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Excellent account of a terrible tragedy
on 16 October 2012
Dalrymple has written an excellent account of the last days of the Moghul dynasty and the failed Indian Revolutionary War of 1857. The once great Moghul Empire of India had been slowly dying over a period of 150 years or so, plagued first of all by rebellious subjects such as the Marathas in the west and the Sikhs in the North who had never truly accepted the rule of the Moghuls from Delhi, and then in later years by the colonial trading empires of the French and British. By the mid-nineteenth century, almost the whole of India was either ruled directly by the British East India company or by local rulers who were subject to British authority. The last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah (referred to as "Zafar" by Dalrymple) was no more than a ceremonial ruler whose remit barely extended beyond the immediate neighbourhood of his magnificent palace, the Red Fort in Delhi. Dalrymple gives a wonderful description of this dying, exotic society - full of artists, poets (Zafar himself was an accomplished Urdu poet and teacher), a society which had bewitched the first generations of British settlers, many of whom had "gone native" in a spectacular fashion - adopting Moghul dress and customs, taking multiple Indian women as wives, and fathering numerous Anglo-Indian children. Suddenly into this exotic idyll was tossed the rebellion of 1857. The author describes in vivid detail the sudden arrival in Delhi of thousands of mutinous Indian soldiers or sepoys, their brutal massacre of of any Europeans in the city (including men, women and children) and their proclamation of the restoration of the old Moghul Empire. He then describes the inevitable British counterattack, the siege of Delhi and the terrible British vengeance - the virtual annihilation of the city, the destruction of much of its architecture, the almost complete elimination of that old courtly Moghul society. The author has done a great deal of research in the old Delhi archives, unearthing many first hand accounts , particularly of the British destruction of the city - possibly the darkest episode in the history of the British army. It certainly makes one appreciate such developments as the Geneva convention. I have one criticism and that is the author's determination to place the blame for what happened firmly on the shoulders of British evangelical Christianity. The revolt was unquestionably the result of the bullet issue and the subsequent heavy handed response to the initial complaints and unrest. The high-handed and arrogant attitudes of the British in gradually taking over the running of this great and proud nation through the cuckoos nest antics of the East India company would also have contributed. The lack of the virtues of forgiveness and compassion in many of the nominally Christian British military leaders is also startling. But to blame a few enthusiastic missionaries for the whole affair seems to smack more of Dalrymple's modern liberal prejudices than of what was most people's perception at the time. I think he has also over-played his nostalgia for the wonders of the Moghul court and society. There was toleration of different religions and customs, but this tolerance also extended to practices such as the suttee, and for the less well off, no doubt, as in most societies of the time, life was nasty, brutish and short.