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


The history of the fall of the rulers of India up until the 19th century, the Mughals. Zafar came to control once the Mughals were already in decline but his talent created a court of unparalleled beauty. The British and Mughals came to devastating blows as the Mughals tried to keep their traditions and power and as Britain sought to expand

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Key Takeaways
  1. Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and the descendant of the great world-conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur.
  2. The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history. For many, the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilisation at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, raised in Agra in memory of his favourite Queen, or the fabulously intricate miniatures of the Padshahnama and the other great Mughal manuscripts.
  3. At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”
  4. But what was built by the tact and conciliation of the first five of the Great Mughals was destroyed by the harsh and repressive rule of the sixth.
  5. In his lifetime, however, Zafar lived to see his own dynasty finally reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from relatively vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.
  6. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population.
  7. ALTHOUGH BAHADUR SHAH II, the last Mughal, is a central figure in this book, it is not a biography of Zafar so much as a portrait of the Delhi he personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857.
  8. For the people of Delhi, the daily reality of what happened in 1857 was not so much liberation as violence, uncertainty and starvation. Indeed, reading through the Mutiny Papers there are times when it seems almost as if the siege of Delhi had become a three-cornered contest, with the sepoys and the British fighting it out, and with the people in Delhi caught in the middle, their lives wrecked by the violence of both. Clearly Zafar saw his job as protecting the people of Delhi from both firangi (foreigners, Franks) and Tilanga.
  9. “The natives all look upon the King of Delhi as their rightful Lord, and so he is, I suppose.”33 As his coronation portrait described him, he was “His Divine Highness, Caliph of the Age, Padshah as Glorious as Jamshed, He who is Surrounded by Hosts of Angels, Shadow of God, Refuge of Islam, Protector of the Mohammedan Religion, Offspring of the House of Timur, Greatest Emperor, Mightiest King of Kings, Emperor son of Emperor, Sultan son of Sultan.” From this point of view, it was the East India Company which was the real rebel, guilty of revolt against a feudal superior to whom it had sworn allegiance for two centuries; after all, the Company had long governed as the Mughal’s tax collector in Bengal, and had until recently acknowledged itself as the vassal of the Mughal even on its own seal and coins.34 For this reason many ordinary people in northern India responded to Zafar’s appeal, much to the astonishment of the British, who had long ceased to take him seriously, and who, having completely lost touch with Indian opinion, were amazed at how Hindustan* reacted to his call.
  10. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination.
  11. IF ALL THIS HAS STRONG contemporary echoes, in other ways Delhi today feels as if it is fast moving away from its Mughal past. In modern Delhi an increasingly wealthy Punjabi middle class now lives in an aspirational bubble of shopping malls, espresso bars and multiplexes. Visiting Najafgarh, twelve miles beyond Indira Gandhi International Airport, and scene of one of the most important battles in the siege of Delhi, I found that no one in the town had any knowledge or family memories of the battle; but instead recruitment posters for call centres were plastered all over the last surviving Mughal ruin in the town, the Delhi Gate.
  12. In his letters, Metcalfe sometimes envisaged himself as an English country squire. In reality, however, he seems to have had slightly more exalted ambitions, and to some extent he set up his establishment as a rival court to that of Zafar’s, with the Metcalfes as a parallel dynasty to the Mughals.
  13. For the first time there was a feeling that technologically, economically and politically, as well as culturally, the British had nothing to learn from India and much to teach; it did not take long for imperial arrogance to set in. This arrogance, when combined with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, slowly came to affect all aspects of relations between the British and the Indians.
  14. “You may crush down the populace and keep them in awe with your arms, but until you conquer and win the hearts of the people, the peace and affection will be more an outward word of talk” than reality.50
  15. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and European imperialism have very often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.
  16. For three hours, during seven months of the year, the Delhi afternoon heat emptied the streets, leaving them deserted: a blazing white midnight clearing the lanes and galis, and hushing the city into uncharacteristic silence.
