The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader

The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader

by Antoinette Burton (Editor)

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Designed for classroom use, The First Anglo-Afghan Wars gathers in one volume primary source materials related to the first two wars that Great Britain launched against native leaders of the Afghan region. From 1839 to 1842, and again from 1878 to 1880, Britain fought to expand its empire and prevent Russian expansion into the region's northwest frontier, which was considered the gateway to India, the jewel in Victorian Britain's imperial crown. Spanning from 1817 to 1919, the selections reflect the complex national, international, and anticolonial interests entangled in Central Asia at the time. The documents, each of which is preceded by a brief introduction, bring the nineteenth-century wars alive through the opinions of those who participated in or lived through the conflicts. They portray the struggle for control of the region from the perspectives of women and non-Westerners, as well as well-known figures including Kipling and Churchill. Filled with military and civilian voices, the collection clearly demonstrates the challenges that Central Asia posed to powers attempting to secure and claim the region. It is a cautionary tale, unheeded by Western powers in the post–9/11 era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822356622
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/10/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,158,532
Product dimensions: 9.70(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Antoinette Burton is Professor of History and Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has written and edited many books, including A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles; Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism; Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History; and After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, all published by Duke University Press.

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The First Anglo-Afghan Wars

A Reader

By Antoinette Burton

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7669-9


A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia (1817)


Sir Robert Wilson's survey of Russian territorial ambition and "frontier creep" grew out of his career interest in the health and security of the British Empire. Though his highest post was the governorship of Gibraltar (1842–49), he served in several theaters of war as a young man, mainly in connection with the Napoleonic Wars and most notably the British expedition to Egypt, about which he wrote a best-selling history in 1802.

These experiences gave Wilson (1777–1849) a unique perspective on Britain's global fortune and a correlative suspicion of all possible threats to it. In this selection his cartographic precision is punctuated by his palpable alarm at the prospect of what an ambitious Russia means for global security, from Eastern Europe to Persia and beyond. Lest there be any doubt, his chief concern is India, that focal point of British diplomacy and military strategy since the Battle of Plassey (1757). Here Wilson calculates that by virtue of its capacity to mobilize its forces from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Russia was in easy striking distance of both Bombay and Madras (Chennai).

Anticipating critics who doubted Russia's determination to attack, Wilson was unequivocal: "The answer is, She can." In his view it was a matter of urgency for all governments, not least because Alexander I had ambitions for a maritime as well as a land empire: a global imperium, in short, that would know no earthly bounds. Wilson asks, "Must the fiat of Alexander be the law of the universe?" And, as if to set the Great Game afoot, he asks, "is Russia, like Rome under the image of Milo the wrestler, to be looking round in vain for an antagonist"?

In the year 1800, Russia rested her right flank on the North Sea; her frontier line traversing Russian Lapland, ran fifty miles in advance of the White Sea: then covering the province of Olonetz, approached the Lake Ladoga within twenty miles, and fell upon the Gulf of Finland, at the distance of only one hundred and fifteen miles in a direct line from Petersburgh; so that Sweden not only commanded near two thirds of the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, but ranged herself in view of, and at the distance of not more than thirty miles from, the port of Revel, situated in the province of Livonia, wrested from her by Peter the Great, and which she might always hope to re-occupy, so long as she preserved such contiguity.

The frontier of Russia opposed to the frontier line of Prussia, commenced near Memel; and reaching the Niemen, between Tilsitz and Kovno, continued along that river as far as Grodno, when it ran in a southern direction upon the Bug river between Drogutchin and Brestlitov; then descending to Wlodowa, on the frontier of Austrian Gallicia, continued along that province until it reached the Dniester, near Chotev when it followed the course of that river into the Black Sea.

On the side of Asia, the frontier was separated from the Turkish possessions by the Cuban, a small river, which flows at a little distance from the very narrow strait which divides the Crimea from the continent of Asia, and connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. It then continued along that river to its source, and passing in front of Georgiesk, and behind or to the northward of the mountains of Caucasus, joined the river Terek, and followed its course into the Caspian.

