The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

Image Source: Mags Bros. Ltd

Author: William Dalrymple

Publisher: Penguin India

Pages: 575 pages

Binding: Paperback



The Last Mughal is a historical description of the circumstances leading up to the insurgency of 1857, the time it lasted, and the effects it had on Delhi’s population afterward (the current Old Delhi). The combat that occurred in Delhi is the primary subject of the book’s extensive discussion of the Sepoy Mutiny. The final Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is the main character in this memory. The history of Bahadur Shah Zafar and his interactions with the East India Company are covered at the novel’s outset. Additionally, the author emphasizes the power dynamics in his own family. The events that led to Zafar becoming the reluctant but ultimately symbolic leader of the uprising are then described by Dalrymple. He continues by outlining how the East India Company’s initial setbacks brought it to its senses before it regained control of the capital, crushed the rebel army, and nearly wiped out the Mughal dynasty. The book also covers the first-hand accounts of numerous British families and Delhi’s general public. William Dalrymple, a historian, provides a compelling account of the Sepoy Mutiny in his book The Last Mughal. In order to give a fair picture of the Sepoy Mutiny, he and Mahmood Farooqui examined countless documents, letters, complaint files, spy notes, and official decrees from the archives in India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and Myanmar. The historical account considers both the rebel commanders’ and the East India Company’s points of view. It offers a thorough account of the plight of the city’s residents who were stuck between the two belligerent sides. Additionally, a wealth of information about the lives of the British families residing in Delhi has been presented. The people and events have been dramatized just enough to keep the plot flowing and the memory accurate.

The Mughal dynasty broke up in 1707 after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. The British of the East India Company, Marathas, Sikhs, and other groups seized the chance to try to consolidate their dominance. From 1837 to 1841, Bahadur Shah II, a poet better known by his pen name Zafar, served as the Emperor. Dalrymple presents both perspectives on the events of 1857.

The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was a mystic, a talented poet, and master calligraphy. But whereas his Mughal forefathers had ruled over the majority of India, the elderly Zafar was merely a monarch in the name. Despite the East India Company depriving him of actual political power, he established a competent court and presided over one of the greatest cultural renaissances in Indian history. The largest insurrection any empire had to deal with during the whole nineteenth century began as an army mutiny in 1857 when Zafar approved of a rebellion among the Company’s own Indian soldiers. The Siege of Delhi was the Stalingrad of the Raj: one of the most horrifying incidents in Empire history, with thousands of casualties on both sides. Additionally, tens of thousands more Indians were put to death after the British seized the city, including all but two of Zafar’s sixteen sons, solidifying their control over the subcontinent for the ensuing ninety years. After the four-month siege, Delhi had been reduced to a shattered, deserted ruin, and Zafar had been given the punishment of exile in Burma. There he died, the last Mughal king in a line that dated back to the fifteenth century.

On May 10, 1857, when turmoil in Meerut began, Zafar was in his Delhi palace, the Red Fort. Indian sepoys were moving toward the city, his emissaries informed him. Many of these sepoys initially enlisted in the British army, mostly in search of a stable job, a place to live, and food. However, now that their spiritual convictions had been violated, they became indignant and turned against both the British and those who had become Christians. Zafar had strong reservations about the uprising. This was scarcely surprising given his Mughal ancestry. Despite his reservations, Zafar was appointed the uprising’s nominal leader. Delhi was “nearly totally evacuated” of the British, who had ruled it since 1803, in a short period of time. In this multifaceted account of the campaign, the once-celebrated British heroes receive a bad review. To hurl “the entire weight of British vengefulness to the gates of Bahadur Shah’s freshly independent Mughal Delhi,” according to Dalrymple, they were “imperial psychopaths.” The drama could not have been more compelling with first-person testimonies from a wide range of sources. General Archdale Wilson injured Nicholson in the Battle of Delhi, but he lived long enough to learn that the British had successfully taken Delhi. The British were now trying to capture the Mughal King, who Muslim mutineers especially revered.

To “expel the British,” they asked Zafar to lead them into combat. However, after retiring, he secretly left the Red Fort under the pretense of going to his evening prayers and headed “along the Yamuna.” British forces took King Zafar of Hindostan prisoner after they assaulted the Red Fort in Calcutta in 1759. At the time, they believed he was the “spider at the centre of the web” of all the recent occurrences. As a historian, Dalrymple has already questioned the legitimacy of the king’s detention, but he is now questioning the Company’s justifications for putting him on trial. He wasn’t the one who started the uprising, and it was hard to blame him for wishing to escape his servitude. Dalrymple’s account of the Mughal prince Zafar trial in 1858 offers fresh and unsettling perspectives on a momentous development in Indo-British relations that had far-reaching effects on not only India but the entire world. The dying King was convicted guilty of a scheme to overthrow the British Empire and install the Mughals in its place, which is how he describes it. Instead, he and other family members who went into exile with him were sent to Burma, where they were joined by his wife Zinat, his youngest son Mirza Jawan Bakht, and other relatives. A few British soldiers led a veiled corpse to an unmarked grave in a jail enclosure on a foggy November afternoon in Rangoon, 1862. “No remnant will remain to designate where the last of the Great Moghuls sleeps,” declared the British Commissioner.



Award-winning historian and travel writer William Dalrymple draws on ground-breaking information, including manuscripts in the languages of Urdu and Persian that have never before been studied and contain Indian eyewitness accounts and records of the Delhi courts, police, and administration during the siege. The Last Mughal is a ground-breaking work that is the first to provide the Indian perspective on the collapse of Delhi. At its center are both the stories of the people tragically caught up in one of history’s worst upheavals and the brilliant capital embodied by Zafar.



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