“The Last Mughal” by William Dalrymple is about “the fall of a dynasty. Delhi. 1857”. The dynasty in question is, of course, the Mughal dynasty, founded by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur in 1526 by defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat . After ruling large parts of India for centuries, the Mughal Empire shrank over time and with the advent of the British by the 1850s was a spent force. Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862) was Emperor in name only. However, in the eyes of many he still remained a rallying point as he was the Khalifa, God’s Regent on earth.
The elderly Emperor supported the Mutiny by various Regiments of native Soldiers who saw him as a potential rallying point although he was a mere figurehead. They saw Delhi as central to their plans to overthrow the British and bring the Emperor back to where he belonged,being the Ruler of India. The peace loving Zafar, however, was more at home with poetry and verse. He was not a natural leader nor did he expect the mutineers to be as ruthless as they were in killing captive British women and children. Dalrymple’s book then describes in meticulous detail ( over 590 pages) the fighting in and around Delhi in those far away days of 1857. It is a hallmark of Dalrymple’s writing that makes an old and potentially boring story come to life. Salman Rushdie has described Dalrymple by saying, ” (he) is that rarity, a scholar who can really write.” A handsome tribute indeed!
The Mutiny was doomed to fail and the British though smaller in number used their superior armaments, strategies and training in warfare to crush the rebellion in a few months times in Delhi. Retribution was harsh and swift, administered by Brigadier-General John Nicholson, Captain William Hodson of Hodson’s Horse fame, and others of his ilk. The old Emperor was banished to Burma where he passed away in 1862.
From the standpoint of a writer, I admired the footnotes which described in great detail the sources of information culled by the author in the course of his research. The story reads like fiction which is how good historical non-fiction should be. We get to know the character of the old Emperor and those around him. We see how the Mutiny failed because the rebels did not have a common leader with a mission acceptable to all.
William Dalrymple is the author of books like, ” The White Mughals” and more recently, ” Return of a King” the story of the Afghan Wars of 1839-42. This book , “The Last Mughal ” is highly recommended for those who love history and for those who love writing as well.