Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Last Mughal and The First Empress

English-speaking people who are deaf to aspirates and aspirated consonants in Indian languages can't say ghee, and tend to produce incorrect spellings like Ghandi and Dehli. Because of this speech impediment, the word
sipahi, meaning soldier in Persian and Urdu, became sepoy for the British, who gave this misheard word currency by giving the Indian uprising of 1857 against themselves a misleading nickname --The Sepoy Mutiny. The Uprising involved not only huge numbers of mercenary Indian soldiers under British pay and command, but also Indian princes, their subjects of various classes, their armies and camp followers, the peasantry of those parts of the Gangetic plain then under direct British control, tribal peoples of the Himalayan foothills and Northern plains and motley others. By simplifying the facts, the spin machine of the British Empire was able to promote the idea nearly unimpeded for well over a hundred years that it was all a matter of animal grease (beef and pork tallow) needed to insert rounds into Enfield rifles. How this single matter was supposed to have offended both Hindus and Muslims so much as to give rise to the events of a whole year, in which Indian soldiers and civilians massacred British men, women and children, burned down their dwellings and destroyed key installations of the colonial administration is quite a mystery.

at that time in England, a popular supple- mentary explanation for the Uprising was that everybody in India was completely enraged at having to learn to behave themselves under the wonders of British rule-- much the way we are told today that 9/11 happened because an unspecified "they" were "jealous of our freedoms."(e.g., see how it seemed to the Metcalfe family)

William Dalrymple is the first British historian to use material in translation from numerous sources written in Persian and
Urdu , and among the first to use the palace and city records now stored in the National Archives, As a writer of popular histories, he has a tough row to hoe in terms of publicizing his perceptions and findings, novel and dangerous to some and not radically different enough for others. Still signing away on his book tour, I suppose, he is more inclined to discuss the hard causes of the Uprising during interviews than in this book. With respect to softer causes, like Evangelism, which he positions centrally, he doesn't indulge in overkill to make a point, but sometimes confuses anger with fear and takes at face value what he could examine a bit more critically. Animal grease and surging Evangelism were no doubt the last straw, but only because the orders to use them could not have been perceived as a simple misunderstanding after a century of many kinds of deliberate and outrageous British assaults on Indian culture, property, laws and human rights. About this, a variety of Indian and foreign-born people had already reached consensus many times, sometimes long before 1857. Those harsher provocations are not discussed in The Last Mughal, which focuses on events in Delhi, which was at that time still a grand and antique city in a state of preservation, home to an exquisite culture. One hopes WD is saving the tougher subject matter of how to assign responsibility for the background of the cataclysmic events of 1857 for another book. As it is, he has already told The Hindu that this book has made him more friends in India than in England.

The book is cause for celebration. The thinking is sensitive, the language is fluid and rich. It conveys the excitement of breaking new ground, and the pictures and line drawings at the start of each chapter are delightful. The two new maps parading as old ones, in which Metcalfe House seems to dwarf the Imperial Palace, Hindus seem to live east of the Ganges and
1857 looks like the 16th century, are very silly, but one can't let that get in the way. The British sources tend towards diaries and letters, and produce an up-close-and-personal effect, while the Persian and Urdu source material is more often drawn from professional writing of various kinds, so it generates a more public voice and panoramic view. Going back and forth between the two sides of the narrative, I felt as if I was walking up and down a seesaw, faster and faster, back and forth, until the final British-led bloodbath led onto the slow, grim comedy of the denouement.

As a child, I always wondered about the the strange reek inside the Mughal tombs of Delhi, something like ancient bird droppings, which was missing at the Taj Mahal. I'd been told that these crumbly, dark and elegant monuments belonged to

and never thought about that again. Now, this book has brought home to me how recent was their ruin, how active the scent of death and decay that hangs about them still, that many of them were family mausoleums, and that my great-grandfathers had already been born before a long, gruesome seige and a grisly genocide was carried out in those environs in broad daylight. I remember the vultures were still all over Delhi more than a century later.

