William Dalrymple’s most recent book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, is the third of the author’s major historical works that looks at the British colonialists in Southasia from a hybrid British-Southasian standpoint. It is the history of a war that the Afghans never forgot, that still lives in their collective and folk memory, but that Britain wilfully consigned to amnesia. And perhaps for good reason, from their perspective:
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.
The Great Game was at its height in 1839, and Britain was increasingly worried about the threat Russia posed to their imperial hegemony in Southasia. In response to faulty or misconstrued intelligence that Russia was taking an interest in Afghanistan, Britain invaded the latter with an army of some eighteen thousand. They deposed the ruling Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, a popular leader even in some contemporary British accounts, after he seemed to be becoming too friendly with the Russians. His defeat seemed remarkably simple. Shah Shuja, a deposed rival of Dost Muhammad’s who had been exiled in India for many years, was installed by the British as a puppet ruler. Entering the country proved easy, but staying and convincing the Afghans that they had a right to be there did not. The occupation was unpopular with the Afghan people, and resistance gathered behind Dost Muhammad and his cohort.
Sporadic attacks upon Britons and their camps throughout 1840 and 1841 reached crisis point in late 1841, but leaving was not as easy as entering. In early 1842, the British negotiated for a safe retreat from their indefensible and poorly-planned cantonment on the outskirts of Kabul. While traversing mountain passes, valleys and gorges this caravan of administrators, soldiers, family and servants were repeatedly attacked by Afghan tribesmen. Those who were not killed either froze or starved to death, or were captured, sometimes to be sold as slaves. Only one man – a doctor – made it to Jalalabad, a city to the east of Kabul and near the frontier with British India. Before the British completely withdrew from Afghanistan in October 1842, they sent an ‘army of retribution’ to plunder and destroy Kabul in retaliation for the earlier defeat. Dost Muhammad was reinstated in Kabul and he ruled, progressively enlarging his dominions, until his death in 1863. Shah Shuja, who had continued to try to work with the British despite extreme betrayal once circumstances turned against them, had been assassinated by his godson in April 1842.
Prescience is one of the first words that come to mind when reading Return of a King, both the final chapter and the closing author’s note reinforce that this was Dalrymple’s primary intention for the book. This is not just history for history’s sake, but a carefully crafted statement about contemporary politics and neo-imperialism. Dalrymple finds many archival examples of comments that could and indeed have been made anytime in the last decade: “You have brought an army into the country,” he quotes Mehrab Khan as having said, “but how do you propose to take it out again?”
But, like the jingoism that Dalrymple attacks, calling the events he narrates prescient is perhaps giving the troubles of our own times more weight than they deserve. This is not to diminish the significance of the mistakes made by Allied Forces in Afghanistan, but to suggest that Dalrymple’s ‘we’ are not at the centre of everything. One way of looking at history is to see what came before as a rolling accumulation of events that culminates in the inevitable present. Another is to perceive it as a series of parallel lives and occurrences that lead to multiple realities. Dalrymple’s book brings a shameful part of British colonial history to renewed contemporary attention, but we cannot say that this history was forgotten when, as he demonstrates, it is still very much remembered by ordinary Afghans.
Dalrymple hints at the cyclical nature of events: history repeating, not inevitably, but because of a failure to learn from mistakes. He suggests ‘we’ have been stupid in our dealings with the rest of the world, with Southasia, with Afghanistan, with our very perceptions of our own strength and importance, and that perhaps this stupidity is born out of an innate arrogance in our psyche. However, Dalrymple is too much a Southasian insider to suggest that his book reveals a forgotten history, as several of its reviewers have hinted. Dalrymple’s primary audience is based in the West, as well as the somewhat westernised Southasian elite, and Return of a King is presenting a history to an audience who chose to forget it. He does not claim that it has been forgotten by all, and this subtle distinction is significant. As literary scholar Paul Smethurst has written about Dalrymple, “His strategy is to disorientate (or de-occidentalize) Westerners by challenging historicizations through which the West has identified itself relationally against its others.”
