William Dalrymple: The last Mughal and a clash of civilisations

Roundup: Talking About History

[East and west face each other across a divide that some call a religious war. Suicide jihadis take what they see as defensive action and innocent people are killed. But this is 1857. William Dalrymple on lessons from the Raj for the neo-cons. William Dalrymple is the India correspondent of the New Statesman. His book "The Last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty (Delhi 1857)" is published by Bloomsbury (£25)]

... The Siege of Delhi was a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom could retreat. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British assaulted and took the city, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring swathes of the population. "The orders went out to shoot every soul," recorded Edward Vibart, a 19-year-old British officer. "It was literally murder . . . The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful . . . I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man's heart I think who can look on with indifference . . ."

Delhi was left an empty ruin. Those city-dwellers who survived were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor's 16 sons were tried and hanged, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then been told to strip naked. "In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar," Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day. "I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches."

A fascinating relationship

In 2002, researching in the National Archive in Delhi for a book on the life of Zafar [the last Mughal emperor, and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan], I found a remarkable collection of 20,000 previously untranslated Urdu and Persian documents that enabled me to resurrect in some detail the life of the city before and during the siege. Cumulatively, the stories contained in these Mutiny papers allowed the great uprising of 1857 to be seen not in terms of nationalism, imperialism, orientalism or other such abstractions, but as a tragic human event for ordinary individuals whose fate it was to be caught up accidentally in one of the great upheavals of history. Public, political and national disasters, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies.

The Last Mughal, published this month, continues the story I began in White Mughals - the story of the fast-changing relationship between the British and the Indians, and especially Muslim Indians - in the late 18th and the mid-19th century. ...

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