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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

4.5 4
by William Dalrymple

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From the prizewinning historian, a masterly retelling of the first Afghan war, perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East: an important parable of neocolonial ambition and cultural collision, folly, and hubris.

With access to previously untapped primary sources, William Dalrymple gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account we


From the prizewinning historian, a masterly retelling of the first Afghan war, perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East: an important parable of neocolonial ambition and cultural collision, folly, and hubris.

With access to previously untapped primary sources, William Dalrymple gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account we have had of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan. We see the British invade the remote kingdom in 1839, reestablishing Shah Shuja on the throne—this time as their puppet—and ushering in a period of conflict still unresolved today. We see the Afghan people rise to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers in 1841, poorly equipped tribesmen routing an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world: more than eighteen thousand British troops retreated from Kabul through treacherous mountain passes, and only one man made it through to Jellalabad. Dalrymple illuminates the similarities between what the British faced in Afghanistan nearly two centuries ago, and what NATO faces there today. The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war and a work of stunning topicality.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Darwin
Those who have read [Dalrymple's] White Mughals and The Last Mughal will know what to expect: a readable style, a deep humanity and, above all, an extraordinary skill in evoking the lost worlds of Mughals and Afghans…Dalrymple is in no doubt about the moral horror of the British invasion. But he is too good a historian to fall back on polemic. The cruelty and treachery with which Afghans treated one another is crisply portrayed. The strange double vision with which the British regarded the Afghans—admired for their courage, loathed for their cunning—is carefully documented. The abundance of sources for the British side allows him to present them in all their dimensions: the arrogance and blindness but also the bravery and humanity. His pen-portraits are a masterpiece. But the most brilliant stroke of the book is to bring Shah Shuja back to the stage—for he is the book's ambiguous hero.
Library Journal
We've been fighting in Afghanistan for 11 years, with no end in sight, and we hear increasingly that we ought to have paid more attention to the West's history of blundering in that country (not to mention the recent disastrous Soviet experience) before blundering in ourselves. For perspective, it pays to go back to the first Afghan War, a great imperial debacle for the British, and Dalrymple—winner of two major history prizes in Britain, the Wolfson and the Duff Cooper, and a best-selling author as well—obliges us with this chronicle.
Kirkus Reviews
An intensively focused study of the ill-begotten launch of the Great Game in Afghanistan. Who would gain control of the portal to India: Britain, France, Russia, the Sikhs or the Afghan tribes themselves? And was there really cause for alarm at imperialist advances or a "dysfunctional" intelligence gathering by both the British and Russians? In his exciting, exhaustive study, British historian Dalrymple (The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, 2007, etc.) sheds light on the enormously convoluted rationale for the First Anglo-Afghan War, ostensibly provoked by Britain in order to reinstall the compliant Shah Shuja ul Mulk (chief of the Sadozai clan) to power in Afghanistan over Dost Mohammad Khan (chief of the Barakzais), who supposedly favored the Russians. In truth, the war exposed the greediness and ignorance of all sides: protecting the interests of the East India Company and catering to the competing ambitions of major players like Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, Polish agent Ivan Vitkevitch, William Hay Macnaghten and Scottish agent Alexander Burnes. The British garrison was soon outnumbered 10-1 by the rebel forces of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammad's able, ferocious son; forced to surrender and retreat in ignominy back to India, the British left Shuja to fall to Dost's assassins in April 1842 and gained virtually nothing save a more defined border. Dalrymple sagely points out that while the Afghans learned a valuable lesson from this early conflict, namely a firm rejection of foreign rule and a sense of nationalist integrity, the Western powers did not and, indeed, still perpetuate a policy of folly and waste. A rich excavation of both British and Afghan sources, with gorgeous colored reproductions of Muslim and romantic renderings of the action and characters.
The Washington Post - Seth G. Jones
The Return of a King[is] a well-researched and lucidly written account of the period. Dalrymple makes an important contribution by including recently discovered Afghan accounts of the war, which provide helpful local context.
From the Publisher
Praise for William Dalrymple’s Return of a King
“Brilliant. . . . The fullest and most powerful description of the West’s first encounter with Afghan society.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Magnificent. . . . [Dalrymple’s] histories read like novels. . . . This latest book delights and shocks.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Masterful. . . . Dalrymple makes an important contribution by including recently discovered Afghan accounts of the war.” —The Washington Post
“At once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible.” —Bookforum

“With skill and deep humanity, Dalrymple seeks contemporary lessons in Britain’s disastrous nineteenth-century invasion.” —The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)

“A serious work of history that expands our understanding of the war of 1839-42 by drawing on sources found in Russia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, many never before translated into English.” —Newsday

“Arguably the most important work in Dalrymple's impressive oeuvre. . . . If context is important, reading Dalrymple is paramount.” —The Sunday Guardian (London)

“A masterful history. . . . And as the latest occupying force in Afghanistan negotiates its exit, this chronicle seems all too relevant now.” —The Economist

“In Return of a King, Dalrymple has done again what he did magnificently for two other telling episodes of British imperial history in White Mughals (2002) and The Last Mughal (2006). . . . Dalrymple has a narrative gift.” —The Huffington Post

“A thrilling, amusing and educational three-track tour de force, relevant to today and even the immediate future.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Definitive. . . . Return of a King is not just a riveting account of one imperial disaster on the roof of the world; it teaches unforgettable lessons about the perils of neocolonial adventures everywhere.” —Literary Review

“A major contribution to the historiography of south-west Asia and of the British empire. . . . Return of a King will come to be seen as the definitive account of the first and most disastrous western attempt to invade Afghanistan.” —New Statesman

“Complex and remarkable. . . . As taut and richly embroidered as a great novel. . . . This book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research, and a thrilling account of a watershed Victorian conflict.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“[Dalrymple] is a master storyteller, whose special gift lies in the use of indigenous sources, so often neglected by imperial chroniclers. . . . Almost every page of Dalrymple’s splendid narrative echoes with latter-day reverberations.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Few writers could go wrong with a story populated with so many villains, rogues, poltroons, swashbucklers, spies, assassins and heroes. But none would make a better job of it than William Dalrymple in this thrilling, magnificently evocative Return of a King.” —Mail on Sunday (London)

“Marvelous. . . . Brilliant, exact language. . . . There is much in Dalrymple’s superb book that has contemporary resonance.” —Sunday Herald

“Shows all the elements we have come to expect from Dalrymple: the clear, fluid prose, the ability to give complex historical events shape, story and meaning, the use of new local sources to allow the voices of the people . . . to be heard alongside the much-better documented accounts of the invaders. . . . This is clear-eyed, non-judgmental, sober history, beautifully told.” —The Observer (London)

“Sensationally good. . . . Dalrymple writes the kind of history that few historians can match.” —The Scotsman

“An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population. . . . A saga that makes for marvelous storytelling, filled with heroes, knaves, incompetent fools, and savage, bloodthirsty warriors. It has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple.” —Booklist (starred)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the hardcover edition.


No Easy Place to Rule

The year 1809 opened auspiciously for Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. It was now March, the very beginning of that brief Afghan spring, and the pulse was slowly returning to the veins of the icy landscape long clotted with drifts of waist-high snow. Now the small, sweet-smelling Istalif irises were pushing their way through the frozen ground, the frosted rime on the trunks of the deodars was running to snowmelt, and the Ghilzai nomads were unlatching their fat-tailed sheep from the winter pens, breaking down their goat-hair tents and readying the flocks for the first of the spring migrations to the new grass of the high pastures. It was just then, at that moment of thaw and sap, that Shah Shuja received two pieces of good news—something of a rarity in his troubled reign.1

The first concerned the recovery of some lost family property. The largest diamond in the world, the Koh-i-Nur, or Mountain of Light, had been missing for more than a decade, but such was the turbulence of the times that no attempt had been made to find it. Shah Zaman, Shuja’s elder brother and predecessor on the throne of Afghanistan, was said to have hidden the gem shortly before being captured and blinded by his enemies. A huge Indian ruby known as the Fakhraj, the family’s other most precious gem, had also disappeared at the same time.

So Shah Shuja summoned his blind brother and questioned him on the whereabouts of their father’s most famous jewels: was it really true that he knew where they were hidden? Shah Zaman revealed that nine years earlier he had hidden the Fakhraj under a rock in a stream near the Khyber Pass, shortly before being taken prisoner. Later, he had slipped the Koh-i-Nur into a crack in the wall of the fortress cell where he was first seized and bound. A court historian later recorded, “Shah Shuja immediately dispatched a few of his most trustworthy men to find these two gems and advised them that they should leave no stone unturned in their efforts. They found the Koh-i-Nur with a Shinwari sheikh who in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight for his official papers. As for the Fakhraj, they found it with a Talib, a student, who had uncovered it when he went to a stream to wash his clothes. They impounded both gems and brought them back in the king’s service.”2

The second piece of news, about the arrival of an embassy from a previously hostile neighbour, was potentially of more practical use to the Shah. At the age of only twenty-four, Shuja was now in the seventh year of his reign. By temperament a reader and a thinker, more interested in poetry and scholarship than in warfare or campaigning, it was his fate to have inherited, while still an adolescent, the far-flung Durrani Empire. That empire, founded by his grandfather Ahmad Shah Abdali, had been built out of the collapse of three other Asian empires: the Uzbeks to the north, the Mughals to the south and to the west the Safavids of Persia. It had originally extended from Nishapur in modern Iran through Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab and Sindh to Kashmir and the threshold of Mughal Delhi. But now, only thirty years after his grandfather’s death, the Durrani Empire was itself already well on its way to disintegration.

There was, in fact, nothing very surprising about this. Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan—or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last millennia—had had but a few hours of political or administrative unity.3 Far more often it had been “the places in between”—the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.

Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of the Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.

Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime—the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires—and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale. Under the guise of reconciliation, one of Shah Shuja’s chiefs invited some sixty of his feuding cousins “to dine with him,” wrote one observer, “having previously laid bags of gunpowder under the apartment. During the meal, having gone out on some pretext, he blew them all up.” A country like this could be governed only with skill, strategy and a full treasure chest.

