Saturday, August 04, 2007

Once again into the breach

Again, Dalrymple's The Last Muhgal, an account of the siege of Delhi by the British in the autumn of 1857.

Earlier in the year, Indian mutineers from the British army, Hindus and Muslims, had seized the city, and sought the leadership and protection of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, last of the Mughal emperors, a proud but ineffectual puppet of the British. The British gathered their forces and prepared to retake the city.

After a fierce cannonade, the gates were breached. The invaders gained a foothold inside the walls, but at great cost. Street-to-street fighting took a heavy toll on the greatly outnumbered Europeans and their native allies. The battle, and perhaps British control of India, hung in the balance. Then, says Dalrymple, "In the middle of the following morning, 18 September, the sun was completely eclipsed for five minutes. The city darkened ominously for nearly three hours, before the light slowly returned." The ordinary British soldiers were unnerved by the event, since no one had warned them to expect it. But for the defenders of the city, the eclipse was "the ultimate ill omen, a signal of extreme divine displeasure." They panicked and fled.

This is the sort of thing that happens only in the movies.

But was it a total solar eclipse, as Dalrymple implies? You will see below a portion of a map from the NASA atlas of historical eclipses between 1841 and 1860. The red swaths are paths of annular eclipses; that is, the moon does not completely cover the face of the sun, but leaves exposed a thin ring of light. The blue bands are paths of totality. The eclipse of September 18, 1857 was annular, and Delhi does not lie in the path of annularity. But it is not far out. What the invaders and defenders of Delhi saw on that critical morning was a very deep partial eclipse (which I watched using Starry Night software). Still, to the superstitious mind, it was enough to turn the tide of battle.

When the sun went dark, it was not military prowess that prevailed in Delhi. It was, in a sense, an encounter of minds disposed to miracles versus minds disposed to natural law. Which is not to say, of course, that the British did not also believe they were doing God's work as they set about butchering the innocent Delhians -- men, women and children -- who remained in the battered city.

More tomorrow. Click to enlarge map.