Friday, 1 October 2010

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment