Alexander Gardner (soldier)

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Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner
Colonel Gardner of Cashmere.jpg
Nickname(s)Gordana Khan
Jammu, Kashmir
AllegianceSikh Empire
Service/branchSikh Khalsa Army/Artillery
Years of service1831–1849

Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner (or Gardiner) (Gordana Khan) (1785–1877) was an american traveller, soldier and mercenary. He travelled to Afghanistan and Punjab and served in various military positions in the region. Details of his life remain obscure, though several accounts have been written of his life. Corroborating evidence of the colourful life he led is sparse; nonetheless, the most recent and most thorough biography of Gardner is The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner, a 2017 book by the distinguished Scottish historian John Keay, who first wrote about Gardner in earlier books in 1977 and 1979.[2]


By his own accounts he was born in Wisconsin to a Scottish father and an Anglo-Spanish mother. According to Baron von Hügel, who met Gardner in 1835, he was Irish, but the evidence for that assertion is obscure.[3]

Gardner went to Ireland in about 1809. He returned to America in 1812, but finding his father dead he returned to Europe and never went back to America. From Europe he travelled to Astrakhan where his brother was working, but when his brother died in 1817 he tried to secure a position in the Russian Army. When that failed he left Russia and spent the next 13 years wandering through Central Asia.

In 1823 he was captured in Afghanistan by Habib Ullah Khan, the nephew of Dost Mohammed Khan. Habib Ullah was fighting his uncle for the throne of Kabul, and he recruited Gardner to his cause as the commander of 180 horsemen. After an attack on a pilgrim caravan Gardner married one of the captives and went to live in a fort near Parwan where a son was born to the couple. When Habib Ullah was defeated in 1826, Gardner's wife, a native woman, and his baby boy were murdered by Dost Mahommed's forces. Gardner fled north with a few companions and near the River Oxus his party were attacked by 50 horsemen: they lost eight out of their thirteen men and the survivors were all wounded but were able to escape. Their route now lay towards Badakhshan and the valley of the Kokcha; the Oxus was finally crossed opposite the Shakhdara to reach the valley of Shignan, still in the year 1826. From this point his narrative is fragmentary and very hard to understand, large parts being highly improbable or impossible. He claimed to have reached Yarkand on 24 September but the year is uncertain, either 1827, 1828 or 1829 are possible, certainly he was there by 1830. He returned to Afghanistan, and visited Kafiristan, possibly the first westerner to do so.[3] In August 1831 he left Afghanistan as an outlaw for the Punjab, where he was appointed Commandant of Artillery. He served in this position for many years before he was transferred to the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, where he was one of between 32 and 100 Western soldiers in Ranjit's army.[4] He was later promoted to the rank of colonel by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The untented Kosmos my abode,
I pass, a wilful stranger:
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of danger.

Epigraph of Alexander Gardner's Autobiography

He remained in the Sikh army after Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, til the First Anglo-Sikh War.

Gardner was involved in numerous gun fights and sword fights during his career. He was described as being six-foot, with a long beard, an all around warrior and fighter. Gardner was known to have saved the City of Lahore in 1841 when his comrades abandoned him and he fired the guns that killed 300 enemies.[citation needed]

Gardner remained in the service of the Maharajas as they came and went, and witnessed the fall of the Punjab as a sovereign kingdom. This he vividly described in his book on the Fall of the Sikh Empire.[5]

He is described as continuing to suffer the effects of 14 wounds in later life.[3] He is supposed to have been difficult to understand due "variously to his lack of teeth, his liking for alcohol, his considerable age or the sing-song lilt of his rusty English; it could equally have been caused by the gash in his throat which was the most obvious of his many wounds and which obliged him to clamp a pair of forceps to his neck whenever he ate or drank."[6]

Gardner kept a journal, much of which was lost. Extracts were published in 1853, and attracted controversy. His exploits were so bizarre that the geographer Sir Henry Yule disbelieved them.[3] In later life, Gardner related his adventures to several prospective biographers, and after his death the surviving material was published in Soldier and Traveller: memoirs of Alexander Gardner; edited by Major Hugh Pearse.[7]

Gardner appears as a major supporting character in the novel Flashman and the Mountain of Light. Parts of his journey are added into The Man Who Would Be King, particularly his visit to Kafiristan.


  1. ^ Major Hugh Pearse (ed.). Memoirs of Alexander Gardner. London: William Blackwood and Sons.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d Keay, John (1977). When Men and Mountains Meet. London: John Murray. pp. 107–131. ISBN 0-7126-0196-1.
  4. ^ Heath, Ian & Perry, Michael (2005) The Sikh Army 1799–1849 p. 10, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-777-8
  5. ^ Gardner, Alexander (1999), Eye Witness Account of the Fall of Sikh Empire; editor, Baldev Singh Baddan. Delhi: National Book Shop ISBN 81-7116-231-2
  6. ^ Dalrymple, William (May 13, 2017). "The fantastic adventures of the tartan-turbaned colonel". The Spectator. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  7. ^ A summary of 'Soldier and Traveller: memoirs of Alexander Gardner by Mike Leahan

New Methodist summary address

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