A dress rehearsal for 1857

Key players:(Left) Alexander Burnes complained that this famous image did not look in the least like him. (Right) Dost Mohammad’s rise to power was brought about by his own ruthlessness and efficiency.Photo: © John Murray  

William Dalrymple talks to MUKUND PADMANABHAN about researching and writing history for lay readers, and the similarities between Afghanistan in the 1800s and today.

Fought between 1839 and 1842, the first Anglo-Afghan war a part of The Great Game, the rivalry between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia as a means to control access to the wealth of the Indian subcontinent. Spurred by exaggerated fears of a pact between Russia and Dost Mohammad Khan and an eventual invasion of India, Governor General Lord Auckland chose to invade Afghanistan and restore Shah Shuja to power.

The British succeeded in defeating Dost Mohammad, who surrendered, and installed Shah Shuja on the throne in Kabul’s Bala Hisar. But fierce and wearying resistance from a clutch of Afghan tribal leaders, who rallied around Dost Mohammad’s son Akbar Khan, forced the British to sue for peace and agree to withdraw. An easy target, particularly in the narrow passes, the retreating British Army was massacred by Ghilzai warriors. An Army of Retribution was formed to provide relief to British forces holed up in places such as Jalalabad and eventually march into Kabul.

Using a clutch of contemporary Afghan sources from the early 19th century, some of them epic poems, William Dalrymple provides an unusual account of the war in Return of a King , one that weaves in the thoughts, the strategies, and the stories of those invaded. It is an account that highlights the savagery of the British Army of Retribution, shows that the Afghan resistance was made up of disparate and disunited groups, and that the people who led it lived “full emotional lives”, with “individual views and motivations”.

In this gripping piece of narrative history, impossible to put down once you have started, Dalrymple redraws the conventional images of a number of the principal players and persuades us to consider other ways of looking at them. For instance, the British hero and political envoy Alexander Burnes, who was hacked to death, was despised by Afghans for what they saw as his treacherous and dissolute ways.

As for Shah Shuja, Dalrymple shows us that he was refined and highly cultured apart from being strong and decisive when the chips were down; in short, nothing like the feckless British puppet he was made out to be. Excerpts from an interview:

Western historians have regarded the first Anglo-Afghan war, or Auckland’s Folly, as a misadventure. But you also highlight its barbarity — particularly, the savagery and the destruction wreaked by the Army of Retribution, the avenging group that was formed after the British defeat to gain one final victory over the Afghans.

Yes, very much so. One of the things that brought me to this topic is that this was in some ways a dry run, a dress rehearsal, for the much greater savagery that follows in 1857 with quite a lot of the same cast. The people who go to loot, rape, and burn down Lucknow, Kanpur and Delhi, who were in their forties, are in their twenties in this [Anglo-Afghan] war. And they called it the Army of Retribution in 1857 too and so deliberately modelled it on what was done in Afghanistan.

So I was very intrigued to pursue the whole story of the Army of Retribution as the final barbarity in this barbarous war — they de-roof every house, burn every village, ring every tree to destroy it.

Of course, this is not the first time in British imperial history that this has happened. A similar sort of thing happened in 1799, when they looted Srirangapatnam, which was really the capital of south India at the time.

You take this link between the first Anglo-Afghan war and the Indian rebellion in 1857, the subject of The Last Mughal , even further. You suggest that it was no accident that the rebellion broke out in centres such as Lucknow, Agra and Kanpur, the very places where Afghan accounts of the British defeat in Afghanistan were published. But you don’t develop this much further.

It’s an idea that I don’t develop. But all you can really say are two things. The Afghan accounts that I use, which are in a way its USP and what makes it different from the three or four shelves of other books on the first Afghan war, is the fact that it uses nine previously unused accounts of the war.

Your Author’s Note says eight.

Well, there is one, which is an Indian Muslim one. I don’t know whether that counts as Afghan (laughs) .

Of the Afghan sources, two or three of them were published for the first time in Persian presses in three cities — in Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur — in 1851. Obviously, these were the centres of the rebellion. It’s also true that the regiments that mutinied first were the same that had been deserted by their officers in the Hindu Kush. And many of the leaders of the rebellion were veterans of the Afghan war. And several of the sepoy accounts, for instance that of Sita Ram, say that the trust between the British officers and the men had been broken because of what happened in 1842. And that this bore through to 1857.

Quite clearly, the Afghans saw themselves as being in a religious war — Shah Shuja, who the British prop up, himself complains that his enemies portrayed the conflict as one between kafirs and Islam. In The Last Mughal , you come very close to saying that the 1857 uprising also was a religious war, but you stop short of it. Agree?

But in both cases, you have to draw a distinction between rhetoric and reality. In Delhi, more than Lucknow and Kanpur, the sources are completely clear that this is a jihad and people fighting it are ghazis. And you have the pundits quoting the Mahabharat. The Hindus and Muslims are seeing this as a war for din and dharma. In reality of course, human motivation is more complicated and you weigh up a lot of things before going to war against your officers. And there is a whole economic and social back story that leads a man to shoot his officer or go into rebellion. But whether in 1841 or 1857, they are articulating publicly why they are going to war, they are dressing it up as a religious war. The rhetoric is one of religion.

