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