77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on August 12, 2007
A great strength of 'The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857' by William Dalrymple (White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India) is its use not only of more familiar British sources, but also many Indian (Urdu and Persian) sources on one of pivotal events in the history of both India and the British Empire, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or the First War of Indian Independence as it is also sometimes called.
Dalrymple describes his excitement at discovering some 20,000 Persian and Urdu documents in the Indian national Archives. A particularly important source was the 'Dihli Urdu Akhbar' a principal Urdu newspaper that continued to publish during the revolt. These sources allow Dalrymple to give voice to the Indian as well the British point of view.
In 1857 the sepoys of the British Raj's Bengal Army mutinied (the reasons are explored in the book, but were at least partly due to a clash of newly arrived Christian evangelicals and adherents of Islam and Hindu). What began as mutiny became something larger at least in part because the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II endorsed it.
Dalrymple centers his telling of the tale on Zafar, the man destined to become the last Mughal emperor. By 1857 the Mughal Emperor possessed no real tangible power and was nothing more than the King of Delhi as he was derisively called. An aesthete himself, Zafar was singularly well-suited to his role as head of a court that elevated culture, poetry in particular, but wholly unsuited by temperament and age (he was 82 years old) to a role as leader of an armed revolt.
Delhi before 1857 was a remarkably tolerant mix of Hindu and Islam - roughly a 50/50 split - in part because of Zafar's manner of ruling. Zafar's acceptance of a titular leadership in the revolt meant that both Muslims and Hindi rallied to the cause. That symbolic role, however, was about all Zafar brought to the war.
The revolt began to flounder almost immediately due a lack of proper direction and discipline. The Sepoy regiments each acted independently and allowed a much smaller British force (ostensibly come to lay siege to the city) to survive repeated but serial attacks. The early stages of the revolt also saw horrific slaughter of noncombatant and unarmed British residents.
Eventually the British took the city and the revenge they took is described by Dalrymple in bloody detail. The killings were nothing short of mass murder and heartily endorsed by nearly every Britisher with any knowledge of it (William Howard Russell was one exception). Men who had lost family in the initial outbreak were allowed to massacre at will for months - Theo Metcalfe is the most notable example. Those locals not killed were left homeless and starving.
The British executed nearly the entire Mughal royal family and would have done so for Zafar, but for the promise that his life would be spared if he surrendered. It was a promise that the British determined they were bound to keep even though they didn't like it much.
One supposes this example represents Victorian attitudes about rectitude that the British somehow held in their heads at the same time that they authored unspeakable murdering sprees. In a somewhat lighter example, Dalrymple quotes a British soldier's letter written to his mum on the eve of battle in which the youth expresses his fear that engaging in the fight may cause him to swear!
As stated at the outset the rich sources give 'The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857' its strength, but Dalrymple's over-reliance on the raw materials makes the book drag to its conclusion. For the last 100+ pages, Dalrymple sometimes gives over the narrative to his primary sources as page after page consists substantially of quotes from letters, reports, or memoirs. Dalrymple also spends only the briefest time placing the events of 1857 in a larger historical framework.
Nonetheless, the book is a triumph of research and offers that rarity in historical writing, the truly fresh perspective. Dalrymple gives voice to the Indian perspective of the fall of Delhi. As the great court poet Ghalib so poignantly expressed it, "The light has gone out of India. The land is lampless."
106 of 113 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2007
....the further forward you can see." This is what Sir Winston Churchill said when talking about the relevance of history to one's current circumstance.
I cannot help but recall these words, after reading William Dalrymple's brilliant
"The Last Mughal".
William Dalrymple's latest book uses Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of the Mughal dynasty, to recreate the vibrant city of Delhi, in the 1850's. A culturally diverse, almost cosmopolitan city, of which Bahadur Shah Zafar, was the mere figurehead. A city which epitomized,the India of the Mughals, where the Hindus and Muslims co-existed peacefully. In fact a rich culture and social fabric existed due to this pluralistic co-existence.
