The Ex-King

The end of an era is always marked by the loss of power. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was essentially a battle for who would rule in India: The British Empire, or the native people. The British victory would shape the nation for generations afterwards. If the Europeans had been ousted, though, it is assumed that Bahadur Shah Zafar, head of the Mughal Empire, would return to being the true ruler of India. By the time of the mutiny, the glory days of the Mughal Empire had faded away to empty titles and authority over little more than a single city, Delhi. Thus Bahadur Shah Zafar was the prospective leader of a free India, as well as a clear target of the British Empire. With all this potential, how did the people of Britain perceive the would-be emperor: as a true threat, or merely the puppet of the soldiers in revolt? The news reports of the time shed light on just what the British thought of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the Indian insurrection as a whole.

Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that the Indian Rebellion did not start with Bahadur Shah Zafar at all. It had been brewing for years, which early British articles clearly note: “Disaffection so deep was not the creation of a moment, not an outbreak of discontent irresistibility surging up in one place. It was organised and prepared with secrecy and skill, but executed, fortunately for us, without vigour, by vindictive but faint-hearted men.”[1] Though the document does not deny that the British were aware of growing unrest in the men they commanded, they were quick to discount the valor of the rebels. This attitude would prevail for the entirety of the rebellion and most likely served the purpose of maintaining morale amongst the British soldiers, both European and Indian. After all, never before had there been such an upheaval against the British Empire in India. The directive was clear: cast the rebels into negative light whenever possible. Bahadur Shah Zafar was no exception to this.

As tensions heightened, death was sure to follow and Delhi was the ground zero for it. The sepoys had taken siege of the city and were quick to target any British who remained in Delhi, the greatest number of which who were being harbored in the King of Delhi’s palace itself. Most newspapers focus on these people in particular: “The King, however, had acceded to the wish of the sepoys, and had placed him on the throne, taking his son with them as a hostage. On a later day, the unfortunate people who had taken refuge in the palace were inconsequence all murdered”.[2] There are a number of small details not to overlook here. Namely, that Zafar is in no way a leader in this scenario. He is portrayed at best as a bystander who is merely appointed by the rebels, perhaps even a victim of sorts with his son being a “hostage” during the ordeal. The message is apparent: this man is no image of power. He is merely caught up in the moment really. The rebellion and even his ascension to the throne are not necessarily his will, but that of the sepoys.

The siege of Delhi was short-lived. Before the end of 1857, British troops had recaptured the city, and in so doing Bahadur Shah Zafar became a captive. The man who had been the supposed leader of his people was now a prisoner of the enemy. The British wasted no time in cutting him down to size. By 1858, many “had seen the miserable condition of the King of Delhi; he saw him clad in a miserable coverlet, lodged in a senseschal hall, as it were, of his former palace, and complaining that he was without enough food [oh, oh]”.[3] The Mughal Emperor had been reduced to a figure of ridicule. Next was his court hearing. As had been established in the newspapers from the year prior, the British were already fairly certain that Bahadur Shah had not been the man behind the massacre at Delhi. This, however, earned him no leniency in his verdict. As far as everyone was concerned, it was a clear cut case. This can be seen in the papers released during the trial, “The trial of the King of Delhi is not yet over; he has made his defense statement, which is universally admitted to be extremely weak. It merely amounts to this, that he was not a free agent in the rebellion, but was compelled by the soldiers to act as he did. But there can be no doubt that he took an active part in the insurrection, and is therefore criminally responsible”.[4] Bahadur Shah Zafar was essentially just a placeholder, to the Indian rebels a potential emperor, and to the British he was “The King of Delhi”. Even though on neither front he held much authority or power, he was nonetheless an asset to both. There are in fact very few instances in British newspapers where he is even referred to by his name.

This narrative created by the British was meant to remove any nobility from the King of Delhi, and by the final year of the Indian Rebellion, it was worse than ever. From a weak bystander, to guilty co-conspirator, and in 1859 some papers went as far as calling him a “weak and tremulous old man”.[5] The one man who could have possibly united the rebels in a truly organized assault against the British had fallen from any kind of grace. There was even a new side to the story being presented to the public: that the King had not been strung along at all and was actually in it for self-gain. Ignoring any of the previous evidence, Bahadur Shah Zafar had been chasing “the distant glimmer of a crown, which common reason, or the slightest consideration, would have convinced him was a mere ignis fatuus- a mockery of scepter, that would evade his grasp”.[6] According to the new perception, Zafar was seeking power of his own volition. Though this is contrary to everything that had been presented before, it saw legitimacy at the time. Any dream of India ruling itself had died with the failed Mutiny of 1857. This was now the beginning of something else: the full subjugation of India under the British government. Many authors have noted that Zafar’s defeat at the hands of the Europeans was the final nail in the coffin. One such author was Bernard S. Cohn, who said “The bringing of a king to trial means those doing so believe this is an act of justice and an ‘explicit denial of the king’s claim to rule’. Its meaning, according to Michael Walzer, is that it severs the past from the present and the future and establishes new political principles marking the triumph of a new kind of government”.[7]For several decades afterwards, India would indeed be the servant of the British Empire. Much blood had been spilled on both sides, but the revolution was over. As a testament to this achievement, the court found Zafar guilty and he was exiled. Never again would he be in a position of relevance. Instead, the people of India were now the subjects of the Queen of England herself.

To say the British saw Bahadur Shah Zafar as a threat would be very farfetched. The newspapers of the time served as propaganda to solely keep the public on the government’s side. At first it targeted the only the sepoys themselves, leaving the Mughal Emperor’s role a little unclear. By the end of the two year battle, the British had turned the King of Delhi into a symbol. A symbol of their supremacy over the land of India, and to the end of any kind of autonomy they had hoped to have. By calling the King weak, linking him to the cold-blooded murders of Europeans, and ultimately questioning his own agenda, the British Empire had dismantled their enemies and assimilated a new chunk of Asia directly into their territory. The Government of India Act of 1858 and the Queen’s Proclamation of 1 November 1858 both ensured India and Britain were now essentially one.[8] The man who had aligned “himself with ruffians and with cut throats” was now known as The Ex-King.[9]

[1] “The Mutiny of India”, Daily News, Jul.15, 1857.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “MR. LAYARD’S LECTURE ON INDIA”, The Morning Chronicle, May 12, 1858

[4] “Indian”, The Stirling Observer, May 6, 1858, pg.4

[5] “The King of Delhi”, The Morning Post, Apr.23,1859,pg.2

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cohn, Bernard S. “Representing Authority in Victorian India”. In The Invention of Tradition:, by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, p.178. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The King of Delhi”, The Morning Post, Apr.23,1859,pg.2


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