Monsieur Raymond: The French General Of The Deccan

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Monsieur Raymond, a French captain made a name in the Nizam's army, and to this day, pilgrims pay homage at his tomb in Hyderabad.

Love is both blind and hereditary in India. If you want proof of that, visit the remnants of Michel James Marie Raymond’s tomb in Hyderabad. Two hundred years since ‘Monsieur’ Raymond’s death in 1798, you can still find offerings made by the locals at his grave.

The offering itself varies based on one’s religion. The Hindus remember him as Musa Ram; the Muslims as Musa Rahim. Either will leave a sweet or incense sticks. But Asaf Jàh II, Nizam of Hyderabad (1734-1803), whom Raymond served as General in the Hyderabad Army, sent a different offering on his passing – a box of cigars and a bottle of beer (Dalrymple, White Mughals: p xxxiv).

The Nizam knew that Raymond had died a betrayed man. After years of loyal and efficient service to the Hyderabad State, his duties were discarded and his rival (the British Resident James Kirkpatrick) was appointed in his place. The destiny of Hyderabad was thus intertwined with that of the British – and France had lost one of its greatest captains in India.

But the men who served under him remember him fondly. On the anniversary of his death, they would assemble near his tomb eating sweetmeats and recounting their adventures together. The tradition of tributes they paid to their former general is probably the reason why so many locals continue to revere Raymond today.

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Raymond was born in Sérignac in Gascony, France in 1755. At the age of 20, in 1775, he followed in his father’s footsteps and set off to India – with dreams of trade. These were days when unemployment was high in France, and a European mercenary in India could earn far more than a labourer or soldier in Europe. Soon after arriving in Pondicherry, he sold off his goods. Seeking adventure, he enlisted as a sub-lieutenant in Haider Ali’s Army (under a French colonel).

He made a good name in Haider’s military, and when the famous French Governor General Marquis de Bussy landed on Pondicherry’s shores in 1783, Raymond was an obvious hire. At the time, the American Revolutionary War had reached India. And, the British and French holdings in the country were instigating various wars against each other. The Peace of Paris in 1778 brought hostilities to a close – leaving Raymond a soldier with no war.

He needed a livelihood and saw potential in serving the locals. With his governor’s consent (after the death of de Bussy), he joined the Nizam of Hyderabad.

There was already a French contingent in the Nizam’s army – but it was small and unorganized. Raymond’s contribution was to assemble and drill it in the style of a European army.

Taking a leaf from the popular Hadith verse – “Give the worker his wages before his sweat dries”, Raymond ensured all his soldiers were paid in a timely manner – an apparent rarity at the time. It earned him their loyalty, and even saw his army become a hot destination for former soldiers of the East India Company.

By 1795, he had fifteen thousand troops under him – considered one of the most formidable armies of any native prince in the subcontinent. He had also set up several cannonball factories in the state – one of which is the sole surviving building from the eighteenth century in Hyderabad today.

But his first battle ended poorly. The Nizam had gone to war with the Peshwas of the Maratha Empire. Meeting the Marathas at the battle of Kardla, Raymond grabbed an early advantage but was routed by the opposition’s larger forces. But during the retreat, he is said to have had an opportunity to turn the tide – which was refused on the Nizam’s orders.

The battle was a defeat, but it demonstrated Raymond’s military prowess. He soon found the troops under his command increasing, along with his personal fortune.

His first military victory was against the Nizam’s own rebellious son – Ali Jàh. Ali defected and captured the fort at Bidar, where he assembled various chiefs and former sepoys to create an army. The Nizam dispatched Raymond – who managed to dissipate the enemy army with only a small skirmish (suggesting they were queasy at the thought of fighting an organized force).

The shame of loss never seems to have left Ali Jàh. He committed suicide by consuming poison during his return to Hyderabad. In later years, the rightful heir to the throne, Sikander Jàh, would ‘swear by the head of M. Raymond’, an apparent act of high regard.

He gained a reputation of being honourable and just, even to his enemies.

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Over the years, Raymond consolidated his fortune and power. He hoped eventually to expand the territory under his control to the coast – so he could link up with any future French force. But the British were well aware of the threat he posed to them, and saw to it that his services were disbanded. Whether Raymond was poisoned or committed suicide, remains a mystery. He was young – only 43, when he died.

It was not the end of the French in Hyderabad – as Raymond’s deputy Jean-Pierre Piron saw to it that French maintained their influence on the Nizam. But neither Piron nor any contemporary European commander was remembered with the same respect as Raymond. As George Bruce Malleson said about him:

No European of mark who followed him in India ever succeeded in gaining, to such an extent, the love, the esteem, and the admiration of the natives of the country… the hero of the grandfathers is the model warrior of the grandchildren.

Musa Ram, Musa Rahim or Monsieur Raymond – the young man from France had left a powerful legacy in the Deccan with seemingly few grand conquests. What explains his soldier’s love for him? It could not be pay alone – records show he paid his Indian soldiers far less than his predecessors. It is likely that it was his conduct and manner that won him the hearts and minds of his men. The good conduct of a Frenchman is a long-lasting affair in India. On this basis, Raymond’s legacy is likely to outlast the memorials set for him.

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