The Last Mughal – Michael Nichols

The Last Mughal

William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal:  The Fall of a Dynasty:  Delhi, 1857, New York:  Knopf, 2007.  560p

Born in 1965 in Scotland, William Dalrymple, is an acclaimed author and historian as well as a prominent broadcaster and critic.  He started his career writing travel books at the age of 22 when he set off on foot with friends following the outward route of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Mongolia. His In Xanadu chronicled that adventure and became a critically acclaimed bestseller. His subsequent publications in the 1990s, City of Djinns, The Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali, built on his skills as an experienced travel writer and his university studies in history to bring his depth of understanding to bear as a chronicler of historical changes and events that were shaping the Middle East and especially India. With the publication of his White Mughals in 2003 he successfully shifted genres to writing purely historical texts but always with an eye on the way in which the past is very much present to the world today. This book might at first be understood as an exotic love story between a Hyderabadi princess and an up-and-coming young British employee of the East India Company at the turn of the 19th century, however, Dalrymple concentrates more ambitiously on the hybridity between Eastern and Western cultures, as played out between these two lovers, and the importance of religious tolerance and ethical inclusiveness evident in their relationship.  In Nine Lives in Search of the Sacred (2009) he returns to the travel book genre but looks specifically at nine people whose lives have been devoted to the sacred through their respective religions. With these nine the past is never very far away and in some cases is in danger of being lost in a profane world where their sacrality has no place.  His focus has always been on the Indian sub-continent, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Central Asia and the religions of these regions—Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and early Eastern Christianity. His books have been highly praised by the critics and he has received numerous literary awards for all nine of them. He has a particular fondness for India, which has been the subject of six of his books, especially its much-maligned capital, New Delhi, outside of which he and his family live on a farm.

The Last Mughal, published in 2008, is a history of the downfall of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, who ruled (1837-1857) from the Mughal capital of Delhi and the events of the Mutiny of 1857 that precipitated his demise as well the end of the British East India Company as the controlling power in India.  It was soon after the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 – referred to by most Indians as the Indian Rebellion — was put down that the British Crown assumed complete administrative and military control of the Subcontinent adding this crown jewel to its colonial empire.  While most accounts of the “Mutiny” focus on the “heroic efforts” of the British military and its civilians in Lucknow and Kanpur, Dalrymple takes a fresh approach and puts the reader inside the Muslim city of Delhi, offering an account that is rich in visual and historical detail. His beloved Delhi comes to life as he writes about its citizens, their everyday lives and the intrigues of the imperial capital.  He also focuses on the people, both British and Indian and the beginning events of the Mutiny played out in cities, towns and the countryside, leading the reader to the inevitable confrontation in the Mughal capital.  This story is as much about the city as it is about the warring parties and the Mughal dynasty. It is his careful attention to detail that makes this book and his others so engrossing and hard to put down.

Dalrymple’s introduction to his book begins with what seems to be the funeral of a person of no importance, placed in an anonymous grave inside the walls of a prison in Rangoon in 1862.  But the large quantities of lime on “hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body” belie the importance of the deceased and the need that little is left of body and legacy.  Wrapped in the simple shroud was the thin, frail corpse of 87-year-old Bahadur Shah II.  The Emperor, mystic, well-received poet and accomplished calligrapher, who has received scant attention in other historical accounts, is revealed to be a reluctant, indecisive rebel leader who was forced by factors beyond his control to take a position in a conflict that would ultimately result in the end of a 300-year-old dynasty and his ignominious death in exile. Dalrymple is for the most part sympathetic to Bahadur Shah but he does not excuse his inability to assert his authority and possibly save his dynasty albeit as a client state to the British.  The mutinying sepoys who came into Delhi seeking the support of the Emperor were initially welcomed because in them the ruling elite saw an opportunity to reassert Mughal power, which had been slowly eroded by the British, the rulers of other princely states and the ruling fatigue that beset the Mughals themselves. Soon, however, the court and the people of Delhi tired of the sepoys boorish and violent behavior.  Bahadur Shah was incensed by their encampment in his treasured gardens and the people of Delhi were intimidated by their demands for food, money and other provisions. The emperor had neither the courage nor the will power to bring them to discipline, a prerequisite for repelling the British siege of his city.  This lack of discipline as well as the lack of leadership abilities of the Mughal’s military commanders out-weighed similar inadequacies on the British side.  The Mutiny appeared to be a battle of incompetences with victory going to whomever had the fewest of them.

While the “Mutiny” at home in England generated enormous patriotic support, Dalrymple is less than sympathetic to the British cause.  He writes of colonial administrators and military commanders who were often detached, insensitive and/or incompetent in their roles.  In addition, he is very critical of the strong influence of the evangelical Christians within the British ranks who added a level of religious bigotry and intolerance that only fed British attitudes of superiority. Such attitudes saw Indians and especially Indian Muslims as savage and capable of unimaginable barbarism even as Dalrymple reminds the reader that the Mughal Empire was one of great culture and tolerance. For example, at the time when the Inquisition was burning heretics at the stake in 14th and 15th century Europe, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great was declaring that no person should be interfered with in their religious worship and should be free to choose the religion that pleased them. Hindus were found at all levels of his administration and intellectuals and artists of all religions were welcomed at court.  The precedents established by Akbar were to continue until the end of the dynasty. The author clearly points out through his careful research that many of the official British stories of the rape of British women, the killing of their children and other brutalities ascribed to the mutineers are either greatly exaggerated or do not endure close examination. These fabricated stories that demonized the inhabitants of the city, whether sympathetic to the Mutiny or not, would lead to acts of retaliation and revenge greatly disproportionate to the events they were in reaction to when the British-led armies finally overcame the defenses of the city and put an end to both the Mutiny and the Mughal Empire.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be taken from this very well written and engrossing book is an understanding or how the past of 150 years ago is very present today. A lesson with which Western Civilization is today still trying to come to grips. Throughout the book, Dalrymple, reminds us it was the upper-caste Hindu Sepoys who were the original mutineers but the British would assign the majority of the blame to the minority Muslim population and their Mughal leaders.  To do so was more expedient to the Crown’s interests. With the end of the Mughals, a new British imperial authority could be installed and the support of the Hindu majority, especially more educated upper-castes, would be imperative in maintaining control over the large and diverse Sub-Continent.  This demonization and marginalization would radicalize a portion of the Muslim population, some of whom would create the Deoband Madrassa, north of the Delhi, shortly after the end of the Mutiny. The teachings in this school would go back to the basics of the Koran, stripping out anything they deemed to be Western, Hindu or degenerate in the legacy of the former Mughal elite.

As Dalrymple writes in the closing sentences of his book, “it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”  He did not foresee, nor did others, that just a few short years after the publication of his book the world was to see an even more radical consequence of that period and subsequent actions of the colonial powers after the downfall of another Muslim empire, that of the Ottomans, which would lead to the creation of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Michael Nichols

M2 – Anglais


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