The mutiny of 1857 proved to be the fall of the Mughal Dynasty, and the end of this vibrant way of life.
Dalrymple, researched this book for over 4 years and accessed sources, which were until now, never used to narrate the history of those seminal times. "The Mutiny Papers", which were found on the shelves of National Archives of India, detailed through "great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rolls of attendance and lists of casualties...notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers...", a very uniquely Indian point of view and perspective. An important voice, which until now has been missing in the retelling of the "Sepoys Mutiny".
For me as an Indian, it is very important to understand this point of view. To know about my true cultural heritage, about strands of my identity which were sundered by the British, along their (in)famous "Divide and Rule" policy.
Consider this, most of the history books, have been written by the British in some form...so the opinions I have formed, and the perspectives I have, have been developed by the "British" outlook and essentially the Victorian take on history.
I think, India as a society is richer due to the Mughals and despite the popular opinion and recorded history (who wrote it, you guessed it right...the British !!), they went out of their way to ensure a secular society and a safe environment, for Hindu religion, culture and arts to flourish. In fact as mentioned in the book, the only thing Zafar was decisive about in those trying times was his "refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis."
Did you know for instance that most of the Indian intellectuals of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, were schooled in madrassas, including people like Raja Rammohan Roy...The madrassas, were considered to provide well rounded education, not just math and science, but also the humanities, eastern philosophy and the arts...it was only due to the rising influence of Christianity in India, in the late 19th century and the drive for conversions, which lead the madrassas to reinforce the study of Islam in their curriculum, and for them to increasingly move along the path of fundamentalism.
It is due to all this and also because of an extremely evocative account of 1857 skirmishes, that this book is a must read.
You owe it yourself, as a citizen of the world, living in a these troubled times terrorized by religious fundamentalism.
As Sir Churchill, prophesied, it will only help us look "further forward."
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
For those few carping reviewers among us, this is not a history of the Mughal Empire, nor is it a history of the Sepoy Mutiny as a whole. Nor is it (even though Zafar is the main figure through the entire narrative) biography. What it is, is an examination of Delhi, the last bastion of the Mughal dynasty & basically a self-contained entity unto itself, suddenly & unexpectedly found itself at the center of one of the most vicious conflicts in the history of the Subcontinent.
In his preface, Dalrymple observes that studies of the Mutiny assume "two parallel streams of historiography," using different (but predominantly English) sources. Dalrymple has attempted to bring together all of these sources as well as the largely neglected non-English sources. With these resources in hand, the Mutiny assumes a new, far more complex appearance than before. Far from being a simple conflict between natives & colonial overlords, it becomes apparent that this actually was a six-sided (seven sides, if one includes the bandits in the countryside) conflict. The assorted factions, even those presumably on the same side, oftentimes had precious little common ground, and for the rebelling side, this frequent lack of unity ultimately spelled doom to the uprising.
Caught in the middle of the tumult of rebellion & upheaval are the residents of Delhi & the decrepit Emperor, embroiled in a war they neither desired nor invited. Dalrymple has precious little sympathy for either the British or the rebels, both of whom committed unforgiveable atrocities throughout, but he clearly feels the pain of the Emperor & the Delhiwallahs, caught in a no-win situation.
Some of Dalrymple's critics accuse him (disingenously, I believe) of taking a romanticized view of the Mughals & viewing their ultimate downfall as a tragedy. Don't forget, they say, the Mughals were ruthless conquerers also. To this I would say, remember that the Mughal in question is Bahadur Shah II, not Babur. If you want of a survey of the Mughals as ruthless conquerers, then perhaps a biography of Babur or Humayun would be in order. I would also point out that it is perhaps more fair to say that Dalrymple sees two tragedies resulting from this affair: the destruction of Delhi & its culture, and the religious radicalization following the final assertion of power by Britain over the Subcontinent.
