- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007


By William Dalrymple

Knopf, $30, 560 pages


The Indian Mutiny in 1857 presented the British Empire with its greatest crisis of the 19th century. George Nathaniel Curson later remarked that Britain would quickly become a third-rate power without India, and the mutiny nearly drove the British from the subcontinent. In “The Last Mughal,” William Dalrymple examines what sparked the crisis during Bahadur Shah Zafar II’s reign as the last Mughal Emperor.

Delhi marked the epicenter of the mutiny, giving Zafar a major role whether he wanted it or not. The siege that followed became the Stalingrad of the British Raj, a fight to the death that permitted neither retreat nor surrender. Mr. Dalrymple weaves the stories of protagonists on both sides into a broader account of clashing civilizations.

Although the British East India Company ruled India from the late-18th century, after victories over French rivals and native princes, the Mughal Empire lingered on in Delhi until 1857. British officials cared about power and profit rather than image, and the old dynasty provided a convenient facade to cover their ambitions.

They were loyal vassals to the Mughals, at least in name, even posing as protectors when they defeated the Maratha Confederacy in 1803. Display, however, played an important part in securing allegiance. Successive British leaders took care to demonstrate their prestige and authority, effectively demoting the Mughals and making them increasingly dependent.

By 1850, Lord Dalhousie mocked the practice of “covering the English with the Mughal ceremonial mantle” as “a solemn farce.” The British had demoted their feudal lord into a dependent nobleman controlling little beyond his own court.

Zafar was king in name only, but he made Delhi a center for culture. A poet in his own right, he built on a long tradition of Mughal patronage to Hindus and Muslims alike. Mr. Dalrymple points out that Delhi had less direct contact with Europeans than other parts of India do, so city and court alike retained a self-confident urbanity.

Where other regions mimicked or experimented with Western styles, Delhi drew from its long heritage as a center of learning, culture and spirituality. A cultural renaissance paralleled the Mughals’ decline into political impotence

Many British had found Indian culture attractive, and Mr. Dalrymple’s earlier book “White Mughals” gave an interesting picture of 18th-century relations based on mutual respect. Englishmen borrowed Indian ways and married or cohabited with Indian women. Behind the instrumental value for governance in understanding the laws and culture lay a sense among English newcomers that India had a venerable though different heritage with much to offer.

India’s standing as a civilized society set it apart from other non-Western polities in Africa and the Americas, and the distinction between civilization and barbarism underlay Edmund Burke’s indictment of British actions under Warren Hastings. Eighteenth-century British India thus became a vibrant cultural frontier, at least among Europeans and the Indian elite with whom they interacted.

Mr. Dalrymple sets out a change in attitudes that detonated catastrophe. He lays blame on the evangelical revival in Britain, while noting religious assertiveness by Muslims and some Hindus, but the increasingly dense patterns of contacts between West and East also played a part. Both sides became less tolerant.

Governing also forced the British to confront practices before left to native rulers. Englishmen increasingly viewed Indian religion and folkways as both irrational and immoral. Customs like sati, the Hindu practice of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, outraged the British. William Wilberforce viewed many Hindu practices as repellant as the slavery he struggled to abolish.

Others campaigned to open India to Christian missionaries to free it from superstition. Mr. Dalrymple treats Christian efforts as deplorable, but they were part of a wider project of liberal imperialism that aimed to modernize non-Western societies during the early 19th century. Where earlier officials governed India on Indian terms, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Babbington Macaulay sought to impose a much broader transformation to make Britain’s empire rational, modern and European.

Culture and power thus imposed a growing divide that made tensions harder to mediate. A few incidents, like the refusal of high-caste Hindu soldiers to serve overseas because crossing water would violate a taboo, foreshadowed a wider confrontation. British officials had become deaf to their surroundings, though one man in Delhi predicted in May 1857 that “we shall soon be kicked out of India, or we shall fight to the death for our very existence.”

A series of mutinies among sepoys grew into a general withdrawal of allegiance to the British that soon became an open rebellion. Sepoys converged on Delhi, driving out Europeans and appealing to Zafar for aid.

Delhi’s elite viewed the events with mixed feelings. Insurgents plundered much of their city, slaughtering Europeans and stealing from all. Their actions resembled an invasion more than anything else, but Zafar saw an opportunity to regain lost power. By giving the mutineers his blessing on May 11, he sealed his own doom.

The British now viewed him as an enemy, and atrocities made them merciless in suppressing the uprising. An army marched on Delhi, taking the city by storm and inflicting retribution. While they spared Zafar’s life, the British deposed him from the throne and imprisoned him in Rangoon under strict supervision. Others faced harsher punishment, from hanging and flogging to being fired from cannons. Such actions reflect the desperation and rage the mutiny inspired among the British.

It also brought wider changes, including the abolition of the East India Company and a more tolerant approach to Indian culture. Victoria supplanted the Mughals as India’s ruler, and the British Raj became a model of enlightened paternalism over the coming decades.

Still, the lessons behind such reforms, as Mr. Dalrymple shows, came at a very high price. If Mr. Dalrymple overlooks the flaws of Indian culture and magnifies failings by the British, he captures all too well the consequences brought by the clash of civilizations.

William Anthony Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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