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India’s Great Tragedy

In my childhood, the Indian Mutiny, as it was then exclusively called in England, was still a subject of high emotion—presented as an inexplicable outrage in which Indian soldiers, trained by the benevolent British, had suddenly turned on their benefactors and massacred large numbers of them over some question of the grease on a new batch of cartridges.

We were not told that the uprising—not just a mutiny—very nearly succeeded in driving the British out of India; that its causes were many and related to a variety of economic, political, and social grievances and particularly to a Christian threat to the Muslim and Hindu religions; that British actions and reactions often exceeded the ferocity and brutality of the mutineers; and that the bloody episode put an end to 332 years of Islamic-Hindu cooperation under the Mughal emperors who, at their best, had encouraged an extraordinary flowering of all the arts and of religious tolerance.

In his wonderful new book, The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple has not just revised forever the old British story; he has matched it with an equally full account from the Indian side. His book, without any sign of strain or artificial connections, deals with a historical tragedy on several very different levels and is a compulsively readable masterpiece. The Last Mughal not only describes Britain’s worst and bloodiest imperial crisis. It revives the memory of a rich Muslim-Hindu culture that vanished forever in the bloodbath of 1857. It is a detailed and intensely human history of a desperate and brutal campaign. And it is, in the best sense of the word, a thriller in which all the characters inexorably interact to produce a dreadful denouement.

Dalrymple’s passion for his subject and his skill and elegance as a writer create an intimate picture of the lives of the people who participated in the events of 1857. On the opening page, for example, he describes a Mughal wedding procession emerging from the Red Fort in Delhi:

It was the job of the chobdars1 to clear a way through the excitable crowd, before the imperial elephants—always a little unpredictable in the presence of fireworks—appeared lumbering through the gates.

Years of research, especially in the Indian archives, have enabled him to draw on the language people actually used and thus to avoid fictionalizing a story that already seems beyond fiction.

In times of acute crisis, as in 1857 in India, private papers and public documents tend, at best, to be bundled up at the last minute and dumped as soon as possible in a reasonably safe place. In Lahore, Delhi, Calcutta, and Rangoon, Dalrymple has mined such collections, many of them unexamined since 1857. They contain, as he describes them,

great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rolls of attendance and lists of casualties, predictions of victory and promises of loyalty, notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers.

There were also complete files of Delhi’s English and Urdu newspapers. Among the Urdu sources was “the moving account of the destruction of an individual’s entire world contained in the Dastan i-Ghadr of the sensitive young poet and courtier Zahir Dehlavi,” who faithfully remained with the emperor until his forcible removal from Delhi into exile.


The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, better known by his pen-name Zafar, was the descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405), and more recently of Zahir-ud-Din Babur, a young Turkish poet-prince who in 1526 came over the Khyber Pass into India, using his small band of followers and the first cannon seen in Hindustan to establish a principality that his grandson Akbar expanded to include most of northern India. Dalrymple writes that “the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilisation at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing” and also “Islam at its most tolerant and pluralistic.” The Mughals ruled India in coalition with the Hindu majority, which provided a large part of their army. Their empire covered most of India and present-day Pakistan, as well as much of Afghanistan. At a time, Dalrymple comments, when “in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace” and was declaring complete tolerance of all religions and freedom to choose among them.

The power and magnificence achieved through tact and conciliation by the first five great Mughals was destroyed by the “harsh and repressive rule” between 1658 and 1707 of Aurangzeb, who imposed the strictures of Sharia law, outlawed music, wine-drinking, and other pleasant pastimes, and allowed bands of Muslims to destroy Hindu temples throughout the country. India was torn apart by religious strife, and when Aurangzeb died the empire was already being divided up by local rulers.

By the time the last emperor, Zafar, then sixty years old, succeeded to the throne in 1837, the grandeur and authority of the Mughal Empire survived only in the great palace of the Red Fort in Delhi. The British East India Company, although still a mainly coastal power, was steadily growing in authority, wealth, and ambition. The company, as a vassal of the Mughal Empire, acknowledged the emperor on its coins, but its officials were increasingly determined to diminish the position of the imperial court and even to move it out of the Red Fort.

Weak and threatened though it was, Zafar’s court presided, before its extinction, over an extraordinary renaissance of Indian art and poetry. Zafar himself was, in Dalrymple’s words,

one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi…. Himself a ghazal2 writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest lyric poet, Ghalib, and his rival, Zauq….

Zafar was also an expert rider, swordsman, and outstanding shot. Against such a model the British in India sometimes appeared rather gross, materialistic, and uncivilized.

