British Empire Books

The Last Mughal

AuthorWilliam Dalrymple
ISBN No.0747587264

The Last Mughal is a very impressive retelling of the final days of the Mughal Empire and its unhappy demise at the hands of the East India Company. Of course, the dynasty comes crashing down around the ears of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II thanks to the mutiny by East India Sepoys in 1857. This book does a good job at explaining how the East India Company gradually whittled down the power and influence of the Mughals despite their being invited in to India by the Mughals in the eighteenth century to help shore up their dynasty.

In many ways this book is more the story of the city of Delhi and an Islamic Indian way of life that has been lost forever. The author explains the subtle religious policies of the Mughals that would later explain why the Hindu sepoys would flock to the Islamic emperor to help provide them with a focal point to see off the Christian encroachments being tolerated and encouraged by the East India Company. It was the uncharacteristically decisive decision by the emperor to lend his name and support to the mutineers that would doom his royal family forever more. The book is good at explaining the contradictory forces pulling at the old emperor's mind; on the one hand he was used to being treated as the emperor of the universe and yet his power and administration had been all but usurped by the British leaving next to no civil administration to successfully mount a challenge to that British power. Despite the massive upheavals suffered by the British, their organisation, administration and determination allowed them to hold on to and then recapture all that they had lost. Conversely, the mutineers, Hindu and Muslim, found that fighting an efficient army without food in their bellies and a steady supply of ammunition and arms was more difficult than anticipated. It also did not help that the mutineers chain of command was dependant upon unpaid volunteers who needed their side to be victorious but could hide behind the efforts of other mutineers far too easily. Individually the mutineers could indeed fight bravely, but too many of them were distracted by day to day survival or a desire to melt into the countryside when survival became the order of the day.

One fact that I was particularly interested to learn was the role and the effectiveness of the Gujars in operating a blockade of the city of Delhi. These semi-nomadic and distrusted Hindu herders and pastoralists were equal opportunities bandits who robbed British, mutineers and refugees alike. In many ways, they were more responsible for the difficulties of feeding the mutineers and dwellers of Delhi than the pathetic collection of British soldiers camped on the ridge outside of the city. The British could bide their time, fight off uncoordinated attacks by the mutineers and wait for reinforcements. The mutineers on the other hand were fighting food shortages, inflation with a growing band of armed and dangerous mutineers. Fundamentals were working against the last Mughal emperor and he knew it. His writ did not carry far beyond the city's wall and the Gujar's power demonstrated that fact clearly.

Necessarily, this book skates over the mutiny's events far from the environs of Delhi. Although many of these mutineers headed for Delhi anyway - for want of anywhere else to head towards in most cases. Therefore, the not inconsiderable events of Lucknow or Cawnpore are barely mentioned. It would be advisable that the reader of this book be already familiar with the mutiny as a whole in order to get the most out of this book. I would treat this book as the next stage of your understanding - by focusing in on the role of the Mughals and Delhi - which were incredibly important - but were not the only actors and drivers of the mutiny.

The book is very clear, although my hardback version did have a surprising number of grammatical or typographical errors - hopefully they will have been edited out of the paper back version. It was useful to have a full list of Dramatis Personnae although I would have liked to have seen a family tree of some sort. The emperor's myriad wives and sons are pretty hard to keep track of. Similarly, I found the two maps that were provided to be a little on the simplistic side. There are many fine period maps available and these would help the reader follow the military aspects of the mutiny or the remarkable individual escapes made by the British and then later the mutineers. These are minor quibbles on an otherwise first class and highly enjoyable book.

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