WD's recent article in The Guardian explores similarities between British
thinking in 1857 and widespread present perceptions in the West about the Iraq War. From some perspectives, the similarities are obvious and striking; from others, the similarities are not fully admissible. It is certainly alarming to find that the mainstream press has reactivated the very same language
last used by the British in 1857 to describe the Uprising--- to describe THE IRAQ WAR TODAY.
It is disheartening to see that
in the post-colonial world, complications and spiraling violence can still be as easily provoked and fed upon by occupying forces playing on internecine rivalries. It is unpleasant to remember that the Bush Administration claimed to have received their intelligence about WMD from British sources. It is strange to see Queen Elizabeth, who last visited Washington to bestow an award on George Bush Sr. for planning and executing the first Gulf War, now returning to reinforce the military alliance. Meanwhile, Tony Blair, who should probably, given the current scheme of things, be tried by a kangaroo court and hung up to dry, is being sent off on an international farewell tour instead. One must wonder, are her private assets not yet suitably diversified?
I appreciate and enjoy
The Last Mughal for the depth and decency and richness of its narrative, and will read it many times, but I don't see the point of setting out a new and elaborate defense to counter the British allegations of 150 years ago. The British position, developed to justify deposing the monarch, was that Bahadur Shah Zafar was singularly responsible for fomenting a pan-Islamic rebellion against the British stretching from West Asia across India. Although Saddam Husein might not have been plotting anything like that either, to draw any similarities by implication and suggestion is to stretch facts to fit the polemic. The question that goes unanswered is, did the British deserve it then, and have we and anyone else done anything to deserve it now? There is no question that the movements of 1857 included Muslim jihadis, as did others that came before in the multitude of violent eruptions that represented efforts to rid the Subcontinent of the British occupation. Surely the more important point is that these populist, pan-Indian movements brought about consensus across religious and cultural lines about British wrongdoing, and eventually gave birth to cooperative, sustained resistance, rather than belonging to or advocating for any religion. Today's popular resistances in West Asia carry forward a different set of historical grievances and cultural motifs, although they may one day coalesce and draw a motley set of movements together so that even Sunni and Shia will come to terms.

WD either avoids or misses a key opportunity to emphasize the crossover nature of the Uprising: When the sipahis call Zafar "Prithviraj," WD
offers a literal translation, i.e., Ruler of the World. If this had been their intention, the sipahis might have called him Shah Jehan IV. Zafar was more Rajput than Timurid by blood, though he was
also considered a Sufi pir, so the the sepahis were more likely referring to the heroic and legendary 12th Century Rajput emperor, Prithviraj Chauhan III, the last Hindu monarch to be seated at Delhi. But of course, at 82 years of age, though he might be the rightful emperor, Zafar could be no Prithviraj. WD suggests that if Zafar had led the charge to defend Delhi while the defense was on an upswing, he might have reversed the course of history. But at that point in the book, WD has already established that the aged cultural and spiritual leader was far too physically feeble to do anything of the kind. Except the occasional nut job, most European monarchs were by then pretty far distanced from being military leaders, and even if Zafar hadn't been as ancient and scholarly as he really was, his assuming military command would probably have been about as useful as having the present-day water colorist and gardener, Prince Charles, lead a mounted cavalry charge-- or for that matter, as helpful as planting Prince Harry in a foxhole in Baghdad.

in 1885

In any event, the proposition that the Uprising was a religious war seems unnecessarily polite. In its bloodiness, both sides seem to have been, rather, engaged in an out and out race conflict, with everybody shouting ethnic slurs and racist epithets--one side yelling, "Kafir!" and "Mlechha!" and the other roaring back, "Pandy!" The ancient word, "mlechha," incorrectly translated in the text as "foreign barbarians," is not included in the glossary. The unsatisfactory wiki-definition wanders into archaeological matters in an obsolete and incorrect direction, but a site I found provides a definition closest to my understanding of the word. Consonant with its rude sound, and more likely in the context in which it's mentioned, "mlechha" denotes a person or a people belonging to a designated Fifth Estate, beyond the first four, that is, priests, warriors, merchants, and tillers of the earth. This archaic Fifth Estate comprised outsiders who disregarded rules of both ethics and hygiene. What could be more racist than that? There can be no doubt that the British reprisal was racist in nature, and not religious at all, even for the brief period when British-led Sikh troops occupied the Jama Masjid. A source of religious conflict like this present day anger against coerced conversion, and a concomitant effort to halt it-- livid as it may be, is a far cry from the blazing rage of the Uprising. Neither was it a martial contest for possession of a religious site. If religion itself were the underlying issue, Colonel Skinner's ST. JAMES CHURCH and any other churches within the walls of Shahjahanabad/Delhi would certainly have been demolished first, early in the game. But this was a contest for Shah Jehan's Red Fort and walled city, for the symbol of the Indian Empire of the Great Mughals, for which the British had, as it were, set their collective cap! My suspicion is that during the Uprising, religion served, more than anything else, as a clearly evident badge of loyalty. Preserving Indian religions and protecting the right to practice them was certainly a call to action that all classes could heed. Asserting those rights, however, could not have been more than an expedient means to putting an end to several aspects of social engineering the British had been engaging in on the way to seizing land and resources.

