, he would hire his forces out to the Holkars and the Peshwas, before seeking a return to the Nizam’s service.
During his time in India, Boyd was witness to, or a participant in, court intrigues, shifting political fortunes of kingdoms, and military mobilisations, all of which played a crucial role in shaping events in the country in the following decades.
James Parker Boyd was born to James and Susannah Boyd on December 21, 1764, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a seaport 45 miles north of Boston. His father James was from Scotland, while his mother’s forbears immigrated from England in the mid-17th century. With his brothers, Boyd worked in a store to pick up “mercantile skills”. In 1786, he signed up as an ensign in the military, seeing limited action during the “Shays’ rebellion” in western Massachusetts, when farmer and citizen groups rebelled over higher taxes.
In 1789, he travelled to India, reaching Madras via the Isle of France (Mauritius). A year later, in June, the English consul at Hyderabad introduced him to Nizam Ali Khan, Asaf Jah II – a significant event in Boyd’s life. He wrote about the meeting in detail in a letter to his father. The opulence of the Nizam’s court mesmerised him. The Nizam’s army included 150,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and 500 elephants. The elephant brigade especially impressed him: the equipage was elegant and the “castle” atop the elephant that could hold a nawab and four attendants was the “noblest sight he had ever seen”. The Nawab, he said, travelled in luxury, accompanied by 50 servants, including 16 palanquin bearers as well as runners to carry messages.
The Nizam granted Boyd a commission of Rs 500, along with another Rs 1,500 in emoluments. This enabled the American to raise two small battalions of infantrymen, a number that would rise impressively during his stay in the country.
In 1795, historian Ronald Rosner says, Boyd and his unit saw military action for the first time when, as part of the combined Maratha forces, they fought against the Nizam in the battle of Kharda in present-day Ahmednagar. The Nizam’s defeat in this battle – in which the British East India Company adopted a non-interventionist policy – led the Hyderabad ruler to move closer to the French. Michel Joachim Marie Raymond, a Frenchman in the Nizam’s service, was appointed Comptroller of Ordnance. To the British, this posed a challenge. Raymond was a popular man, whose kindness and charitable acts had earned him the epithets “Musa Rahim” and “Musa Ram”.
After Kharda, Boyd’s pay increased to Rs 3,000 a month, which allowed him to raise an “independent body of troops”. With these soldiers, Boyd was seemingly free of political control, yet his loyalties evidently lay with the British. This became clear on the night of August 9, 1797, when his forces were hastily summoned to Hyderabad by the British Resident James Kirkpatrick. There were credible rumours that Raymond intended to make a military move to dislodge the English detachment in Hyderabad. Boyd stepped up to the occasion. His surprising manoeuvres and the parade of his troops, as a show of strength, forced Raymond to discreetly reposition his forces. By dawn the next day the threat was over and Boyd had earned the gratitude of the East India Company. In a letter, the Resident promised him a reward, one that Boyd would claim years later, after his return to the US.
It was Raymond, however, who prevailed in this high-stakes game of political one-upmanship as the Nizam ultimately chose not to engage Boyd’s services. Soon his hopes of reentering the Peshwa’s service were dashed as well. It was a time of toxic intrigue in the Peshwa’s court. Baji Rao II, installed as Peshwa in 1795, and Daulat Rao Scindia were determined to cut the former royal advisor, Nana Phadnavis, to size. Meanwhile, Boyd’s former employers, the Holkars, were viewed as a threat to others in the confederacy.
What happened next to Boyd is a matter of contention. It is agreed that he received veiled warnings from Scindia for his suspect loyalties. But there are other versions. One says that the court intrigues disgusted him, another that his intervention following the murder of a fellow adventurer earned him the Peshwa’s ire.
Alarmed by Baji Rao II’s penchant for having enemies trampled to death, Boyd sought refuge with the British in Bombay. He was compelled to flee after hurriedly selling his forces of “two battalions, four pieces of cannon, a troop of horsemen, and a small body of Rohillas – warriors of Pashtun descent – amounting to 2,000 effective men” to Jean-Baptiste Filose, a soldier born of a Neapolitan father and Indian mother. In return he received Rs 35,000.
Life in the US
Boyd returned to Boston in 1798. According to some accounts, he had married a woman named Housina Begum in 1795 while he was part of the Peshwa’s forces and they had a daughter, Frances, in 1797. With his immense wealth, he bought acres of land around the town of Orneville in Maine (several old landmarks such as the post office, lake and a plantation were once named after the Boyd family). More land was bought later in the township of Medford, Connecticut.
In 1806, Boyd wrote to the East India Company in London, securing permission to import 300 tonnes of saltpetre (used in gunpowder) from India. He hoped that selling the shipment to the US government would earn him a sizable profit. But the ship Martha was seized by another Company vessel at the Cape of Good Hope. Boyd tried hard to secure his goods, pulling strings in London and Calcutta, but the saltpetre was sold at a nominal sum. Making things worse for him was the belief that the consignment was bought by rival traders in Boston. It would take him another decade to recover his losses. In the meantime, a career in the military beckoned him.
In 1808, following a Congressional act, Boyd became a colonel in the newly raised 4th Infantry. Three years later, his forces saw action in Indiana, where a Native American confederacy led by brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa of the Shawnee tribe had gathered force, rousing other tribes to unite against the American government that was taking their land.
Boyd gave a credible account of himself holding back the enemy at Vincennes in Indiana. But the very next year, he failed to prove his mettle in a battle in Canada. His forces sailed up the St. Lawrence River towards Montreal, closely followed overland by the British, who had strategically allied with the Native American cause. Sustaining heavy losses in the “Battle of Chrysler’s farm”, his forces had to make a quick retreat. Though Boyd vigorously defended his role in the fight, he did not see another military engagement in his lifetime. He was described as “vacillating” by a fellow officer, especially when called to command situations on his own.
In 1816, Boyd travelled to London to secure compensation for his lost shipment. A parliamentary committee headed by William Wilberforce deliberated for several months, taking depositions from Boyd’s former associates in the East India Company, insurers and lawyers. In the end, it awarded him a compensation of £30,000, a sum far short of his expectations.
Boyd’s return to political favour took another decade and a half. In 1830, US President Andrew Jackson appointed him Naval Officer of Boston seaport, making him responsible for checking ship manifests (register of passengers), tabulating customs and other duties. In return he was given an allowance. But Boyd died a few months later in October 1830. Of his fortune, he left a quarter to his daughter Frances in India and another quarter to his son Wallace, born in 1814 from Marie Ruppel. Frances’ whereabouts could never be ascertained.
This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.