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Begum Sombre (ca 1753- 1836), popularly known as Begum Samru, (also known as Zebunissa, Farzana and Joanna after baptism) started her career as a Nautch girl in 18th Century Indiamarker, and eventually became the ruler of Sardhanamarker, a principality near Meerutmarker . Later on, she played a key role in the politics and power struggle in 18th and 19th century India.

She was the head of a professionally trained mercenary army, inherited from her European mercenary husband, Walter Reinhardt. This mercenary army consisted of Europeans and Indians. She is also regarded as the only Catholic Ruler in India, as she ruled the Principality of Sardhanamarker in 18th and 19th century India.

She died immensely rich. Her inheritance was assessed as approximately 55.5 Million Gold Mark in 1923 and 18 Billion Deutsch Mark in 1953. Her inheritance continues to be disputed to this day. An organization named “Reinhards Erbengemeinschaft” still strives to resolve the inheritance issue.


Early life

Her birth-year is approximated to be 1753. She was, perhaps, the daughter, by a concubine, of Asad Khân, a Muslim of Arab descent settled in the town of Kutâna or Kotana in the Meerutmarker district. On the death of her father, she and her mother became subject to ill-treatment from her half-brother, the legitimate heir of Asad Khan. Therefore, they moved to Delhimarker about 1760.

The official sources on Begum Samru are conflicting. Some say that Bêgam's father was 'Lutf Ali Khan', a decayed nobleman of Arabian descent' living at Kotana. By some, she is supposed to have been from a good Mughal family, by others she is reagrded as a native of Kashmir and to have been sold to Sombre as a slave. Her original name was Zêb-un-nissa.

Some say that Begum Sumroo, who is also known as Farzana, was the daughter of a dancing girl who had been taken away from Chawri Bazar in Delhi to the Doab region by Asad Khan, a nobleman of Arabian origin (some say he was a Persian, Nawab Latif Ali Khan), who made her his second wife. After the death of her husband, the young widow was driven out of the house by her stepson and returned to Delhi, living for some days near the Kashmere Gate and then moving on to the Jama Masjid area, where she died, leaving her daughter in the care of Khanum Jan, a tawaif of Chawri Bazar. That was in 1760.

Begam Samru's career

Begam Samru/sumroo was of slight stature, of fair complection, distinguished by exceptional leadership abilities of uncommon order. She possessed a daring, seldom possessed by her sex- having more than once headed her own troops in action.

When she was in her early teens, she married (or started living with) a mercenary soldier Walter Reinhardt Sombre of Luxembourgmarker, who was operating in India.

Walter Reinhardt Sumroo, a European mercenary, then 45-year-old, came to the red light area and fell for the charms of Farzana, then a girl of 14, says Johan Lall in his well-researched work: "Begum Samru - Faded Portrait in a Gilded Frame".

A soldier of fortune, Sumroo moved from Lucknow to Rohilkhand (near Bareilly), then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Doab. Farzana helped him in those times of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Farzana was courted by some of the European officers who were associated with her husband.

Among them were Le Vassoult, a Frenchman, and George Thomas, an Irishman. The Begum favoured the Frenchman and when, in 1793, the rumour spread that she had married him, her troops mutinied. The couple sought to escape secretly by night - Le Vassoult on horseback and the Begum in a palanquin. Misinformed that Le Vassoult had been shot, she stabbed herself but survived. Her lover, however, died of a self-inflicted wound to the head.

When Lord Gerard Lake met the Begum in 1802, in a fit of enthusiasm he gave her a hearty kiss, which appalled her troops. But with her customary tact Begum Sumroo pacified them by saying that it was only "the kiss of the Padre to a repentant child". The Begum, though only 4-1/2 feet tall, wore a turban and rode on horseback as she led her troops to battle. So invincible did she seem that the superstitious spread the word that she was a witch who could destroy her enemies just by throwing her cloak towards them.

On the death of her husband Walter Reinhardt, she succeeded to his Principality yielding about £90,000 per annum, and on the introduction of British Rule in 1803 in North India, she managed to retain her possessions as an Independent Ruler. Her conduct in the internal management of her estate was highly commendable.

Over a period of time, she became a powerful lady of North India, ruling a large area from Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh. Her support was even acknowledged by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. The British East India Company considered her as a threat to its territorial ambitions in undivided India.

Bêgam was baptized, at the age of about forty, by a Roman Catholic priest, under the name of Joanna, on the 7th of May, 1781.

She died at Sardhanamarker, the capital of her Principality, in January 1837 at the age of 85, bequeathing the greater part of her property to Dyce, who descended from Walter Reinhardt Sombre, from his first wife.

Several stories and novels have been written based on her political and diplomatic astuteness, and crucial battles fought by troops directly commanded by her.

Walter Reinhardt Sombre (husband)

Her husband, Walter Reinhardt, is definitely believed to have been born in a village called Ort Simmern near Trier (Treves). There are still Reinhardts in the area. Walter Reinhardt was born of obscure parents in the Electorate of Treves, from whence he entered early into the French Service assuming the name of Summer, but due to the darkness of his complexion, he received the Sobriquet of Sombre.

