William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is an incredibly detailed picture of the Indian sepoy rebellion against the British East India Trading Company in Delhi in 1857. The book centers on the last Mughal Emperor, Zafar. Though he was a Sufi mystic, a poet and a scholar, he was not an adequate war-time leader. By the time the rebellion occurred, Zafar was eighty; some say he was senile. Dalrymple paints a picture in which Zafar was forced to side with the mutineers because of a lack of options. He makes Zafar’s role in the Uprising a reluctant one.
The power of the Mughals had also eroded drastically by the time the Uprising occurred. At its height, the Mughal empire controlled the entire Indian subcontinent. By Zafar’s time, he barely had power over the Red Fort in Delhi. Though the East India Trading Company had to have Zafar’s permission in order to operate in India, they actually held most of the power by this point.
The remarkable thing about Dalrymple’s account is its sources. While he does draw from conventional accounts, he also uses “lost” sources that are being used for the first time. Dalrymple is effusive regarding “The Mughal Papers,” documents that show the Uprising from the Indian point of view. In this way, Dalrymple manages to composes a new, more complete picture of an important part of Indian history. He tries to make The Last Mughal as balanced a narrative as possible.
This is an important book for people wishing to understand the plight facing India today. Many Hindus today speak negatively of the Mughals, of the Muslims lording over the Hindus in India. However, in the 1800s, the Hindus saw the Mughals as the legitimate leaders of India. It is telling that although the Uprising was a mostly Hindu rebellion, they asked for the blessings of the Muslim leader of India. It is clear that Muslims and Hindus once lived side by side peaceably; Hindus attended Muslim madrassas, which were legitimate schools. So what happened to this friendship? Dalrymple ascribes this change to the “divide and rule” strategy of the British.
Though this book is excellently written and full of rich detail, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 is not for everyone. Sometimes the intricate details can overwhelm the finished product; Dalrymple loses the narrative at times. The book is also quite dense and slow-moving. If you are not very interested in the topic, it will most likely lose the reader in the first 100 pages. Finally, Dalrymple wraps the book up a little too quickly – more time could have been spent placing the Uprising in a larger historical context. The reader definitely needs to have some knowledge of Indian history in order to appreciate this book.
Still, The Last Mughal is remarkable in its detail and attention to history. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Indian history.