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Winner of the 2007 Duff Cooper Prize
On a hazy November afternoon in Rangoon, 1862, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave in a prison enclosure. As the British Commissioner in charge insisted, “No vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.”
Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor, was a mystic, an accomplished poet and a skilled calligrapher. But while his Mughal ancestors had controlled most of India, the aged Zafar was king in name only. Deprived of real political power by the East India Company, he nevertheless succeeded in creating a court of great brilliance, and presided over one of the great cultural renaissances of Indian history.
Then, in 1857, Zafar gave his blessing to a rebellion among the Company’s own Indian troops, thereby transforming an army mutiny into the largest uprising any empire had to face in the entire course of the nineteenth century. The Siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: one of the most horrific events in the history of Empire, in which thousands on both sides died. And when the British took the city—securing their hold on the subcontinent for the next ninety years—tens of thousands more Indians were executed, including all but two of Zafar’s sixteen sons. By the end of the four-month siege, Delhi was reduced to a battered, empty ruin, and Zafar was sentenced to exile in Burma. There he died, the last Mughal ruler in a line that stretched back to the sixteenth century.
Award-winning historian and travel writer William Dalrymple shapes his powerful retelling of this fateful course of events from groundbreaking material: previously unexamined Urdu and Persian manuscripts that include Indian eyewitness accounts and records of the Delhi courts, police and administration during the siege. The Last Mughal is a revelatory work—the first to present the Indian perspective on the fall of Delhi—and has as its heart both the dazzling capital personified by Zafar and the stories of the individuals tragically caught up in one of the bloodiest upheavals in history.
“While Zafar is the title character of The Last Mughal, his life is just the thread along which Dalrymple continues to explore a theme that has fascinated him for two decades: the utter collapse of relations between the British and the inhabitants of their Indian dominions . . . Dalrymple excels at bringing grand historical events within contemporary understanding by documenting the way people went about their lives amidst the maelstrom. His coup in researching was his uncovering some 20,000 personal Persian and Urdu papers written by Delhi residents who survived the uprising.”—Tobin Harshaw, New York Times Book Review
“A compulsively readable masterpiece . . . In his wonderful new book, The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple has not just revised forever the old British story; he has matched it with an equally full account from the Indian side. His book, without any sign of strain or artificial connections, deals with a historical tragedy on several very different levels . . . It is a detailed and intensely human history of a desperate and brutal campaign. And it is, in the best sense of the word, a thriller in which all the characters inexorably interact to produce a dreadful denouement. Dalrymple’s passion for his subject and his skill and elegance as a writer create an intimate picture of the lives of the people who participated in the events of 1857 . . . Every chapter of The Last Mughal has historical echoes that are still desperately relevant today.”—Brian Urquhart, New York Review of Books
“The book makes clear the dangers of colonial powers’ inattentiveness to the dissatisfactions of those they rule, and the human costs of answering one atrocity with another.”—The New Yorker
“William Dalrymple’s captivating book is not only great reading, it contributes very substantially to our understanding of the remarkable history of the Mughal empire in its dying days, and also to the history of Delhi, of India, of Hindu-Muslim collaboration, and of Indo-British relations in a critically important phase of imperialism and rebellion. It is rare indeed that a work of such consummate scholarship and insight could also be so accessible and such fun to read.”—Amartya Sen
“Dalrymple has written a riveting and poignant account of the events of 1857 in Delhi . . . Historians have largely ignored Delhi’s experience of the cataclysm [but] Dalrymple sets out to correct this neglect. Writing with obvious affection for Delhi and appreciation for Mughal culture, he shows that the experience of the rebellion in the city was quite distinct . . . Deeply researched and beautifully written.”—Gyan Prakash, The Nation
“[A] rich narrative . . . From fruit sellers to courtesans, the story of the last days of the Mughal empire comes alive . . . Thanks to Dalrymple, we can now get a peek into the last moments of a beguiling era.”—Vikram Johri, St. Petersburg Times
“Brilliantly nuanced . . . Dalrymple has here written an account of the Indian mutiny such as we have never had before, of the events leading up to it and of its aftermath, seen through the prism of the last emperor’s life. He has vividly described the street life of the Mughal capital in the days before the catastrophe happened, he has put his finger deftly on every crucial point in the story, which earlier historians have sometimes missed, and he has supplied some of the most informative footnotes I have ever read. On top of that, he has splendidly conveyed the sheer joy of researching a piece of history, something every true historian knows . . . I had thought that Dalrymple would never surpass his performance in writing From the Holy Mountain, but The Last Mughal has caused me to think again. —Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Guardian
“A riveting account . . . It is neither wholly a biography of Zafar, nor solely the story of the siege and capture of Delhi. Instead Mr. Dalrymple charts the course of the uprising and the siege, weaving into his story the unfolding tragedy of Zafar’s last months. The animating spirit of the book is Delhi itself . . . It is here that the originality of [Dalrymple’s] new book lies.”—The Economist