Sombre was subsequently corrupted as Sumroo, by which name Begum was generally known, though she always styled herself the Begum Sombre. Walter (Le Sombre-later on called as Sumroo/Sumru by Indian Historians) was one of the mercenaries apart from Molier, George Thomas and Rene and many others who came to India and played important role in India's history during the eighteenth century.

Walter Reinhardt Sumroo, soon after his enlistment in the French Service, came to Bengal, entered a Swiss Corps in Calcutta from which he deserted in 15 days, fled to the Upper Provinces and served some time as a private trooper in the cavalry of Sufdur Jung. This service, he also quit and became attached to the service of the Nawab of Bengal, in which station he massacred the English Captives in Patna in 1763.

In The Fall of the Mogul Empire of Hindustan, H.G. Keene describes this massacre:
In the meanwhile the unscrupulous heroes who were founding the British Government of India had thought proper to quarrel with their new instrument Mir Kasim, whom they had so lately raised to the Masnad of Bengal. This change in their councils had been caused by an insubordinate letter addressed to the Court of Directors by Clive's party, which had led to their dismissal from employ. The opposition then raised to power consisted of all the more corrupt members of the service; and the immediate cause of their rupture with Mir Kasim was about the monopoly they desired to have of the local trade for their own private advantage. They were represented at that Nawab's Court by Mr. Ellis, the most violent of their body; and the consequence of his proceedings was, in no long time, seen in the murder of the Resident and all his followers, in October, 1763. The scene of this atrocity (which remained without a parallel for nearly a century) was at Patna, which was then threatened and soon after stormed by the British; and the actual instrument was a Franco-German, Walter Reinhardt by name, of whom, as we are to hear much more hereafter, it is as well here to take note. This European executioner of Asiatic barbarity is generally believed to have been a native of Treves, in the Duchy of Luxemburg, who came to India as a sailor in the French navy. From this service he is said to have deserted to the British, and joined the first European battalion raised in Bengal. Thence deserting he once more entered the French service; was sent with a party who vainly attempted to relieve Chandarnagar, and was one of the small party who followed Law when that officer took command of those, who refused to share in the surrender of the place to the British. After the capture of his ill-starred chief, Reinhardt (whom we shall in future designate by his Indian sobriquet of "Sumroo," or Sombre) took service under Gregory, or Gurjin Khan, Mir Kasim's Armenian General. Broome, however, adopts a somewhat different version. According to this usually careful and accurate historian, Reinhardt was a Salzburg man who originally came to India in the British service, and deserted to the French at Madras, whence he was sent by Lally to strengthen the garrison of the Bengal settlement. The details are not very material: Sumroo had certainly learned war both in English and French schools. He again deserted from the Newab, served successively the Principal Chiefs of the time, and died in 1776.


Later on, Walter Reinhardt formed his own mercenary army. He served Jats too. At one time, he was Governor of Agra too. His tomb is still there in Agra.

A modern Novelist, Mr Vikram Chandra, has used the character of Sumroo in his book "Red Earth and Pouring Rain". In this book, fiction intermingles with history and myth. The dramatis personae include the historical adventurers viz the Frenchman Benoit de Boigne (1751-1830), the German Walter Reinhardt (1720-1778) and the Irishman George Thomas (1756-1802).

Palace at Sardhana and Chandni Chowk

The palace built by her in Sardhana, near Meerut was the centre of much activity during the reign of Mughal Emperor, Akbar Shah. Shah Alam, the predecessor and father of Akbar Shah, regarded Begum Sumroo as his daughter. Why he did so was because the Begum had saved Delhi from an invasion by a force of 30,000 Sikhs, under Baghel Singh in 1783, who had encamped at Tis Hazari (the name of the place being derived from the number of those who constituted the force). Thanks to the Begum's parleys, the Sikhs did not enter the city and went back to Punjab after getting a generous monetary gift from Shah Alam.

In 1787(?), when the emperor, Shah Alam, blind and feeble, was in pursuit of Najaf Quli Khan and trying to quell the rebellion stirred up by him, an incident occurred at Gokalgarh that brought the Begum closer to Shah Alam. Seeing that the emperor's troops were wavering in their resolve to attack the rebel leader, she advanced with a force of 100 men, and whatever big guns she had, and opened fire on Najaf Quli Khan and his men. This did the trick and Najaf sought the Begum's help to make his peace with Shah Alam. Thankful for her intervention, the emperor bestowed special honours on her at the royal court and declared her to be "his most beloved daughter". Not only that she was confirmed in her estate at Sardhana, which was the subject of a dispute with Louis Balthazar alias Nawab Zafaryab Khan, the son of her late husband, General Sumroo, by his first wife, Badi Bibi.

The palace in Chandni Chowk was built in a garden gifted by Akbar Shah to the Begum when he ascended the throne after the death of Shah Alam in 1806. Her palatial building still stands in Chandani Chowk, New Delhi. She had also constructed a Church in Sardhana. Begum Sumroo's palace in New Delhi is now known as Bhagirath (Palace) Place. It is worthy of special mention. It was at one time known as Chudiwali's haveli and thereby hangs a bit of history. It was in this building now occupied by the State Bank of India that Bersford, manager of the Delhi Bank, and his family were killed during the 1857 Mutiny.

According to Johns Lall, the late ICS officer, quoting the British writer and traveller William Francklin, the Khas Mahal (as the palace was named) was bounded by Chandni Chowk on one side and the area now occupied by Delhi Main Station on the other.It was connected with Chandni Chowk by an avenue of cypress trees.

