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.