Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Begum Samru

Episode Summary

Begum Samru (c. 1750-1836) was a revered 18th century Indian ruler. She came from nothing to become sovereign of her own kingdom and the head of a formidable mercenary army.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leader was a revered 18th century Indian ruler. She came from nothing   and became sovereign of her own kingdom and the head of a formidable mercenary army. Remembered for her skill in the political arena and on the battlefield, she forged her own path at a time and place where women didn’t hold such positions of power. She is also the only Catholic ruler in Indian history. Let’s talk about Begum Samru.

Begum was born around 1750 likely in Kashmir. Her given name was Farzana. While some historians claim that she was the daughter of a Muslim nobleman, most believe that she was an orphan from a humble background who was raised in a Kotha, a traditional Indian house of pleasure where women danced for rich men. 

When Begum was just 14 years old, she met a 45 year old Austrian mercenary named Walter Reinhardt Sombre who became completely smitten with the young dancer. The two began living together and also paired up professionally as mercenaries for hire. 

This period in Indian history was one of great upheaval. The Mughal empire that ruled the Indian subcontinent was coming under increasing threat from both local chieftains and the British who were in the midst of invading and colonizing India. As such, Mughal kings relied on hired European mercenaries like Sombre to put down local insurrections.

Sombre and Begum turned out to be an extremely successful mercenary team and Begum also managed to charm the Mughal rulers whose courts they visited. Historian Aditi Dasgupta notes that Begum actually benefited from not being formally married to Sombre. That would have put her behind a line of court gender segregation and excluded her from the inner workings of court politics. 

In 1774, Sombre was awarded the principality of Sardhana by Mughal Shah Alam II after saving the Shah’s army from a major battle loss. There, Sombre and Begum maintained their own standing army, trained and organized to European military standards, that was ever-ready to assist their Mughal benefactors. 

When Sombre died a few years later, the mostly European officers in the Sardhana army supported Begum as their next regent. She became  the ruler of Sardhana and the new sole commander of the 3,000 soldiers who served in the army. 

Begum took quite well to this job and fit herself with the trappings of a ruler. She wore a turban and smoked hookah. Though only 4.5 feet tall, she led her men into battle on horseback. Begum was seen as so invincible that local legend held she was a witch who could destroy her enemies by merely throwing her cloak at them.

In 1781, Begum converted to Catholicism and began to build the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces in Sardhana. It’s not clear why she converted, though some historians have suggested that this may have been a savvy political move made based on the assumption that the Christian- though not Catholic- British would eventually take full control of India. Regardless of her motives, her conversion makes Begum the only Catholic ruler in Indian history.

Begum’s adventures included taking many European lovers, most of whom were military officers. In one famous anecdote, she apparently made a suicide pact with a French lover after members of her own army heard rumors the couple had married and started to mutiny. After Begum stabbed herself with a dagger, the Frenchman shot himself and died. Begum survived her wound after she was rescued from the scene by another spurned lover. 

By the early 1800s, Begum and the British were on good terms. Begum even entertained high powered Brits and other Europeans at her court. This allowed her to spend her later life growing her power and coffers and engaging in diplomacy rather than fighting on a battlefield.

In January 1836, Begum died. 

The incredibly vast fortune she had built over the last decades of her life, one of the greatest in India at the time, was inherited by the British East India Company. It was worth approximately 55.5 million gold marks, or about $40 billion dollars in today’s value.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leader. Also, if you’re enjoying the show, please rate and review us wherever you listen. It really means a lot and helps others find us. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!