Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book Notes: The Last Mughal: The Fall of Delhi 1857

What could be a better way to start off a new year's reading than with an epic history from the pen of William Dalrymple? As with his other works such as The Return of a King (The Battle for Afghanistan), and From the Holy Mountain, Dalrymple researches like an academic, but writes with the flourish of a novelist; meaning that even these long books are un-put-down-able page-turners.

This one concerns the Indian Mutiny in Delhi of 1857, in which the Indian armies of the British 'East India Company' turned against their 'masters' and rallied to the standard of the last Mughal King, at the Red Fort. The octogenarian king proved to be a reluctant revolutionary, who was more inclined to poetic and mystic Sufism than leading an army. Chaos, and wholesale slaughter of the colonial population ensued, from the series of ill-disciplined armies who flocked to the city. Trade faltered, starvation set in, and anarchy erupted while the surviving  British fled to plot their revenge. Revenge when it came was severe; the invasion of the city by British forces was accompanied by an orgy of violence, mass murder and cruelty on a massive and appalling scale. With the Royal family along with countless thousands of their subjects slaughtered, the King with his immediate family was sent into exile, the end of a 350 year dynasty.

Dalrymple's purpose in writing is not however to simply tell and epic, and dreadful story. While in one sense it is simply worthwhile to record the historical facts, and to closely observe extreme human behaviour, this book aspires to far more. Dalrymple himself is a Scot, who has lived half his life in Delhi, and is a passionate multi-culturalist, who consistently celebrates tolerance and plurality; and resists exclusivism from any quarter. 

For him, this book is a lament for a lost gentleness and respectful pluralism. His description of the Mughal dynasty is one of a Hindu-Muslim culture which together were a centre for learning, culture, poetry, art, architecture and a form of tolerance which was profound and pre-dates twentieth century notions of liberalism. By the time this book opens in the early 1850s, the Mughal's had little but symbolic authority, with little power or wealth; but that symbolic role stood for something important, the loss of which drives Dalrymple's ire.

The social backdrop onto which he paints the narrative of the ghastly massacres of 1857 is one of a rising intolerance from both Indians and British perspectives. The usual Marxist historical analysis is rejected here, because Dalrymple allows ideas, and not only economics to be primary drivers of history in his account; which is to be welcomed. That is not to negate the effect of economics whatsoever, just to allow some other factors to be significant too. The brooding conflict, in Dalrymple's eyes comes therefore not only from economic resistance to Colonialism, but to Indian ideological resistance to the imposition of Christianity in the sub-Continent. Likewise, the incursion of militant Wahhabism (and similar) theology into Indian Islam is blamed for the loss of the co-operative, inter-cultural model, in favour of violent resistance. Dalrymple sets up a conflict between rising Victorian Evangelicalism and Wahhabi-inspired Islam; into which the largely Hindu armies were brought because of their historic allegiance to the Mughal King. The final lament is for the loss of that old Delhi, and the hardening of attitudes, which he tracks from the fall of Delhi to the Madrasas which ultimately spawned Al Qaeda. The British villains of the cultural catastrophe include the British East India Company, whose policy of forcing the Sepoys to consume beef and pork fat in the loading of the new Enfield Rifles (the caps had to be bitten off and the new bevelled barrels required fatty lubricant); alienated Hindu's and Muslims alike - and sparked the rebellion with the fear that their religious customs were to be abolished by force, and Christianity imposed. Then there was Padre Jennings the fundamentalist Christian leader in Delhi, whose missionary methods were so confrontational that when wedded with his love of Colonial power and disdain for other cultures, gave every reason for such fears amongst his opponents.

Dalrymple's thesis is largely compelling, and one cannot help but instinctively recoil from his descriptions of the slaughter of small English children or from the senseless hangings and gang rapes of Indians by the British. Likewise, this historical study in the vital necessity of cultural respect, and tolerance is as profound today as it ever was. British Liberal, Tim Farron's recent speech on genuine LIberalism from a faith-perspective is perhaps a fine recent example of what this looks like. I think though, in a couple of passages, Dalrymple over-states his case against all of evangelicalism. Take for example p484 in which he offers a mixed assessment of the last Mughal King, and then says:

"He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure when compared to the Victorian Evangelicals whose insensitivity, arrogance and blindness did much to bring the Uprising of 1857 down upon their own heads and those of the people and court in Delhi, engulfing all of Northern India in religious war of terrible violence."

My suspicion is that this goes a bit beyond the evidence which he has marshalled, and that for all his brilliance as a writer and commentator, Dalrymple's personal antipathy for that particular creed has somewhat got the better of him. It might have been better, and more in keeping with his general thesis of cultural openness to have explored what went wrong with the likes of Padre Jennings violent religiosity, when coupled with the power of the East India Company, who had been the key opponents of Christian missions in India for decades prior to the 1850s. Likewise, older Evangelicalism in India like that represented by William Carey, had not been liberal in their theology, but had embraced indigenous languages, customs and culture in a way which would have perplexed the likes of Jennings. It certainly did not promote, use or cause violent revolt! Perhaps the evangelicalism which Dalrymple so universally pans, was a more varied and less monolithic entity than he suggests?

