Readers Write In #576: Book Review: The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Posted on May 9, 2023


By ​Jeeva P aka G Waugh

Surveying the so-called First War of Indian Independence that took place at Delhi through the eyes of historian William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal, I was led to revise many of my long-held assumptions. The rebellion that took place, also called the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, was not fought wholly on account of, as I had assumed for so long, pressing issues such as the widespread exploitation of the Indian working classes, the merchants and the artisans by the Company Raj or the deliberate mishandling of famines and food shortages by the Company that were so rampant during its rule. Dalrymple’s analysis shocked me as it amounted to reducing or trivialising the assumed loftiness of the cause of the Sepoys by attributing it to a more or less unidimensional factor- religion.

Dalrymple lays strong emphasis on the uninhibited evangelism practised by the Christian missionaries fully sanctioned by the Company administration. Dalrymple writes with so much pain about a transition that took place in India, from a time in Indian history that starts around the 1700s when British traders, soldiers and officials who had made India their home had actually embraced Indian culture, customs and ethos with so much love and liberality, to a point in the second decade of the 19th century when they started for reasons not fully apparent, looking at the local culture with condescension, bigotry and typical European exceptionalism. There was a huge proportion of the migrated European population that had actually transitioned to Indian-ness, adopting Indian fashion and cuisine, religious practices and customs to the extent of even being called as ‘White Mughals’ in the 1700s. A lot of Britishers married Indian natives and the Company in its initial days was quite open to this practice. Their initial purpose was to make sure the Company made enough profits for its subscribers and shareholders in London and any intermingling of races and customs that might encourage a harmonious relationship between the Company officials and the locals was treated very much as a welcome development towards building a favourable climate for business.

This attitude Dalrymple emphasizes, started changing in the early 1800s probably due to the unforeseen ascent of the Company’s political fortunes in India by which time, the local kings and the Nawabs had been reduced to pretty much the status of puppets in the hands of the foreigners. The early 1800s was the time the Company had established a strong foothold on almost the entire Indian subcontinent and a new bunch of officials entering India from England had decided most probably to assume the attitude of an all-powerful, hyper-civilized, supercilious, ‘white-skinned’ ruler overseeing the affairs and destinies of thousands and thousands of ‘barbaric’ and superstitious black natives.

Dalrymple mentions the efforts of one Padre Jennings who had received plenty of funds to practice his favourite vocation on the locals, especially on the Indian sepoys and clerks- Christian Evangelism. Even if the Indian response to these efforts was initially muted and indifferent, with the passage of time, clerics and religious leaders of both Hinduism and Islam started taking offence at what they considered as the deliberate and meticulously planned onslaught of Christianity on the local religions with a view to uprooting and destroying them.

As many might have known from their history books, the partially correct rumours about new cartridges having been made up of cow and pig fat that had to be bitten off before loading had spread like wildfire among the sepoys and served as the tipping point towards the Mutiny. Dalrymple mentions that the army composed of a high number of upper-caste Hindus and Muslims both of whom were thoroughly disillusioned with what they perceived as a deliberate attempt by the ‘pro-Christian’ Company administration to insult and demean their religious sentiments.

Dalrymple in his book focuses solely on what happened in Delhi during the Mutiny and ignores other towns where the Mutiny took place. For me, there were plenty of areas where I was surprised by how much was missed by our history textbooks while covering this topic on account of complexity and the vast length and breadth of detail that might have been needed to explain it convincingly. One area was how ruthless the Indian Sepoys had behaved not only with respect to the innocent British population including women and kids living in Delhi but also with the local shop-owners and merchants who were subjected to continuous pillaging and harassment. For weeks together, Delhi became a very dangerous place for even Indians to go out and sometimes even locked havelis and bungalows weren’t spared. Looting ranged from diamonds, rubies and jewels to essential commodities such as foodgrains, fruit and meat. The detail that Dalrymple gives with regard to the suffering of innocent public at the hands of the mutineers is sickening and explains pretty much why the Mutiny didn’t have as much popular support as it should have ideally had,if it were to achieve its final purpose- to depose the Company Raj and re-install the Mughal king back on his throne.

The sufferings endured by British women and children during the first few weeks of the rebellion are very difficult to read and imagine, the intensity of which to an extent manages to explain why the British soon after their recapture of Delhi, resorted to extremely barbarous ways to clamp down on the mutineers and the locals whom they assumed as backing them. General John Nicholson who seems to have led a huge regiment of British soldiers is portrayed as a psychopath and Theo Metcalfe, sons of one of the highest Company officials were according to Dalrymple, at the forefront of what can be described as one of the greatest and the most gruesome episodes of man-slaughter ever witnessed by mankind, that happened in Delhi during the British recapture of the city. If my understanding is correct, at least more than fifty percent of the local Delhi population must have been massacred regardless of their gender and age without rhyme or reason and the rest must have managed to endure a painful flight from their native city to far-off, unknown places for safety.

Descriptions of how the Indian Sepoys backed by even Muslim ‘Wahabbist’ Jihadis who flocked to Delhi in huge numbers from various parts of India, resisted the British army for weeks together even without proper planning and co-ordination among them and managed to impress even their enemies, are so vividly written and absorbingly chronicled by Dalrymple. I was surprised to learn, in contrast to what I had studied in my history book about the Mutiny as a very small-scale conflict that happened between a very insignificant number of Indian Sepoys and a mighty, sophisticated Company army, that the Mutiny was indeed as future historians later put it, a real War of Indian Independence even if the causes behind it appear flimsy to me now, of course in lazy retrospect. The battle that happened at Delhi was so huge, real and involved plenty of planning, strategizing by both sides and Dalrymple reserves more than a hundred pages to describe its astonishing intensity and unmissable importance.

Even amid all the din, turbulence and tumult of all these large-scale, earth-shattering events, Dalrymple manages to keep his focus on the subject of the book, the last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar whose story with many of his sons, wives and of course his master, the Company brim with sadness, humanity and of course, bittersweet nostalgia. Zafar is portrayed as a weak man in his early eighties who has no aspiration to regain his throne but when confronted with a salivating possibility for an eventual restoration during the Mutiny, he appears to waver and give in. Even if the man is shown as someone with vices that you generally associate with royalty, his commitment to the safety, unity and well-being of his subjects over which he has of course no power and authority, especially after the arrival of Wahabbism to Delhi that threatens to cleave local Hindu-Muslim unity, is very touching and compelling. The last few pages where the Company forms an enquiry commission to look into the causes of the Mutiny and the brazenness with which it refuses to recognize and examine the Company’s mistakes that actually led to it, are thought-provoking and so finely detailed.

P.S: The Last Mughal by Dalrymple is one of four books that form his so-called Company Quartet, all of which describe events that happened during the days of the British Raj. I have already reviewed two more books of this series in this blog.