British Empire Books

The Red Fort

AuthorJames Leasor
PublisherT Werner Laurie Limited

This book tells the remarkable story of the city of Delhi during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. As the city was the home of the last Mughal Emperor it became the focal point for Hindu and Muslim mutineers alike as he represented the only power base that could compete with, and possibly replace, the English East India Company. This book tells the story of the Mutiny, although it does tend to tell it from the point of view of the British; how they reacted to the Mutiny and what they did to stamp it out. The actions and motivations of the mutineers and their leaders are mentioned but with little evaluation and less empathy. Given that this book was written some fifty years ago, it is not too surprising to find such Anglo-centric treatment of the events of 1857. It is interesting to contrast the style with William Dalrymple's book Last Mughal which is far more even-handed and sympathetic to the mutineers' cause. Having said all that, the author does give an interesting and exhaustive list of factors that lead to the outbreak of the Mutiny.

One other way that you can tell this is a half-century old book is the way that it likes to over-generalise 'racial' characteristics and idiosyncracies in a way that grates with the modern ear. Just one of the many examples I found include: The English meanwhile, with the unquenchable optimism that is a national characteristic, were looking for reinforcements... Are all English optimistic? There are numerous other examples of this simplistic caricaturing of both sides. Perhaps more concerning still is the way the author unquestionably empathises with the British and takes their justifications and actions, however reprehensible, at face value. For example: In the end the sabotage was tracked down to classies, or tent pitchers, and two of them were hanged at once. There is no mention of a trial or an investigation even. The British soldiers assumed they were guilty and the author does not bat an eyelid nor questions their guilt or fate? This is a constant problem throughout the book and one that the reader has to be aware of.

The Indian Mutiny was a hugely significant event and one that has attracted many books and authors to its landscape. It is wise to focus in on certain events or places and so to target the events around Delhi was a wise decision by the author. At first, I thought that the organisation of the book was odd. The first chapter on Meerut seeming to be at odds with the other six chapters on Delhi. However, Meerut was supposed to provide the garrison for the British to defend Delhi - the city limits supposedly still under the nominal control of the Mughal Emperor - and yet Meerut was barely able to defend itself let alone subdue and attack one of the largest cities in the sub-continent. So the author's switch in focus becomes more understandable and the organisation seems to make more sense. It also helps that the real-life events unfolded in such an interesting and fascinating way rising to a crescendo of action as the outnumbered besiegers desperately try to sack the formidable defences of the city with a remarkably small quantity of men. It shows that training, organisation and confidence can compensate for a shortage in manpower if the stakes are high enough and the alternatives do not exist. It also makes for a thrilling read whatever the faults of an author.

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