After the palace had been completed, Gokul Chand, Begum Sumroo's chief munshi, wrote a panegryic when Akbar Shah visited it, and compared the mahal to something that had come from paradise: with sweet flowers....whose spring was perpetual.

The emperor's visit turned into a gala reception, with dance and music and a fabulous dinner, making it a memorable evening, not seen in Delhi for a long time.

The palace was sold in 1847 to Lala Chunna Mal by David Dyce Sombre.

Her palace survives but the garden in which it stood has vanished. Why it was known as Chudiwali-ki-Haveli was perhaps because of the Begum's `past' in the red light area, though some have other explanations. A similar palace built by her in Sardhana is now a college.

Death

She died at the age of 90 in 1836. Her grandson, through her stepson, Dyce Sombre (married to Lady Forrester) died in 1851 at London, from where his body was brought to Sardhana and buried beside the Begum in the imposing church she had built there. It is now known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, it is the centre of two annual pilgrimages in March and November, when thousands come to bless the Begum and pray to the Virgin Mary.

WH Sleeman's recollections

This is what William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856) describes about Begam Sumroo in his book "Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official".:

"On the 7th of February, 1836, I went out to Sardhana and visited the church built and endowed by the late Bêgam Sombre, whose remains are now deposited in it. It was designed by an Italian gentleman, M. Reglioni, and is a fine but not a striking building. I met the bishop, Julius Caesar, an Italian from Milan, whom I had known a quarter of a century before, a happy and handsome young man--he is still handsome, though old; but very miserable because the Bêgam did not leave him so large a legacy as he expected. In the revenues of her church he had, she thought, quite enough to live upon; and she said that priests without wives or children to care about ought to be satisfied with this; and left him only a few thousand rupees. She made him the medium of conveying a donation to the See of Rome of one hundred and fifty thousand rupees, and thereby procured for him the bishopric of Amartanta in the island of Cyprus; and got her grandson, Dyce Sombre, made a chevalier of the Order of Christ, and presented with a splint from the real cross, as a relic.

The Bêgam Sombre was by birth a Saiyadanî, or lineal descendant from Muhammad, the founder of the Musalmân faith; and she was united to Walter Reinhard, when very young, by all the forms considered necessary by persons of her persuasion when married to men of another. Reinhard had been married to another woman of the Musalmân faith, who still lives at Sardhana, but she had become insane, and has ever since remained so. By this first wife he had a son, who got from the Emperor the title of Zafar Yâb Khân, at the request of the Bêgam, his stepmother; but he was a man of weak intellect, and so little thought of that he was not recognized even as the nominal chief on the death of his father.

Walter Reinhard was a native of Salzburg. He enlisted as a private soldier in the French service, and came to India, where he entered the service of the East India Company, and rose to the rank of sergeant. Reinhard got the sobriquet of Sombre from his comrades while in the French service from the sombre cast of his countenance and temper. An Armenian, by name Gregory, of a Calcutta family, the virtual minister of Mir Kâsim Alî Khân, under the title of Gorgîn Khân, took him into his service when the war was about to commence between his master and the English. Kâsim Alî (Mir Kasim) was a native of Kâshmîr, and not naturally a bad man; but he was goaded to madness by the injuries and insults heaped upon him by the servants of the East India Company, who were not then paid, as at present, in adequate salaries, but in profits upon all kinds of monopolies; and they would not suffer the recognized sovereign of the country in which they traded to grant to his subjects the same exemption that they claimed for themselves exclusively; and a war was the consequence.

Mr. Ellis, one of these civil servants and chief of the factory at Patna, whose opinions had more weight with the council in Calcutta than all the wisdom of such men as Vansittart and Warren Hastings, because they happened to be more consonant with the personal interests of the majority, precipitately brought on the war, and assumed the direction of all military operations, of which he knew nothing, and for which he seems to have been totally unfitted by the violence of his temper. All his enterprises failed--the city and factory were captured by the enemy, and the European inhabitants taken prisoners. The Nawâb, smarting under the reiterated wrongs he had received, and which he attributed mainly to the counsels of Mr. Ellis, no sooner found the chief within his grasp, than he determined to have him and all who were taken with him, save a Doctor Fullarton, to whom he owed some personal obligations, put to death. His own native officers were shocked at the proposal, and tried to dissuade him from the purpose, but he was resolved, and not finding among them any willing to carry it into execution he applied to Sumroo, who readily undertook and, with some of his myrmidons, performed the horrible duty in 1763.

At the suggestion of Gregory and Sombre, Kâsim Alî now attempted to take the small principality of Nepâl, as a kind of basis for his operations against the English. He had four hundred excellent rifles with flint locks and screwed barrels made at Monghyr (Mungêr) on the Ganges, so as to fit into small boxes. These boxes were sent up on the backs of four hundred brave volunteers for this forlorn hope. Gregory had got a passport for the boxes as rare merchandise for the palace of the prince at Kathmandûmarker, in whose presence alone they were to be opened. On reaching the palace at night, these volunteers were to open their boxes, screw up the barrels, destroy all the inmates, and possess themselves of the palace, where it is supposed Kâsim Ali had already secured many friends. Twelve thousand soldiers had advanced to the foot of the hills near Betiyâ, to support the attack, and the volunteers were in the fort of Makwânpur, the only strong fort between the plain and the capital. They had been treated with great consideration by the garrison, and were to set out at daylight the next morning; but one of the attendants, who had been let into the secret, got drunk, and in a quarrel with one of the garrison, told him that he should see in a few days who would be master of that garrison. This led to suspicion; the boxes were broken open, the arms discovered, and the whole of the party, except three or four, were instantly put to death; the three or four who escaped gave intelligence to the army at Betiyâ, and the whole retreated upon Monghyr. But for this drunken man, Nepâl had perhaps been Mir Kâsim Alî's.

