Monday, 20 December 2010

First as tragedy, then as farce...So what do you call it this time?

In case you think I'm the only one who thinks that reading a few well written history books might save the State Depoartment anmd the FO a good deal of trouble, here's a wee piece from the NATO Review from 2009, just for Christmas...I've put in some italics


On October 1, 1838, Auckland laid out his reasons for war in the Simla Manifesto, a document filled with distortions and outright fabrications designed to cement support for the war. This included the assertion that Dost Muhammed had agreed to ally with the Russians, something he had never done.

It is worth highlighting Auckland’s claim that a Persian siege of Herat was the equivalent of a Russian takeover of Afghanistan, and that in turn made necessary a British invasion. Auckland’s analysis turned a distant and manageable problem into an imminent and existential threat. Such twisted reasoning turned a professed desire to defend Afghanistan into a determination to conquer it.

The Simla Manifesto’s detractors – often military men – were numerous. Sir Henry Marion Durand, an irascible but capable soldier who often fought with his superiors, wrote that “the exaggerated fears of Russian power and intrigue… invested Herat with a fictitious importance wholly incommensurate with... its position in regard to Kandahar and the Indus."

Lord Salisbury identified the essential problem: "You must either disbelieve altogether in the existence of the Russians, or you must believe that they will be at Kandahar next year. Public opinion recognises no middle ground."

With this statement, Salisbury had recognised that democratic war demands absolute and implacable enemies. If they do not exist, then they must be invented; and if they do exist, then their menace must be maximised.

Poor intelligence, accepted as gospel by the mutually-reinforcing views of the war's supporters, also played a prominent role. The "politicals" often poorly understood the tribal allegiances that were the basis of Afghan political life. In addition, the region’s geography worked against the British – in particular, the mountainous terrain, where long columns of troops would be exposed to sniper fire.

It was also believed that the Afghan population would eagerly accept the restoration of Shah Shuja on the throne. The truth was far less certain. Upon taking Kandahar, Envoy Sir William MacNaughten assured Auckland that the Afghans had "greeted the British officers as liberators". While this seemed true, it grievously underestimated Afghan resentment towards the occupying force.

More profoundly, there was little if any evidence that Dost Muhammed ever seriously considered an alliance with the Russians. Given the difficulties that the British themselves faced, the idea of a huge Russian army simply marching through Afghanistan to India was in itself highly questionable.

It is almost as if the war’s proponents conceived of modern warfare as a gigantic game of Risk: move your little pieces, and when territories turn your player colour, they become yours. It is a highly idealised view, divorced of such banal notions as supply lines and native sentiments. It is also an amateurish view.

The lie was given to the affair when, as the Army of the Indus prepared to march towards Afghanistan, the Persians lifted the siege of Herat and went home. Although the war’s professed justification was now gone, the British marched on anyway. Too many men and too much money had been mobilised for peace to break out. The war had become its own justification.

It is thus remarkable that the British conquered Kabul with relative ease. The problem was not the war, but the ensuing peace.

Some lessons, it seems, we are determined not to learn.

Monday, 13 December 2010

How the Bad News came to Jallalabad

In this Post, The Reverend George Glieg's account of how the Force under Lady Sale's husband, General Robert, "Fighting Bob" Sale, themselves penned up by hostiles in Jellalabad, heard the news of the disaster

"It is a fact, which every surviving officer of the thirteenth will vouch for, that almost from the first, Colonel Dennie had boded ill of the force left in Cabul...His words were :

"You'll see. Not a soul will escape from Cabul except one man; and he will come to tell us that the rest are destroyed." Under such circumstances, it is very little to be wondered at, if men's blood curdled while they watched the advance of the solitary horseman, and the vopice of dennie sounded like the response of an oracle when he exclaimed "Did I not say so? Here comes the messenger."

He was brought in bleeding and faint and covered with wounds; graspoing in his hand the hilt and small fragment of a sword...

Dr Brydon told how the column set forth; disorganised and cowed; how first the baggage and, by and by, the soldiers, were set upon by the enemy. He described the wavering and imbecility of the leaders, the insubordinate conduct of the men ...and last of all, the treachery of Akbar Khan, who, enticing the General (Elphinstone), with all the other officers of rank, into his power, left the wreck of the army without anyone to guide it...when matters arrived at this point, there was an end to discipline, to order, and of course, to last, all the sepoys and camp followers having died, some of cold and fatigue, others by bullets or the sword, a miserable remnant of the 44th regiument, with about forty European officers, arrived in the vicinity of it seems that some of the officers and men parted by one they dropped off...till six only remained...a band of ruffians rushed upon them, and cut down two. The other four galloped off, and Dr Brydon, who was the worst mounted...soon fell into the rear...he soon came up with the body of one of his friends, terribly Afgahn horseman, armed to the teeth, confronted him...hew fought for his life...he rode on bleeding and weak...and being soon afterward espied from the rtamparts of Jellalabad, was brought in to the garrison."

In the words of contemporary military historian, Patrick McCrory :"Here was a force that, with its camp followers, women and children, had numbered some 16000 souls on the day it marched from Kabul under a shameful capitulation and an illusory safe-conduct; one week later, on 13 January 1842, Surgeon William Brydon rode alone into Jellalabad, the only British survivor. In the nights that followed a great light would be kept burning over the Kabul gate at Jellalabad and every fifteen minutes four buglers would sound advance. But there were no more stragglers to respond to beacon or bugle."

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Earthquakes as Usual - Lady Sale and the Retreat from Kabul 1842

What is it about the Brits and their Memsahibs? Do we attribute it to bravery or bloody mindedness their steadfast refusal to be unruffled, or to assume that wherever they are in the Empire, they can behave like they're in Surrey dealing with a minor problem with the servants, when in fact, they're on the roof of the world being shot at by the natives?

From the journal of Lady Sale, published by John Murray in 1843

23rd November 1841

"I had taken up my post of observation, as usual, on the top of the house, whence I had a fine view of the field of action and where, by keeping behind the chimneys, I escaped the bullets that continually whizzed past me"

The fight continued till about ten o'clock, by which time our killed and wounded became very numerous. The fire of the enemy told considerably more than ours did, from the superiority of their juzails and jingals over our muskets. The Afghans fought from behind sungahs and hillocks, whilst our men were perfectly exposed, labouring under the disadvantage of being drawn up in square, from an apprehension of an attack from the Afghan cavalry...

(It's like she's dissecting a poor showing from the England bowling attack...insufficient attention being paid to line and length...she continues)

It was very much like the scenes depicted in the battles of the Crusaders. The enemy rushed on: drove our men before them very like a flock of sheep with a wolf at their heels...All appearing to be over, I hastened home to get breakfast ready."

(Full English, presumably. Never mind. Roll on Crimbo)

25th December1841

A dismal Christmas day, and our situation far from cheering."

Far from cheering, she says, entirely surrounded....On Thursday sixth of January 1843, accepting the inevitable, with the commander, Lord Elphinstone, incapacitated by illness, and Burnes and McNaghten, the political officers, dismembered and on display in the town, the British garrison, 4500 men and 12000 followers, began the the long, terrible, doomed retreat from Kabul. Immediately, any illusions of safe passage, or of British pluck being enough to see anyone through,were violently and cruelly disabused, with Lady Sale's own family among the immediate casualties.

On the eighth, she recounts that

"We commenced our march about mid-day...we had not proceeded half a mile when we were heavily fired upon...poor Sturt rode back (to see after Thain, I believe): his horse was shot from under him, and before he could rise from the ground, he received a severe wound in the abdomen...the pony Mrs Sturt rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately only one ball in my arm, three others passed through my poshteen near the shoulder without doing me any injury. Fortunate it was for Mrs Sturt and myself that we kept with the chiefs. Would to God that Sturt had done likewise, and not gone back....

