Return of a King: The First Afgan War

There is a certain cyclic order to British rule in the subcontinent. Successful occupation, social disconnect with the natives obscuring the British to a growing resentment (mostly based on religious but also nationalistic sentiments) caused by the actions of a handful of British officials and other elements of the colonial entourage, the resentment slowing but steadily solidifying into mass based anger simmering under the surface for some time and then a singular incident blowing it up into a wide spread revolt against the British leading to their large scale massacre (including their children and women folk), the sudden explosion of revolt and its utter brutality taking the British by surprise.

They are destroyed, defeated and pushed back. There is a period of calm. The British organize themselves and retaliate. The retaliation is severe, equaling the savagery and ferocity of their opponents. The natives are massacred, humiliated and defeated. British power is restored.

Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857, which rocked British rule in India albeit for a short period, has the same pattern to it.  Around 100 years before the Mutiny there was lot of bonhomie between the British and natives (exemplified best by an affair between a British spy and a lady of Muslim nobility in Hyderabad – read  Dalrymple’s The White Mughal – which had scandalized the Muslim and the English society alike).

This bonhomie was frowned upon by high officials in England and it slowly stopped leading to a complete absence of social exchange between the ruler and the ruled, placing the British poorly to gauge the widespread anti-British mood among Indians which led to the outbreak of the Mutiny, a result of multiple factors but provoked by a single incident – a minor East Indian Company soldier’s refusal to put cartridge in his mouth to tear off its opening which was rumored to have been greased with animal fat.

Large scale massacre of the British followed – followed by British retaliation and restoration of British rule in India. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal brilliantly captures everything about the Mutiny.

In many ways, 1857 was a repeat of 1840 – 41, when British rule’s hubris, ignorance of local conditions and insensitivities towards local sentiments led to a similar disaster but on a much, much bigger scale, this time in Afghanistan. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, which I read recently, deals with it.

The British have intelligence that Russia is planning to invade India, the jewel in the British Empire crown, via Afghanistan with the help of Napoleon. The intelligence sends panic waves in British quarters from London to Calcutta and the theory, which was highly exaggerated, finds its backers and gathers momentum over time. Only a friendly administration in Afghanistan can prevent the disaster, the British decide eventually.

Shah Shuja had been deposed from the throne many decades ago by Dost Mohammad who has ruled Afghanistan since. Against the advices of one of their most hands-on observer – Alexander Barnes – who has spent considerable time in the region, the British decide to invade Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammad and restore the rule of Shah Shuja.

After a bitter war between the two sides, the British manage to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan. But problems start soon after. Three things slowly turn the mood of the Afghans against British occupation: dislodging of Dost Mohammad, a popular king; British policies in Afghanistan some of which hit the interests of the local tribal chiefs involving removing and curtling subsidies they had received for very long from the king; and the most incendiary one: licentious ways of the British officials using Afghan women, from all social sections, for pleasure.

Amidst growing resentment  a singular incident involving a slave girl, who had escaped from the harem of an Afghan of nobility to Alexzander Barnes, now the highest British official in Afghanistan whose licentious ways with Afghan women are chiefly responsible for  the growing anger against the British – sparked the revolt. The common Afghans, enraged by the fact that the kafirs are dishonoring their women folk, rise to arms massacring anything and everything British on their way. A mob storms into Alexzander Barnes’ place and slaughter him.

Eventually British exit from Afghanistan is negotiated but here awaits an even bigger disaster for the British. Afghanistan is a complex country whose different provinces are ruled by different tribal leaders – and a central leadership’s authority is dependent on their fealty to it. However, tribal groups often act independent of the dictats of their central leadership.

On their way out of Afghanistan when the British entourage is passing through the Khyber Pass they find themselves completely helpless against the tribal groups constantly buffeting them with sniper and ambush attacks in a terrain completely unfamiliar to the British and one that the tribals know like the back of their hands. The weather is more inhospitable than the terrain. An unexpected snow storm leaves the British troops, leaving officers and fellow companions frozen to death and those escaping death, completely maimed.

