Monday, 4 April 2011

Giving You The Bengal Lancers of the British Raj

Bengal Lancers during bygone days of the British Raj

The Bengal Lancers bring all sorts of romantic thoughts to mind and their name echoes in history. To the British, we see them as glorious horsemen in turbans patrolling the far-flung reaches of the British Empire during the times of the British Raj in India. The origins go back to around 1803 when the East India company were looking for a regiment of native Indian horseman to protect British trade interests in India.

This was a time of Empire and Britain was aspiring to become the dominant power in the world - competing with France - the superpower in Europe, where the island nation of Britain was protected by her vast Royal Navy from Napoleon's imperial ambitions.


James Skinner
In India, at this time, there was a young man called James Skinner of mixed race, born in Calcutta in 1778 to a British Lieutenant Colonel called Hercules Skinner, and an Indian Rajput Princess. Because of his mixed background, he could not get a commission in the British Army or East India Company's Army and so, for a time, he served as an Ensign in a private force under a French commander before joining the British Army.

Despite not having an officer's commission, he was still of high enough birth for the British Raj and Indian traders to accept his help in raising a force of horseman to protect booming trade interests in this part of the Empire. On his father's side, he had Scottish origins and his ancestors could also be traced back to Norman Knights who helped William the Conqueror in 1066. His Indian mother was also of high esteem in Rajput, but the mixing of both noble backgrounds from Europe and Asia was a handicap in the day and age of British Imperialism and Indian tradition.


He recruited local Indian horsemen and called them, Skinner's Horse (sometimes known as Yellow Boys because of the colour of their uniform) These were to become the Bengal Lancers. As the years moved on this famous regiment would change its title name on a number of occasions, but Skinner's name would always be associated with them long after his death in 1841.

Among the name changes, most people would know of 1st Regiment of Bengal Lancers or later 1st (Duke of York's Own) Bengal Lancers (Skinner's Horse) The names varied through the decades, but the Bengal Lancers would become notorious. While James Skinner still led them, they took part in the siege of Bharatpur in 1818. For this, he was granted a jagir which, in India, is a district of land - in Skinner's case, Hisar district.

Finally, in 1828, the British broke with their outdated tradition and showed their gratitude by making the mixed race James Skinner a Lieutenant Colonel.


1st Regiment of Bengal Lancers
During the time of the British Raj

His beloved 1st Regiment of Bengal Lancers (Skinner's Horse) would go on throughout the time of the British Raj. They saw action in the first Afghanistan War at Candahar in 1842, the second Afghanistan War of 1878-1880 and the third Afghanistan War of 1919. They also saw fighting in the First World War - on the Western Front and in the Balkans. Also the Boxer rebellion in China at the turn of the century.

When the British Raj ended in 1947, the Bengal Lancers moved over to the Indian Army and saw action in the Indian-Pakistan War.




Skinner's Horse (Yellow Boys)
Origin of Bengal Lancers
To many, their legend or image is that of the time when the, now obsolete, Raj ruled in India. There remains a romantic vision of them that sometimes shadows the old Empire's less appealing aspects - creating a colourful picture from a time when the world was different, and when adventurers still had an air of romance in a world that was very different from today.

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