Sturt had only recently recovered from the injuries he sustained on the night the insurrection began, two months before)

Lady Sale continues:

9th January. Mrs Trevor kindly rode a pony and gave up her place in the kajava to Sturt, who must otherwise have been left to die upon the ground. The rough motion increased his suffering and accelerated his death; but he was still conscious that his wife and I were with him; and we had the sorrowful satisfaction of giving him Christian burial.

In her the entry for the tenth, Lady Sale tells us that both order and hope have already vanished in the snows "No sooner was it light than the usual rush to the front was made by the mixed rabble of camp followers, Sipahees and Europeans in one huge mass. Hundreds of poor wretches, unable to seize any animals for themselves, or despoiled by stronger persons of those they had, were left on the road to die or be butchered."

Lady Sale and her daughter survived only as hostages of Akhbar Khan. . Of those who remained with the column attempting to reach Jellalabad, only one Englishman, a doctor called Brydon, got there alive. The British Army had lost, in a single action, 15000 souls.

At this time, I'm not going to go into Lady Sales experience of captivity or her eventual release, along with her notes for this amazing journal. Let's say goodbye to her, for the purposes of this blog anyway, with her entry for March 13th, as a captive, upper lip regaining its stiffness.

"Earthquakes as usual"

You've got to love 'em.

The illustration at the top of this blog, by Lt James Rattray, is of the site where the remnants of Elphinstone's tattered army were finally destroyed in January 1842, when, later in the year, General Pollock led a brutal punitive expedition into which we will turn next, in the company of another Murray author, the Reverend George Glieg. The picture credit, from the British Library, is below.

Jugdelluk, the last stand made by General Elphinstone's army in ...
This lithograph was taken from plate 21 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James
Rattray. The Briti... ... Artist: Rattray, James (1818-1854). ...
- 26k - Cached Version

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Lady Sale and the siege of Kabul - November 1841

Continuing extracts from the Journal of Lady Florentia Sale, published by John Murray in 1843:

There is another (unflattering) mention of Burnes in Lady Sale's journal entry for the next day, which is full of recrimination against Afghan aliies (the King the Brits supported seems to be a perfect bounder!) , stuffed shirts in Calcutta, and sickly, feeble General Elphinstone in particular...

"It is further worthy of remark that Taj Mohammed Khan says he went to Sir Alexander Burnes the very day before the insurrection broke out, and told him what was going on. Burnes, incredulous, heaped abuse on the gentleman's head; and the only reply he gave him was "Shuma beseeah shytan ust" on which Taj Mohammed left him. This anecdote was told us by himself.

There's no translation of this choice phrase offered...but Shytan is Satan to you and me..."Go to the Devil", the politest...

By the fourth day, the injured Sturt is strong enough to take part in consultations, but grainstores as well as ammunition dumps and the treasury have been seized by the insurgents.

"The servants are to get half rations from the commisarriat tomorrow" is Lady Sale's comment, running the household staff being her demesne.

By the 8th, Sturt is back on active duty, as the only engineering officer in the cantonment, and is effectively in charge or organizing the defences

Lady Sale goes on:

"Sturt went to Gen Elphinstone...who gave him carte blanche, and desired that all his instructions should be obeyed. He has accordingly placed fifteen guns in position. We have only two artillery Waller is wounded...we have no labratory men - no ther engineer officer than Sturt, who, weak as he is, has to do everything."

There is perhaps a little motherly pride creeping in here. This chap was her son in law...By contrast, almost in an aside. in the same day's entry we find this:

"It is said that Mohun Lull has named the man who killed poor Sir Alexander Burnes..."

Her Ladyship does not recall when she was first told of his death. But we must remember that John Murray rushed her journal into print in 1843, to capitalise on the publicity she attracted as a captive (later in our story) of the beastly Afghans...

Lull, an intelligence agent who worked with Burnes, tells us he knows who killed him. She does not mention him again as far as I can tell...I haven't read the whole thing yet...but her thoughts are now pervaded with frustration and Macnaghten begins negotiations with the chiefs for surrender and retreat...and pride in her beloved Sturt, whose "revovery and energy appear little short of miraculous"

On the 17th of Novemebr comes news that her husband General Sale's column has reached Jalallabad...and from now on, reaching there themselves becomes the focus of all hope for the besieged garrison in Kabul.

'Interior of the City of Kandahar, from the house of Sirdar Meer' taken from plate 23 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Long dark night in Kabul - November 2nd, 1841

The long, dreadful night continues. Insurrection has broken out...confusion is everywhere...and her son in law is dreadfully wounded. Lady Sale writes in place of her sleep...filling page after page.

"There were of course various reports. We first heard that, on the affair breaking out, Sir A Burnes went over to the Wuzeer's...and that he was safe there, excepting having been shot in the leg...The King, from the Bala Hissar, sent intelligence to the Envoy "that Burnes was all right;" but a few hours later acknowledged that he did not know anything of him, neither did the envoy at seven in the evening, when Capt Lawrence and Capt John Conolly came to enquire after Sturt's health."

We know, as I've written in previous posts, that Burnes and his brother were already dead.

She gets reflective towards the end of the night.

"It appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the affair in the commencement; but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on"

I think the truth is probably that the Brits realized without saying it, that they had bitten off a lot more in Afghanistan than they could chew. The cost cutting that provoked rebellion in the first place indicates that the powers that be did not want to throw good money after bad. The policy of regime change (as outlined in earlier posts) had been an unpopular failure in the country, where they now seen not only as Feringhee-(Franks..Crusaders) - occupiers...but worse, as being weak and anxious to leave. The expedition had been undertaken in haste, with poor intelligence, and insufficient resources. (Against the advice of experts, like the hero of my early posts, Alexander Burnes).

And now, a decision had already been tacitly taken to cut and run...Sale's regiment had left before Nott's had come to relieve them...the weakness had been seen and exploited by an enemy far stronger than anticipated...and the mission was doomed. The only question now was whether all the troops and their families were now doomed too.

All that was possible now, and far from certain, was getting out of there alive.

As I've said elsewhere, does not all this ring bells of conemporary resonance almost too obvious to be rung? Or, as Lady Sale puts it, still writing that same terrible night.

"Most dutifully do we appear to shut our eyes on our probable fate."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Indestructible Lady Sale

This is the frontispiece from "Disaster in Afghanistan" by Lady Sale, rushed into print by John Murray in early 1843...Her Ladyship was still in England recovering from three months of siege and seven more of being held hostage by Akbar Khan...just one episode in the broader catastrophe, but the only written account of the siege to survive...Indeed, of the 16000 odd British subjects, Indians included, who were left in Kabul after Her Ladyship's husband, General "Fighting Bob" Sale had marched out with his regiment, (which included our other witness, Reverend George Gleig), Lady Sale, one of a handful of hostages, was one of the few to survive.

Left unedited by Murray, Lady Sale's book is a transcribed daily journal...written in moments of leisure, or of minute by minute reportage, its not a narrative, let alone a considered account. The writing lacks the polish and poise of the Reverend Gleig...but makes up for it by being told in real time, as it were...

(I'm not sure if there's any publishing precedent for such a thing. Maybe my more learned colleagues at the NLS can help me out with that?)

As she says in her introduction...written from Calcutta, "I have not only daily noted down events as they occurred, but often have done so hourly"

So, right or wrong, whatever she thought was happening at the time, accurate or not, is what Murray rushed into print not long after her rescue from captivity in Afghanistan in September of 1842.

So, for example, she says contradictory things about the fate of Alexander Burnes (my first hero of this series) ...for whom she seems to have had little affection or personal concern...Burnes disappearance (and, as it happened, murder) was the first serious violence of the Cabool uprising inNovember of 1841. But Lady Sale doesn't know he's dead for quite a while, and doesn't tell us how she felt when she found out.

In fact, she says very little about how she "felt" about anything. None of your Lady Diana "Queen of Hearts" cobblers here...this is how the aristocracy used to behave. Good thing too, unless you were on the recieving end.

