The Great War 1914-18

The Line-up of the Powers
By 1914 the European powers were already divided into two rival camps. After the outbreak of war both groups sought allies. Germany and Austria-Hungary were joined by Turkey and Bulgaria. Russia, France and Great Britain sought and gained the support of Japan, Italy, Romania and, after a long struggle, Greece. By far the most important adherent to the Allied cause was the United States, which declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. In Europe, the price in terms of life and material destruction changed men’s conception of war; it is estimated that over eight million combatants were killed

The war which began in August 1914 as a European war turned into a world war in 1917, and can be seen as a bridge between the age of European predominance and the age of global politics. The spark that triggered it off was the assassination of the Austrian heir-presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian terrorists at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. In the ensuing crisis, none of the powers was prepared to accept diplomatic defeat; war replaced diplomatic manoeuvre.

Everyone expected a short war, over by Christmas 1914. The Germans knew that their chances in a long war on two fronts were slender. Their war plan drawn up by Schlieffen in 1905, was to trap and annihilate the French army by a great encirclement movement through Belgium, before the Russians had time to mobilise. But the Russians mobilised unexpectedly,  quickly, invaded East Prussia, defeated the German 8th Army at Gumbinnen (20 August), and drew off German reserves from the west. However, the Germans defeated the Russian invasion at Tannenberg (26-29 August), but were not strong enough to exploit their victory.

Map 2: The German attack in the west and the battle of Marne
Germans invaded Belgium successfully taking Liege on 16 August; the French offensive in Alsace was defeated with heavy loss.
A further French offensive towards the Ardennes was defeated, and the British and one French army were forced to retreat from the Mons area to avoid encirclement.
The Germans were too weak to go west of Paris as they planned and they passed north-east of Paris to cross the Marne.
The exposed German army north of Paris was attacked by the French army on 5 September, and in manoeuvring to oppose the French attack left a gap on its own eastern flank.
British and French advanced into the gap.
The German army retired to the Aisne to regroup.


In the west, the Allies outmanoeuvred the Germans in the Battle of the Marne (5-8 September). The Schlieffen Plan was always a gamble; when it failed the Germans had no alternative strategy. On 8-12 September, the Russians won a crushing victory over Austria at Lemberg. A last, mutual attempt by the Germans and Allied armies to outflank each other in Flanders failed in November, and both sides dug in on a line 400 miles long from the Channel to the Swiss frontier. In the east, mobile warfare was still possible because of the far lower density of men and guns—a possibility brilliantly exploited by the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915, and by the Russian general Brusilov in 1916.

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The Naval War: After the battle of Jutland (1916) in which the Germans inflicted heavier losses but the British retained command of the North Sea, both sides used naval means to cut the other’s supply lines in a war of attrition. The British instituted an open blockade of the Central Powers which became effective by the end of 1916. In that year, there were fifty-six food riots in German cities. In reply, the Germans resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and one out of every four ships leaving British ports was sunk.  The assault was only checked by the convoy system first used in May 1917.

In the west, from the beginning of 1915 the dominant factors were trenches, barbed wire, artillery, machine-guns and mud. The war of mobility gave way to a war of attrition. One entrenched man with a machine-gun was more than a match for a hundred advancing across open country. Railways could bring up defenders faster than slowly-moving troops could advance into the front-line gaps which they had created at such high human cost.

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Map 3: The Great War in Europe
On the Western Front only the opening and closing stages saw a war of movement. From late 1914 to Spring 1918, the superiority of defence based on trench-systems and machine-guns over slow moving offensives by infantry, preceded by the fire of immense concentrations of artillery, imposed a stalemate. Only when armies had been weakened by years of attrition did sweeping advances again become possible. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with a lower density of manpower and weaker defences, the war was more mobile. The Italian front along the River Isonzo saw another stalemate despite eleven Italian offensives against the Austrians; a stalemate broken in October 1917 by the German-Austrian victory at Caporetto, and the Italian victory in Vittorio Veneto a year later.


Yet the German occupation of Belgium and northern France made it inevitable that the Allies should seek to expel them. This meant repeated French offensives in Artois and Champagne in 1915, assisted by small British offensives at Neuve Chappelle and Loos. For 1916 the Allies planned a joint offensive on the Somme, but the Germans struck first, at Verdun, with the intention of bleeding the French army to death. On 1 July 1916, the British launched their first mass offensive of the war, on the Somme. The fighting lasted until November; each side suffered some 600,000 casualties. It failed to break the stalemate.

By now the conflict was becoming a total war demanding the mobilisation of industry, carried out in Germany by Rathenau and in Britain by Lloyd George. Answers to the trench stalemate were sought in technology; poison gas was first used by the Germans at Ypres in April 1915; the British invented the tank and fielded 32 of them in the closing stages of the Somme battle, but owing to manufacturing difficulties it was only in November 1917, at Cambrai, that the first mass tank attack took place—also proving indecisive.

The struggle spread to the skies, where the handful of reconnaissance aircraft of 1914 gave way to fighters, bombers and artillery-spotters. With the Zeppelin airship and the Gotha long range bomber the Germans introduced strategic bombing of enemy towns. By means of naval blockade the Allies sought to starve the industries and peoples of the Central powers; Germany riposted by U-boat attacks on British shipping.

The War in the Middle East
The war was not confined to Europe.  To protect the Persian oil wells, an Anglo-Indian force occupied Basra (22 November 1914) and marched on Baghdad (October 1915); they were forced to retreat and surrendered to the Turks at Kut (April 1916). Meanwhile, the British had repelled a Turkish attempt to cross the Suez Canal (1915), and a counter-offensive force entered Palestine in 1916. Here they were assisted by the British-sponsored Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, which broke out in June 1916 under Sherif Hussein of Mecca, but they were checked by the Turks at Gaza in 1917. To the north, the Russians occupied Turkish Armenia (July 1916) and held it until the Russian revolution restored initiative to the Ottomans. In Autumn 1917, British forces under General Allenby rallied, and pushed through Gaza to Jerusalem (11 December). In Mesopotamia, Kut was retaken, and Baghdad was finally captured (10 March 1917); Mosul was occupied shortly after the Anglo-Turkish Armistice (29 October 1918), while Damascus had fallen to British and Arab troops at the beginning of the same month.
The war spilled over into Africa and the Far East where Germany quickly lost its colonial possessions. The South Africans conquered German South-West Africa in July 1915; the British and French took the Cameroons and Togoland. In German East Africa, the British had a more difficult task because of the determined German defence under General von Lettow-Vorbeck. In the Pacific, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese troops captured the German colonies within four months of the outbreak of war, and the concessions in China also fell to Japanese and British forces.

Confronted by failure in the west, the Allies sought successes on other fronts:

  • the Dardanelles (April 1915-January 1916)
  • an offensive in Mesopotamia against the Turks
  • a landing at Salonika to help the Serbs.

All ended in failure. Italy, which entered the war on the Allied side on 23 May 1915, likewise failed to break the Austrian front on the Isonzo.

On the Easter Front, too, there was no decision, despite the German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915 and a far reaching Russian advance under General Brusilov in 1916. Serbian resistance was crushed, but the Germans were now embedded in the prolonged two-front war they had dreaded.

By the end of 1916, all the combatants recognised that victory was far off. There were peace feelers, but annexationist German demands ruled out a compromise peace. The war went on—under new and ruthless leaders: the soldiers Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Germany, the civilians Lloyd George in Britain and later Clemenceau in France.

On 1 February 1917 Germany declared unrestricted U-boat warfare, in the hope of bringing Britain to her knees. This was narrowly averted by the introduction of the convoy system in May 1917. But the U-boat offensive brought the United States into the war on 6 April 1917—a potentially decisive help to the Allies.

In March, revolution broke out in Russia, sparked by heavy losses, war-weariness and economic dislocation. On 15 March 1917, the Tsar abdicated. The future of Russia as an ally lay in doubt. By May, France was in deep trouble too. An offensive by the new Commander-in-Chief, Nivelle, failed to achieve his promised object of a breakthrough leading to peace. Widespread mutinies erupted in the French army with parallel civilian unrest on the home front. The British planned an offensive at Ypres as the best means of keeping German pressure off the French and encouraging Russia. The “Passchendaele” offensive, dogged by bad weather, failed to break the German front; each side suffered some 250,000 casualties.

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and in December sued for peace at Brest-Litovsk. At last the Germans could concentrate the bulk of their strength on the Western Front. On 21 March 1918 Hindenburg and Ludendorff launched a series of offensives aimed at victory in the West before the Americans could arrive in strength. They failed, despite impressive initial success. On 18 July, the new Allied generalissimo Foch, launched a French counterstroke. On 8 August Haig followed with a brilliant success on the Somme. From then on the Allies hammered the enemy without respite, breaking the Hindenburg Line on 27-30 September. Meanwhile Germany’s allies, Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria were beginning to collapse under Allied offensives. On 29 September Ludendorff acknowledge defeat and urged his government to ask for an immediate armistice. In October, the German fleet mutinied; revolution and the abdication of the Kaiser followed, and the new German government accepted the Allies’ armistice terms. Fighting stopped on 11 November 1918.

The material and human cost of the war had been immense; the political and social consequences were incalculable. The Europe of 1914 had vanished.

Courtesy of: The Times Atlas of World History Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, Hammond Incorporated Maplewood, New Jersey

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1857 The Uprising from the Indian Perspective

Featured image: The deposed and broken Emperor after the show trial in Delhi

Although Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal is a central figure in this book, it is not a biography of Zafar so much as a portrait of the Delhi he personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857. Archives containing Zafar’s letters and his court records can be found in London, Lahore, and even Rangoon. Most of the material, however, still lies in Delhi, Zafar’s former capital.

How and why the relatively easy relationship of Indian and Briton, so evident in the end of the eighteenth century, gave way to the hatreds and racism of the high nineteenth-century Raj? The Uprising, it is clear, was the result of that change, not its cause.

Two things seem to have put paid to this easy coexistence. One was the rise of British power: in a few years, the British had defeated not only the French but also all their Indian rivals; in a manner, not unlike the Americans after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the changed balance of power quickly led to an attitude of undisguised imperial arrogance.

The other was the ascendancy of Evangelical Christianity, and the profound change in attitudes that this brought about. The wills written by Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian wives or bibis, all but disappeared. Memoirs of prominent eighteenth-century British Indian worthies which mentioned their Indian wives or Anglo-Indian children were re-edited so that the consorts were removed from later editions. No longer were Indians seen as inheritors of a body of sublime and ancient wisdom as eighteenth-century luminaries such as Sir William Jones and Warren Hastings had once believed, they were instead merely “poor benighted heathen,” or even “licentious pagans,” who, it was hoped, were eagerly awaiting conversion. 

There is an important point here. Many historians blithely use the word “colonialism” as if it has some kind of clearly locatable meaning, yet it is increasingly apparent that at this period there were multiple modes and very distinct phases of colonialism; there were also many very different ways of inhabiting, performing and transgressing the still fluid notion of Britishness. It was not the British per se, so much as specific groups with a special imperial agenda–namely the Evangelicals and Utilitarians–who ushered in the most obnoxious phase of colonialism, a change which adversely affected the White Mughals as much as it did the Great Mughals.

For, by the early 1850s, many British officials were nursing plans finally to abolish the Mughal court, and to impose not just British laws and technology on India but also Christianity. The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came in 1857 with the Great Mutiny. Of the 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal Army–the largest modern army in Asia–all but 7,796 turned against their British masters. In some parts of northern India, such as Avadh, the sepoys were joined by a very large proportion of the population. Atrocities abounded on both sides.

Delhi was the principal centre of the Uprising. As mutinous troops poured into the city from all round northern India–even the rebel regiments at Kanpur intended to head straight to Delhi until diverted to attack their officers by Nana Sahib–it was clear from the outset that the British had to recapture Delhi or lose their Indian empire for ever. Equally, the sepoys rallying to the throne of Bahadur Shah whom they believed to be the legitimate ruler of Hindustan, realised that if they lost Delhi they lost everything. Every available British soldier was sent to the Delhi Ridge, and for the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the Mughal capital was bombarded by British artillery with thousands of helpless civilians caught up in the horrors.


While in the first weeks of the Uprising troops came to Delhi from all over Hindustan, thereafter the city, and especially its besiegers, remained to a great extent cut off from news of developments elsewhere. In that sense, the siege of Delhi was always a war within a war, relatively independent of the momentous developments to the south and east. Until the very end of July. the British on the Delhi Ridge were still expecting to be relieved by General Wheeler’s army at Kanpur, less than 300 miles to the south-east, quite unaware that Wheeler’s army had surrendered and been slaughtered, almost to a man, more than a month earlier, on 27 June. Equally, the Delhi defenders were convinced that they were about to be saved by two non-existent Persian armies, one heading down from the Khyber Pass, while the other was supposed to be making its way north-east from a seaborne landing in Bombay.

 Over the last four years, I and my colleagues have been working through many of the 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857, known as the Mutiny Papers, that were found on the shelves of the National Archives of India. These allow 1857 in Delhi to be seen for the first time from a properly Indian perspective, and not just from the British sources through which to date it has usually been viewed.

The treasures held by the National Archives existed as detailed documentation of the four months of the Uprising in Delhi as can exist for any Indian city at any period of history; as a source for daily events, for the motivation of the rebels, for the problems they faced, the level of chaos in the city, and the ambiguous and equivocal response of both the Mughal elite and the Hindu trading class of the city, the Mutiny Papers contain unrivaled quantity of unique material. Cumulatively, the stories that the collection contains allow the Uprising to be seen not in terms of nationalism, imperialism, oriental-ism or other such abstractions, but instead as a human event of extraordinary, tragic and often capricious outcomes, and they allow us to resurrect the ordinary individuals whose fate it was to be accidentally caught up in one of the great upheavals of history.

A  large proportion of the Mutiny Papers are the petitions of ordinary Delhiwallahs who had suffered at the hands of the sepoys; invariably they are addressed to Zafar, who they hope will protect them against the increasingly desperate Tilangas. Significantly, in their petitions to the court, the words the ordinary people of Delhi used to describe what was happening in 1857 were not Ghadr (mutiny) and still less Jang-e-Azadi (freedom struggle or, more literally, war of freedom) so much as fasad (riots) and danga (disturbance or commotion). For the people of Delhi, the daily reality of what happened in 1857 was not so much liberation as violence, uncertainty and starvation. Indeed, reading through the Mutiny Papers there are times when it seems almost as if the siege of Delhi had become a three-cornered contest, with the sepoys and the British fighting it out, and with the people of Delhi caught in the middle, their lives wrecked by the violence of both. Clearly Zafar saw his job as protecting the people of Delhi from both firangi (foreigners, Franks) and Tilanga.

 What I have found at the end of all this confirms a growing conviction of many of the more recent historians of 1857. Instead of the single coherent mutiny or patriotic national war of independence beloved of Victorian or Indian nationalist historiography, there was in reality a chain of very different uprisings and acts of resistance, whose form and fate were determined by local and regional situations, passions and grievances.

For Delhi has always been quite clear about its superiority to the rest of the country. It was the seat of the Great Mughal and the place where the most chaste Urdu was spoken. It believed it had the best-looking women, the finest mangoes, the most talented poets. While many in the city welcomed the sepoys in their endeavour to restore the Mughal to power and to expel the hated kafir interlopers, nevertheless the people of Shahjahanabad* soon tired of hosting a large and undisciplined army of boorish and violent peasants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. For the people of Avadh, the sepoys were local lads, and for them 1857 was a genuine popular uprising that touched a chord across the region. In contrast, for Delhi, the incoming sepoys remained strangers, with different dialects, accents and customs. The Delhi sources invariably describe them as ‘Tilangas**” or “Purbias**“–effectively outsiders. Neither of these words is ever used of the sepoys in Avadh sources.

*Shahjahanabad is the walled city now known as Old Delhi built by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan (1592-1666) and opened as his new capital in 1648.

** “Purbias” which in Delhi was alternatively used with “Tilangas” simply means Easterners. Both words carry the same connotations of foreignness “these outsiders from the East.”

For all the ambiguity of the equivocal Delhi responses to 1857, it is clear how very central Delhi was to the Uprising. For despite its diffuse and fractured nature, many of its different elements converged into a single programme: to restore the Mughal Empire.

For a century, this fact has been partially obscured by nationalist historians for whom the idea of Hindu sepoys flocking to Delhi to revive the Mughal Empire was more or less anathema. Since the time of V.D. Savarkar’s book The Indian War of Independence, 1857, published in 1909, the March outbreak in Barrackpore has been seen as the crucial event of the Mutiny, and Mangal Pandey its central icon. This is a position which was cemented by the recent Bollywood film which, though known as The Rising in its English-language avatar, was called simply Mangal Pandey in Hindi.

Yet in many ways Pandey was almost irrelevant to the outbreak which took place two months later at Meerut in May. Instead the Meerut insurgents headed straight to Delhi, drawn to the court of the Great Mughal, the one clear source of legitimacy recognised across Hindustan. Even in Lucknow, which had been in rebellion against Delhi since the late eighteenth century, the sepoys rose in the name of the Emperor, and the Aradhi court sent an envoy to Delhi asking for Zafar to confirm the title Wazir for the young heir apparent, Birjis Qadir, who was already minting his coins in the Emperor’s name. The same was true in Kanpur, where the rebels celebrated victory as due to

 “the enemy-destroying fortune of the Emperor.”

If Mangal Pandey was the sepoy’s inspiration, they certainly did not articulate it, nor did they rush towards Barrackpore or Calcutta. Instead it was, unequivocally, the capture of Delhi which was the great transforming masterstroke for the Uprising. The fact that Zafar gave the sepoys his tacit support instantly, turned an army mutiny–one of a large number of mutinies and acts of armed resistance that had occurred under the Company–into the major political challenge to British dominance in India, and sparked off what would swiftly escalate into the most serious armed challenge to imperialism the world over during the course of the nineteenth century.

For this reason many ordinary people in northern India responded to Zafar’s appeal, much to the astonishment of the British, who had long ceased to take him seriously, and who, having completely lost touch with Indian opinion, were amazed at how Hindustan reacted to his call. Seeing only the powerlessness of Zafar, the British had ceased to recognize the charisma that the name of the Mughal still possessed for both Hindus and Muslims in northern India.

Mark Thornhill, the British collector in Mathura, recorded his own surprise in his diary immediately after the rebel capture of Delhi:

Their talk was all about the ceremonial of the palace and how it would be revived. They speculated as to who would be Grand Chamberlain, which of the chiefs of Rajputana would guard the different gates, and who were the fifty-two rajahs who would assemble to put the Emperor on the throne . . . As I listened I realised as I never had done before the deep impression that the splendour of the ancient court had made on the popular imagination, how dear to them were the traditions and how faithfully, all unknown to us, they had preserved them. Thee was something weird in the Mogul Empire thus starting into a sort of phantom life after the slumber of a hundred years.

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination.

The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt–as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers–they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India–something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating. 

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857,

 “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.

 Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people:

Brothers: are you with those of the faith?”

British men and women who had converted to Islam–and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi–were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly

that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country . . . to continue true to their faith and creeds.”

Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)–so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity–it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of: suicide ghazis 

” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, ‘for those who have come to die have no need for food.’ “

One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was  that

the British had closed the madrasas.

These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

I wonder what Zafar would have made of all this. Looking down over the Sufi shrine that abuts his palace. I suspect he would somehow have managed to make his peace with the fast-changing cyber-India of outsourcing, call centres and software parks that are now rapidly overpowering the last remnants of his world. After all, realism and acceptance were always qualities Zafar excelled in. For all the tragedy of his life, he was able to see that the world continued to turn, and that however much the dogs might bark, the great caravan of life continued to move on. In the words of the poem commonly attributed to Zafar, and said to have been written shortly after his imprisonment:

When in silks you came and dazzled
Me with the beauty of your Spring,
You brought a flower to bloom–
Love within my being.

You lived with me, breath of my breath,
Being in my being, nor left my side;
But now the wheel of Time has turned
And you are gone–no joys abide.

You pressed your lips upon my lips,
Your heart upon my beating heart,
And I have no wish to fall in love again,
For they who sold Love’s remedy
Have shut shop, and I seek in vain.

My life now gives no ray of light,
I bring no solace to heart or eye;
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.

Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain.

No tears were shed when shroudless they
Were laid in common graves;
No prayers were read for the noble dead,
Unmarked remain their graves.

The heart distressed, the wounded flesh,
The mind ablaze, the rising sigh;
The drop of blood, the broken heart,
Tears on the lashes of the eye.

But things cannot remain, O Zafar,
Thus for who can tell?
Through God’s great mercy and the Prophet
All may yet be well.


Zinat Mahal
Zinat Mahal in captivity in Rangoon in 1872
Zafar’s two surviving sons, who shared his exile in Rangoon: the beloved Mirza Jawan Bakht (left), only son of Zinat Mahal and the illegitimate Mirza Shah Abbas

By courtesy



Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862) at his coronation

Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862)
The elderly Mughal Emperor–eldest but not favourite son of the Emperor Akbar Shah II–was a calligrapher, Sufi, theologian, patron of painters of miniatures, creator of gardens and a very serious mystical poet. By the 1850s he held little real day-to-day power beyond the still potent mystique attached to the Mughal dynasty and was in many ways “a chessboard king.” Though he was initially horrified by the rough and desperate sepoys who barged into his palace on 11 May 1857, Zafar ultimately agreed to give his blessings to the Uprising, seeing it as the only way to save his great dynasty from extinction. It was a decision he later came to regret bitterly.


The Nawab Zinat Mahal Begum (1821-1882)
Zafar’s senior wife, and his only consort to come from an aristocratic background: when they married in 1840, she was nineteen while he was sixty-four. Having toppled her rival Taj Mahal Begum from the position of favourite wife and provided a son in the shape of Mirza Jawan Bakht, she worked single-mindedly to have her son–the fifteenth of Zafar’s sixteen boys–declared heir apparent. Zafar was widely regarded to be completely under her influence, but during 1857, the limits of her power over him became quickly apparent.

Taj Mahal Begum
The beautiful daughter of a humble court musician, Taj presided over the celebrations that accompanied Zafar’s accession to the throne in 1837 as his favourite wife and the head of his harem. Taj’s fall began when Zafar married the nineteen-year old Zinat Mahal in 1840. By 1857 she had been imprisoned for a suspected affair with Zafar’s nephew, Mirza Kamran, and remained bitterly alienated from both Zafar and Zinat Mahal.

Mirza Fakhru–aka Mirza Ghulam Fakhruddin (1818-1856)
When Zafar’s eldest son Mirza Dara Bakht, died from a fever in 1849, the British assumed that Zafar’s next son, Mirza Fakhru, would succeed him as heir apparent. Mirza Fakhru was a talented and popular poet and historian, but under the influence of Zinat Mahal, Zafar tried unsuccessfully to block his appointment as heir apparent in favour of Zinat’s fifteen-year old son, Mirza Jawan Bakht. Mirza Fakhru died in 1856, probably from cholera, but Palace gossip attributed the death to poisoning.

Mirza Mughal (1821-1857)
Zafar’s fifth son by a sayyida (descendant of the Prophet) of aristocratic birth named Sharaf ul-Mahal Sayyidani, who was a senior figure in Zafar’s harem. Mirza Mughal rose to prominence at court as a protege of Zinat Mahal after the disgrace of Mirza Fakhru in 1852 and was appointed qiladar (fort keeper). After the death of Mirza Fakhru in 1856 he was the oldest of Zafar’s surviving legitimate sons, and may at this point have contacted the discontented sepoys in the Company’s army. Certainly, from 12 May onwards he became the principal rebel leader in the royal family, and worked with great industry to keep the Delhi administration running amid the chaos of the Uprising and siege.

Mirza Khizr Sultan (1834-1857)
Zafar’s ninth son, the illegitimate child of a Palace concubine. Aged twenty-three in 1857, he was renowned for his physical beauty and had some capacity as a poet and marksman, but after throwing in his lot with the rebels in 1857, he did little to distinguish himself and ran away in fear from the battle of Badli Ki Serai, so causing a panic among the rebel troops. During the siege, he earned himself a reputation for corruption, and is frequently criticized in the sources for making arrests and collecting taxes from the town’s bankers without authority to do so.

Mirza Abu Bakr (died 1857)
Mirza Abu Bakr was the eldest son of Mirza Fakhru and Zafar’s oldest surviving legitimate grandson; he was also the principal badmash, or ruffian, in the imperial family. Within a few days of the outbreak, Mirza Abu Bakr began appearing in petitions and complaints to the Emperor, accused of whoring and drunkenness, whipping his servants, beating up watchmen, and casually attacking any policeman who tried to rein him in. He took nominal charge of the rebel cavalry, looting Gurgaon and various suburbs of Delhi, before leading the disastrous expedition to Meerut which ended in the rebel defeat at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May.

Mirza Jawan Bakht (1841-1884)
Zafar’s favourite son, and the only child he had by Zinat Mahal. Though he was the fifteenth of his sixteen male offsprings, Zafar was determined to try to make him heir apparent. Spoilt and selfish, Mirza Jawan Bakht had few supporters other than his parents, and took little interest in his studies. During the Uprising, he was kept away from the rebels by his mother, who hoped that after the sepoys’ defeat, her son’s succession would be assured.

Mirza Ilahe Bakhsh
Father-in-law of Mirza Fakhru, grandfather of Mirza Abu Bakr, and one of the leaders of the pro-British faction in the Palace, both before and after 1857. He was in close contact with William Hodson throughout the siege, and was instrumental in persuading Zafar to surrender after the fall of the city. In the weeks that followed, he was responsible for identifying which of his relatives had sympathised with the rebels, and having guaranteed his own life, at the cost of most of his family,. including his own grandson, he became known as the “Traitor of Delhi.”


Hakim Ahsanullah Khan
A highly intelligent, wily and cultured man. The Hakim was Zafar’s most trusted confidant and was appointed the prime minister and personal physician. Before 1857, the Hakim had an uneasy relationship with Zinat Mahal, but they made common cause during 1857, uniting against the rebel army and opening communication with the British. When his letters were discovered by the rebel sepoys, they tried to kill him, but he was protected by Zafar. The Hakim continued to press Zafar not to commit himself to the rebel cause, and to surrender himself to the British. When Zafar ultimately did so, the Hakim betrayed him by providing evidence against him at the trial, in return for his own pardon.

Mahbub Ali Khan (died 1857)
The Chief Eunuch of the Palace and Zinat Mahal’s notoriously ruthless “enforcer” beyond the walls of the zenana. Like his mistress, he was deeply suspicious of the Uprising, and he was a leading member of the pro-British faction in the Palace after the outbreak. His death on 14 June 1857 followed a prolonged illness, but was widely rumoured to be the result of poisoning.

Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” (1797-1869)
The greatest lyric poet in Urdu and from 1854–following the death of his rival Zauq–Poet Laureate of Mughal Delhi. A mystical Sufi by inclination, self consciously rakish and aristocratic by temperament, Ghalib in his writings provides some of the most sophisticated and melancholy records of the destruction of Mughal Delhi in the siege and fall of the city in 1857.

Zahir Dehlavi (1835-1911)
An attendant to Zafar at the Mughal court who had been working in the Fort since his thirteenth birthday. By 1857, he was twenty-two and had risen to the post of Darogah of the Mahi Maraatib, or Keeper of the Dynastic Fish Standard of the Mughals. A pupil of Zauq, he was a highly polished and cultured courtier and poet. His Dastan-i-Ghadr, which has never been previously translated or used in any English language account of the Uprising, gives the fullest and richly detailed surviving account of the course of the siege and Uprising from the point of view of the Palace.


