Taking a Chance: The Amazing Life of Pierre Loustaunau
Henry David Thoreau once remarked that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But there are also men and women who lead such amazing and impossible lives, who reach such heights of luck and fortune, that their life stories read like the plot of an adventure novel
One such man was Pierre Loustaunau, a poor goatherd from southern France, who became rich and powerful, a near mythical general in the Far East, and a rich industrialist, only to lose it all and spend his final days as a slave and then a babbling prophet.
Pierre Loustaunau was born on August 16, 1754 in southern France, in the Pyrenees Mountains, near the border with Spain. It was a poor region, and his family were poorer than most. The youngest of five children, Loustaunau earned a living herding goats up and down the mountainsides, bringing them to pasture and guarding them from wolves and bandits. It was a hard life, but typical of the peasants who lived in the area.
Like most of his fellow peasants, Loustaunau had no education, and could neither read nor write. But he knew that this was not the life he wanted to lead.
One day, when Loustaunau was 21, he took a herd of goats to market in the distant port city of Bordeaux. They were not his goats; they had been entrusted to him by his countrymen. But when he saw the ships in harbor waiting to sail for far off lands, Loustaunau knew he had to seize his chance.
He sold off all of the goats and pocketed the money. Then he booked passage on one of the ships.
Loustaunau had wanted to go to America, but there was no ship leaving for the New World at the time. So he took passage on a ship bound for India.
At the time, France and England were the world’s two superpowers and they were locked in a bitter rivalry for dominion over the world. India was one of their battlegrounds. Both countries had possessions there, but most of the Indian subcontinent was still independent of both colonial powers and ruled by the dying Moghul Empire as well as many warring states.
France and England took advantage of the political situation in India to wage a proxy war against each other, by arming and directing allied states to fight each other.
The ship carrying Loustaunau was headed to India loaded with weapons, military advisers and French agents intent on gaining influence with the local rulers. When the ship landed, the French agent recruited Loustaunau to accompany him to the court of the Moghul Emperor. He also appropriated all the weapons on board in order to trade them for influence with the Raj. This was a problem because, just like Loustaunau and the goats, the French agent did not own the cannon and rifles; they belonged to an arms dealer who had planned to sell them at a nice profit.
The Adventure Begins
Unlike the owners of the goats, which Loustaunau had left far behind, the arms dealer was on board the ship and he gave chase. This ugly scene annoyed his Royal Highness, the Moghul Emperor, who promptly imprisoned most of the French emissaries. Loustaunau escaped, but now he was destitute and alone in a strange land.
Luckily for Loustaunau, he made the acquaintance of a French spy who brought him back to the court of the Maharajah and introduced him to the Indian king. This time, Loustaunau made a more favorable impression and the ruler took him into his service. It is not clear what services Loustaunau, an illiterate goat herd could have rendered, but in those days it was a bit of a status symbol for local rulers to have Europeans in their service.
These were unsettled times however, and Loustaunau’s patron was soon threatened by an invading army instigated by the British. Watching the battle unfold, Loustaunau noticed that the disposition of the enemy forces was flawed. He remarked:
“If I had the command of 1200 horsemen, and had a couple of cannon, I would soon determine the battle.”
This was a remarkably audacious comment because Loustaunau had never been a soldier. He knew nothing about war. His comment annoyed the French mercenary general who commanded the Indian forces, but the Emperor’s servants, whose job was to spy on everyone, reported what Loustaunau had said to the Emperor.
Incredibly, the Emperor gave Loustaunau what he asked for and placed him in command of a body of troops. Mounting a horse, Loustaunau then fearlessly led his forces against the weak point in the enemy lines, routing them.
And so Loustaunau, a man who had never even been a soldier, much less a general, found himself in command of the Indian ruler’s armies.
Seizing The Opportunity
Amazingly Loustaunau had a natural talent for military strategy and he led his patron’s forces in many successful campaigns and battles against the British. The grateful Emperor rewarded Loustaunau with many jewels, a palace, and lucrative trade concessions.
Loustaunau became legendary as a general, and myths sprang up around him; he was regarded as nearly supernatural. His reputation as something other than human was heightened when he lost one of his hands in battle and he replaced it with a prosthesis made of silver and encrusted with jewels. He came to be known among the Indians as “the Invincible Leader with the Silver Hand.”
The wars between the French and British waged on. At the battle of Gwalior in 1784, Loustaunau led the Moghul forces to victory by recapturing a fortress that the British and their allies had seized. During the fighting, Loustaunau was once again wounded, this time in the shoulder, but as usual his luck was good and he survived his wounds. For this victory, the Indian Emperor bestowed on him the honorific title of “Lion of the Empire and Tiger of War.”
The Unbeatable General
He became known not only as a great general but a merciful one. Back then there were no Geneva Conventions to govern how prisoners would be treated, and it was not unusual for the victors to execute their prisoners of war, often in the most barbaric ways. One custom prevalent in India at the time was to tie prisoners to the mouths of cannons and blow them to smithereens. In a notable departure from this tradition, Loustaunau not only refused to kill his British prisoners, but let them go. This earned him the respect and friendship of the British, which was useful when the tide of war turned against his patron, the Indian king.
Ultimately the British prevailed and Loustaunau’s patron was dethroned. But Loustaunau weathered this reversal. When the British took over, they repaid their debt of honor by letting Loustaunau remain in the country, and keep his palace and his fortune. He became a successful merchant and earned even more riches.