For example : (my interpolations in italics from now on) :

"29th October

We hear that since the force (Sale's Regiment) left Khoord Cabul they have never pitched a tent. The rear guard has been attacked daily, and the bivouak fired on every night. The camels are dying forty a night from cold and starvation. Lieut. Jennings (13th) has been wounded severely in the arm, the bone broken, and the ball went through into his side. Lieut. Rattray (13th) wounded, and a sergeant killed and 3 men wounded; 4 or 5 Sipahees (Sepoys) of the 35th wounded.

And so on. Dry. Factual. Stiff upper lipped.

31st October

The potatoes thrive well, and will be a very valuable addition to the cuisine. The cauliflowers, artichokes and turnip radishes are very fine...the Cabul lettuces are hairy and inferior....

1st November

No letters from camp (Sale's), which has caused both surprise and anxiety.

2nd November

Last night a party of Kohistannes entered the city...this morning, early, all was commotion in Cabul; the shops were plundered and the peoplke were all fighting...Capt Johnson's (paymaster to the Shah's forces) house and treasury in the city were attacked, as also Sir Alexander Burnes's...

This is the first time she mentions Burnes in her journal. She could not know that he was already dead. Besides, her attention that fateful day was elsewhere.

Capt Sturt...went to General Elphinstone, who sent him with an important the King to concert with him measures for the defence of that fortress. Just as he entered the precincts of that palace, he was stabbed in three places by a young man well dressed, who escaped into a building close by, where he was protected by the gates being shut.

Captain Sturt was her son in law.

I cannot describe how shocked I was when I saw poor Sturt; for Lawrence, fearing to alarm us, had said he was only slightly wounded. He had been stabbed deeply in the shoulder and side, and on the face (the latter wound striking on the bone just missed the temple): he was covered with blood issuing from his mouth and was unable to articulate...the mouth would not open, the tongue was swollen and paralysed and he was ghastly and faint from loss of blood. He could not lie down from the blood choking him...he was better towards evening; and by his wife's (her daughter's) unremitting attention in assisting him to get rid of the clotted blood from his mouth...he was by eleven o'clock able to utter a tolerably articulate sound. With what joy did we hear him faintly utter "bet-ter"; and he really seemed to enjoy a tea-spoonful of water, which we got into his mouth by a drop or two at a time, painful as it was to him to swallow it.

I must admit, that as I approach the end of this residency, the idea of a dual theatrical Portrait of Mr Burnes and Lady Sale becomes and icreasingly tempting thought of one of the things I might do next.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Death in the Hills

I'm drafting this blog entry on the day when the death of the 344th British soldier in Afghanistan since 2001 was announced.

We've been here before. Worse, even...much worse. But much is the same. We are the same, alike devising strategy on the basis of cultural myopia and wishful thinking in general. And the Afghans are the same too. They are just waiting for us to leave. They don't know how long that will take. But they know it will come.

In 1841, matters, it must be said, accelerated.

The immediate spur to the revolt against the British Army occupying Kabul that year was, in fact, the withdrawl of a bribe.

(In a tribal society, the withdrawl of a financial inducement is an insult, as well as an inconvenience. Tribal politics, as we know in contemporary Afghanistan, ARE politics - the balance of financial tribute with military capability is the mechanism of civic stability - the central state, in the European model, scarcely exists except as a power broker and funding channel, whether the money comes from heroin, guilty oil shieks, or the UN).

The Reverend George Gleig, Chaplain to the Regiment of General "Fighting Bob" Sale, who we've been hearing from previously, assessed the Afghan situation in 1841 as follows:

'Candahar with the whole of the territory to the Helmand, if not pacified, was quiet; while the tribes in possession of the passes...were at once mollified and rendered happy by the receipt of a sort of blackmail, which, to the amount of 8000 pounds a year, the British Government paid to them as the price of protection to its communications. Nobody therefore dreamed of danger...yet the spirit of discontent was very busy through the whole compass of the Doorannee empire... the whole of the troops, whether following the British standard or serving under that of the Shah, were fed and paid for at the expense of the Indian Treasury...the supreme government at Calcutta began to complain...instructions were given to the envoy that he should practice a rigid economy...Sir William Macnaghten seems to have met these instances with...every desire to fall in with the views of his superiors. He could recommend that the diminished...but he promised to reduce its expenses to the lowest practicable figure...Up to the autumn of 1841, [the Ghilzie chiefs] fulfilled their part of the treaty...but now it was decided to higgle with them about terms, and instead of 8000 poinds, 4000 pounds were offered. They indignantly rejected the proposal...and entered eagerly into the conspiracies which were everywhere maturing'.

He then gives us a flavour of what it was like to be stationed there...much as it is now, it seems.

' stray to any distance beyond the perimeters of the camp was never safe, and in more than one instance proved fatal, two British officers who had gone to fish the stream...were attacked...and one, Lt Inverarity of the 16th lancers, was murdered....while a body of not fewer than two hundred camp followers, when endeavouring to make their way back to Hindostan, were betrayed, disarmed and butchered to a man...the health of the troops began to give way...'

Then, in November, the storm broke in its full, hellish fury.

This is from a letter from James Burnes, Alexander's brother, (Alexander Burnes is the central figure in the early posts in this sequence) to James Carnac, 1 Feb 1842 (Wellesley 37313/135), and it's a translation of an intercepted message sent to Afridi tribesmen in the Khyber Pass.

'The fact is this, that on the third Tuesday of the blessed month of Ramadan in the morningtime it occured, that with other heroic champions stirring like lions, we carried by storm the house of Sickender Burnes. By the grace of the most holy and omnipotent God the brave warriors, having rushed right and left from their ambush, slew Sikander Burnes with various other feringees of consideration'.

Though they didn't know it yet, the British Army in Kabul, somewhere between twelve and sixteen thousand of them, including camp followers, was doomed.

Almost every single one of them...

Top image: 'Ko-i-staun foot soldiery in summer costume' taken from plate 12 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray. Used by permission of The British Library.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


I must not pass so lightly over so important a part of the population of Cabool as the ladies. Their ghost like figures when they walk abroad make one melancholy; but if all be true of them that is reported, they make ample amends when within doors for all such sombre exhibitions in public.
Alexander Burnes, 'Travels Into Bokhara', John Murray 1835

I couldn't resist fleshing out, as it were, the portrait in these blog posts of my first hero here...Alexander Burnes...a racy individual and spy...and friend of the Murrays, as well as a successful author. The boy from Montrose knew how to have a good time.

The following continues my extracts from the Reverend George Gleig's first hand account of this most pungent of Victorian military disasters. Here he is describing the social scene of the occupying British forces in Kabul in 1841, and Burnes own special role on that scene:

'Not only the houses of such men as the envoy, the commander in chief and Sir Alexander Burnes were thrown open to [the Afghan Chiefs] but the mess of ther 13th recieved its frequent guests, most of whom ate and drank as if there had been no prohibitory clauses in the Koran or elsewhere. Among other means adopted to entertain the aristocracy of central Asia, the British Officers got up a play: a theatre was constructed, scenery painted, dresses prepared; and as the pieces which they chose were chiefly broad comedies, such as 'The Irish Ambassador' and others of the same sort, great amusemewnt was afforded to the audience...while Burnes and others skilled in the dialect of the country, translated the speeches as they were uttered. The Afghans are a merry people, and have a keen relish of the ludicrous and the satirical; and as the interpreter never failed to bring the jokes of the actors home to them, they marked their delight by bursting into frequent peals of laughter.'

cover pageSo far so cosy, and only slightly naughty. The Reverend Gleig, however, goes on to make some observations on sexual license, which, as we'll see, may not be unrelated to the particularly sticky end that overcame Alexander well as being a properly Churchly thing to say in the light of what happened next.