  17. So removed had the British now become from their Indian subjects, and so dismissive were they of Indian opinion, that they had lost all ability to read the omens around them or to analyse their own position with any degree of accuracy. Arrogance and imperial self-confidence had diminished the desire to seek accurate information or gain any real knowledge of the state of the country.
  18. More specifically, as far as Delhi was concerned, by extinguishing even the faintest hope of any of the princes of the royal house ever succeeding Zafar, the British created a situation where no one in the imperial family had anything to lose, and all were sufficiently disaffected to risk anything to try to save their position. It was a fatal error for which the British would shortly pay a high price.
  19. “Great as is the Company’s name and wealth, it is not so strong as the prejudice of caste.”
  20. For all his many good qualities, indecision was always Zafar’s greatest vice.
  21. Yet now, at the moment of the most crucial decision Zafar would ever take, with most of the Delhi elite already instinctively lined up against the looting, mutinous sepoys, Zafar made an uncharacteristically decisive choice: he gave them his blessing. The reason is not hard to guess. With the armed, threatening and excitable sepoys surrounding him on all sides, he had little choice. Moreover, thanks to Simon Fraser and Lord Canning, he had even less to lose. For all his undoubted fear, anger and irritation with the sepoys, Zafar made the critical choice that would change both the fate of his dynasty and that of the city of Delhi, linking them both with the Uprising:
  22. he had seen that when he handed out ammunition to his men some had grabbed far more than their entitlement and he had mentally marked down the guilty men for punishment at a later date.
  23. “I never let my men take prisoners,” he explained, “but shoot them at once.”37 He was also notorious for the pleasure he took in the kill. “A beautiful swordsman, he never failed to kill his man,” wrote one of his officers. “The way he used to play with the most brave and furious of these rebels was perfect. I fancy I see him now, smiling, laughing, parrying most fearful blows, as calmly as if he was brushing off flies, calling out all the time, ‘Why, try again now,’ ‘what’s that?’ ‘Do you call yourself a swordsman?’ &c…If only there was a good hard scrimmage he was as happy as a king.”38 Less dramatically, but ultimately more significantly, Hodson proved himself a ruthlessly efficient Chief of Intelligence: “He even used to know what the rebels had for dinner,” noted one admiring officer.39
  24. “Act at once, march with any body of European troops to the spot, and the danger will disappear. Give it time, it will flame through the land.”
  25. Other than the targeting of Christians, there was surprisingly little patriotic or nationalistic spirit visible in the violence that rumbled on for weeks after the outbreak: the initial mutiny in the army had opened a vast Pandora’s box of differences and grievances—economic, sectarian, religious and political—and now that the violence and settling of scores had begun, it would not be easy to bring them to a halt.
  26. He was after all eighty-two years old, and lacked any of the energy, ambition and worldliness, and indeed the drive and determination, needed to ride the tiger of rebellion.
  27. More than anyone else, it seems, Mirza Mughal realised the importance of providing some organised logistical back-up to the Uprising, and a coherent administration for Delhi. As it turned out, his administration rarely got beyond crisis management, and never succeeded in turning itself into a force able to control either the different sepoy regiments or the growing numbers of freelance jihadis collecting in Delhi; but if it failed, it was certainly not for lack of industry.
  28. Zafar himself stood slightly apart from his wife and principal advisers. While well aware of the dangers posed by the sepoys, disgusted by their manners and profoundly alarmed and depressed by the looting of his city, he nevertheless recognised the possibility that the Uprising could yet save the House of Timur, and ensure a future for his dynasty, something he had consistently worked for since his accession in 1837. He therefore gave his blessing and public support to the Uprising, and took seriously his role as newly empowered Mughal Emperor, while doing all he could to limit the depredations of the sepoys.
  29. You do not realize that in public life a man must use his reason rather than give way to his emotions. If we try to dissuade the rebels now they will kill us before they kill the English, and then they will kill the King.”
  30. For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. The sepoys were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.
