The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple

Mughal Empire in India

The Mughal empire was founded by Zahir ud-din Muhammad Babur by in 1526. Their culture was more Persian than Mongol. They built the Taj Mahal. In 18th century the Mughal Emperor hired the British East India Company as its tax collector. The British gradually conquered many princely states of India. By the time of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the the Mughal throne ruled only a small part of India, and had no army of its own. The capital of the Mughal Empire was Delhi, a large city on the Yamuna River, which is the largest tributary river of the Ganges.

The Last Mughal

Bahadur Shah II Zafar was the last Mughal ruler of India. He was a Sufi Muslim, whose mother was Hindu. Zafar enjoyed reading poetry by Ghalib and Zauq, and wrote poetry himself. He was 82 years old at the time of the Uprising.


Azimullah Khan Yusufzai: chief advisor to the Nana Sahib

Baniya: merchant or moneylender

Bareilly: a city in Uttar Pradesh east of Delhi

Firangi: Urdu for foreigner

First War of Indian Independence: What many Indians call the Sepoy Mutiny

Ghazal: Sufi Persian love sonnet

Ghazi: Muslim warriors

Gujars: mountain herdsmen of cattle, sheep and goats from northern India

Jama Masjid: India’s largest mosque

Jat: peasant farmers, who suffered from over-taxation by the British

Kanpur: An industrial city in Uttar Pradesh, known for its leather

Maratha Confederacy: Rulers of Delhi, before defeated by the British in 1803

Marwari: moneylenders from Rajasthan

Mewati: people from the Mewat district of Rajasthan

Nana Sahib: a leader of the rebellion, who wished to restore the Maratha Confederacy

Nimach: A city in Madhya Pradesh

Princely States: semi-autonomous nominally sovereign states

Red Fort: the residence of the Mughal Emperors, inside the walled city of Delhi

Sepoys: Persian for soldier, they were in the service of the British East India Company and were overwhelmingly Hindu

Tilanga: soldiers from Telangana in Hyderabad, who spoke Telugu



Emperor Bahadur Shah II Zafar: the Last Mughal,

Zinat Mahal: the Queen of Delhi and senior wife of Zafar


Ghalib (Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan): Urdu and Persian poet, who wrote many ghazals

Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq: poet laureate of the Mughal Court in Delhi

Rebel Military:

Bakht Khan: commander of the sepoy and ghazi forces in Delhi

Mirza Mughal: Mirza Sultan Muhammad Zahir ud-din, fifth son of Zafar, nominal commander of the sepoy forces

British Military:

General John Nicholson: Brigadier-General who lead the storming of Delhi

Captain William Hodson: British leader of irregular light cavalry

Going Native versus Christian Evangelism

Many early Britishers in India went native, became fluent in Urdu and Persian, and married Indian women. Delhi was half Hindu and the time of the rebellion, and the Muslims and Hindus got along fine. Things changed during the years just preceding the Sepoy Mutiny, when many evangelical Protestant missionaries tried to convert the Indians to Christianity.


The British were out of touch with the feelings of the sepoys. They demanded that the Hindus sepoys serve abroad, which would violate their religious prohibition against crossing the black water. To load the new Lee-Enfield rifle, a soldier had to first bite off the end of the cartridge. The cartridges were, in fact, greased with beeswax and linseed oil, but a rumor spread that the cartridges were greased with beef and pork. The Hindus and Muslim sepoys saw this as a British attack on their religions.

Sepoy Mutiny in Meerut Cantonment

The rebellion started among the sepoys of the Bengal Army, who were mostly upper-caste Hindus from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The sepoys of the 3rd Light Cavalry at the Meerut Cantonment of the Bengal Army mutinied on 11 May 1857.

Kanpur Massacre

The massacre at Kanpur became a rallying cry by the British when committing atrocities against Indian women and children. But it is unclear exactly what happened. From reading Dalrymple’s book and consulting Wikipedia, this appears to be the sequence of events:

  1. General Wheeler’s army surrendered to Nana Sahib at Kanpur.
  2. Nana Sahib then held about 200 British women and children hostage in the Bibighar house when bargaining with Colonel James Neill,
  3. Nana Sahib ordered a female official (Begum) named Hussaini Khanum, to supervise the hostages,
  4. When approaching Kanpur to rescue the British hostages, Colonel James Neill burned Indian villages, killing many women and children,
  5. The rebels at Kanpur may have heard of Colonel Neill’s atrocities,
  6. An unknown person ordered that the hostages be killed, but the sepoy soldiers refused to kill the hostages,
  7. Begum Hussaini Khanum ordered Azimullah Khan, chief advisor to the Nana Sahib, to kill the women and children,
  8. Azimullah Khan then hired butchers to murder the British women and children with meat cleavers,
  9. Their bodies were then thrown down a dry well by sweepers.

