"This book should become the source for this sad chapter in history." Library Journal
The Crimson Snow: Britain's First Disaster in Afghanistanby Jules Stewart, General Sir David Richards
"We must see what the morning brings and then think what can be done," said Major General Elphinstone, when told of the rampaging mob outside his residency in Kabul, 1841. Was former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrong in 2001 to allow Britain to be drawn into a fourth conflict in Afghanistan, just as it was wrong for Britain to go into that country in 1839 without
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"We must see what the morning brings and then think what can be done," said Major General Elphinstone, when told of the rampaging mob outside his residency in Kabul, 1841. Was former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrong in 2001 to allow Britain to be drawn into a fourth conflict in Afghanistan, just as it was wrong for Britain to go into that country in 1839 without a shred of evidence to support widespread fears of imminent Russian invasion? The result of this misadventure was the worst single military disaster the Raj ever suffered: a column of 16,000 troops, their families and camp followers were massacred on the retreat from Kabul.
Stewart (The Savage Border: The Story of the North-West Frontier), a journalist formerly with Reuters, takes readers to Afghanistan and the 1841-42 campaign by the British to seek to control that country. The British came in with a vengeance-to Kandahar in the south and to such cities as Kabul, Ghanzi, Gandamack, and Jalalabad in the north. The 16,500 troops, (4500 British and 12,000 hired militia from India) eventually holed up in Kabul and soon realized that they were in dire straits. Dost Mohammed, a ruthless politician, feared warrior, and brutal dictator who would just as easily chop a head off as get dressed in the morning, despised the British and lied, coerced, and pilfered his way to surround them. With a cast of characters that requires some serious concentration, this book should become the source for this sad chapter in the history of British imperialism. Nearly all 16,500 troops, as well as their wives and children, were cut down on the retreat out of Kabul. It is interesting to note that the wife of one of the officers was taken hostage and wrote a journal from which Stewart gleaned much firsthand information about the event. Stewart reveals an interesting, if bloody, year in the life of the British Empire in a small and still volatile corner of the world. Recommended for academic libraries and for large public libraries with collections on Afghanistan, British history, and the British Empire.
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Britain's First Disaster in Afghanistan
By Jules Stewart
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Jules Stewart
All rights reserved.
On a summer evening in 1839, a young Cossack officer by the name of Captain Yan Vikevitch wearily climbed the steps to his St Petersburg hotel room. Vikevitch lit the coal fire in his room, ignoring the muggy heat that rose from the River Neva below his window. The gallant young officer then reflected on what he would say to his friends in the farewell letter he was about to write. Once the logs in the grate were burning brightly, Vikevitch gathered his expedition reports and diaries, and one by one, consigned them to the flames. He then took pen in hand and filled several sheets of coarse Russian notepaper with declarations of remorse over the failure of his mission to Afghanistan, as agent of Tsar Nicholas I, and the humiliation he had suffered only hours before at the hands of the Russian foreign minister, Count Karl Nesselrode. When he finished, the 30-year-old Lithuanian-born aristocrat laid down his pen, pulled his service revolver from its leather holster and blew his brains out.
One would not have considered the death of a relatively obscure tsarist army officer, no matter how tragic the circumstances, the sort of incident to visit disaster on a great empire. Yet Vikevitch's suicide figured in the train of occurrences of that fateful year, which were swiftly to sweep the Raj to the brink of catastrophe and trigger the greatest single military debacle the British ever suffered in India.
* * *
Nearly a decade before Vikevitch's untimely demise, the Government of India in Calcutta had turned its gaze north-westward to the Indus, the great river that flows from the high Tibetan plateau on a southerly course to debouch 2,000 miles downstream in the Arabian Sea. Beyond the Indus lay the legendary trading posts of Central Asia – Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Khiva – tempting morsels for an empire bent on aggressive expansion. The Indus offered swifter access than the Ganges, the traditional waterway and overland route to these markets. The advent of steam navigation meant that cotton goods and other merchandise could be easily shipped upstream to these great bazaars, thus it was now imperative to secure the Indus as a commercial waterway for British commerce.