Eighteenth-century India was exotic and seductive to many of the British officers of the East India Company, numbers of whom first came out as unmarried teenagers. Many of them adopted Indian habits and dress and intermarried with Indians. (Dalrymple’s previous book, White Mughals, is an account of this world, its imminent demise, and of an Anglo-Indian love affair in Hyderabad at the turn of the eighteenth century.3 ) Delhi, to this day a city of largely neglected but magnificent Mughal ruins, with its surviving high courtly Mughal culture, particularly appealed to “a series of sympathetic and notably eccentric figures” who first arrived there in 1803 to represent the company. In the company’s army the officers spoke the native languages and were close to their men. With the beginning of the Victorian age and the vast new wealth of the Industrial Revolution, all this quickly changed, and the Anglo-Indian social equality and mutual respect of the earlier period vanished.

In most imperial histories there comes a time when military and other successes breed an overconfidence that leads to arrogance, racial superiority, and a patronizing contempt for subject peoples.4 The old ties that fostered understanding and coexistence are broken, and a gulf develops between the imperial power and those it rules. Belief in the invincibility of imperial military power causes complacency, ignorance, and unpleasant surprises, and disaster soon follows. This seems to have happened to the British in India during the 1850s.

The other major factor that fed the uprising was the rise of evangelical Christianity. The British have always been drawn to the convenient notion that they are doing God’s will, but in India in the mid-nineteenth century they aimed to go further than that. The Indians they had so recently admired now became in their eyes “poor benighted heathen” or even “licentious pagans” who, for their own good, must be converted to the only true religion. By the early 1850s, Dalrymple writes, “many British officials were nursing plans to abolish the Mughal court, and to impose not just British laws and technology on India, but also Christianity.”

The East India Company had originally banned missionaries but now encouraged them. The Reverend Midgeley John Jennings, who arrived as chaplain in Delhi in 1852, was a particularly obnoxious advocate of the new evangelicalism, and Mughal Delhi provided him with a splendid target. “Within its walls,” Dalrymple quotes Jennings,

the pride of life, the lust of the eye and all the lusts of the flesh have reigned and revelled to the full…. It is as though it were permitted the Evil One there at least to verify his boast that he giveth it to whom he will; but of truth, of meekness and of righteousness, the power has not been seen….

Although many of the British disliked Jennings, extreme religiosity was fast gaining ground among civilians and soldiers alike. This did not pass unnoticed by Indians. At the outbreak of the uprising the editor of the Delhi Urdu paper wrote that the rebellion had been sent by God to punish the kafirs (foreigners) for their arrogant plan to wipe out the religions of India. Jennings, who lived within the walls of Delhi, was killed on the first day of violence.

Hindu indignation and Muslim fundamentalism rose to counter British evangelicalism. As Dalrymple puts it, “The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came in 1857 with the Great Mutiny.” Of the 139,000 sepoys5 in the company’s Bengal army, only 7,796 remained loyal to their British officers. There were other grievances, over taxes and over pay, for instance, that fed the spirit of rebellion. The suspect origin (cow or pig fat, thus offending both Hindus and Muslims) of the disgusting grease on the cartridges of the newly issued Enfield rifles may well have been the last straw. The Uprising of 1857 was, for Indians at least, overwhelmingly a religious war.


The first incidents of mutiny occurred in Meerut, north of Delhi, on Sunday, May 10, 1857. The British were taken by surprise both in Meerut and in Delhi, where the first three hundred sepoys and cavalrymen from Meerut arrived on Monday, May 11, and began to massacre every Christian man, woman, and child they could find. On the previous Sunday evening, Simon Fraser, the lackadaisical British Resident in Delhi, had received a letter warning that the Meerut sepoys were about to revolt, but he was exhausted from supervising the choir in St. James Church and failed to open the letter until the next day, by which time the mutineers from Meerut were already pouring into Delhi. When the Delhi Telegraph Office’s contact with Meerut was severed on May 10 and the official in charge of the office failed to return from a trip to check the line, two young operators sent SOS messages to the commander in chief, General George Anson, in the hills at Simla, and to Lahore in the Punjab. Dalrymple found these two messages in the archives.

  1. 1

    According to Dalrymple’s invaluable glossary, chobdars were “ceremonial mace bearers.”

  2. 2

    Ghazal is an Urdu or Persian love lyric.

  3. 3

    Viking, 2003.

  4. 4

    By 1850 the British in India had defeated both the French and all their Indian military rivals.

  5. 5

    To quote Dalrymple’s glossary, a sepoy was an “Indian infantry private, in this case in the employ of the British East India Company. The word derives from sipahi, Persian for soldier.”

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