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,The violent suppression of the Great Uprising of 1857 -- the largest anticolonial revolt against any European empire anywhere in the world in the entire course of the nineteenth century -- was a pivotal moment in the history of British imperialism in India. It marked the end of both the East India Company and the Mughal dynasty, the two principal forces that had shaped Indian history over the previous three hundred years, and replaced both with undisguised imperial rule by the British government.
I bring no solace to heart or eye;
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.
Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain.
Not long after Zafar's lifeless corpse had been tipped into its anonymous Burmese grave, Queen Victoria accepted the title "Empress of India" from Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, initiating a very different period of direct imperial rule. (William Dalrymple, "Plain Tales from British India," New York Review of Books 54.7, 26 April 2007)
By Central Asian standards, the 19th-century Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II had some pretty impressive bloodlines. Put it this way: If the descendants of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan had held family reunions on the same summer Sunday, Zafar would have been expected to show up at each, lamb biryani in hand. Alas, Zafar -- King of Delhi, Refuge of the Inhabitants of the World, Generous and Affectionate Killer of the Degenerate Infidels (perhaps these sound better in Persian) -- was a case study in how even the finest thoroughbreds can beget an also-ran.
To be fair, the Islamic Mughal empire Zafar inherited in 1837 had been in steep decline since the death of Emperor Aurangzeb -- as pitiless a tyrant as ever had a wazir disembowled -- 130 years earlier. With no real power and a nearly bare treasury, Zafar turned inward: he was a skilled calligrapher, Sufi mystic, speaker of five languages and master of verse in two. Deep into the night, he oversaw drunken poetry competitions called mushairas.
While Zafar is the title character of "The Last Mughal," his life is just the thread along which William Dalrymple continues to explore a theme that has fascinated him for two decades: the utter collapse of relations between the British and the inhabitants of their Indian dominions. In his last book, the excellent "White Mughals," a doomed love affair between a British civil servant and an Indian noblewoman served as an allegory for broader social unraveling. Here he tackles the most obvious example, the Great Mutiny of 1857, in which hundreds of thousands of mostly Hindu soldiers turned murderously on their British officers and inexplicably made their feeble Muslim monarch the figurehead of Asia's first great anticolonial uprising.
Dalrymple excels at bringing grand historical events within contemporary understanding by documenting the way people went about their lives amid the maelstrom. His coup in researching "The Last Mughal" was his uncovering, deep in the National Archives of India, some 20,000 personal Persian and Urdu papers written by Delhi residents who survived the uprising.
Why had historians not used these papers before? As Dalrymple explains, what really happened doesn't fit any fashionable academic dogmas: "The stories that the collection contains allow the uprising to be seen not in terms of nationalism, imperialism, orientalism or other such abstractions, but instead as a human event of extraordinary, tragic and often capricious outcomes."
Dalrymple lets the characters tell their own tales: a 12-year-old Muslim nobleman who watched the defeated Indian mutineers and conquering British "vying with each other as to which should carry the day in pillage or robbery"; a functionary in Zafar's court with the wonderful title of "Keeper of the Dynastic Fish Standard of the Mughals"; and a poet who saw that the mutiny was only empowering the uneducated Indian soldiers to wipe out his humanist class, "as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse."
As for the British, Dalrymple focuses on a few whose emotional transformations are the most idiosyncratic: the gregarious son of a poisoned British official is driven to homicidal rage in the battle to retake Delhi; the editor of the city's English-language daily becomes the leading voice in the movement to raze the capital; the wife of a senior British officer gives birth during her harrowing escape yet, almost alone among the participants, retains her sanity and humanity.
Sanity, alas, is not Zafar's strong suit, at least not by the time he flees the city, only to dither on its outskirts and take refuge in the tomb of an ancestor, Humayun. This is fitting, as Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, was also more suited to poetry than politics and also lost his throne, regaining it just in time to pass it along to his remarkable son Akbar in 1556.
No such fortune awaited Zafar: he was arrested, given a kangaroo trial and exiled to Burma. What blame does he deserve for the bloody fiasco? Dalrymple feels it is "difficult to see what more Zafar could have done," but the details he has so painstakingly assembled tend to undermine such sympathies.
Consider two events in the mutiny's first week. On May 14, upset that some Indian soldiers were defiling a beloved garden, he began "refusing audience to all." This was a threat to withdraw his imprimatur from their rebellion, and the mutineers moved on. Two days later, when the rebels discovered 52 Europeans Zafar had hidden in the palace, the emperor "wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children," but stepped aside as the executioners went to work.
At the pivotal moment of his doomed reign, Zafar concentrated not on his role as a leader of men or on the sparing of innocent lives, but rather on his flowers. Deep in their tombs, one suspects, Humayun sympathized, Aurangzeb scoffed and Genghis Khan wept silent tears. (Tobin Harshaw, "King of Delhi," New York Times, 22 April 2007)