One especially aggravating piece of British social engineering that had been going on for nearly a decade at the time of the Uprising was a series of annexations of entire principalities and kingdoms under the Doctrine of Lapse, a policy devised by the Lord Dalhousie of the day, who was created a Marquess for his many pains. This unilateral initiative gave the East India Company leave to seize any principality or kingdom where the succession had to be arranged according to Indian law and customary adoption, or where the rulers were judged to be incompetent --by EIC officers. This doctrine enabled a sharp acceleration of, and in terms of scale,
a leap beyond the earlier established British practice of foreclosing on landed estates in a creative manner, by claiming for steeply escalated and therefore unpayable and unpaid taxes. This systematized robbery had been going on since the Mughal emperor Shah Alam had granted the East India Company the diwani (right to collect revenue) of all of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa as well as the upper Gangetic valley, in 1765 -- in return for an annual tribute of a mere 2.6 million rupees, which Warren Hastings stopped paying after 1772, probably to line his own pocket. This so-called firman was in any case actually wrested from Shah Alam after the Battle of Buxar and the Battle of Plassey (or actually, Polashi) had made a de facto British puppet of him. By then, the Mughal dynasty was already eleven reigns into its decline. The formality only confirmed what had already happened, officially elevating the EIC from the tax exempt coastal trading entity it had earlier become by virtue of the firman of 1717, bestowed on them by the inguinally challenged emperor Farukhsiyar. Permission to buy 38 villages had certainly a disproportionate gift, made in gratitude for deft surgical treatment by one William Hamilton in the EIC party. But in 1765, instead of being tax exempt, the EIC became a virtual nizam -- out and about, collecting taxes, seeing and being seen, and handling imperial revenues as if they were private and personal cash in hand.

Certainly, the granddaddy of all the unilateral initiatives launched on an unsuspecting world, which gave rise to so much of what Jan Morris has called "tchootzpah" would have to be the
Royal Charter that created the EIC in the first place. That strange firman conferred legal authority on the EIC in territories where the British Crown had no sovereign rights or authority to start with, making its officers answerable to nobody in the theater of operation, and only a wee bit responsible to that distant Crown-- so long as the spooky feeling lasted. As a direct descendant of that cheeky Royal Charter from that other Elizabeth, Dalhousie's Doctrine was as bald a pretext for seizing land and resources as any invented ever since-- as unilaterally imposed, heedlessly arrogant and provocative as the Bush Doctrine is today. I'm still wondering where he got it from.

How would the Doctrine of Lapse have applied, say, to George III's family? When the Prince Regent's only child died in childbirth in 1817, the King himself was cuckoo in his old age. According to Lytton Strachey, the Prince Regent was too fat to father another child. There had not been a single legitimate child born to the six royal dukes, one of whom was a murderer, another a transvestite, a third living in a menagerie. Of the King's five daughters who had survived into middle age, every single one was either barren or unmarried. It took nearly two years to arrange a marriage for the cosily unmarried Duke of Kent with yet another German cousin, and to produce Princess Victoria. Had this happened in India during Dalhousie's tenure, the kingdom would have been annexed in a flash!

Instead, in just the same manner as the sepahis sought out Zafar after their massacres of the British in and around their cantonments, the British, whose ideas of statehood and sovreignty were apparently still vested in their monarch, did exactly the same thing after carrying out their genocidal reprisal. One of the Delhi coterie, who enjoys a starring role in
The Last Mughal, wrote that her husband had taken or "bought" (from whom?) what they decided must be Bahadur Shah Zafar's crown, taken it to Queen Victoria right after the collapse of Delhi and sold it to her for five hundred pounds. The 38 year old Queen quibbled over two chairs that she said ought to come with the headdress. In 1858, Lord Canning completed the gesture by proclaiming Victoria's assumption of sovereignty over all the East India Company's possessions, although this could have been The John Company's way of avoiding multiple charges against its officers and other kinds of challenges. Twenty years would pass before things settled down enough for Queen Victoria to "graciously" assume the title of Empress of India. and pass it down for three more generations to women of decreasing grandeur.

About the sipahis' and jehadis' killing of "innocent women and children," I think even very spoiled children should be regarded as innocent, but in the unfolding system of apartheid, women could not have been considered innocent, if only because their presence as breeders and their assertions of superiority were absolutely necessary for its implementation, a circumstance they were aware of and happy to act upon. If some ignorant slut, as quoted in WD's book, was able to address the deposed emperor not only in proudly broken Hindustani, but as rudely as she righteously claimed to have done, she must have had quite a bit of practice elsewhere. This revelation sent me to to my bookshelf to take another look at a strange volume I bought years ago called The Golden Calm. It's still in print and a lot of it must be read with a magnifying glass because of the low contrast between the faithfully reproduced yellowed pages and faded ink. It centers on the same crowd in Delhi as The Last Mughal, and makes available Thomas Metcalfe's commissioned paintings of the city and his eldest daughter's diary, interspersed with a rambling commentary from the insufferable, late 20th century colonial memoirist, M.M. Kaye. Careful inspection reveals much about Emily Metcalfe's style and circumstances-- an unselfconscious charm, to be sure; the mild trials of being farmed out to relatives in England in order to stay English; the collaborative efforts of colonial families in support of the Empire; slightly simpering racism about mixed blood within colonial ranks; complete ignorance of Indian people and society other than servants; a tendency to conflate quotidian familiarity with England with an education; and a warped sense of scale. This last is only to be expected of a young woman whose uncle, Charles Metcalfe, was able to declare English the official language in a place where, to stretch this estimate to its outer limits, English-speaking people comprised something below four percent of the population. Emily returned to India twenty years after Thomas B. Macaulay had delivered his appalling Minute, which turned education across India into a travesty for the next hundred years and more, and just over thirty years since the Scotsman David Ochterlony (at center, left) was in the habit of processing through the streets of Delhi with his thirteen Indian wives mounted on as many elephants-- something he could never have gotten away with in his native Boston. Emily Metcalfe's unmarried uncle and widowed father had been accustomed to livin' large themselves, so all the careful work of many guardians during her years spent in England as a relatively ordinary little girl must have been quickly undone.

In The Last Mughal, WD says the second Thomas Metcalfe was poisoned, according to contemporary reports, by the ranking queen, Zinat Mahal, who was motivated to do this because Metcalfe, as British Resident at Delhi, was supervising an intrigue to ensure the succession of an heir to the throne other than her son. I would say Metcalfe had no business doing any such thing at any time, and even less by means of trading a promise to enthrone the less favored son on condition that he hand over the palace to the British and go live in the 'burbs. Of course, the British painted Zinat Mahal as a shrew, but it's quite possible she was not the one they were looking for anyway. For there were other actors to consider, most of them unintentionally made accessible by M.M. Kaye. The first Thomas Metcalfe had been a major in the Bengal Army of the EIC, and later made his fortune as a Director of the EIC, upon which he was created a baronet, and purchased a suitable property in Berkshire called Fernhill Park, to serve as the family estate. Emily's uncle, Charles, the first born son, was eventually created Lord Metcalfe for his services as Governor-General of India, Jamaica and Canada, but died without an heir (as his three half Sikh sons didn't seem to count) from skin cancer, no doubt as a result of going out too much in the midday sun, so Fernhill passed and the baronetcy reverted to Emily's father. Thomas Metcalfe was by then living more or less after the ducal manner in Delhi, though without any commensurate ties to the land. If the floor plans are accurate and drawn to scale, Metcalfe House, his personal property in Delhi, featured a Palladian villa spread out over 22,000 sq feet of marble-floored and vaulted interior space above ground, housing extensive collections of Napoleonic memorabilia and a great deal of statuary, a huge library and "costly" Georgian furniture and paintings. A colonnaded veranda thirty feet wide with marble pillars ran the perimeter of the entire house, and even more finished space below grade, furnished with skylights, provided cooled reception rooms for use during the heat of summer. It was set in a thousand acre park, with pools and orchard groves and avenues looked after by over a hundred and fifty servants, including a series of ten people to say farewell to the master at the porte-cochère of a morning. In addition, he had made himself an exurban retreat near the Qutb Minar, by converting the interior of a family tomb and mausoleum belonging to a Mughal clan for his own residential use. This family had owed money to the British-run Delhi Bank-- and it takes no great leap of the imagination to figure out that it was probably a debt accumulated METCALFE HOUSE AFTER SEIGE AND BEFORE RESTORATION
for back taxes imposed by the British revenue collectors somewhere down the line. M.M. Kaye has rude things to say about that family's history, which predate her ability to verify or garner first hand information about anything she has to say by several centuries, so it seems Metcalfe had been spreading slander to cover his tracks, as bullies everywhere tend to do. So, although he was only working a 25 hour week, and his main business, apart from studying the culture, was to run, conduct and oversee interference in the royal succession at Delhi, there was certainly at least one other Mughal family who might well have wanted to have him poisoned.

What, after all, is the point of patronizing the arts and living in a new place to grow rich while at the same time arranging to tear apart the very fabric of the society that produces those arts and the economy that yields that wealth? One cannot deliberately expose other people to disaster without bringing on some of that risk and danger down upon oneself.

It was this skewed sense of scale and entitlement through which much that was Indian came to be belittled. The Himalayas were referred to as "the hills," while areas of India the size of France came
to be known as "provinces." Indian languages were called dialects, and kings were demoted to stand guard as imperial nobles. Even the Koh-i-Noor diamond was cut way down to size, from 186.0625 carats to its present 105.602 carats, to increase its "brilliance," the better for philistines to admire it, and probably yielding many a major gem from the shavings, proudly worn on pinkie fingers across the land.

With royalty becoming nobility, and even being referred to as "Native Chiefs," the aristocracy and gentry became middle class (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi's forbears had served as prime ministers of a principality called
Porbander, with an important port and a long history, which was two thirds the size of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, but he was identified as middle class). Landless families and skilled craftsmen were reduced to subsistence farming and working as household servants for the new rich, as indigenous industries failed.

Meanwhile, the downpour of loot and wealth into Britain was torrential and the British in India started staging court rituals
in Mughal style at the grounds of the Red Fort, replete with so-called State Balls, given ostentatiously in the palace at the Hall of Private Audience--for their own monarchs, keenly wishing them to attend. These strange people took umbrage at any late breaches of 17th century etiquette, even from a ruler of highest rank, who had attended the fake durbars in
1877, 1903, and 1911, and on the third round, decided to go with modern clothes and modern manners. Victoria and her descendants, while seeming to want no part of it, eventually succumbed to the invitations and appeared for the first time the very year of that supposed outrage-- for apart from everything else, within the two generations it took them to accept the invitation, the nine children of Queen Victoria and her own first cousin Prince Albert, so advantageously positioned by their extraordinary national fortune, had all married so brilliantly that the heads of Europe's most prominent royal houses were all first cousins--and set to dominate the sub-caste of German princes and princelings who populate the royal lines of Europe for the long term.

Even today, it is only the hippest of the hip in the West who know to address a maharani correctly.

Forty years later,
John William Kaye and J.B. Malleson published the British version of events, a six volume work called "History of the Sepoy War." Fifty two years later, in 1909, Hindutva founder Vir Savarkar published "The Indian War of Independence" in praise of the Uprising as a Hindu initiative. British authorities banned the book immediately. One hundred years later, on May 11, 1957, observance of the centennial was fairly muted; a simple ceremony was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a number of scholarly studies written by Indian historians were published, and the special flag of the 1857 revolutionaries — a green flag with a golden sun — was unfurled beside the national tricolor. I can't find any record online of anything anyone from Britain had to say that year.

This year, 30,000 youths marched from Meerut to Delhi, to mark the 150th anniversary of the journey of the three hundred sipahis who left Meerut for Delhi on May 10, 1857, arriving at the fortified Mughal capital of Shajanabad at Delhi on May 11, 1857, to ask Bahadur Shah Jafar to assume leadership of their movement to overthrow the British. This year, despite quarrels about food, they arrived to find vigorous celebrations at The Red Fort, choreographed by Rajeev Sethi . The BBC covered the 2007 sesquicentennial celebration (see Prime Minister's Address), added a remark or two about Britain being portrayed as a ghoul and provided a link to an earlier online dialogue among Britons about the need to start giving courses in the History of the British Empire in British schools, to reassess what had been done well and what was done badly --as if they're planning to do it again...
Historical atlas of the rise and decline of the Mughal Empire

Historical atlas of the British Occupation of India

Sam Sloan's Big Combined Family Trees-- the Mughal Section




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