President’s Bodyguards and… Marie Antoinette’s ‘lover’ buried in Buxur

The President's Body Guard, the oldest cavalry regiment of the Indian Army, will be completing 250 years of its foundation next year. It may recall the colourful Frenchman who served the regiment

President’s Bodyguards and… Marie Antoinette’s ‘lover’ buried in Buxur

Devasis Chattopadhyay

A minor controversy erupted over our ‘colonial legacy’ and whether Indian soldiers who fought and died fighting in wars before Independence for the British Empire were mercenaries. The controversy followed the decision to ‘merge’ the flame of Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate, a war memorial with names of mostly Indian soldiers killed in the first world war, with the flame at the National War Memorial.

The India Gate, unveiled in 1931, it was argued, was a reminder of our colonial legacy and thus unacceptable. It upset several veterans who pointed out that a large number of distinguished soldiers, officers and even chiefs of Indian Army after Independence had served British India. The Gorkhas from Nepal continue to serve in the British Army as well as Indian Army. Would it be fair to describe them as mercenaries?

Amusingly, the storm in the teacup overlooked the President’s Body Guards, the finest horsemen of the Indian Army dressed in smart, resplendent suits in red, golden sashes and exquisite turbans. The President’s Bodyguards had escorted President Ram Nath Kovind from the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

While nobody pointed a finger to the colonial legacy of the President’s Bodyguard, PBG is not only the oldest cavalry regiment of the Indian Army, but it is going to complete 250 years of its raising next year. The regiment traces its roots to the Governor-General’s Bodyguard (GGBG) raised by Warren Hastings in Kolkata in 1773.

Hastings had handpicked 50 troopers from the Mughal Horse, a unit raised in 1760 after the victory of the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey over Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-Daulah and his French allies in 1757. Raja Cheyt Singh of Varanasi provided 50 more horsemen, which took the strength of the unit to 100.

The unit saw immediate action when it was deployed to quell the ‘sanyasi rebellion’ in Bengal in 1773, which finds mention in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Bengali novel Anandamath, in which the national song -Vande Mataram– also figures. The unit also saw action against the Rohillas and in the 3rd Mysore War against Tipu Sultan between 1790 and 1792.

Almost fifty years later in 1843, during the battle of succession that erupted in Gwalior after the death of Maharaja Jankojirao Scindia, the unit took an active part in brokering a settlement. The unit also fought in World War I and II abroad.

The Partition divided the armed forces in a 2:1 ratio between India and Pakistan. Muslim members of the unit went over to Pakistan while Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs stayed back with the Indian Army. On 26 January 1950, when India became a republic, the unit was renamed President’s Bodyguard - in short - PBG. After the division of all other assets of the regiment between India and Pakistan, both the countries wanted the gold-plated buggy of the British Viceroy. It was eventually decided by a toss of the coin and India called correctly to retain it.

The President of India even now uses the buggy on ceremonial occasions. President Ram Nath Kovind took the historic buggy ride from Rashtrapati Bhavan to Parliament House for his oath-taking ceremony, as did his predecessors including Pranab Mukherjee. Both Presidents used the buggy to attend the Republic Day parade as well.

Calcutta Gazette, one of the first newspapers published from Kolkata, reported in 1802, that ‘Antoine De L’Etang was appointed as veterinary surgeon to the Bodyguard of the Governor-General of Bengal. The position had been created for the first time and the Frenchman was with the unit till 1806.

Historians from Evan Cotton to William Dalrymple have mentioned De L’Etang (1757-1840), who started as the Page of Honour to Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)--the last queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, and some say he had an affair with the queen, which resulted in his escape to India to escape the king’s wrath. Others believe he was merely devoted to the queen.

His name is spelt differently in different narratives, as ‘de l’Etang’, ‘De L’Etang’ and ‘Deletang’. Born on 20 July 1757 in Versailles to a former cavalry captain and his wife Jeane Barbier, a year after the first treaty of Versailles was signed. The treaty led to the marriage in 1770 of the 15-year-old Princess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) Josepha Johannato Louis-Auguste, heir of the French monarch Louis XV and who became infamous as Louis the XVI.

Marie Antoinette had an affair with Hans Axel von Fersen (1755-1810), a Swedish Count, which is well documented, and questions arose regarding the paternity of Marie’s children. To avoid causing a scandal, Axel von Fersen left for the war in America in the early part of 1780.

In the Palace of Versailles, where his father served, Antoine De L’Etang had his first employment in 1770 as a Page of Honour to Marie Antoinette, the would-be-queen, on her arrival at the Palace. De L’Etang, then a boy of 13 and two-years junior in age to Marie Antoinette, fell in love with her. De L’Etang was openly devoted to his royal mistress, and his devotion was such that over time gossip reached the ears of King Louis XVI, already incensed over the Hans Axel von Fersen affair.

De L’Etang escaped to India and where he joined the French infantry against the British East India Company. Later, he migrated to Kolkata along with his AngloFrench wife from Pondicherry and their children. After a few years in private business, he accepted the position of a veterinary surgeon at GGBG. After four years, in 1806, he left this job and went to Lucknow to work for the Nawab of Awadh as the Superintendent of the Nawab’s Stud, and a Veterinary Surgeon.

He apparently returned to the services of the GGBG in 1816 in Kolkata once again as a Sub-Assistant to the Superintendent. Bengal Directory and Annual Register of 1838 records that Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang was still serving as the First Assistant in the Stud Department, Buxar, Central Provinces till he died on 1 December 1840 at the age of 84 and was interred in the Buxar cemetery in Bihar bordering eastern UP.

British writer Virginia Woolf is Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang’s great-great-granddaughter. Very many popular 19th century English families with powerful women such as Julia Margaret Cameron – the celebrated British photographer, and Anny Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of author William Makepeace Thackeray and herself an author – were related to Chevalier Antoine De L’Etang.

The fascinating history of the President’s Body Guard in true military tradition, teaches us the importance plurality and unity in diversity.

(IPA Service)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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