Mir Kâsim Alî Khân was beaten in several actions by our gallant little band of troops under their able leader, Colonel Adams; and at last driven to seek shelter with the Nawâb Wazîr of Oudh, into whose service Sumroo afterwards entered. This chief being in his turn beaten, Sumroo went off and entered the service of the celebrated chief of Rohilkhand, Hafiz Rahmat Khan. This he soon quit from fear of the English. He raised two battalions in 1772, which he soon afterwards increased to four; and let out always to the highest bidder--first, to the Jât chiefs of Dîg, then to the chief of Jaipur, then to Najaf Khân, the prime minister, and then to the Marâthâs.

His battalions were officered by Europeans, but Europeans of respectability were unwilling to take service under a man so precariously situated, however great their necessities; and he was obliged to content himself for the most part with the very dross of society--men who could neither read nor write, nor keep themselves sober. The consequence was that the battalions were often in a state of mutiny, committing every kind of outrage upon the persons of their officers, and at all times in a state of insubordination bordering on mutiny. These battalions seldom obtained their pay till they put their commandant into confinement, and made him dig up his hidden stores, if he had any, or borrow from bankers, if he had none. If the troops felt pressed for time, and their commander was of the necessary character, they put him astride upon a hot gun without his trousers. When our battalion had got its pay out of him in this manner, he was often handed over to another for the same purpose.

The poor old Bêgam had been often subjected to the starving stage of this proceeding before she came under our protection; but had never, I believe, been grilled upon a gun. It was a rule, it was said, with Sombre, to enter the field of battle at the safest point, form line facing the enemy, fire a few rounds in the direction where they stood, without regard to the distance or effect, form square, and await the course of events. If victory declared for the enemy, he sold his unbroken force to him to great advantage; if for his friends, he assisted them in collecting the plunder, and securing all the advantages of the victory. To this prudent plan of action his corps afterwards steadily adhered; and they never took or lost a gun till they came in contact with our forces at Ajantâ and Assaye.

Sombre died at Agra on the 4th of May, 1778, and his remains were at first buried in his garden. They were afterwards removed to the consecrated ground in the Agra churchyard by his widow the Bêgam, who was baptized, at the age of forty, by a Roman Catholic priest, under the name of Joanna, on the 7th of May, 1781.

On the death of her husband she was requested to take command of the force by all the Europeans and natives that composed it, as the only possible mode of keeping them together, since the son was known to be altogether unfit. She consented, and was regularly installed in the charge by the Emperor Shâh Alam. Her chief officer was a Mr. Paoli, a German, who soon after took an active part in providing the poor imbecile old Emperor with a prime minister, and got himself assassinated on the restoration, a few weeks after, of his rival. The troops continued in the same state of insubordination, and the Bêgam was anxious for an opportunity to show that she was determined to be obeyed.

While she was encamped with the army of the prime minister of the time at Mathurâ, news was one day brought to her that two slave girls had set fire to her houses at Agra, in order that they might make off with their paramours, two soldiers of the guard she had left in charge. These houses had thatched roofs, and contained all her valuables, and the widows, wives, and children of her principal officers. The fire had been put out with much difficulty and great loss of property; and the two slave girls were soon after discovered in the bazaar at Agra, and brought out to the Bêgam's camp. She had the affair investigated in the usual summary form; and their guilt being proved to the satisfaction of all present, she had them flogged till they were senseless, and then thrown into a pit dug in front of her tent for the purpose, and buried alive. I had heard the story related in different ways, and I now took pains to ascertain the truth; and this short narrative may, I believe, be relied upon.

An old Persian merchant, called the Agâ, still resided at Sardhana, to whom I knew that one of the slave girls belonged. I visited him, and he told me that his father had been on intimate terms with Sombre, and when he died his mother went to live with his widow, the Bêgam--that his slave girl was one of the two-that his mother at first protested against her being taken off to the camp, but became on inquiry satisfied of her guilt--and that the Bêgam's object was to make a strong impression upon the turbulent spirit of her troops by a severe example. 'In this object', said the old Agâ, 'she entirely succeeded; and for some years after her orders were implicitly obeyed; had she faltered on that occasion she must have lost the command--she would have lost that respect, without which it would have been impossible for her to retain it a month. I was then a boy; but I remember well that there were, besides my mother and sisters, many respectable females that would have rather perished in the flames than come out to expose themselves to the crowd that assembled to see the fires; and had the fires not been put out, a great many lives must have been lost; besides, there were many old people and young children who could not have escaped.' The old Agâ was going off to take up his quarters at Delhi when this conversation took place; and I am sure that he told me what he thought to be true. This narrative corresponded exactly with that of several other old men from whom I had heard the story. It should be recollected that among natives there is no particular mode of execution prescribed for those who are condemned to die; nor, in a camp like this, any court of justice save that of the commander in which they could be tried, and, supposing the guilt to have been established, as it is said to have been to the satisfaction of the Bêgam and the principal officers, who were all Europeans and Christians, perhaps the punishment was not much greater than the crime deserved and the occasion demanded. But it is possible that the slave girls may not have set fire to the buildings, but merely availed themselves of the occasion of the fire to run off; indeed, slave girls are under so little restraint in India, that it would be hardly worth while for them to burn down a house to get out. I am satisfied that the Bêgam believed them guilty, and that the punishment, horrible as it was, was merited. It certainly had the desired effect. My object has been to ascertain the truth in this case, and to state it, and not to eulogize or defend the old Bêgam.

