Legge, Thomas (d. 1808), traveller and mystic, was born in Donaghadee, Co. Down, the son of a ship-owner who transported Irish emigrants to America. Little else is known about his family background, although towards the end of his life he reportedly told a Scottish doctor that his mother was a Mackintosh. From a young age, he displayed the characteristic restlessness that was to become the defining pattern of his life; he refused to follow his father into trade and, at about the age of sixteen, he ran away to sea. He became an ordinary seaman on the British war sloop Swallow, bound for Madras, where he arrived in 1775. He then deserted ship – a common practice among European adventurers eager to seek their fortune in India – and set off to explore, supporting himself by begging. For the next five or six years, he travelled across India to the Sindh region and the city of Multan (both now in west Pakistan), from where he journeyed across the Indian desert to the capital of the Rajasthan province, Jaipur, before finding employment in 1782 in the service of the Jat ruler of Gohud-Gwalior. Under the command of an Englishman named Sangster, he learned the art of casting and using cannon. This valuable knowledge provided him with the means of employment in his subsequent travels over the next twenty years. He next spent some years in Kabul, Afghanistan, earning three rupees a day for supervising the casting of the king's cannon (Timur Shah). He was socially as well as professionally successful in Afghanistan, to the extent that when he decided to move on, he had to do so secretly for fear that he would not be allowed to leave. This became a recurrent problem for him, as he travelled north into Badakshan, and from there into Bukhara (central Uzbekistan), where he cast cannon for the emir. He is also believed to have travelled to the Afghani cities of Herat and Kandahar.
When at last Legge felt a desire to settle permanently, he returned to Jaipur, where he married a woman of Portuguese descent; they had at least one son. Legge's wife was the illegitimate daughter of a Portuguese doctor named Dr de Silva, a grandson of the famous Portuguese astrologer Xavier de Silva, who had been sent by the king of Portugal to advise the raja of Jaipur in his astrological studies. Legge's powerful new family connections secured him the command of a battalion in the army of Jaipur, though his first military encounter proved fatefully his last. He received two wounds: ‘poked down with a pike and shot through my thigh’, he told a doctor in the British army camp where he sought medical assistance. In the camp he formed a friendship with a young British officer named James Tod, who could still recall vividly Legge's idiosyncratic character twenty-eight years after they first met on 26 December 1807. Tod was fascinated by his extensive knowledge of Indian culture and myth, as well as the arts of alchemy, healing, and divination using the bones of a sheep, and was particularly intrigued by Legge's claim to have discovered the Garden of Eden in the region of Hindu Kho (an archaic name for the Hindu Kush, a mountain range extending more than 805 km westward from northern Pakistan to north-east Afghanistan). The entrance, according to Legge, was in a cave guarded by an angel with flaming wings, and the garden itself had luscious fruit as well as piles of gold and silver bricks.
When Legge's wounds failed to heal, he became despondent and set out to return to Jaipur. He abandoned this final journey when he discovered a deserted Mohammedan tomb and, stripping off his clothes, decided to live there as a fakir. The wife of Jean-Baptiste Filoze (the governor of Sindh) found him here and attempted to help him before he died in 1808 (the precise date is not recorded). He was almost certainly buried in the tomb where he had spent his last months living as a fakir. It has recently been suggested that he was a possible model for Peachy Carnehan, the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling's short story ‘The man who would be king’ (TLS, 17 Sept. 2004). Legge's story is distinguished by his evident personal charisma and eccentricity, as well as the extraordinary extent of his travels. A ‘singular being’, Tod called him, ‘who had retained, amidst these strange vicissitudes, an artlessness of manner and goodness of heart’ (Tod, 267).