  31. Baqar understood that behind the anarchy there lay a fundamental problem of authority. While there was clearly a certain amount of collusion and communication between the different regiments prior to the outbreak, each regiment had mutinied individually, had come to Delhi under its own steam and, once there, looked to its own subahdars for leadership. The regiments remained self-contained: they camped separately, accepted no overall sepoy general, and strongly resisted the idea of a commander of any other regiment having authority over them.
  32. For all the weakness of Mirza Mughal’s administration, Zafar realised he did possess one trump card he could play in order to try to bring some pressure on the sepoys: non-cooperation.
  33. Mirza Abu Bakr] experiencing for the first time the effects of a bursting shell, hastily descended from the roof of the house, mounted his horse, and galloped off with his escort of sawars far into the rear of the position, not heeding the cries of his troops. A general stampede then took place.
  34. NOTE: no your guts my glory
  35. Probably most of those who committed this deed were themselves called to account to a Higher Power during their siege to answer for their sins.
  36. NOTE: rationalization for evil seems to prevail
  37. “Never fear Mister Barter sir, we ain’t agoing to turn.” And on they went quietly closing up the gap made by their fallen comrades.
  38. NOTE: shared guts and glory
  39. One man a hole as large as a billiard ball through his forehead, a perfect giant in death.
  40. NOTE: what a visual
  41. Amid a rising sense of panic, only Mirza Mughal kept his head, saying that, as in a game of chess, as long as the king was next to the castle, “he was firmly seated beyond all fear of check mate.”
  42. Even if the essentials can be found they cannot be afforded because the prices are so high. Either the shops are shut, or when they are open there are a thousand people queuing for only one hundred pomegranates. The stuff that is there is of very poor quality, but hunger is the greater master and neediness a true slave driver, so people will take what they can get and consider it a boon. As is rightly said, “if one cannot find wheat, barley will do.”
  43. Look at the lessons the Almighty has taught us: we used to be so fussy that we would reject the finest wheat and complain that our flour was too smelly and only good to be given to faqirs. Now we don’t hesitate to fight for the poorest left-overs from the bazaars.
  44. The courage of the sepoys invariably impressed their old officers; their tactics did not. The massed bodies of troops certainly looked magnificent when seen from the city walls—Zahir Dehlavi thought the contest was “a strange and fascinating war which one had never heard of or seen before, for both the armies belonged to the British government, and the rebels had also been trained by the experienced English Officers, so that it was like a fight between a teacher and his student.”44 But the sepoys’ uncoordinated attacks, single regiment after single regiment, taking it in turn to attack the prepared British positions front on, day after day, rarely taxed the British despite their small numbers.
  45. Whatever might be the dish you selected to feed upon, as soon as it was uncovered, a legion of flies would settle upon it; and even so simple a thing as a cup of tea would be filled in a few minutes, unless you were very careful, the surface of the liquid presenting a most revolting dark appearance from the flies floating thereon, some dead, others dying.
  46. NOTE: what an image and situation
  47. At night sleep was all but impossible: if the damp heat and the smell were not enough, the boom of cannon, the baying of jackals and dogs, and what the Delhi Gazette Extra described as “the gurgling moan of obstinate camels” made rest a distant hope.62 More seriously, in this humid, stinking, stagnant quagmire, cholera also broke out again, passing through the camp with astonishing and deadly speed.63 In such an unhealthy environment, and with only the most basic medical facilities, it was hardly surprising that almost none of the many wounded who had to go through an amputation survived to tell the tale.
  48. NOTE: be grateful every day you don’t have to deal with conditions like this
  49. The passage highlights something that is often forgotten in accounts of life on the Ridge: the fact that just over half the soldiers, and almost all the vast support staff, were not British, but Indian. It was, all in all, a very odd sort of religious war, where a Muslim Emperor was pushed into rebellion against his Christian oppressors by a mutinous army of overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, who came to him of their own free will (and initially against his) to ask for the barakat of a Muslim blessing and the leadership of the Mughal they regarded as their legitimate ruler.