Dalrymple also points out that there are more than a few parallels between then & now. It is worth noting that a belief system becoming radicalized as the result of foreign incursion is nothing new. The British exploited this radicalization as they pursued a "divide & rule" strategy in India, but even the Raj lasted less than a century. Despite their best efforts, the British ultimately had to withdraw. Hmmm.
All in all, a superb effort. Despite the tremendous amount of detail, the narrative flows with ease, and this proved to be a very lively read. Nowhere does the narrative bog down. While accessible, it is nonetheless serious history. Should he choose to do so, Dalrymple could well be on his way to becoming one of the preminent historians of this period.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2007
Exactly 150 years ago, today the first shot of the revolt of 1857 was fired. Today India celebrates what I grew up learning as "The first war of Indian independence".
Most of the history taught in Indian schools is written by the 20th century socialist, nationalist historians and that became my frame of reference. I always looked back at the "war" of 1857 with some sense of pride, it was a time we were told - Hindus and Muslims came together to fight off the British yoke, when oppressed poor rose up against the zamindars and money lenders, when nationalism was a common thread that tied the widespread war, where mendicants carried the message of revolution in secret chappatis and women joined the men in the struggle for independence. Overall a romantic nationalist picture painted by secular historians.
This book by Dalrymple shatters the myth I was raised with. He, based upon his meticulous research and conflation from disparate documentation, both native and British, conclusively proves that the outbreak of May 10, 1857 was a bloody communal riot.
At least it started like that, except that the wrath of both Hindus and Muslims combine fell on the hapless British men, women and children.
There is no pride whatsoever in what happened on the days of May 10 and May 11.
In fact it should be marked as a day of mourning when the sepoys marched into Delhi and in just first 48 hours massacred all Christians in the capital. Not just killed but chopped into pieces. No one was spared, not even pregnant women. Just a few survived who either escaped just in time or were sheltered by some Delhiwallahs.
In fact on this day started what would be one of the biggest catastrophes to befall on the magnificent capital of Mughal India, from which it has not emerged in many ways till today.
Dalrymple writes this book almost as a war correspondent embedded with troops on either side. His narrative is full of real life events, hour by hour, as they unfolded in those fateful times. It is a research in history that parallels the deciphering of Brahmi by James Princep. It opens the door to one of the darkest and bloodiest period of Indian history which laid the foundation of an even bloodier event, the partition of 1947.
He also clearly shows that the outbreak which was united at least from Indian perspective was soon hijacked by a bunch of Jihadis, coloring it with an extremist Islamic color, despite the whole hearted attempts of the King and Princes to retain the united fervor.
This became one of the turning points in the history of this struggle and became an excuse for a pogrom of worst kind perpetuated by British against Muslims of Delhi.
If you survive reading the brutality of Indians in the first half of the book you will find it hard to not get deeply disturbed at the unimaginable savagery that the victorious British unleashed on the Indians. More than a hundred thousand people, a large number of them innocent were ruthlessly killed, war crimes of worst kind committed, women raped (though it was conclusively proved that the mutineers never committed any rape, albeit all the killing), mosques and graves desecrated, property looted, buildings destroyed and all this happened in the backdrop of shameless inducements of Padres quoting the Bible out of context.
While British murderers and looters leached the city of all its people and possessions, what is also insightful is that in their heinous crimes they were aided, in fact surpassed by their "Indian" mercenaries who were predominantly Sikh, Gurkha and Pathan in origin.
It would not be wrong to say that this war was predominantly Hindustanee (confined mostly to Hindi speaking belt) in nature and the "foreign" mercenaries (from other parts of India) had no qualms in squashing it and taking home the booty.
What is also shameful is the fact that these British murderers and pillagers not only remained scot-free above the law but were also decorated by the British government. Prize agents who plundered the Indian treasures and shamelessly broke and sold even the paneled walls of many palaces or Red fort, were knighted.
Perhaps nothing is more poignant than the disgusting treatment meted out to the King and Princes on whom the British had no jurisdiction. The whole trial was not only a farce but was completely illegal, even by British view point.
Overall this book is not for the weak hearted, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to learn the true history of that period.