Dalrymple is successful in telling an engaging story though, and this is where his two literary guises – as a travel writer and a historian – align best. In much of his travel writing, including his last work, Nine Lives, his focus is on the common man and woman to the point of being self-effacing, and covering many of his own tracks in his narrative. Throughout Return of a King, Dalrymple hints at parallels between the mid-nineteenth century British invasion of Afghanistan, and the early twenty-first century one, particularly through anecdotal footnotes. But it is not until the concluding author’s note that we see the full force of what, it seems, is Dalrymple’s primary intention for writing this book. He has commented extensively in interviews that the major significance of Return of a King is the parallels it draws between then and now. Some of these connections do amount to finding significance in the banal. Is it really “astonishing”, as Dalrymple puts it, that the current Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, comes from the same sub-tribe as Shah Shuja? Coincidence, perhaps, in an ethnically and tribally diverse country such as Afghanistan, but astonishing it is not, if we consider that rulers throughout history do tend to come from certain sections of society. Dalrymple’s talk on Return of a King at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January played up this and other coincidences, drawing laughs, exclamations and many shakes of the head. Some of the so-called parallels he draws are likely to go down well with the type of reader – his target audience, I imagine – who already believe that the current invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was foolish. Perhaps Dalrymple felt that the history alone was not enticing enough, or that readers would not be as interested if the relevance to contemporary events was not hammered home.
The coincidental details are, ultimately, less convincing than the macro-level similarities. Then as now, imperialist geopolitics and an entrenched attitude of civilisational superiority, led – in both Afghan wars – to the poor decisions that were made. The micro-level parallels are simply decoration. Earlier in his career, Dalrymple, a Scotsman with family that can be traced to the Raj, was seen by some as a marauding Orientalist. Marauding he certainly is not, but modern-day Orientalist he could be, if we detach the term from its Saidian pejorative connotations. He is an Orientalist, perhaps, of the type he writes about in his first historical work, White Mughals: a white man so taken with the ‘Orient’, for whatever personal or professional reasons, to immerse himself in it completely, and to genuinely try to understand it on its own terms, to ‘go native’. His self-professed aim is to reinstall Oriental studies in the wake of anti-Islamic sentiments unleashed by the ‘war on terror’.
Dalrymple is one of the first scholars to make use of a large body of nineteenth-century Afghan sources on the history he writes about. This may in large part be due to the lack of historians proficient enough to cross these linguistic barriers. Arabic, Pashto and Farsi instruction in US higher education has increased markedly since 9/11, as the government realised the geo-political need for translators. In Australia, Chinese language teaching is booming, but Southasian languages are struggling, and often limited to Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. Wilful monolingualism rears its head: growing economy they may be, but, after all, they speak English in India, don’t they? In New Zealand, where I was educated, all but one of the country’s Russian departments were closed in the 1990s. From the native Anglophone’s perspective, a language is only worth learning if it is politically (read: economically) useful.
The attention paid to sources not available in English translation, then, is all the more admirable when we realise what a challenge this must have been. Like the travel writer that he is, and like many an anthropologist, he made several breakthroughs not just by following official channels and consulting conventional archives, but from talking to people and following leads. The Afghan National Archives, he comments, had disappointingly little material of use, but:
it was while digging in the stacks there that I befriended Jawan Shir Rasikh, a young Afghan historian and Fulbright scholar. One lunchtime, Jawan Shir took me to a second-hand book dealer who occupied an unpromising-looking stall at Jowy Sheer in the old city. The dealer, it turned out, had bought up many of the private libraries of Afghan noble families as they emigrated during the 1970s and 1980s, and in less than an hour I managed to acquire eight previously unused contemporary Persian-language sources for the First Afghan War.