  50. But by the end of July, victory over the British seemed increasingly remote. A much more likely outcome, it now seemed, was the imminent unravelling of the central stitching that held Delhi together: the peaceful co-existence of Hindu and Muslim.
  51. Their failure to establish a well-governed “liberated area” or Mughal realm from which they could draw tax revenue, manpower and, most of all, food supplies ultimately proved the Delhi rebels’ single most disastrous failure.
  52. THE MOST SERIOUS THREAT to any remaining hope of victory over the British continued, however, to be the disagreements between the different regiments; and these were now steadily growing worse than ever.
  53. The ball entered Nicholson’s chest, just below the exposed armpit. One of the other fusiliers, who had belatedly come up, pointed out that he had been hit. “Yes, yes,” replied Nicholson irritably, before sinking to the ground.
  54. For two years they lived with the villagers and suffered as they did: they learned what it was to experience real hunger; monsoon floods nearly washed them away; and with no doctor to attend her, Mirza Shahzor’s wife died in childbirth. Soon after, what remained of the family was able to return to Delhi, to begin a new life on the pension of five rupees a month that the British offered the few surviving members of the imperial family.
  55. Heaven knows I feel no pity—but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes—hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference. And yet it must be so for these black wretches shall atone with their blood for our murdered countrymen—my own father and mother—sister and brother all cry aloud for vengeance, and their son will avenge them. Yes! He shall be seen in the fight, and shall never shrink [from bloodshed,] for God has given him both strength and courage.
  56. NOTE: real strength would be forgiveness
  57. On the morning of the 21st, “a royal salute at sunrise proclaimed that Delhi was once more a dependency of the British crown.”96 But the captured city—the ancient capital of Hindustan, the great Mughal metropolis—was now a desolate city of the dead, except for parties of drunken British looters. Major William Ireland, a consistent critic of the brutality of his own colleagues throughout the campaign, was horrified by the sight of the “liberated” city.
  58. Ommaney was disgusted to see that, as in Paris during the Revolution, large numbers had gathered to watch the entertainment provided by the executions. The Chowk, he noted, was “crowded with officers and Europeans.” “How transient seems this life,” he wrote in his diary that night, “when one sees a man so quickly part with it: a few moments and the animated body has separated from that spirit which has gone to appear before its maker, and yet to look at the crowd, how little they feel or seem to understand the awful awful change taking place before their eyes.”
  59. It was not just bloodlust and the urge for revenge which provided the motive for this mass slaughter: there was also money to be made. Informers were paid 2 rupees for every arrest, while the captors were allowed to keep “all money and gold found on the persons of mutineers captured.”
  60. NOTE: incentives. incentives. incentives
  61. One dies, and only intimate friends mourn—and how few they are.”
  62. “He possesses in my opinion, not the slightest spark of honour and affection, according to English ideas of those qualities.”
  63. NOTE: last caveat is key
  64. It would have been contrary to human nature, and utterly at variance with the predatory instinct, had the soldiers failed to take advantage of the facilities for plunder which surrounded them on every side; nor could it be expected that a man, after possessing himself of valuables, would…deliver up all his booty to the authorities…Often, when wandering through the city in search of plunder, I, in the company of others, came across officers engaged in the same quest as ourselves
  65. We crept in as humble barterers, whose existence depended on the bounty and favour of the lieutenants of the kings of Delhi; and the “generosity” we have shown was but a small acknowledgement of the favours his ancestors had conferred to our race.116 Russell concluded by pointing out that if the King was to be tried by a proper court of law, rather than by a Military Commission, the charges against Zafar would be almost impossible to prove: “An English lawyer in an English court of justice might show that it would be very difficult for our Government to draw an indictment against the King of Delhi for treason, for the levying of war against us as lords paramount…”
  66. [Was Zafar] the original mover, the head and front of the undertaking, or but the consenting tool…the forward, unscrupulous, but still pliant puppet, tutored by priestly craft for the advancement of religious bigotry? Many persons, I believe, will incline to the latter. The known restless spirit of Mahommedan fanaticism has been the first aggressor, the vindictive intolerance of that peculiar faith has been struggling for mastery, seditious conspiracy has been its means, the prisoner its active accomplice, and every possible crime the frightful result…
  67. The Uprising in fact showed every sign of being initiated by upper-caste Hindu sepoys reacting against specifically military grievances perceived as a threat to their faith and dharma; it then spread rapidly through the country, attracting a fractured and diffuse collection of other groups alienated by aggressively insensitive and brutal British policies. Among these were the Mughal court and the many Muslim individuals who made their way to Delhi and fought as civilian jihadis united against the kafir enemy.