General Bakht Khan
A subahdar of artillery prior to 1857, Bakht Khan was a much garlanded and battle-hardened veteran of the Afghan wars. A tall, portly and heavily built man with huge handlebar moustaches and sprouting sideburns, Bakht Khan had been elected general by the Bareilly troops and arrived in Delhi with a reputation as both an administrator and an effective military leader. When he arrived in Delhi halfway through the siege, on 2 July 1857, it initially looked as if Bakht Khan and his 3,000 men would bring a swift victory to the rebels, but the General’s tactless treatment of other rebel leaders–and particularly of Mirza Mughal–quickly made him enemies, as did his “Wahhabi” religious views. By the middle of August, his failure to dent the British defences led to his demotion from rebel Commander-in-Chief.

General Sudhari Singh and Brigade Major Hira Singh
The leaders of the Nimach Brigade and the principal rivals of Bakht Khan. They refused to accept the latter’s authority and worked to undermine his position, especially after he left their troops to their fate when ambushed by Nicholson’s column at Najafgarh on 25 August.

Brigade Major Gauri Shankar Sukul
Leader of the Haryana Regiment who became the most important British mole and agent provocateur within the rebel ranks.

Maulvi Sarfraz Ali
Bakht Khan’s spiritual mentor, the “Wahhabi” preacher, Maulvi was soon known as “the imam of the Mujahedin.” Prior to the Uprising, he had spent many years in Delhi and was well-connected to both the court and the city. He had been one of the first clerics to preach jihad against the British in the days leading up to the outbreak, and as the siege progressed and the number of jihadis increased, his influence as a rebel leader grew.


Munshi Jiwan Lal
Prior to the outbreak of the Uprising, Jiwan Lal had long been the hugely fat Mir Munshi (Chief Assistant) of Sir Thomas Metcalfe at the British Residency. Although restricted to the cellar of his house during much of the course of the siege, Jiwan Lal ran a highly effective intelligence operation from his hideaway, every day sending out “two Brahmins and two Jats for the purpose of obtaining news of the doings of the rebels from every quarter,” which he in due course passed on to William Hodson, the British chief of intelligence on the Ridge.

Mufti Sadruddin Khan –“Azurda” (died 1868)
Mufti Sadruddin Azurda was a close friend of both Zafar and Ghalib and played an important role as bridge between the British and Mughal elites in the early days of the British ascendancy in Delhi. For thirty years Azurda balanced his roles as chief Muslim judge (Sadr Amin) in Delhi, leading literary figure at court and prominent madrasa teacher with a mild Anglophilia. But, in 1857, alienated by the Company’s encouragement of missionaries, he threw in his lot with the rebels. A natural mediator, he was responsible for reconciling the jihadis, the court and the sepoys during the crisis over cow killing which took place during the ‘Id of 1 August 1857′, so avoiding a potential civil war within the rebel ranks.

Muinuddin Husain Khan
At the outbreak of the Uprising, Muinuddin Husain Khan was the Thanadar, or Head Police Officer at Paharganj police station, a little to the southwest of the walled city.

Sarvar ul-Mulk
A young Mughal nobleman, probably aged around twelve at the time of the outbreak. During the conflict, his Afghan tutor became a jihadi and his father had to defend the family house against the assaults of plundering sepoys. The family escaped from the city just after 14 September, and made it safely to Hyderabad, where Sarvar ul-Mulk eventually wrote a fine description of the siege in his autobiography, My Life.


The Metcalfes

Sir Charles Metcalfe (1785-1846)
The first of the Metcalfes to come to Delhi, in his first spell–initially as assistant to Sir David Ochterloney from 1806, and as Resident from 1811–Charles Metcalfe had fitted in with the tone set by his principal, building himself a house in the Mughal Shalimar Gardens and fathering three sons by a Sikh bibi who (according to family tradition), he married “by Indian rites.” By the time of his return to Delhi as Resident in 1826, Metcalfe had however jettisoned his bibi and begun to take a very different attitude to India and its Mughal rulers. “I have renounced my former allegiance to the house of Timur,” he announced to Lord Bentinck in a letter of 1832, shortly after he had left Delhi to take up position as Member of the Council in Calcutta.

Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853)
Sir Thomas arrived in Delhi in 1813 as assistant to his elder brother, Sir Charles Metcalfe, and stayed there for his entire career, rising to become Resident in 1835. A very particular and fastidious man, Metcalfe dedicated much of his professional life to negotiating a succession settlement that would allow the Company to expel the royal family from the Red Fort on the death of Zafar. He had some affection, but little real respect for the man he was determined should be the last of the Timurid line. Although to Zafar’s face he was always polite, in private, he was less generous. “Zafar is mild and talented,” he wrote, “but lamentably weak and vacillating, and impressed with a very erroneous notion of his own importance.” Having negotiated a succession agreement with Mirza Fakhru that entailed the Mughals leaving the Red Fort, Metcalfe died in 1853 from a digestive disorder that his doctors believed was caused by poison. His family believed the poison was administered on the orders of Zinat Mahal.

Sir Theophilus Metcalfe –“Theo” (1828-1883)
In 1857 Theo Metcalfe was a junior magistrate in the Company’s service, and a very different figure from his father: Where Sir Thomas was reserved and particular; Theo was sociable and expansive, and also, when he wished to be, extremely charming. If his father liked solitude and disliked the business of entertaining, Theo was noisy and convivial, and enjoyed parties, riding horses and dogs. If his father was resolutely self-disciplined and law abiding, Theo tended to cut corners and get into what his father described as “scrapes.” At the outbreak of the Uprising on 11 May 1857, Theo was one of the only British officials within the walls successfully to make his escape, and after joining the Delhi Field Force he took the lead in the bloodthirsty work of revenge.

Sir Edward Campbell (1822-1882)
Son-in-law of Sir Thomas Metcalfe and Prize Agent during the siege of Delhi. Campbell had been a protege of Sir Charles Napier, the former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India, with whom Sir Thomas Metcalfe had had a serious disagreement. Moreover, despite his title, Campbell was more or less penniless, all of which led Sir Thomas initially to try and block Campbell’s engagement to his daughter Georgina (known in the family as “GG”). Campbell’s regiment, the 60th Rifles, was one of the first to try out the new Enfield rifles; after his regiment mutinied, Campbell joined the Delhi Field Force on the Ridge and at the end of the siege was voted Prize Agent, responsible for administering the legalised looting of the captured city, a job for which his gentle and religious temperament was quite unsuited. 


Reverend Midgeley John Jennings (died 1857)
Padre Jennings had come out to India in 1832, and though initially posted to various quiet hill stations, had long dreamt of opening a mission in Delhi and getting stuck into some serious work as “Missionary to the Heathen.”  He finally got the job of chaplain in the Mughal capital in 1852 and moved straight into the front line, the Red Fort itself, having been invited to share the Lahore Gate lodgings of Captain Douglas, Commander of the Palace Guard. His unctuous yet tactless manner won him few friends, and he was regarded as a “bigot” by much of the British community in Delhi. The people of Delhi disliked him even more, especially after he succeeded in converting two prominent Delhi Hindus–Master Ramchandra and Chiman Lal–in 1852. Jennings was personally responsible for convincing many of the people of Delhi that the Company intended to convert them, by force if necessary.

Robert and Harriet Tytler

Robert and Harriet Tytler (Robert died 1872; Harriet died 1907)
Tytler was a veteran of the 38th Native Infantry and an officer of the old school who was close to his sepoys, concerned for their well-being and completely fluent in Hindustani. Tytler appears t have been a kind and sensitive man, a widower with two little children who had recently remarried, this time to the brisk and resilient Harriet. Harriet was half his age and as fluent in Hindustani as her husband. Together the two Tytlers pursued their amateur artistic enthusiasms, and unexpectedly for an army couple–became pioneering photographers. At the outbreak, the couple escaped from Delhi to Ambala, where they eventually joined the Delhi Field Force. Harriet’s memoirs are among the best sources on life on the Ridge during the siege of Delhi, and on the fate of the city after the fall.

Edward Vibart
In 1857 Edward Vibart of the 54th Bengal Native Infantry was a nineteen-year old company commander in Delhi, from an Indian army family: his father was a cavalry officer in Kanpur. During the Uprising, Vibart’s father was killed at the Kanpur massacre, while the son narrowly escaped from the city at the outbreak and survived to take part in the siege and recapture. His memoirs, and particularly his letters, are one of the best sources for the atrocities committed by the British during the taking of the city and during the extended reprisals that followed.


General Sir Archdale Wilson

General Sir Archdale Wilson (1803-1874)
A small, neat, cautious gentleman of fifty-four; Archdale Wilson was one of the station commanders at Meerut at the outbreak of the Mutiny, and later led a column from the garrison which defeated Mirza Abu Bakr at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May. He rendezvoused with the Delhi Field Force at Alipore shortly before the battle of Badli ki Serai on 8 June. Following the death of General Barnard and the resignation of General Reed, he took over command of British forces at the siege of Delhi from 17 July. He quickly put in place a defensive strategy, much criticised at the time but which successfully preserved British strength until reinforcements arrived shortly before the assault on 14 September. During the taking of the city, Wilson’s nerve finally failed him, and at one point John Nicholson threatened to shoot him if he should order a retreat.


Brigadier General John Nicholson

Brigadier General John Nicholson (1821-1857)
A taciturn Ulster Protestant, Nicholas was said to have personally decapitated a local robber chieftain, then kept the man’s head on his desk. He had “a commanding presence, some six feet, two inches in height, with a long black beard, dark grey eyes with black pupils which under excitement would dilate like a tiger’s. For reasons that remain unclear, Nicholson inspired a religious sect, the “Nikal Seyn,” who apparently regarded him as an incarnation of Vishnu.
During the Uprising Nicholson became a legend among the British in India. His mixture of piety, gravity and courage, combined with his merciless capacity for extreme brutality were exactly the qualities needed to put heart into the British troops on the Ridge. There were few who remained immune to the hero-worship of this great imperial psychopath. Shortly after his arrival at the siege, Nicholson led a forced march to ambush a column of sepoys at Najafgarh on 25 August. On 14 September he personally led the assault on the city and was mortally wounded the same day.


William Hodson

William Hodson (1821-1858)
Prior to 1857, William Hodson had been regarded by most of his colleagues as a black sheep. Hodson was the bright, university-educated son of a clergyman, and had risen rapidly to be Adjutant of the new Corps of Guides. His fall from grace was equally sudden. In 1854, Hodson was relieved of his command after an investigation declared that he had embezzled regimental funds. During the Uprising, he founded an irregular cavalry regiment known as Hodson’s Horse, and ran the remarkably efficient British intelligence service on the Delhi Ridge.
On his own authority he negotiated the surrender of Zafar and Zinat Mahal, and on 21 September he brought them captive into Delhi. The following day he went back to bring in princes Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Abu Bakr; then, having separated them from their followers, disarmed them. He told them to strip naked and shot all three dead at point-blank range. He was killed a few months later, in March 1858, at the siege of Lucknow.


Lord Canning (1821-1862)
Canning was a handsome and industrious–if somewhat reserved–Tory politician in his early forties, who had accepted the appointment of Governor General of India ony because of his frustration at his consistent failure to gain a senior Cabinet berth in London. Before his departure he had had no previous interest in India, and having only arrived there in February 1856 hadf yet to leave the heat and damp of Calcutta by the time of the outbreak. However, none of this prevented him from taking a confidently dismissive attitude towards “the farce of Mughal pretensions” and putting in place plans to depose the Mughals within a few weeks of his arrival. After the suppression of the Uprising, he attempted to limit the vindictiveness of the bloody British retribution, with mixed results.

Sir John Lawrence (1811-1879)
Younger brother of Sir Henry Lawrence, who in 1857 was Chief Commissioner in Avadh. Sir John was a former deputy of Sir Thomas Metcalfe in Delhi. John Lawrence had risen rapidly through the ranks of the Company’s civil service thanks to his reputation for hard work and efficiency, and in 1853, he was made Chief Commissioner of the newly conquered Punjab. He forbade his officers from going up to the hills for the hot weather, and made known his disapproval of “a cakery man,” by which he meant someone who, besides presumably liking cakes, “pretended to much elegance and refinement.” In 1857, he proved to be arguably the most capable of all the British officials in North India, disarming mutinous sepoys, raising new irregular regiments and quickly pacifying the Punjab so that the maximum number of troops could be sent to the Delhi Ridge. After the fall of the city, he worked hard to minimise the scale of the retribution, and personally saved Mughal Delhi from a plan to level the entire metropolis.

By courtesy:





Bahadur Shah II


At 4 P.M. on a hazy, humid winter’s afternoon in Rangoon in November 1862, soon after the end of the monsoon, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure. This enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon River, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Around the enclosure lay the newly constructed cantonment area of the port–an anchorage and pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier.

The bier of the State Prisoner–as the deceased was referred to–was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards. Nevertheless, one or two managed to break through the cordon to touch the shroud before it was lowered into the grave.

The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not that only the grave was already dug, but that quantities of lime were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited– no lamentations or panegyrics were allowed–the earth was thrown in over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or so no mark would remain to indicate the place of burial. A week later the British Commissioner, Captain H.N. Davies, wrote to London to report what had passed, adding:

In captivity clockwise: Former Empress Zinat Mahal; Jawan Bakht (son of Zinat Mahal) and son, Mirza Shah Abbas. Zinat Mahal in 1872 in captivity in Rangoon. 

Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners–the very scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct. None of the family appear much affected by the death of the bed-ridden old man. His death was evidently due to pure decrepitude and paralysis in the region of the throat. He expired at 5 o’ clock on the morning of the funeral. The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the population of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Mughals rests.