'Though they do not, like other Mohammedan races, universally shut up their women,the Afghans are as open to jealousy as orientals in general...their women...could not but be pleased with the attentions the Feringhees showed them. It is much to be feared that our young countrymen did not always bear in mind that the domestic habits of any people ought to be sacred in the eyes of strangers...whatever errors they may have committed, the great mass of the garrison of Cabul atoned for them terribly; and the survivors...will doubtless more and more become conviced that the gratification of the moment is purchased at too high a price.'

So far so general, but to get ahead of myself for a moment, Lady Sale, the other Murray author who was a first hand witness of the subsequent and horrible events says something curious, perhaps unguarded, certainly disapproving and revealing about Burnes' reputation as a bon viveur, this an entry in her journal from November 1841, when the insurrection has started, and Burnes has gone missing:

'Our only hope of Burnes' saftey rest on the possibility of him having obtained refuge in some harem.'

Now, what immediately occurs to me the image of her ladyship talking to a couple of subalterns, and asking them, "What do you think has become of Mr Burnes?"

And then one of these two chaps saying to Lady Sale..."Don't worry about old Sandy. Knowing him he's probably shacked up in some knocking shop"

I think it is something like this that she has sanitised for her personal journal.
As my colleague David McClay said when I told him this story over a latte from the nice new cafe here at the Library, "it's like 'Carry on Up the Khyber'...but with slaughtering".

Top image: 'Ladies Of Caubul' from plate 24 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray.

Bottom image: 'Kandahar Lady of Rank, Engaged in Smoking' from plate 29 of 'Afghaunistan'

Monday, 1 November 2010

Afghanistan 1841 - Ice Skating and Cricket

Had I but my kingdom, how glad I should be to see an Englishman at Cabool, and to open the road tween Europe and India.
Shah Shooja quoted by Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray 1835.

I'm handing over this whole post, pretty much, to the Reverend George Gleig, and these excerpts from his "With Sale in Afghanistan" that Murray published in 1843, the year after the military catasrophe of the First Afghan War...and the bloody massacre of the retreat from Kabul.

Gleig, a Murray mainstay in the Quarterly Review and elsewhere, was a quite extraordinary fellow, a Church of Scotland Minister and Army Chaplain, a veteran of Waterloo and the Peninsular War and a military historian of a very high order. In 1841 and 2 he served with General "Fighting Bob" Sale in the Afghan conflict.

To begin our acquaintance with his memory and his talent, let us look at his description of the political situation, and of life in the British Army Cantonment at Kabul in 1841, before the waste matter hit the you know what, and establish a bit of Victorian tone to our continuing story:

'There was no increase of good feeling on the part of the inhabitants towards the invaders. The province submitted, or appeared to submit, to the rule of Shah Shujah, but of enthusiasm in his cause no class of society exhibited a sign...'

Gleig continues:

'...the city was quiet and so were the towns and villages dependent on it; and the whole of general Elphinstone's command...being concentrated around Cabul, it is hardly to be wondered at if men, accustomed to give the law and to be obeyed, should have discredited all rumours of a rebellion...there was society in the cantonments, for many of the officers had been joined by their wives and families...Parties rode hither and thither to visit and inspect such objects of curiosity as were described to them. Baba Shah's tomb, the obelisk of which tradition ascribes the structure to Alexander the Great...and as far into the mountains as it was deemed prudent to go, offered irresistable attractions to the admirers of both nature and art...

(James Rattry's illustration of this tomb is at the beginning of this post. Tourist attraction, you see.)

Wherever Englishmen go, they sooner or later introduce among the people whom they visit a taste for manly sports. Horse racing and cricket were both got up in the vicinity of Cabul; and in both the chiefs and people soon learned to take a lively interest...being great gamblers, they looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting and fagging out of the English players; but it does not appear that they were ever tempted to lay aside their flowing robes and huge turbans...on the other hand, our countrymen attended them to their mains of cocks, quails and other fighting animals, and betting freely, lost or won their rupees in the best possible humour. In like manner, our people indulged them from time to time in trials of strength and feats of agility...very muich to the astonishment of their new friends, they in every instance threw the most noted of the Cabul wrestlers. The result of this was to create among the Afghans a good deal of personal liking for their conquerors.

There is a lake about five or six miles from the winter of 1839-40, it was covered with a coat of ice more than ordinarily thick, on which the Afghans used to practice the art of sliding, far more skillfully, as well as gracefully, than their European visitors...the clumsy manner in which the Feringhees assayed that boyish sport whiuch induced them to reiterate that heat and not cold was the white man's element...our young gentlemen set themselves to the fabrication of skates, and in due time a party of skaters, equipped for the exercise, appeared on the lake. The Afghans stared in mute amazement "Now we see that you are not like the infidel Hindoos that follow you: you are men, born and bred like ourselves...we wish that you had come among us as friends... for you are fine fellows one by one, though as a body, we hate you"'.

Yes... well by the time he wrote this memoir, the Reverend knew what was coming next.

The illustration by James Rattry below shows the British encampment outside Kabul. You see how exposed in was. On the left of the city in the background is the Bel Hissar...the fortified ancient centre where the King lived...and roughly in the middle is the location of the Envoy Alexander Burnes house..where his murder took place, and the insurrection began.

Bala Hissar and city of Caubul with the British cantonments from ...
This lithograph is taken from plate 16 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James
Rattray. Kabul ha... ... Artist: James Rattray (1818-1854). ...
- 25k - Cached Version

Temple of 'Ahmed Shauh', King of Afghanistan
This lithograph was taken from plate 27 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lietenant
James Rattray.
The tomb... ... Artist: James Rattray. Medium: Lithograph, coloured.
Date: 1848 ...
- 25k - Cached Version

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Puppet Kings and Security forces: Afghanistan 1839

The Afghans do not appear to have the smallest prejudice against Christians.
'Travels in Bokhara' by Alexander Burnes, published by John Murray 1835

We've met Alexander Burnes who was a sensual, ambitious young Scotsman on the make, a talented linguist who argued for one policy...that of offering support to Dost Mohammed's rule in Kabul as a bulwark against the Russians, but who changed to supporting the Dost's overthrow when that became the policy of his superiors, and accompanied the Army of the Indus that overthrew Dost Mohammed in 1838, reversing the policy of containment, and pursuing what was then called "forward policy" in Afghanistan, denying it to the Russians through a military presence, rather as the 2001 invasion was supposed to deny the country as a base of operations to Al Quaida.

Entirely understandable from a careerist point of view...that way lay promotion...but it did identify him personally, among the Afghans, as a perjurer...perfidious Albion in a single pair of pants.

Later, once the army was in occupation of Kabul, it was his anxiety to be rid of his boss, Mcnaghten, and thus secure his own promotion, that led him to underestimate the danger faced by the British Army of occupation…If there was peace, then his boss would leave, and he’d get the top job for himself. So he told everyone, including himself, that there was peace, though he knew deep down this wasn’t true.

In the end, it was his ambition to be visible, combined with this last misjudgement that led him and his brother to their nemesis, and the long knives in the garden of his house in Kabul in November 1841.

Burnes murder was the start of an insurrection that was to drive the British out in ignominious, bloody defeat.

To continue my series of posts on Murray publications and its paralells with our more resonant military SNAFU, I'm handing over for a moment to the introduction written by Patrick Macrory (the author whose "Signal Catastrophe" inspired the first Flashman novel) to a book that called 'Disaster in Afghanistan' by Lady Florentia Sale, published by Longmans in 1969 in their Military Memoirs series, but which was reprinted from an original published by the firm of John Murray in 1843 in the immediate wake of said catastrophe.

This is his description of the situation in which the army of occupation found itself, Macrory as a proper military historian saying it better than I could.

