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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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

The two messages were received very differently. General Anson, who had not seen action since Waterloo forty-two years earlier, took four days to agree on any response at all, and another ten days to move out. (He died of cholera a few days later.) In Lahore Sir John Lawrence, the chief commissioner of the Punjab, insisted that a regimental ball should proceed as planned to avoid arousing the suspicions of the sepoys. He then disarmed four regiments of them as twelve loaded and primed cannon manned by British artillerymen faced them across the parade ground. The preservation of Lahore as a headquarters and military base was crucial to the survival, reinforcement, and eventual success of the small British force outside Delhi.

The British had not realized that in a major crisis like the uprising, the Mughal emperor might suddenly become important again. His authority might stop at the walls of the Red Fort, but much of the mystique of the Mughals still survived; to most Indians Zafar was still theoretically as his coronation portrait described him:

His Divine Highness, Caliph of the Age, Padshah as Glorious as Jamshed, He who is Surrounded by Hosts of Angels, Shadow of God, Refuge of Islam, Protector of the Mohammedan Religion, Offspring of the House of Timur, Greatest Emperor, Mightiest King of Kings, Emperor son of Emperor, Sultan son of Sultan.

The first thing the mutinous sepoys did on arriving in Delhi was to demand that Zafar lead the uprising.

If the uprising had succeeded, the Mughal dynasty might have regained at least a part of its former glory, but at first Zafar was anxious not to be involved. However, he had no means of physically resisting the mutineers and eventually, against the advice of the closest of his several wives, Zinat Mahal, he gave them his blessing for their rebellion. In the event, this decision sealed the fate both of Zafar and of the city of Delhi. It also, in Dalrymple’s words, transformed the rebellion from a simple army mutiny into “the single most serious armed challenge any Western empire would face, anywhere in the world, in the entire course of the nineteenth century.”

From May to September a desperate struggle was waged near the walled city of Delhi and, at last and most violently, within it. The British civilians and soldiers who managed to escape the sepoys, and the Indian soldiers who remained loyal, managed to dig in on the Ridge, a low range of hills north of Delhi, from which it was possible to watch the cantonments and bungalows of the company being burned by the rebels, and to monitor comings and goings in and out of the city.

The situation in Delhi itself soon deteriorated, with the sepoys billeting themselves everywhere and taking what they wanted. Interreligious harmony was threatened by the arrival of Muslim jihadis, no more reasonable then than now. In the end there were some 20,000 of them, fanatical and hostile to Delhi’s Hindu population in spite of Zafar’s repeated appeals for Hindu-Muslim unity. The principal risaldar (senior cavalry officer) of the four thousand jihadis from Tonk in Rajasthan addressed Zafar as “Generous and Affectionate Killer of the Degenerate Infidels.” Zafar himself, eighty years old and more or less alone, was sinking into despair, writing poetry all day and threatening to go on the Haj to Mecca. Rising prices and shortages, the sepoy occupation, and British mortar and artillery fire increasingly made life hell for the pleasure-loving population of a supremely civilized city. In Calcutta the governor general, Lord Canning, had forbidden any negotiations, and various approaches, including those of Zinat Mahal, were rejected.

Until reinforcements could arrive, the British position on the Ridge was extremely precarious. The rebels had superiority in numbers and in weapons—initially the British force, including Ghurkas and Sikhs, was some four thousand strong against 20,000 rebels who were being reinforced daily. The rebels failed to take advantage of their larger numbers and their superiority in weapons. They knew little of strategy or coordination—scarcely surprising since under the British no sepoy had been trained to command more than one hundred men. They had no intelligence system, and intrigues and feuds of rival commanders made a clear and stable line of command impossible.

The rebels made almost daily, usually frontal, attacks on the Ridge, returning each night to the city. Only once did they take advantage of the small British numbers by attacking the Ridge from three directions at once. Because they had no way of knowing that they had nearly overwhelmed the entire British position, they never repeated the maneuver. Later on, their lack of logistical organization resulted in fatal shortages of everything, especially ammunition and food.

On the Ridge the British lived and died through a summer nightmare. Constant bombardment and attacks left no time for rest. In the baking Delhi summer there was no shelter or shade, and apoplexy and sunstroke were common. There was no water except the disgusting liquid of the Yamuna Canal, a hazardous mile away. No arrangements could be made for dealing with sewage, and there was a pervasive stench from the rotting corpses of the sepoys who had been shot down in no man’s land during the daily attacks. The land was too rocky to dig graves. Most tormenting were the ever-present and enormous swarms of flies. It was a world of intense heat, filth, and corruption, and when the monsoon came at the end of June, the position became a swamp and a mudhole, invaded by snakes and scorpions, “like young lobsters,” as one officer described them. Cholera began to kill more British soldiers than the sepoys’ bullets. The sick and wounded suffered horribly; amputees had little chance of survival.