The State Prisoner Davies referred to was more properly known as Bahadur Shah II, known from his pen-name as Zafar, meaning “Victory”. Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and the descendant of the great world-conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur. His more immediate ancestor Zahir-ud-Din Babur (1483-1530), a young Turkish poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia had first descended the Khyber Pass into India in 1526 with only a small army of hand-picked followers. But with him he brought some of the first cannon seen in Hindustan*, and he used them to carve out a principality that his grandson Akbar (1542-1605) expanded to include most of northern India.

  • Hindustan refers to the region of northern India encompassing the modern Indian states of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where Hindustani is spoken. While the term “India” is relatively rarely used in nineteenth-century Urdu sources, thee is a strong consciousness of the existence of Hindustan as a unit, with Delhi as its political centre. This was the area that was most seriously convulsed in 1857.

The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history. For many, the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilization at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, raised in Agra in memory of his favourite Queen, or the fabulously intricate miniatures of the Padshahnama and the other great Mughal manuscripts.

The Mughals also define Islam at its most tolerant and pluralistic. Their Empire was built in coalition with India’s Hindu majority, particularly the Rajput clans of Rajasthan, who formed a large part of their army. Indeed, the Mughals succeeded almost as much through tact and conciliation as realpolitik was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the Empire’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.

This was particularly so of the Emperor Akbar. He issued an edict of sulh-i-kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.

At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome, Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, entrusted his army to his former enemy, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 By the mid-seventeenth century, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan (1592-1666) ruled an empire that covered most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan. Its army appeared near-invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many shrines quite literally glittered with gold.

But what was built by the tact and conciliation of the first five of the Great Mughals was destroyed by the harsh and repressive rule of the sixth. Shah Jehan’s son Aurangzeb was a ruler as bigoted as the best of his predecessors had been tolerant. The Islamic ‘ulama’ were given a free hand to impose the harshest strictures of sharia law. The playing of music was banned, as was wine-drinking, hashish smoking and prostitution. Hindu temples across the country were destroyed. Aurangzeb re-imposed the jizya tax on Hindus, and executed Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the great teachers of the Sikhs. The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened, literally tore the country in two. On his death in 1707, the Empire fragmented.

By the time Zafar was born in 1775, sixty-eight years after the burial of Aurangzeb, the days of the Mughal Imperium were long gone; but the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India, looking inwards from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime, however, Zafar lived to see his own dynasty finally reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from relatively vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.

Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-sixties, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this, he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi, a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a  profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage,  there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history. Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest lyric poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq–the Mughal Poet Laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart.

While the British progressively took over more and more of the Mughal Emperor’s power, removing his name from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in the obsessive pursuit of the most  cleverly turned ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia, Sufi devotions and visits to pirs, as literary and religious ambition replaced the political variety.

The most closely focused record of the Red Fort at this period is the court diary kept by a news writer for the British Resident, now in the National Archives of India, which contains a detailed day-by-day picture of Zafar’s life. The Last Emperor appears as a benign old man with impeccable manners–even when treated with extreme rudeness by the British. Daily he has olive oil rubbed into his feet to soothe his aches; occasionally he rouses himself to visit a garden, go on a hunting expedition or host a mushaira. Evenings were spent “enjoying the moonlight,” listening to singers or eating fresh mangoes. All the while the aged Emperor tries to contain the infidelities of his young concubines, one of whom becomes pregnant by the most distinguished of the court musicians.

Then, on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys* and cavalry men from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony an subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet Zafar was not a natural insurgent either.

*A sepoy is an Indian infantry private, in this case in the employ o he British East India Company. The word derives from sipahi, the Persian for soldier.

It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an Uprising that  he strongly suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officer less army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military  power, albeit one that had just lost the great majority of the Indian recruits to its Bengal army.

The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. No foreign army was in a position to intervene to support the rebels, and they had limited ammunition, no money and few supplies. The chaos and anarchy that erupted in the countryside proved far more effective at blockading Delhi than the efforts at besieging the city attempted by the British from their perch on the Ridge. The price of food escalated and supplies rapidly dwindled. Soon both the people of Delhi and the sepoys were on the edge of starvation.

The siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom would retreat. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides th combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla* alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1400 citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a nineteen-year old British officer.

It was literally murder . . . I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, we’re most painful . . .Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference . . .

A *muhalla is a distinct quarter or neighborhood of a Mughal city–i.e., a group of residential lanes usually entered through a single gate which would be locked at night.

Captain William Hodson

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then told to strip naked:

“In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,”

Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day.

“I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”

Zafar himself was put on show to visitors. Displayed “like beast in a cage,” according to one British officer. Among his visitors was the Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was told that the prisoner was the mastermind of the most serious armed act of resistance to Western colonialism. He was a “dim, wandering eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote Russell.

Was he, indeed, one who had conceived that vast plan of restoring a great empire, who had fomented the most gigantic mutiny in the history of the world? Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed . . .his eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age . . .Some heard him quoting verses of his own companions, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.

Russell was suitably sceptical of the charges being levelled against Zafar: “He was called ungrateful for rising against his benefactors,” he wrote.

He was no doubt a weak and cruel old man; but to talk of ingratitude on the part of one who saw that all the dominions of his ancestors had been gradually taken from him until he was left with an empty title, and more empty exchequer, and a palace full of penniless princesses, is perfectly preposterous . . .

Nevertheless, the following month Zafar was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved Delhi on a bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken-hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday, 7 November 1862, aged eighty-seven.

With Zafar’s departure, there was complete collapse of the fragile court culture he had faithfully nourished and exemplified. As Ghalib noted: “All things lasted only so long as the king reigned.” By the time of Zafar’s death, much of his palace, the Red Fort, had already been torn down along with great areas of the Mughal Delhi he loved and beautified. Meanwhile the great majority of its leading inhabitants and courtiers–poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars– had been hunted down and hanged, or else dispersed and exiled, many to the Raj’s new, specially constructed gulag in the Andaman Islands. Those who were spared were left in humiliating and conspicuous poverty. As Ghalib, one of the few survivors from the old court, lamented,

“The male descendants of the deposed King–such as survived the sword–draw allowances of five rupees a month. Th female descendants if old are bawds, and if young, are prostitutes.”
The city has become a desert . . . By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment. No Fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses . . . Four things kept Delhi alive– the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower- men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes, there was once a city of that name in the realm of India. . .

We smashed the wine cup and the flask;
What is it now to us
If all the rain that falls from heaven
Should turn to rose- red wine?

By courtesy:



A Life Well Spent On All Counts

The Testament of Mr. Jinnah 1876-1948 

Cigar in hand, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah looking on quizzically as he was being photographed at the Cecil Hotel, Simla, in 1944. | Photo: National Archives Islamabad

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have yet been resolved?

On August 11, 1947, when Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed the first democratically elected Constituent Assembly of his newly independent nation, he told Pakistan’s political leaders that

the first duty of government” was to maintain “law and order … so that the life, property, and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the state.”

Their “second duty,” he continued, was to prevent and punish

“bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down … as soon as possible.” Another “curse,” he added, “was black-marketing … a colossal crime against society, in our distressed condition, when we constantly face shortage of food.”
“If we want to make this great state of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor … If you will work … together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state … We are all citizens and equal citizens of one state.”

Mohammad Ali Jinnah devoted the last two decades of his life to the relentless struggle to realize his brilliant and beautiful dream of an independent state of Pakistan, born just 70 years ago out of the Muslim majority regions of partitioned British India.

Sent to London by his father to study business management, young Jinnah’s fascination with politics was ignited by the Congress Party’s president Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi whose campaign in the British parliament, demanding liberty, equality and justice for all Indians, lured Jinnah to work hard for him, helping Congress’s ‘Grand Old Man’ win his seat by only three votes, after which he was called ‘Mr. Narrow-Majority’.

Jinnah joined the Congress as Dadabhai’s secretary, and enrolled in the City of London’s Lincoln’s Inn, deciding to study law instead of business. His portrait still hangs in that Inn’s hall, its only Asian-born barrister to become governor general of a Commonwealth nation. After he returned to India, Jinnah also joined the Muslim League, brilliantly drafting the Lucknow Pact in l9l6, which was adopted by both the Congress and the Muslim League, as their post-World War I demand for Dominion status in Britain’s Commonwealth.

He launched his singularly successful career as a barrister in Bombay, rather than in his smaller birthplace, Karachi, which was destined to become Pakistan’s first capital. Before the end of the War, Jinnah ‘s negotiating skills and wise moderation earned him the sobriquet, ‘Best Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’. Throughout World War I, both Jinnah and Gandhi had supported the British cause, as did the Indian princes. Brave Muslims of Punjab were recruited to help hold the Maginot Line in France, and to fight and die in Mesopotamia. Congress and the League had hoped that such loyal service would be rewarded with freedom at the end of the War, or at least the promise of Dominion status. Instead, India was forced to accept martial ‘law’ regulations, extended indefinitely, and a brutal massacre of unarmed Sikh peasants in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, leaving 400 innocents dead and over 1,200 wounded.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah enjoying a boat ride, possibly in Dhaka, in the early 1940s. Standing on the left [wearing sherwani] is Khawaja Nazimuddin, who was at the time the Premier of Bengal. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)
Jinnah immediately resigned from the prestigious ‘Muslim seat’ from Bombay he’d been elected to on the Governor General’s Council, arguing that the

fundamental principles of justice have been uprooted and the constitutional rights of the people have been violated at a time when there is no real danger to the state, by an over-fretful and incompetent bureaucracy which is neither responsible to the people nor in touch with real public opinion”.

Gandhi launched his first nationwide Satyagraha in response to Britain’s post-War ‘black acts’ and the Punjab murders. Jinnah, on his part, tried unsuccessfully to caution him against inciting Congress’s masses, who cheered the Mahatma’s revolutionary calls to boycott everything British, including all imported cotton goods from Britain’s midlands, and every British school as well as all commercial and legal institutions.

Jinnah cautioned Gandhi that his movement would lead to greater violence and disaster, but Gandhi insisted that non-violence (Ahimsa) was sacred to him, and Jinnah was booed out of Congress’s largest meeting for calling their Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi – “Mister” Gandhi. Jinnah felt obliged to resign from Congress, and returned to London to live, and practise law, in Hampstead with his sister, Fatima, and teen-aged daughter Dina. But soon Liaquat Ali Khan and other League stalwarts convinced him to return to India to revitalise the Muslim League, over which he would preside for the rest of his life.

“We must stand on our own inherent strength … It is no use blaming others,” Jinnah told the League in Karachi. “It is no use expecting our enemies to behave differently.”

To young Muslims who complained to him about the behaviour of inept League leaders, Jinnah replied, as he might admonish today’s youth: “It is your organisation … no use keeping out and finding faults with it. Come in, and … put it right.”

Faced with Congress’s revolutionary movement, from which most Muslim leaders were alienated, the British tried to win back mass support by holding provincial elections in 1937, devolving regional powers to popularly elected cabinets. Nehru campaigned most vigorously nationwide and led Congress to victory in seven of the 11 British Provinces. Jinnah’s Muslim League, however, faced with a number of competing Muslim regional parties, failed to capture even a single Province with a Muslim majority.

Young Nehru’s heady victory increased his arrogance and contempt for Jinnah, to whom he replied when Jinnah suggested joint cabinets for India’s large multi-ethnic provinces. “Line up!” Jawaharlal shouted. “There are only two parties” left in India, “Congress and the British”. Jinnah insisted, however, that there was a “Third Party; the Muslims!”

“Unless the parties learn to respect and fear each other,” Jinnah told the League, “there is no solid ground for any settlement. We have to organise our people, to build up the Muslim masses for a better world and for their immediate uplift, social and economic, and we have to formulate plans of a constructive and ameliorative character, to give immediate relief from the poverty and wretchedness from which they are suffering.”
Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Khawaja Nazimuddin during the former’s visit to Dhaka in April, 1948. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

Jinnah never again attempted to convince Nehru to agree to Congress-League cabinets, no longer wishing to link the League to Congress’s lumbering bullock-cart of a Party, insisting that the Congress

has now killed every hope of Hindu-Muslim settlement in the right royal fashion of Fascism … We Muslims want no gifts … no concessions. We Muslims of India have made up our mind to secure full rights, but we shall have them as rights … The Congress is nothing but a Hindu body.”

In Lucknow, in December 1937, wearing his black astrakhan Jinnah cap and long dark sherwani, instead of a British barrister’s suit, Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Jinnah presided over his League, assembled in the Raja of Mahmudabad’s garden.

Your foremost duty is to formulate a constructive programme of work for the people’s welfare … Equip yourselves as trained and disciplined soldiers. Create the feeling … of comradeship amongst yourselves. Work loyally, honestly and for the cause of your people and your country. No individual or people can achieve anything without industry, suffering and sacrifice. There are forces which may bully you, tyrannize over you … But it is by going through this crucible of the fire of persecution which may be levelled against you … that a nation will emerge, worthy of its past glory and history, and will live to make the future history greater and more glorious. Eighty millions of Musalmans in India have nothing to fear. They have their destiny in their hands, and as a well-knit, solid, organised, united force can face any danger to its united front and wishes.”

Throughout 1938 and 1939 Jinnah devoted himself to building the strength of the League, advancing it from a few thousand members at Lucknow to half-a-million by March, l940, when the League held its greatest meeting, demanding the creation of Pakistan, in the beautiful imperial Mughal Gardens of Punjab’s mighty capital.

“The Musalmans are a nation,”

Jinnah announced.

“The problem of India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” To “secure the peace and happiness of the people of this subcontinent,” Jinnah added, the British must divide India into “autonomous national states.” 

Pakistan was not mentioned in his speech, however, and every member of the press asked him the next day if he meant one or two new states, since Bengal’s Muslim leader, Fazlul Huq, had chaired the resolutions’ committee that proposed partition the day before Jinnah spoke.

Jinnah knew by then that his lungs were fatally afflicted with cigarette smoke, coughing up blood. He couldn’t wait for Congress and the British to agree to the birth of what later became Bangladesh. So he insisted that his League meant one Pakistan, though divided by a thousand miles of North India.

When the last British Viceroy, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, urged Jinnah to accept him as joint governor general of Pakistan as well as of independent India, the job Nehru offered Mountbatten, Jinnah refused, never charmed by the Royal Mountbattens, as was Nehru, insisting on serving himself as Pakistan’s governor general.

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have as yet been resolved? And of late senseless terrorist murders have been added to Pakistan’s list of dreadful crimes against its innocent, impoverished people, helpless women and children, as well as devout Muslims bent in their prayers even inside the most beautiful mosques of Karachi, Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere.

Jinnah worked tirelessly for Pakistan to become a great nation basking in the sunshine and joy of freedom, enriched by citizens of every faith – Parsis and Hindus, Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims of every sect – all working together, harmoniously helping each other to build this Land of the Pure into one of the world’s strongest, wisest, richest countries. That was what the Great Leader dreamed his nation could and would become long before Pakistan’s birth.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah smiling as he was welcomed at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Karachi in 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

 It would never be easy, he knew, yet Jinnah tried his best to remind his followers of what they needed to do, shortly before Pakistan’s birth, when he had little more than one year left to breathe, losing more blood every day from his diseased lungs.

Often asked by disciples, “What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at?”, Jinnah replied:

It is not theocracy – not for a theocratic state. Religion is there, and religion is dear to us. All the worldly goods are nothing to us when we talk of religion, but there are other things which are very vital – our social life, our economic life …We Muslims have got everything … brains, intelligence, capacity and courage – virtues that nations must possess … But two things are lacking, and I want you to concentrate your attention on these.
One thing is that foreign domination from without and Hindu domination here, particularly in our economic life, has caused a certain degeneration of these virtues in us. We have lost the fullness of our noble character. And what is character? The highest sense of honour and the highest sense of integrity, conviction, incorruptibility, readiness at any time to efface oneself for the collective good of the nation.”

His legacy of wisdom was worthy of the Quaid-i-Azam, who lived a life honouring justice and fair play. Every Pakistani must remember that Jinnah’s fearless integrity would never sanction any terrorist murder, nor the violent abuse of any man, woman or child in his noble Land of the Pure.


Feature Image: Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah autographs his portrait at a reception held in Karachi in December 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID) 

A life well spent on all counts by Stanley Wolpert. The writer is a historian and a well-known biographer, among others, of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Al Jinnah.

Courtesy of 







HBL has been an indelible part of the nation’s fabric since independence, enabling the dreams of millions of Pakistanis. At HBL, we salute the dreamers and dedicate the nation’s 70th anniversary to you. Jahan Khwab, Wahan HBL


Slavery under a different name

100 years since servitude. A century after India stopped sending migrants to work in European colonies, how have their descendants fared?

Mauritius: Dookhee Gungah, born of Indian migrants, began life in 1867 in a shed, and worked as a child cutting sugar cane. By his death in 1944, he was one of the island’s richest businessman. He is a notable example of how some indentured labourers prospered against the odds. Between the 1830s and 1917 around 2 million migrants signed up for ten-year terms (later cut to five) in European colonies. Most were from India, with smaller shares from China, South-East Asia and elsewhere. Some “coolies” were fleeing poverty and hunger; others were coerced or deceived. In British colonies from 1834, and in French and Dutch ones from later, they replaced freed African slaves on sugar and coffee plantations.

“Slavery under a different name” is how the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society described the indenture system in 1839. It had a point. Many migrants died enroute, and at first plantation owners, used to slaves, treated their new workers hardly any better. But conditions gradually improved. When the Indian Legislative Council finally ended indenture, a century ago, it did so because of pressure from Indian nationalists and declining profitability, rather than from humanitarian concerns.

The indentured labourers’ fortunes varied from place to place, according to their numbers, who else lived there, and laws about land tenure and race. But a shared post-colonial identity is now emerging, combining pride in India’s economic rise, religious and cultural traditions-and, increasingly, commemoration of their ancestors’ struggles to establish themselves.

Indo-Mauritians are among the richest and most politically powerful of those descendants. As a British colony, Mauritius took the greatest share of indentured migrants: some 450,000. Their descendants are now two-thirds of the island’s 1.26 million inhabitants. Many of the largest businesses are owned by Franco-Mauritians whose ancestors dated from the earlier French colonisation, though they make up just 2% of the population. But Indo-Mauritians dominate the public sector.

Dookhee Gungah with family, 3rd man from left around 1912

Local legend has it that Dookhee owed his meteoric rise to finding buried treasure. The true story, says his great-grandson, Swetam Gungah, is that “whatever little he had, he would put it aside.” Unlike slaves, indentured labourers were paid, and since most were unable to leave their plantations, they spent little.

Aged 21 Dookhee bought land and started growing sugar cane. “He was savvy enough to diversify. He planted an orchard, started a bakery and much more,” says Mr. Gungah. When the price of sugar plummeted in the 1880s most plantation owners went broke. Dookhee got richer. Other former indentured labourers were also able to buy broke colonists out.

By 1933 Indo-Mauritians owned almost two-fifths of all land planted with sugar cane.

South Africa: land also gave indentured labourers a start, where many were granted plots after their servitude. Koshir Kassie’s great grandfather arrived in the province of Natal and worked on a plantation and then in a gold mine. He saved enough to pay his employer to end his contract early, and bought land. But under apartheid many Indian South Africans, including Mr. Kassie’s family, were forced off their land and into Indian townships.

After indenture, Indians built themselves up,” says Mr. Kassie. “Then came apartheid and they had to start again.”

Many managed to rebuild. Today, Indian South Africans’ average income is three times higher than that of black South Africans, and they are nearly twice as likely to have finished high school. But these days they are politically marginalised. In the first democratic elections in 1994, two thirds voted for the National Party, which had previously defended apartheid. Those with less education particularly resent South Africa’s new system of racial preference in jobs and education for blacks.

Trinidad (seeds in fertile ground): indentured labourers were also granted land. That was less generous than it seems: much of it was ill-suited to growing sugar cane. The Indians, however, discovered it was perfect for rice. Many prospered. But in both places, though people of Indian origin are the largest ethnic group (35% and 40% respectively), they have struggled to gain the level of influence that Indo-Mauritians have. In Mauritius the departing British colonists regarded Indians as the heirs to power. In Trinidad, however, the mantle was passed to Afro-Trinidadians, who were settled decades before indentured labourers arrived. Politics and the public sector operated through a patronage system, which kept Afro-Trinidadians in charge. Even after independence in 1962, Indo-Trinidadians were largely excluded from government and public service tor jobs.
Today, politics is still divided on ethnic lines, with the People’s National Movement supported by Afro-Trinidadians and the People’s Partnership coalition supported by Indo-Trinidadians. But socially, the groups are mingling more-and increasingly intermarrying.

Nearly a quarter of the population identifies as mixed race.

Guyana (formerly British Guiana): ethnic divisions cut much deeper. Compared with Trinidad, its sheer size meant ethnic groups formed more segregated communities. A fragile inter-ethnic harmony, nonetheless, prevailed for the first half of the 20th century. That ended in 1964, when a pre-election conflict broke out between the largely Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress and the largely Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party.

The resulting violence led to hundreds of deaths and thousands fleeing abroad.

Ethnic divisions persisted after independence in 1966, and were worsened by economic hardship. Even as Trinidad boomed because of oil, disastrous left-wing policies reduced resource-rich Guyana to one of South America’s poorest countries. But in 2015 a multi-racial coalition came to power, promising unity. Although change is slow-the government is still mostly Afro-Guyanese and Mr. Ali says Indo-Guyanese who joined the coalition have been called traitors–elections in 2020 offer another glimmer of hope. Younger Guyanese are further distanced from the events of the 1960s.

The mixed-race population, now around 20%, is growing.

Fiji: indentured workers’ descendants have done least well where their ancestors could not own land, as in Fiji. Its indigenous population resented the new arrivals, and the British made promises about land ownership to their tribal chiefs. Many Indo-Fijians became tenant farmers, and for part of the 20th century did quite well, says Crispin Bates, who leads a project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled “Becoming Coolies“. But when their leases came to an end, starting in the 1980s, their status declined.

Sporadic attempts to improve their position after independence in 1970 ended with a coup in 1987. A new constitution reserved majority for ethnic Fijian in both houses of parliament. Over 10,000 Indo-Fijians left the island as a result. Two further coups centered their rights. Finally, in 2013 Indo-Fijians were given equal status in the constitution. And in 2014, in free elections, Frank Bainimarama (who led the most recent coup, in 2006) won with an anti-racist message. His task is considerable: though land has been made easier to lease,

holdings by ethnic Fijians still cannot be sold. Indo-Fijians are still excluded-and ethnic Fijian are newly aggrieved. Anti-Indian sentiment is rampant.

Pride and prejudice: in most places that took indentured labourers, racial animus persists. Their arrival was “a real trauma” for indigenous and former slave-populations, says Mr. Bates. In Trinidad and Guyana “coolie” is used as a slur (and the Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadians have plenty of racist terms for their compatriots of African original). In Fiji and the French Caribbean “z’Indiens” are stereotyped as money-grubbing, and mocked in expressions such as “fair con an coolie” (“weak as a coolie” in Guadeloupe creole). In the 1970s, a Fijian politician, Sakesai Butadroka, said in Parliament that “people of Indian origin” should be “repatriated back to India“. As recently as 2014 a popular song by the Zulu band, AmaCde, called on black Southern Africans to confront Indians and “send them home“.

Strangers in strange lands, indentured labourers and their descendants preserved some traditions, from caste practices to recipes. From the 1880s the Arya Samaj, a religious group, attempted to reinstate Hindu culture in the diaspora–which rallied in turn, behind Gandhi’s Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. During periods of ethnic strife in the 20th century hyphenated-Indian communities turned inwards for self-protection.

In recent years, though a new kind of “Indian pride” has begun to take form. Mauritius has had strong links with India since post-independence, tax and trade deals. But of a recent visit to Mauritius, Ashutosh Kumar, the author of a new book about indenture, ” Coolies of the Empire“, says “the way Mauritian were discussing Indian politics: it was like I was back home in India.”

In Trinidad, which got its first Indo-Trinidadian prime minister in 1995, there is “a new sense of Indian cultural pride“, says Andil Gosine, an Indo-Trinidadian academic in Canada. “When I go back now I see loads of people wearing saris which they wouldn’t have done before.”

This cultural really revivalism is, to some extent, the work of Hindu nationalists, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Prasad (World Hindu Council). It has recently devoted more attention to the diaspora-which stirred up tensions between Hindus and Muslims. More is due to India’s rise as an economic power. Diaspora Indians are seeking to “bask in the reflected glory of their motherland”, says Mr. Kumar.

Khal Torabully, a Mauritian poet of mixed Indian descent, has coined the word “coolitude” for a new identity, which mixes heritage from India and the other sending countries with a century of history in racially diverse former colonies. Acknowledging their ancestors’ servitude as part of that can be uncomfortable. Indian South Africans are “proud to be an Indian“, says Mr. Kassie, but “don’t like to talk about indenture much”.

Making sense of displacement and difference, struggle and success, is also a work in progress for host countries. But some have started to weave the history of indentured labourers into their national narratives. In 2006 Aapravasi Ghat, where they first arrived in Mauritius, was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. In the same year the Indian Caribbean Museum opened in Waterloo, Trinidad. Last year the 1860 Indian Museum, dedicated to indenture, opened in Durban.

We still have a lot of problems to think of ourselves as Mauritians,” says Mr. Torabully. “But remembering indenture, just as we remember slavery, is at the heart of that identity.”
2017-09-10 18.39.00 (1)
Indentured Labour in the Age of Imperialism

 By courtesy: The Economist Sept. 2, 2017

Defending John Alexander Macdonald Erases History Twice


The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB KCMG PC PCc QC, 1st Prime Minister of Canada

Recent condemnations of the unsavory aspects of John A. Macdonald’s record have drawn accusations of “presentism”: inappropriate application of 21st-century notions of justice to 19th-century history.

Canada’s prime minister helped eviscerate the self-determination of Indigenous nations and subjugate them to colonial rule, through laws like the Gradual Civilization of Indians Act in 1857 (when he was attorney general for Canada West) and the first federal Indian Act in 1869; he deliberately inflicted mass starvation on Indigenous communities, in violation of treaty obligations, to clear the western plains for railway construction and European resettlement.

Macdonald introduced the “pass system” which confined Indigenous people on reserves and prevented them from leaving without written permission from the Indian agent, an initiative that colonials acknowledged at the time was illegal; he was the architect of the residential school system, designed to take Indigenous children away from their “savage” parents in order to inculcate “the habits and thoughts of white men;” he criminalized Indigenous ceremonies and dances, which he deplored as “debauchery of the worst kind.”

Macdonald cheered the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War, and had family connections to the Caribbean slave trade; he justified keeping the death penalty for rape with the lie that Black men were “very prone to felonious assaults on white women;” he barred Chinese people from voting, and imposed a “head tax” on their immigration because he believed that “Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics”-a position that was considered extreme eve by many of his political contemporaries, according to University of Ottawa historian Timothy Stanley.

Present day supporters of Macdonald’s legacy maintain that he was a man of his era, so it is unfair to judge him by the standard o ours. They recite a list of other leaders with similar repugnant records- like George Washington, who enslaved hundreds of Black people; and Wilfrid Laurier, who increased the anti-Chinese “head tax” and tried to ban Black immigration–to apparently prove that Macdonald’s views were universal for his time. This ignores all the Indigenous, Black and Asian women and men of Macdonald’s time who never accepted the racist premise that they were inferior breeds of humanity. It ignores that all those who spoke and struggled against the injustice of being exterminated, expropriated, exploited and excluded on the basis of white supremacist myths- for example, the Plains Cree people who protested and resisted being criminalized , starved and robbed of their lands by the Canadian government in the 19th century.

