In mid-eighteenth-century India, a four-and-a-half-foot-tall former dancing girl (or perhaps courtesan) inherited a mercenary army from her husband (or perhaps lover) and became one of the region’s most successful mercenary commanders. (Not a small statement. The field was crowded.)
Farzana, later known as Begum Samru, was born around 1750 in a small town near Delhi. Her father was an Arab merchant. Her mother (anonymous, as they so often are) was either a second wife or a junior concubine. When her father died, around 1760, her half-brother, the son of his senior wife (or concubine), refused to support them. Her mother fled to Delhi, where she probably became a courtesan. The first thing we know for certain about Farzana is that by the time she was fourteen she worked as a nautch girl in Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar.
It was a time of political anarchy. The great Mughal Empire was crumbling. The emperor in Delhi was a powerless figurehead, kept on his throne only with the support of regional warlords. The Sikhs had revolted against the empire in 1710 and established an independent kingdom in the Punjab. The Maratha confederacy carved out an independent state in the area around Pune in 1714. Regional governors declared themselves rulers in their own right while still acknowledging the emperor in Delhi as the supreme political authority—a convenient fiction. Local rulers fought over their own unsteady thrones. The British and French East India companies—bitter rivals over trade privileges, territory, and monopolies—took sides in Indian succession struggles. Dismayed to find their much larger armies defeated by the companies’ European-led forces, Indian rulers hired European mercenaries as drill sergeants, tacticians, and commanders.
The best, or perhaps the worst, of the freebooters became commanders of their own mercenary armies. One such commander was Austrian mercenary Walter Reinhardt, known as Sombre—whether because of his coloring, his expression, or his disposition is unclear. The Indian sepoys under his command changed Sombre into Samru.
Reinhardt arrived in India in 1750. At first he worked as a sword for hire, moving from employer to employer as the mood took him. He took a step up to the commander of an independent brigade when the military commander of Purnea in northern Bihar hired him to recruit and train an infantry battalion on the European model. When Mir Qassim—the third puppet ruler of British-controlled Bengal in as many years—made a bid for independence and moved his court two hundred miles away from British bullying, Reinhardt joined up, gaining command of two battalions, a bad reputation as the Butcher of Patna, and British enmity. He fled British retribution, finding sanctuary for himself and his brigade with the powerful Nawab of Awadh. He fought alongside the armies of the nawab, the deposed Mir Qassim, and the Mughal emperor Shah Alam against the British at the Battle of Buxar on October 22, 1764.
After Buxar, Reinhardt was given the task of escorting the Awadh begums and their possessions to safety in Rohilkhand. The nawab could not have chosen a less trustworthy escort. Anxious to move out of the reach of the British, who were eager to get their hands on the Butcher of Patna, Reinhardt stole the begums’ jewels and cash and fled, along with his brigade, to the service of the Jat rajah Jawahir Singh.
Farzana and Reinhardt met when the mercenary commander rode into Delhi in January 1765 looking for an evening of entertainment. He ended up at the kothaa* where Farzana worked as a nautch girl.
By all accounts the young Farzana was beautiful and charming. Reinhardt soon moved her out of the kotha and into his household. Like her mother, she was a second wife or concubine. Unlike her mother, she was able to hold her own against Reinhardt’s senior concubine, Barri Bibi, and her son, Louis Balthazar Reinhardt.
According to James Skinner, “Her talents and sound judgment became so valuable to [Reinhardt] as to gain a great ascendancy over him.” Farzana accompanied Reinhardt’s troops into battle, carried in a palanquin†—on-the-job training in how to run a military campaign as a mercenary captain. Warren Hastings, who served as the British East India Company’s first governor-general from 1772 to 1785, reported that she was carried “from rank to rank encouraging the men who were enchanted with her heroism.” It is unclear whether Reinhardt ever married his Farzana, but his troops gave her the courtesy title of Begum Samru, the wife of Sombre.
After nine years in the rajah’s service, Reinhardt changed allegiance for the last time. When Mughal forces expelled the Jats from Agra, he defected to the army of the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, taking with him a brigade of some three thousand men including two hundred self-styled officers who had left the battlefields, or perhaps the slums, of Europe for richer pickings in India.
In 1776, the emperor named Reinhardt the jagirdar of Sardhana, a large estate, roughly eight hundred square miles, located forty miles northeast of Delhi. It was a mercenary’s dream come true. Reinhardt did not get to enjoy it for long.
When Reinhardt died in 1778, the company backed Farzana’s claim to both Sardhana and the brigade—which now numbered five battalions of infantry, three hundred European and Eurasian officers and gunners, forty cannons, and the fat oxen needed to pull them—rather than allowing command to pass into the hands of Reinhardt’s wastrel son, who was considered unfit to lead. Presented with a petition signed by those of the brigade who could write and attested to by those who could not, Shah Alam formally named Begum Samru commander of the Sardhana Brigade.
Members of the Sardhana Brigade may have thought they were getting a softer leader, but Begum Samru proved to be an active commander in chief. She personally led her troops into battle, though she may have relied on her officers for technical matters related to artillery and siegecraft. She won often enough that some of her rivals claimed she was a witch—a calumny often directed at successful female commanders over the centuries.† The only way in which she proved to be “soft” was her decision not to follow the contemporary custom of executing or blinding Reinhardt’s son, her rival for leadership of the brigade—a choice that would come back to bite her.
Reinhardt’s command of the brigade had been marked by looting, pillaging, and restlessly moving from one employer to another. The begum’s leadership was marked by good stewardship and loyalty. She cultivated her relationship with the emperor, who was the source of economic stability for herself and the brigade. She developed the fertile land of the jagir. She supported the widows and children of fellow mercenaries—including Reinhardt’s senior wife, who had slipped into senility.
Begum Samru saved the emperor’s life and his throne more than once. Her first opportunity came in 1787, when the Rohilla general Ghulam Qadir marched on Delhi. Two days later, Begum Samru and the Sardhana Brigade arrived in response to a distress signal from the emperor. Ghulam Qadir offered the begum an equal share of the plunder if she joined him. If Reinhardt had been alive, he might well have taken the bribe. Begum Samru, preferring an emperor in the hand to a usurper in the bush, refused the bribe, and drove the Rohilla commander back across the Jumna River.
When Ghulam Qadir returned the following year, Begum Samru once again marched to Shah Alam’s defense, though she was not in time to prevent Ghulam Qadir from blinding the emperor, ransacking the palace in search of nonexistent treasure, and forcing the imperial princesses to leave the protection of the zenana* and dance for the Rohilla troops. Ghulam Qadir made a run for it, but the Sardhana Brigade joined the Maratha army in tracking him down. They hung the Rohilla leader for two days in a specially constructed cage, then mutilated him in retaliation for his treatment of the emperor. His captors, among other tortures, scooped his eyes out of their sockets and sent them to Shah Alam in a box, so the blinded emperor could fondle them.
In recognition of her acts on his behalf, Shah Alam granted the begum a robe of honor—serious business in Mughal India—as well as an additional jagir for the support of her troops. He gave her the titles “daughter of the emperor” and “ornament of her sex”—a big step up for a dancing girl/prostitute from the Calcutta slums.
In 1792, Begum Samru broke the first rule of remaining a powerful widow, warrior, or otherwise: she remarried. She compounded the problem by marrying one of her own soldiers, the French artillery maker Pierre Antoine Levassoult, who was neither popular with nor respected by his fellow officers. Levassoult immediately attempted to take over the command of the brigade, alienating officers and sepoys alike.
When the begum failed to rein in her new husband, the unthinkable occurred: the Sardhana Brigade mutinied in the name of Walter Reinhardt’s “worthless” son, Louis Balthazar. They planned to install Louis Balthazar as a puppet commander and run the brigade in his name, much as the Marathas ruled the empire in the name of the puppet emperor Shah Alam.
Getting wind of plans to seize the couple, Levassoult convinced the begum to flee with him toward British territory. Most contemporary accounts say the two agreed to commit suicide if they were captured. Sources vary about what happened next. The most dramatic versions describe a Romeo and Juliet scenario, in which Levassoult committed suicide because he believed Begum Samru was dead. (At least one source suggests the begum and her maid faked the apparent death as a way to dispose of the inconvenient husband.) Modern historians speculate he was killed by one of their pursuers—most of whom despised him and all of whom were used to killing up close and personal on the battlefield. Whatever the details, their flight ended with Levassoult dead and Begum Samru a captive of her former troops.
She was rescued by a small force headed by George Thomas, an Irish mercenary who previously served with the Sardhana Brigade and may well have been a former lover. With a combination of threats, bluffs, and bribes, Thomas reinstated Begum Samru at Sardhana and took Louis Balthazar back to Delhi.
While Reinhardt and Begum Samru defended the Mughal emperor against those who wanted to depose or control him, the world around them was changing. The British East India Company had transformed itself from merchants and mercenaries to kingmakers and empire builders. On September 23, 1803, Begum Samru faced the British for the first time at the Battle of Assaye. Five battalions of the Sardhana Brigade fought on the side of Scindia and the Marathas against the East India Company’s army, which was under the command of acting Major-General Arthur Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington. The battle was Wellesley’s first major victory; he would later describe it as “the bloodiest for the numbers” that he ever saw. (Quite a statement for the victor of Waterloo.) It was certainly the bloodiest battle Begum Samru took part in. Reinhardt had taught her that a mercenary’s best strategy could be found in the line “He that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day.” At Assaye, she stayed on the field and lost a quarter of her men.
The battle was the turning point in the war between the British and the Marathas, and the end of Maratha primacy in Delhi. The British replaced the Marathas as Shah Alam’s primary protectors and Sardhana came under British control. Begum Samru successfully negotiated to keep possession of Sardhana, with all the rights and privileges she had previously enjoyed, and to maintain nominal command of the Sardhana Brigade. She was one of only two mercenary commanders who retained their forces under the British.
Begum Samru spent the next thirty years ruling Sardhana, while the brigade served as an irregular unit for the East India Company’s forces. She led her troops for the last time at the British siege of the Jat fortress of Bharatpur in 1825. She pitched her tent next to that of the British commander in chief, and proceeded to charm him as she had charmed so many others over the course of a long career.