The British were unlucky with generals, several of whom died from cholera. A cast of eccentric adventurers to some extent compensated for the shortcomings of the high command. The all-important intelligence service watched the rebels’ moves, sowed dissension among them, compromised their leaders by false rumors, and kept in touch with dissidents in the city, including Zinat Mahal, the emperor’s wife. Colonel William Hodson headed this vital service with his personal unit of Sikh irregular horsemen, Hodson’s Horse. In peacetime Hodson had been considered shady and undesirable, but in a desperate crisis his daring, initiative, seemingly limitless contacts, ruthlessness, and duplicity were exactly what was needed. At the end, it was Hodson who captured the emperor and personally executed three senior Mughal princes who had joined the uprising. At the tomb of Humayun with an escort of only one hundred horsemen, Hodson ordered the three thousand armed jihadis accompanying the royal rebels to lay down their arms. They did.

Brigadier John Nicholson, one of “the most militantly Evangelical officials in India,” had been captured during the catastrophic 1842 Afghan War during which he had come upon the mutilated corpse of his younger brother. Nicholson loathed India and Indians only less than Afghans, “the most vicious and blood thirsty race in existence.” His only motive for staying on in India was to spread the Christian Empire of the British in the heathen wilderness. Dalrymple quotes one observer who called him “the very incarnation of violence,” but adds, “his near-psychopathic temperament was ideally suited to the crisis in hand.” The six-foot-two Nicholson, with his pale unsmiling face and black beard, was already a legend, and his mere presence gave soldiers in the ranks a new confidence.

Although Brigadier Nicholson was well known to resent taking orders, the down-to-earth Sir John Lawrence appointed him as the commander of the Moveable Column and told him to fight his way to Delhi and join the force on the Ridge. On Friday, August 14, Nicholson marched onto the Ridge with one thousand British troops, six hundred irregular Punjabi Muslim horsemen, 1,600 Sikh sepoys, and a British artillery battery, nearly doubling the garrison. On September 4, a one-mile-long siege train loaded with heavy artillery lumbered in, and its great guns soon began to break down the walls of Delhi.

While awaiting reinforcements, the British on the Ridge learned of the massacre in Kanpur of seventy-three British women and 123 children. Encouraged by the padres to believe that they had been spared by God to avenge the massacres, this news stimulated the people in the garrison to dream even more intensely of inflicting the most brutal and violent possible revenge.

3.

Although their position had been greatly strengthened, the British were still very far from certain victory. The emperor’s eldest son, Mirza Mughal, who had become a leader of the forces of the uprising in Delhi, had constructed inner defenses to lure the British into the city. There were still 60,000 rebels within the walls. In the small hours of September 14 the British moved off the Ridge to assault the city, with Nicholson leading the main attack on the Kashmir Gate. He was mortally wounded in the first hours, and sixty officers and 1,100 men, one third of the attacking force, were killed establishing a tenuous foothold within the walls. The surviving soldiers got drunk and went looting, discipline evaporated, and the commander, General Sir Archdale Wilson, was in despair.

At this critical point the jihadis asked Zafar to lead a counterattack. The emperor agreed but failed to show up at the appointed hour, and so, with the British at the point of collapse, the rebellion fell apart as thousands of sepoys and jihadis began to head for home. In the early hours of September 17, the emperor himself left the city for the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin, where he left some Mughal relics and then went on to his summer palace in Mehrauli. There one of Hodson’s spies persuaded him to go to Humayun’s tomb, where Hodson himself took charge of Zafar, promising him and his entourage their lives. Hodson was roundly criticized for this rare act of clemency. On September 18, as the last sepoys fled the city, there was a total eclipse of the sun for five minutes.

The British entered the Red Fort on September 20, and began to loot and destroy the palace. Their vengeance was indiscriminate and terrible. Officers, soldiers, and some civilians went berserk, and arbitrarily conducted mass shootings and hangings throughout the city and in the surrounding countryside. There were rotting corpses everywhere. Lord Canning, the governor general, told Queen Victoria, “There is a rabid and indiscriminate vindictiveness abroad, even amongst many who ought to set a better example….” Eventually an official commission took over the executions, and prize agents were appointed to distribute the booty, thereby legitimizing both massacres and looting.

