Book review: The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

May 27, 2008

Title: The Last Mughal
Author: William Dalrymple
Pages: 486

The author

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigous Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography.

William is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now divide their time between London and Delhi.

The plot

The Last Mughal is a book about Bahadur Shah Zafar – the last emperor of India’s Mughal dynasty. It is not a biography as such because it focusses on the First Independence War of 1857 as well. The Mughal empire collapsed in 1857 due to its role in the war against the British.

A little background

At the height of its power, the Mughal empire extended over most of the Indian subcontinent (which included modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan). The British initially ingratiated themselves to Zafar’s powerful ancestors. Indeed, the East India Company’s seal acknowledged themselves to be vassals of the Mughal emperor. However, in the absence of great leaders, the once-great empire decayed and crumbled until poor Zafar was left with an empire whose power did not extend beyond his palace. The Mughal Dynasty was more than 300 years old when Zafar took over.

Zafar had almost no autonomy and, in an ironic reversal of roles, was almost a subject of the British. Although practically powerless he commanded enormous respect from the population and was recognized as the legitimate ruler of Hindustan by Muslims as well as Hindus.

Why did war break out?
The British became increasingly arrogant and racist as their power in India increased. They began to view Indians as inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race. Embracing Indian (or rather Muslim/Mughal) culture, or ‘going native’, began to be frowned upon. Earlier, especially when the Mughal Empire was powerful, it was quite common for foreigners to convert to Islam and blend into Indian society. These foreigners, who Dalrymple calls ‘White Mughals’ became fewer and fewer as British attitudes towards the local population changed.

Coupled with British arrogance was the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Islam and other local religions were considered primitive and superstitious. The East India Company actively facilitated missionary activity – there are records of missionaries on the company payroll. Although missionary activity met with very little success (usually among the educated elite) it added fuel to rumours about plans for forced conversions. The British ban on social evils like Sati (the horrible custom where a woman jumps into her husband’s funeral pyre) shocked many orthodox Indians and convinced them that Christian morality would be forced upon them.

The ban on social evils was, ofcourse, a commendable move and claims of insensitivity in this case should be ignored. However, British insensitivity went much further – temples and mosques were routinely destroyed to build roads and temple property was often confiscated. They were also rumours that orphans and prisoners were forced to convert to Christianity.

In this atmosphere of apprehension and mistrust the British made the mistake of forcing their sepoys (Indian soldiers in the British army) to use cartridges that allegedly contained pig-fat. Both Hindu as well as Muslim sepoys were offended as eating pork is forbidden by Hinduism as well as Islam. It didn’t take long for the sepoys, the majority of whom were Hindus, to revolt.

The Mughals get involved
In a surprising move, the rebel army wanted to revive the Mughal empire by capturing Delhi. Zafar, in his eighties and partially senile, was in no mood to lead a war against the British. The fighters however were determined to get his blessing and finally succeeded by bullying the aged emperor.

The rebels turned on the European population of Delhi and massacred most of them without regard for age or sex. As it was a religious war Christians, rather than all Europeans, were the primary targets – Indians who converted to Christianity were killed and Europeans who converted to Islam were spared.

This was how things started out. First the European houses were looted and burnt by the rebel army. Soon, people from surrounding areas flocked to Delhi in order to join in the looting. Now Europeans were robbed or killed without regard for religion. Once the European population of Delhi was wiped out the rebels started looting wealthy locals.

Jihadis, fanatic muslim warriors, started pouring into Delhi and soon swelled the ranks of the rebel army. The British had laid seige on Delhi and waited outside the city walls. Thousands of sepoys as well as Jihadis threw themselves on British positions but had little or no effect. This was due to a lack of proper leadership. The sepoys came from different regiments and looked only to their own leaders for guidance. Zafar was useless as a military leader and his sons were no great warriors either. Despite their claims of allegiance to the Emperor, Zafar had very little control over the rebel army.

Food soon ran out in the city and relations between the army and the population of Delhi were worsening day by day. It took all of Zafar’s power (and also threats to ditch the war and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca) to keep the Muslims and Hindus from flying at each others throats.

The Army of Retribution
On their way to Delhi the British army regularly murdered most Indian men they came across. Entire villages were wiped out. Very few British officers took the trouble to restrain their men from hanging or torturing innocents. Things got so bad that it came to be known as the ‘Army of Retribution’. European priests travelling with the army did nothing to stop the murders but instead fanned their burning hatred by quoting Bible passages that justified cold-blooded murder. So much for ‘thou shalt not kill’.

After three months the British obtained enough reinforcements to re-capture Delhi. The murders outside Delhi were just the prelude to the real bloodbath. Once the Englishmen took control over Delhi they began to systematically loot it. Angered by the loss of their families many soldiers went wild. Almost every male Delhi who was unlucky enough to be teenager or older was brutally murdered.

The verdict

This is an extremely well-researched book. Dalrymple sourced a lot of his material from local souces like newspapers, palace diaries, etc instead of relying only on biased British accounts of the war.

It changed my perception of the 1857 war completely. It was hardly a war of independence seeing how most of the motivation for it was religious. Dalrymple explodes many myths about the Mughal empire. For example, some Indian nationalists tend to potray the Mughals as a foreign power when they were actually completely integrated into Indian society. Zafar himself was the son of an Indian princess.

So, although they were foreign imperialists like the British the Mughals made India their home and considered Indians to be equals. The British, who claimed they had as much right to rule India as the Mughals, are completely wrong. The British never integrated into Indian society and were, with rare exceptions, shockingly racist and divisive.

2 Responses to “Book review: The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple”

  1. A. N. Nanda Says:


    A nice review of the book, especially the verdict part. I’ve also reviewed it in my blog. You may decide to take a look.



  2. ipatrol Says:

    Thank you, Nanda. I found your review to be comprehensive and interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s