Paolo Avitabile – The face of the brutal Sikh occupation of Peshawar




By Nafees Ur Rehman

His gruesome punishments and ruthless ‘justice’ drove half of the population of Peshawar away from the city. Here we look at his career as a Governor of Peshawar.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 left many war veterans without job assignments, and some of those veterans, following the footsteps of their predecessors, decided to go to Constantinople, Persia and India to seek jobs with the armies of the rulers of these countries. Among these mercenaries was Paolo Avitabile of Agerola, a small village between Napoli and Salerno in Naples, Italy. Paolo Avitabile (25 October 1791 – 28 March 1850) served in the Neapolitan militia during the Napoleonic wars. In 1820 he joined the army of the Shah of Persia, attaining the rank of colonel and receiving several decorations for his military services. After a short break in Italy, he went back via Kabul -> Peshawar to Punjab to enlist in Ranjit Singh army in 1827. After some service in the army, he was made administrator of Wazirabad in 1829. In 1837 he succeeded Hari Singh Nalwa as governor of Peshawar and left for Italy in 1843.

Stefano Malatesta in his book titled “The Neopolitan Who Tamed The Afghans” makes a telling metaphor of his cruel rule in Peshawar. He says that the inhabitants of Peshawar found themselves ruled by Tamerlane, Dracula and the Bluebeard put together.

I will not elaborate on Tamerlane as he is well-known in our part of the world (and also in the rest of the world). But just a one tweet each on Dracula and Bluebeard to understand what we are here talking about.

Vlad the Impaler or the Vlad Dracula was the ruler of Wallachia (part of Romania) in 15th c, & is known for his cruelty. In this German woodcut from 15th c he is shown dining in the middle of corpses. He nailed the turbans of Turkish envoys onto their heads.


Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish envoys, painting by Theodor Aman


1499 German woodcut showing Dracule waide dining among the impaled corpses of his victims.

Bluebeard is a 17th century French folktale of a wealthy cruel man who killed many of his wives one after another.… Now imagine the character of Paolo Avitabile whom Malatesta thinks was the mix of all these ruthless people.


Bluebeard, his wife, and the keys in a 19th-century illustration by Gustave Doré

Keep in mind that he was appointed governor of Peshawar in 1837 after the killing of the Hari Singh Nalwa, the best general of the Ranjit Singh’s sikh army. Ranjit Singh needed someone who could establish and consolidate his ruler over the Afghans of Peshawar and surroundings.


Left: Hari Singh Nalwa, right: Paolo Avitabile


Avitabile commenced his governorship with hanging 50 people each day that he thought were criminals on the wooden posts that he had installed around the city, & cut out the tongues of liars & storytellers. He would cut tongue of the doctors who would attend to these victims.


Source:The man who would be king by B. Macintyre

“…[He] had more time for chickens than for the native people he terrorized.” “A keen pornographer, Avitabile’s home was decorated in supreme bad taste, the bedroom walls ‘covered with pictures of dancing girls.”


Source:The man who would be king by B. Macintyre

“…for one thousand rupees of revenue collected by the troops, two thousand rupees worth of property is destroyed, to say nothing of the loss of life among the working classes.”

Such were his methods!


Source: Storms and sunshine of a soldier’s life : Colin Mackenzie.

You’ve heard of the story of Anarkali bricked up by Akbar. Avitabile also put a couple of people together in a small room & then gradually bricked the door up on them to extort tax from them. One of them had died in there, & the rest were released after agreeing to pay the tax.



Not that Avitabile needed any laws or rules to govern the city; he was the law and would dispense his form of justice without any regards for innocent & guilty. However, he formed an advisory council of Muslim Qazis and Sikh, Hindu Judges, and would hold Durbar almost every day.



And those minarets were none other than those of the grand mosque of Peshawar Masjid Mohabat Khan.