“It seems almost unfair for a book with such a fine sense of plot, physicality, and even humor to contain primary research as well . . . [This is] serious scholarship, still blessed by Dalrymple’s gift for finding eye-catching transitions, strong characters, and a knack for turning tracts of historical documentation into a roaring good story . . . He brings to light invaluable material . . . Anyone reading The Last Mughal today, especially readers with no prior interest in the Mughals or the Mutiny, will find much to ponder in relation to America’s ongoing adventures in the same neighborhood . . . [An] excellent history.”—Alex Travelli, New York Sun
“[The Last Mughal] shows the way history should be written: not as a catalogue of dry-as-dust kings, battles and treaties but to bring the past to the present, put life back in characters long dead and gone and make the reader feel he is living among them, sharing their joys, sorrows and apprehensions . . . Dalrymple’s book rouses deep emotions. It will bring tears to the eyes of every Dilliwala, among whom I count myself.—Khushwant Singh, Outlook India
“Dalrymple brings out the poignancy and pathology of a Mughal Lear with the ease and élan of a master storyteller . . . In The Last Mughal, history is human drama at its elemental best . . . History ceases to be a dead abstraction on his pages. And the lost Delhi becomes an enduring enchantment.” —S. Prasannarajan, India Today
“Dalrymple narrates the story of Delhi’s capture and fall with a rare humanity, a zest that is infectious, and in a prose that is handsome, sure-footed and flowing with breezy purpose. Few writers understand as well as Dalrymple that the function of history is not merely to inform but also to engage and entertain . . . The book provides a fascinating account of the last days of Mughal Delhi . . . These personal stories add up in some incalculable way to provide a picture of Mughal Delhi that is intimate and meaningful . . . When the British defeat [Zafar] and strip him of his kingship, they do more than just end the Mughal dynasty; they destroy a form of Indo-Islamic civilisation. In many ways, this splendid book is a stirring lament for this loss.” —Mukund Padmanabhan, The Hindu
“Dalrymple recaptures the dying moments of Mughal glory with the sensitivity and scholarly flair of a master storyteller . . . It is difficult to read some sections with dry eyes . . .What sets The Last Mughal apart from other accounts of Mughal history, particularly Mughal Delhi, is a sketch of a colourful, vibrant city seen from the eyes of the trader, the hakim, the dancing girl, Ghalib, and of course the British administrators . . . Zafar’s character is sketched with honesty, without making him out to be demon or the saint some accounts attempt to do . . . But ultimately it is the creation of another authentic source on Mughal history for which Dalrymple deserves the utmost praise. Whether it is description of palace life with all the intrigues and counter-intrigues between Zafar’s wives, the clash of Muslim ideology with the new Christian values, or the massacre of the British men, women and children, the looting and violence that took place in Delhi during the mutiny, all these events come alive in Dalrymple’s narrative . . . But the lasting image The Last Mughal leaves is that of the sunset of a great empire.”—Rasheeda Bhagat, The Hindu Business Line
“Dalrymple’s account is an original, important contribution to the controversies of 1857, for it draws on an archive that Darlymple reports has been ‘virtually unused’ by historians . . . His riveting narrative will engross readers.”—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“The Last Mughal is much more than the biography of one man. It is the story of a city, Delhi, teeming with conmen and holy men, hawkers and prostitutes. It is also a lament for the lost world of the Mughals, a genuinely multi-cultural synthesis of Indian and Islamic traditions . . . Above all, it is a terrific retelling of the event that ended Zafar’s reign . . . Readers suspicious that the Mutiny has been done to death should think again . . . [Dalrymple] has found a wonderful treasure trove of documents at the Indian National Archives, allowing us to see the Mutiny in a new light . . . Thanks to these rich sources, The Last Mughal brims with life, colour, and complexity . . . Dalrymple’s book will make even the most jingoistic reader think again about the effects of British rule on India . . . An outstanding book, distinguished by its painstaking research, narrative flair and imaginative sympathy. Darlymple writes with a burning anger at the tragedy that befell Zafar and his city, but he never loses sight of his obligation to the reader. The result is one of the best history books of the year.”—Dominic Sandbrook, Evening Standard
“Dalrymple is an outstandingly gifted travel writer and historian who excels himself in his latest work . . . One of its many merits is that it calls upon hitherto unpublished Urdu and Persian material in Indian archives, to tell the story from an Indian as well as a British perspective . . . Dalrymple vividly describes how, after the British regained Delhi, they pillaged and murdered not only those who had played no part in the Mutiny, but even those who had actively assisted the victors . . . This is a lament for a lost civilisation.”—Max Hastings, The Sunday Times
“Passionate . . . Dalrymple [uses] for the first time a dazzling array of primary sources in Urdu as well as English . . . The savage barbarities perpetrated by both parties, [British and Indian,] and occasional glimpses of a shared understanding of each other’s position, are presented with devastatingly equal emphasis . . . Dalrymple brilliantly recreates a typical pre-Mutiny day in the life of ‘Delhiwallahs’ of all stripes . . . It is informed throughout with a poignant awareness of contemporary events . . . One can only hope that The Last Mughal will find its way on to the besides tables of current world leaders.”—Lucy Moore, Daily Mail
“[A] towering achievement . . . Dalrymple brilliantly evokes the tense equilibrium on the eve of the Indian Mutiny and, with pace and panache, leads to the explosion.”—Michael Binyon, The Times
“Brilliant . . . A magnificent, multi-dimensional work which shames the simplistic efforts of previous writers . . . With both empathy and sympathy the author portrays the last years of a decadent empire.”—David Gilmour, The Spectator
“A fast-paced account of the brutal sacking of Delhi by British troops after the 1857 Indian Mutiny and the final flickers of the last Mughal court.”—Peter Foster, Telegraph
“What Edward Gibbon was to ancient Rome, William Dalrymple will be to the magnificent Mughals.”