  68. Indeed, as witness after witness appeared in the box it became increasingly clear that Zafar was wholly ignorant of any plans that may have existed for a co-ordinated uprising, and had all along been innocent of doing anything other than trying to protect his subjects in Delhi.
  69. Just before 3 p.m., the judges retired to consider their verdict. A few minutes later, they returned to unanimously declare Zafar guilty “of all and every part of the charges preferred against him.” Normally, noted the president, such a verdict would have resulted “in the penalty of death as a traitor and a felon.” Thanks, however, to Hodson’s guarantee of his life, such a sentence was impossible. Instead, Zafar was sentenced “to be transported for the remainder of his days, either to one of the Andaman Islands or to such other place as may be selected by the Governor General in council.”134
  70. At 4 a.m. on 7 October, 332 years after Babur first conquered the city, the last Mughal Emperor left Delhi on a bullock cart. Along with him went his wives, his two remaining children,*74 concubines and servants—a party of thirty-one in all, who were escorted by the 9th Lancers, a squadron of horse artillery, two palanquins and three palanquin carriages.
  71. A perhaps unexpected supporter of Lawrence’s plan turned out to be Benjamin Disraeli, who was deeply shocked by the British bloodlust that the Uprising had triggered: “I protest against meeting atrocities with atrocities,” he told the House of Commons. “I have seen things said, and seen written of late, which would make me suppose that…instead of bowing before the name of Jesus we were preparing to revive the worship of Moloch.”
  72. The idea of a general amnesty eventually became official policy, and was proclaimed in Queen Victoria’s name on 1 November 1858. At the same time, in the Act for the Better Government of India, the British Crown finally assumed all governmental responsibilities held by the East India Company, and its 24,000-man military force was incorporated into the British Army. If Hindustan was to lose the Mughals, its rulers of nearly three hundred years’ standing, it would at least now be ruled by a properly constituted colonial government rather than a rapacious multinational acting at least partly in the interests of its shareholders.*79
  73. All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the Uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards. “The capital is in the hands of one or two men like Chhunna Mal and Mahesh Das,” wrote Edward Campbell in 1858.41 What remained of the court circle and the Mughal aristocracy were by and large left penniless. A few survived on a pittance as schoolteachers and tutors.
  74. Although a Bahadur Shah Zafar road still survives in Delhi, as indeed do roads named after all the other Great Mughals, for many Indians today, rightly or wrongly, the Mughals are perceived as it suited the British to portray them in the imperial propaganda that they taught in Indian schools after 1857: as sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders—something that was forcefully and depressingly demonstrated by the whole episode of the demoliton of the Baburi Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992.
  75. But while Zafar was certainly never cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilisation at its most tolerant and pluralistic. He was himself a notable poet and calligrapher; his court contained some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history; and the Delhi he presided over was undergoing one of its great periods of learning, self-confidence, communal amity and prosperity.
  76. Above all, Zafar always put huge emphasis on his role as a protector of the Hindus and the moderator of Muslim demands. He never forgot the central importance of preserving the bond between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, which he always recognised was the central stitching that held his capital city together. Throughout the Uprising, his refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis was probably his single most consistent policy.
  77. As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of “incarnate fiends” and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil.” Again Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked—as they interpret it—by mindless fanatics.
  78. As we have seen in our own time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so dramatically radicalises the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke,82 himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.
What I got out of it
  1. A very well written history about the brutal conflict between India and Britain in the 19th century

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