This peasant boy from an obscure region of France was now a rich and powerful man. He seemed to have everything that he wanted. Even the loss of his hand, now replaced by a jeweled silver one, only seemed to punctuate his success.
Loustaunau had married the daughter of a French officer and an Indian woman and together they had several children. He also carried on an affair with his young Indian maid, with whom he also had children. Life was good for the former Shepherd.
But he longed for home and the green hills and mountains of his native France. So he packed up his wife, mistress and children and sailed for home carrying as many of his riches as he could. In those days there was no way to transfer money from one part of the world to the other, so the only way that Loustaunau could bring his hard earned wealth back to France was to pack it aboard a ship.
He arrived in the French port of Marseilles in 1793 with his wife, children, mother in law, and mistress. There he converted his Indian rupees into 200,000 French Francs, which was a fortune in those days. He wisely held on to his diamonds and his precious jewels because soon his paper money was worthless on account of the French Revolution, which had just begun.
But for Loustaunau the Revolution at first mattered little. Records show that he bought a large mansion and that his maid, then 17 years old, gave birth to a son. The father of this child was listed as “unknown” on birth records, but it is likely that Loustaunau was the father. Two more legitimate children were born to his wife, soon after.
The Revolutionary wars were in full swing and led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, first as a General, and later as Emperor of France. In 1801, Loustaunau wrote to Napoleon proposing a plan for the reconquest of India, which by then had been lost to the British. However, Napoleon ignored Loustaunau, and so he turned to the other thing he knew well: making money.
In February of 1801, Loustaunau returned to his hometown in the Pyrenees Mountains. The goat owners he had robbed so many years ago were not very happy to see him, and so Loustaunau wisely compensated them for their losses and paid them for the goats he had stolen.
He then bought a large factory forge, and settled down in the role of industrialist, producing various metal wares including cannon for the army, making use of the local iron deposits.
His Luck Runs Out
All was going well for Loustaunau, as usual, but then his luck suddenly changed. In 1805, one of his daughters died, followed soon after by his wife and mother in law. Court records from around 1808 show that he was involved in various law suits surrounding his Forge, and in one contemporary record, Loustaunau is described as being indigent, suggesting that his business had fallen on hard times, though the reason is not clear.
In 1808, an even greater disaster struck. During the Napoleonic wars, France had invaded and occupied Spain. Now Spanish guerrillas mounted a raid across the border and set fire to Loustaunau’s forges, destroying them completely. His home and everything he owned were gone. Loustaunau himself was nowehere to be found, and he was presumed dead.
Slavery, Escape and More Adventures
But Lousteanau’s strange adventure does not end here, for the missing Loustaunau was not dead. He had in fact been captured by the Spanish raiders and taken prisoner to the Balearic Islands, Spanish possessions near the south of France.
There, Loustaunau was spotted by the French Duchess of Orleans, who was travelling aboard a British ship. She was able to gain his release and put him on a ship to Egypt, then under British occupation. But the ship never made it.
Lousteanau’s ship was shipwrecked off Algeria and he was captured by Algerian slavers. He spent the next three years as a slave, before escaping to Egypt and then travelling to Syria and finally Lebanon. He was penniless but had not lost his resourcefulness; somehow he made it across thousands of miles of hostile territory, eventually reaching the Lebanon, which was then a province of the decrepit Ottoman Empire.
The Last Act: In the Snare of Lady Hester Stanhope
Penniless and far from home, Lousteanau’s adventures were still not over. In a series of bizarre twists and turns, Loustaunau found himself in the secluded home of the eccentric Lady Hester Stanhope, an amateur British archeologist, spy, charlatan, and self-declared religious figure who really believed an astrologer’s prophecy that she would one day rule all of the Middle East as a sort of savior.
Although Stanhope never ruled the Middle East, she did rule a little kingdom in the form of a secluded mountain villa, populated by eccentrics, hangers on, admirers and servants whom she ruled with an impoverished iron fist. Despite the poverty and squalor of her home, she was regarded by the locals as a sort of sorceress and even the notoriously cruel Ottoman officials and the local bandits left her in peace.
It was into this little court in the middle of the Lebanese mountains that Loustaunau somehow found himself, now minus all of his riches and even his silver hand. Lady Stanhope’s letters and diaries describe him as a fervent preacher, with a Bible in hand, apparently having been converted to Stanhope’s little cult.
Loustaunau’s eldest son, then 32 years old, had served as an officer in the French army under Napoleon but now also found himself in dire straits due to the change in regime. In 1820, he joined his father in Lebanon, where the older Lady Stanhope was smitten by the handsome younger Loustaunau. Unfortunately, Loustaunau’s son died soon after of unknown causes. There were whispers that Stanhope had poisoned him, as she was wont to do, perhaps because he did not return her affections.
Lady Stanhope herself died soon after of tuberculosis and so Lousteanau’s trail starts to go cold.
The last mention of Loustaunau, the former Shepherd, Lion of the Moghul Empire, General, Industrialist, Slave, and Preacher is in a letter written in 1840 by Ferdinand Perrier, a French officer in the mercenary service of the Ottoman Empire. He described Loustaunau as “A very old, extremely remarkable man, with still noble features, and a mutilated left hand, whom I found at the door of the French hospice ...” in Turkey.
This is the last mention of Loustaunau, who died soon after, a forgotten relic in a charity hospital far from home. He was 86.