In 1884, Chief Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) castigated Canadian officials’ contravention of treaties supposedly signed in food faith: “Government came from far away to this place where we belong and said we must have a treaty . . . He said, ‘We are one blood, I want to help you stand on the same place with my white children, to live together like brothers. We are not going to buy your land’ . . .I see (now) how government agents bring us everything crooked. They take our lands, they sell them and they buy themselves fine coats.”

And in 1897, Chief Peyasiw-awasis (Thunderchild) objected to the unfairness of being jailed for participating in a traditional Give-Away Dance, under a law originally introduced by Macdonald: “Can things go well in a land where freedom of worship is a lie, a hollow boast? To each nation is given the light by which it knows God . . .Why has the white man no respect for the religion that is given to us, when we respect the faith of other nations?”

Macdonald current defenders accuse his critics of trying to erase history, but they erase history twice by minimizing Macdonald’s misdeeds, and by deleting those who opposed them. Denouncing Macdonald for his racism is not judging him anachronistically by the standards of our time; it is judging him by the standards of those on the receiving end of racist and colonial violence in his time. The fact that other celebrated Canadian leaders held similar prejudices is not an exculpation of Macdonald, but treating the perspectives of a handful of powerful white men as the only relevant ones for understanding the past, we perpetuate their racist legacy in the present.

Courtesy of :  Ms. Azeezah Kanji, The Toronto  Star, September 7, 2017



John A. Macdonald in 1858

Sir John Alexander Macdonald (11 January 1815 – 6 June 1891) was the first Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891). The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, he had a political career which spanned almost half a century.

Macdonald was born in Scotland; when he was a boy his family immigrated to Kingston in the Province of Upper Canada (today in eastern Ontario). As a lawyer, he was involved in several high-profile cases and quickly became prominent in Kingston, which elected him in 1844 to the legislature of the Province of Canada. By 1857, had become premier under the colony’s unstable political system.

In 1864, when no party proved capable of governing for long, Macdonald agreed to a proposal from his political rival, George Brown, that the parties unite in a Great Coalition to seek federation and political reform. Macdonald was the leading figure in the subsequent discussions and conferences, which resulted in the British North America Act and the birth of Canada as a nation on 1 July 1867. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister of the new nation, and served 19 years; only William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer.

In 1873, he resigned from office over the Pacific Scandal, in which his party took bribes from businessmen seeking the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, he was re-elected in 1878, continuing until he died in office in 1891. Macdonald’s greatest achievements were building and guiding a successful national government for the new Dominion, using patronage to forge a strong Conservative Party, promoting the protective tariff of the National Policy, and completing the railway. He fought to block provincial efforts to take power back from the national government in Ottawa. His most controversial move was to approve the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel for treason in 1885; it alienated many francophones from his Conservative Party. He died in 1891, still in office; he is respected today for his key role in the formation of Canada.


Law career, 1830-1843

Legal training and early career, 1830-1837

Macdonald’s parents decided he should become a lawyer after leaving school. As Donald Creighton (who penned a two-volume biography of Macdonald in the 1950s) wrote, “law was a broad, well-trodden path to comfort, influence, even to power”.  It was also “the obvious choice for a boy who seemed as attracted to study as he was uninterested in trade.” Besides, Macdonald needed to start earning money immediately to support his family because his father’s businesses were again failing. “I had no boyhood,” he complained many years later. “From the age of 15, I began to earn my own living.”

Macdonald travelled by steamboat to Toronto (known until 1834 as York), where he passed an examination set by The Law Society of Upper Canada, including mathematics, Latin, and history. British North America had no law schools in 1830; students were examined when beginning and ending their tutelage. Between the two examinations, they were apprenticed, or articled to established lawyers. Macdonald began his apprenticeship with George Mackenzie, a prominent young lawyer who was a well-regarded member of Kingston’s rising Scottish community. Mackenzie practiced corporate law, a lucrative specialty that Macdonald himself would later pursue. Macdonald was a promising student, and in the summer of 1833, managed the Mackenzie office when his employer went on a business trip to Montreal and Quebec in Lower Canada (today the southern portion of the province of Quebec). Later that year, Macdonald was sent to manage the law office of a Mackenzie cousin who had fallen ill.

In August 1834, George Mackenzie died of cholera. With his supervising lawyer dead, Macdonald remained at the cousin’s law office in Hallowell (today Picton, Ontario). In 1835, Macdonald returned to Kingston, and even though not yet of age nor qualified, began his practice as a lawyer, hoping to gain his former employer’s clients.  Macdonald’s parents and sisters also returned to Kingston, and Hugh Macdonald became a bank clerk.

Soon after Macdonald was called to the Bar in February 1836, he arranged to take in two students; both became, like Macdonald, Fathers of Confederation. Oliver Mowat became premier of Ontario, and Alexander Campbell a federal cabinet minister and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. One early client was Eliza Grimason, an Irish immigrant then aged sixteen, who sought advice concerning a shop she and her husband wanted to buy. Grimason would become one of Macdonald’s richest and most loyal supporters, and may have also become his lover.  Macdonald joined many local organisations, seeking to become well known in the town. He also sought out high-profile cases, representing accused child rapist William Brass. Brass was hanged for his crime, but Macdonald attracted positive press comments for the quality of his defence. According to his biographer, Richard Gwyn:

As a criminal lawyer who took on dramatic cases, Macdonald got himself noticed well beyond the narrow confines of the Kingston business community. He was operating now in the arena where he would spend by far the greatest part of his life – the court of public opinion. And, while there, he was learning the arts of argument and of persuasion that would serve him all his political life.

Legal prominence, 1837-43

All male Upper Canadians between 18 and 60 years of age were members of the Sedentary Militia, which was called into active duty during the Rebellions of 1837. Macdonald served as a private in the militia, patrolling the area around Kingston, but the town saw no real action and Macdonald was not called upon to fire on the enemy.

Although most of the trials resulting from the Upper Canada Rebellion took place in Toronto, Macdonald represented one of the defendants in the one trial to take place in Kingston. All the Kingston defendants were acquitted, and a local paper described Macdonald as “one of the youngest barristers in the Province [who] is rapidly rising in his profession”.

Battle of the Windmill, near Prescott, Upper Canada, 13 November 1838

In late 1838, Macdonald agreed to advise one of a group of American raiders who had crossed the border to liberate Canada from what they saw as the yoke of British colonial oppression. The inept invaders had been captured after the Battle of the Windmill (near Prescott, Ontario), in which 16 Canadians were killed and 60 wounded. Public opinion was inflamed against the prisoners, as they were accused of mutilating the body of a dead Canadian lieutenant. Macdonald biographer Donald Creighton wrote that Kingston was “mad with grief and rage and horror” at the allegations. Macdonald could not represent the prisoners, as they were tried by court-martial and civilian counsel had no standing. At the request of Kingston relatives of Daniel George, paymaster of the ill-fated invasion, Macdonald agreed to advise George, who, like the other prisoners, had to conduct his own defence. George was convicted and hanged. According to Macdonald biographer Donald Swainson, “By 1838, Macdonald’s position was secure. He was a public figure, a popular young man, and a senior lawyer.”

Macdonald continued to expand his practice while being appointed director of many companies, mainly in Kingston. Macdonald became both a director of and a lawyer for the new Commercial Bank of the Midland District. Throughout the 1840s, Macdonald invested heavily in real estate, including commercial properties in downtown Toronto.  Meanwhile, he was suffering from some illness, and in 1841, his father died. Sick and grieving, he decided to take a lengthy holiday in Britain in early 1842. He left for the journey well supplied with money, as he spent the last three days before his departure gambling at the card game loo and winning substantially. Sometime during his two months in Britain, he met his first cousin, Isabella Clark. As Macdonald did not mention her in his letters home, the circumstances of their meeting are not known.  In late 1842, Isabella journeyed to Kingston to visit with a sister.  The visit stretched for nearly a year before John and Isabella Macdonald married on 1 September 1843.

Political rise, 1843-64

Parliamentary advancement, 1843-57

In February 1843, Macdonald announced his candidacy for the post of alderman in Kingston’s Fourth Ward. On 29 March 1843, Macdonald celebrated his first election victory, with 156 votes against 43 for his opponent, a Colonel Jackson. He also suffered what he termed his first downfall, as his supporters, carrying the victorious candidate, accidentally dropped him onto a slushy street.

The British Parliament had merged Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada effective in 1841. Kingston became the initial capital of the new province; Upper Canada and Lower Canada became known as Canada West and Canada East.  In March 1844, Macdonald was asked by local businessmen to stand as Conservative candidate for Kingston in the upcoming legislative election. Macdonald followed the contemporary custom of supplying the voters with large quantities of alcohol.  In the era preceding the secret ballot when votes were publicly declared, Macdonald defeated his opponent, Anthony Manahan, by 275 “shouts” to 42 when the two-day election concluded on 15 October 1844.  At that time, the Legislative Assembly met in Montreal. Macdonald was never an orator, and especially disliked the bombastic addresses of the time. Instead, he found a niche in becoming an expert on election law and parliamentary procedure.

In 1844, Isabella fell ill. She recovered, but the illness recurred the following year, and she became an invalid. John Macdonald took his wife to Savannah, Georgia, in the United States in 1845, hoping that the sea air and warmth would cure her ailments. Although John Macdonald could return to Canada after six months, Isabella remained in the United States for three years. He visited her again in New York at the end of 1846, and returned several months later when she informed him she was pregnant.  In August 1847 their son John Alexander Macdonald Jr. was born in New York, but as Isabella remained ill, relatives cared for the infant.

Although he was often absent due to his wife’s illness, Macdonald could gain professional and political advancement. In 1846, he was made a Queen’s Counsel. The same year, he was offered the non-cabinet post of Solicitor General, but declined it. In 1847, the Joint Premier, William Henry Draper, appointed Macdonald as Receiver General.  Accepting the government post required Macdonald to give up his law firm income and spend most of his time in Montreal, away from Isabella. When elections were held in December 1848 and January 1849, Macdonald was easily re-elected for Kingston, but the Conservatives lost seats and were forced to resign when the legislature reconvened in March 1848. Macdonald returned to Kingston when the legislature was not sitting, and Isabella joined him there in June. In August, the child John Jr. died suddenly.  In March 1850, Isabella Macdonald gave birth to another boy, Hugh John Macdonald, and his father wrote, “We have got Johnny back again, almost his image.”  Macdonald began to drink heavily around this time, both in public and in private, which Patricia Phenix, who studied Macdonald’s private life, attributes to his family troubles.

The Liberals, or Grits, maintained power in the 1851 election, but soon, they were divided by a parliamentary scandal. In September, the government resigned, and a coalition government uniting parties from both parts of the province under Sir Allan MacNab took power. Macdonald did much of the work of putting the government together and served as Attorney General. The coalition which came to power in 1854 became known as the Liberal-Conservatives (referred to, for short, as the Conservatives). In 1855, George-Étienne Cartier of Canada East (today Quebec) joined the Cabinet. Until Cartier’s 1873 death, he would be Macdonald’s political partner. In 1856, MacNab was eased out as premier by Macdonald, who became the leader of the Canada West Conservatives. Though the most powerful man in the government he remained as Attorney General, with Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché as premier.

Colonial leader, 1858-64

In July 1857, Macdonald departed for Britain to promote Canadian government projects. On his return to Canada, he was appointed premier in place of the retiring Taché, just in time to lead the Conservatives in a general election.  Macdonald was elected in Kingston by 1,189 votes to 9 for John Shaw, who was subsequently hanged in effigy; other Conservatives, however, did badly in Canada West, and only French-Canadian support kept Macdonald in power.  On 28 December, Isabella Macdonald died, leaving John A. Macdonald a widower with a seven-year-old son. Hugh John Macdonald would be principally raised by his paternal aunt and her husband.

The Assembly had voted to move the seat of government permanently to Quebec City. Macdonald had opposed that, and used his power to force the Assembly to reconsider in 1857. Macdonald proposed that Queen Victoria decide which city should be Canada’s capital. Opponents, especially from Canada East, argued that the Queen would not make the decision in isolation; she would be bound to receive informal advice from her Canadian ministers. Nevertheless, Macdonald’s scheme was adopted, with Canada East support assured by allowing Quebec City to serve a three-year term as the seat of government before the Assembly moved to the permanent capital. Macdonald privately asked the Colonial Office to ensure that the Queen would not respond for at least 10 months, or until after the general election.  In February 1858, the Queen’s choice was announced, much to the dismay of many legislators from both parts of the province: the isolated Canada West town of Ottawa.

On 28 July 1858, an opposition Canada East member proposed an address to the Queen informing her that Ottawa was an unsuitable place for a national capital. Macdonald’s Canada East party members crossed the floor to vote for the address, and the government was defeated. Macdonald resigned, and the Governor General, Sir Edmund Walker Head, invited opposition leader George Brown to form a government. Under the law at that time, Brown and his ministers lost their seats in the Assembly by accepting office, and had to face by-elections. This gave Macdonald a majority pending the by-elections, and he promptly defeated the government. Head refused Brown’s request for a dissolution of the Assembly, and Brown and his ministers resigned. Head then asked Macdonald to form a government. The law allowed anyone who had held a ministerial position within the last thirty days to accept a new position without needing to face a by-election; Macdonald and his ministers accepted new positions, then completed what was dubbed the “Double Shuffle” by returning to their old posts.  To give the appearance of fairness, Head insisted that Cartier be titular premier, with Macdonald as his deputy.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Canada enjoyed a period of great prosperity. The railroad and telegraph improved communications. According to Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn, “In short, Canadians began to become a single community.”  At the same time, the provincial government became increasingly difficult to manage. An act affecting both Canada East and Canada West required a “double majority”—most legislators from each of the two sections of the province. This led to increasing deadlock in the Assembly.  The two sections each elected 65 legislators, even though Canada West had a larger population. One of Brown’s major demands was “rep by pop”, that is, representation by population, which would lead to Canada West having more seats, and was bitterly opposed by Canada East.

