Mid-18th century India was a chaotic place. The once mighty Mughal empire had crumbled under its own weight soon after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. Internal feuds led to the successive ascensions of four emperors in the single year of 1719. Nadir Shah invasion of India in 1739 did the rest and shattered the remaining power and prestige of the empire. Provincial governors started declaring independence one after another. Marathas and East India Company saw the opportunity and started to expand.
In this power vacuum, several small states were fighting for the control. Consequently, demand for the professional soldiers and mercenaries was quite high. Walter Reinhardt Sombre of Luxembourg was one such adventurer and mercenary. He came to India in early 1760’s as a sailor in the French navy. He changed his allegiances several times and served under British and various local rulers. At one time, he served in the army of Mir Qasim of Bengal under his Armenian General Gregory (known as Gurjin Khan to the locals). Soon he formed his own mercenary army and employed Europeans and local Jats as soldiers. In 1767, he met a dancer girl named Farzana from Lucknow and married her. In the next ten years, he served several masters in northern India. He even served as the Mughal Governor of Agra for some time. In his final years, he was awarded the fiefdom of Sardhana by Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II for his services.
After his death in 1778, his widow; now known as Begum Samru took over the control of his mercenary army and estate. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1781 and adopted the name Joanna Nobilis Sombre. She proved even more resourceful than her late husband. Begum Samru became immensely rich through campaigns with her soldiers of fortune. She used to ride on horseback and lead her forces into the battle. Her courage and military prowess gave rise to the superstitions that she possesses some magical powers. More than once, she saved the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II from invaders and rebels. Although by that time, the Mughal empire was also reduced to a very tiny state. She was awarded the title of Zeb-un-Nisa by Shah Alam II and he often referred her as 'My most beloved daughter'
In 1803, she surrendered to the East India Company after the fall of Aligarh but continued to rule her state until her death in 1836. She was buried under a huge church 'the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces' which she had built in Sardhana.
Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, Sardhana District Meerut, UP (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
The lives of Walter Reinhardt and Begum Samru seems like some pages straight out of a work of fiction. In fact, above are just the broad strokes of their life histories. Their actual story contains a lot more intrigue, betrayals, encounters, and action. They also interacted with other such adventurers of the era like George Thomas a.k.a. 'Jahazi Sahib' and Maratha General 'Jaghirdar Benoît de Boigne'. So why is there no reference to them in our popular culture? Such a rich story should be spawned numerous works of fiction. It seems like a perfect recipe for a modern soap opera if nothing else. But there is none, barring one or two little-known narratives. ... perhaps because they belonged to a time and civilization that left no descendants.
"In the second match Sedol displayed his newfound respect for AlphaGo by playing careful, flawless Go. It wasn’t designed to wow the 280 million people who would eventually watch the series, but from someone of Sedol’s rank, it constituted nearly unbeatable play, and Sedol exuded a quiet but unmistakable confidence. Then, as the game began to enter its middle phase, AlphaGo did something unusual: it instructed its human attendant to place a black stone in a largely unoccupied area to the right of the board. This might have made sense in another context, but on that board at that moment AlphaGo seemed to be abandoning the developing play in the lower half of the board. This historic move was something that no human would have feasibly played - AlphaGo calculated the probability that a human would play that move at 1 in 10,000. It produced instant shock and confusion among the spectators. Lee Sedol paled, excused himself, and left the room for a full fifteen minutes before returning.
The English-language commentators went silent before one said, with great understatement: “That’s a very surprising move.” At first Fan Hui, who was watching the game with Cade Metz, a writer for Wired magazine, was as befuddled as anyone else. “It’s not a human move,” he told Metz. “I’ve never seen a human play this move.” As Metz would later note, nothing in the 2,500 years of collected Go knowledge and understanding prepared anyone for move 37 of the second game in the series. Except Hui. Since losing to AlphaGo the previous fall Hui had spent hours helping the Google DeepMind team train the software for the match with Sedol, an experience that allowed him to understand how the move connected the black stones at the bottom of the board with the strategy AlphaGo was about to pursue. “Beautiful,” he said, then repeated the word several more times. This was not mere “tesuji”* - a clever play that can put an opponent off guard. This was a work of aesthetic as well as strategic brilliance, possibly even a "myoshu"*. Sedol continued to play nearly flawless Go, but it wasn’t enough to counter the striking creativity the DeepMind software displayed, even after move 37. By the end of the day the big news wasn’t that AlphaGo had won a second game, but that it had displayed such deeply human qualities - improvisation, creativity, even a kind of grace - in doing so. The machine, we learned, had a soul."
* A tesuji (手筋) is a clever play, the best play in a local position, a skillful move.
* Myoushu 妙手) is an "inspired move", a move which turns a game around or otherwise exceeds expectations.
(An excerpt from the book "Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future" by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe - Page 239 - Description of the 2nd Go match between Lee Sedol (18-time world champion) and AlphaGo, an AI computer program developed by Google. It was played in Seoul, Korea in March 2016. AlphaGo won the series 4-1)