The recent purchase of a mansion in London by an Indian billionaire had an eagle-eyed reader, Chris Desmond, enquiring whether the General who had the house built for him in 1770 was the same Burgoyne remembered in a plaque in St. Mary’s in the Fort. No, he wasn’t. The two Burgoynes were cousins but achieved fame (or was it notoriety?) in continents far apart. The London house-owner, Lt. Gen. Sir John Burgoyne, was the man who surrendered his army on October 17, 1777 to the American independence fighters at Saratoga. He was taken prisoner and after his release faded from the scene in a degree of disgrace. The Madras Burgoyne too had a headline-grabbing story. But all that the plaque in St. Mary’s says of him is: “Sir John Burgoyne. 23 September 1785.” He was apparently buried in the Church but no one knows where.

Sir John Burgoyne was the 7th Baronet of Sutton in Bedfordshire and came out to Madras in 1782 with the 23rd Light Dragoons he had raised the previous year. The corps arrived in the capital of the Southern Presidency unmounted and was quickly supplied with horses from Bengal. It was then quartered in Luz and established a strong outpost in, it is believed, what is now the campus of St. Ebba’s School. Burgoyne’s Dragoons were the first European cavalry to arrive in Asia.

Under a changed name, 19th Light Dragoons, it soon saw action with General Eyre Coote and his deputy, James Stuart, and earned itself a high reputation. Burgoyne was, as a consequence, promoted to Major General and posted to the Madras Staff in 1783. When Coote died, Stuart was asked to take command of the army of the Madras Presidency, but insisted on the same powers that had been given to Coote. (This in effect meant being in charge of the booty from battle.) In the ensuing disagreement with the Council, Stuart was arrested and Burgoyne offered the commander-in-chief’s post. He not only turned it down but also gave evidence in favour of Stuart. Whereupon Burgoyne too was arrested and court martialled. He was eventually honourably acquitted.

All this, however, had taken a toll of Burgoyne and it wasn’t long before he passed away at the age of 46. The fact that the Council never really made its peace with him may have been the reason that he was buried in the church in an unmarked grave. The minimally worded plaque is likely to have come up later, more as a historical marker than a memorial to an honoured soldier.

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