120. The Begum Samru

North India, circa 1820–1830
Size: 77 × 60.5 cm
Oil on canvas

She was a beguiling beauty in her youth, but her early sex-appeal is as nothing compared to the extraordinary story of her later life. Unlike the many media-women we hear these days lamenting that once they have lost their youthful bloom they feel they have become invisible, with each passing year the Begum Samru became ever more visible.

Born in 1751, she began life as Zib al-Nisa, a dancing girl in Delhi. By the time she died in 1836 aged 85, she was recognised as one of the most extraordinary women of her time, renowned for her exceptional courage and utter ruthlessness.

As well as possessing great beauty, she was graceful and intelligent, and captivated Walter Reinhart, a swashbuckling Austrian adventurer who made a career as a soldier in northern India during the chaotic transition to British rule. He installed her in his zenana (harem) as his wife. Because of his saturnine character he acquired the nickname ‘Sombre’, which was altered by the Indians to Samru. After his death in 1778, the Begum inherited his land holdings, of which the principal part was the jagish of Sardhana, north-east of Delhi.

The estate was not expansive in size, but under the careful stewardship of the Begum it yielded substantial revenues, with which she maintained an army, well-trained by Europeans. Linked to her powerful personality,
it became an important political force.

The Begum married a second time, to the Frenchman who commanded her troops. Reinhart’s son then rebelled against his step-mother, and for a time his insurrection succeeded; the Begum’s French husband inexplicably shot himself, she was taken prisoner and kept strapped, wounded, to the barrel of a cannon for seven days. In spite of this indignity she prevailed, and her rebellious step-son was thrown into jail, where he remained until he died of poison in 1801, administered, according to some, by the hand of the Begum herself. After this episode, she decided never again to rely on any one man. Since she was a powerful, and by all accounts, eccentric woman, capable of maintaining her independence through turbulent times in an exclusively male world, she was inevitably the target for much malicious gossip. She was even accused of burying a female rival alive.

In this painting, seated on the Begum’s left is George Dyce, a self-styled colonel, who for some years had charge over many of the Begum’s affairs, until sacked for being insufferable. Dyce had married the daughter of Reinhart’s rebellious son, and his son by this marriage, David, is shown here on the Begum’s right, dressed in black. Although eccentric and ill-at-ease in company, the Begum was devoted to him and treated him as the palace pet, eventually adopting him as David Dyce-Samru and making him the main beneficiary of her will. He was later married to an Englishwoman, who, once she got him back to England, had him certified as insane in an attempt to get her hands on his fortune.

Next to David Dyce-Samru is John Thomas, son of an Irish adventurer, George Thomas, who had rescued the Begum during her step-son’s rebellion. When John Thomas was expelled from India after an ill-judged military adventure, the Begum cared for his Indian wife and brought up his four children. John was her favourite, became an officer in her army, and was well known for his style of dressing: ‘a debauched looking man in a kincob dress with a skull-cap thrown over his left brow’.

The Begum employed between fifteen and twenty Europeans during her later life, including her doctor, legal advisers and officers, and always took an active part in military affairs. As late as 1826, she led her army in support of the British expedition against Bharatpur, and when the British tried to bribe her not to go because her presence was politically sensitive, she declared that if she did not go, India would believe she had grown cowardly with age.

Having become a Catholic, she built a church in Sardhana, and sent lithographs of it to the Pope in 1834, saying it was widely acclaimed the finest church in India. It was here she was buried in 1836, in a grandiose marble mausoleum executed by an Italian sculptor, including eleven life-size white marble figures.