After Paoli's death, the command of the troops under the Bêgam devolved successively upon Baours, Evans, Dudrenec, who, after a short time, all gave it up in disgust at the beastly habits of the European subalterns, and the overbearing insolence to which they and the want of regular pay gave rise among the soldiers. At last the command devolved upon Monsieur Le Vaisseau, a French gentleman of birth, education, gentlemanly deportment, and honourable feelings. The battalions had been increased to six, with their due proportion of guns and cavalry; part resided at Sardhana, her capital, and part at Delhi, in attendance upon the Emperor.

A very extraordinary man entered her service about the same time with Le Vaisseau, George Thomas, who, from a quartermaster on board a ship, raised himself to a principality in Northern India. Thomas on one occasion raised his mistress in the esteem of the Emperor and the people by breaking through the old rule of central squares: gallantly leading on his troops, and rescuing his majesty from a perilous situation in one of his battles with a rebellious subject, Najaf Kulî Khân, where the Bêgam was present in her palankeen, and reaped all the laurels, being from that day called 'the most beloved daughter of the Emperor'. As his best chance of securing his ascendancy against such a rival, Le Vaisseau proposed marriage to the Bêgam, and was accepted. She was married to Le Vaisseau by Father Gregoris, a Carmelite monk, in 1793, before Saleur and Bernier, two French officers of great merit. George Thomas left her service, in consequence, in 1793, and set up for himself; and was afterwards crushed by the united armies of the Sikhs and Marâthâs, commanded by European officers, after he had been recognized as a general officer by the Governor-General of India. George Thomas had latterly twelve small disciplined battalions officered by Europeans. He had good artillery, cast his own guns, and was the first person that applied iron calibres to brass cannon. He was unquestionably a man of very extraordinary military genius, and his ferocity and recklessness as to the means he used were quite in keeping with the times. His revenues were derived from the Sikh states which he had rendered tributary; and he would probably have been sovereign of them all in the room of Ranjit Singh, had not the jealousy of Perron and other French officers in the Marâthâ army interposed.

The Bêgam tried in vain to persuade her husband to receive all the European officers of the corps at his table as gentlemen, urging that not only their domestic peace, but their safety among such a turbulent set, required that the character of these officers should be raised if possible, and their feelings conciliated. Nothing, he declared, should ever induce him to sit at table with men of such habits; and they at last determined that no man should command them who would not condescend to do so. Their insolence and that of the soldiers generally became at last unbearable, and the Bêgam determined to go off with her husband, and seek an asylum in the Honourable Company's territory with the little property she could command, of one hundred thousand rupees in money, and her jewels, amounting perhaps in value to one hundred thousand more. Le Vaisseau did not understand English; but with the aid of a grammar and a dictionary he was able to communicate her wishes to Colonel McGowan, who commanded at that time (1795) an advanced post of our army at Anûpshahr on the Ganges. He proposed that the Colonel should receive them in his cantonments, and assist them in their journey thence to Farrukhâbâd, where they wished in future to reside, free from the cares and anxieties of such a charge. The Colonel had some scruples, under the impression that he might be censured for aiding in the flight of a public officer of the Emperor. He now addressed the Governor-General of India, Sir John Shore himself, April 1795, who requested Major Palmer, our accredited agent with Sindhia, who was then encamped near Delhi, and holding the seals of prime minister of the empire, to interpose his good offices in favour of the Bêgam and her husband. Sindhia demanded twelve lâkhs of rupees as the price of the privilege she solicited to retire; and the Bêgam, in her turn, demanded over and above the privilege of resigning the command into his hands, the sum of four lâkhs of rupees as the price of the arms and accoutrements which had been provided at her own cost and that of her late husband. It was at last settled that she should resign the command, and set out secretly with her husband; and that Sindhia should confer the command of her troops upon one of his own officers, who would pay the son of Sombre two thousand rupees a month for life. Le Vaisseau was to be received into our territories, treated as a prisoner of war upon parole, and permitted to reside with his wife at the French settlement of Chandernagore. His last letter to Sir John Shore is dated the 30th April, 1795. His last letters describing this final arrangement are addressed to Mr. Even, a French merchant at Mirzapore, and a Mr. Bernier, both personal friends of his, and are dated 18th of May, 1795.

