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Book Review: The Last Mughal by William Darlymple

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Now this is one book that will pique your interest in history. Scottish travel writer and historian William Darlymple comes up with The Last Mughal, a groundbreaking work that poignantly portrays the events that occurred in and around Delhi during the Revolt of 1857. The Last Mughal is a refreshingly new perspective of the Revolt of 1857 and probably the first ever to present the viewpoints of ordinary people who lived during that tumultuous age.

The Last Mughal is not a biography of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, though he is one of the major characters; instead, it is an account of the Indo-Islamic civilisation which he represented. It also deals with the fall of Delhi in the face of the uninvited arrival of the mutinous Indian soldiers of the British Army, and then its destruction at the hands of the British invaders. At the end of the Revolt, Bahadur Shah Zafar was put on trial for treason, his beautiful capital was ransacked and destroyed, his palace [an architectural marvel] was detonated and a British barracks was constructed within it, and the composite Hindu-Islamic culture he stood for had been eliminated.

Over the past four years, Darlymple tirelessly worked through many of the nearly 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857, known as the Mutiny Papers, found on the shelves of the National Archives of India. These documents allowed 1857 in Delhi to be seen for the first time from a properly Indian perspective and not just from the British sources it has been viewed through to date. Meanwhile, the Delhi Commissioner’s Office Archive contained the records of the reviled British administration, which describe the full scale of the viciousness and brutality they unleashed in the city after regaining it. Darlymple was also able to gain access to the Punjab Archive in Lahore, which contained the complete pre-Mutiny records of the British Residency in Delhi. And a visit to Rangoon yielded Bahadur Shah Zafar’s prison records.

Using all these disparate sources, Darlymple succeeds in creating a masterpiece that challenges the existing theories about the Revolt. Instead of the single coherent mutiny or patriotic national war of independence beloved of Victorian or Indian nationalist historians, Darlymple says that there was in reality a chain of very different uprisings and acts of resistance that were determined by local and regional factors.

Darlymple sets the stage by introducing the main characters and describing how people lived in Delhi in the 19th century. The city of Shahjahanabad becomes alive through his marvellous prose and we begin to get an idea of the problems that the people faced. Bahadur Shah Zafar was an emperor only in name when he succeeded his father, but he managed to create a court of great brilliance and fostered a literary renaissance. He was extremely talented — an expert in calligraphy, versatile poet, architect, Sufi mystic, patron of painting and much more; but he was not an able king and had a tendency to be indecisive, his greatest failing.

Darlymple suggests that the influx of Victorian Evangelists who tried to disrupt the Hindu- Islamic synthesis practiced by the successors of Akbar and regarded Indians as heathen natives who needed to be emancipated, was one of the major factors that led to resentment among Indian sepoys and civilians alike. This aggressive Christian sentiment in turn led to the rise of militant Islam- the jihadis who played a prominent role in the defence of Delhi till the end.

Once the sepoys came to Delhi and declared Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader and emperor, the die was cast. Even though the unruly sepoys looted the city, killed every Englishman they could find and harassed courtiers, Zafar felt that this was a God-given opportunity to re-establish the Mughal Empire and so he made the critical decision that linked the fate of his dynasty and that of the city of Delhi to the Uprising. Zafar’s openness to the Uprising, though never whole-hearted and always ambivalent, transformed the whole nature of the rebellion- a simple army mutiny evolved into the biggest war any empire had ever faced in the 19th century.

Ironically, it was the sepoys who were to blame for the failure of the Revolt in Delhi. Since the sepoys were not trained to command regiments and had no knowledge of battle strategies, their strikes almost inevitably failed. Although Bakht Khan’s arrival in Delhi almost led to the defeat of the British forces stationed nearby the city, political intrigues by his enemies among other regiments and the Mughal courtiers led to his departure from the city along with his regiments.

In the end, as people began to see the writing of the wall, thousands of sepoys began a mass exodus from the city of Delhi. Meanwhile, Muslim jihadis kept pouring into the city for a battle to the death. If the Uprising in Delhi started as a contest between the English and a largely Hindu sepoy army drawn mainly from Awadh, it ended as a fight between a mixed rebel force, at least half of which were Muslim jihadis, taking on an army of British-paid Sikh and Muslim mercenaries from the North West Frontier and the Punjab.