I hope the findings of this incredible work will find their way into history text books in India and dispel the myths that the youth are made to believe in.
Nothing is more dangerous than fiction wrapped in history text books because "if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat it".
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2007
The Last Mughal is an engrossing history of the events that occurred in Deli, India in 1857, which centers about the Emperor - the Last Great Mughal - caught in the middle between his Islamic and Hindu subjects who formed a rebel army, and the Colonial British army of the East India Company.
The trouble started when the British army replaced the rifle issued to the sepoys - the Hindu and Islamic Indian privates who joined the British army. The rifle replaced was a smooth bore; the new rifle - the Enfield - was manufactured with a rifled bore. Rifling cased the bullet to spin in the bore which resulted in increased range and accuracy compared to the smooth bore. However, to overcome the added friction, the ball ammunition needed to be greased. The shooter had to bite off the top of the cartridge and pour the powder down the barrel.
The author describes how the insensitivity of the British to Indian culture allowed the cartridges to be coated with cow fat, which was anathema to the majority of sepoys. This affront was interpreted as an attack by British Christians against Hindu fundamental religious customs. Thus began the conflict that killed thousands and destroyed the last great Mughal.
The author did a fabulous job of retrieving, reading and patching together thousands of documents and correspondence to form a detailed history of the events that lead to the destruction of Delhi and the dethroning of the Emperor.
The Last Mughal is a riveting book of historic events that is easily worth a five star rating.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2007
Meticulously researched, Dalrymple's 'Last Mughal' is spellbinding in its narration and detailing of the era that brought the great Mughal Empire in India to its tragic end. Not only that, perhaps for the first time have events and actions of the British rulers of India been brought to life in an entirely human setting; their brutal retaliation to the mutiny and the emotions and feelings governing their actions are vividly told. Many myths and falsehoods are shattered such as long-established accusations that British women were raped and murdered mercilessly by Indians, and that Bahadur Shah Zafar was complicit in the revolt.
Dalrymple's narrative makes you live through the day-to-day routine of both parties not as an outsider looking in but as an eyewitness on the inside. He exposes the weaknesses and habits of the characters with depth; readers are compelled
to know and feel that that they are familiar and known to them. Few historical accounts can boast of sketching the central character to be as fragile as Zafar, descendant of once politically and militarily powerful emperors, who presided over a court known only for its intellectual brilliance.
The book's ground-breaking research lies in its exposition of Muslim culture and beliefs reflected so well by Zafar's court. Ghalib, the great Urdu and Persian poet opens the window to amazing flights of poetry and prose that Muslim men of letters were steeped in during that period. Zafar's refusal to take the life of British men, women and children who were given sanctuary at his court under his Islamic beliefs that the taking of a human life in cold blood would be like the massacring all humanity, part of the Islamic creed that even in war-like conditions the life and property of ordinary people was sacrosanct - even crops and fields were not to be
touched as these were the lifeline of the people. Many Muslims gave shelter to British families during the 1857 revolt even as British Punjabi Muslim regiments fought against their Muslim brothers in the line of duty. Zafar might have drawn inspiration from Muslim history where Saladin re-taking Jerusalem from the Crusaders without the loss of an innocent life immediately granted amnesty to its
inhabitants unlike the Crusaders who took the city with streets awash in the blood of its populace put to the sword.
Dalryple's painstaking research also reflects on and is an exposition of Muslim reformers of the time. Progressive reformers such as Shah Waliullah deplored the degeneracy of the Mughal courtiers who had forgotten the lessons of Islam and were involved in intrigues, lies, backbiting and adultery. Shah Waliullah's translation of the Holy Koran into Persian so that people could understand and then practise its teachings upset the orthodoxy of the time. His son, Shah Abdul Aziz translated it into Urdu which would then be accessible to ordinary Muslims as well. Dalrymple's research concludes on his view of the much talked about 'clash of civilisations' between Christianity and Islam by highlighting the misguided zeal of the evangelical missionaries whose insensitivities were a major cause of the Mutiny. The reaction to their zeal, he asserts then as even now, is the mushrooming of the hardline Muslim factions who then use tactics that are against the teachings of Islam such as suicide bombings and terrorism.