'Kabul was entered on 7th August 1839, and Shah Soojah was restored to his throne. Dost Mohammed fled into the interior, where for some fifteen months he carried on a desultory guerilla warfare. He then made his surrender to the British Envoy at Kabul, and was sent off to an honourable exile in India. There he was presently joined by all his family, with the significant exception of his favourite son, Akbar Khan. Akbar preferred to live an outlaw's life somewhere out beyond the Hindu Kush and implacably bided his time.'

Back to me.

This is a picture of the court of the puppet King as rendered by Lt James Rattray, a friend of Burnes, reproduced by kind permission of the British Library.

The British and Sikh installed King proved to be unpopular, however...a bit like Mohammed Karzai today...but as with Karzai, the only alternative ruler was the enemy, so the Regime Change, which had been intended to be an Afghan only affair, required the continued presence of British troops.

I trust this is making you feel sick?

McCrory continues:

'Reluctantly the British decided that some of their own troops must remain in Afghanistan for Soojah's protection. So, when General Keane and the greatest part of the Army of the Indus marched back to India at the end of 1839, a division was left at Kandahar under General Nott and a force of two brigades at Kabul itself...Soojah, for reasons of prestige, opposed (their) being housed in the Bala Hissar, the great citadel...that contained his own palace, and it was decided to build cantonments on the plain a mile or so outside the badly designed as they were badly sited.'

So far so familiar...but then we get to some more Victorian touches and nuances...a bit of the old Raj...the women arrived.

'Before the end of 1839, MacNaghten, realizing the that the occupation was going to be indefinitely prolonged, sent for his wife to join him at Kabul. The sepoys too, were encouraged to bring up their families".

I do have to love how the Brits, no matter where in the world they are, still think they're in Surrey. I suspect this is the secret of their former success. Here, Mcrory describes their life in Kabul:

'Life in the cantonments was a gay butterfly existence. There were horse racing, hunting and amateur theatricals. When winter gripped the land, the British had skates made by the farriers and skimmed over the frozen lakes to the astonishment of the Afghans...the same could be said in summer of cricket.'

Finally, Macrory quotes Alexander Burnes, hero of my earlier posts in this series, now "British Resident", who had a courtyarded mansion in the city, saying that at his weekly dinner parties he could lay before his guests:

'champagne, hock, madeira, sherry, port, claret, suaterne, not forgetting a glass of curacoa and maraschino, and the hermetically sealed salmon and hotchpotch [veritable hotchpotch, all the way 'frae' Aberdeen], for deuced good it is, the peas as big as if they had been soaked for bristling'.

Good old Sandy...a party animal to the last...

Next...the Reverend George Gleig and his first hand account (published, naturally, by the Murrays) of the calm before the storm.

Interior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul.
This lithograph is taken from plate 3 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray. Used by permission of the British Library.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Imperial Intrigue and vanishing Russian agents - Alexander Burnes and Henry Rawlinson on Her Majesty's Secret Service

Ah, those Murray authors!

Whether they went in search of Godliness or a good time, they surely got around...further research reveals there were two of them kicking around on secret business in Afghanistan in the 1830s, running into Russian spies who were on the same mission as themselves. Much as in Afghanistan now you can't tell who is working for who without a crib sheet.

We've already met Alexander's the other one, Henry Rawlinson, later to be the discoverer and decipherer of Ancient Sanskrit in Mesopotamia, from Patrick Mcrory's Signal Catastrophe, Hodder and Stoughten 1966 (republished as 'Kabul Catastrophe' in 1986).

"Major Rawlinson, an officer on the staff of the British Minister at Teheran, was bivouacking one night in the wild desert country about a hundred miles west of Heart…he found another party camping nearby. Some of them…wore Cossack uniform...Their officer rose and bowed politely in silence…Rawlinson addressed him in French, but he shook his head. The Englishman tried his own language and was answered in Russian. Rawlinson then switched to Persian and the stranger replied in halting Uzbeg-Turkish, of which the British officer knew just enough to carry on a simple conversation…the two officers smoked a silent friendly pipe together and Rawlinson rode on his way…Two days later the young Cossack officer rode into the Persian camp and at once greeted Rawlinson in excellent French with the smiling comment that "it would not do to be too familiar with strangers in the desert". Rawlinson, realizing that this was the first evidence of direct communication between St Petersburg and Kabul, immediately posted back the 750 miles to Teheran to report to his minister that he had met a Russian emissary to Dost Mohammed, and that his name was Captain Vickovich."

(Though he only had a walk on part in this adventure, because he SURVIVED it...we will be meeting Henry Rawlinson again in my NEXT series of posts...from Iraq...and no, Virginia, we didn't invade Iraq in the 1840s...that had to wait till the, what Rawlinson was doing in Iraq a few years later, in company with Murray author, Henry Austen Layard, was digging up Nineveh and confirming the bible as an historical document...later...later)

Meantime, "We are in a mess here" wrote Alexander Burnes, in Kabul to negotiate with the then ruler there, Dost Mohammed, to a friend; "the emperor of Russia has sent an envoy to Kabul to offer Dost Mohammed Khan money to fight Runjeet Singh!!! I could not believe my eyes and ears; but Captain Vickovich arrived here with a blazing letter, three feet long...the Amir came over to me sharp, and offered to do as I like…and I sent an express at once to my Lord A, telling him that after this I knew not what might happen, and it was now a neck-and-neck race between Russia and us."

Burnes, as envoy, now found himself in a cleft stick. He was not authorised to offer the Dost anything by way of an alliance because the Brits were simultaneously making lifelong chums of the Sikhs (at least until we had a war with THEM...which wasn't long in coming...1842, actually).

"Russia has come forward with offers…Persia has been lavish in her promises, and Bokhara and other states have not been backward.Yet...the chief of Caubaul declares that he prefers the friendly offices of the British...I have no authority…am I to stand by and see us ruined at Kandahar?"

But by the time Burnes was writing this, in late 1838, the decision to invade Afghanistan (in order to prevent Dost Mohammed from making an alliance with Russia, which he had no intention of doing, then or later) had already been taken.

This is confirmed by what happened next. Burnes had left Kabul. Soon after however, the then Russian allies, the Persians, abandoned their siege of Herat. Lord Palmerston, who had long maintained a suspicious and hostile attitude towards Russia, protested to the embarassed Russians about them sending an agent to Kabul and Count Nesselrode, a Russian diplomat who knew that his Tsar's ambitions in the region were unrealistic hogwash, took the opportunity to disavow his own agent…he pretended he had no knowledge of him, (John le Carre didn't invent all this stuff, it seems) saying he:

"knew no Captain Vickovish except an adventurer of that name who had been ...engaged lately in some unauthorised intrigues at Kabul and Kandahar."

As Mcrory continues the story:

"Vickovich realised that he was to be a sacrifice on the altar of appeasement. He went back to his hotel, wrote a few bitter and reproachful messages, burnt the rest of his papers and blew out his brains".

Yes, well, all a great spy story to be later thrillingly retold by Murray author Peter Hopkirk in 'The Great Game' .

But, in the meantime, McCrory says: "The Russian backed threat to Afghanistan had melted like snow in summer. Now was the time far the british to leave well alone."

Fat chance, as we'll see. Meanwhile, the enticing Afghan women above are again taken from the exquisite work of Lt James Rattray who was in the British Army of the Indus that invaded Afghanistan in 1838. It wasn't all about politics, you know...

As we shall see.

'Ghiljie women in the lower orders' taken from plate 6 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray Used by permission of the British Library.

Catastrophe on the Frontier - Afghanistan 1842 - The Dodgy Dossier

Dost Mohammed wished to know if we had any designs on Cabool. He had been told of us by some Russian merchants
'Travels into Bokhara' by Alexander Burnes, published by John Murray, 1835

I'm heading towards two first hand accounts, published by John Murray, of what is known as The First Afghan War.

