Begam Samrū: A Most Unusual Ruler

My historian brother has been doing a lot of research on Mercenaries and Military Manpower in world history. He’s started a blog on the topic, but has been too busy with other projects (and too fond of footnotes) to post much yet. When I stumble across new sources that might interest him (like my previous two blogposts), I let him know. Here’s one I came across in an unlikely source, the venerable Archives of Asian Art, which has finally made its debut in JSTOR. Of course, he had already heard of the central figure, but the Wikipedia entry for her is so long-winded, poorly written, and poorly documented that I thought I would post her biography as presented by UC Berkeley art historian Alka Hingorani, in her article entitled “Artful Agency: Imagining and Imaging Begam Samrū” in Archives of Asian Art LIII(2002-2003):54-70.

Begam Samrū was born Farzānā, in 1750/51 C.E., to an impoverished Arab nobleman who died when she was still very young. Events and circumstances led her and her mother to Delhi, battle-weary in the mid-eighteenth century. They arrived about 1760 C.E., and from all accounts her early years in Delhi were spent at a courtesan’s home, where she reputedly grew into an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman. The second half of the eighteenth century in Delhi has been referred to as “gardi ka waqt,” or the “time of troubles.” Nādir Shāh of Persia and Ahmad Shah Abdālī of Afghanistan had mauled the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Confederacy, and by the 1760s Delhi was licking its wounds. A substantial indigenous resurgence seemed unlikely. The Jats were baiting the Marathas, and the British were trying to keep both in check. Several smaller powers were beginning to elbow for space as the larger ones lost control of the north Indian region. Increasingly, the Mughals, Marathas, and British were finding it necessary to share power with chiefdoms. In this widening field the smaller contestants whose military means were inadequate to their ambitions often had to resort to foreign military adventurers.

General Walter Reinhardt, Austrian mercenary and free lance, was one such adventurer. Having variously served the British, the French, and the Jats, he was desperately seeking employment in the Mughal court, since his last service to the French had left the British hot in his pursuit. With four battalions and a few cannons at his disposal, he was offering his services to the nearest employer of ample purse and sufficient political clout to afford protection against the British: a fairly typical scenario for the time. While in Delhi he apparently took a fancy to Farzānā, who became his concubine, or begam, as she chose to style herself. Their association appears to have been intense, both personally and politically, and lasted until his death in 1778. By this time “Le Sombre,” the sobriquet conferred upon the saturnine Reinhardt by earlier associates, had become Indianized to “Samrū.” Upon his death Samrū ki begam, “the wife of Samrū,” took his sobriquet as her name and began to be called Begam Samrū. This slippage of identity, made possible by her intimate association with Reinhardt, was facilitated by their obvious close military and political partnership. At the court of the Mughal emperor, Shāh Ālam, she had taken active part—directly and indirectly—in the maneuvering for power, in order to benefit her “husband.” They had shared years in camp as he led his forces against the Marathas and other powers, and she was his ally—a brave soldier and a crafty strategist—as much as his mate. Begam Samrū also enjoyed enormous favor at Shāh Ālam’s court for another critical reason: on several occasions in the 1780s she had acted to save his life, often at some risk to her own. On one occasion she secured his release from Ghulām Qādir, the Rohilla chief, who had gained control of the palace and had imprisoned and tortured the old emperor. Another rescue took place when the blind and enfeebled emperor, who had joined the battlefield himself to bring a rebellious vassal to heel, was almost defeated due to indiscipline amongst his own forces. General laxity and indiscipline in the imperial army had endangered the emperor’s life more than once, and Begam Samrū had repeatedly brought her troops and artillery to his rescue. Considering these heroic benefactions, even though Walter Reinhardt had left a grown son—Zafaryāb Khan—by another Muslim woman, Begam Samrū’s position as heir to his authority was never in serious jeopardy.

Her ascendancy was aided by Zafaryāb Khan s own reputation as a man of weak intellect. He was so little regard ed that his father s troops did not recognize him even as a nominal chief, pledging their allegiance to Begam Samrū instead. The Begam came into her own at this point. She swore continued allegiance to the Mughal emperor, who conferred upon her in return the principality of Sardhanā, slightly northeast of Delhi. This was a jāgīr (“principality”) of small villages, which yielded substantial revenue. It was, from all accounts, very tightly controlled by the Begam, whose presence enhanced its political importance. William Francklin (1763–1839) paid handsome tribute to the Begam’s administrative acumen in his writings in the 1790s, when she had held her jāgīr for about fifteen years:

An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six)…. A fort near the town contains a good arsenal and foundry for cannon. Five battalions of disciplined sepoys, commanded by Europeans of different countries…and about 40 pieces of cannon of various calibres, constitute the force kept up by the Begam Samrū. With these and about 200 Europeans, principally employed in the service of artillery, she is enabled to maintain a respectable position among the neighbouring powers.

As John Lall also asserts, “It was a remarkable achievement for a single woman, more than ten years after Najāf Khān’s (her protector’s) death when Shāh Ālam was being blown like a weathercock with every change in the precarious balance of factional power. To be useful to him, she had to be capable not just of maintaining herself in power but also of intervening effectively in the affairs of the time.” In her long career she overcame many adversities, including a near-revolt among her troops brought about by her second, secret marriage to a Frenchman, an insurrection provoked by her stepson, imprisonment from which she was rescued by an old lover, and the vicissitudes of endlessly shifting political alliances with their attendant suspicion and deceits. Along the way she converted to Roman Catholicism, joined hands with the Marathas, then with the French, and finally in 1805 forged an alliance with the British, a little after it became clear that the Sikhs under Ranjīt Singh would not prevail against English might. Her reliance on the Sikhs for longer than politically warranted was one of her few miscalculations, but even from that she recovered quickly enough. Fortuitous and timely changes in power hierarchies often worked to her advantage, but largely it was her personal charisma, military prowess, administrative and political acumen, her generosity and her loyalty no less than her reputed ruthlessness, her guile and cunning, that allowed Begam Samrū to rule more or less absolutely and “brilliantly” (a word that all her biographers have used) over her small principality.Yet her life was altogether more interesting, I think, than even the events of history that made it possible. She died in 1836, at the age of eighty-five. She left behind no personal chronicles: neither auto biography nor personal correspondence to augment and correct a history told by others. But a few paintings remain, as windows into a life lived fully by any account.

They certainly don’t make them like that anymore, male or female.

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Filed under biography, Britain, India, military, Pakistan, religion

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