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General Paolo Crescenzo Martino Avitabile (Abu Tabela) (25 October 1791 – 28 March 1850) was an Italian soldier, mercenary and adventurer. A peasant's son born in Agerola, near Amalfi in Italy, he served in the Neapolitan militia during the Napoleonic wars. After Waterloo he drifted east like many other adventurous soldiers. In 1820 he joined the army of the Shah of Persia, attaining the rank of colonel and receiving several decorations before returning to Italy in 1824.
He joined the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab in 1827, and later also received various civilian appointments. In 1829 he was made administrator of Wazirabad and in 1837 he succeeded Hari Singh Nalwa as governor of Peshawar. He remained in the Punjab until the assassination of Maharaja Sher Singh in 1843, after which he retired to Italy, where his rank as a general was confirmed and he was knighted.
Career in Europe
The young Avitabile served in the local levies of the Kingdom of Naples between 1807 and 1809, when he joined the artillery of the regular army. As a part of the Imperial Army, Avitabile served under Murat on several campaigns. In these campaigns he earned the rank of Lieutenant, as well as the command of the 15th Battery. After the fall of Napoleon and the defeat of Murat at Tolentino, Naples was restored to Ferdinand I of Sicily. Avitabile retained his rank and command and joined the army of the new Kingdom of Two Sicilies, where he joined the siege of Gaeta under the command of the Austrian general Delaver.
During this siege, he displayed great bravery and was wounded twice. The general recommended him for a promotion and a decoration, but was not heard. Avitabile was transferred instead to a position of lieutenant in a regiment of light infantry. It is said he quit in disgust over this treatment. His European career had come to an end.
Having quit the army in Naples, Avitabile set his eyes on a career abroad. His initial idea was to, as many of his countrymen, seek fortune in America but this ended in a shipwreck off Marseille. Instead, he was advised to seek employment to the east. In Constantinople he was approached by an agent of the Persian Shah Fath Ali Shah recruiting European officers; in 1820, Avitabile took service with the Persian Shah. He remained in this employment for six years, during which period he rose to the rank of khan and a grade of colonel in the Persian army. Here he also met Claude August Court who would later accompany him on the travel to Punjab. Avitabile was rewarded for his services by two of Persia's highest decorations as Grand Commander of The Lion and Sun and of The Two Lions and Crown, but found the pay lacking. When he heard favourable notice from Jean-Baptiste Ventura of his employment in Punjab Ventura again broke up to travel further to the east.
Together with Court, Avitabile arrived in Lahore in 1827 and was hired by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He was given a position with the artillery and put in charge of the arsenal and gun foundries. He was also given a civilian position as governor of Wazirabad. It would seem he was an able administrator, as he held the position for the next seven years. He governed the city with a firm - at times, cruel - hand and managed to impose order and discipline. As a result, Wazirabad prospered.
With a ruthless, at times brutal, style of government, Avitabile established order in the province where he became known as Abu Tabela. Summary executions became usual, and it is said that he would have people executed by throwing them from the top of Mahabat Khan's mosque. While this brutality was shocking to visiting Europeans (in the words of Sir Henry Lawrence: he acts like a savage among savage men, instead of showing them that a Christian can wield the iron sceptre without staining it by needless cruelty), it proved both successful in maintaining order and even popular among the peaceful inhabitants.
His iron fist rule over Peshawar has made a place for him in local folklore. Even today unruly children in the city are brought to control by invoking Abu Tabela's name. In times of unrest, law-abiding citizens send a small wish for the return of an Abu Tabela to finally re-impose law and order.
As governor of Peshawar, Avitabile controlled the southern entrance to the Khyber Pass. The control of this strategic position, brought him in contact with the British army during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42), where he was able to render vital assistance. During Elphinstone's advance in 1839, the British were well received in Peshawar and their officers received a princely treatment. Captain Havelock spent a month in Peshawar, and describes the splendour of Avitabile's court in his memoirs. He also gives a favourable characterisation of the governor: "He is, moreover, a frank, gay, and good-humoured person, as well as an excellent and skilful officer."
Avitabile was also a scholar and an engineer, who worked very closely with the most brilliant Sikh engineer Lehna Singh Majithia.
When the British returned in 1842, to avenge the defeat of Elphinstone, they were given every possible assistance by Avitabile's government, while he was still in employ of the Sikh Empire! In addition to supplies and transportation, he also personally advanced large sums of money to the British campaign treasury. By lending the British as much as ten lakhs (1 million) of rupees, he not only helped them paying their troops. He thus managed to transfer a considerable fortune to safety in Europe.
Avitabile remained in the position of Governor during the First Anglo-Afghan War until he left in 1843. Having secured his retirement in Europe, he resigned his position to return home.
As one of the few European adventurers in the area, he succeeded in building a fortune and getting away with it. He returned to Naples, where he built a grand home in San Lazzaro (Agerola). He died soon after marrying a local girl: Enrichetta Coccia. The following legal battle over his inheritance, and the many distant relatives asserting their claims, made Avitabile's cousin something of a byword in Italy.
Honours and awards
Avitabile won honours in every country he served. The inscription on his tomb at Agerola lists:
- Chevalier of the Legion of Honour
- Order of Merit of San Ferdinand of Naples
- Order of the Durrani Empire Afghanistan
- Grand Cordon of the Lion and the Sun
- Two Lions and Crown of Persia
- Auspicious Star of the Punjab
- Gulcharan Siṅgh. "AVITABILE, PAOLO CRESCENZO MARTINO (1791-1850)". Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Punjabi University Patiala. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- Grey, C.; Garrett, H.L.O. (1996). European Adventurers of Northern India 1785 to 1849. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. p. 117. ISBN 9788120608535.
- Major Pearse, Hugh; Ranjit Singh and his white officers. In Gardner, Alexander (1999) . The Fall of Sikh Empire. Delhi, India: National Book Shop. ISBN 81-7116-231-2.
- Malatesta, Stefano (2002). Il napoletano che domò gli afghani. Vicenza, Italy: Neri Pozza. ISBN 88-7305-875-2.
- Nicola Forte: "Viaggio nella memoria persa del Regno delle Due Sicilie", ed. imagaenaria, p. 156, 2008, ISBN 88-89144-77-7, ISBN 978-88-89144-77-0.