It was the end of the 18th century, otherwise known as gardi ka waqt, or a time of trouble. The Mughal Empire, which had been at its greatest geographical spread at the time of Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, was now in a shambles, weakened by years of internecine warfare and plunder by external raiders like Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. It is said that by the end of the 18th century, the Mughal ruler Shah Alam II’s rule only extended from Delhi to Palam in the suburbs of Delhi, leading to the saying: Badshahat e Shah Alam, az Dilli ta Palam. He barely had 5,000 troops: a sad comedown from the lakhs commanded by his ancestors.

With no strong central power, Matsya Nyaya (the law of the jungle) prevailed, with everyone scrambling for a piece of the pie. Erstwhile Mughal governors had declared themselves rulers of their own provinces; native groups like the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs, long suppressed, were trying to create their own empires; and the British, French and other European powers began to morph from traders to the far more profitable role of rulers, inspired by the singular success of Robert Clive in Bengal. The British had gained control of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and forced the Mughal emperor Shah Alam to grant them the diwani of Bengal, the right to collect taxes, when they captured him after the Battle of Buxar in 1764.

Indeed, anyone with a brave heart and a few soldiers at his disposal began to dream of carving out his own kingdom. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was also the heyday for European mercenaries, who led troops of a few thousand men trained in European technology and organisation, and offered their services to the highest bidder. Many of these mercenaries were French, like the legendary Benoît de Boigne, who made his fortune in India with the Marathas.

Into this thick soup of intrigue entered Walter Reinhardt Sombre in 1750, an Austrian mercenary who had been part of the French army in India.

In his account of Sombre, James Skinner, a military adventurer in the East India Company, who later came to be known as Sikandar Sahib, says that Sombre had originally been a carpenter. In 1760, Sombre offered his services to Mir Qasim, the nawab of Bengal – then chafing under British dominance – to aid him in his efforts to reoccupy Patna. Sombre’s troops carried out the massacre of about 150 Englishmen, which earned him the soubriquet “The Butcher of Patna”. Soon afterwards, Sombre fled from British retribution to Oudh (in western Uttar Pradesh), where he continued his career as a mercenary.

In 1765, at the age of 45, Sombre dropped into Khanum Jan’s kotha (brothel) in Chawri Bazar in Delhi for an evening of entertainment. There he encountered the charming 15-year-old Kashmiri dancer, Farzana. Her origins are uncertain; she is variously considered to be the offspring of a Mughal nobleman, or even a child picked up by the kotha’s owner from the street. Enchanted by Farzana, Sombre soon moved her to his zenana, or harem. He already had children from a previous concubine, Barri Bibi, but this was not unusual. Many Europeans at the time maintained large harems. Sir David Ochterlony, the British resident in Delhi in the early 19th century, for instance, had 13 bibis, or concubines, whom he would promenade every evening down the main thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk, seated on elephants.

The quick-witted and astute Farzana became Sombre’s companion and comrade in arms as he offered his military services to various nobles, including the Jat rulers of Deeg, who were then occupying Agra.

Surajmal Jat had grown very powerful in the aftermath of the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. In 1773 the Mughal forces under Najaf Khan, a vizier in the court of Shah Alam II, fought the Jats and expelled them from Agra. Even though the Jats had lost this battle, Najaf Khan was so impressed by the fighting prowess of Sombre’s troops that he invited him to join the Mughals.

In those fickle times, Sombre had already changed 14 masters. He and his troops gladly joined the Mughals. Over the next three years, while living in Delhi, Sombre and Farzana, now called Begum Samru (from Sombre), entrenched themselves in the affairs of the Mughal court, becoming favourites of both Shah Alam II and Najaf Khan. This was often attributed to the begum’s ability to make friends and influence people.

The couple became so influential that not only did they manage to escape being handed over to the vengeful British, but were also granted the rights to the rich jagir (territory) of Sardhana, which yielded around 6 lakh rupees in revenue per annum (equivalent to about 30 crore rupees today) in 1776, with a royal sanad, or deed, from Shah Alam II. And so, these penniless adventurers became rulers. Sombre was also made the civil and military governor of Agra.

However, Sombre did not live long to enjoy his good fortune; he died just two years later, in 1778. Skinner is not very flattering in his assessment of Sombre.

Sumroo appears to have been a man whose evil propensities far outweighed the good; he was stern and bloody-minded, in no degree remarkable for fidelity or devotion to his employers...hard, unscrupulous, and reckless, though bold, military adventurer. He is said to have despised show, dressing in the plain Moghul garb, and never disowning his low origin: one of his most marked traits is a cautious prudence, which at length amounted to a suspicious jealousy that rendered his life entirely a burthen.