The American Civil War led to fears in Canada and in Britain that once the Americans had concluded their internal warfare, they would invade Canada again. Britain asked the Canadians to pay a part of the expense of defence, and a Militia Bill was introduced in the Assembly in 1862. The opposition objected to the expense, and Canada East representatives feared that French-Canadians would have to fight in a British-instigated war. At the time, Macdonald was drinking heavily, and he failed to provide much leadership on behalf of the bill. The government fell over the bill, and the Grits took over under the leadership of John Sandfield Macdonald (no relation to John A. Macdonald). John A. Macdonald did not remain out of power long; the parties remained closely matched, with a handful of independents able to destroy any government. The new government fell in May 1863, but Head allowed a new election, which made little change to party strength. In December 1863, Canada West MP Albert Norton Richards accepted the post of Solicitor-General, and so had to face a by-election. John A. Macdonald campaigned against Richards personally, and Richards was defeated by a Conservative. The switch in seats cost the Grits their majority, and they resigned in March. John A. Macdonald returned to office with Taché as titular premier. The Taché-Macdonald government was defeated in June. The parties were deadlocked to such an extent that, according to Swainson, “It was clear to everybody that the constitution of the Province of Canada was dead”.

Confederation of Canada, 1864-67

The Quebec Conference. Macdonald seated, fourth from left

As his government had fallen again, Macdonald approached the new governor general, Lord Monck, and obtained a dissolution. Before he could act on it, he was approached by Brown through intermediaries; the Grit leader felt that the crisis gave the parties the opportunity to join for constitutional reform. Brown had led a parliamentary committee on confederation among the British North American colonies, which had reported back just before the Taché-Macdonald government fell.  Brown was more interested in representation by population; Macdonald’s priority was a federation that the other colonies could join. The two compromised and agreed that the new government would support the “federative principle”—a conveniently elastic phrase. The discussions were not public knowledge and Macdonald stunned the Assembly by announcing that the dissolution was being postponed because of progress in negotiations with Brown—the two men were not only political rivals, but were known to hate each other.

The parties resolved their differences, joining in the Great Coalition, with only the Parti rouge of Canada East, led by Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, remaining apart. A conference, called by the Colonial Office, was scheduled for 1 September 1864 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; the Maritimes were to consider a union. The Canadians obtained permission to send a delegation—led by Macdonald, Cartier, and Brown—to what became known as the Charlottetown Conference. At its conclusion, the Maritime delegations expressed a willingness to join a confederation if the details could be worked out.

In October 1864, delegates for confederation met in Quebec City for the Quebec Conference, where the Seventy-Two Resolutions were agreed to—they would form the basis of Canada’s government.  The Great Coalition was endangered by Taché’s 1865 death: Lord Monck asked Macdonald to become premier, but Brown felt that he had as good a claim on the position as his coalition partner. The disagreement was resolved by appointing another compromise candidate to serve as titular premier, Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau.

In 1865, after lengthy debates, Canada’s legislative assembly approved confederation by 91 votes to 33. None of the Maritimes, however, had approved the plan. In 1866, Macdonald and his colleagues financed pro-confederation candidates in the New Brunswick general election, resulting in a pro-confederation assembly. Shortly after the election, Nova Scotia’s premier, Charles Tupper, pushed a pro-confederation resolution through that colony’s legislature.  A final conference, to be held in London, was needed before the British parliament could formalise the union. Maritime delegates left for London in July 1866, but Macdonald, who was drinking heavily again, did not leave until November, angering the Maritimers.  In December 1866, Macdonald both led the London Conference, winning acclaim for his handling of the discussions, and wooed and won his second wife, Agnes Bernard.  Bernard was the sister of Macdonald’s private secretary, Hewitt Bernard; the couple first met in Quebec in 1860, but Macdonald had seen and admired her as early as 1856. In January 1867, while still in London, he was seriously burned in his hotel room when his candle set fire to the chair he had fallen asleep in, but Macdonald refused to miss any sessions of the conference. In February, he married Agnes at St George’s, Hanover Square. On 8 March, the British North America Act, which would thereafter serve as the major part of Canada’s constitution, passed the House of Commons (it had previously passed the House of Lords).  Queen Victoria gave the bill Royal Assent on 29 March 1867.

Macdonald had favoured the union coming into force on 15 July, fearing that the preparations would not be completed any earlier. The British favoured an earlier date and, on 22 May, it was announced that the Dominion of Canada would come into existence on 1 July.  Lord Monck appointed Macdonald as the new nation’s first prime minister. With the birth of the Dominion, Canada East and Canada West became separate provinces, known as Quebec and Ontario.  Macdonald was knighted on that first observance of what came to be known as Canada Day, 1 July 1867.

Prime Minister of Canada

Canada’s economic growth was quite slow at only 1% annually 1867-1896. Canada verged on stagnation so many residents emigrated to the United States, where growth was much more rapid. Macdonald’s solution was to build the transcontinental railroad to stimulate growth, and to implement a “National Policy” of high tariffs that would protect the small Canadian firms from American competition.

First majority, 1867-71

Timeline of the evolution of Canada’s boundaries since 1867

Macdonald and his government faced immediate problems upon formation of the new country. Much work remained to do in creating a federal government. Nova Scotia was already threatening to withdraw from the union; the Intercolonial Railway, which would both conciliate the Maritimes and bind them closer to the rest of Canada, was not yet built. Anglo-American relations were in a poor state, and Canadian foreign relations were matters handled from London. The withdrawal of the Americans in 1866 from the Reciprocity Treaty had increased tariffs on Canadian goods in US markets.  Much of present-day Canada remained outside confederation—in addition to the separate colonies of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and British Columbia, which remained governed by the British, vast areas in the north and west belonged to the British and to the Hudson’s Bay Company.  American and British opinion was that the experiment of Confederation would quickly unravel, and the nascent nation absorbed by the United States.

In August 1867, the new nation’s first general election was held; Macdonald’s party won easily, with strong support in both large provinces, and a majority from New Brunswick. Parliament convened in November, surprisingly without Brown, who was defeated in Ontario and never served as a member of the House of Commons of Canada. By 1869, Nova Scotia had agreed to remain part of Canada after a promise of better financial terms—the first of many provinces to negotiate concessions from Ottawa.  Pressure from London and Ottawa failed to gain the accession of Newfoundland, whose voters rejected a Confederation platform in a general election in October 1869.

Macdonald in 1870, age 55

In 1869, John and Agnes Macdonald had a daughter, Mary. It soon became apparent that Mary had ongoing developmental issues. She was never able to walk, nor did she ever fully develop mentally. Hewitt Bernard, Deputy Minister of Justice and Macdonald’s former secretary, also lived in the Macdonald house in Ottawa, together with Bernard’s widowed mother. In May 1870, John Macdonald fell ill with gallstones; coupled with his frequent drinking, he may have developed a severe case of acute pancreatitis. In July, he moved to Prince Edward Island to convalesce, most likely conducting discussions aimed at drawing the island into Confederation at a time when some there supported joining the United States. The island joined Confederation in 1873.

Macdonald had once been tepid on the question of westward expansion of the Canadian provinces; as Prime Minister, he became a strong supporter of a bicoastal Canada. Immediately upon Confederation, he sent commissioners to London who in due course successfully negotiated the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada.  The Hudson’s Bay Company received $1,500,000, and retained some trading posts as well as one-twentieth of the best farmland.  Prior to the effective date of acquisition, the Canadian government faced unrest in the Red River Colony (today southeastern Manitoba, centred on Winnipeg). The local people, including the Métis, were fearful that rule would be imposed on them which did not consider their interests, and rose in the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel. Unwilling to pay for a territory in insurrection, Macdonald had troops put down the uprising before 15 July 1870 formal transfer, but because of the unrest, the Red River Colony joined Confederation as the province of Manitoba, while the rest of the purchased lands became the North-West Territories. Following the North-West Rebellion of 1885 Macdonald implemented restrictions upon the movement of indigenous groups, requiring them to receive formal permission from an Indian Department Official to go off reserve.

“We don’t want you here.” Annexation to the United States was a political issue in Canada’s early days. In this anti-annexation cartoon by John Wilson Bengough from an 1869 issue of Grinchuckle, Uncle Sam is given the boot by Young Canada as John Bull looks on approvingly.

Macdonald also wished to secure the Colony of British Columbia. There was interest in the United States in bringing about the colony’s annexation, and Macdonald wished to ensure his new nation had a Pacific outlet. The colony had an extremely large debt that would have to be assumed should it join Confederation. Negotiations were conducted in 1870, principally during Macdonald’s illness and recuperation, with Cartier leading the Canadian delegation. Cartier offered British Columbia a railroad linking it to the eastern provinces within 10 years. The British Columbians, who privately had been prepared to accept far less generous terms, quickly agreed and joined Confederation in 1871. The Canadian Parliament ratified the terms after a debate over the high cost that cabinet member Alexander Morris described as the worst fight the Conservatives had had since Confederation.

There were continuing disputes with the Americans over deep-sea fishing rights, and in early 1871, an Anglo-American commission was appointed to settle outstanding matters between the British (and Canadians) and the Americans. Canada was hoping to secure compensation for damage done by Fenians raiding Canada from bases in the United States. Macdonald was appointed a British commissioner, a post he was reluctant to accept as he realised Canadian interests might be sacrificed for the mother country. This proved to be the case; Canada received no compensation for the raids and no significant trade advantages in the settlement, which required Canada to open her waters to American fishermen. Macdonald returned home to defend the Treaty of Washington against a political firestorm.

Second majority and Pacific Scandal, 1872-73

In the run-up to the 1872 election, Macdonald had yet to formulate a railway policy, or to devise the loan guarantees that would be needed to secure the construction. During the previous year, Macdonald had met with potential railway financiers such as Hugh Allan and considerable financial discussion took place. Nevertheless, the greatest political problem Macdonald faced was the Washington treaty, which had not yet been debated in Parliament.

In early 1872, Macdonald submitted the treaty for ratification, and it passed the Commons with a majority of 66. The general election was held through late August and early September (future Canadian elections would be conducted, for the most part, on one day). Redistribution had given Ontario increased representation in the House; Macdonald spent much time campaigning in the province, for the most part outside Kingston. Widespread bribery of voters took place throughout Canada, a practice especially effective in the era when votes were publicly declared; in future elections, the secret ballot would be used. Macdonald and the Conservatives saw their majority reduced from 35 to 8. The Liberals (as the Grits were coming to be known) did better than the Conservatives in Ontario, forcing the government to rely on the votes of Western and Maritime MPs who did not fully support the party.

“Whither are we drifting?” Macdonald is shown triumphant at obtaining a prorogation, but is trampling a weeping Canada and apparently drunk with bottle in pocket in this August 1873 cartoon by John Wilson Bengough. Macdonald is depicted claiming clean hands, but with “Send me another $10,000″ written on his palm.

Macdonald had hoped to award the charter for the Canadian Pacific Railway in early 1872, but negotiations dragged on between the government and the financiers. Macdonald’s government awarded the Allan group the charter in late 1872. In 1873, when Parliament opened, Liberal MP Lucius Seth Huntington charged that government ministers had been bribed with large, undisclosed political contributions to award the charter. Documents soon came to light which substantiated what came to be known as the Pacific Scandal. The Allan-led financiers, who were secretly backed by the United States’s Northern Pacific Railway, had donated $179,000 to the Tory election funds, they had received the charter, and Opposition newspapers began to publish telegrams signed by government ministers requesting large sums from the railway interest at the time the charter was under consideration. Macdonald had taken $45,000 in contributions from the railway interest himself. Substantial sums went to Cartier, who waged an expensive fight to try to retain his seat in Montreal East (he was defeated, but was subsequently returned for the Manitoba seat of Provencher). During the campaign Cartier had fallen ill with Bright’s disease, which may have been causing his judgment to lapse; he died in May 1873 while seeking treatment in London.

Even before Cartier’s death, Macdonald attempted to use delay to extricate the government. The Opposition responded by leaking documents to friendly newspapers. On 18 July, three papers published a telegram dated August 1872 from Macdonald requesting another $10,000 and promising “it will be the last time of asking”. Macdonald could get a prorogation of Parliament in August by appointing a Royal Commission to consider the matter, but when Parliament reconvened in late October, the Liberals, feeling Macdonald could be defeated over the issue, applied immense pressure to wavering members.

On 3 November, Macdonald rose in the Commons to defend the government, and according to his biographer P.B. Waite, gave “the speech of his life, and, in a sense, for his life”.  He began his speech at 9 p.m., looking frail and ill, an appearance which quickly improved. As he spoke, he consumed glass after glass of gin and water. He denied that there had been a corrupt bargain, and stated that such contributions were common to both political parties. After five hours, Macdonald concluded,

I leave it with this House with every confidence. I am equal to either fortune. I can see past the decision of this House either for or against me, but whether it be against me or for me, I know, and it is no vain boast to say so, for even my enemies will admit that I am no boaster, that there does not exist in Canada a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, as it may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada.

Macdonald’s speech was a personal triumph, but it did little to salvage the fortunes of his government. With eroding support both in the Commons and among the public, Macdonald went to the Governor General, Lord Dufferin on 5 November and resigned; Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie became the second Prime Minister of Canada. Following the resignation, Macdonald returned home and told his wife Agnes, “Well, that’s got along with“, and when asked what he meant, told her of his resignation, and stated, “It’s a relief to be out of it.” He is not known to have spoken of the events of the Pacific Scandal again.  When Macdonald announced his resignation in the Commons, Conservative and Liberal MPs traded places on the benches of the House of Commons, though one Conservative MP, British Columbia’s Amor De Cosmos remained in his place, thereby joining the Liberals.