Masjid Mohabat Khan Peshawar

There are so many anecdotes and stories of his brutal means to establish order or dispense justice that it would need multiple threads to record all of them. It should suffice to mention that he would:There are so many anecdotes and stories of his brutal means to establish order or dispense justice that it would need multiple threads to record all of them. It should suffice to mention that he would

→ Throw people off Minarets.
→ Hang people to death either by neck or by heels. In the latter case, it would take about two hours for a man to die, and in the process, limbs would come off his body.
→ Chop off body parts.
→ Expose people to extreme heat naked or freeze people to death in winters by pouring cold on their naked bodies.
→ Brick up people in small rooms.
→So much so, that he learnt about the punishment of hitting someone with slippers; not causing so much pain but derogatory enough to strip anyone of all the honor and self-esteem.

He once punished hundreds of Sikh soldiers with beating with slippers when they were repeatedly beaten and harassed by Afridis of Khyber and left behind their fellow soldiers & weapons in their flight out of the battles, that too after the operations of the army of the retributions in 1842.


Source: Journal of a March from Delhi to Peshâwur and from Thence to Câbul

This man was such of a strange character. When the reports of the fall of Elphinstone’s army would arrive at Peshawar, the Sikh soldiers at Peshawar also rose in rebellion. At one point, he distributed arms among prisoners to help him quell the mutiny. At another point, the Kashmir battalion of Sikhs left Peshawar on demands for multiple pay raise. These soldiers camped at Chamkani. Avitabile then informed the native Afghans ( Chamkanis, and Afridis), mostly his and enemy of the Sikhs, of the situation that they could plunder them and that he would pay Rs. 50-80 for every head of the Sikh soldier. Afridis did attack their camp, and there deaths and casualties on both sides, however, it led to the objectives of what Avitabile wanted to achieve. The Sikhs soldiers right away regretted their mutiny, unconditionally surrendered to Avitabile, refunded the excess pay that they had received, and marched back to the walled city. For the role played by the Afghans, Avitabile released all their prisoners, pardoned their crimes, and allowed them to keep their plunder.

I only found this one story where he dispensed justice without resorting to violent means or bloody punishments. He settled a dispute between two women of a family whom both had given birth to a child (a girl & a boy) on the same day but both claimed that the boy was their child.



Avitabile left no stone unturned in assisting and aiding the British throughout the course of the 1st Anglo-Afghan War – from the initial invasion in 1839 to the operations of Gen. Pollocks’ take over of Kabul in 1842, and the subsequent withdrawal from there. East India Company acknowledged his services, and would launder his wealth to London which he received when he retired to Italy in 1843.



It is recorded my many authors that he wanted to return to his homeland Naples in Italy to settle and spend his life lavishing on the £50,000/~ pounds that he had earned during his services for Ranjit Singh. He had asked multiple times to be relieved, which was finally allowed in 1843. He spent a few months claiming each and every anna (penny) that the Sikhs owed him.

It is interesting, and very consistent with his character, to note that he would get rid of all of his concubines, his wife and his daughter before departing for Europe. There are no traces as to what happened to them but it is believed that he divided them among his friends except for his daughter whom he married off to his cook, and left her behind.

He made a home for himself at Castelamare, and married his 19 years old niece. He had to abandon his home for a more secluded place in Agerola.


Source: European Adventurers Of Northern India 1785 To 1849 (1929)


The castle of Avitabile in Agerola.

However, his marital life was not at peace when he found out that his wife had relations with a village lawyer. In one another place, she is said to have an affair with a servant of Avitabile.


Trouble, such as was inevitable in such an ill-assorted union, was not long in coming, for before her marriage the girl had carried on an intrigue with a village lawyer, which continued. The facts were soon brought to Avitabile’s notice, and his threats of what would happen should he ever catch the two together must have precipitated the end, which came in March 1850.

So how did the man die whom had killed more innocents than guilty in hundreds if not in thousands? He was poisoned to death by his own relatives for the wealth and property that he had won himself with sword.


Source: European Adventurers Of Northern India 1785 To 1849 (1929)


There is a memorial bust of him in the Church of San Martino Bishop. On it is written his ranks in different placed that he served, and the honors and awards he received. Make note the Order of the Durrani Empire Afghanistan that he received.




A trail and the town square of San Lazzaro is named after him in Naples, Italy 






Leave a comment