In the year 1817, the right of the frontier still rests on the Northern Ocean, but, advancing a hundred and sixty miles, touches the frontier of Norway, and bends round it for a hundred and ninety miles, until it reaches a line drawn due north from the Torneo, when it descends on that river, and continues running parallel until it falls into the Gulf of Bothnia, intersecting a country through which the Swedish troops always passed into Finland, but where, from the severity of the climate and the poverty of the soil, none can move without previous arrangements.

The difficulty, indeed, of the communication contributed to the loss of the Swedish provinces; since Sweden could not sustain with a population of little more than two millions of people, and a revenue of not much more than one million, the heavy expenditure of men and money. These difficulties, however, will be less felt by Russia, since the command of the Gulfs of Finland and of Bothnia would facilitate the operations.

A line is then drawn through the Gulf of Bothnia, which sweeping round Aland, regains the continent in the province of Livonia, thus giving to Russia the ports of Abo and of Sweaborg, which was the great naval establishment of the Swedes on the coast of Finland, and all the numerous islands which cluster between Aland and the main land, and which are inhabited by a rich and happy population. But the island of Aland is distant from the shore of Sweden only twenty-four miles, from the Archipelago of islands in advance of Stockholm not above thirty, and not above seventy from Stockholm itself; while the intervening sea is frequently frozen, so that carriages may pass.

Thus Russia has completely changed her relative position with Sweden. Instead of her former vulnerable and humiliating defensive attitude, she not only menaces but awes; and not only awes; but, from a variety of contingent circumstances, all favourable to her authority, she commands.

On the Niemen, the frontier remains in statu quo for about one hundred miles; when it traverses the Memel or Niemen river, and running along East Prussia, strikes the Vistula near Thorn, from whence Dantzic is distant about seventy miles, and Berlin only one hundred and seventy.

The line then crosses the Vistula, and advances to Kalish, a point nearly equidistant from Dresden and Berlin; thence taking a southern direction and passing within thirty miles of the Oder, it bends in an eastern course along the district of Cracow, which it respects; but at this point its distance from a third capital, Vienna, is again only one hundred and seventy miles; the Gallician frontier is then rounded, when the line traverses the Dniester, allongates the Bukovine frontier, until it reaches the river Pruth; thus circumventing all that part of Poland, except the Duchy of Posen, which belonged to Prussia by the partition-treaties.

In this position, which may be called the very heart of Europe, she rides alongside the Brandenburgh possessions with the lofty and fearful superiority of one of her hundred and twenty gun ships over a Prussian galliot, when there is no escape from pressure, and when the weaker must be crushed or overwhelmed.

Notwithstanding the possession of the forever of Dantzic, Giandents and Goibengt Prussia can never attempt to defend any territory north of the Oder, and her line of fortresses on that river is now the only rampart of Germany, a rampart too of no value, if there are not supporting armies in the field equal or nearly so to the attacking force, and especially in the arm of cavalry; which is almost impossible; since Russia, without any extraordinary exertion, could bring one hundred and twenty thousand (regular and irregular) cavalry into action on the Prussian frontier.

It is no wonder, then, that Prussia interweaves the myrtle with the olive, that she may preserve the ground for the laurels she has won! Had she a hundred daughters and Russia as many sons, she would willingly unite them all.

On the side of the frontier, from Cracow to the Pruth, the kingdom of Poland reposes on a friendly population, and not merely friendly, but one in which the white eagle is building, as it were, a native aerie: a territory which, in time of peace, occasions jealousy to the present possessor, and which, if the disaffection of the people were less unequivocal, could not be defended in time of war; notwithstanding political considerations render Sclavonian contact with the Carpathian mountains perilous to the Austrian monarchy.

The Russian frontier having reached the Pruth, continues along that river (so disastrous in her history) to its confluence with the Danube; when this great artery of Austria, and main support to the Turkish frontier, rolls its streams, now also tributary to the flag of Russia, into the waters of the Black Sea.

In this position Russia is distant only one hundred miles from Transylvania; about two hundred and fifty from Constantinople by water, and three hundred by land, in a direct line: whilst the two interjacent provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia are in fact regulated by her policy, though the Ottoman Porte retains the nominal sovereignty.

