The Epidemic that Slayed the Mughals’ Last Heir

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    Epidemics often alter the course of history. In Delhi — where the Covid-19 graph is currently trending sharply upward — it was an epidemic that helped end the Mughal Empire, over 150 years ago.

    Cholera began to sweep across the country from Agra, in 1856. In the Mughal capital of Delhi, a weak and flailing Bahadur Shah Zafar — a puppet of the British by then — saw a leading figure of his royal household, Mirza Fatah-Ul-Mulk Shah Bahadur, die, allegedly from the disease. This death sparked a series of conspiracy theories, tales of palace intrigue, and rumours of a bloody fight for a crown and a title that would soon be extinct.

    The Cholera Epidemic of 1856 – The Beginning

    Cholera outbreaks were frequent in India in the 19th and 20th centuries. The British and the princely states fought hard to contain them but, often, their measures proved inadequate.

    A highly communicable and water-borne disease caused by the bacteria vibrio cholera, cholera had been endemic to Asia for a few centuries before it first assumed pandemic proportions. The first case of the first cholera pandemic broke out in Jessore in Bengal in 1817. The cause was traced to contaminated rice, and the epidemic spread to most of the Gangetic delta.

    Not only was the administration unable to stop its march, crowded living spaces, lack of sanitation and hygiene, and a tropical, humid climate encouraged the bacteria to breed and spread, leading to frequent outbreaks to in different regions of India at different times.

    In 1856, one such cholera outbreak swept the plains of North India. Thousands died and many more fled, inadvertently carrying the infection with them to places as far as Multan in the west and Madras in the south. Ironically, the epidemic, which would accelerate the fall of the Mughal Empire, began in their old capital – the city of Agra.

    The winter of 1855-56 in Agra was warmer than usual. Unbeknownst to the residents of the city, this was a bad omen, not just for them but for the entire region. According to a report submitted by Dr John Murray, the Medical Superintendent of Agra commissioned to study the epidemic, the disease had even in its early days claimed more lives than it usually did in Agra but the situation was not yet alarming. Locals say the cholera epidemic broke out on the 15th day of Ramzan i.e. the 21st of May, 1856.

    It was only when Reverend J S Scott, a Christian living in the posh Civil Lines neighbourhood in Agra, was diagnosed with cholera that the administration sat up and took note. It was now clear that the disease had made its way into the sanitised and ‘civilised’ area, home to most Europeans in the city. But the real time bomb was ticking away in the heart of Agra, among a group of people often viewed as a scourge of society – the inmates of the Agra Central Prison.

    On the 25th of May, 1856, three members of a suspected gang of dacoits on trial were diagnosed with cholera and, in a matter of just days, the number of cases in the prison began to rise dramatically. By the 12th of June, orders were issued to immediately set up large quarantine centres to segregate the prisoners, to contain the spread of the disease.

    Dr Murray later recorded in his report that due to lack of options available to isolate prisoners, the huge lawns of monuments such as Secundra (Akbar’s Tomb) and even the Taj Mahal were used to set up camps where prison inmates could be quarantined. This didn’t seem to help because, on the 16th of June, the disease swept through the inmates housed at Secundra, leaving the administration at a complete loss.

    By the beginning of July 1856, the epidemic had reached Etawah, Bareilly and Farukkhabad and the authorities were utterly defeated. This was apparent when the Magistrate of Saharanpur stated in The Report on Cholera in the Meerut, Rohilchund and Ajmere Divisions, 1856: “Its (epidemic) sudden appearance without any visible cause at isolated points and immediate fatality might be likened to the seeds which a bird drops in its flight and which germinate where they fall.”