The humiliation makes international news headlines and is seen as the biggest reversal to face the Empire since its beginning. Prestige has to be restored. Retaliation and recapture of Afghanistan follow…

This is followed by another revolt taking place – this time spearheaded by Akbar Khan the son of the deposed king Dost Mohammad who had been banished to India by the British after he surrendered to them following the British invasion of Afghanistan to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan.

This revolt is different from the earlier one which ousted the British from Afghanistan the first time. The earlier one was due to a confusion of several factors – imposition of a puppet ruler, British policies and behavior with locals – where religion played but a minor role; the second rising is distinctly religious in character, mobilized by Akbar Khan as such.

Faced with a religious uprising, and depleting British coffers owing to an ongoing Opium War in China, Britain decide to retreat from Afghanistan…to India. However, the retreat, this time via a route different from the earlier one, is an experience no different from the earlier disaster – again constantly troubled by Afghan tribes through sniper attacks carried out from the crevices of the craggy mountains surrounding the serpentine passageways through which the British entourage (the entire soldiery, families and camp followers) are retreating.

To this day the country remains as inhospitable to foreigners as it was 170 years back when the British had left. The Russians got a taste of that in 1989. The Americans have been bearing the burnt for some time. While Dalrymple was researching the book, an Afghan told him: “We sent the Brits on their way. The Americans know their game is up, only their bosses back home refuse to accept the reality. The next will be the Chinese.”

On William Dalrymple

All I remember from history I read in school and BA are names and some stray events and years (only the big ones). Conversely, I remember the whole narrative and the main characters of the one history book – The Last Mughal – and several articles on various topics of subcontinent history by William Dalrymple I have read over the years.

This is the difference between telling history in a didactic manner as is taught in our schools and colleges and in a story telling manner.

Dalrymple chooses a passage of time / event, researches it deeply down to finer points about each character and writes it like a novel where the emphasis is on characters and how their traits shape the historical narrative.

In the book I am reading now, The Return of a King, Shah Shuja a literature lover who is kind and considerate departs from the general Afghan practice of blinding a defeated and captured enemy spares a person from the Barakzai clan a rival group who had revolted against his rule and merely keeps him captive in a fort.

Later this person escapes from imprisonment, joins Shuja’s rival and captures large swathes of his empire eventually bringing an end to the rule of the Durrani Empire to which the Shah belonged.

William Dalrymple is a Scott who has been staying in a farmhouse near Delhi for many years. In his early years in India as a historian he said his books shed new light on subjects that had been earlier written on by Indian historians, thanks to his use of research material that were left unused by his Indian counterparts  “who were too lazy to use them”. The statement enraged the literary establishment and Dalrymple immediately came under attack.

Sobha De said the White Mughal, among Dalrymple’s early books which tells the story of a love affair between a British officer and a girl from Muslim nobility which took place almost 100 years before the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny when there was lot of camaraderie between the British and Indians which declined slowly because it was frowned upon by England and slowly disappeared resulting in complete gulf between the two sides – was imitative of The Far Pavilions which dealt with the same subject more competently. And Ramchandra Guha said Dalrymple’s books are factually inaccurate.

Dalrymple largely ducked the attacks complementing Shoba De for defending her beauty against age and calling himself poorly placed to return the barb of Guha because “Ramachandra Guha writes on cricket and I hardly know anything about the subject.” It was Guha’s pre India After Gandhi days.

Accusing Dalrymple of factual inaccuracy is slightly missing the point. Of course, accuracy is the primary responsibility of a historian or any nonfiction writer but given the way in which Dalrymple writes history there has to be some space for interpretation.

Dalrymple has done to history reading what Chetan Bhagat has done to novel reading: both have attracted people from outside traditional base of readers to the form. A large section of Dalrymple’s reader base are people like me: history lovers but not historians (aspiring or otherwise).  They enjoy a good narrative and don’t consider little liberty taken with facts or interpretation creeping in as sacrilege.

But what research material does Dalrymple blame fellow historians for not using? As much as Dalrymple makes use of official archives and site research to construct the larger grid work of his narrative, he relies heavily on things like personal letters exchanged between characters and accounts left by contemporary travelers / observers for the inner lives of his characters. In Victorian times there was a custom of writing long letters, he had said once.