The Government of India was confronted with a number of obstacles to realising its commercial ambition, and these were hardly of a trivial nature. For starters, the land west of the Indus stretching to the rugged hill country that borders Afghanistan was the domain of the powerful and warlike Sikhs, while further south lay the deserts of Sind, whose amirs were capable of massing considerable forces against foreign trespassers. Between the Indus and Afghanistan the ferocious Pathan hill tribes had to be reckoned with, the fearsome warriors who always stood ready to swoop on an intruder. The British knew almost nothing about these fanatical tribesmen, and even twenty years later when the North-West Frontier was annexed to the Indian empire, the Government did its best to keep the Pathans at arm's length. But beyond the Sikh kingdom and the territories of the Amir of Kabul, there lurked an even greater threat to Britain's commercial interests in Central Asia. The Tsar's armies were on the march, like a bubbling lava flow spreading across the steppes, drawing ever nearer to the borders of British India. Here lay the playing fields of the Great Game, the scene of intrigue and confrontation between two great powers vying for supremacy in Central Asia, a conflict immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, his masterpiece of not-so-fictional espionage.
With the Duke of Wellington in power at home and Britain's military policy in the hands of Secretary at War Lord Palmerston, a name that became synonymous with 'gunboat diplomacy', there was never any question of government passivity towards Russian expansionism. St Petersburg's advance in Turkestan and the defeat of the Persians by imperial Russian troops had set alarm bells ringing in London, giving urgency to the task of securing the lands beyond the Indus for British trade, while not overlooking strategic military considerations. British India needed to prepare for a military showdown, for those in power in London knew full well that the Russian offensive would not be halted by bolts of Harris tweed and other goods that Britain was anxious to place in Asian markets.
Russia's race to the River Oxus and her defeat of the Shah of Persia's forces brought the Tsar's imperial armies to the northern and western frontiers of Afghanistan, and in the 1830s all eyes were on the porous borders of this 'country', a territory as politically fragmented in the nineteenth century as today. The stakes in the Great Game had been ratcheted up. No longer could this confrontation be played out as a race to capture markets of Central Asia, though the British continued to cloak their ambitions cautiously under the guise of commercial policies. For Britain, the spectre of Cossack cavalry patrols along the banks of the Oxus was the stuff of nightmares. The truth is that the threat was more apparent than real, for this line of advance would take an invader over the forbidding peaks of the Hindu Kush, an invasion route only slightly less formidable than the great Himalaya range itself. Far more worrisome was the presence of Russian troops in Persia and their proximity to Herat. This fortified city in western Afghanistan was an easy march from the Russian garrisons, and from there it was a straightforward trek along the 500-mile direct road to Kabul. Were Russia able to count on the allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of the Amir of Afghanistan, there would be nothing to stop the Tsar's armies from pouring across the Khyber Pass into India. The Government quite rightly regarded Herat, as manifested in its official records, 'the Gate of India, from its being the main route of invading armies, it possesses more strategical importance than, perhaps, any other point in Asia'.
For more than fifty years, the supremacy of the Honourable East India Company's political, but not its commercial, functions in British India had been effectively subordinated to the Crown. The process of winding down 'John Company's' power was dramatically brought to a close after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, when the Company lost its administrative functions and India became a formal Crown colony. But in 1830 the East India Company was still a powerful and influential force, whose Board of Control campaigned vigorously to expand British trade beyond the Indus. In this ambition the Company found a willing ally in Lord Ellenborough, the man who held the Cabinet post of President of the Board of Control at the East India Company, effectively equivalent to Secretary of State for India. Ellenborough, who as one of Wellington's closest confidants had the Iron Duke's ear at all times, was a zealous Russophobe who took a prominent part in shaping the Government's Indian policy. He was also a man given to volatile passions. In the same year that Ellenborough laid the foundations for the great push across the Indus, he divorced his wife for adultery with the German Prince Karl Phillip von Schwartzenberg, with whom he fought a duel and collected £25,000 in damages. Ellenborough looked on with horror as one by one, the tsarist troops gobbled up the Khanates of Central Asia. His diaries are filled with agitated notes on the Russian opening of the route to Baghdad, the presence in St Petersburg of Afghan and Sikh ambassadors and the inevitability, sooner or later, of a clash of arms between the two great empires on the banks of the Indus. Ellenborough warned Wellington of his conviction that Russia's ultimate aim was to secure Persia as a road to the Indus.
