This three-part series looks at British imperialism in India, and specifically the Indian Uprising of 1857, partly through the lens of William Dalrymple's book The Last Mughal, which follows the downfall of the last Indian emperor, and draws some parallels to current events. Read parts two and three.
English-speaking people who are deaf to aspirates and aspirated consonants in Indian languages can't say ghee, and tend to produce incorrect spellings like Ghandi and Dehli. Because of this speech impediment, the word sipahi – meaning soldier in Persian and Urdu – became sepoy for the British, who gave this misheard word currency by giving the Indian Uprising of 1857 against themselves a misleading nickname –The Sepoy Mutiny.
The Uprising involved not only huge numbers of mercenary Indian soldiers under British pay and command, but also Indian princes, their subjects of various classes, their armies and camp followers, the peasantry of those parts of the Gangetic plain then under direct British control, tribal peoples of the Himalayan foothills and Northern plains and motley others.
By simplifying the facts, the spin machine of the British Empire was able to promote the idea nearly unimpeded for well over a hundred years that it was all a matter of animal grease (beef and pork tallow) needed to insert rounds into Enfield rifles. How this single matter was supposed to have offended both Hindus and Muslims so much as to give rise to the events of a whole year, in which Indian soldiers and civilians massacred British men, women, and children, burned down their dwellings and destroyed key installations of the colonial administration is quite a mystery.
Apparently, at that time in England, a popular supplementary explanation for the Uprising was that everybody in India was completely enraged at having to learn to behave themselves under the wonders of British rule — much the way we are told today that 9/11 happened because an unspecified "they" were "jealous of our freedoms" (e.g., see how it seemed to the Metcalfe family.)
William Dalrymple is the first British historian to use material in translation from numerous sources written in Persian and Urdu, and among the first to use the palace and city records now stored in the National Archives. As a writer of popular histories, he has a tough row to hoe in terms of publicizing his perceptions and findings, novel and dangerous to some and not radically different enough for others. Still signing away on his book tour, I suppose he is more inclined to discuss the hard causes of the Uprising during interviews than in this book.
With respect to softer causes, like evangelism, which he positions centrally, he doesn't indulge in overkill to make a point, but sometimes confuses anger with fear and takes at face value what he could examine a bit more critically. Animal grease and surging evangelism were no doubt the last straw, but only because the orders to use them could not have been perceived as a simple misunderstanding after a century of many kinds of deliberate and outrageous British assaults on Indian culture, property, laws, and human rights.
About this, a variety of Indian and foreign-born people had already reached consensus many times, sometimes long before 1857. Those harsher provocations are not discussed in The Last Mughal, which focuses on events in Delhi, which was at that time still a grand and antique city in a state of preservation, home to an exquisite culture. One hopes Dalrymple is saving the tougher subject matter of how to assign responsibility for the background of the cataclysmic events of 1857 for another book. As it is, he has already told the Hindu that this book has made him more friends in India than in England.
The book is cause for celebration. The thinking is sensitive, the language is fluid and rich. It conveys the excitement of breaking new ground, and the pictures and line drawings at the start of each chapter are delightful. The two new maps parading as old ones, in which Metcalfe House seems to dwarf the Imperial Palace, Hindus seem to live east of the Ganges, and 1857 looks like the 16th century, are very silly, but one can't let that get in the way. The British sources tend towards diaries and letters, and produce an up-close-and-personal effect, while the Persian and Urdu source material is more often drawn from professional writing of various kinds, so it generates a more public voice and panoramic view. Going back and forth between the two sides of the narrative, I felt as if I was walking up and down a seesaw, faster and faster, back and forth, until the final British-led bloodbath led onto the slow, grim comedy of the denouement.
As a child, I always wondered about the the strange reek inside the Mughal tombs of Delhi, something like ancient bird droppings, which was missing at the Taj Mahal. I'd been told that these crumbly, dark and elegant monuments belonged to the 16th and 17th centuries,and never thought about that again. Now, this book has brought home to me how recent was their ruin, how active the scent of death and decay that hangs about them still, that many of them were family mausoleums, and that my great-grandfathers had already been born before a long, gruesome seige and a grisly genocide was carried out in those environs in broad daylight. I remember the vultures were still all over Delhi more than a century later.
Dalrymple's recent article in The Guardian explores similarities between British thinking in 1857 and widespread present perceptions in the West about the Iraq War. From some perspectives, the similarities are obvious and striking; from others, the similarities are not fully admissible. It is certainly alarming to find that the mainstream press has reactivated the very same language last used by the British in 1857 to describe the Uprising — to describe the Iraq War today.
It is disheartening to see that in the post-colonial world, complications and spiraling violence can still be as easily provoked and fed upon by occupying forces playing on internecine rivalries. It is unpleasant to remember that the Bush Administration claimed to have received their intelligence about WMD from British sources. It is strange to see Queen Elizabeth, who last visited Washington to bestow an award on George Bush Sr. for planning and executing the first Gulf War, now returning to reinforce the military alliance. Meanwhile, Tony Blair, who should probably, given the current scheme of things, be tried by a kangaroo court and hung up to dry, is being sent off on an international farewell tour instead. One must wonder, are her private assets not yet suitably diversified?
I appreciate and enjoy The Last Mughal for the depth and decency and richness of its narrative, and will read it many times, but I don't see the point of setting out a new and elaborate defense to counter the British allegations of 150 years ago. The British position, developed to justify deposing the monarch, was that Bahadur Shah Zafar was singularly responsible for fomenting a pan-Islamic rebellion against the British stretching from West Asia across India. Although Saddam Husein might not have been plotting anything like that either, to draw any similarities by implication and suggestion is to stretch facts to fit the polemic.
The question that goes unanswered is, did the British deserve it then, and have we and anyone else done anything to deserve it now? There is no question that the movements of 1857 included Muslim jihadis, as did others that came before in the multitude of violent eruptions that represented efforts to rid the Subcontinent of the British occupation. Surely the more important point is that these populist, pan-Indian movements brought about consensus across religious and cultural lines about British wrongdoing, and eventually gave birth to cooperative, sustained resistance, rather than belonging to or advocating for any religion. Today's popular resistances in West Asia carry forward a different set of historical grievances and cultural motifs, although they may one day coalesce and draw a motley set of movements together so that even Sunni and Shia will come to terms.Powered by Sidelines