No Easy Place to Rule
The year 1809 opened auspiciously for Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. It was now March, the very beginning of that brief Afghan spring, and the pulse was slowly returning to the veins of the icy landscape long clotted with drifts of waist-high snow. Now the small, sweet-smelling Istalif irises were pushing their way through the frozen ground, the frosted rime on the trunks of the deodars was running to snowmelt, and the Ghilzai nomads were unlatching their fat-tailed sheep from the winter pens, breaking down their goat-hair tents and readying the flocks for the first of the spring migrations to the new grass of the high pastures. It was just then, at that moment of thaw and sap, that Shah Shuja received two pieces of good news—something of a rarity in his troubled reign.1
The first concerned the recovery of some lost family property. The largest diamond in the world, the Koh-i-Nur, or Mountain of Light, had been missing for more than a decade, but such was the turbulence of the times that no attempt had been made to find it. Shah Zaman, Shuja’s elder brother and predecessor on the throne of Afghanistan, was said to have hidden the gem shortly before being captured and blinded by his enemies. A huge Indian ruby known as the Fakhraj, the family’s other most precious gem, had also disappeared at the same time.
So Shah Shuja summoned his blind brother and questioned him on the whereabouts of their father’s most famous jewels: was it really true that he knew where they were hidden? Shah Zaman revealed that nine years earlier he had hidden the Fakhraj under a rock in a stream near the Khyber Pass, shortly before being taken prisoner. Later, he had slipped the Koh-i-Nur into a crack in the wall of the fortress cell where he was first seized and bound. A court historian later recorded, “Shah Shuja immediately dispatched a few of his most trustworthy men to find these two gems and advised them that they should leave no stone unturned in their efforts. They found the Koh-i-Nur with a Shinwari sheikh who in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight for his official papers. As for the Fakhraj, they found it with a Talib, a student, who had uncovered it when he went to a stream to wash his clothes. They impounded both gems and brought them back in the king’s service.”2
The second piece of news, about the arrival of an embassy from a previously hostile neighbour, was potentially of more practical use to the Shah. At the age of only twenty-four, Shuja was now in the seventh year of his reign. By temperament a reader and a thinker, more interested in poetry and scholarship than in warfare or campaigning, it was his fate to have inherited, while still an adolescent, the far-flung Durrani Empire. That empire, founded by his grandfather Ahmad Shah Abdali, had been built out of the collapse of three other Asian empires: the Uzbeks to the north, the Mughals to the south and to the west the Safavids of Persia. It had originally extended from Nishapur in modern Iran through Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab and Sindh to Kashmir and the threshold of Mughal Delhi. But now, only thirty years after his grandfather’s death, the Durrani Empire was itself already well on its way to disintegration.
There was, in fact, nothing very surprising about this. Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan—or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last millennia—had had but a few hours of political or administrative unity.3 Far more often it had been “the places in between”—the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.
Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of the Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.
Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime—the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires—and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale. Under the guise of reconciliation, one of Shah Shuja’s chiefs invited some sixty of his feuding cousins “to dine with him,” wrote one observer, “having previously laid bags of gunpowder under the apartment. During the meal, having gone out on some pretext, he blew them all up.” A country like this could be governed only with skill, strategy and a full treasure chest.
So when at the beginning of 1809 messengers arrived from the Punjab bearing news of an East India Company Embassy heading north from Delhi seeking an urgent alliance with him, Shah Shuja had good reason to be pleased. In the past the Company had been a major problem for the Durranis, for its well-disciplined sepoy armies had made impossible the lucrative raids down onto the plains of Hindustan which for centuries had been a principal source of Afghan income. Now it seemed that the Company wished to woo the Afghans; the Shah’s newswriters wrote to him that the Embassy had already crossed the Indus, en route to his winter capital of Peshawar. This not only offered some respite from the usual round of sieges, arrests and punitive expeditions, it potentially provided Shuja with a powerful ally—something he badly needed. There had never been a British Embassy to Afghanistan before, and the two peoples were almost unknown to each other, so the Embassy had the additional benefit of novelty. “We appointed servants of the royal court known for their refinement and good manners to go to meet them,” wrote Shah Shuja in his memoirs, “and ordered them to take charge of hospitality, and to treat them judiciously, with caution and politeness.”4
Reports reaching Shah Shuja indicated that the British were coming laden with gifts: “elephants with golden howdahs, a palanquin with a high parasol, gold-inlaid guns and ingenious pistols with six chambers, never seen before; expensive clocks, binoculars, fine mirrors capable of reflecting the world as it is; diamond studded lamps, porcelain vases and utensils with gold embedded work from Rome and China; tree-shaped candelabra, and other such beautiful and expensive gifts whose brilliance the imagination falls short in describing.”5 Years later Shuja remembered one present that particularly delighted him: “a large box producing noises like voices, strange sounds in a range of timbres, harmonies and melodies, most pleasing to the ear.”6 The Embassy had brought Afghanistan its first organ.