As per norm, his son from Barri Bibi, Zafaryab Khan, though considered feeble-minded, was next in line to inherit the jagir. But Begum Samru was not about to give up her rule without a fight. She managed to get Sombre’s troops to support her and used her influence with Najaf Khan, her patron, to get Sardhana allotted to her. Zafaryab continued to live in luxury in Delhi, leading a life immersed in poetry and the arts, funded by Begum Samru.

The begum began her career as the supreme commander of about 4,000 troops which she had inherited from Sombre, which included 100-odd European officers and soldiers.

She held court in Sardhana, wearing a masculine turban and smoking a hookah. Inexplicably, she converted to Catholicism in 1781 and took the name of Joanna, though she maintained Mughal dress and etiquette. Occasionally, however, she would shed purdah and dine with her European officers.

She would lead her troops in battle, even coming to the rescue of the hapless Mughal emperor Shah Alam many a time. He started calling her his “beloved daughter” and gave her the title zebunnisa, or ornament among women. She was a skilled diplomat and negotiated many deals for the emperor. One instance of this was in 1783, when the Sikh military general, Baghel Singh, occupied Delhi, and camped with 30,000 Sikh soldiers in an area which henceforth came to be called “Tis Hazari” (or 30,000 in Hindi). A petrified Shah Alam II, who thought he would lose his throne, asked Begum Samru to negotiate. She managed to get rid of them relatively cheaply, in exchange for the right to build eight gurdwaras in Delhi and a percentage of the revenue collected for just that year.

In another instance, the Rohilla chieftain Ghulam Qadir occupied Delhi in 1788. The Rohillas were a powerful Afghan clan and they controlled a substantial region in Uttar Pradesh, later called Rohillakhand. The story goes that Ghulam Qadir had been captured and abused by the Mughals as a child. Widely considered a psychopath, Ghulam Qadir tortured the Mughal royal family to get them to reveal the whereabouts of their treasures and, in a fit of rage, blinded his erstwhile tormentor, the emperor Shah Alam II, by personally gouging out his eyes.

The begum meanwhile came to the emperor’s rescue, “rejecting contemptuously that powerful miscreant’s [Ghulam Qadir’s] offer of marriage and equality of power”, in the words of Skinner. Faced with her artillery and troops, Ghulam Qadir fled Delhi. He was later captured by Mahadji Scindia at the behest of the emperor and tortured to death. It is said that his eyeballs were sent in a box to the now blind Shah Alam II to feel with his fingers.

Though the begum was known for her judgement and forethought, there is an instance where she let her heart rule her head, and paid a high price for her actions.

This tale of high drama and romance begins with George Thomas, an Irish dockworker turned Indian mercenary, who joined her troops in 1787 after her husband’s death. A bold fighter, he was the head of her troops and, by many accounts, her lover. He was known as “Jahazi Sahib”, a corruption of the name “George”.

Their partnership flourished and the begum and Thomas won many a battle together, but things changed. A dashing and sophisticated French adventurer, Armand Le Vassoult, joined the begum’s troops in 1790 and the 40-year-old begum fell madly in love with him. She secretly married the Frenchman, and a furiously jealous George Thomas left with some soldiers loyal to him and joined a Maratha adventurer. Le Vassoult was very high-handed and wanted to maintain a court in the grand “roi soleil” style. He managed to alienate the begum’s previously loyal troops, who now, under a discontented Belgian, called upon her stepson Zafaryab Khan to lead a revolt against her.

The lovers fled, chased by the begum’s soldiers. They had made a suicide pact and just as they were about to be captured, the Begum, in her palanquin, stabbed herself. Seeing her blood-soaked clothes, in a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Le Vassoult shot himself, though he could possibly have escaped on his horse. The begum, however, did not die, and her soldiers dragged her and tied her to a cannon.

George Thomas, the begum’s former lover, had meanwhile heard about the revolt, and came to her rescue post-haste. He restored her to power. Begum Samru, thereafter, placed her stepson under house arrest in Delhi, where he continued with his poetic endeavours and died ten years later in 1803. She rewarded George Thomas by marrying him off to a lady-in-waiting and he left again on his adventures. Between 1798 and 1801 Thomas briefly ruled the small kingdom of Hansi, in modern Haryana, and was that rarest of things in India, a white “raja”. He built the Jahaz Kothi in Hisar, which is still standing. The grateful begum looked after his wife and children after he died.

Excerpted with permission from The Women Who Ruled India, Archana Garodia Gupta, Hachette.