The battalions on duty at Delhi got intimation of this correspondence, made the son of Sombre declare himself their legitimate chief, and march at their head to seize the Bêgam and her husband. Le Vaisseau heard of their approach, and urged the Bêgam to set out with him at midnight for Anûpshahr, declaring that he would rather destroy himself than submit to the personal indignities which he knew would be heaped upon him by the infuriated ruffians who were coming to seize them. The Bêgam consented, declaring that she would put an end to her life with her own hand should she be taken. She got into her palankeen with a dagger in her hand, and as he had seen her determined resolution and proud spirit before exerted on many trying occasions, he doubted not that she would do what she declared she would. He mounted his horse and rode by the side of her palankeen, with a pair of pistols in his holsters, and a good sword by his side. They had got as far as Kabrî, about three miles from Sardhana, on the road to Meerut, when they found the battalions from Sardhana, who had got intimation of the flight, gaining fast upon the palankeen. Le Vaisseau asked the Bêgam whether she remained firm in her resolve to die rather than submit to the indignities that threatened them. 'Yes,' replied she, showing him the dagger firmly grasped in her right hand. He drew a pistol from his holster without saying anything, but urged on the bearers. He could have easily galloped off, and saved himself, but he would not quit his wife's side. At last the soldiers came up close behind them. The female attendants of the Bêgam began to scream; and looking in, Le Vaisseau saw the white cloth that covered the Bêgam's breast stained with blood. She had stabbed herself, but the dagger had struck against one of the bones of her chest, and she had not courage to repeat the blow. Her husband put his pistol to his temple and fired. The bail passed through his head, and he fell dead on the ground. One of the soldiers who saw him told me that he sprang at least a foot off the saddle into the air as the shot struck him. His body was treated with every kind of insult by the European officers and their men; and the Bêgam was taken back into Sardhana, kept under a gun for seven days, deprived of all kinds of food, save what she got by stealth from her female servants, and subjected to all manner of insolent language.

At last the officers were advised by George Thomas, who had instigated them to this violence out of pique against the Bêgam for her preference of the Frenchman, to set aside their puppet and reseat the Bêgam in the command, as the only chance of keeping the territory of Sardhana. 'If', said he, 'the Bêgam should die under the torture of mind and body to which you are subjecting her, the minister will very soon resume the lands assigned for your payment, and disband a force so disorderly, and so little likely to be of any use to him or the Emperor.' A council of war was held--the Bêgam was taken out from under the gun, and reseated on the 'masnad'. A paper was drawn up by about thirty European officers, of whom only one, Monsieur Saleur, could sign his own name, swearing in the name of God and Jesus Christ, that they would henceforward obey her with all their hearts and souls, and recognize no other person whomsoever as commander. They all affixed their seals to this _covenant_; but some of them, to show their superior learning, put their initials, or what they used as such, for some of these _learned Thebans_ knew only two or three letters of the alphabet, which they put down, though they happened not to be their real initials. An officer on the part of Sindhia, who was to have commanded these troops, was present at this reinstallation of the Bêgam, and glad to take, as a compensation for his disappointment, the sum of one hundred and fifty thousand rupees, which the Bêgam contrived to borrow for him.

The body of poor Le Vaisseau was brought back to camp, and there lay several days unburied, and exposed to all kinds of indignities. The supposition that this was the result of a plan formed by the Bêgam to get rid of Le Vaisseau is, I believe, unfounded. The Bêgam herself gave some colour of truth to the report by retaining the name of her first husband, Sombre, to the last, and never publicly or formally declaring her marriage with Le Vaisseau after his death. The troops in this mutiny pretended nothing more than a desire to vindicate the honour of their old commander Sombre, which had, they said, been compromised by the illicit intercourse between Le Vaisseau and his widow. She had not dared to declare the marriage to them lest they should mutiny on that ground, and deprive her of the command; and for the same reason she retained the name of Sombre after her restoration, and remained silent on the subject of her second marriage. The marriage was known only to a few European officers. Sir John Shore, Major Palmer, and the other gentlemen with whom Le Vaisseau corresponded. Some grave old native gentlemen who were long in her service have told me that they believed 'there really was too much of truth in the story which excited the troops to mutiny on that occasion--her too great intimacy with the gallant young Frenchman. God forgive them for saying so of a lady whose salt they had eaten for so many years'. Le Vaisseau made no mention of the marriage to Colonel McGowan; and from the manner in which he mentions it to Sir John Shore it is clear that he, or she, or both, were anxious to conceal it from the troops and from Sindhia before their departure. She stipulated in her will that her heir, Mr. Dyce, should take the name of Sombre, as if she wished to have the little episode of her second marriage forgotten.

After the death of Le Vaisseau, the command devolved on Monsieur Saleur, a Frenchman, the only respectable officer who signed the covenant; he had taken no active part in the mutiny; on the contrary, he had done all he could to prevent it; and he was at last, with George Thomas, the chief means of bringing his brother officers back to a sense of their duty. Another battalion was added to the four in 1787, and another raised in 1798 and 1802; five of the six marched under Colonel Saleur to the Deccan with Sindhia. They were in a state of mutiny the whole way, and utterly useless as auxiliaries, as Saleur himself declared in many of his letters written in French to his mistress the Bêgam. At the battle of Assaye, four of these battalions were left in charge of the Marâthâ camps. One was present in the action and lost its four guns. Soon after the return of these battalions, the Bêgam entered into an alliance with the British Government; the force then consisted of these six battalions, a party of artillery served chiefly by Europeans, and two hundred horse. She had a good arsenal well stored, a foundry for cannon, both within the walls of a small fortress, built near her dwelling at Sardhana. The whole cost her about four lâkhs of rupees a year; her civil establishments eighty thousand, and her household establishments and expenses about the same; total six lâkhs of rupees a year. The revenues of Sardhana, and the other lands assigned at different times for the payment of the force had been at no time more than sufficient to cover these expenses; but under the protection of our Government they improved with the extension of tillage, and the improvements of the surrounding markets for produce, and she was enabled to give largely to the support of charitable institutions, and to provide handsomely for the support of her family and pensioners after her death.'

