Book Review: Farzana, The Woman Who Saved an Empire

She is but a minor footnote in the history of India, but the amazing career of Farzana says so much about northern India in the 86 years between her birth in 1746 and death in 1836 that it is worth reading this fast-paced biography just for that.

Farzana has no known other name, according to the author -- though Zeb-un-Nissa, an honorific title, is sometimes used as though it were a family name. This was a woman of lowly background and no education who became a major player in the incessant minor wars that plagued northern India in particular in the interregnum between Mughal and British supremacy when half a dozen forces fought for power and wealth.

India at that point was a country endlessly ravaged as Afghans, Sikhs, Jats, Maratha Rajahs, Rajputs, various Nawabs, the British, French and the Mughal emperor engaged in a kaleidoscope of wars and shifting alliances that attracted European mercenaries and assorted adventurers in droves and indirectly involved the Muslim rulers of Hyderabad and Mysore.

One such mercenary was a soldier from Alsace, the Franco-German borderland. Walter Reinhardt served on the losing side on several occasions but changed sides just in time to survive and join another force. He fought for the French, the British – whom he massacred in cold blood while in the employ of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ed-Daula – and other eventual losers before joining the Jats who then controlled Agra and besieged Delhi before being bought off.

The 45-year Reinhardt’s spoils included buying Farzana a 15-year old nautch girl from Delhi’s Chauri bazaar. (Nautch girls were talented singers, musicians and entertainers often talented but often concubines).

The diminutive, 147cm, Farzana soon however showed enormous spirit, accompanying Reinhardt through the hardships of campaigns and earning the admiration of the troops and becoming an inspiration, not just a mascot. Reinhart hit it even luckier when he changed sides again and joined the forces supporting the emperor Shah Alam who, after being in exile under British protection, was restored to Delhi by the Maratha leader Mahadji Scindia, Maharajah of Gwalior.

In reward for acting as a front line against Sikh expansionism Reinhardt was offered a jagir, or large estate, called Sardhana, northwest of Delhi and close to Meerut. This Farzana helped to develop into an island of relative peace and prosperity. Such was the esteem in which she was held that when Reinhart, known locally as Samru from his French service alias of Sombre, died of natural causes in 1778, Begum Samru maintained her position as de facto ruler and was recognized as such by the emperor.

The next commander of her forces, another foreign mercenary, a Col Pauli, was also her lover and when he was killed in a plot she found a replacement lover/commander in an Irish mercenary, George Thomas. Remaining always loyal to the emperor, she and her army once helped him ward off the violent Pashtun Ghulam Qadir and again helped the Maratha forces of Scindia restore regain Delhi after the Red Fort had been sacked by Ghulam Qadir and even the ladies of the palace dishonored.

Farzana fell out with Thomas and a French gun-foundry expert with aristocratic airs succeeded him in the Begum’s bed as well as commander of her forces. She even married this M. Levassoult. His unpopularity and lack of real military experience eventually caused a mutiny in which the Frenchman was killed and Farzana had to appeal to the discarded Thomas, who had a small mercenary force of his own, for help.

Thomas duly restored her to her position and ended the mutiny. Later she was again to find herself in potential conflict with Thomas, who had acquired his own little domain and army and whose ambitions were agitating the emperor. But for most of the rest of her life she was at mostly peace, gradually becoming a figure of stability as well as renown. She had converted to Catholicism at the time she married and continued to practice her new religion until her death, building a large church in Sardhana and corresponding with the Pope in Rome.

For the gradually expanding British Empire she was now a figure of wealth and prestige whose regal bearing and intelligence were much remarked. Only when she died did they venture to absorb her little fiefdom into their empire.

So this is a tale of a remarkable woman, at times unscrupulous but much less so than most around her who was always loyal to the nominal emperor to whom she owed her estate and, with the exception of Levassoult, mostly showed good judgment and timing in her liaisons and alliances. It is an amazing tale, and one told by Julia Keay, a woman with panache and enthusiasm.