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Recently read: Dalrymple's The Last Mughal

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on July 28, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

William Dalrymple. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

The Mughal Empire in Northern India lasted several hundred years, but the final century saw a steep decline in its political fortunes. Although officially the British East India Company still served the Mughal Empire in the year 1857, collecting taxes and administering territory on its behalf, by that time the pretense of service had been almost entirely dispensed with. Still, the arrangement allowed the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, free to occupy his time composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, assembling a highly sophisticated and learned court, and trying, apparently against the odds, to stop other men from knocking up various members of his harem.

As the British consolidated power in India over the first half of the 19th century, their arrogance grew. Whereas an earlier generation of British traders and adventurers had been more ready to adopt local practices and customs, to intermarry, and even in some cases, to convert, by the time of the so-called mutiny of 1857, the British were increasingly distant from, and contemptuous of, the people they had come to live among on the subcontinent.

The mutiny of 1857 began within the private army of the British East India Company. The Company had recently changed the type of firearm carried by the sepoys, the privates in its employ. These were more accurate than the older kind of firearm, but the barrels required more lubrication. With a nearly total disregard for the sensitivities of the high-caste Hindus who made up much of its fighting force, or for the many Muslims who comprised the rest, the company distributed casings which used grease rumoured (accurately, it seems, at least at first) to be made from a mixture of cow fat and pig fat. This piece of stupidity came at the worst time, as the mood within and without the army had already been soured by a variety of recent British insensitivities, and especially by a new wave of British evangelists, eager to win converts among both the army and the civilian population.

The revolt began in Meerut, close to Delhi, and then spread over much of the subcontinent. But it was to Delhi that many of the rebels rallied, since they saw in the octogenarian Zafar a chance to restore the great Mughal Empire while giving the boot to the British. The rebels swept over the British, taking them quite by surprise, and massacring men, women and children who were unable to escape. In Delhi especially, there was a strong religious dimension to the killing, as the rebels tended to spare the British who had converted. It became the most significant uprising faced by any Western colonial power anywhere in the world in the entire nineteenth century.

Zafar hardly knew what to make of the mess. He was 82, indecisive, comfortable, and most alarmed by the undisciplined chaos that the rebels were causing in Delhi. But the British had recently informed him, against his entreaties, that he was to be the last of his line, unable to appoint a successor, as was technically his right. And he suspected, probably correctly, that the rebels would kill him if he didn’t agree to lead them. And so he did, in a manner of speaking.

The British besieged Delhi with a small force, but then quickly found themselves besieged by the much larger force pouring into the city from across Northern India. These numbers were swelled not just by troops formerly in the employ of the British East India Company, but also by Jihadis, looking to expel the Christians from the humbled Muslim kingdom. This made for a formidable opponent for the British, but hardly a unified one. The fundamentalism of the jihadis clashed with the gentle, open-minded Islam of the Mughal Court, and also with many of the Hindu sepoys alongside whom they fought. As the siege progressed, communal and social tensions ate away at the fabric of Delhi society.

In the end, the British won. But it was hardly a foregone conclusion, and there were a number of points at which they might have lost, or at least suffered significant set-backs. When they finally took Delhi, their revenge was absolutely savage. Untrue stories of the rape of British women during the revolt which had circulated for the duration of the siege were apparently inspiration for a number of incidents of rape during the capture of the city. Men, women, and children were massacred, and the women and children who were spared after seeing their husbands and children shot were robbed and expelled, often to die of disease as they searched unsuccessfully for refuge in areas surrounding Delhi. Most of the British were very pleased by all of this, considering the punishment in religious terms as something akin to divine wrath.

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is historical writing at its best. Dalrymple somehow manages to combine incisive character sketches of the central figures, grand historical narrative, and sharp moral judgment. He knows the archives well, reads a number of source languages fluently, and has a keen eye for the telling detail. This is a fascinating story with a great deal to tell us about the nature of colonialism, about human beings, and the justifications they offer for the wrongs they do. Before this book, I had never read a book about Indian history. Dalrymple has me excited to read more, and especially to read more of his own books.