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years later, in company with Murray author, Henry Austen Layard, was digging up Nineveh and confirming the bible as an historical document...later...later)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.

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