One of things I hope I have done in this book by using Afghan accounts is to do what good journalists do today in Afghanistan, which is to remove this image of Afghan resistance as an undifferentiated wall of fanatical beards. And give you individuals who have their own motives. For example, an important character who has never been emphasised quite as much as in this book is Abdullah Khan Achakzai, who is a young firebrand Pashtun leader from the south of the country. His girlfriend is seduced by Alexander Burnes (who gathered intelligence for the East India Company) and is pissed off by this. Another resistance leader Aminullah Khan Logari loses his lands.

An additional complexity that the Afghan accounts reveal is the degree to which the resistance was disunited. The British accounts give a picture — and the British believe, sitting in their cantonments and looking out into the wastes of Kabul — that they are fighting a united enemy of fanatical bearded Muslims who want to kill every last Christian. The reality — if you believe the Afghan accounts — is that you have different groups who for different reasons are pissed off with the British, some of whom are very pro Shah Shuja.

The process of writing a book has also been a process of discovery, hasn’t it? You stumbled on these Persian-language sources in Kabul, which form the narrative framework of this book.

From my experiences with White Mughals and The Last Mughal , I knew most Central Asian Muslim courts keep detailed histories and they have been greatly underrated and underused in English language historiography. With this book, it was exactly the same as the Mutiny Papers [used in The Last Mughal ], which were known to scholars in Urdu. Similarly, there were nationalist Afghan histories written in the 1950s, which utilised all the documents I had used; the only one unused was one that was published last year.

There was an incredible burst of historiography in Aghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s, when a group of nationalist Afghan historians were reprinting the stuff. The Jangnami is a good example. It was found in a saddlebag. The whole back half of it was missing; only the first half survives. It was written by a poet on East India Company paper looted from the British barracks. But no English language history has used it. The Akbarnama was discovered by the same group and it was found in a noble family’s library in Peshawar. It turns out that there are several other copies in India.

There is much less written in English on Afghan history than written on India; it’s a much thinner field. But there are marvellous books written recently on this period such as Ben Hopkins’ The Making of Modern Afghanistan . The only book in English that has used these sources before doesn’t deal with the war; it’s a book on the policies of Dost Mohammad.

So what accounts for this? A general lack of interest about the other side? A narrow nationalistic perspective?

In the case of this war, I think most of the people who wrote about it felt they had such good sources in English that they didn’t need to use Persian sources. In the pre-modern, “native” sources were regarded as suspect.

Could it also be because some of these sources, which are written as poetic epics, could be highly unreliable and exaggerated; more important for narrative non-fiction than for dry academic history?

On the contrary, I think the academic historians will be now using these. This book before publication has been through all the main historians on the Afghans and they are all very excited. They will be teaching these texts in future.

So Dalrymple will be in the classroom.

(Laughs) It has happened before.

The way people look at this war has to change. But you are correct in suggesting that you do not use a text like the Jangnama in the way that you use the official correspondence of Fort William. You could be pretty sure that if Lord Auckland said he sent three divisions of infantry and four divisions from cavalry from Calcutta to Ferozpur, then that, in fact, is the number that went. You cannot be sure about numbers when the Jangnama says a hundred thousand brave Afghan soldiers came charging down the hill and killed the ferangis .

But what you can glean from these sources is the attitudes of the Afghans to the British. For instance, Burnes has always been regarded as this very dashing heroic figure and the Afghans regarded him as a devil.

You sound fairly sympathetic towards Burnes at the beginning of the book. You seem to suggest that he was right in recommending support for Dost Mohammad at a time when Auckland and others were in favour of restoring Shah Shuja. And then, Dost Mohammad seems to sort of fall off. He first runs away and then surrenders quite inexplicably .?

But he’s playing a clever game, having recognised in a sense that he’s been outflanked. He knows he’s not going to win this round. And then he is in pole position to come back and has half his reign to play out after 1843.

He is founder of the dynasty of Afghan leaders that survived up to the 1970s. So he, as I argue in the book, makes a rather clever decision. There are many examples in Mughal and Ottoman history of regional leaders who realise that their game is up and who get reappointed as leaders. The most famous example in Indian history is Jai Singh of Jaipur, who makes a pact with Akbar and ends up leading his armies around the rest of India. It is something that happened in this part of the world at that period of time. Dost Mohammad spends three years in captivity and rules for another 20 years.

Shah Shuja gets a bad rap in the beginning but salvages his reputation in the end. He is only one to strongly resist the Afghan uprising, the only one who attempts to save a beleaguered Burnes.

So much history is written by victors… [Bahadur Shah] Zafar is another one who is written off as a loser. But he was an incredible man… a poet, an athlete… it was just his bad kismet that he faced his greatest challenge when he was 82 years old. And what 82-year-old can lead a rebellion?

