I recently read The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple, and it was honestly one of my favorite books of all time. I had so many of my fundamental assumptions about Indian history totally turned upside down with this book. For a long while I’ve wanted to write a well-written, structured and thoughtful essay with all my takeaways…but I am lazy, so instead decided to post this set of 6 crazy takeaways, with the remote possibility of editing/extending it in the future. Brace yourself!
- The “Last Mughal” wasn’t really a Mughal ruler at all, because he had nothing to rule. The only thing he presided over was his own castle. By that point, the Empire had already been reduced to almost nothing. This was my first surprise — this book isn’t about a final Mughal ruler resisting British forces, it’s something else entirely.
- So what led to the Mughal Empire’s reduction in the first place? Well, the first real attack on the Empire was conducted not by outsiders, but from within — by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. He decided to abandon longstanding principles of religious tolerance, and lost the brittle but unified loyalty of all the different provinces as a result. He cracked the proverbial diamond of his own kingdom.
- So then the British came and ruined everything, right? NOPE. Actually, a Persian military ruler named Nader Shah decided to take the opportunity and attack the Mughal Empire, slaughtering many and plundering the entire region. It was totally and irrevocably devastated. Even the infamous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which lives in a British museum, was first stolen by him. Crazy right?
- The Koh-i-what diamond? Koh-i-Noor diamond. It’s one of the world’s most famous diamonds from the region’s many gems and treasures that were all plundered. First the Persians took it, then the Afghans, and it had many more stops before reaching the British. That diamond had some serious wanderlust. If you want to know more about the crazy journey of that diamond, Dalrymple wrote a whole book about it (yes, I read that too lol).
- So, after the Persians left, the British Empire conquered? Actually, no. The British Empire didn’t really come at all — the East India Company came, to “trade”. EIC operated independently from the Crown as a private corporation. They had British citizens fund them from home and a board of directors to decide who they would “trade” (i.e. conquer) with. In fact, the entire concept of shareholders and a board of director for an operating corporation came from the East India Company. Yep — the founding principle of all companies today was innovated to ensure the highest efficiency “operations” (a.k.a. slaughter-n-plunder) in India.
- Yes yes fine…but when the heck did the British conquer India?? Well, see, that’s the kicker. They never really did. The EIC kind of waited around while others conquered the Mughals, and then sort of weaseled their way into territories under the guise of “trade” and offering “security services” (mafia alert). One day, some Indians raised their hand and said “Hey wait are you guys trying to like take over… or?” and the British took that rebellion as an opportunity to formally take control to “squash the rebellion and keep order”. Meanwhile, the EIC kept the farce going and still maintained their contract as “subservient” to the Mughal Emperor (this is the classic put-you-in-handcuffs-then-make-you-sign-the-dotted-line scenario). Only after the EIC had all but taken over India did the British Crown finally see value in owning all those pretty gems, and basically annexed EIC and engaged a formal colonization of India. So the British Empire inherited India from EIC, which weaseled and sneaked its way into control by sitting around and waiting for others to conquer it for them. Jolly good stuff!
OK, I’m done for now. History can be both enlightening and infuriating…
I actually took a TON more notes from the book and could probably extend this further. If that’d be interesting to you, let me know in the comments!
DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian. I have read some history books. If you disagree with my opinion, I’m happy to hear yours. If there are facts you know of that I didn’t, I’m happy to learn about them. Let’s talk!