The Last Mughal

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Mughal Empire (Mughal is the Persian word for Mongol) was established in the early sixteenth century by the Muslim Bbur, great-grandson of Tamerlane, reached its peak about 1700, and declined in power after the death of the harsh emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. A series of lesser rulers culminated in the accession of Bahdur Shh Zafar II, who occupied the throne with Britain’s compliance from1837 to 1857. Zafar was himself a talented mysticalpoet, and he created around him a brilliant court starring two great lyric poets, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq. The end came for Zafar and the city he loved when in May of 1857 three hundred sepoys (Indian infantry privates employed by the East India Company) rode into Delhi from Meerut and massacred every Christian they could find.DUR SH{AMACR}H ZAFAR II[BAHADUR SHAH ZAFAR II];Last Mughal, The (Dalrymple)}

Zafar reluctantly let himself be identified as the “nominal” leader of what William Dalrymple calls the “Uprising,” but after four months of chaos the British regained Delhi on September 14, 1857, and immediately began looting the city and massacring its inhabitants. Zafar was exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.

In The Last Mughal: The Fall of a DynastyDelhi, 1857, although Dalrymple asserts that the Uprising was “not one unified movement but many, with widely differing causes, motives and natures,” he argues that the collapse of the good feelings between Indians and British that prevailed in the eighteenth century “gave way to the hatreds and racism of the high-nineteenth-century Raj” largely for two reasons: the rise of British power with its “undisguised imperial arrogance” and the “specific imperial agenda” of the Evangelicals and Utilitarians.

Under the rule of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, the British Resident and de facto authority over the Mughal court, Zafar was left virtually powerless by 1852. (Metcalfe was “a notably fastidious man, with feelings so refined that he could not bear to see women eat cheese.”) The Mughal court was domiciled in the large and splendidly turned out Red Fort, an architectural marvel with marble domes, a swimming pool, a library of twenty-five thousand books, Georgian furniture, andamong other indulgencesa Napoleon Gallery replete with memorabilia of Bonaparte. Metcalfe challenged the excess of the Red Fort by establishing his own “parallel dynasty,” Metcalfe House, a “palatial Palladian bungalow” on the banks of the nearby Yamuna River. In his zeal to match Zaraf’s cultural refinement, Metcalfe also commissioned a series of paintings of Delhi ruins, palaces, monuments, and shrines by the Delhi artist Mazhar Ali Khan. This innovative work became known as the Company School.

The Reverend Midgeley John Jennings arrived in Delhi in early 1852 to serve as its Christian chaplain. Jennings was a rigid man of no charm, with the serious aim of uprooting old faiths and winning conversions. His convictions were shared by many other British officials who regarded the British Empire as a reward for their Protestantism. The ulema, or Islamic clergy, were made nervous by this attitude, as were those who participated in mixed Anglo-Indian marriages. Jennings’s arrival coincided with a rise in the “growing missionary phobia” and the swelling of British imperial arrogance.

By 1852, Bombay enjoyed less intermarriage of British and Mughals, and “virtual apartheid” was becoming the rule. This “uneasy equilibrium” was exacerbated when in 1853 three British officials died in suspicious circumstances, the most prominent case being the obvious poisoning and lingering death of Metcalfe. The British widely believed that Zinat Mahal, Zafar’s favorite wife, was behind Metcalfe’s death. Metcalfe was succeeded by Simon Fraser, who at the death in 1856 of Mirza Fakhru, the heir apparent to Zafar, convinced Lord Canning, the governor general, to discontinue the royal line altogether.

The introduction of the new Enfield rifles caused morale problems with the Indian troops of the East India Company. These new weapons had rifled barrels instead of smooth ones,...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 14 (March 15, 2007): 17.

The Economist 381 (November 11, 2006): 96.

Military History 24, no. 5 (July/August, 2007): 72-74.

The Nation 284, no. 17 (April 30, 2007): 25-30.

New Statesman 135 (October 30, 2006): 56-57.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 9 (May 31, 2007): 40-42.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 22, 2007): 17.

The New Yorker 83, no. 12 (May 14, 2007): 149.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 8 (February 19, 2007): 159.

The Spectator 302 (October 7, 2006): 44-46.