Monday, May 27, 2013

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk

Years ago, I read another of Peter Hopkirk's books -- Trespassers on the Roof of the World -- about various covert and overt, successful and failed attempts to penetrate Tibet in the 19th century. It read like a rollicking adventure novel, so when I spotted The Great Game, I grabbed it, and it didn't disappoint. Once again, I was immersed in an espionage saga in an exotic setting, reading about an episode in history that was entirely new to me.  (At the same time, it was distressingly familiar:  will we ever learn that Afghanistan is best left to the Afghans?)

The Great Game is the name that one of the English 'players' gave to the contest between Russia and England to control central Asia during the 19th century.  They were not squabbling over this forbidding landscape (full of equally forbidding people) because they wanted natural resources hidden there; this was long before the era of petro-colonialism. Russia was keen both to acquire a deep buffer zone around her borders and also to gain access to as many waterways as possible. England wanted to protect her prize colony, India. The area on the map was caught in the middle of these desires as both sides made numerous incursions, trying -- sometimes with brief success and often with catastrophic, bloody failure -- to seize control of slippery and fierce emirs and sultans and their people.

As the book opens, two Englishmen are being dragged out of a stinking pit in which the Emir of Bokhara has imprisoned them. They are of no further use to him, and he has ordered their beheading. Thus, the man who gave a name to this geographical chessgame also gave his life for it.
Stoddart and Conolly were paying the price of engaging in a highly dangerous game -- the Great Game, as it became known to those who risked their necks playing it. Ironically, it was Conolly himself who had first coined the phrase, although it was Kipling who was to immortalise it many years later in his novel Kim.
The uncooperative natives are only half the problem when it comes to invading this part of the world. The geography and weather are just as brutal. The Germans most recently met demise trying to press eastward into Russia and central Asia. Hopkirk reminds us of an earlier botched invasion.
In the Baltic town of Vilnius, through which Napoleon's troops marched to their doom in the summer of 1812, there stands today a simple monument bearing two plaques. Together they tell the whole story. On the side with its back towards Moscow is written: "Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 400,000 men." On the other side are the words: "Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 9,000 men."
Following Napoleon's rout, the English nursed a short-lived passion for Russia, and more specifically a fascination for the Cossacks, who had repelled their mutual arch-enemy. This romance, like so many, was based on airy notions and soon crumbled. It was just the first of many changes of heart to sway the English populace and parliament during the playing of the Great Game.
It was on his return to London that Wilson drew official wrath upon himself by launching a one-man campaign against the Russians, Britain's allies, and in the eyes of most people the saviours of Europe. He began by demolishing romantic notions about the chivalry of the Russian soldier, especially those darlings of press and public, the Cossacks. The atrocities and cruelties perpetrated by them against their French captives, he alleged, were horrifying by the accepted standards of European armies. Large numbers of defenceless prisoners were buried alive, while others were lined up and clubbed to death by peasants armed with sticks and flails. While awaiting their fate, they were invariably robbed of their clothes and kept standing naked in the snow. The Russian women, he claimed, were especially barbaric towards those Frenchmen unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.
The English saw the territory which we now call Afghanistan as a critical buffer zone to protect India from a Russian incursion. At the time, however, there was no cohesive Afghanistan, just an assortment of fiefdoms ruled by singularly disagreeable warlords. Conolly (whose execution began the book) saw that a united Afghanistan would suit the British needs quite nicely, thus beginning a long attempt at puppet-mastery with elusive, combative and untrustworthy puppets.
"If the Afghans, as a nation, were determined to resist the invaders," he declared, "the difficulties of the march would be rendered well nigh insurmountable." They would fight to the last drop of blood, harassing the Russian columns incessantly from their mountain strongholds, destroying food supplies and cutting off the invader's lines of communication and retreat. If, however, the Afghans were to remain divided, as they then were, the Russians would be able to play one faction off against another with promises or other inducements. "Singly," Conolly wrote, "the chief of a small state could not offer effectual opposition to a European invader, and it would be easy to gain him by encouraging his ambitions against his rivals at home, or doubly to profit by it, by directing it on India." It was very much in Britain's interest therefore that Afghanistan be reunited under one strong and central ruler in Kabul.