In the same way, Shah Shuja was a man of incredible perseverance and determination. He faced defeats that would have thrown anyone else into permanent depression, their lives out of kilter. But he comes back again and again and finally, in middle age, recovers his throne. The faults that lead to rebellion are not his; they are [William Hay] Macnaghten’s and partly that of Burnes. And he remains loyal to Macnaghten while recognising that this guy is sinking his only chance. And then, when the British march out to their self-destruction in the passes in 1842, he stays tucked up in the Bala Hisar, and emerges right as rain in the spring to start again. With a fair wind, he might have well recovered his throne and ruled in the absence of the British.

Is there, for the lack of a better word, a tension in works like Return of a King or The White Mughal ? On the one hand, they are created for the lay reader who reads them for the engrossing narrative and for the many interesting characters, many more than the principal historical ones. On the other hand, you are also making a more serious point; you are saying that these books throw new light on history. Is this tension ever reconciled? Does it play in your head as you write?

It’s a difficult act to pull off but it’s not an unusual one to attempt. It’s unusual in India. Here there are very few writers making the attempt to do new research and present it to lay audiences. Which is something that happens every day anywhere else in the world.

Let me be clear about this because I have been misquoted on this before. I hugely admire much academic scholarship, which is done with a small group of other academics in mind. That is a completely legitimate way to write history and I have no grouse with it. I am, however, trying to write a different sort of book, which is equally legitimate and which is an unexceptional sort of book to write.

These are the sort of books I really enjoy reading. For instance, the works of Anthony Beevor, whose Stalingrad and Berlin , which were the first to use the Soviet archives and marry them off against the Nazi archives. I remember not being able to put them down. I have no particular interest in the Second World War, but these are so magnificently done.

Another is Simon Schama’s book on the French Revolution, Citizens , which won the Wolfson Prize for History, which is the prize I always coveted most, and which The White Mughal finally got. This is given specifically to these sorts of books — those that are both cutting-edge scholarly and well written. You should Google the list of winners; it’s a wonderful list of people who are doing exactly what I am doing here. But whenever I launch the book in India, I am asked about the form, about whether I am doing something new. I am not.

I wasn’t asking about newness as much as whether it creates any tensions in the writing process.

Yes and no. Certainly, in this part of the world, there are two very different worlds; the world of the general reader and the world of the academic…

You are suggesting that readers are more homogenous in the West?

Certainly there is a whole body of people in Britain and America who are within academia and writing for a general audience. But, in answer to your question, whether there is a tension, yes there is a tension, but it is not at all a difficult one to overcome. And I’m getting better at it. I have done it more fluently in this third book of the trilogy, the White Mughals and The Last Mughal being the two bookends on either side of this. If you spend three or four years deep in your primary sources, discover whole swathes of new materials in languages that have not been looked at before, you are free then to write a narrative that aims to be as fluent and beautifully written as a piece of literary fiction or non-fiction. I don’t think the style of prose you write it in or the narrative form affects the scholarship. The scholarship is there to be discussed as a separate question. Now whether the scholars of Central Asia or Afghanistan will agree with me or not when the reviews come out in the academic journals is a different matter.

What was it like to visit Afghanistan to research this book?

I had only covered Afghanistan as a journalist. It was very exciting and very different to go as a historian. My wife Olivia would say I would come back from Afghanistan completely abuzz with excitement of going in and out and trying to get these sources in the middle of a war. In actual fact, most of them came from the safest and the least problematic, which was Kabul…

Your car was shot at…

A sniper shot at the back window within minutes of my arriving in Kandahar. Kandahar is a problematic place. One of the things we haven’t talked about is the degree of the extraordinary parallels with the present. You can feel it geographically in Kandahar. Today, as in 1841/42, you have a small area of occupation with a clear boundary. And the boundary then and today is the shrine of Baba Wali, just beside which (Osama) Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had their compact. This lovely Sufi shrine looks down on the gorgeous Arghandab valley. Henry Rawlinson’s letters described looking out in the valley and seeing the Durranis and their horsemen and crossing the bridge. I saw — looking down on the valley in 2010 — American patrols go down the hill.

It brings home that not only do we have another Popelzai — both Shah Shuja and Karzai belong to this tiny sub-tribe. The attackers are the same — the Ghilzai today are the foot soldiers of the Taliban. Not only do you have this extraordinary tribal parallel, but in each location you have the same boundaries. Today, the safe zone on the edge of Kabul is the Khurd Kabul pass, which is where the British were slaughtered in 1842. The boundary in Kandahar is Baba Wali — the Arghandab is Afghan territory. The same is true of Herat. In each place, you have the same natural, political and tribal geography.

The economic geography is also important. The reason no one manages to occupy Afghanistan for long is not just that it is inaccessible or that they have great fighters. If you invade Iraq, you can fund that invasion by taking away the oil. But in Afghanistan there is nothing to exploit, there’s no money. So you end up spending huge sums of money. Auckland withdrew nine-tenths of the troops before the uprising. The invasion of Afghanistan finished the Soviet economy. And with America, we have seen the period of the occupation of Afghanistan coincide with the dominance of China. Whether the current occupation will have as drastic an ending remains to be seen.

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