(We're now in the middle of number four...or five...if you count our covert involvement in the Moujahedin War of the 1980s. This is a portrait of Dost Mohammed from Burnes' "Cabool" . He was the man the British displaced as Amir...he then returned to power after the Brits had been kicked out. It is possibly worth noting that one of the senior commanders of today's Taliban has named himself after this guy...however, I digress)

Many aspects of this earlier conflict should be horribly familiar to us. One of these aspects is the contoversy surrounding the whole business, with which the hero of my earlier posts, Alexander Burnes, was not unconnected.

He was an intelligence officer, as well as successful Murray author, and one accusation at the time was that his "intelligence" had been repressed, and, to employ an appropriate anachronistic neologism, spun.

The more I look into this story, the more horribly familiar it is...the same blend of wishful thinking and fear driven opportunism as has organised the last decade of foriegn I go any further:

Here is the 'dodgy dossier' of the time, or rather an extract from the official rationale for the invasion, known as the SIMLA DECLARATION of 1838:

"by the measures completed, or in progress, it may reasonably be hoped that the general freeedom and security of commerce will be promoted; that the name and just influence of the British government will gain their proper footing among the nations of Central Asia; that tranquility will be established on the most important frontier of India; and that a lasting barrier will be raised against hostile intrigue and encroachment. His majesty, Shah Soojah ool Moolk, will enter Afghanistan, surrounded by his own troops, and will be supported against foriegn interference and factious opposition by a British Army. The Governor General confidently hopes that the Shah will be speedily replaced on his throne by his own subjects, and, the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn..."

The 'Governor General' is the Govenor General of British India, the document continues:

"The Governor General has been led to these measures by the duty....of providing for the security of the possessions of the British Crown; but he rejoices that, in the discharge of his duty, he will be enabled to assist in restoring the union and prosperity of the Afghan people..."

On Dost Mohammed, with whom Auckland had sent Burnes to negotiate, Auckland's manifesto had this to say:

'The Dost is further accused of "a most unjustifiable and cruel long as Caubul remained under his government, we would never hope that the tranquillity of our neighbourhood would be secured or that the interests of our Indian Empire would be preserved inviolate. It has been clearly ascertained from the various officers who have visited Afghanistan (i.e. Burnes) that the Baruzye chiefs, from their disunion and unpopularity, were ill fitted under any circumstances to be useful allies to the British government".'

In this, he was saying what he and Burnes knew to be untrue. But a "forward policy" for Afghanistan had been decided, and justification had to be found for the invasion. I hope that rings great big jangling bells for you as it does for me.

Just as in recent times, this incursion was not unopposed at the time...and the accusations of mendacity again resonate rather around the belltower...

The following comes from 'Letters to the Morning Herald' by D. Urquhart published as a pamphlet in London in 1843...reminds me of my letters to the Glasgow Herald in 2002.

'There is but one reason alleged why we invaded Afghanistan, and one only justification of the war offered, and that is the unfriendliness of Dost Mohammed. Our only object was to construct a chief of Cabool who should be friendly...are we to believe that we had such idiots for rulers that they believed all this? the present case, they come forward with no statement of wrongs or dangers - they come forward only with an insinuation...and set up a certain dynasty in a certain country...because of there being certain unstated designs of certain other powers....Did we not march an army into their country, take by force of arms but without the forms of war? Did we not then establish a government by means illegal and unjust, and having the external characters of foriegn domination and religious persecution. England, hitherto the assertor of the rights of nations, has become herself the invader, the spoiler, the oppressor, the destroyer.'

What is more, D. Urquart goes on to allege that he has papers in his possession written by Alexander Burnes that prove that the intelligence was distorted, and that the causus belli were deliberate fraud...

And if there's anyone out there who knows where THOSE papers are, I wish they'd tell me. And maybe 160 years from now someone will find a letter from George Bush to Tony Blair. There's some material in the national Archive in London I intend to check out first chance I get.

I've also just found out that there was a parliamentary inquiry twenty odd years later, into the distorting of that intelligence...more later perhaps...

Next time, a bit more factual context for the invasion before launching once more into the wastelands of rhetoric. And some more of that nice Lt Rattray's pictures to look at...In the meantime, courtessy of the good people at the British Library, here is the frontispiece image of his book on the Costumes and Peoples of "Afghaunistan" published in 1847, when the bloodbath was over, and the picturesque could once again be presented to his wealthy subscribers.

As a grim postscript, among these subscribers, their names marked by an astersisk to indicate their decease, are the names of Alexander Burnes and his brother David, that of Lord Elphinstone, the ill fated commander of the Kabul; Garrison, and that of the envoy, Sir William McNaghten. None of them survived their noble intentions to see the fruits of Lt Rattray's labours with pen and watercolour.

This lithograph of Dourraunnee chieftains in full armour was taken from the frontispiece of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant
James Rattray.

Pretty, isn't it?


Pretty, isn't it?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Death on the Frontier - The End of Our Man in Bokhara.

I'm moving on next to contemporary accounts of what became of the British Army of the Indus in the Kabul uprising of 1841, and the events that followed. What with already being dead and everything, our hero, Alexander Burnes, unfortunately, wasn't able to offer us any insights into the forces that the British invasion had unleashed. Or indeed to illuminate the ghastly sequence of events that had led him and so many others to their joint and several demise. So, for succeeding posts, we will have to turn elsewhere.

So, later on, we'll be hearing from two other Murray authors, Lady Florentia Sale and George Gleig, both eyewitnesses, about what happened next, as well as digging a little deeper into the causes of the disaster.

In the meantime, here are Burnes last written words, from his journal on the night of 31st October 1841: "What will this day bring forth? It will make or mar me, I suppose. Before the sun sets I shall know whether I go to Europe or succeed McNaghten. I grow very tired of praise and I suppose I shall get tired of censure in time."

McNaghten, by the way, was his chief, who he hoped to succeed as Envoy of Her Majesty. For the sake of promotion, Burnes had downplayed the danger they were facing...his chief would only leave,(and Burnes succeed him) only if all were Burnes had to make himself believe that all was quiet...

On the morning of 2nd November,Alexander Burnes, traveller, spy and celebrity author, along with his young brother Charles was cut to pieces in the garden of his house in Kabul, within sight of the garrison cantonments. They had been led into the garden by a mysterious Kashmiri who helped them into disguises, but when he had them among the mob, cried out:

"See, friends, here is Sikundar Burnes!"

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Five

As we passed through the city, some of the people cried out, Take care of Cabool. Do not destroy Cabool!
Alexander Burnes 'Cabool', John Murray, London, 1842

What I'm featuring here is an image of Dost Mohammed, with whom Burnes went to Kabul to negotiate in 1835, and an extract from the Preface to ''Cabool', his second and last book, published by John Murray in 1842. These are the last published words of the author, who wrote a foreward from the Cantonment of the British Army of occupation at Kabul in September of 1841.

Burnes, some of whose exploits and adventures as a British Intelligence Officer we've been looking at, and whose adventures had been published by the Murrays, was a member of the British Expeditionary Force that had occupied Kabul in 1838, indulging in a bit of regime change, ousting Dost Mohammed in favour of the former King, Shah Sootej.

As Burnes himself said, the book itself is an account of his previous mission to "Cabool", when the British had been looking for an alliance with the same Dost Mohammed. Burnes recommended to his chiefs that Dost Mohammed was fully in control of Kabul in a way that no one else could be; that he was intelligent and far sighted and wanted the British as allies, not enemies; and that he was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, a man with whom we could do business...

(Burnes can't quite suppress the feelings underlying his recommendation in the published book, despite it being frankly opaque when it comes to politcal opinion. The young Scotman on the make had a career to construct, and to disagree with his chiefs in a travel book would not have served his turn. Similarly, his first book, "Travels in Bokhara" which made his name and secured his knighthood, is nothing if not cagey about what he was actually doing there)

Burnes liked Dost Mohammed...he can't stop himself from saying so...It is a continuing tribute to his stature that one of the current leaders of the Taleban has re-named himself "Dost Mohammed" in his honour.