As well as these and Indian-based Persian documents, Dalrymple consulted the Punjab Archives in Lahore, where the “almost unused” records of Sir Claude Wade are held. Wade was “the first Great Game spymaster”, who had originally suggested using Shah Shuja to bring about regime change in Afghanistan. Dalrymple even found the Russian-language records of Count Perovsky and Ivan Vitkevich. He does not state where these came from, though he does write that his use of them presents them in English for the first time. Perovsky and Vitkevich were the main champions of Russian imperial presence in Afghanistan and were involved in espionage against the British. It is surprising that Wade’s papers had been neglected for so long, and that Perovsky and Vitkevich’s had not appeared previously in English, considering that these men were at the helm of imperial struggles in Southasia and, to some degree, orchestrated the Great Game. The first British-Afghan war was initiated by British fear that Russia was becoming too powerful in Afghanistan, despite strong suggestions from Alexander Burnes – an East India Company explorer and spy – that Britain should sign a friendship treaty with Dost Muhammad. Burnes’ well-informed and less militant advice was brushed aside by those who wanted to invade, namely Wade. Why had sources that might shed light on the robustness of this intelligence been ignored, previously? Perhaps because the myths that surrounded the Great Game and British imperial presence in Afghanistan and Southasia were ones that earlier generations of historians wanted to preserve and perpetuate.
Dalrymple gathered much of his information by actually talking to Afghan people for whom this event was still remembered and discussed. For instance, when discussing what happened – or may have happened – to British women during the retreat, Dalrymple tells us that according to the tribesmen in the passes, many British women ended up in local harems or became slaves. The use of such local sources helps Dalrymple’s book stand out from earlier westerners’ histories of the war. It is also an important empirical and political gesture. Politically, he is suggesting that Afghan or Persian-language – indeed, any non-European-language – sources are valuable, even to scholars who can fall back on English, the valuable global lingua franca that too many use as a passport to and justification for monolingualism. Empirically, Dalrymple suggests that alternative forms of knowledge, such as oral and folk narratives – often dismissed by more traditional historians – are worthy supplements to the archive.
Causes of war
Justifications fabricated after the fact have been a hallmark of the latest invasion of Afghanistan. As a postcolonial feminist, the US and the UK’s suggestions that a good reason to invade Afghanistan was to liberate the Afghan women has always sat uneasily with me. Britain’s ability to construct retrospective excuses seems to have a long history. After destroying Ghazni (“Guznee”), Lord Ellenborough (Governor General of India from 1841) got the mistaken impression that the doors of the tomb of Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030) were looted from the great Hindu temple at Somnath. Dalrymple writes:
A proclamation was duly issued by Ellenborough, addressed to the chiefs and princes of northern and western India, in which the Governor General spoke of how an insult of 800 years was finally avenged and centuries of Indian subjugation to Afghans in pre-colonial times had been reversed: thanks to the British, the gates that were once a memorial of Hindu humiliation had become instead a record of Indian superiority in arms over the nations beyond the Indus. The gates were duly paraded around India, accompanied by an imposing escort, where they were ceremoniously displayed to bewildered bystanders in an attempt to impress upon the people of India the undiminished power and benevolence of British rule. There was, however, no reaction from the Indian princes, and still less from the Hindus, neither of whom had been aware that they were missing any gates.
The British explained to their colonised subjects in India that they were acting on their behalf, while exploiting them in all other ways; Bush and Blair suddenly took an interest in the welfare of a foreign nation’s women, despite the fact that struggles for gender equality were hardly finished at home. But what better way to try to persuade the average American or British woman that they have no reason to complain, that they should get behind a war effort, than to hold them up as examples of what other women, elsewhere, should aspire to be? As Dalrymple quotes Mirza ‘Ata as saying: “[R]eal power does not need tawdry propaganda!” Return of a King is not propaganda, but rather another of Dalrymple’s steps towards bringing the experiences and histories of Southasia to a broader, transnational understanding. Dalrymple’s twenty-first century brand of Orientalism has never looked more appealing, especially as the alternative is a wilful ignorance that is fated, if you should be convinced by the coincidences and parallels, to end in disaster.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Farms, Feasts, Famines.