Sepoy Rebels Arrive to See the Mughal

The sepoys from Meerut travelled to Delhi to see the Mughal. They were joined by Indian convicts released from prison, sepoy regiments from Nimach, Muslims from Rajasthan, sepoys from Tilanga, Jat peasant farmers lead by Shah Mal Jat, and sepoys from Nimach, under the command of General Sudhari Singh. The Mughal Zafar became the prisoner of the rebels and had no choice but to join the mutineers. Zafar had no treasury to pay the rebel troops. All he could give them was his blessing. The British fled Delhi. Delhi residents who remained became afraid of the sepoys. There was widespread looting by the lower classes, untouchables, and sweepers. The targets of the looting and killing were the British, Christians, Marwaris, Jain moneylenders, jewelers, cloth merchants, confectioners. Gujar bandits and Mewati tribesmen surrounded the walled city and robbed those who were leaving or entering. Bakht Khan arrived from Bareilly with sepoy troops and four thousand Muslim ghazi civilians. The arrival of the ghazis created a conflict over Muslims slaughtering cows. Zafar objected to jihad against the Hindus; he said that they were fighting the British, only.

British Siege of Delhi

There was a 3-month siege of Delhi. The British bombarded Delhi with artillery from a ridge overlooking the walled city. The British received a great deal of intelligence from their many spies, from the Hindu loyalists supported the British. William Hodson was Chief of Intelligence and Rajab Ali was his principal assistant. But the rebels received very little intelligence about the British forces. There were many more rebel troops than British troops, and the rebels could have defeated the British on the ridge, who were greatly outnumbered before British reinforcements arrived. The sepoys were not trained in strategy and Mirza Mughal, while nominally their leader, had no military experience.  Mirza Mughal pressured the baniyas (moneylenders and merchants) to contribute money to the cause, but they refused. The Queen, Zinat Mahal, tried to negotiate an agreement with WIlliam Hodson that would preserve the Mughal dynasty, but they were unable to come to terms.

British Received Reinforcements from the North

British troops near Delhi were short of transportation (e.g., camels, bullocks), so it took them awhile to assemble a force capable of retaking Delhi. They received support from the north:

  • Sikh mercenaries,
  • Punjabi Muslims,
  • Gurkhas from Nepal,
  • Pathans (Afghan) mercenaries,
  • John Nicholson and his Moveable Column

British Retake Delhi

John Nicholson and his Moveable Column, which arrived at Delhi Ridge on Friday 14 August, 1857. The British assaulted on the walled city: at four of its gates. They used explosives to break down the gates. They used swords and guns to kill all men of fighting age. Being an Indian loyal to the British did not protect you. One of the main battles was with jihadi warriors from the Jama Masjid mosque, which was taken by Sikh mercenaries fighting for the British. Many Delhi residents fled the city when it became clear that the British would win. The Red Fort and Palace were taken last. The British destroyed Mughal libraries. British Prize Agents looked for hidden wealth. There were mass rapes of Indian women by British soldiers.


Members of the royal family were hunted down and executed. William Hodson captured and executed Mirza Mughal and two other princes. Hodson accepted the surrender of Bahadur Shah II, promising to spare his life. It was actually the British who had rebelled against the Mughals to whom they had sworn allegiance as tax collectors. Therefore, it would be illegal to try the Mughal Emperor Zafar for rebellion. Zafar, his wife Zinat Mahal, two sons and others were sent by the British to house arrest in Rangoon. Zafar died in 1862 in Rangoon. The army of the East India Company became part of the British Army. The East India Company was eventually dissolved.The British blamed the Muslims, not the Hindus, for the uprising. even though the sepoy soldiers were almost all Hindu, with only a small minority of Muslims, and even though the Mughal Emperor Zafar was a victim of the uprising, not its instigator. After the Uprising, Indian Muslims fell into disrespect.

This entry was posted in India.

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