I just finished Massacre at the Palace, by Jonathan Gregson, which focuses on the 2001 massacre of the royal family of Nepal by the crown prince, but retells the entire history of the Shah dynasty.  And good lord, the massacre is only of a piece with Nepali royal history.

The story starts in 1742 with the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah to the kingdom of Gorkha. This was only one of sixty independent kingdoms in what is now Nepal, and by no means one of the major ones. Yet over the next quarter century, Prithvi ran a remarkable campaign of conquest, culminating in his overrunning the much more powerful kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. He and his successors kept on till they controlled the present-day territory of Nepal and quite a bit more.

In 1814-16, Gorkha ran afoul of the British, who defeated it and required it to take a British ambassador, and no others. Other than that, Gorkha retained its independence, and took on the role of Enthusiastic Ally. The British were impressed by the fighting spirit of the kingdom’s warriors, and recruited “Gurkhas” (their version of the name of the country) into their army. They were instrumental in putting down the 1857 revolt and served in large numbers in both world wars.

After that, the Shah dynasty had a big problem: minor kings.  For half a century after Prithvi’s death in 1775, there was almost never an adult king. That left regents in charge, and invited the family to indulge in some intense Game of Thrones style intrigue. The queens were particularly involved– not least because if their children didn’t win the throne, they could be forced to commit suicide.

By the 1830s, power was divided between king Rajendra, crown prince Surendra, and Rajya Laxmi, one of the king’s wives (not Surendra’s mother). Surendra was not popular, as he had a cruel streak: he liked to order subjects to jump down a well or ride a horse off a cliff, just to see if they’d die.

One relatively minor incident: the chief minister, a supporter of the queen, decided to switch his support to Surendra. Laxmi ordered a retainer, Jung Bahadur Konwar, to kill him– which he did, intensifying the palace intrigue. The next move was the king’s: he had his wife’s lover (another state minister) killed.

Laxmi was incensed, and summoned all the senior officers of the realm to an assembly ground known as the Kot, one night in 1846.  Konwar took the precaution of arriving with his brothers as well as a backup force.  Laxmi demanded to know who had been responsible for killing her minister; when no one replied she accused some wretch of doing it and ordered him immediately executed.  When people balked at this, she ran at him herself with a sword, but Konwar restrained her and escorted her back to the balcony. (The king slipped out and escaped the country.)

Once she was safely there, Konwar’s men opened fire on the assembled nobles.  Over thirty were killed, and an unknown number of soldiers and retainers.

The queen rewarded him with the position of chief minister and commander in chief. She expected that in return her own son would be named crown prince, but Konwar refused. She attempted to have him assassinated, but the plot was discovered; Konwar killed another couple dozen of her supporters and exiled her.  With both Laxmi and Rajendra out of the country, he could have the incapable Surendra proclaimed king.  More importantly, he could assume absolute power himself. He was granted a semi-royal title, Rana, and made the prime ministership hereditary.  The Ranas governed for the next century… not without an intra-dynastic shakeup or two of their own. The Shah family was essentially confined as prisoners in their own palace.

So things stood till 1950.  (The country began to be called Nepal in the 1930s, by the way. Previously this had been a name for the Kathmandu Valley only.)  Nepal remained one of the most regressive and poorest countries in Asia, but there was a new factor: there were now three embassies in Kathmandu: the UK, the US, and newly independent India.

King Tribhuvan saw an opportunity, and it was carefully negotiated by his sons, who had more freedom of movement. He requested from the Rana prime minister permission to hold an outdoor picnic. This was granted– as the army would accompany him, it seemed harmless.  The king and his sons each drove their own cars. As the motorcade passed the Indian Embassy, the doors opened and they drove in. It happened so fast that the army escort had no chance to react.  Immediately the king applied for political asylum.

In brief, the Rana ministers were now put in an impossible position, and had to negotiate a return to royal rule.  This was supposed to be democratic, but the Shah kings rarely had much patience for parliamentary rule, and things were only slightly better than under the Ranas. In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency rose up in the countryside and soon controlled a quarter of the country.

The 2001 massacre was dramatic, but seems more an instance of insanity than power politics. The crown prince, Dipendra, wanted to get married; in a typical instance of arrogant royal interference, his mother refused to let him marry his chosen partner. That, at least, seems to be the underlying grievance.  Dipendra also enjoyed guns and had quite a collection of automatic rifles; he also had an alcohol and drug problem.

In June 2001 he snapped– or saw his opportunity. He was host for the royal family’s weekly dinner together.   He behaved strangely throughout the evening, at one point passing out.  He returned with a gun and shot up his family: his parents, his siblings, some aunts and uncles.  One wonders if he had some idea of bullshitting his way through to the throne– but if so, he reconsidered it, and instead shot himself.

One uncle survived, and became the new king. But he was never very popular, and the public seems to have finally had enough of royal rule. He was forced to return to parliamentary rule, and then, in 2008, parliament declared an end to the monarchy. Since then Nepal has had one of the most unusual political landscapes in the world: power has alternated between two communist parties (one Maoist, one Marxist-Leninist) and a center-left one.

All this makes a great story, but I should emphasize, the moral of the story is that kings suck. I’m reminded of a terrible passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, where a king explains that the lot of a king is one of service and hardship and is nothing to be envied… bullshit, C.S.  Where kings have real power, they are absolute bastards… not least because if they aren’t, they will be the puppets of someone who is.

The usual (bare) justification for monarchy is that it avoid succession struggles: you don’t have a civil war upon the death of each leader.  Even this low standard is violated in large swaths of history (see: the Roman Empire).  Though reflecting on Nepal’s history, perhaps a modified version of this claim could be defended: monarchy doesn’t avoid succession disputes, but it does make it a little more likely that they will be handled by nasty and murderous political intrigue, rather than by civil war. Even the Kot massacre was better than all-out war.

Still, the tradeoff is pretty terrible. The Ranas and the Shahs made out well, but the country remained miserably poor and undeveloped, and unequipped to deal with modern problems. (And the British deserve some share of the blame as well.  They were perfectly happy with Nepal as a backwards buffer state on their border, and they implicitly supported Rana misrule for over a century.)

Oh, I guess I should say something about Gregson’s book, eh?  Well, it’s really good, not least because he has such rich material to work with.  It’s well told, and it’s not a bad introduction to recent Nepalese history as well.