So when at the beginning of 1809 messengers arrived from the Punjab bearing news of an East India Company Embassy heading north from Delhi seeking an urgent alliance with him, Shah Shuja had good reason to be pleased. In the past the Company had been a major problem for the Durranis, for its well-disciplined sepoy armies had made impossible the lucrative raids down onto the plains of Hindustan which for centuries had been a principal source of Afghan income. Now it seemed that the Company wished to woo the Afghans; the Shah’s newswriters wrote to him that the Embassy had already crossed the Indus, en route to his winter capital of Peshawar. This not only offered some respite from the usual round of sieges, arrests and punitive expeditions, it potentially provided Shuja with a powerful ally—something he badly needed. There had never been a British Embassy to Afghanistan before, and the two peoples were almost unknown to each other, so the Embassy had the additional benefit of novelty. “We appointed servants of the royal court known for their refinement and good manners to go to meet them,” wrote Shah Shuja in his memoirs, “and ordered them to take charge of hospitality, and to treat them judiciously, with caution and politeness.”4

Reports reaching Shah Shuja indicated that the British were coming laden with gifts: “elephants with golden howdahs, a palanquin with a high parasol, gold-inlaid guns and ingenious pistols with six chambers, never seen before; expensive clocks, binoculars, fine mirrors capable of reflecting the world as it is; diamond studded lamps, porcelain vases and utensils with gold embedded work from Rome and China; tree-shaped candelabra, and other such beautiful and expensive gifts whose brilliance the imagination falls short in describing.”5 Years later Shuja remembered one present that particularly delighted him: “a large box producing noises like voices, strange sounds in a range of timbres, harmonies and melodies, most pleasing to the ear.”6 The Embassy had brought Afghanistan its first organ.

Shah Shuja’s autobiography is silent as to whether he suspected these British bearing gifts. But by the time he came to write it in late middle age, he was well aware that the alliance he was about to negotiate would change the course of his own life, and that of Afghanistan, for ever.

The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from both India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah Shuja, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of the River Neman.

Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Neman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of the Baltic.

The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Peace of Tilsit.7

Most of the clauses in the treaty concerned the question of war and peace—not for nothing was the first volume of Tolstoy’s great novel named Before Tilsit. Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain’s wealth. This, of course, was his enemy’s richest possession, India.

The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon’s, as of several previous French strategists. Almost exactly nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. “Through Egypt we shall invade India,” he wrote. “We shall re-establish the old route through Suez.” From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter’s pleas for help against the English: “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies!”8

At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon’s initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.

So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. A treaty with the Persian Ambassador had already been concluded: “Should it be the intention of HM the Emperor of the French to send an army by land to attack the English possessions in India,” it stated, “HM the Emperor of Persia, as his good and faithful ally, will grant him passage.”

At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grande Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20,000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile, General Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s Ambassador to St. Petersburg, was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians. “The more fanciful it sounds,” wrote the Emperor, “the more the attempt to do it (and what can France and Russia not do?) would frighten the English; striking terror into English India, spreading confusion in London; and, to be sure, forty thousand Frenchmen to whom Persia will have granted passage by way of Constantinople, joining forty thousand Russians who arrive by way of the Caucasus, would be enough to terrify Asia, and make its conquest.”9

But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express, containing the outlines of the plan, to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses, and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them went instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all the countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood, and to negotiate alliances with them to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India. The different embassies were also instructed to collect strategic information and intelligence, so filling in the blank spaces on British maps of these regions. Meanwhile, reinforcements would be held in readiness in England for despatch to India should there be signs of an expedition being ready to sail from the French ports.10

Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not “beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France,” he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the “very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.”11

In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon’s armies. One was sent to Teheran in an effort to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar of Persia the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amirs of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company’s service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.

Elphinstone was a Lowland Scot, who in his youth had been a notable Francophile. He had grown up alongside French prisoners of war in Edinburgh Castle, of which his father was governor, and there he had learned their revolutionary songs and had grown his curly golden hair down his back in the Jacobin style to show his sympathy with their ideals.12 Sent off to India at the unusually young age of fourteen to keep him out of trouble, he had learned good Persian, Sanskrit and Hindustani, and soon turned into an ambitious diplomat and a voracious historian and scholar.

Meet the Author

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE is the author of seven previous works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain's most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

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The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Sas826 More than 1 year ago
This book marks the return of William Dalrymple as a writer. After a lackluster Nine Lives. Having read all his works, I would say this book stands out because of the use of a wide range of literary sources in many different languages. This tells the story of all the players of the Great game. The book weaves through all the twists and turns of plots and schemes that defined 19th century power play between the European powers and shows the battered and human face of the British East India Company. The books will satiate the historian as well as those seeking an exciting drama. I felt the author tried too hard to show parallels between old and the current situation in the Af pak region. nonetheless it is quite a brilliant book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a terrific book. It is well researched and enlightening. It helps to understand how the West came to be involved in Afghanistan and the futility of getting out. Clearly, William Dalrymple deserves the awards his work has received.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago