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."