Sombre's son, Zafaryâb Khân, had a daughter who was married to Colonel Dyce, who had for some time the management of the Bêgam's affairs; but he lost her favour long before her death by his violent temper and overbearing manners, and was obliged to resign the management to his son, who, on the Bêgam's death, came in for the bulk of her fortune, or about sixty lâkhs of rupees. He has two sisters who were brought up by the Bêgam, one married to Captain Troup, an Englishman, and the other to Mr. Salaroli, an Italian, both very worthy men. Their wives have been handsomely provided for by the Bêgam, and by their brother, who trebled the fortunes left to them by the Bêgam.

She built an excellent church at Sardhana, and assigned the sum of 100,000 rupees as a fund to provide for its service and repairs; 50,000 rupees as another [fund] for the poor of the place; and 100,000 as a third, for a college in which Roman Catholic priests might be educated for the benefit of India generally. She sent to Rome 150,000 rupees to be employed as a charity fund at the discretion of the Pope; and to the Archbishop of Canterbury she sent 50,000 for the same purpose. She gave to the Bishop of Calcutta 100,000 rupees to provide teachers for the poor of the Protestant church in Calcutta. She sent to Calcutta for distribution to the poor, and for the liberation of deserving debtors, 50,000. To the Catholic missions at Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras she gave 100,000; and to that of Agra 50,000. She built a handsome chapel for the Roman Catholics at Meerut; and presented the fund for its support with a donation of 12,000; and she built a chapel for the Church Missionary at Meerut, the Reverend Mr. Richards, at a cost of 10,000, to meet the wants of the native Protestants.

Among all who had opportunities of knowing her she bore the character of a kind-hearted, benevolent, and good woman; and I have conversed with men capable of judging, who had known her for more than fifty years. She had uncommon sagacity and a masculine resolution; and the Europeans and natives who were most intimate with her have told me that though a woman and of small stature, her 'ru'b' (dignity, or power of commanding personal respect) was greater than that of almost any person they had ever seen. From the time she put herself under the protection of the British Government, in 1808, she by degrees adopted the European modes of social intercourse, appearing in public on an elephant, in a carriage, and occasionally on horseback with her hat and veil, and dining at table with gentlemen. She often entertained Governors-General and Commanders-in-Chief, with all their retinues, and sat with them and their staff at table, and for some years past kept an open house for the society of Meerut; but in no situation did she lose sight of her dignity. She retained to the last the grateful affections of the thousands who were supported by her bounty, while she never ceased to inspire the most profound respect in the minds of those who every day approached her, and were on the most unreserved terms of intimacy.

Lord William Bentinck's letter to Begam Samru

Lord William Bentinck was an excellent judge of character; and the following letter will show how deeply his visit to that part of the country had impressed him with a sense of her extensive usefulness:
To Her Highness the Begum Sumroo. My esteemed Friend,--I cannot leave India without expressing the sincere esteem I entertain for your highness's character. The benevolence of disposition and extensive charity which have endeared you to thousands, have excited in my mind sentiments of the warmest admiration; and I trust that you may yet be preserved for many years, the solace of the orphan and widow, and the sure resource of your numerous dependants. To-morrow morning I embark for England; and my prayers and best wishes attend you, and all others who, like you, exert themselves for the benefit of the people of India. I remain, With much consideration, Your sincere friend, (Signed) M. W. BENTINCK. Calcutta, March 17, 1835.


Her family and descendants

Walter Reinhard(t) Sombre had a son, named Zafar Yab Khan(1764-1803), through his first wife, Badi Bibi. His name was also changed to "Walter Balthazzar Reinhardt" or perhaps to "Aloysius Balthazzar Reinhardt" at the time of baptism. He died in 1803 due to cholera. He had married Juliana/Mme Reybaud/Bhai Begam (1770-1815).Zafar Yab Khan and Juilana had one girl child named Julia Anne, born 1787. Julia Anne married George Alexander Dyce, illegitimate half caste son of a Major General. They had four children, Georgiana (b 02.09.1807), David Ochterlony (b 18.12.1808), George Archibald (b 01.08.1810,died within a year), Anna Maria (b 24.12.1813).

Having become "family", George Alexander Dyce was rapidly made commander of the Begam's army. He considered that he was entitled to the Begam's wealth through marriage to Reinhard(t)'s heir, and when Julia Anne died in 1820, began to help himself. George Alexander Dyce was an uncaring and unloving father. Therefore, he was removed but he continued to make a real nuisance of himself until his death.

When Julia Anne died in 1820,Begam Sumroo looked after the children as her own. Young David was taken over and brought up by her as her son.