The job of putting the Government's hawkish plan into action fell to a 54-year-old seasoned India hand named William Cavendish-Bentinck, or Lord Bentinck, the second son of the Duke of Portland, who twice served as Prime Minister. Bentinck had been appointed Governor of Madras while still under 30. He later served as Envoy to Sicily and commanded a division in Spain during the Peninsula War. Having distinguished himself as a soldier, politician and administrator, in 1827 his father's close friend, Prime Minister George Canning, recalled William from Rome, where for ten years he had been languishing in agreeable idleness, to serve as Governor General of India.
Bentinck's primary objectives were to put the Government's financial house in order, following the ruinous Burmese War, and do everything in his power to advance the judicial and administrative systems, all of which he accomplished with a considerable degree of success. He was not concerned with achieving great military victories or annexing new territories to Britain's Indian empire, but the home Government entertained other priorities. One of Bentinck's first charges was to despatch a mission up the Indus to the Punjab, to deliver five massive English dray horses as a gift from King William IV to the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a diminutive, mouse-like figure who had lost an eye to smallpox. This was ostensibly in return for the Kashmir shawls that the previous Governor General, Lord Amherst, had delivered to the King of England as a gift from the Sikh chieftain. In reality, the embassy to Ranjit was little more than a camouflage for conducting a survey of the river, the aim being to assess its navigability as a trade route to Central Asia.
It was now time for one of the leading players in the First Afghan War drama to step onto centre stage. Bentinck's choice for envoy to the court of Ranjit Singh was a 25-year-old Scottish adventurer and accomplished linguist who was languishing in the rather mundane position of assistant to the resident in Cutch, a remote district of Gujarat in western India. For Lieutenant Alexander Burnes, Bentinck's marching orders, which were despatched via the Governor of the Bombay Presidency, Sir John Malcolm, came as a wish fulfilment. Burnes had set off in early 1830 to carry out just such a survey of the Indus valley, but he was recalled at an early stage for fears that his voyage might provoke the amirs of Sind, whose country he would have to cross. Bentinck had by now warmed to the project, all the more so when Burnes returned a glowing report of the opportunity of extending the blessings of British civilisation to the peoples of Central Asia. Burnes's boss, the Political Agent Sir Henry Pottinger, had meanwhile embarked on his own mission to cajole the amirs of Sind into opening the Indus to British trading interests. Burnes became the first European since Alexander the Great to navigate the course of the Indus, and with Pottinger the two men scored successes beyond the Government's most optimistic expectations by securing separate treaties from the amirs and Ranjit Singh, thus granting British vessels transit rights on the river. The wily Ranjit was not unduly troubled by the prospect of British shipping moving through his dominions. As Sir Penderel Moon accurately points out, the Government's enthusiasm for steam navigation on the Indus was something of a chimera, for the Maharaja knew 'more than Bentinck or Burnes about its [the Indus's] shallow, sand-banked waters'.
Burnes's star was clearly in the ascendant. By now he had completed his perilous journey through the wilds of Central Asia, that was to earn him the dashing sobriquet of 'Bokhara Burnes'. It was in that fabled city that Burnes narrowly escaped the clutches of the murderous Amir Nasrullah Bahadur Khan, who was later to have two British officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly, cast into a vermin-filled pit and publicly beheaded. On this journey, Burnes was also conceded an audience with the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed Khan, a meeting that set the scene for his later official embassy to Kabul. On this occasion, commerce and politics were not on Burnes's agenda, though he obviously made a favourable impression on the Amir, who offered him the command of the Afghan army. When Burnes graciously declined, the Dost asked if he could recommend a friend.
