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Farzana: The Woman Who Saved an Empire by Julia Keay

It is times of chaos that give history its best and strangest stories. In good Darwinian fashion, the collapse of societies and the ruin of empires give, to those bold and unscrupulous enough to seize the moment, the chance to throw off shackles, hack out new polities, amass new wealth and create new worlds.

Farzana: The Woman Who Saved an Empire by Julia Keay
Farzana; The Woman Who Saved an Empire, Julia Keay (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, August 2014; HarperCollins India, August 2014)

These processes, fascinating as their results may be, are of course unlikely to have been very pretty at the time. The Mughal Empire, for instance, that tottered to its demise in India in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the next, was certainly not a place for the faint of heart. It was fought over by a succession of the cut-throat and devious, men greedy for power and paying little heed to its cost, almost all of them utterly unworthy of trust and certainly of our sympathy. As a result of their predations, the India that was slipping from the Mughal Empire’s feeble grasp suffered long years of gore, rapine, destitution and famine. 

It is often imagined that India was some form of exotic paradise that the British conquered and ruined. The history of the end of the Mughal Empire puts a good deal of that idea to rest. Still independent Delhi was a ruined desert, abandoned by most of its former inhabitants, ravaged not by the British, who were still thousands of miles away in distant Bengal, but by Afghan, Sikh and Mahratta raiders. 

By now, emperors were mere pawns in the games of other powers, to be murdered or blinded when it suited, but always propped up to confer a lingering scent of legitimacy upon whatever rascal had a temporary upper hand. The imperial writ scarcely ran beyond the palace walls.

Those who suffered most, as always, were the poor, whose lands were pillaged, whose impoverished means were taxed by repeated invaders, who usually left them to starve. Vast areas of agricultural land lay untended. 

Yet the India of those sad, complicated and baffling times gave rise to better stories than many a work of fiction.


Scottish writer Julia Keay has hit upon one of them. Wife of John Keay, the eminent historian of India, she died in 2011, a great loss to both scholarship and her readers. Aside from writing plays for television and articles for many journals, she was the author of a series of books that includes Alexander Corrector, the life of fellow Scot Alexander Cruden, the compiler of the longest concordance of the Bible ever written, and widely, though wrongly, reckoned to be insane. Her life of the notorious Mata Hari, The Spy Who Never was: the Life and Loves of Mata Hari, resurrected, to some degree, the reputation of that much maligned courtesan. 

Keay clearly had a soft spot for the wilder reaches of history and for its misunderstood personalities, and was working on what must count as one of the most extraordinary biographies of any time and place when she died in 2011. This was the life of Farzana, a half-breed nautch (dancing) girl and prostitute who married an Alsatian mercenary and (in British eyes) war criminal in the service of an Indian prince. She inherited his brigade and personally led its troops into battle, turned the tiny kingdom she had won into a profitable and well-populated enterprise and saved the throne and life of one of the last Mughal Emperors, Shah Alam II. When she died in 1836, Farzana was a Christian and immensely wealthy, a favorite of the by then all-powerful British and even of their usually censorious wives, whom she was still capable of charming even in her eighty-sixth year.

Keay’s beautifully written book is therefore the story of a woman who had nothing but her wits and looks with which, not only to survive, but also to beat all the men she encountered at their own games of power and avarice. Farzana (an abbreviation of one of her titles[1] She was given many Mughal titles but seems to have liked this one best: Farzand-i-Azizi, Beloved daughter (of the State). rather than her name, of which she had several; she was usually known as the Begum Sumru) must have been astoundingly tough. Ruthless, too; it is likely that she had her second husband murdered in a mutiny in which her stepson attempted to overthrow her. She survived this and the three days she spent tied over the barrel of a gun, escaping in typically romantic fashion with the help of a romantic hero on a charging horse. She had summoned to her aid an ex-lover, the wild Irish mercenary George Thomas, who rode to her rescue and restored her to her palace.

Farzana was both a leader of men and highly attractive to them. She was also more than usually adept at finding her path through the winding ways of deceit and betrayal that led to the trust of the Emperor. Once she reached his side, she never lost his favor, and repaid the titles and lands he bestowed upon her with a loyalty quite untypical of the day.


Unlike William Dalrymple, whom the publishers seem to have brought in to add an unnecessary touch of authority, and who spends much of his Foreword telling the story he is introducing, I shall reveal no more of this narrative. I do not wish to spoil the reader’s pleasure in opening this book and discovering it fresh on the page. For once, a publisher’s blurb is borne out by the text it advertises; Charles Allen is quoted as saying, Farzana is “a delight to read.” I could not agree more.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.

Notes   [ + ]

1. She was given many Mughal titles but seems to have liked this one best: Farzand-i-Azizi, Beloved daughter (of the State).