Shah Shuja’s autobiography is silent as to whether he suspected these British bearing gifts. But by the time he came to write it in late middle age, he was well aware that the alliance he was about to negotiate would change the course of his own life, and that of Afghanistan, for ever.
The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from both India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah Shuja, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of the River Neman.
Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Neman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of the Baltic.
The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Peace of Tilsit.7
Most of the clauses in the treaty concerned the question of war and peace—not for nothing was the first volume of Tolstoy’s great novel named Before Tilsit. Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain’s wealth. This, of course, was his enemy’s richest possession, India.
The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon’s, as of several previous French strategists. Almost exactly nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. “Through Egypt we shall invade India,” he wrote. “We shall re-establish the old route through Suez.” From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter’s pleas for help against the English: “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies!”8
At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon’s initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.
So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. A treaty with the Persian Ambassador had already been concluded: “Should it be the intention of HM the Emperor of the French to send an army by land to attack the English possessions in India,” it stated, “HM the Emperor of Persia, as his good and faithful ally, will grant him passage.”
At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grande Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20,000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile, General Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s Ambassador to St. Petersburg, was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians. “The more fanciful it sounds,” wrote the Emperor, “the more the attempt to do it (and what can France and Russia not do?) would frighten the English; striking terror into English India, spreading confusion in London; and, to be sure, forty thousand Frenchmen to whom Persia will have granted passage by way of Constantinople, joining forty thousand Russians who arrive by way of the Caucasus, would be enough to terrify Asia, and make its conquest.”9
But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express, containing the outlines of the plan, to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses, and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them went instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all the countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood, and to negotiate alliances with them to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India. The different embassies were also instructed to collect strategic information and intelligence, so filling in the blank spaces on British maps of these regions. Meanwhile, reinforcements would be held in readiness in England for despatch to India should there be signs of an expedition being ready to sail from the French ports.10
Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not “beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France,” he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the “very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.”11
In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon’s armies. One was sent to Teheran in an effort to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar of Persia the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amirs of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company’s service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.
Elphinstone was a Lowland Scot, who in his youth had been a notable Francophile. He had grown up alongside French prisoners of war in Edinburgh Castle, of which his father was governor, and there he had learned their revolutionary songs and had grown his curly golden hair down his back in the Jacobin style to show his sympathy with their ideals.12 Sent off to India at the unusually young age of fourteen to keep him out of trouble, he had learned good Persian, Sanskrit and Hindustani, and soon turned into an ambitious diplomat and a voracious historian and scholar.
Revue de presse
“More than timely . . . The author’s deep research provides a whole new take on almost every aspect of the story. Mr. Dalrymple is a skilled storyteller and fills important gaps, mining new sources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s writing is sly, charming and clever. His histories read like novels. [His] book delights and shocks.”
—Michael Fathers, The Wall Street Journal
“The British humiliation in the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War . . . has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple. . . . An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“By turns epic, thrilling, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. . . . A magnificent and shocking story . . . It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return of a King.”
—Michael Dirda, Bookforum
“[Return of a King] brings new insights and extends earlier ones to a wider public. . . . Dalrymple lets the action play out relentlessly and compellingly, yet has endnotes, glossary, bibliography, and index of a high scholarly standard. . . . The author’s attentiveness to Afghan voices means the local people become real personalities, rather than ciphers. . . . [Dalrymple’s] commitment to the historical project is so clear and his writing so attractive.”
—Elizabeth Gaigent, Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A masterful history . . . And as the latest occupying force in Afghanistan negotiates its exit, this chronicle seems all too relevant now. . . . The signal achievement of this work is that it makes a nearly two-century-old war seem disturbingly fresh. It makes for grim reading. Like the current adventure in Afghanistan, this first one was undone by the unsustainable cost of occupation, waning political and public interest, and the need to divert resources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s book is a timely reminder of the way that wars can begin with promise but end in disgrace.”
“[The Afghan] saga has been recounted many times, but never that I can recall as well as by Dalrymple. He is a master storyteller, whose special gift lies in the use of indigenous sources, so often neglected by imperial chroniclers. . . . Almost every page of Dalrymple’s splendid narrative echoes with latter-day reverberations.”
—Max Hastings, The Times (London)
“[Return of a King] shows all the elements we have come to expect from Dalrymple: the clear, fluid prose, the ability to give complex historical events shape, story and meaning, the use of new local sources to allow the voices of the people . . . to be heard alongside the much-better documented accounts of the invaders, the deep knowledge and affection for the magnificently rich culture of the Mughals and their various copiers and a lack of patience with tiresome orientalist visions of the ‘proud Pashtun’ or ‘noble Afghan.’ This is clear-eyed, non-judgmental, sober history, beautifully told.”