On a visit to England in 1834, the young explorer was given a hero's welcome by London's literary glitterati, who celebrated the publication of his book on travels to the remotest parts of Central Asia, a best-seller which earned the author £800, a small fortune in those days. Burnes became the most sought-after dinner party guest in fashionable Mayfair salons. He was showered with honours: the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Gold Medal, he received the French Geographical Society's Silver Medal, the Royal Asiatic Society elected him a member, as did the Athenaeum Club, and he was everywhere fêted by statesmen and fellow explorers, including the legendary explorer Baron Alexander von Humboldt.
Burnes the intrepid Scots traveller arrived back in India at the height of the anti-Russian hysteria, with Bentinck's successor, the Earl of Auckland, casting about for a trustworthy agent to lead a delegation to Afghanistan. Auckland was a lifelong bachelor, exquisitely educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, who travelled about India with his two adoring sisters, who acted as his hostesses. After performing some splendid humanitarian work to relieve the famine of 1838, Auckland's thoughts began to turn to British India's North-West Frontier, which bulked large in the Empire's foreign policy. Sadly, he was singularly ill-suited to challenge the spread of Russian influence in Afghanistan. One of his biographers describes him as a man 'prey to Russophobia ... he acted precipitately, induced a crisis which probably need not have occurred, and did not show any great talent in dealing with it'. This is getting ahead of the story, but it is worthwhile bearing in mind that from the Burnes mission forward, Britain's Afghan policy rested in the hands of a diffident, vacillating administrator who was almost totally ignorant of Asia.
The purpose of the mission to Kabul, on the face of it, was to persuade Dost Mohammed to open his country to East India Company traders. Persuading the Dost to shut the door on Russian interference in his country's affairs was all but written into the brief. Burnes was the obvious choice to lead the expedition to Kabul and it was in that city that he eventually met his end, the first high-profile victim of Britain's Afghan folly.
The Afghan ruler whom Burnes was charged with winning over to the British cause required little persuasion, for Dost Mohammed went to great lengths to profess himself a steadfast friend of the Raj. No sooner had Lord Auckland taken possession of the sprawling mansion of Government House in Calcutta, the Amir fired off a flamboyant letter of welcome expressing his 'extreme gratification of your Lordship's arrival, enlightening with your presence the seat of government, and diffusing over Hindoostan the brightness of your countenance'. Auckland's coming, in the eyes of the enraptured Dost, figured as nothing less than 'the envy of the garden of Paradise'. The king went so far as to invite Auckland to 'consider me and my country as your own'. He would have cause to regret that remark.
Auckland had inherited his predecessor's determination to secure new markets for British manufacturing, as well as the home Government's fears of Russia's designs on India. The Governor General assured Dost Mohammed of his wish that Afghanistan, despite historical realities to the contrary, then as now, should be a 'flourishing and united nation', benefiting from 'a more extended commerce'. So that the Dost would better comprehend exactly what the Government of India had in mind, Auckland would, 'ere long, depute some Gentleman to your Court, to discuss with you certain commercial topics, with a view to our mutual advantage'. Auckland reminded the Dost of Bentinck's grand scheme to open the Indus to navigation and he gave assurances that the new British ruler of India would second this 'philanthropic purpose'. One could already detect the insinuation that the Amir ruled his country at the British Government's pleasure, though two more years were to pass before Auckland despatched an army into Afghanistan to oust the man for whom he now declared to hold in 'unfeigned regard and esteem'. The letter went on to assure the Dost of Britain's peaceful intentions towards Afghanistan. 'My friend, you are aware that it is not the practice of the British Government to interfere in the affairs of other independent states, and indeed it does not immediately [author's italics] occur to me how the interference of my Government could be exercised for your benefit.' True enough, though Auckland soon found reasons aplenty to remove the Amir from power for British India's benefit. In light of what followed, one is at pains to suppress a wince at the Governor General's hypocrisy.
Excerpted from Crimson Snow by Jules Stewart. Copyright © 2011 Jules Stewart. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Jules Stewart is a freelance journalist, formerly with Reuters. During his career he has reported from more than thirty countries, analysing news and developing contacts. Jules has travelled extensively in the Indian subcontinent and is a specialist in North-West Frontier affairs. He is the author of The Khyber Rifles, Spying for the Raj, and The Savage Border. Jules lives in London.
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