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

by William Dalrymple, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007, $30.

To visit Delhi today and stroll through the Red Fort is to take in but a fragment of what was once a remarkable architectural assemblage—a walled city of palaces, gardens, watercourses, mosques and pavilions. The last emperor to live here was Bahadur Shah Zafar II, whose capture during the 1857 mutiny marked the end of a line of rulers who had lorded over northern India for three centuries.

Zafar was one of history’s great losers. An indecisive man who had come to the throne in his 60s, he was more poet than politician, dogged by his royal but decadent and penniless relations, cuckolded by his concubines and henpecked by an ambitious wife scheming to enthrone her son.

Zafar managed to shilly-shally his way into a revolution doomed to fail. On May 11, 1857, mutinous soldiers appeared in Delhi and killed every European who had the bad luck to be in the way. The fighting ended the following September, with the English victorious and Zafar a prisoner, banished to Burma for the rest of his days—his empire gone and his sons shot. No wonder he has been given short shrift by most historians.

The Last Mughal goes a long way toward defining the late emperor, but the book is more than a biography. Drawing on little-known papers in the Indian National Archives, Dalrymple draws a telling portrait of a place—Delhi on the eve of the Raj—evoking the city in the person of its nobles, intellectuals and courtiers, but also its tradesmen and street hawkers.

The denouement, of course, is the rise of British power with India as its keystone. The war’s aftermath was an exercise in arrogance. As Dalrymple tells it, English troops plundered the city, arresting and torturing those who excited their suspicions and shooting out of hand those who excited their fury.

Don’t be surprised if the actions of the British have a ring of familiarity. Dalrymple makes a point of drawing similarities between the rise of the British Empire and America’s present-day travails.

 

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here