It was Dost Mohammed's very qualities of strength and intelligence that those higher up than Burnes in the hierarchy of British Intelligence were afraid of. The Dost was an enemy of Runjeet Singh, (Sikh ruler of Lahore), and was, understandably, also talking to the Russians...who had their own "Man in Kabul" at the same time as Burnes.

(We will meet the mysterious and unfortunate Ignatieff in a later post)

So the British decided they wanted somebody more pliable to talk to..less independant...they favoured Shah Sootej, a former ruler...who was already conveniently in the pocket of the aforementioned and formibable Runjeet Singh...

So, in 1838, against Burnes advice, the British invaded and deposed Dost Mohammed.

(The image of the Dost in this post was painted in captivity, by another Scottish officer, James Rattray, whose wonderful images we reproduce on gracious permission from the British Library.)

In another uncomfortable echo of the stormy present, it seems that Burnes original intelligence reports were doctored by the time they got to the House of Commons, so as to reach the opposite conclusion. That is, Burnes had said...this man is formidable, so we should talk to him...but the government, paranoid about the Russians encroaching on the frontiers of the In dian Empire, altered that to read : This man is formidable...get rid of him...

By the time this book was published, Burnes was already dead, cut to pieces in his garden in Kabul...and the British Army in Afghanistan had attempted a retreat to Jallalabad...some 12 -16000 of them. (A lot of them were Indian, so no one really had a reliable count)

And it was the Dost's son, Akbar Khan Mohammed, who was raising an army in the mountains to repel the "feringee", and restore his father to the throne...

In any case, his being dead too by the time of publication gives what Burnes has to say in his foreword here a certain poignancy:

"Some time has now passed since the following pages were written. They contain my personal recollections of an interesting country through which I passed, and in which I resided on a mission to Cabool in the years 1836-7 and 1838. Subsequent events have not diminished, as it appears to me, the anxiety of the public for information regarding these regions: on the contrary, the great political events of which they have become the arena have given importance to all that appertains to them. On political subjects, however, it is not, at present, my intention to enlarge. The time is yet distant when an accurate judgement can be passed on the line of policy which we have adopted; but the travellers...have paved the way for the political enquirer if, in the mean while, they can portray something of the tone and spirit of the people among whom circumstances have now placed us".

At the time of writing, Burnes and a British army of 16 000 were in Kabul...with a hellish storm of Holy War about to break over their heads. I trust that my readers are finding this all horribly familiar.

Lithograph above: Dost Mahommed, King of Caubul, and his youngest son taken from plate 2 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray (1818-1854). Used by permission (c) The British Library Board.

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Four

He showed me thirty or forty dancing girls, dressed uniformily as boys. This, said Runjeet Singh, is one of my regiments, but they tell me it is one that I cannot discipline.
Alexander Burnes
from 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray, London, 1834

If you've been following my recent posts, you'll know that we're travelling right now, with Alexander, or Sekundar, "Bokhara" Burnes...successful author and Central Asian superspy for the British interest on India's North West Frontier...last seen in Cairo, on his way to his mission to Kabul, and his eventual nemesis beneath the knives of the faithful in an Afghan Garden in 1841...

But this is blog entry is a trophy of happier times. It's a letter written to Burnes in Farsi, one of several eastern languages in which he was fluent, that resides in the archive of Burnes' publisher, John Murray of Albemarle Street.

As outlined in Burnes first book, 'Travels into Bokhara' published by Murray in 1834, the first part of his mission had been to conduct a gift of horses to Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, with whom the Brits were keen to establish relations. The two men appear to have got on famously, sharing a passion for horseflesh, and perhaps other kinds of flesh as well. This letter, though looking exotic, and therefore much prized by Burnes' brother, as well as his publisher, is actually pretty boring, being along the lines of "Horses recieved with thanks, Runjeet Singh", but there is another curiosity tucked away in the uniform grey folders they keep in the stacks of the National Library of Scotland...namely a letter to John Murray III from Burnes' surviving brother David in (probably in 1842) that obviously accompanied this document, part of which goes like this:

I have now the pleasure of sending you, in obedience to my brother's orders, Runjeet Singh's last letters to him, which he forwarded along before he left. I had hoped to have done it sooner but have had great difficulty in getting it out of the hand of a lady to whom my brother had given a sight of it, and {through them, I? } have had to show it to one or two other ladies, Runjeet deemed to be a great favourite with the fair,

Believe me to be yours faithfully, David Burnes...Regent Street, Saturday 14th"

In other words, these letters from the East, in their exotic provenance, carried an erotic frisson. The calligraphy itself, in its curves and dots, was sexy and exciting...ladies, in mourning for their hero, clutched these proofs of Kama Sutra to their bosoms...reciept for horses or not. You can see these mysterious and sexy horse reciepts below...

Coming soon...the beginning of the end... and Burnes' last words from the frontiers...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Three

"He made me repeat the kualma or creed in Persian and in Arabic to his inexpressible delight. He said that our greatness had risen from a knowledge of mankind and attending to other peoples' customs as well as our own." Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray, London, 1834

Alexander Burnes, Travel Writer, Diplomat and Spy, was one of those 19th Century Brits who partook of "otherness".First, he was a Scot. Second, he was a gifted linguist, fluent in Persian and Urdu, read enough Arabic to talk about the Koran in Kabul,( impressing the hell out of his host, Dost Mohammed), and spoke enough Punjabi to get by disguised as a merchant, negotiating his way past bandits on the road into the Hindu Kush and in negotiating entrance at all to the city of Bokhara in Central Asia, a sacred city of Islam forbidden to non Muslims, and especially to the "Feringee"...meaning Franks...or Europeans.

(Memories of the atrocities of the 11th century Crusaders die hard out George Bush might be able to tell you.)

By "otherness", I mean transformation. As we know from the story of Lawrence of Arabia, there was, for the likes of TE Lawrence and Richard Burton and Alexander Burnes, all to a degree outsiders in their own cultures, a certain liberation in embracing the East. There are undertones of both the sexual and spiritual to this "Orientalism" as Edward Said famously described it. There are a number of other examples from the John Murray stable.Byron himself found a personal liberation in Ottoman territories. Isabella Bird recovered health and confidence only when hiking up mopuntains in the Americas or China...

One has to read between the lines a little, but both in Burnes' published writings and what I've seen and read of his private correspondence, he was one of those rare birds of the Imperial flock who found the strangeness of foriegn parts stimulating, and that he wanted to remake himself in that other place.

(The illustration above, by the way, is called "Arab companions of Alexander Burnes"...They were not, of course, "Arabs" at all...but that term signifies exactly the "Eastern Other")

Again, it is clear that Burnes delights in associating himself with that earlier "Sekundar"...Alexander the Great...seeking out relics, imagining he has located battlefields. He walks the valleys of the Sind and Sutej with a mental map of conquest, and of another self, already in his mind.

Which makes me think that this man's presence in later fiction extends past his being a character (and model) in the first Flashman book. Daniel Dravitt in Kipling's 'Man who would be King' again comes to imagine himself as 'Alexander Redux' in an unnamed city in Central Asia, till he too is destroyed like Burnes was, by feeling himself more at home than was justified.

But I'm anticipating events I'm going to deal with later. Getting ahead of myself.

One of the disciplines and pleasures of reading archive correspondance is that it takes you to the past in the historic present tense. Someone writing a letter is only thinking of the moment. So let's rejoin Burnes at a moment in Cairo in March1835.

He's on his way back East after scoring spectacular success in a diplomatic mission to the Punjab and Afghanistan, and his onward travels into central Asia and the Persian Empire...had reported his success to his chiefs, and to a public eager for tales of travel and discovery...and is now writing a curiously "constructed" version of himself to the son of his publisher, the future John Murray III...Take a look at them at the top of this entry...and reproduced here.

