Western feminists are often confused by women’s position in India. A patriarchal society that seems to have ignored sexual abuse of female citizens has been ruled by Indian women who have defied discrimination and can demand men touch their feet as if a quasi -goddess: Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa .
Uniquely there is Farzana Zeb un-Nissa (ca 1750–1836), better known as Begum Samru (or Sumru), India’s only Catholic queen.
A fair complexioned temptress in her youth, a widowed warrior queen leading a mercenary band and she was accused to be a witch in old age.
A Kashmiri Muslim, born to a concubine in 1750, she was forced to fend for herself after her masters death. A naunch, or dancing, in 1765 a 45 year old mercenary named Walter Somers, enamored by the 15 year olds ‘extra’ services, paid for her in gold placing him the senior role in his palace harem at Sardhana, in what is now Uttar Pradesh. Years later, on the 7 May 1781, she was baptized Joanna Nobilis Sombre, into Catholicism.
We need to back track to understand India after the death of Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Strongman. For six centuries power in India had revolved around Delhi. For two of them, northern India was one enormous battlefield.
As Julia and John Keays wrote in Farzana: the tempestuous life and time of Begum Sumru, “As soon as the season permits warfare, more than fifty armies launch campaigns to defend or attack, or sometimes just to pillage, friends and enemies alike.” Battle was the sport of men, and pillaging the wage of many.
Western powers had little in gold or jewels a wealthy India wanted. But as Persian, Afghan, Sikh, Maratha and Pindari warlords aimed to rule Delhi, the West had developed new technologies such as the galleon, whose sails released men from oars to battle, and in India the rifle. In India new weapons were Europe’s keys for trade, Trained in Europeans battle, many skilled in leadership were lured by better pay among competing armies.
One such man was Walter Reinhardt of Alsace who changed his name to Somers. The French Compagnie des Indes Orientales failed to match the British East India Company’s success and Somers worked as a mercenary ffrom Lucknow, then Rohilkhand (near Bareilly), Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and finally back to the Doab.
Duplicitous, he became known as ‘the butcher of Patna’ after switching sides, inviting 50 British prisoners of war to dine with him before having them slaughtered. Perhaps this is why some preferred to change his new surname to ‘Sombre’.
For 13 years Farzana was faithful to her brutish husband who died, of a ‘neglected head cold’, leaving her penniless willing all to his week minded son of a an earlier woman.
Farzana allied herself to her husband’s second in command who saw in her a steely resolve that could even be ruthless.
All his officers invited her to take charge of the army. A mercenary force of both European and Indian men and at least twice, and at only 4½ feet tall, turbaned and on horseback she led her troops to battle. She had clearly more than her slight build and feminine allure to recommend her. As Keays could write ‘beneath the muslin were stays of steal’.
A Machiavellian with some unpalatable dealings in her story, she was a small but very significant political player. After catching two slave girls who set fire to her Delhi town house and stole property, she had them whipped senseless and then buried alive in a pit outside her tent. Yet he ruled a remarkably progressive principality. She cunningly maneuvered her rivals until eventually, like the female Begums of Bhopal, becoming a faithful ally of the British East India Company.
A former nauch girl could count few friends among respectable company. Begum Umdaa, from a Jagirdar Family also at Sardhana, was the exception, visiting Begum Samru’s Meerut home even after Umdaa married.
Maybe her youthful reputation inspired European paramours to court her. In 1793, a rumour she had married the Frenchman Le Vassoult caused a mutiny. Both fled and the Frenchman died of a self inflicted gunshot wound, whereas Farzana survived stabbing herself.
However, it was her military success that fuelled the rumour she had witchlike powers able destroy her enemies just by throwing her cloak. In the battle of Assaye, she annihilated the 74th Highlanders and a picket detachment commanded by a Colonel Orrock she withstood a cavalry charge when the rest of the Marhatta army fled.
In Mughal eyes she was ‘Jewel among women’, ‘and “Pillar of the state’, ‘Most beloved daughter’. The British East India Company considered her a threat the British policy of an undivided India. However, as Britain gained North India, in 1803, she successfully manoeuvred to remain an Independent Ruler of a large area of Sardhana.
She had saved Delhi from an invasion by a force of 30,000 Sikhs under Baghel Singh in 1783 and was regarded daughter by the emperor. When his blind and enfeebled successor, Alam II, faced the rebellion under Najaf Quli Khan. The wavering army were boosted when she maneuvered a small force of 100 men with heavy guns, forcing the rebel to sue for peace.
In gratitude, Alam confirmed her estate in a legal challenge from one of her deceased husband’s sons. Later, her palace in Chandni Chowk, which still stands in Delhi, was built in a garden gifted by newly enthroned Emperor Akbar Shah in 1806.
She died at Sardhana in January 1837 in her mid eighties. Although she encouraged many to convert to Catholicism, the Church denied her Christian burial in the Sardhana Church because of her Muslim birth. A monument for her tomb was allowed in her honour and her friend Begum Umdaa, married to Zafte Khan, then Jagirdar of Meerut, gave land for her cremation.
Now called the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, the church hosts two annual pilgrimages in March and November when thousands come to bless the Begum and pray to the Virgin Mary.
While moderns debate what it means to be a feminist, Begum Joanna Nobilis Sombre was a fighter who has already won her own battles.
An Excellent review of Keays biography, inspired this article: ‘Dancing Queen’ by Charles Allen from Literary Review, Feb. 2014, pp. 12-13.
An interesting series of videos showing Begum Samru’s Chandri Chowk Palace, now owned by the Bank of India, is shown in its present condition at Delhislostmarvels.web.com.