Russia had endeavoured to obtain the line of the Sereth, when she found that Austria was not willing that she should occupy the whole of the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, and throw her frontier upon Illyria and the higher Danube; a boundary-line which, in fact, would have uncovered not only Illyria, but the Banat, Transylvania, and Hungary; and brought her within a little more than two hundred miles of Constantinople.

The preparations of Napoleon had induced Russia to accelerate the signature of peace; Andréossy's arrival to counteract the negotiations had been fortunately protracted, and the Turkish ministers signed the conditions of a treaty, for which they afterwards lost their heads, on the charge of having received the bribes of Russia.

It is probable that Russia, under the circumstances of the subsequent invasion, might have been persuaded to return to the Dniester.

The recovery of Besserabia was a great object to the Porte, on account of the Danube line, and it was also desirable for humanity; since Moldavia, like Saxony, cut in twain seen her population divided; and under governments with adverse interests, feels all the sufferings which such policy is calculated to inflict; and which the King of Saxony so well described in his protest, when he observed, "that it had no principle for basis but the convenience of the partitioning powers, and no regard for the welfare and internal relations of the people."

These considerations, added to the importance of pacific relations with Turkey (in virtue of which the Moldavian army was rendered disposable for the very service which it afterwards executed), might perhaps have obtained a voluntary restitution of the Moldavian acquisition, if the future safety of Turkey had then engaged sufficiently the attention of her allies, or if they had exercised the forethought of Alexander at Abo; but the occasion was lost, and fortune, like other females, generally resents the slight of proffered favours.

Here then Russia stands: no longer menaces in flank or on her communications by the Uhlans of Poland, but supporting her attitude with the soldiers, the population, and resources of that rich and warlike country!—no longer fearful of a diversion from a Swedish army, where kindred ties might still have favoured the operations of the invader. While Turkey, deprived of these auxiliaries, abandoned to her daily impoverishing means of defence, sees a danger still more formidable approach on a frontier which heretofore had been inaccessible to any enemy.

After the acquisition of the Crimea in 1791, the Cuban river, as before observed, separated the Turkish and Russian frontier. The river itself is of no importance; but from thence a very narrow isthmus formed by a small gulf (through which the waters of the Cuban flow), and the Black Sea, runs for about twenty miles to the point of Anapa, where the mountains of Caucasus approach close to the shore, and contract the line of defence to a point.

Now, instead of the Crescent waving on the batteries of the Cuban, the Mahometan banner, replaced by the Russian eagles, has been driven across and beyond the navigable Phasis, and is not to be found until the river Bathus in Armenia presents a feeble barrier, while the Russian advanced frontier, supported by the mountain line, which connects Georgia with her new position, secures an indisputable sovereignty over the acquired country, and bids defiance to attack.

Thus here, as on the Swedish, Polish, and Moldavian frontier, invulnerable herself, she stands ready to strike and to wound; to hurl her thunder over Asia whenever her policy deems the moment expedient: for her routes of march to all the points which attract her, are now but marches of a few days.

The distance is to Trebisond, but eighty miles; to the western bank of the Euphrates, not above ninety; to Arzroum, one hundred; to Sinope, two hundred and seventy; to Scutari, opposite Constantinople, a little more than five hundred; across the Isthmus of Asia Minor to Alexandretta (a seaport town opposite Cyprus in the Mediterranean), and only sixty miles from Aleppo, little more than four hundred; and to the Red Sea from thence not five hundred.

Here then she is moreover posted with perfect communications, with a sea road for the transport of her stores and magazines, awaiting but a signal to advance, and make herself mistress of those communications along which the Turks in Europe must receive their Asiatic reinforcements. Here she is posted to lance the Greek fire from the shore of the Bosphorus on the towers of the Seraglio, if the Sultan does not obey the Russian Ukase!

The guns of Napoleon at Acre shook the Ottoman empire to its foundations. If the French armies had been lodged as the Russians now are, on the Danube, and in Armenia, with the Black Sea under their dominion; or if but one army could have reached Asia Minor, isolated as that army would have been, and deprived of the advantages which Russia possesses by her religious connexion with the Greeks, there is little doubt but that Armenia a second time would have seen a handful of soldiers regarded "as too many for an embassy, and too few for a fight," make before the setting sun her multitudes the chase of their discipline; and that the tricoloured flag would have waved on the walls of Byzantium.