This though is brilliant writing. Just as his book on the 19th Century British invasion of Afghanistan opened my eyes to a whole area of history about which I was appallingly ignorant, so here he opens a window into a world about which I know little. The Indian Mutiny is something I have heard referenced, but now know about thanks to Dalrymple's vast amount of research through the discovered original sources in a multiplicity of languages, across continents. His massive grasp of the course of events set against their cultural backdrop enables the reader not just to know but understand what happened, and why it matters. Better still, his vivid prose means that the book is so captivating, and leaves impressions on the mind that are like visual memories.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Notes: Days of Rage, America's Radical Underground, The FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough

Bryan Burrough's "Days of Rage" tells the stories of the radical terrorist groups which emerged from the tumult of the 1960s, each of which took their grievances against the USA and or capitalism to violent extremes. As the hippie ideal descended into disillusionment and despair, disparate groups emerged who no longer saw a future in love, peace, weed, free love and dropping out; but instead actively sought revolution.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of a plethora of these groups, notably the Weather Underground, which emerged from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), went underground and tried to provoke a popular uprising through a bombing campaign. Others like the Black Liberation Army came from the Black Panthers, the Simbionese Liberation Army - of Patty Hearst infamy, the FALN, The Family etc. Whether inspired by Marx or Mao, by the end of the Civil Rights Movement, by Puerto Rican Independence, or an ill defined rage; Burrough's described each group, their main characters, main actions, factions and eccentricities - and how each of them ground to a halt. Some fell apart in drug-fuelled acrimony, some fled the country, others re-emerged into normal life, others were busted by the FBI. 

Prior to reading this book I had been aware that such groups existed as groups like the BLA, and the career of Eldridge Cleaver and so forth occur throughout the civil rights literature. The Weather Underground, likewise are referenced, as much for their excesses and sexual proclivities in 70s literature, as for their low-grade bombing campaigns. Burrough fills in all the gaps though, describing in great detail how these groups developed, hid, gained explosives and struggled to survive. Interestingly while much of the mainstream literature seems to reference these groups as if they were fierce, ruthless and brilliant; this inside account portrays most of them as desperate, amateur, deluded, fanatical and often inept. As such he adds a great deal to understanding much of the background to these frayed ends of the sixties cultural revolution.

The problem with the book though is that it is rather heavy on description, and rather light on analysis. Intricate details of bombing-runs by Weather Underground, or FALN are described, as they are of the characters, their safe-houses, cars, physical appearance and cars. We learn about the autumn leaves blowing around the bank under surveillance for an armed robbery, for example. So too, details of the construction of home-made bombs by each group's specialist. What is fascinating is how this information was shared amongst various groups, a kind of family tree of violence. Burrough is fascinated with the internal life and dynamic of each group, some of which were as complex as those within the Rumours era Fleetwood Mac! This eye for detail is sometimes a bit much, however the fact that he records the details of so many of the victims of the attacks made by radicals is a welcome reminder that these groups frequently murdered the innocent who were not anonymous representations of the state, but real people with lives, families, children, etc.

What is lacking though, is much analysis of the ideologies which drove these groups. While the book regularly speaks of the seizure of radical literature by the FBI, little is said of the content. So too there is a fascination with the detail and progression of car chases and raids, but not much with the process by which these people were radicalised. Neither is there much comparison between the different groups to establish common patterns of causation, not much of mapping the progress of these violent ideas onto any wider sociological interpretation of currents in wider American society. The reader is left to judge for themselves whether these people were ideologues who used crime as a means to an end, or criminals who used political dogma to legitimise their criminality. Given Burough's enormous amount of factual research and remarkable access to sources, this is something of a disappointment. Burrough certainly makes it plain, that while he had access to sources, he had little sympathy for them.

All in all, this is a good read, because it tells a series of little-known, but significant stories; based on excellent research. The limitations of the book all them from the fact that is is written in the style of a newspaper scoop, rather than with a historians desire to analyse and understand. The story is told - and told very well indeed- but the questions behind the story, are not addressed. Actually, that is an overstatement.... huge numbers of questions are asked and answered at a practical level such as how could (for example Dohrn and the Weather Underground) live undetected for so long and how could they re-emerge without facing prosecution; how did they build bombs, select targets and deliver them? What is not examined is why America produced so many such groups in the early 1970s, and why the people that joined them did so, compared to others (eg in their university classes at Berkeley) who did not. Likewise, why these groups developed as they did, and not in other ways is left undeveloped as is the question of why America seemed to stop producing violent leftist groups in the 1980s.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017


It seems like an age since I was in the Scottish Hills. Yesterday though, I downed tools, and managed to squeeze a Corbett in between things needing to be done at home and children to be collected and taken to assorted places!

Monamenach has the reputation of being one of the easiest of the Corbetts. This is unsurprising as it is within sight of the easiest of all Munros in nearby Glenshee. This hill is found by the headwaters of the River Isla, at the Northern end of Glen Isla, at the end of the dead-end road running North-South parallel to the main A93. Entrance to the end of Glen Isla is marked by the distinctive shape of Forter Castle.

There is no parking at the farm and self-catering cottage where the Monamenach track leaves the road. Parking is available further down the road by the river; but this section of the road was impassable with ice yesterday, so I was forced to wedge the car on a precarious verge near the farm.

Navigation to the summit of Monamenach is very simple. A track skirts the farm and ascends into the hill. Where the track veers sharply left and bends southwards, a line of fence posts head to the right all the way to the summit.

Mount Blair forms a distinctive shape to the south, scene of several delightful winter, you can read about here

The larger hills to the North and West were nicely snow capped, enough to excite the ski-ers.

It was nice to be able to take my good camera into the hills too.