The Last King in India: Wajid ’Ali Shah (1822-87) by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
Historians continue to argue about the causes of what the British generally remember as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and for which Indians prefer other names, such as the Uprising or the Great Rebellion. Always included as a component of the mix that almost led to the destruction of British rule in India is the annexation in 1856 of Awadh (a state which was then usually known as Oude or Oudh). In that year, the Marquess of Dalhousie, Governor-General of the East India Company that was then the Paramount Power in India, decided to depose the king of what was then the allied and independent state of Awadh, a land situated in the Gangetic plain in the north of India. Its capital, Lucknow, was inconveniently, for the British, situated between Delhi and Calcutta. Its king was inefficient, corrupt and debauched, the British maintained, unfit to rule in a land they were bent on modernising. He was also very rich and the British owed him a lot of money. The annexation went off peacefully, and the deposed king moved himself and his vast family into exile in Calcutta with scarcely a whimper.
What the British forgot, however, was that the people of Awadh rather liked their king and preferred him to the foreign rule now imposed upon them, no matter how benevolent it might prove. They also forgot that many of the Indian soldiers serving in their own army were recruited from Awadh. When much of that army mutinied in May of the following year, many of those who turned on their British officers were from Awadh.
King Wajid ‘Ali Shah is usually relegated to the footnotes of histories of the dramatic and bloody events of that time, if at all, but English academic Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has now happily rectified that rather sad state of affairs. In her biography of that monarch, The Last King of India, she has cast new light on Wajid ‘Ali Shah’s character and very eccentric life. Llewellyn-Jones is an expert on Lucknow, and has published extensively on that city, her books including the 2003 Lucknow: Then and Now and the 2006 Lucknow: City of Illusion. She brings a wealth of historical and linguistic experience to bear here on a subject of whom—despite his wild idiosyncrasies and his almost total disregard of what generally passes for morality—she is evidently rather fond.
Her biography of the king has the merit of combining academic soundness with an easy readability. She ensures that the general reader is guided through the rather tangled thickets of Awadhi history, culture and court life. She does not assume knowledge nor immerse her reader in unwanted technical exposition. She has a wry sense of humor exactly suited to her subject. Her book is an enjoyable gem, a book, one feels, that her subject would have much appreciated himself.
The British could hardly have dreamed up a more deserving object for their reforming zeal than the man of whom she writes so engagingly. Wajid ‘Ali Shah was grossly fat and evidently so proud of the fact that he usually had his portrait painted with his left breast protruding from his clothes; even Llewellyn-Jones is unable to suggest a reason why he did this. He married, in one form or another, over 350 wives and produced innumerable children, none of whom he much cared for or took any interest in.
When he removed himself to exile in Calcutta, his establishment became a village numbering some 6000 people on the banks of the River Hooghly. Inside the compound at Garden Reach, which contained his small universe, he did his best to exclude the realities of British India and for thirty years became an irritant to successive British Viceroys who were too punctilious to interfere in the affairs of a man whose Kingdom they had seized, but whose subsequent excesses they continued to pay for until his death.
Some of his whimsies were wildly extravagant. He spent about Rs100,000 a year on his menagerie, collecting a vast (and dangerous) collection of animals that included tigers, lions, leopards, black panthers, a camel, donkeys, huge numbers of birds and an island full of thousands of large snakes. The animals received greater care and comfort than most of his wives, and if economies were ever contemplated, divorce of a few score of the latter was preferred to disposal of any of the former. The king was always in monumental debt to his own servants, who fleeced him according to their views of his royal status, as he was to everyone who ever sold him the supplies he needed for his theatrical performances, which were spectacular.
All this, of course, was grist to the dour British view of their errant charge. Surprisingly to them, it did not at all detract from the popularity, and in many cases the loyalty under severely difficult conditions, of his own people, who stayed with him till the end. Wajid ‘Ali Shah treated his servants and courtiers (if not to his wives) well and he behaved in a manner that fulfilled their expectations of behaviour befitting a potentate. He was also a much-admired poet, one whose work is held in estimation in his homeland to this day.
It is clear from the account we now have in The Last King of India that although he was a failure, Wajid ‘Ali Shah was a glorious one, and that the life he led after he lost his throne was one of greater interest to posterity than the one he would have led had he not been extracted from Awadh. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has brought him to remarkable, jaw-dropping life in an intriguing and at times very amusing book which will amuse and intrigue anyone fortunate enough to dip between its covers.