Although educated by Protestant missionaries, David Ochterlony Dyce was brought up a Catholic. He added Sombre to his name on being formally nominated by the Begam as her sole heir and successor. She transferred to him her wealthand the administration of her principality but her attempts to have him accepted by the British as ruler on her death were to no avail.

When the Begam died in 1836, the British took possession of Sardhana, all the arms which she had brought from them to equip her army, as well as the lands of Badshapur, which were her private property. They also failed to honour undertakings to continue the many pensions paid from the revenue. David's attempts to have these wrongs rectified were unsuccessful, although compensation for the arms was eventually granted long after his death. He was also embroiled in attempts by his father to grab his fortune.

After a visit to China, David set out for England and the Grand Tour of Europe. He married Mary Anne Jervis, an ambitious seeker after money and position. He also got himself elected as MP for Sudbury, and was then deposed after objections from the loser. His wife had him certified insane and held under restraint. David escaped his guards and fled to France, where an attempt to have him extradited failed. Doctors all over Europe examined him and found he was perfectly sane, but his attempts to reverse the judgement were brushed aside. Meanwhile he travelled from one end of Europe to the other. Finally, with a change of Government, there seemed a chance of success. He returned to England with indemnity from arrest, but a few days before the case was due to be heard he died suddenly in excruciating agony. He was buried at once in an unmarked grave, which has not been touched since - yet his body was also returned to India to be buried in Sardhana! His Will was contested by his estranged wife, whom he had disinherited, on the grounds that he was still insane. She won the case and became the richest woman in England!

Later on, she was also known as Lady Forester, through her marriage to George Weld-Forester, 3rd Baron Forester. She died childless.

Walter Sombre's bloodline is still surviving through Georgiana. Georgiana married Paolo Solaroli, an Italian who was also head of Begam Sumroo's Bodyguards. One of Solaroli's descendants Capitano Giorgio Solaroli di Briona, an Italian, was one of the most famous fighter pilots, in the second world war.

Begum Sumroo in modern times

Nowadays, even plays have been written on her life and times. One such report is as follows.

The play written by Partap Sharma is a slice from the period of the Indian history when the East India Company was insidiously digging its toes into the land. The year is 1788 and the story is about a woman called Farzana, who becomes a princess, Begum Sumroo -- played by Tara Deshpande -- through her own merit. "She is an educated woman from a well-to-do family. And when hard times fall, she becomes a nautch girl to support her family," says Sharma. With visions of an ideal state passed on to her by her father, she gets involved in court intrigues when her admirer Gulam Quaider tells her of his plans. During that time, the country was overrun by European brigades, all of whom wanted a slice of the pie. Colonel Sombre, mispronounced as Sumroo by the natives, a Swiss-German, was one such mercenary. Farzana goes to him as a messenger of Quaider asking Sumroo to join him against Shah Alam. But disgusted with her lover's treachery, she sows seeds of Nawabdom in Sumroo's head. She explains how he can be the master of his own land if he pays heed to strategy. "Fight for the winning side, join Shah Alam against the British. He'll give you land," she says. Intrigued by the nautch girl's bent of mind, Sumroo does as she says, also trains her to be a soldier and finally marries her. And this is no fiction.

"She has been forgotten because she was so successful. We remember Jhansi ki Rani and Joan of Arc because of the element of tragedy. But this woman lived till she was 86, overcame tragedies, was considered one of the richest women of her time, ruled her principality after Sumroo's death and was so admired by her men that they killed all her lovers whom she thought of getting married to because they her to be their leader," says Sharma. Alyque choose this play as he finds the idea of a woman in power fascinating.

Alyque enters the set at quarter to four. A hard task-master, he ticks off late-comers. But when Gerson da Cunha, who plays Colonel Sumroo, enters at half past four, it's bouquets not brickbats for him. It's his birthday.

The rehearsals start. First act, first scene: Quaider and Farzana, at her house. "Meher, take a note of those who haven't been measured. Hurry! Saleur, make sure the props are in place," barks Alyque. There are no bruised egos as Alyque seems to be respected by everyone. Says Gerson, "I had acted with him 22 years ago and now I find it more interesting to work with him. He doesn't arrive with set ideas and everything evolves in a very creative manner."

Alyque is explaining the play to the lightsman today. "There are footlights on either side of the stage. The play opens with Shah Alam's courtier walking through the audience with a loban, an incense stick and a hazy mist hovers over the audience. There is a prologue. A blue light comes on stage and three pairs of dancing ankles with ghungroos come in view. There is a ground spot on the ankles. Then the back lights for the silhouettes come on and then the face light. There is an old haveli and Farzana, Zulekha and Gauri are on stage," describes Alyque. There is a whole set of advisers for the play: historical consultant, Islamic rituals consultant, an advisor on historical military uniforms and a walrus-moustached military advisor -- Major Kochhar -- who is present for the rehearsals.

The rehearsal goes off beautifully and it looks like Alyque will redeem the disaster of Roshni when this play opens on August 16 at Homi Bhabha Auditorium. The opening is timed with the 50th year of Independence as, "Begum Sumroo can be considered the forerunner of the Independence movement," says the data sheet.

References

  1. Sardhana .
  2. Sardhana Town The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909, v. 22, p. 105..
  3. http://www.llandudnohistoricalsociety.org.uk/Lady%20Foresters.html



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