—Jason Burke, The Observer
“Dalrymple, in his sparkling new history of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), draws striking parallels between that 19th century conflict and NATO’s current Afghan imbroglio. . . . More is the pity that Dalrymple’s book—the first serious study of the war for almost 50 years, and the only history in English to use extensive Afghan sources—was not available in 2001. . . . Extensively researched (with much new material) and beautifully written, it covers the story from the perspective of both invaders and invaded, and is by far the most comprehensive history of the conflict yet written. It also says important things about war and why it’s waged.”
—Saul David, The Daily Telegraph
“Magnificent . . . [Return of a King] is a history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, one of those passages of history the close examination of which requires a strong stomach—and which therefore also require the most thorough investigation. The seductive artistry of Dalrymple’s narrative gift draws the reader into events that are sometimes almost unbearable, but his account is so perceptive and so warmly humane that one is never tempted to break away. . . . This book would be compulsive reading even if it were not a uniquely valuable history.”
—Diana Athill, The Guardian
“In Dalrymple’s usual happy style of historical narrative, applied to a fascinating, neat and highly suggestive series of events, this long and involved book will be a great success, and bring the famous story to a large new audience.”
—Philip Hensher, The Spectator
“This is vintage Dalrymple: warp-speed historical narrative, meticulously researched. . . . My only regret reading this wonderful history is that it was not published a decade earlier.”
—Justin Marozzi, The Evening Standard
“A meticulous historian and felicitous writer, Dalrymple is also a deep thinker. This is one history book that matters for making sense of Afghanistan, and Britain, today as well as in the past.”
—Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald
“[A] marvellous book . . . brilliant, exact language . . . There is much in Dalrymple’s superb book that has contemporary resonance.”
—Hugh MacDonald, Sunday Herald
“William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of the 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all. . . . Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-centruy British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. . . . It is [the book’s] mastery of intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, with which Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest.”
—Barnaby Rogerson, The Independent
“Few writers could go wrong with a story populated with so many villains, rogues, poltroons, swashbucklers, spies, assassins and heroes. But none would make a better job of it than William Dalrymple in this thrilling, magnificently evocative Return of a King.”
—James Delingpole, Mail on Sunday
“Complex and remarkable . . . As taut and richly embroidered as a great novel. . . . This book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research, and a thrilling account of a watershed Victorian conflict.”
—Rupert Edis, The Sunday Telegraph
“Sensationally good . . . Dalrymple writes the kind of history that few historians can match. Sure, they can all add a footnote or two about our knowledge of the past, but how many of them actually change the whole way in which we look on it? . . . A truly epic story of imperial ambition and hubris with profound lessons for our own times. Compared to this—Britain’s greatest military defeat in the 19th century—Custer’s Last Stand is an insignificant skirmish. I doubt that I’ll read a better written or more important history book all year.”
—David Robinson, The Scotsman
“[A] brilliant new book . . . It is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book. For while it is first and foremost a valuable contribution to the history of Afghanistan and the British Raj, it is also intended to draw parallels and convey lessons about the latest western involvement in the region.”
—Anatol Lieven, Financial Times
“A fascinating account . . . The story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the retreat from Kabul in 1842 has been told many times before. But Dalrymple does it better; he has spent years piecing together archival material in Delhi, Lahore, London and elsewhere. He has wandered the streets of Kabul looking for, and finding, traces of Afghan epic poetry on the conflict. Many of his sources are previously untouched by other Western writers and as with his previous books, his vivid prose is a joy to read. . . . Dalrymple is a masterful narrator . . . The range of new sources employed adds more depth to an already complex history, yet he navigates deftly between British, Afghan, Indian and Russian sources without losing his thread. . . . A gem of a book and one hell of a story.”
—Edward Burke, Dublin Review of Books
“This is a monumentally important book. . . . Exemplary historian that he is, Dalrymple has discovered hitherto unknown sources. . . This is history as it should be written: revisionist, readable and rollicking.”
—Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
“William Dalrymple combines in himself three remarkable talents. First, he is a researcher par excellence. Second, he has the insight of a historian. And third, as a writer of exceptional dexterity, he is able to make historical research very readable. The story is told in graphic detail, but it unfolds like a cinematic screenplay through the lives of the principal dramatis personae—their personalities, personal quirks, motivating ambitions and family background are etched out to make them living characters travelling along with the reader’s journey. It is not easy to recount dry historical facts in this manner, but Mr Dalrymple—as he has done with all his historical books – personally travelled to the principal venues, revisited the sites of battles, forts, palaces, towns and ordinary homes, and talked to scores of people to capture the flavour of the times about which he is writing. In addition, he has located crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian and used, for the first time in English, nine previously untranslated full-length accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of the key Afghan king, Shah Shuja.”
—Pavan K Varma, Business Standard
“To call it anything less than a triumph would be an understatement.”
—Saurabh Kumar Shahi, Sunday Indian