In the John Murray Archive are two versions of the same letter...facsimilies. It has been copied, presumably by one of Murray's clerks, preserving even the upside down placing of the postscript at the top of the has been treasured then, marked out as special. The physical peculiarity of the letter as object has been highlighted and reproduced as somehow special. This colours the reading and quoting of its text...enriches its voice:

He describes the

"Pyramids of Egypt, which, as my favourite author Gibbon says 'still stand erect and unshaken above the floods of the Nile, after an hundred generations of the leaves of autumn have dropped into the grave'"

He continues: "I cannot believe myself so far distant from the salons of London, but the moment I reach Alexandria the line of demarkation was too apparent, the transition from civilisation to barbarism was instantaneous and we recieved before leaving the steamer the astounding information that 15,000 individuals had died of plague withion the last three months and that 1298 had perished on the previous day..."

He is letting us and the Murrays know that A) It's rough out here, and B) he's right at home.

He knowingly quotes Byron to a Murray...from the poem Childe Harold...exclaiming happily "New shores descried made every bosom gay" He talks, as Byron famously did of the Pillars of Hercules, Lisbon...the Kingdom of the Goths...of the world through the glass of books...

(It is extraordinary how everything I come accross in this archive seems to lead back to Byron by some route or other)

Knowingly, flatteringly, he goes on: "The Quarterly is lying before me and strangely enough I have been perusing the very article which treats of Mohammed Ali in that able essay regarding the encroachments of Russia...Cairo is in sight, the boatmen are singing a song of delight in the music(?) not such however as attended on Cleopatra in her galley nor enough to make charmed into a forgetfulness of all your many attentions to me..."

Both for it's charm and it's intrigue, I have to call this double version of himself en route to his last mission my First Treasure on my voyage of search of Alexander Burnes...

Coming next...another oriental treasure...a letter in Farsi, or Persian - a language of Afghanistan, to Burnes, written by the great Runjeet Singh, to whom Burnes was to deliver some Shire horses (horses of that size being unfamiliar in those parts) while conducting, rather more plausibly, an intelligence mission to secure British alliances with the Sikhs of Lahore, explore possibilities with the new Ruler of Afghanistan.

(or of Kabul one person has EVER succeeded in ruling the whole territory, statehood or not)

the redoubtable Dost Mohammed...before proceeding to explore the Russian presence in their own backyard of Bokhara.

He didn't find any Russians there, not this first time...but that's to get ahead of myself again. I must stop doing that. He'll meet them soon enough.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Two

"Runjeet Singh enquired whether wine was best before or after food; and laughed heartily after an answer from myself when I recommended both"
Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', published by John Murray, London, 1834

So who was this Alexander Burnes? The first thing I read was that he was Scottish, which is always agreeable. He came from Montrose, one of four sons of the Provost, from a family that claimed a connection with the poet. The added "e" in "Burnes" bespeaks a certain gentrification, as indeed does the fact that two of his brothers were doctors... both the one who died with him, cut to pieces in a garden in Kabul in November of 1841, and his surviving brother, who corresponded with the Murrays after his death.

One of the features (and indeed organising principles) of this blog is that the letter and business archives of the Murray's publishing house should act as a kind of lens into history, so I thought I'd best start there...and I'd have to say (with some relief given the scale of the story of which they form a tiny but significant part) that the collection's holdings from Burnes are quite modest. Modest...but oddly potent. After all, he died young with only one proper book under his belt, "Travels to Bokhara", written on the long voyage home in 1833. It was this book that made him famous and got him knighted.

As he wrote to his mother in 1834:
'I have been inundated by visits from authors, publishers, societies and whatnot…I am a perfect wild beast.'

One of the publishers was, of course, John Murray. He confided further in a another letter home that King William himself had said to him in Brighton:

"Really, sir, you are a wonderful man. I heard you were an able man, but now I know you are most able. I trust in God your life may be spared, that our Eastern Empire may benefit by the talents and abilities which you possess"

His second book, "Cabool" is both politically cagey and fragmentary by comparison.

(I should just add for my far more assiduous library colleagues that the reason I don't cite the exact dates for these letters is that I don't know what they are. They are quoted from "Kabul Catastrope" by the otherwise redoubtable military historian Patrick Macrory...and he doesn't either)

Burnes was our first "Man in Bokhara" and elsewhere...but he was hardly the last. And hardly the last to die in the service of political gamesmanship in that part of the world. To attempt to understand his story might illuminate our own concerns.

Here are a couple of highlights from the archive for me, that have led me into particular lines of speculation about character and politics...which are, after all, the twin concerns of the playwright as well as the reader in me. First a letter written from his brother's house in London on January 25th, 1834, on his return from his first great foray into spying and negotiating for the Empire on the North West Frontier. Burnes is writing to Murray about the publication of his first book "Travels into Bokhara" which deals with a diplomatic mission to Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, and his further explorations of culture and river systems...all the way to the Holy Muslim City of Bokhara in central Asia (via a bit of exploration of the new regime of Dost Mohammed in Kabul).

The first thing I noticed was that his signature is rather fabulous. And the second thing I noticed is his concern for his own image and the robust health of his ego. He writes that he's:

"accepting the sum of 800 guineas, the amount fixed on by you. I might. I am aware, have received a larger sum of money for my work but I feel much obliged to you for your liberal offer...You are of course fully aware from my personal communications with you that I have to submit a proof sheet to the authorities as the work goes on and that they have it in their power to strike out any political observations that are likely to give offence. I am sure that their pruning will much improve the work and I pledge myself that the arrangements will not cause delay...

With reference to your request that my picture should form the frontispiece of the book, I am ready to comply with it on these terms that the likeness be given in costume with these words under it "The costume of Bokhara" It will be well known that it is a portrait and will save me from the appearance of vanity..."

In both ego and appetite for danger, he seems to anticipate Lawrence of Arabia. Here he is writing about the portrait again on June 13th 1834:

'I see the advertisement in the quarterly states my book to be accompanied by a "portrait of the author". You would oblige me very much by altering this in the subsequent advertisements for the portrait is engraved as the "Costume of Bokhara". It was intended to have the knowing ones to find it out, Believe me, most truly yours, Alexander Burnes.'

He only wants the best people to know that this is his picture...a reputation is a thing to be managed in the interests of a career. He's not wrong about that.

On the 28th of December, now en-route back to the East for his next mission, he is writing to Murray in a jolly mood from Paris...there is a definite change in tone which indicates both that the two were now friendly, (through Burnes and Murray's son, John Murray lll, were of an age) and that Burnes knew how to have himself a good time. It's the rather naughty letter of a younger man who knows he'll be indulged his peccadilloes...

"what with dances and dinners time flies faster in this capital than ever I have found it - I have been living FAST in every sense of the word and for a stake of five francs in the lottery have my fellow traveller and myself...2700 francs which we hold FAST but like a good Christian, I shall render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and scatter it in Paris..."

Then follows Burnes' approbation of the 2nd edition proofs...which is the one I've seen...he admires the book's production, and he's's quite gorgeous. He also likes the size of it, which will make the book like Lyell's 'Principles of Geology' (1833), but he talks about engravings again and says:

"I would like however if you could make some alteration in my visage in the "Costume of Bokhara" for it is said to be so arch and cunning that I shall be handed down to posterity as a real Tartar!!... I am enjoying Paris very much and think that your son's prediction of my never getting beyond it will prove true...with my best wishes to him and your family, believe me, yours ever sincerely..."

I think we can infer from these letters that Sandy is a bit of a man for the ladies, a man concerned with and aware of, his own attractiveness. Maybe George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman books, took more than Burnes' ability with languages, and propensity to travel through barbaric regions in disguise, as a model for his roguish hero...

Next time, an image conscious communication from Egypt, and my first treasure from this story of derring do along the frontiers of the Empire...