On 6 November 1873, Macdonald offered his resignation as party leader to his caucus; it was refused. Mackenzie called an election for January 1874; the Conservatives were reduced to 70 seats out of the 206 in the Commons, giving Mackenzie a massive majority.  The Conservatives bested the Liberals only in British Columbia; Mackenzie had called the terms by which the province had joined Confederation “impossible”. Macdonald was returned in Kingston but was unseated on an election contest when bribery was proven; he won the ensuing by-election by 17 votes. According to Swainson, most observers viewed Macdonald as finished in politics, “a used-up and dishonoured man”.

Opposition, 1873-78

Macdonald was content to lead the Conservatives in a relaxed manner in opposition and await Liberal mistakes. He took long holidays and resumed his law practice, moving his family to Toronto and going into partnership with his son Hugh John. One mistake that Macdonald believed the Liberals had made was a free-trade agreement with Washington, negotiated in 1874; Macdonald had come to believe that protection was necessary to build Canadian industry.  The Panic of 1873 had led to a worldwide depression; the Liberals found it difficult to finance the railroad in such a climate, and were generally opposed to the line anyway—the slow pace of construction led to British Columbia claims that the agreement under which it had entered Confederation was in jeopardy of being broken.

By 1876, Macdonald and the Conservatives had adopted protection as party policy. This view was widely promoted in speeches at many political picnics, held across Ontario during the summer of 1876. Macdonald’s proposals struck a chord with the public, and the Conservatives began to win a string of by-elections. By the end of 1876, the Tories had picked up 14 seats because of by-elections, reducing Mackenzie’s Liberal majority from 70 to 42. Despite the success, Macdonald considered retirement, wishing only to reverse the voters’ verdict of 1874—he considered Charles Tupper his heir apparent.

In this Bengough cartoon, Macdonald (centre, ankles crossed) rides the elephant of the National Policy into power in the 1878 election, trampling the Liberals underfoot. Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie is also being strangled by the elephant’s trunk.

When Parliament convened in 1877, the Conservatives were confident and the Liberals defensive. After the Tories had a successful session in the early part of the year, another series of picnics commenced in a wide belt around Toronto. Macdonald even campaigned in Quebec, which he had rarely done, leaving speechmaking there to Cartier. More picnics followed in 1878, promoting proposals which would come to be collectively called the “National Policy”: high tariffs, rapid construction of the transcontinental railway (the Canadian Pacific Railway or CPR), rapid agricultural development of the West using the railroad, and policies which would attract immigrants to Canada. These picnics allowed Macdonald venues to show off his talents at campaigning, and were often lighthearted—at one, the Tory leader blamed agricultural pests on the Grits, and promised the insects would go away if the Conservatives were elected.

The final days of the 3rd Canadian Parliament were marked by explosive conflict, as Macdonald and Tupper alleged that MP and railway financier Donald Smith had been allowed to build the Pembina branch of the CPR (connecting to American lines) as a reward for betraying the Conservatives during the Pacific Scandal. The altercation continued even after the Commons had been summoned to the Senate to hear the dissolution read, as Macdonald spoke the final words recorded in the 3rd Parliament: “That fellow Smith is the biggest liar I ever saw!”

The election was called for 17 September 1878. Fearful that Macdonald would be defeated in Kingston, his supporters tried to get him to run in the safe Conservative riding of Cardwell; having represented his hometown for 35 years, he stood there again. In the election, Macdonald was defeated in his riding by Alexander Gunn, but the Conservatives swept to victory. Macdonald remained in the House of Commons, having quickly secured his election for Marquette, Manitoba; elections there were held later than in Ontario. His acceptance of office vacated his parliamentary seat, and Macdonald decided to stand for the British Columbia seat of Victoria, where the election was to be held on 21 October. Macdonald was duly returned for Victoria, although he had never visited either Marquette or Victoria.

Third and fourth majorities, 1878-87

Macdonald in November 1883, age 68

Part of the National Policy was implemented in the budget presented in February 1879. Under that budget, Canada became a high-tariff nation like the United States and Germany. The tariffs were designed to protect and build Canadian industry—finished textiles received a tariff of 34%, but the machinery to make them entered Canada free.  Macdonald continued to fight for higher tariffs for the remainder of his life.

Macdonald uses his parliamentary majority to roll to victory over Liberal leader Edward Blake and his party in this 1884 cartoon by John Wilson Bengough

By the 1880s, Macdonald was becoming frailer, but he maintained his political acuity. In 1883, he secured the “Intoxicating Liquors Bill” which took the regulation system away from the provinces, in part to stymie his foe Premier Mowat. In his own case, Macdonald took better control of his drinking and binges had ended. “The great drinking-bouts, the gargantuan in sobrieties of his middle years, were dwindling away now into memories.” As the budget moved forward, Macdonald studied the railway issue, and found the picture unexpectedly good. Although little money had been spent on the project under Mackenzie, several hundred miles of track had been built and nearly the entire route surveyed. In 1880, Macdonald found a syndicate, led by George Stephen, willing to undertake the CPR project. Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) was a major partner in the syndicate, but because of the ill will between him and the Conservatives, Smith’s participation was initially not made public, though it was well-known to Macdonald. In 1880, the Dominion took over Britain’s remaining Arctic territories, which extended Canada to its present-day boundaries, except for Newfoundland, which would not enter Confederation until 1949. Also in 1880, Canada sent its first diplomatic representative abroad, Sir Alexander Galt as High Commissioner to Britain. With good economic times, Macdonald and the Conservatives were returned with a slightly decreased majority in 1882. Macdonald was returned for the Ontario riding of Carleton.

The transcontinental railroad project was heavily subsidised by the government. The CPR was granted 25,000,000 acres (100,000 km2; 39,000 sq. mi) of land along the route of the railroad, and $25,000,000 from the government. In addition, the government was pledged to build $32,000,000 of other railways to support the CPR. The entire project was extremely costly, especially for a nation with only 4.1 million people in 1881. Between 1880 and 1885, as the railway was slowly built, the CPR repeatedly came close to financial ruin. Not only was the terrain in the Rocky Mountains difficult, the route north of Lake Superior proved treacherous, as tracks and engines sank into the muskeg.  When Canadian guarantees of the CPR’s bonds failed to make them salable in a declining economy, Macdonald obtained a loan to the corporation from the Treasury—the bill authorizing it passed the Senate just before the firm would have become insolvent.

Protestants demanded Riel be executed; Catholics wanted him to live. The decision for execution was a major political blunder that permanently alienated Francophones.

The Northwest again saw unrest. Many of the Manitoban Métis had moved into the territories. Negotiations between the Métis and the Government to settle grievances over land rights proved difficult, Riel had lived in exile in the United States since 1870, he journeyed to Regina with the connivance of Macdonald’s government, who believed he would prove a leader they could deal with. Instead, the Métis rose the following year under Riel in the North-West Rebellion. Macdonald put down the rebellion with militia troops transported by rail, and Riel was captured, tried for treason, convicted, and hanged. Macdonald refused to consider reprieving Riel, who was of uncertain mental health. The hanging of Riel proved bitterly controversial, and alienated many Quebecers (like Riel, Catholic and culturally French Canadian) from the Conservatives—they soon realign themselves with the Liberals.

The CPR was almost bankrupt, but its essential role in rushing troops to the crisis proved its worth, and Parliament provided money for its completion. On 7 November 1885, CPR manager William van Horne who wired Macdonald from Craigellachie, British Columbia that the last spike was driven home.

In the summer of 1886, Macdonald traveled for the only time to western Canada, traveling from town to town by private railway car, and addressing large crowds. Macdonald traveled with his wife, and to get a better view, the two would sometimes sit in front of the locomotive on the train’s cowcatcher. On 13 August 1886, Macdonald used a silver hammer and pounded a gold spike to complete the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

In 1886, another dispute arose over fishing rights with the United States. Americans fishermen had been using treaty provisions allowing them to land in Canada to take on wood and water as a cover for clandestine inshore fishing. Several vessels were detained in Canadian ports, to the outrage of Americans, who demanded their release. Macdonald sought to pass a Fisheries Act which would override some of the treaty provisions, to the dismay of the British, who were still responsible for external relations. The British government instructed the Governor General, Lord Lansdowne, to reserve Royal Assent for the bill, effectively placing it on hold without vetoing it. After considerable discussion, the British government allowed Royal Assent at the end of 1886, and indicated it would send a warship to protect the fisheries if no agreement was reached with the Americans.

Fifth and sixth majorities, 1887-91; death

A Conservative election poster from 1891

Fearing continued loss of political strength as poor economic times continued, Macdonald planned to hold an election by the end of 1886, but had not yet issued the writ when an Ontario provincial election was called by Macdonald’s former student, Liberal Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat. The provincial election was a bellwether for the federal poll. Despite considerable campaigning by the Prime Minister, Mowat’s Liberals were returned in Ontario, and increased their majority. Macdonald finally dissolved Parliament on 15 January 1887 for an election on 22 February. During the campaign, Macdonald suffered another blow when the Quebec provincial Liberals could form a government (four months after the October 1886 Quebec election), forcing the Conservatives from power in Quebec City. Nevertheless, Macdonald and his cabinet campaigned hard in the winter election, with Tupper (the new High Commissioner to London) postponing his departure to try to bolster Conservative hopes in Nova Scotia. The Liberal leader, Edward Blake, ran an uninspiring campaign, and the Conservatives were returned nationally with a majority of 35, winning easily in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. The Tories even took a narrow majority of Quebec’s seats despite resentment over Riel’s hanging. Macdonald became MP for Kingston once again. Even the younger ministers, such as future Prime Minister John Thompson, who sometimes differed with Macdonald on policy, admitted the Prime Minister was an essential electoral asset for the Conservatives.

Blake, whom Macdonald biographer Gwyn describes as the Liberal Party’s “worst campaigner until Stéphane Dion early in the twenty-first century”,  resigned after the defeat, to be replaced by Wilfrid Laurier. Under Laurier’s early leadership, the Liberals, who had accepted much of the National Policy under Blake while questioning details, rejected it entirely, calling for “unrestricted reciprocity”, or free trade, with the United States. Advocates of Laurier’s plan argued that north–south trade made more economic sense than trying to trade across the vast, empty prairies, using a CPR which was already provoking resentment for what were high freight rates. Macdonald was willing to see some reciprocity with the United States, but was reluctant to lower many tariffs. American advocates of what they dubbed “commercial union” saw it as a prelude to political union, and did not scruple to say so, causing additional controversy in Canada.

Sir John A. Macdonald lying in state in the Senate chamber, 8 June 1891

Macdonald called an election for 5 March 1891. The Liberals were heavily financed by American interests; the Conservatives drew much financial support from the CPR. The 76-year-old Prime Minister collapsed during the campaign, and conducted political activities from his brother-in-law’s house in Kingston. The Conservatives gained slightly in the popular vote, but their majority was trimmed to 27. The parties broke even in the central part of the country but the Conservatives dominated in the Maritimes and Western Canada, leading Liberal MP Richard John Cartwright to claim that Macdonald’s majority was dependent on “the shreds and patches of Confederation”. After the election, Laurier and his Liberals grudgingly accepted the National Policy, and when Laurier himself later became Prime Minister, he adopted it with only minor changes.

After the election, Macdonald suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed and unable to speak. “The Old Chieftain” lingered for days, remaining mentally alert, before dying in the late evening of Saturday, 6 June 1891. Thousands filed by his open casket in the Senate Chamber; his body was transported by funeral train to his hometown of Kingston, with crowds greeting the train at each stop. On arrival in Kingston, Macdonald lay in state again in City Hall, wearing the uniform of an Imperial Privy Counselor. He was buried in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, his grave near that of his first wife, Isabella.


Legacy and memorials

Macdonald Monument, Montreal
Memorial to John A. MacDonald, St David’s Church, Ingram Street, Glasgow
Canadian stamp honouring Macdonald, 1927


John Alexander Macdonald

  • In office: 1 July 1867 – 5 November 1873
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Governor General: The Viscount Monck, The Lord Lisgar, The Earl of Dufferin
  • Preceded by: Office established (see Canadian Confederation)
  • Succeeded by: Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie

  • In office: 17 October 1878 – 6 June 1891
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Governor General: The Earl of Dufferin, Marquess of Lorne, The Marquess of Lansdowne, The Lord Stanley of Preston
  • Preceded by Alexander Mackenzie
  • Succeeded by John Abbott

John Abbott

  • Joint-Premier of the Province of Canada; Premier of Canada West
  • In office: 24 May 1856 – 2 August 1858
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by Allan MacNab
  • Succeeded by George Brown

 George Brown

  • In office: 6 August 1858 – 24 May 1862
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by: George Brown
  • Succeeded by: John Sandfield Macdonald

John Sandfield Macdonald

  • In office: 30 May 1864 – 30 June 1867
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by John Sandfield Macdonald
  • Succeeded by John Sandfield Macdonald

John Sandfield Macdonald (as Premier of Ontario)

Personal details

  • Born: John Alexander Macdonald, 11 January 1815, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Died: 6 June 1891 (aged 76), Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Cause of death            Stroke
  • Resting place Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston
  • Political party Conservative
  • Spouse(s): Isabella Clark (m. 1843; her death 1857); Agnes Bernard (m. 1867; his death 1891), Children: 3 (including Hugh John Macdonald)

Other political affiliations

  • Upper Canada Tories (1843–1867)
  • Great Coalition (1864–1867)
  • Liberal-Conservative (1867–1873)
  • Profession Lawyer
  • Military service Nickname(s): Old Tomorrow; The Old Chieftain
  • Allegiance British Empire / Upper Canada
  • Service/branch: Loyalist militia
  • Years of service: 1837
  • Rank: Private


  • Rebellions of 1837–1838
  • Upper Canada Rebellion

  By courtesy: