Plain Tales from British India

Exactly 150 years ago, on September 14, 1857, at the height of the Great Uprising against the British in India, British forces attacked Delhi. They entered the besieged city through a breach in the walls near the Kashmiri Gate. Then they proceeded to massacre not just the combatants that were ranged against them—their own rebellious infantrymen (or sepoys), supported by freelance Muslim jihadis armed with battle-axes—but also the ordinary defenseless citizens of the old Mughal capital. In one muhalla (neighborhood) alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart:

It was literally murder…. I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful…. Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference….

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi, a sophisticated city of maybe half a million souls, was left an empty ruin. Though the Mughal imperial family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were tried and hanged, while three were shot in cold blood, having first given up their arms, then been told to strip and hand over their jewels: “In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,” Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister. “I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”

The father of the princes was the Emperor Bahadur Shah II, known by his pen name, Zafar. Zafar was the last Mughal emperor, and the direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. He was born in 1775, when the British were still a relatively modest power in India, looking inward from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime he had seen his own dynasty reduced to insignificance, while the East India Company transformed itself from a group of vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force. Captured soon after the fall of Delhi, Zafar was put on trial in his own palace and prosecuted as a rebel and traitor—despite the fact that the company had long acknowledged, even on its own seal, its legal status as the Emperor’s vassal. The court sentenced him to be banished to Burma. There he died and was buried in an unmarked grave. The Emperor, a noted poet, lamented in one of his last lyrics:

My life now gives no ray of light,
I bring no solace to heart or eye;
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.
Delhi was once…


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