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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in…

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (edition 2002)

by William Dalrymple

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Title:White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India
Authors:William Dalrymple
Info:Harper Collins (2002), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 640 pages
Collections:Your library

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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India by William Dalrymple


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The June choice for our reading group was The White Mughals by William Dalrymple. The comments from the group were split into essentially three camps, those that loved it, those who read it and persevered and those who hated it.

I fell into the loved it camp and I did love it. The book took the author 5 years to write. It is thoroughly researched and painstakingly written, threading the storyline together with the use of historical documents and probable hypothesis when the documentation can not support the theory.

The book is based upon the surviving papers and diaries from 18th Century British aristocrats who spent many years in India. What is shown is India in context with history; the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt for example. The book explores the culture exchange, where many of the men in the region "go native" with local women and then send the children back to England to be educated. The book explores the Christian/Muslim/Hindu exchange which was perfectly acceptable in the 18th Century, alas when the 19th Century appears that exchange and the "go native" approach is scorned and unaccepted.

The book does cover the romance of James Achilles Kirkpatrick who was a promising British resident in Hyderabad, and a young noblewoman and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, called Khair-un-Nissa and whilst this romance is essentially the backbone of the book, it in some ways fades into the background amongst the historical aspects of India and the region at this time.

Even so, I loved the book, I loved the provision of sources and notes and the depth of research and for me this has to be the read of the year. ( )
  AnglersRest | Jun 25, 2013 |
Uneven pace and endless detail in the second half spoilt what I'd anticipated as a great read. Got to see the portrait of the 2 children in HSBC's HK HQ. ( )
  celerydog | Apr 19, 2013 |
After reading The Last Mughal a few years ago, I wanted to read the prequel of sorts, White Mughals. Eighteenth-century India is an exotic subject (for me) which Dalrymple brings vividly to life across the barrier of time and culture. In this deeply researched history he has read thousands of private letters by British aristocrats who were in the opening stages of establishing English prominence in India (around the same time Napoleon's fleet was defeated in Egypt by Lord Nelson). He shows in detail there was significant cross cultural exchange in India between Christian and Muslim/Hindu, European and Indian. While in the 19th century the British famously kept aloof, in this earlier period it was not uncommon for British to "go native", and for their mixed-blood offspring to return to England and successfully merge into society. In this backdrop, the book focuses on a love affair between a teenage Muslim Indian girl and a British aristocrat.

Ultimately I found this an uneven read. In parts I was totally engrossed and it has informed my image of late 18th India (which was a blank slate). For that alone the lush detail makes the book worthwhile. However I bogged down in the excessive detail of private lives in the second half of the book which takes on a kind of soap opera. It just didn't seem that important or worthwhile to learn the chain of events Dalrymple uncovered in these private letters. I can understand why it's worth writing about, but I lost interest. Still I recommend it as unique along with The Last Mughal. I'm looking forward to his upcoming book on the British Afghanistan wars. ( )
  Stbalbach | Nov 24, 2012 |
I was amazed by the degree in which the English and India could meet and merge in pre Victorian times. Before Britain had an empire, we were humble before the wealth and power of India ( and China). White traders and diplomats had to beg for an audience with Asian rulers. When eventually we got a foothold in the East, we could often meet as equals. British arrogance and feelings of racial superiority came later as the West began to dominate.

From The New Yorker
At the end of the eighteenth century, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the promising young British Resident at the Shia court of Hyderabad, fell in love with Khair un-Nissa, an adolescent noblewoman and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The story of their romance and semi-secret marriage endured in local legend and family lore but was otherwise forgotten. After five years' work with a trove of documents in several languages, Dalrymple has emerged not only with a gripping tale of politics and power but also with evidence of the surprising extent of cultural exchange in pre-Victorian India, before the arrogance of empire set in. His book, ambitious in scope and rich in detail, demonstrates that a century before Kipling's "never the twain"—and two centuries before neocons and radical Islamists trumpeted the clash of civilizations—the story of the Westerner in Muslim India was one not of conquest but of appreciation, adaptation, and seduction.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker ( )
  MarkYoung | Apr 27, 2011 |
Looking back on reading I can say a few words of criticism. The background made the book slow to start, the detail dragged you away from the main focus and the foot notes did repeat information on occasion. But while I was reading it was so compelling, so beautifully detailed, researched and written that I didn’t care.

This book is a sound grounding in the lives of the Europeans, the Indians and the inbetweens in eighteenth century India. It tells of the lives of men who not only went to India but loved India and adopted it as there home. A fresh antidote to the Victorian ideas of separateness, of coloniser and colonised. ( )
  Staramber | Oct 5, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014200412X, Paperback)

White Mughals is the romantic and ultimately tragic tale of a passionate love affair that crossed and transcended all the cultural, religious and political boundaries of its time.

James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad when in 1798 he glimpsed Kahir un-Nissa—'Most excellent among Women'—the great-niece of the Nizam's Prime Minister and a descendant of the Prophet. Kirkpatrick had gone out to India as an ambitious soldier in the army of the East India Company, eager to make his name in the conquest and subjection of the subcontinent. Instead, he fell in love with Khair and overcame many obstacles to marry her—not least of which was the fact that she was locked away in purdah and engaged to a local nobleman. Eventually, while remaining Resident, Kirkpatrick converted to Islam, and according to Indian sources even became a double-agent working for the Hyderabadis against the East India Company.

It is a remarkable story, involving secret assignations, court intrigue, harem politics, religious and family disputes. But such things were not unknown; from the early sixteenth century, when the Inquisition banned the Portuguese in Goa from wearing the dhoti, to the eve of the Indian mutiny, the 'white Mughals' who wore local dress and adopted Indian ways were a source of embarrassments to successive colonial administrations. William Dalrymple unearths such colourful figures as 'Hindoo Stuart', who travelled with his own team of Brahmins to maintain his temple of idols, and who spent many years trying to persuade the memsahibs of Calcutta to adopt the sari; and Sir David Ochterlony, Kirkpatrick's counterpart in Delhi, who took all thirteen of his wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of their own elephant.

In White Mughals, William Dalrymple discovers a world almost entirely unexplored by history, and places at its centre a compelling tale of love, seduction and betrayal. It possesses all the sweep and resonance of a great nineteenth-century novel, set against a background of shifting alliances and the manoeuvring of the great powers, the mercantile ambitions of the British and the imperial dreams of Napoleon. White Mughals, the product of five years' writing and research, triumphantly confirms Dalrymple's reputation as one of the finest writers at work today.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:13 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The courtship, betrayal and invasion of Afghanistan in the 1830s by the emissaries of Her Majesty's Empire.

(summary from another edition)

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