Home / The Last Mughal and The First Empress – Part 3: Moment in the Sun

The Last Mughal and The First Empress – Part 3: Moment in the Sun

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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 one and two

The word "innocent" is often reflexively linked with "women and children." But when  it comes to the sipahis and jehadis and their massacres of "innocent" English women and children during the Indian Uprising of 1857, while I think even very spoiled children should be regarded as innocent, in the unfolding system of apartheid, women could not have been considered innocent. Their presence as breeders and their habitual assertions of superiority were absolutely necessary for its implementation, a circumstance they were aware of and happy to act upon.

For example, if, as quoted in William Dalrymple's book The Last Mughal, which follows the downfall of the last Indian emperor to sit on the throne at Delhi, some ignorant colonial slut was able to address the deposed emperor not only in proudly broken Hindustani, but as rudely as she righteously claimed to have done, she must have had quite a bit of practice ahead of time and elsewhere. This revelation sent me to to my bookshelf to take another look at a strange volume I bought years ago called The Golden Calm. It's still in print and a lot of it must be read with a magnifying glass because of the low contrast between the faithfully reproduced yellowed pages and faded ink.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Golden Calm centers on the same crowd in Delhi as The Last Mughal, and makes available Thomas Metcalfe's commissioned paintings of the city and his eldest daughter Emily's diary, interspersed with a rambling commentary from the insufferable busybody and late 20th century colonial memoirist, M.M. Kaye.

Careful inspection reveals much about Emily Metcalfe's style and circumstances — an unselfconscious charm, to be sure; the mild trials of being farmed out to relatives in England in order to stay English; the collaborative efforts of colonial families in support of the Empire; slightly simpering racism about mixed blood within colonial ranks; complete ignorance of Indian people and society other than servants; a tendency to conflate quotidian familiarity with England with an education; and a warped sense of scale.

This last is only to be expected of a young woman whose uncle, Charles Metcalfe, was able to declare English the official language in a place where, to stretch this estimate to its outer limits, English-speaking people comprised something below four percent of the population. Emily returned to India twenty years after Thomas B. Macaulay had delivered his appalling Minute, which turned education across India into a travesty for the next hundred years and more, and just over thirty years since the Scotsman David Ochterlony was in the habit of proceeding through the streets of Delhi with his thirteen Indian wives mounted on as many elephants — something he could never have gotten away with in his native Boston. Emily Metcalfe's unmarried uncle and widowed father had been accustomed to livin' large themselves, so all the careful work of many guardians during her years spent in England as a relatively ordinary little girl must have been quickly undone.

In The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple says the second Thomas Metcalfe was poisoned, according to contemporary reports, by the ranking queen, Zinat Mahal, who was motivated to do this because Metcalfe, as British Resident at Delhi, was supervising an intrigue to ensure the succession of an heir to the throne other than her son. I would say Metcalfe had no business doing any such thing at any time, and even less by means of trading a promise to enthrone the less favored son on condition that he hand over the palace to the British and go live in the 'burbs.

Of course, the British painted Zinat Mahal as a shrew, but it's quite possible she was not the one they were looking for anyway, for there were other actors to consider, most of them unintentionally made accessible by M.M. Kaye. The first Thomas Metcalfe had been a major in the Bengal Army of the East India Company (EIC), and later made his fortune as a Director of the EIC, upon which he was created a baronet, and purchased a suitable property in Berkshire called Fernhill Park, to serve as the family estate. Emily's uncle, Charles, the firstborn son, was eventually created Lord Metcalfe for his services as Governor-General of India, Jamaica, and Canada, but died without an heir (as his three half-Sikh sons didn't seem to count) from skin cancer, no doubt as a result of going out too much in the midday sun, so Fernhill passed and the baronetcy reverted to Emily's father.

Thomas Metcalfe was by then living more or less after the ducal manner in Delhi, though without any commensurate ties to the land. If the floor plans are accurate and drawn to scale, Metcalfe House, his personal property in Delhi, featured a Palladian villa spread out over 22,000 square feet of marble-floored and vaulted interior space above ground, housing extensive collections of Napoleonic memorabilia and a great deal of statuary, a huge library, and "costly" Georgian furniture and paintings. A colonnaded veranda thirty feet wide with marble pillars ran the perimeter of the entire house, and even more finished space below grade, furnished with skylights, provided cooled reception rooms for use during the heat of summer. It was set in a thousand acre park, with pools and orchard groves and avenues looked after by over a hundred and fifty servants, including a series of ten people to say farewell to the master at the porte-cochère of a morning.

In addition, he had made himself an exurban retreat near the Qutb Minar, by converting the interior of a family tomb and mausoleum belonging to a Mughal clan for his own residential use. This family had owed money to the British-run Delhi Bank — and it takes no great leap of the imagination to figure out that it was probably a debt accumulated for back taxes imposed by the British revenue collectors somewhere down the line.

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Early Mughal carved jade cup and pen box set

M.M. Kaye has rude things to say about that family's history, which predate her ability to verify or garner first hand information about anything she has to say by several centuries, so it seems Metcalfe had been spreading slander to cover his tracks, as bullies everywhere tend to do. So, although he was only working a 25-hour week, and his main business, apart from studying the culture, was to run, conduct, and oversee interference in the royal succession at Delhi, there was certainly at least one other Mughal family who might well have wanted to have him poisoned.

What, after all, is the point of patronizing the arts and living in a new place to grow rich while at the same time arranging to tear apart the very fabric of the society that produces those arts and the economy that yields that wealth? One cannot deliberately expose other people to disaster without bringing on some of that risk and danger down upon oneself.

It was this skewed sense of scale and entitlement through which much that was Indian came to be belittled. The Himalayas were referred to as "the hills," while areas of India the size of France came to be known as "provinces." Indian languages were called dialects, and kings were demoted to stand guard as imperial nobles. Even the Koh-i-Noor diamond was cut way down to size, from 186.0625 carats to its present 105.602 carats, to increase its "brilliance," the better for philistines to admire it, and probably yielding many a major gem from the shavings, proudly worn on pinkie fingers across the land.

With royalty becoming nobility, the aristocracy and gentry became middle class (e.g. Mahatma Gandhi's forbears had served as prime ministers of a principality called Porbander, with an important port and a long history, which was two thirds the size of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, but he was identified as middle class). Landless families and skilled craftsmen were reduced to subsistence farming and working as household servants for the new rich, as indigenous industries failed.

Meanwhile, the downpour of loot and wealth into Britain was torrential and the British in India started staging court rituals in Mughal style at the grounds of the Red Fort — for their own monarchs, keenly wishing them to attend, taking umbrage at any late breaches of 17th century etiquette, even from a ruler of highest rank, who had attended the fake durbars in 1877, 1903, and 1911, and on the third round, decided to go with modern clothes and modern manners. Victoria and her descendants, while seeming to want no part of it, eventually succumbed to the invitations and appeared for the first time the very year of that supposed outrage — for apart from everything else, within the two generations it took them to accept the invitation, the nine children of Queen Victoria and her own first cousin Prince Albert, so advantageously positioned by their extraordinary national fortune, had all married so brilliantly that the heads of Europe's most prominent royal houses were all first cousins — and set to dominate the sub-caste of German princes and princelings who populate the royal lines of Europe for the long term.

Even today, it is only the hippest of the hip in the West who know to address a maharani correctly.

Forty years later, John William Kaye and J.B. Malleson published the British version of events, a six volume work called History of the Sepoy War. Fifty-two years later, in 1909, Hindutva founder Vir Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence in praise of the Uprising as a Hindu initiative. British authorities banned the book immediately. One hundred years later, on May 11, 1957, observance of the centennial was fairly muted; a simple ceremony was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a number of scholarly studies written by Indian historians were published, and the special flag of the 1857 revolutionaries — a green flag with a golden sun — was unfurled beside the national tricolor. I can't find any record online of anything anyone from Britain had to say that year.

This year, 30,000 youths marched from Meerut to Delhi, to mark the 150th anniversary of the journey of the three hundred sipahis who left Meerut for Delhi on May 10, 1857, arriving at the fortified Mughal capital of Shajanabad at Delhi on May 11, 1857, to ask Bahadur Shah Jafar to assume leadership of their movement to overthrow the British. This year, despite quarrels about food, they arrived to find vigorous celebrations at The Red Fort, choreographed by Rajeev Sethi.

The BBC covered the 2007 sesquicentennial celebration (see Prime Minister's address), added a remark or two about Britain being portrayed as a ghoul and provided a link to an earlier online dialogue among Britons about the need to start giving courses in the history of the British Empire in British schools, to reassess what had been done well and what was done badly –as if they're planning to do it again.

More useful information at:

Image sources: The City Review, Islamic Architecture, Piers Allison

Read parts one and two of this series.

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