There were demands, supported by Lord Palmerston in the British Parliament, that the city of Delhi should be razed, but Sir John Lawrence persuaded Lord Canning against it. The damage to the city was catastrophic anyway. The poet Ghalib, one of the very few Muslim survivors left in Delhi, wrote, “I feel as if I am already dead.” Eighty percent of the Red Fort palace was destroyed, and sadly, no one thought to make a plan or even drawings of it before the destruction of what the contemporary architectural historian James Fergusson called “the most splendid palace in the world.”

The emperor and his companions were kept prisoner pending a decision on what to do with him. The Times journalist William Howard Russell described Zafar, in filthy conditions in his own palace, “writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.” There was indeed a basic problem over the fate of the emperor. The East India Company’s legal position in India flowed from the Mughal Empire, which had originally taken on the company as its tax collector in Bengal after the Battle of Plassey one hundred years before. The company was the emperor’s vassal, and Zafar had never renounced his sovereignty over it. In a court of law it would thus be extremely difficult either to pursue or to prove the charges of rebellion or treason against him. The company therefore decided that he should be tried by a military commission, a solution that strikes a familiar note today.

This farce proceeded under a prosecutor, a Major Harriot, who had already “prosecuted and hanged most of Zafar’s court and family.” Harriot argued that Zafar, with his “fanatical Islamic dynastic ambitions,” was the head of an international Muslim conspiracy to subvert the British Empire and to replace it with the Mughal Empire. This preposterous piece of Islamophobia was recognized as such by the British in India but may have had some appeal for the public at home. The military commission dragged on, with Zafar, apparently senile, paying little attention to the proceedings. The commissioners at last retired to consider their verdict and returned a few minutes later to declare Zafar guilty on all charges and to sentence him “to be transported for the remainder of his days to the Andaman Islands or to such other place as may be selected by the Governor General in council.”

Canning ruled out the Andaman Islands,6 and Zafar and his personal entourage—only two of his fifteen sons were spared—were eventually taken, at last in reasonably decent conditions, to Rangoon where he died in November 1862. The emperor was secretly buried in an unmarked grave, but over the years a shrine grew up in the general area of his burial. In 1991 workmen digging a sewer came upon the actual grave, and, partly because Zafar is still respected as a powerful Sufi saint, the site has become a place of pilgrimage.

Only on November 1, 1858, did a general amnesty, proposed by Disraeli and declared in Queen Victoria’s name, put a formal stop to the British campaign of revenge. “I protest,” Disraeli had said, “against meeting atrocities with atrocities.” The British Crown also assumed all government responsibilities in India hitherto exercised by the East India Company, and the company’s army was incorporated into the British army. The company was finally dissolved in 1874.

4.

The Hindu population was gradually readmitted to Delhi but Muslims were excluded, and power in the city passed from the Muslim elite to Hindu bankers. After the uprising, although the original mutineers were high-caste Hindu sepoys, the British treated Indian Muslims as almost subhuman. This attitude began to affect a new generation of young Indians, who also tended to adopt the British line that, in Dalrymple’s words, the Mughals were

sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders…. The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilization championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal Emperors has only limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India.

As to the Hindu–Muslim relationship, Dalrymple comments:

…In the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths. The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.

Some Indian Muslims turned to the West. Others rejected the West in all its forms and returned to what they saw as their pure Islamic roots. Dalrymple notes that 140 years later, out of the “depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband,” one hundred miles north of Delhi, came the madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that produced the Taliban, “the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history” with its connections with al-Qaeda “and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.” Islamic fundamentalism and different forms of Western imperialism are still dangerously entwined, and the fanaticism, or ignorance, or both, of zealots on both sides perennially push the relationship toward new confrontations.

Every chapter of The Last Mughal has historical echoes that are still desperately relevant today. All too little seems to have changed since the first century BC when Lucretius pronounced his famous verdict, Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum—Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by religion.7

  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.”

  6. 6

    Dalrymple refers to the islands, in the Bay of Bengal, as “the Raj’s new, specially constructed gulag” where many of the imperial family and others were exiled after the uprising. The Andamans were hot, humid, and extremely unhealthy, and the death rate there was inordinately high. The islands were inhabited by aggressive aborigines, some of whom were cannibals.

  7. 7

    I owe this quotation, and its translation, to the late Michael Weir, who in 1981, as British ambassador in Cairo, was present at the parade during which President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. Weir concluded his dispatch on the assassination with Lucretius’ words.

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