It may be said, however, that Persia would march to the aid of the Mussulmans, although the religious quarrel between these nations renders them deadly enemies, when Christians do not menace the overthrow of both; but Persia by the late treaty, made under the auspices of England, is herself prostrate at the feet of Russia.

Russia has descended from the mountains! She is no longer struggling against the hostility of nature and barbarians in the regions of the Caucasus; she has advanced into the plain, and sweeping with her frontier round Georgia, absorbing the Persian provinces of Daughistan and Shirvan, so as to consolidate and cement all her possessions, she has raised a pillar of her empire at the mouth of the river Kur; and to complete her triumph, to remove all rivals, and monopolize commerce, she has stipulated that her flag, and her flag alone, shall sweep the Caspian.

Thus Persia is humbled to the dust, and her court to eastern dependence and bondage. It is true, that Persia, unfettered by Turkish prejudices, has long solicited, and has at length obtained, the instruction of Europeans, of French officers, officers of the army of Napoleon proscribed by Louis; and it is not probable that they have carried with them feelings of ill will to Russia so strong as those towards England; that they would rather storm the frozen Caucasus than join in an expedition to share the spoil of Asia, and avenge in the East, their humiliations in Europe.

To reach Tehran, the capital of the Shah, the columns have to march only three hundred miles; and by the navigation of the Caspian they can be disembarked within one hundred! Thus an army might sail from the Baltic through an internal navigation from Petersburgh to Astracan, and landing on the southern shore of the Caspian, pitch their tents within four hundred miles of the Persian Gulf; from whence the voyage to Bombay is only from twenty-four to thirty days, in both Monsoons; and to Madras, but eight or ten days longer in the S. W. Monsoon.

This, then, is the territorial attitude of Russia. But can any power sustain a force sufficient to garrison a frontier, whose points d'appui are the Northern Ocean and the Caspian, as well as the frontiers of China and Armenia; on whose line Swedes, Austrians, Turks, and Persians, are arrayed with feelings and interests at war with the power that would enslave them?


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Table of Contents

Foreword / Andrew J. Bacevich ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Anglo-Afghan Wars in Historical Perspective 1

Part I. Strategic Interests on the Road to Kabul 15

Part II. The First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842: Occupation, Route, Defeat, Captivity 43

Part III. The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880: Imperial Insecurities, Global Stakes 127

Part IV. The Great Game, 1880-1919 189

Selected Bibliography of Secondary Sources 255

Reprint Acknowledgments 257

Index 259

What People are Saying About This

The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State - Zarena Aslami

"Antoinette Burton has curated a groundbreaking archive of documents related to what she poignantly calls the 'First Anglo-Afghan Wars.' Incisively introduced with a critical eye toward how these texts bear the traces of Afghan and sepoy agency and toward the roles of non-European actors in the unfolding of Afghanistan's history, this brilliant Reader delivers a counter-narrative to the totalizing pull of American exceptionalism. The significance of articulating this archive and situating its contents' relevance to the ongoing present cannot be overstated. As a classroom tool, it promises to revolutionize discussions not only about the British empire, but also about current front-page news."

Afghanistan in Ink: Literature between Diaspora and Nation - Nile Green

"As important as they were in the annals of Britain's imperial history, the first Anglo-Afghan wars were the formative crises of the Afghan state. By drawing together travel writings, newspaper and intelligence reports, diaries, and poems by contemporaries, Antoinette Burton has assembled the essential compendium on these image-fixing encounters for the student and specialist alike."

From the Publisher

"As important as they were in the annals of Britain's imperial history, the first Anglo-Afghan wars were the formative crises of the Afghan state. By drawing together travel writings, newspaper and intelligence reports, diaries, and poems by contemporaries, Antoinette Burton has assembled the essential compendium on these image-fixing encounters for the student and specialist alike."—Nile Green, editor of Afghanistan in Ink: Literature between Diaspora and Nation

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