21 September 1857
End of Mughal rule in India
On 21 September 1857, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar surrendered to Major William Hodson of the British East India Company’s Army. Bahadur Shah was the rallying point for the sepoys in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and the war was fought in his name as the ‘Emperor of India’.
- Even though Mughal rule had spread over a large area of land in the subcontinent stretching from Kashmir to the Deccan and even encompassing parts of Afghanistan, Bahadur Shah practically ruled over only the area around Delhi. By the time he ascended to the throne, the empire had weakened and disintegrated.
- In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny had erupted in which the native soldiers in the East India Company’s army revolted against their superior British officers. This war was also supported by many Indian chiefs and rulers as many of them had grievances against the British.
- The sepoys wanted to get rid of a foreign power and stated their aim of instating Bahadur Shah II, also called Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of India.
- The throne of Delhi was the symbolic figure around which the sepoys rallied.
- Although the mutiny started at Meerut in May 1857, it soon spread to many parts in Northern India and many soldiers decided to converge at Delhi.
- Bahadur Shah, who was a ruler without any imperial ambition, had given the Company the right to collect taxes in Delhi. Although there were no ‘British’ army troops at Delhi, the Company had placed native regiments there.
- Company officials and their family members lived in a place called Civil Lines in Delhi.
- When the rebel soldiers from Meerut arrived in Delhi, they started attacking Company officials and looting the market place. Many Europeans were killed by the rebels.
- Bahadur Shah reluctantly agreed to be the ‘head’ of the rebels. Although he was against the violence and the looting, he publicly supported the rebels’ cause.
- Sepoys and palace servants at Bahadur Shah’s palace killed 52 British who were held captive within the palace, or were discovered hiding in the city. Despite the King’s protests, the sepoys killed the English. Bahadur Shah was powerless in the hands of the sepoys and was manipulated by them.
- Delhi was under the control of the sepoys from May till September when Company-led forces led an assault on the city.
- On 18 September Bahadur Shah abandoned his palace along with his family and had taken refuge at Humayun’s Tomb about 10 km south of Delhi.
- On 21 September Major Hodson took the aged and frail king from his hiding place under custody promising him that his life would be spared.
- The arrested party were taken back to Delhi.
- Major Hodon also took into custody two of Bahadur Shah’s sons and one grandson. All the three princes were executed in front of a mob citing an excuse that the mob were about to release the princes. Hodson’s this act was criticised even by some Englishmen.
- The capture of Delhi and the Emperor was a psychological blow to the sepoys. Many of the ancient books and jewels taken from the Emperor’s palace is still in display in museums in the UK. Bahadur Shah’s sword and crown are part of the Royal Collection in London.
- After his capture, Bahadur Shah was tried at the Red Fort where he was held guilty of aiding and abetting the sepoys, assuming the sovereignty of Hindoostan, and the murder of English subjects.
- He defended himself stating his lack of real authority over the sepoys. In spite of this, he was exiled to Rangoon, Burma. He was betrayed by his most trusted Prime Minister Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, who implicated the emperor in the killings while obtaining a pardon for himself.
- Bahadur Shah’s wife and some family members went with him to Rangoon. He died of an illness in November 1862 aged 87 in Rangoon, and was buried there.
- Bahadur Shah’s surrender signalled the end of the Mughal rule over India that started in 1526.
Also on this day
1746: The French captured Madras from the English in the First Carnatic War. 1949: Manipur merged with the Indian Union.
See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.