Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


REVIEWING

The Last Mughal—The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple

The Last Mughal—The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857
by William Dalrymple
$30, Knopf (March 27, 2007),
ISBN-10: 1400043107,
ISBN-13: 078-1400043101,
Indian Summer --The Secret History of
the End of an Empire
by Alex von Tunzelman
$30. Henry Holt & Company, (August 2007),
ISBN-10: 08050800732,
ISBN-13: 078-08050800735,

The Arrogant Ones

Two Reviews by Jane M. McCabe


It is not often that readers of history are offered two excellent histories published within the same time-span, that, if read back to back, add enormously to one’s understanding of the events that shaped a country’s destiny. This is what we have with The Last Mughal and Indian Summer.

The first chronicles the Indian Uprising of 1857; the second, the departure from India of the British in 1947, after having controlled it for nearly 250 years, and the Partition, which divided India into two countries, India and Pakistan


.

Early in The Last Mughal, Dalrymple tells us that rather than a biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last of the Great Mughals, he is writing a portrait of a time, 1857, when tired of being subjugated by Britain, Indian sepoys rose up and attempted to overthrow their overlords.

Before proceeding further, a little background information might be helpful. The Mughals were Muslims who conquered and ruled much of northern India for more than 300 years, from 1526 to 1858. Babur, a Central Asian Turk, founded the Mughal Empire in 1526 after he subjugated Delhi. His grandson Akbar is sometimes considered the true founder of the Empire, as he consolidated it. Akbar is known as a liberal ruler who accommodated the Hindu majority of the population, despite marked differences in the belief system of Hindus and Muslims. In an effort to be accepted into Hindu society, the Mughals adopted some Hindu rituals and customs, such as tika, a mark made on the forehead using dye. Other Mughal rulers may not have been as enlightened as Akbar, but they tended to continue religious tolerance.

The arts, particularly architecture, flourished under the Mughals, their crowning achievement being the Taj Mahal. Built in Agra by Shah Jahan (1526 to 1558), it is a mausoleum in memory of his wife, Arjumand Banu Bagam. Another important structure is the Red Fort built in Delhi, a building complex that factors in both books.

In 1497, approximately 40 years before Babur conquered Delhi, a Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and established a sea route to India. Once introduced to it, Europeans developed a taste for pepper. Though we consider pepper to be a rather routine spice, the engine that drove explorers and merchants in the 15th and 16th Centuries was obtaining this precious commodity for European markets.

Any number of commercial enterprises formed in Western Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries to further trade. The most important, the East India Company, became a major force in the history of India for more than 200 years. It original charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600.

The company was granted a monopoly of trade by Charles II (1630-1685) including sovereign rights in addition to its trading privileges, and, as such, began its long rule of India. This development might be seen today as tantamount to Walmart governing Mexico.

By 1774, the company consolidated its possession and established a civil service in which Indians were subservient. The casual demolishing of revered temples and mosques to make roads gives witness to the degree of chauvinism on the part of the British. Antagonism was accumulating toward Christian missionaries whom the natives felt were subverting their culture and disrupting their lifestyle.

Dalrymple comments, “The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and European imperialism have very often been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the life blood of the other.”

By 1852 a kind of apartheid existed, the British and the Mughals in an uneasy equilibrium living parallel lives. The Mughals had been all but stripped of any real power, except in the imaginations of their subjects. Zafar was but a puppet ruler living his increasingly anachronistic existence in the Red Fort. He was an aristocratic, philosophical, gentle man, more given to writing poetry than dealing with the harsh realities of a dying empire.

“So removed had the British now become from their Indian subjects and so dismissive were they of Indian opinion that they had lost all ability to read the omens around them or to analyze their own opinion with any degree of accuracy. Arrogance and imperial self confidence had diminished the desire to seek accurate information or gain real knowledge of the state of the country.”