Dalrymple's brilliance lies in his overt handling of raw human emotions and combining it with the destruction of a civilisation that had managed to synthesise two entirely different cultures and religions into a harmonious whole for nearly two and a half centuries - something that humanity at large must realise and learn from in the troubling times of the present century.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2007
It is a pleasure first to read detailed descriptions of the activities, pastimes and intrigues of the Last Mughal's court and of Delhi's contemporary Muslim, Hindu and British elite. The position of Sufi poetry as the royal palace's supreme artistic passion is particularly fascinating.
Following this we have a convincing description of the causes of the Mutiny: primarily British insensitivity to Islamic and Hindu religious beliefs. It is even then possible to understand - although certainly not excuse - the excesses of the rebels when freed from British command and inflamed by religious fanaticism.
But all this fades into insignificance as the British, aided by Sikh and Afghan soldiers, after weeks of delay, disorganization and indecision retake Delhi and exact revenge.
If ever there was an event that should have tarnished the British reputation for leadership, mercy, fairplay and justice it must be this, as tens of thousands of Delhi's inhabitants, guilty and innocent, friend and foe, are shot, stabbed and hung while homes are systematically looted. Even old folk, women and children found cowering below ground are driven out of the city to die of exposure, disease and starvation. And there is no doubt about the facts as they are painstakingly documented in the participants' own words. Is the book worth reading? Only if you want to witness, in retrospect and blow by bloody blow, one of Britain's least finest hours.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2007
Absolutely splendid! Fabulous read! I am a Dalrymple devotee and have loved reading about his travel adventures in Asia and the Indian subcontinent - but this book is the history of the Indian mutiny of 1857 against the rigid government of the British. The details of the sad and horrifying behavior of the Indians and the British parallel, intererestingly, the situation we currently face in Iraq.
I suspect that most Americans know little or nothing about the British colonial rule in India, and this book provides background and details in a lively, compelling manner. Dalrymple's previous history, White Mughals, is also an excellent history.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2007
"a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure."
A terrific introduction to a book filled with newly unearthed facts and yet again Mr. Dalrymple doesn't fail to deliver. I was introduced to his work by randomly picking up White Mughals at The Strand in NYC and quickly got involved in his writings.
His most recent offering is dear to my heart because he extensively talks about the poets and the mushairas, and most of all Ghalib. He does well in explaining Delhi court life during Zafar's rule.
Bahadur Shah Zafar II was a man of renaissance and not much of a warrior, which is so very ironic since he was a descendant of Genghis Khan. He was known to enjoy his evenings reciting verses or just sitting under the moonlight.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about the dying years of the Mughals, Delhi life, and would highly recommend separate reading on Ghalib (Life and Letters by Ralph Russell).
William Dalrymple's books are simple to read, full of vibrance and colour. I'm a lover of literature and history and most history books are a bit dry to read, but Dalrymple does a fantastic job in presenting facts.
A must read ...
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2007
Having been a long-time resident in India (1952-1974)shortly after the British rule in ended, I have read many books (fiction like John Masters' and history) and articles about 1857, almost all of which take the side of the author: Britsh or Indian. I have been surprised by the side which a Brit (Scotish to be sure) takes in bringing out the facts from the Indian side of the story. A couple of sentences from the introduction graphically shows this: "As far as the Mughal elite were concened, the fall of Delhi was followed by something approaching genocide. Only the Victorian British, one feels, would keep such a pefect bureaucatic record of what in many cases be classified as grisley war cimes." One almost expects to find the more modern term, "ethnic cleansing", used.
The author also makes the charge that the missionary movement had a lot to do with British colonial attitude. Again another sentence from the Introduction: "By the early 1850s many British officials were nursing plans finally to abolish the Mughal court and to impose not only British laws and technology in India, but also Christianity."