Book Reviews

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

Alfred A. Knopf, USA; Bloomsbury, UK

book cover

Invasion, degradation, insurgency, jihad, kidnapping, massacre, public execution, and retribution—all the result of, or in the name of, securing precious commodities and promoting a Western world view. No, it is not Iraq in this century. It is Delhi in 1857 during the Sepoy Mutiny, as described in William Dalrymple’s meticulously researched, though oft-times gruesome and depressing, The Last Mughal.

This book calls on sources infrequently or never cited before—some of which Dalrymple went as far as Myanmar to research—to describe the revolt of Indian mercenaries who had been in the employ of the East India Company. Dalrymple shows the stubbornness and insensitivity of the British, Moslem, and (to a lesser extent) Hindu populations of Northern India during this time of crisis. The reader becomes privy to both the suffering and attempts for revenge incurred by and inflicted on all the other parties involved in this triangle of mutual destruction. Here, also, we meet the omnipotent mystic poet and ruler of the area, Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, caught up in the struggle and passively coerced into becoming the military puppet and figurehead of the revolution against European infidels.

The unifying position of the Moslem and Hindu groups, at least for a short time, is their equal hatred of the British, who after a period of missionary evangelism abuse the population one time too many by rearming the Sepoys with the new Enfield rifle, ammunition for which was greased and sealed in pork or beef fat, or both. The indigenous soldiers are forced to bite the sealed cartridges to load the rifle and thus to defile themselves during each reloading action. Zafar does his best to keep the peace as the mutineers invade his palace and domain, but by the summer and fall of 1857, he is a fading and senile persona, surrounded by a court and family with only personal interests at heart. When the rebellion is prolonged, the intrigue, deception, and chaos that ensue is a worthy storyline for any Jacobean drama.

"Mutiny," of course, is the British perspective. What is common across all the cultures involved in the conflict is the seemingly complete lack of introspection on anyone’s part, though there are occasional, fleeting shining lights who attempt to alert others, however ineffectively, to the collective folly.

How did the British defuse the situation and restore order? They ultimately proved to be the more capable commanders, resisting a long attack outside of Delhi with a few soldiers (mostly men of the same ethnic descent as the rebels) until reinforcements arrived. Significantly, their intelligence services trumped those of the mutineers, who seem oblivious to the importance of having people inside the firengi (foreigners’) organizations. They also displayed military experience and prowess that enabled eventual victory in spite of the significant advantages that the rebels squandered because of poor leadership and lack of conviction.

The situation degrades sickeningly as the British start to regain control. Within the city, the rebels sink to any depth in a last-ditch attempt to repulse the infidels, pillaging, torturing, and extorting whatever might be useful from those most likely in possession. The British successfully assault the city in a chapter Dalrymple titles "To Shoot Every Soul." The same roving gangs who decimated the British refugees a few months earlier cut down fleeing inhabitants, and in the midst of it all, a solar eclipse petrifies and paralyzes the rebels, as if in some Biblical account. Meanwhile, the British calmly assign their "Prize Agents" to allocate the spoils of war to those who remained loyal to the Crown.

Dalrymple’s elucidating footnotes, which earlier in the book arrived fast and furiously, now become sparse and terse. Zafar, miraculously spared by a vicious though strategic-thinking British officer, is subjected to a mock trial where the prosecution accuses the senile poet of leading an international Islamic conspiracy, even though the largest portion of the mutineers is Hindu. He is subsequently sent in exile to Rangoon where a large contingent of his court deserts or betrays him. Zafar lives on for another five years until his burial in a common grave, designed by the British to ensure his anonymity for posterity.

This book makes clear the term "clash of cultures." It is history at its most personal and intense, and though the author occasionally meanders, it is continually thought provoking. Read this important book with patience, and be sure not to miss Dalrymple’s last paragraph. 

Reviewed by R.M. Shor