Had they bothered to inform themselves, the Uprising of 1857 would have come as less of a surprise to them. The sepoys, Indians soldiers serving under British command, were discontented. Their pay had declined, and they feared the company was actively conspiring to whittle away their status and demean their religion. Their deep disaffection led to a secret rebellion.

As with most rebellions, the Indian Uprising had a precipitating incident, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In this case, it was sepoy outrage over being made to chew bullet casings made from pigs and cattle, as eating pork is forbidden to Muslims, and the eating of beef is an insult to Hindus.

If I were to sum up what happened in India in 1857 in one brief sentence, it might go something like this: “The Indians rose up against their British overlords, and four months later they were put down.” However, such a description does not do justice to the reality of what happened.

The mutineers caught the British off guard. On Monday, May 11, 1857, they swarmed into Delhi, captured and killed many British administrators and their families. By lunchtime, virtually all the British people within the city who had not reached Vibrant’s shaky bridgehead at the Kashmir Gate had been killed, and, in less than two hours, the great and prosperous city had been turned into a war zone.

In his account of the events of May 11, the Muslim journalist, Muhammad Baqar, wrote, “Truly the English have been afflicted with divine wrath by the true avenger. Their arrogance has brought them divine retribution, for as the Holy Koran says, ‘God does not love the arrogant ones!’ God has given the Christians such a body blow that within a short time this carnage will utterly destroy them.”

The poet Azad wrote a ghazal containing these lines: “All their wisdom could not serve them. Their schemes became useless, their knowledge and science avail them nothing.”

Sad to say, this bluster amounted to so much wishful thinking, for though the sepoys greatly outnumbered the British forces, the colonizers had greater organization, more sophisticated weaponry and scientific know-how to overcome the mutineers. So, while they muttered that the time had arrived to avenge themselves on those who had subverted their caste and religion, they succumbed for lack of organization, leadership, and supplies.

As for Zafar, indecision was perhaps his greatest weakness. Initially horrified by the rough and desperate sepoys who barged into his palace, he ultimately gave them his blessing, perhaps hoping that by so doing he would save his great dynasty from extinction. It was a decision he would come to regret bitterly.

Knowledge of the savagery with which the British put down the Uprising once they gained the upper hand rendered a blow to my Anglophile. Given that the British provoked the Uprising with their pitiless chauvinism and attitude of racial superiority, you would think they would acknowledge their own culpability and treat the insolence of the sepoys with leniency. But this they did not do. They conducted themselves as though they were the innocently aggrieved party and came down on the mutineers with horrifying brutality. There must be a psychological term for such a phenomenon.

The Last Mughal is such an elegantly paced and richly nuanced history that this review cannot do it justice. There simply is not space here to write of all the people, British and Indian, within Zafar’s court and without, who played their parts in this drama.

Despite initially overwhelming odds, by August 1857 the British triumphed over the mutineers and recaptured Delhi. Division among Muslims and Hindus and inadequate leadership eroded the cohesiveness of the insurgents. Despite their persistent courage, shortages of food and necessities soon enough sapped their strength. Delhi had become a wrecked, semi-derelict and starving city.

The British showed no mercy, killing even those who had once been their faithful servants. “In the eyes of Victorian Evangelicals, mass murder was no longer mass murder but instead had become divine vengeance, and the troops were thus the executers of divine justice,” the author writes.

Zafar and his entourage were rounded up and accused of treason. He was tried in something of a kangaroo court, found guilty and exiled to Rangoon, Burma, where he lived before dying ignobly on Friday, November 7, 1862. The night of September 16, 1857 had been his last spent in the Red Fort. He said then, “. . . I have seen the writing on the wall. I see with my own eyes the fast approaching tragedy which must end the glory of my days. Now there is not a shadow of doubt left that of the great House of Timur I am the last to be seated on the throne of India.”

Delhi was so devastated and depopulated by the Uprising that for a while the British considered just plowing it under. In Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelman recalls:

Jane M. McCabe is a writer and painter. She has a master's degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her interest in world affairs stems from the three years' study she had at Luther Seminary.


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