    After a few months, a fresh outbreak of cholera struck Madras. The Civil Surgeon of Madras, Dr W R Cornish, in his report on the epidemic, stated that the cholera in Madras was basically the same as the one that had originated in Agra and had found its way to the Madras Presidency via Bombay. In his extensively researched work, A History of Asiatic Cholera, Dr Nottidge Charles MacNamara, a former Surgeon-General of the erstwhile Indian Medical Service, attempted to draw parallels between the cholera epidemic in Karbala in Iran, at around the same time, and the one that had originated in Agra. The timeline matched, as cholera had struck Karbala after the outbreak in Agra, and since Karbala received plenty of Shia pilgrims from India every year, some of them had probably carried the disease with them. However, the author also cautioned, due to lack of evidence, a causal link could not be established.

    In 1856, the entire population of Agra District, consisting of neighboring towns such as Ferozabad, was 10,01,961. By August of that year, 22,014 had been afflicted by cholera, including 8,514 who had succumbed to the disease. No one knows exactly when but, some time in the beginning of July, the epidemic had reached Delhi.

    War of Succession

    Delhi was already in the grip of unease well before the epidemic burst upon the scene there. In the 19th century, Delhi was for all practical purposes a British colony. By 1804, Mughal control over Delhi had been all but crushed and the Marathas and the East India Company both eyed the throne of Delhi. On 19th October 1804, Maratha forces withdrew and the East India Company’s forces marched into Delhi, obliterating every last vestige of Mughal control.

    Although the then Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, continued to occupy the throne, he was a mere puppet, surviving only on an allowance which he found inadequate. The ‘Emperor of India’, as the Mughal Emperor was referred to then, was often found beseeching the rich traders of Chandni Chowk for loans to support his extravagances!

    On 29th September 1837, when Bahadur Shah Zafar ascended the throne, his eldest son, Mirza Dara Bakht was recognised as the Crown Prince by the British. Next in line to Mirza Dara Bakht were Mirza Kayumars and Mirza Fatah-ul-Mulk Bahadur alias Mirza Fakhru. The latter was a polyglot. He immersed himself in poetry and authored the book, History of Kings And Prophets. He was third in line to the throne of Emperor of India.

    Things took a turn in 1840, when at the age of 65 Bahadur Shah Zafar married again, this time a 19-year-old woman, Begum Zeenat Mahal. The wedding of the silver-haired monarch to a teenage girl was the talk of the town and a few Urdu poets such as Ghanshyam Lal Aasi took potshots at the Jahanpanah.

    Within a year of the marriage, Begum Zeenat Mahal gave birth to a son, Zafar’s 15th child, who was given the name, Mirza Jawan Bakht. With the birth of the son, Begum Zeenat Mahal consolidated her place in Zafar’s harem and began to look for ways to place her son on the throne of Delhi.

    In the beginning of 1847, Mirza Kayumars, second in line to the throne of Delhi, suddenly passed away after a brief illness. His death did not raise suspicions as it was not uncommon for young people to die of illnesses in those days, and also because his death did not have any major political repercussions.

    However, calamity struck the Mughal Darbar on 11th January 1849, when the Crown Prince Mirza Dara Bakht too died, after he experienced high-grade fever. Zafar was shattered and descended into an ocean of gloom but found comfort in the company of Begum Zeenat Mahal. Soon, Zafar was writing petitions to the East India Company, in favour of Zeenat Mahal’s son, Mirza Jawan Bakht’s claim to the post of Crown Prince.

    The British did not pay heed to any communications sent by Zafar and the English-speaking Mirza Fatah-ul-Mulk Shah Bahadur, probably the wisest and most pragmatic of all Zafar’s children, and who was already in the line to the throne, was made Crown Prince against the wishes of Begum Zeenat Mahal and Bahadur Shah Zafar, on the 3rd of September 1852. The Letter of Succession was signed by three Company officials – James Thomson, Sir Henry Eliot and Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident of Delhi.

    What happened next is straight out of a thriller novel. As the summer of 1853 arrived, Thomas Metcalfe found himself possessed with a mysterious abdominal pain. The pain was so excruciating that his days were now spent in bed, and he was subjected to heavy doses of morphine and other painkillers. Months passed but the pain refused to go away.

