Begum Samru ruled over a vast and rich province in northern India in such a manner that even the British East India Company considered her a threat.
For many a Catholic, it might come as a pleasant surprise that there was once a Catholic queen who ruled over a vast and rich province in northern India in such a manner that even the British East India Company considered her a threat to its territorial ambitions.
But what sets her apart from all rulers, male or female, is that she is perhaps the one and only Catholic ruler of India. This is indeed a rare distinction considering that India was ruled by a plethora of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain and even Sikh rulers but no Christian ruler. She ruled Sardhana, a small but prosperous principality near Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut in 18th- and 19th-century India.
She was born Begum Samru Farzana Zeb un-Nissa (1753) to Latif Ali Khan, a nobleman of Arabian origin, who had settled in the town of Kotana, 30 miles northwest of Meerut. When she was six years old she lost her father. In consequence of ill treatment by the elder son of her father by another wife, her mother moved with her to Delhi, and she took up dancing as a profession. She had a graceful way; and she must have been uncommonly beautiful at the age of 15, to have caught the eye of a European mercenary Walter Reinhardt Sombre, whom she later married. On 7 May 1781, aged around 40, she was baptized as Joanna Nobilis Sombre, by a Roman Catholic priest. However, she was popularly called as Begum Samru.
As an enterprising mercenary, Walter moved from Lucknow to Rohilkhand (near Bareilly), then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Doab. Walter became the Governor of Agra. He had built a powerful mercenary army. Subsequently, the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Alam, the second, allowed him to rule from the principality of Sardhana. Unfortunately, Walter did not live long and he died on May 4, 1778.