the return of a king

It is the story of the greatest military failure for any colonial power in the nineteenth century.
... a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed it, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated. (the words of an army chaplain who lived through the experience, as quoted on 489).
Or, in the words of the author himself:
It was ... an extraordinary defeat for the British and an almost miraculous victory for the Afghan resistance. At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation (388).
Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler
Before I go any further, as an aside, let me get a couple things off my chest.

The person most responsible for this disaster is an upper class chap called Lord Auckland, who lent his name to my home city in New Zealand. His other name is George Eden which lends its name to two great cricket grounds, Eden Park (Auckland) and Eden Gardens (Kolkata). This guy Auckland was hopeless, dying 'in disgrace' in Kensington in 1849. 'Sent to rule a world of which he was completely ignorant', his leadership got lost in his own complacency and incompetence. In the recent spirit of tearing down statutes of Rhodes in Oxford, it almost makes me want to sign a petition for a name change to my home town?! However, rather ironically, in the very same month (February 1840) when it becomes clear that this invasion of Afghanistan was to provoke a mass uprising, or jihad, in another part of the world Britain was doing far better. Brokered by fine Christians (in Britain) and fine missionaries (in NZ), they were busy negotiating a treaty with the Maori of faraway New Zealand.

Moving from the chief protagonist to the author himself for a further aside. Many histories of the First Afghan War have been written - but no one had ever bothered to see if there were any Afghani records of the story. So off Dalrymple goes to Afghanistan (in 2008-2009 no less) and, eventually, is taken to an 'unpromising-looking book stall in (Kabul's) old city' where he 'acquires eight previously unused contemporary Persian language sources for the First Afghan War' (496) left behind by Afghan noble families who emigrated during the Soviet occupation. Here opens up that immeasurably important principle of life: the opportunity 'to see ourselves as others see us' (Robbie Burns). There is eye witness material - but also the most beautiful epic poems which Dalrymple seamlessly weaves into his narrative. How cool is that?! And, as you'd expect,
These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of ... The caricature 'treacherous Muslim' of the British sources transforms before our eyes into an Afghan matinee idol (498, 500). 
I guess it is about time I got to the book itself...

In Return of a KingWilliam Dalrymple tells the story of a regime change in Afghanistan where the global power at the time invades Afghanistan - 'an unjustified, unprovoked and unnecessary British invasion of an independent country' (143) - in order to install a different leader, one malleable to their own interests. Sound familiar? It is eerily familiar (see 490-491). Even the two puppet rulers (Shuja and Karzai are from the same sub-tribe...). The invasion is marked by incompetence and the subsequent retreat is marked by massacre. Although hundreds of British troops retreated from Kabul, only one single British person (a surgeon) stumbled into Jalalabad on horseback a few days later (as described in the painting above).

An 'unparalleled disaster' (468) with 'striking parallels' (482). I'll let the author tease this open a bit more in this short 3.30min clip. Needless to say, it would have been advisable for Bush and Blair, and other political leaders, to spend more time reading history. The most recent invasion of Afghanistan is the fourth and each one has terminated 'in an embarassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat' (493).

A few other things that will remain with me from the book...

The importance of competence
This is not just about knowledge - although it is not less than knowledge, with a chapter in the book being titled, hauntingly, 'we fail from our ignorance' (270) - but also skills and character and wisdom. The British class system has a rather annoying way of promoting incompetence, particularly in the military. Maybe at half a dozen strategic times in this story alone. Scratch away and get deep into the story and a lot of it can be attributed to one man's (Macnaghten) abiding jealousy of another (Burnes).

