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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Book Review
The Last Mughal
by William Dalrymple
p. Bloomsbury Publishing 2006

  When I think about where this blog is going to head after I've watched all the Criterion Collection titles (I'm about 20% done) I would have to say "world history."  Couple reasons why:  First, world history is interesting; second, most Americans don't care about world history so it is an "under served" market, leading me to believe there may be an Audience for it online; third- there are many people outside the US who are interested in what we call "world history" who go on-line looking for information.

 The Last Mughal is an account of the final fall of Zafar, a mellow, sufi Muslim empire who was already at a nadir in terms of actual power before the Delhi uprising of 1857.   The Last Mughal is more of an account of that uprising focused on the figure of the last Mughal empire, vs. being an account of the long decline of the Mughal Empire itself.  The Last Mughal is notable because Dalrymple actually made use of documents written in Urda- largely ignored by Western scholars in their account of the Delhi uprising, that give a balanced account of a traumatic event in Indian history.

  The Delhi uprising is a key event in the history of 19th century British colonialism.  Although the British were able to put down the upstart Hindu/Jihadi fighters (using Sikh and Muslim troops from farther points East) the Delhi uprising was a sign that even as the British cemented their powerful grip on their Colonial possessions, they were nowhere close to controlling the hearts and minds of their so-called loyal subjects.  Many of the key participants of the Delhi uprising were actual British soldiers.

 The supposedly apocryphal impetus for the uprising- that the British forced their Hindu/Muslim troops to grease the barrels of their rifles with a mixture of beef and pork fat- turns out to be true.  The supposed justification for many of the British outrages/war crimes committed as they put down the uprising- that the rebellious Indian troops raped their women- turns out to be untrue.

  The British come off looking something like war criminals, though they were understandably upset at being temporarily disspossessed of one of their prize colonial possessions. Dalrymple is sympathetic to both sides throughout, though he expresses understandable frustration with some of the more outrageously racist sentiments expressed by British troops and journalists (particularly the notion that Delhi would be best "razed" after the British took it back post-uprising.

  The Last Mughal himself ends up being, while not a footnote to his own book, something close to a footnote- he is a weak, wan figure who dithers from start to finish, ending his life in exile (instead of at the end of a rope) only because a rogue British officer made a promise that he wouldn't be killed without any authorization from his superiors.

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