    Eventually, Metcalfe passed away on 3rd November 1853, convinced that he had been poisoned. His daughter, Emily Metcalfe recorded in her diary that her father had indeed been poisoned, most probably by poison of vegetable origin and “prepared in a way as to leave no trace behind them. But they (poisons) do their work slowly and surely. A secret well known to the famous native ‘hakims’.” Just before he died, Metcalfe had predicted that Mirza Fakhru too wouldn’t live long. By the end of 1853, all the three people who had signed the Letter of Succession of Mirza Fakhru were dead, under mysterious circumstances. But Mirza Fakhru was still alive.

    The British in India had always been wary of Indian physicians and the stories they had heard about their potent vegetable poisons. Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, a leading physician in Delhi, had once told Harriet Tytler, an Englishwoman in Delhi, that he could kill any man with a poison and even set a timeline for his death. He had also told her that there would be no way to ascertain the cause of death. Tytler recorded this conversation in her fascinating memoirs, An Englishwoman In India: The Memoirs of Harriet Tytler, 1828-1858.

    Cholera in the Capital

    In June 1856, when Agra was reeling under cholera, there was a heavy downpour in Delhi which submerged large portions of the capital. When the water subsided, Delhi was mired in filth and muck. It was the perfect breeding ground for an epidemic to ripen. Thus, when the Agra cholera penetrated Delhi, its spread was swift.

    Author Shams-Ur-Rahman Faruqi wrote in his majestic work, Kai Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman (2015), that even senior Company officials began to flee the city and abdicated all responsibility. Commoners were left on their own. Piles of rubbish lay in every nook and corner of the city. The local hakims and physicians did all they could but, obviously, it takes much more than that to check an epidemic.

    One hundred and seventeen years after Nadir Shah’s raid on Delhi, when the Mughal Emperor prostrated himself before the Iranian invader, Bahadur Shah Zafar much like his ancestor, Mohammad Shah Rangila, found himself at the mercy of an unstoppable force, bent on infecting and killing its subjects every day.

    On 9th July 1856, the hitherto healthy Mirza Fakhru woke up to a low-grade fever and ‘abdominal discomfort’. His personal royal physician Mohammad Naqi Khan prepared a potion which Mirza Fakhru consumed. But the Crown Prince’s condition deteriorated and he began to vomit violently. By afternoon that day, his condition worsened. In the evening, the senior-most physician of the Mughal household, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan (the same man who had boasted of his poison-making abilities to Harriet Tytler) arrived, but he too failed to improve the health of Mirza Fakhru.

    Later in the evening, Mirza Fakhru slipped into unconsciousness. All through the night, efforts were made to resuscitate him. In the morning of the following day, as the sun rose over Delhi, Murshidzada-e- Jahaniyan Mirza Fatah-ul-Mulk Shah Bahadur, the shining star of the Mughal household, set forever. His death was attributed to the cholera epidemic.

    While the grapevine tilted towards a sinister conspiracy, there was no evidence that Mirza Fakhru died of poisoning and no contemporary historian doubted the official version of his death. After him, though, there was no Mughal Crown Prince. The British saw this as an opportunity to end the line and refused to recognise the claim of Mirza Jawan Bakht. Months later, Company sepoys marched into Delhi, to almost no opposition.

    The winds of change continued to sweep Delhi. On 11th May 1857, the British East India Company sepoys who had rebelled in Meerut the night before, marched into Delhi and declared Bahadur Shah Zafar as the titular head of India. Still hoping to see her son succeed to the Mughal throne, Begum Zeenat Mahal threw in her lot with the Indian fighters.

    After months of heavy fighting, the British recaptured Delhi in September 1857, thereby ending the last vestiges of Mughal rule. Under the new masters, cholera reappeared in Delhi, heavily affecting the British ranks but this time didn’t do much to alter the course of what was already taking shape – a transfer of India from the Company to the Crown.


    Shashank Shekhar Misra is an alumnus of National Law University, Lucknow, and an advocate at the High Court of Allahabad. He has a penchant for Indian history. He tweets at @shashank109.

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