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Skinner's Horse... the memory lives on


THE BI-CENTENARY of the famous Skinner's Horse was observed in Delhi recently with a special thanksgiving ceremony at St. James's Church. Among those present was Margaret Skinner, great great grand-daughter-in-law of Col. James Skinner. The service was, of course, conducted by CNI priests but the passage from the Bible assigned for the day was read out by Admiral Sushil Kumar, retired Chief of Naval Staff.

Col. Douglas Gray, now over 90-years-old, who commanded Skinner's Horse from 1935 to 1947, was among the former British officers who had come all the way from England for the regimental reunion. Some also brought their wives along, for it was an emotional occasion. Col. Skinner's estate in Hansi (Haryana) was also the venue of the celebrations as it is not far from Delhi. The church was renovated a few years ago with the old stained glass windows restored to their pristine glory, thanks to the efforts of an enterprising artist-cum-building restoration expert of the Capital.

Hansi is the place where the slave emperor Balban had been forced to retire because of court intrigues in the 13th Century. But he came back from retirement and ruled for 33 years. Many centuries later Hansi became the retreat of Col. James Skinner, who raised Skinner's Horse (regiment) and built the beautiful Gothic church in Kashmere Gate, Delhi.

The Skinner story is a well-known one. James Skinner, the son of a Scot father and a Rajput mother, was born in 1778 at Kolkata. His father was in the service of the East India Company. When James was 12 years old his mother committed suicide and at the age of 16 he left home and came all the way to meet Benoit de Boigne, the French commander of the forces of Maharaja Scindia. His ancestry, which could be traced to the Skinners who served William the conqueror, was something that greatly impressed de Boigne and he took James under his protection.

The boy did not betray the trust reposed in him and acquitted himself well in many skirmishes. The turning point came at the battle of Uniara where he was wounded and left for dead. For three days he lay among the dead praying that if God spared his life he would never fight again and build a church to perpetuate his vow. A cobbler's wife looking for valuables among the slain found that one of them was still alive and revived the young man.

Skinner honoured the woman as his mother till she lived and later also built the pledged church, but he never quit fighting. He formed an irregular cavalry known as the Yellow Boys, who were a dreaded lot, and virtually made him the most famous mercenary leader in North India. During Lord Lake's campaign in 1803 Skinner was much sought after by the British and eventually Lake succeeded in winning over the allegiance of the soldier of fortune. In 1815, the Marquess of Hastings watched with admiration the skill of the Yellow Boys in action. Still a commission in the British Army was denied to James and his brother Robert, who was the leader of another band of irregulars, because of their mixed parentage.

Undaunted, the Yellow Boys continued to fight under Sikandar Sahib, as James was known, with their war-cry "Himmat-i-Mardan, Madad-e-Khuda" (courage of man and help of God). In 1828 James was finally given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his brother that of Major.

But Robert blew out his brains soon after killing his wife and her paramour. James lived on till 1842, smoking the hookah at his country retreat and generally pleased with his accomplishments. Surrounded by his admirers, among who was William Fraser British Agent at the Moghul Court, he gave the impression of a nawab seated amidst Persian carpets at his palatial house in what is now Nicholson Road, leading to Mori Gate.

His descendants are to be found in London, Glasgow and Sydney, besides India. Skinner's eldest son from a Muslim wife and his descendants lived in Meerut. But the Hansi estate is run by the widow of Brig. Michael Skinner, who retired some years ago as Commander of Scindia's Horse, now a mechanised unit of the Indian Army. Margaret Skinner is also a Skinner descendant, who married her kinsman and now divides her time between Delhi, the Hansi retreat, the family house at Mussoorie and Australia where her daughter lives. There are portraits of her ancestors on the walls, the pride of place being taken by those of James Skinner, to whom her husband Michael bore a close resemblance. His grandmother, Asharfi Begum once lived at Hansi and tended the garden, which is not so well maintained now. But the verandahs, hall and bedrooms still whisper tales of the romantic times when Sikandar Sahib held sway.

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