—David Robinson, The Scotsman
“The story of the Indian Mutiny has been told many times in many ways. Few have managed to evoke as well as William Dalrymple what life was like on both sides of the divide. Dalrymple’s narrative is artfully divided between descriptions of the besieged court ensconced at the Red Fort and the harried forces of the British gathered on the ridge. Thanks to an understanding of India gained during a 20-year familiarity with Delhi, and an indefatigable pursuit of primary sources, Dalrymple has produced a finely balanced account of the greatest armed challenge faced by any European power during the 19th century, and of the bloodthirsty revenge the British exacted on those who dared to rise up against them.” —Jo Johnson, Financial Times
“Dalrymple argues convincingly for the contribution of colonialism to the rise of religious radicalism in India. A skilfully written, impeccably researched history.” —Rachel Aspden, The Observer
“What marks out William Dalrymple out among other contemporary historians of India is his relish for the subject. His love of the country permeates every page of this new book . . . Drawing on 20,000 unused papers languishing in the Indian National Archives, Dalrymple has unparalleled access to eyewitness accounts, notes scribbled by spies, and petitions to the King. His research has been prodigious, his enthusiasm is infectious and he is an incomparable guide. Dalrymple writes with great verve, clarity and style.” —Sebastian Shakespeare, The Literary Review
“This fine book . . . [was] made possible by some dazzling detective work in Indian archives. It has become a commonplace for historians of the Mutiny to bemoan the lack of sources on the rebel side with the result that the most scrupulous accounts of 1857 betray a British bias. Dalrymple, though, has tracked down swathes of unseen manuscripts that make possible the first proper retelling of the Indian side of the great rebellion. As a vivid portrayal of Delhi under siege, the book is unmatched; as an account of life in the invested city it is revolutionary. And as an elegy for the last of the Great Mughals–banished to far-off Rangoon and buried in an unmarked grave–it is deeply humane.” —Mike Dash, The Sunday Telegraph
“Diligently researched and densely informative . . . Dalrymple’s recreation of the city of Delhi under siege forms the monumental backdrop to the tragic figure of the Last Mughal . . . [and] gives us a fuller picture of the devastation of Delhi than has ever before been presented in English. Dalrymple’s work laments the loss of an elegant tradition, a celebration of what was lost, the tone changing from epic to elegy and back.” —Aamer Hussein, The Independent
“An exhaustive, deeply informed and compelling new book, bulging with scholarship. The strength of this book lies in the breadth of its quotations from unpublished primary sources. In deploying his material, Dalrymple shows he has the two essential gifts of the historian: a grasp of detail, and an ability to see the big picture. Dalrymple writes with unfaltering elegance and clarity [in this] . . . impressive book.” —Sara Wheeler, The Daily Telegraph
“[Dalrymple] builds an urban narrative [of Delhi] as evocative as Richard Cobb’s depiction of Revolutionary Paris . . . There is so much to admire in this book–the depth of historical research, the finely evocative writing, the extraordinary rapport with the cultural world of late Mughal India. It is also in many ways a remarkably humane and egalitarian history . . . This is a splendid work of empathetic scholarship. As the 150th anniversary of the uprising dawns there will be many attempts to revisit these bloody, chaotic, cataclysmic events; but few reinterpretations of 1857 will be as bold, as insightful, or as challenging as this.”—David Arnold, Times Literary Supplement
“In time for the 150th anniversary of the Great Mutiny, the uprising that came close to toppling British rule in India, Dalrymple presents a brilliant, evocative exploration of a doomed world and its final emperor, Bahadur Shah II . . . [Dalrymple] has been immeasurably aided by his discovery of a colossal trove of documents in Indian national archives in Delhi and elsewhere. Thanks to them Dalrymple can vividly recreate, virtually at street level, the life and death of one of the most glorious and progressive empires ever seen. That the rebels fatefully raised the flag of jihad and dubbed themselves ‘mujahedin’ only adds to the mutiny’s contemporary relevance.”—Publishers Weekly