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The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 Paperback – March 11, 2008
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About the Author
William Dalrymple is the author of seven previous works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; and From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s Wolfson History Prize. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. He divides his time between New Delhi and London.
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The book tells of the last emperor at the time of the Indian rebellion of 1857. In the final days of the dynasty real power had been ceded to the British, but the emperor was allowed to remain as a figurehead. In preceding centuries the descendants of Islamic conquerors ruled partly by consensus, and a degree of religious freedom existed between Muslims and Hindus. The empire and its court were responsible for a great body of architecture and literature that flourished up to the time of its demise.
Many earlier British settlers had adapted to local customs and culture, intermarrying and in some cases converting to Islam. In the mid 19th century a wave of Christian evangelism became prevalent, and efforts were made to promote the conversion of native religions. This culminated in a military rebellion when indigenous troops under British command were ordered to trespass religious taboos, such as traveling overseas, mixing castes and breaking dietary restrictions.
The religious underpinnings of the rebellion were exacerbated by an untimely British decision to end the Mughal line of succession. The ensuing war was the greatest challenge to colonial power since the American Revolution and ultimately resulted in the transfer of East India Company rule to the British crown. After Shah Jafar was captured he was tried for aiding the rebellion, and exiled to live out his remaining years under house arrest in Rangoon, British Burma.
This pivotal period of history is delivered in a scholarly but not overly academic manner. It only covers Delhi, the epicenter of the rebellion. Events in Lucknow and Kanpur must be read about elsewhere. The story is told through eyewitness accounts by British and Indian participants. Many of the sources are new, culled from rediscovered archives written in Farsi and Urdu. The research is greatly complemented by the superb storytelling abilities of the author.
In this book William Dalrymple tells the story of Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor as he finds himself thrust into the largest anti-colonial war of the 19th Century the Indian Mutiny/Uprising of 1857. It's a grim story with atrocities and stupidity on both sites.
This is not a light read. It is probably the definitive account of of the war drawing on British, Indian and Pakistani records, some never translated before. Diaries, letters and other personal accounts provide a vivid first-hand account.
Dalrymple's writing also does not make things easy for the reader, he never says washerman when he can say 'dhobi' , never says police station if he can say 'thana'. He's usually good at defining the Urdu words in context and the Kindle dictionary or his glossary cover most of the rest but the use of Indian terms plus the Victorian terms from many of the accounts make this a bit of a chore to read sometimes.
The publisher also put no effort into creating the ebook. For example photos in the print version are, of necessity, in their own section on special paper. But in an ebook there's no reason they can't be placed among the text where they belong in context. Instead they just suddenly appear as a block in the middle of a chapter interrupting the text. I also find it hard to flip to the maps and glossary on an ebook, I might have enjoyed this more on paper.
Finally I found the conclusion a bit abrupt. Yes, ending 'The Last Mughal' with the death of the last Mughal makes sense, but another chapter covering the transition from the British East India Company to the British Raj would be help finish the story. Instead there's some overly simplified conclusions mourning the loss of the Mughal's cosmopolitan rule and trying to link the uprising to the rise of Al Qaeda and the September 11th attacks 150 years later.
All that being said, this was a great read, an incredible work of scholarship and storytelling and anyone with an interest in India will enjoy it.
Top international reviews
Dalrymple has clearly carried out an enormous amount of research in writing this book. It must be very difficult for an author to decide just how much detail is required - where one reader may simply want an overview or summary of events, another may relish reading about the small details. Therefore there is always that element of subjectivity. However, clearly there needs to be sufficient information to build up the sequence of events, give a flavour of the culture (or clashes of culture), of what life was like at that time, and even the politics. I always think a book has been well written if the reader can imagine himself there whilst reading it. For me this was the case and I think the author has written a great, if lengthy, book.
Certainly this is not a period of our history that we can be proud of or one that we want to repeat. Nonetheless, histroy does seem to have a knack of repeating itself. A very good book and weel worth the read.
William Irvine - Author of The Polygamist
Superb research has provided the impetus for this fascinating book. drawing on contemporary indian sources, as well as the much more frequently used British sources, this book gives a balanced and fascinating account of the dreadful events in India, particularly in Delhi, of 1857
The author's meticulous research taking in both English and Urdu sources shines through and makes for a gripping read. Dalyrmple is not not afraid to voice his prejudice which, unlike some reviewers here, I found refreshing.
I would recommend this book to anyone - a thoroughly modern, gripping account of the events leading up to, during and after 1857 Uprising as it affected Bahadur Shah Zafer, the court and city of Delhi and communities in it.
I read the Kindle edition - well formatted and very good bibliography and comprehensive notes.