Early Life

  • Bahadur Shah Zafar was born on 24 October 1775 to Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II. His mother was a Hindu Rajput, Lal Bai. His full name was Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar.
  • When he was six years old, Bahadur Shah Zafar would have borne witness to the blinding of his grandfather Shah Alam at the hands of Ghulam Qadir.

    Bahadur Shah Zafar
    Bahadur Shah Zafar
  • He developed a love for poetry from two of his teachers, Ibrahim Zauq and Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib.
  • Bahadur Shah Zafar was not much ambitious from childhood and had more interest in Sufism, music and literature than in the political matters of the country.
  • He was not his father’s preferred choice as his successor. One of Akbar Shah’s queens, Mumtaz Begum, pressured him to declare her son, Mirza Jahangir, as his successor. However, The East India Company exiled Jahangir after he attacked their resident, in the Red Fort, paving the way for Zafar to assume the throne.

Mughal Emporer

  • He became the 17th Mughal emperor on 28 September 1837 after the death of his father.
  • His empire barely extended beyond Delhi’s Red Fort; he had power only over a limited area of land though he had the authority to collect some taxes and to maintain a small military force in Delhi.
  • Bahadur Shah Zafar possessed neither a passion for administration nor a desire for power.
  • Bahadur Shah Zafar had to contend with the constricting influence of the East India Company.
  • Zafar’s court began to shine in these twilight years, the final dazzle of a rich culture that had imbibed wide artistic influences and touched every aspect of the creative arts.
  • Zafar himself was a remarkable poet, his verse rivalling those of legendary court poets Zauq and Ghalib.
  • Zafar’s circumstances were clearly worsening and the centre of power seemed to move permanently away from him.
  • The Company had rapidly consolidated power in India. The British took over the North Western provinces with the annexation of Sindh in 1843. The British government also took over Punjab and Awadh in 1849 and 1856 respectively. 
  • Meanwhile in Delhi, Zafar struggled to contain his palace. His eldest son and crown prince, Dara Bakht, had been a calming influence on the family, but he died in 1849. Dara’s successor Prince Fakhru died seven years later. This left the brash 15-year-old Jawan Bakht as next in line to the throne.

Sepoy Revolt of 1857

  • In 1857, as the Indian rebellion against the British was spreading, Sepoy regiments seized Delhi. Rebelling Indian kings felt that Zafar would be the most suitable person to be the Emperor of India under whom the smaller kingdoms would be united in the fight against the British.
  • In the events that followed over the next few months, from May to September 1857, Delhi and India briefly returned to Mughal rule. After initially vacillating, Zafar later aligned his fate with the cause of the rebels.
  • He gave his public support to the rebellion and even appointed his son Mirza Mughal as the commander in chief of his forces. Mirza Mughal was very inexperienced, and did not lead the army competently. Soon the city’s administration was in disarray and the army was in a chaos.
  • The rebels found success in early battles around Delhi, but an inexperienced administration strained to control the insurgents and the city soon descended into anarchy. As the summer wore on, the British forces reorganized and the tide of battle began to turn.
  • By early September, the writing was on the wall. After a brief assault, the British retook Delhi and the rebels fled back to the countryside.

Defeat and Exile

  • Bahadur Shah sought refuge at Humanyun’s Tomb at the outskirts of Delhi. However, British officials led by Major William Hodson discovered his hiding place and forced him to surrender on 20 September 1857.

    Bahadur Shah Zafar Surrender to British
    Bahadur Shah Zafar Surrender to British
  • British killed many male members of Zafar’s family including his sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan. While the surviving members, including Bahadur Shah himself, were imprisoned or exiled.
  • He was put on trial, convicted of treason and murder, and sentenced to exile in Rangoon. In October 1858, the last Mughal emperor left Delhi for the last time.
  • On November 7, 1862, Bahadur Shah Zafar had passed away in Rangoon. He was old, ruined and alone. With his death, a dynasty that had stretched as far back as the 13th century came to an end.

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