Upon victory, the British celebrated their triumph by letting loose a reign of terror on the fleeing insurgents and Delhi’s inhabitants. The Mughal princes who had participated in the Uprising surrendered unconditionally to a British officer, William Hodson, hoping that their lives would be spared. Hodson stripped them naked and immediately shot them in cold blood. Then he promptly proceeded to strip the corpses of their rings and amulets, which he pocketed. In the Kucha Chelan neighbourhood, Dalrymple says, about 1,400 residents were cut down: “After the British and their allies had tired of bayoneting the inhabitants, they marched forty survivors out to the Yamuna, lined them up before the walls of the Fort, and shot them.” Among them were some of the most distinguished poets and artists of Delhi.

The victors made very little distinction between insurgents and civilians. George Wagentrieber wrote in the Delhi Gazette Extra: “Hanging is, I am happy to say, the order of the day here.” Believing that the rebels had sexually assaulted their women (this was proved false by a subsequent inquiry commission), the British officers did little to stop the raping of the women of Delhi. To escape the victors’ wrath, most of Delhi’s residents fled to the surrounding countryside, finding shelters in tombs and ruins and scavenging for food. Looters went house-to-house, seizing whatever they could, while Prize Agents stalked the city, confiscating native property and delivering it to Europeans.

To punish the residents for having supported the Uprising, the British considered levelling the entire city. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Even so, great swathes of the city- especially around the Red Fort- were still cleared away. Many fine mosques, Sufi shrines, palaces and the houses of notables were demolished. Dalrymple quotes extensively from the melancholy descriptions written by Delhi’s literary elite and from accounts by the victors, who gleefully recorded the terrible vengeance they wreaked on the vanquished in what came to be known as the City of the Dead.

Zafar was tried and convicted for hatching an international Muslim conspiracy against his English benefactors, and exiled to Burma. The charge was legally and factually absurd. Since Zafar had never renounced sovereignty over the Company, he could not possibly be guilty of treason. In fact, Dalrymple explains that, from a legal point of view, a good case could have been made that it was the East India Company who was the real rebel, guilty of revolt against a feudal superior to whom it had sworn allegiance for nearly a century.

Equally groundless was the allegation that Zafar was behind an international Muslim conspiracy stretching from Constantinople to Delhi. “The Uprising in fact showed every sign of being initiated by upper-caste Hindu sepoys reacting against specifically military grievances perceived as a threat to their faith and dharma; it then spread rapidly through the country, attracting a fractured and diffuse collection of other groups alienated by aggressively insensitive and brutal British policies.”

The British “bigoted and Islamophobic argument” reduced the complexity of the rebellion to an oversimplified and fictional picture of a “global Muslim conspiracy with an appealingly visible and captive hate figure at its centre.” Back in England, the Uprising and the aftermath of British bloodlust shocked the Parliament into assuming direct rule over India. Company rule was abolished, and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.

In the years after the Revolt, there began a rift between Hindus and Muslims that widened under the “divide and rule” policy adopted by the British and finally led to the Partition of India. Indian Muslims, themselves, got divided- the modernists, led by Sayyid Ahmed Khan, embraced Western learning while the extremists created a madrasa at Deoband that went back to Koranic basics and stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum. And more than a century later, the Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan were instrumental in the development of the Taliban, “the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history”, and the Al Qaeda who committed the most powerful and destructive counter attack the West has ever encountered. Darlymple draws parallels between 1857 and the world post 9/11- an ongoing struggle between Western Evangelicals/Imperialists and Islamic jihadis.

Darlymple portrays the Uprising as a human event of extraordinary, tragic and capricious outcomes, and shows us ordinary people whose fate it was to be accidentally caught up in this great upheaval.The Last Mughal is a beautiful elegy in prose of the composite Hindu-Muslim civilization of the Later Mughals. Darlymple has written a masterpiece – a scholarly work and yet a hugely enjoyable read, especially for people who have a keen interest in Indian history. I would definitely recommend it to any student who had to read about the Revolt of 1857. Books like this are required to make history interesting.

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