The foolishness of opulence
I was staggered by what was involved in moving the British army from one place to another in South Asia. I had no idea. When the Army of the Indus was readied for its invasion (1000 Europeans, but also 14,000 'sepoys' - Indians in the British Army - and then 38,000 'Indian camp followers' (152)), 'one brigadier claimed that he needed fifty camels to carry his kit ... three hundred camels were earmarked to carry the military wine-cellar ... one regiment has two camels carrying the best manila cigars' (152-153). This opulence must have aggrieved the sepoys, made worse by the way that in both the height and the aftermath of battle, the British abandoned so many of them, with many dying or going into slavery throughout Central Asia. No wonder there was a mutiny by the sepoys in India just 15 years later (the subject of Dalrymple's The Last Mughal)...

The centrality of honour and shame
The longer I live outside the West, the more I see this one. It is such a big part of this story, both in the lines and between the lines - particularly with the sexual abuse of Afghan women by the British. There is a James Bond figure in the story - Alexander Burnes (cousin of the aforementioned Robbie). Brilliant, but flawed. The tipping point in the entire story was when Burnes played David with an Afghan Bathsheba - seeing her, stealing her, incurring the wrath, and far more importantly the dishonour of the locals. It was not long before 'the sharp blades of two hundred brave Afghans worked his body into shreds of bone (305, from one of the Afghan sources) and they were playing football with his head in the streets ... and 'all order is at an end' (another poignant chapter title).
This growing slight to Afghan honour was the biggest cause of the alienation of the Afghans from their new (puppet) government (226, quoted from an Afghan source) ... It is a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went ... (as they are) depicted as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us (500-501).
The futility of revenge
One of the repulsive parts of the story is how quickly the British mounted an Army of Retribution, headed by a nasty piece of work called George Pollock. They returned to Afghanistan for just two weeks, simply to set the place on fire, dynamiting beautiful places and murdering people ... in order 'to leave decisive proof of the power of the British army' (440). Ridiculous. At times I wanted to shut my eyes as I read. I am not the only one. 'We are nothing but licensed assassins' (458) is how one more noble British officer expressed it. It is the stuff of 'war crimes' (460). 'What we are staying here for I am utterly at a loss to know, unless it be to be laughed at by the Afghans, and the whole world' (461)

It makes me long for the return of the King of Kings, with whom suffering was absorbed, rather than inflicted ... and through that suffering, He walked the path to glory and victory. It is with Him, the Judge of all the earth, that revenge can be left - and it is only in Him that reconciliation with God and with all humanity can be found.

The power of story-telling
This is almost another post: taking Dalrymple's skill and applying it to preaching. Two quick points. One is the significance of using specific details. The other is embedding anticipatory comments in the early narrative which come to fruition later on. Maybe a character, or a place. Teasing the reader in this manner helps the narrative become a page-tuner. Dalrymple is a master of the craft.

nice chatting


PS: Because I don't want to lose it and because I am a child of the Himalayas (from Mussoorie, rather than Simla), here is a little purple patch in the Dalrymple narrative:
The existence of Simla was itself a comment on the astonishing complacency of the British in India at this period: for seven months of the year, the (East India) Company ruled one-fifth of mankind from a Himalayan village overlooking the borders of Tibet and connected to the outside world by a road little better than a goat path. Here, over the two decades since the area had been 'discovered' ... the Company had begun building on a long, narrow, high-altitude Himalayan saddle a small fantasy England, a sort of early Victorian theme park of their own imagination, complete with Gothic churches, half-timbered cottages and Scots baronial mansions. Simla was all about homesickness and the nostalgia of the exile for home: it was an escape from the heat, but it was also, tacitly, an escape from India. As one disapproving official later put it, 'Sedition, unrest and even murderous riots may have been going on elsewhere in India, but in Simla the burning questions are polo finals, racing and the all-absorbing cricket tournaments (130-131).


Anonymous said…
Informative and interesting to see the history. History repeats itself and the leaders always fail to see it.

Paul Windsor said…
Yes, indeed, Arputharaj. I think this 'history repeating' is one of the sobering messages from the book. I was hoping Afghanistan would beat England in the cricket (they almost did) to help pay them back for invading their country on FOUR different occasions ... but it was not to be :).

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