The Afghan chief whose claim to the throne should be supported, Conolly urged his superiors, was Kamran Shah of Herat. While his unsavoury character might be regretted, he and Britain shared one vital interest --that Herat, "the Granary of Central Asia", should not fall into the hands of either the Persians, who had a long-standing claim to it, or the Russians.
As with so many of the recent attempts to manipulate the government of distant and very foreign nations, a few sensible people questioned its advisability, asking things like, "After we go in and wreak havoc with the status quo, what then?" Not everyone in London was in favour of meddling in Afghanistan.
To occupy Afghanistan would not only be prohibitively expensive, and leave India's other frontiers ill-guarded, but it would also push the Persians even further into the welcoming arms of the Russians. The Duke of Wellington for one was strongly against it, warning that where the military successes ended the political difficulties would begin.
Alexander Burnes, a Scottish Great Game player, had the advantage of first-hand knowledge of the region, and he also had serious doubts about the king-making efforts in Afghanistan. For one thing, he questioned whether the English choice of rulers was the best one.
The Baluchi warned him that while the British might succeed in placing Shujah on the throne, they would never carry the Afghan people with them, and would therefore fail in the end. The British, he declared, had embarked on an undertaking "of vast magnitude and difficult accomplishment". Instead of trusting the Afghan nation and Dost Mohammed, the British had "cast them aside and inundated the country with foreign troops". Shujah, he insisted, was unpopular among his fellow Afghans, and the British would be wise to point out to him his errors "if the fault originated with him, and alter them if they sprang from ourselves".
The hawks who were intent on their mission, however, were not interested in intelligence data that did not support their aims. Macnaghten was a virulent Russophobe keen to bring Afghanistan into line, and Burnes' warning was as welcome to him as the advice against invading Iraq was to Bush's advisors, who also predicted rapturous welcomes.
That was the last thing that Macnaghten wanted to hear, for he had repeatedly assured Lord Auckland that Shujah's return would be rapturously welcomed by the Afghans.
Burnes insisted that diplomacy was the answer. The following line amused me, because yes, the khans were unreliable, of course, but during the years of the Great Game, the ostensibly civilised English and Russians defaulted on one treaty after the next. Politics may or may not make for strange bedfellows, but it certainly makes unreliable ones!
Ultimately, Burnes insisted, Russia could only be restrained in Central Asia through London putting strong pressure on St Petersburg, and not by means of vague alliances with capricious and treacherous khans.
Meanwhile, the hawks had got their way, had propped up Shujah on the Afghan throne and then moved into Kabul to keep him there. To no one's surprise but their own, this did not turn out well.  In the end, a bloodbath ensued.
Ever since their arrival in Kabul two years earlier, the British had been making themselves thoroughly at home there. Kabul's exotic situation and invigorating climate had attracted the wives, and even the children, of British and Indian troops up from the hot and dusty plains of Hindustan. Every kind of entertainment was laid on, from cricket to concerts, steeplechasing to skating, with some of the Afghan upper classes joining in the fun. Much of what went on, particularly the womanising and drinking, was to cause great offence to the Muslim authorities and the devout majority.
There were plenty of reasons for this antagonism towards the British and Shah Shujah. For one thing the presence of so many troops had hit the pockets of ordinary Afghans. Because of the increased demand for foodstuffs and other essentials, prices in the bazaar had soared, while taxes had risen sharply to pay for Shujah's new administration, not to mention his lavish personal lifestyle. Moreover, the British showed no signs of leaving, despite earlier assurances. It looked more and more as though the occupation would be permanent, as indeed some of the British were beginning to think it would have to be if Shujah was to survive. Then there was the growing anger, especially in Kabul, over the pursuit and seduction of local women by the troops, particularly the officers.  Strong protests were made, but these were ignored.
As I think of the American invasions of Vietnam (with the French failure so fresh in memory), of Iraq and Afghanistan (in the footsteps of the Russian debacle), and of every other government who decides to invade a country on the other side of the world about which it knows little,  I read Hopkirk's account of this fiasco and wonder, Have we ever learned anything from history, and will we ever? Only one man, a doctor, survived the Kabul massacre and made it back to India alive (barely) to tell the story.
The dreadful tidings borne by Dr Brydon -- the Messenger of Death, as he was to become known -- reached Lord Auckland, the retiring Governor-General, in Calcutta, a fortnight later. The shock, his sister Emily noted, was to age him by ten years. Things had gone wrong so terribly fast. Only a few weeks earlier Sir William Macnaghten had written from Kabul assuring him that everything was firmly under control. And now his entire policy in Central Asia was in ruins. Far from establishing a friendly rule in Afghanistan to buttress India against Russian encroachments, it had led instead to one of the worst disasters ever to overtake a British army. A mob of mere heathen savages, armed with home-made weapons, had succeeded in routing the greatest power on earth. It was a devastating blow to British pride and prestige.
The British were never entirely sure what the Russians' plans or goals might have been. The latter went through periods of enormous expansion, alternately admitting and denying interest in India and other chunks of neighbouring territory. What one diplomat said, another source contradicted.
The opportunity for some plain talking with the Russians arose shortly afterwards when Lord Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, met his opposite number, Prince Gorchakov, at Heidelberg. Clarendon enquired bluntly, of Gorchakov whether Russia's recent Asiatic conquests, which went so far beyond what he himself had spelt out in his celebrated memorandum, had been ordered by Tsar Alexander, or were the result of commanders on the spot exceeding their instructions. It was an embarrassing question, and it required an answer.
Gorchakov chose to blame the soldiers, explaining that they thereby hoped to win distinction for themselves. Even now, though, the British were probably no nearer the truth than before, or than scholars are to this day.
And yet, especially after their disaster in Afghanistan, the English were keen to find a diplomatic route to securing India. Once again, the focus returned to Afghanistan as a designated buffer.  The Russians said they had no interest in it, but how reliable might that be?
The British had by now become used to such assurances and promises, and to seeing them broken. Pursuing Lawrence's expedient of trying to put a fixed limit on further Russian advances, Clarendon therefore proposed to Gorchakov that their two governments should establish, not so much spheres of influence in Asia, but a permanent neutral zone between their two expanding empires there. The Russian immediately suggested that Afghanistan would serve this purpose, his own government having no interest of any kind in it.
There were always diplomats who assured the British that Russia had no intention of moving into India. There were also consistent rumbles that hinted at quite the opposite.
The Indian Mutiny, Terentiev maintained, had only failed because the Indians lacked a proper plan and outside support. They continued to suffer from British misrule and exploitation. "Sick to death," Terentiev went on, "the natives are now waiting for a physician from the north." Given such assistance, they had every chance of starting a conflagration which would spread throughout India, and thus enable them to throw off the British yoke.
The Russians moved eastward, conquering Turcoman territory. In this, they proved more successful than the British attempt to subdue the Afghans, largely because they simply met and exceeded the Turcomans' own brutality.
For three days, he said, Skobelev had allowed his troops, many of whom were drunk, to rape, plunder and slaughter. In justification for this afterwards, the general declared: "I hold it as a principle that the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet." It was, he claimed, a far more effective way of pacifying troublesome neighbours than the British method, employed by Roberts at Kabul, of publicly hanging the ringleaders, since that merely engendered hatred and not fear. Certainly the Turcomans, who for nearly two centuries had plundered Russian caravans, attacked their frontier posts and carried off the Tsar's subjects into slavery, were never to give trouble again.
The Russians began to build railways through central Asia, giving the British a new round of anxiety attacks.
They assured the English that this was only to facilitate trade, and that Russia had no plans to colonise the emirates of present-day Uzbekistan. Mmhmm.
In Samarkand, where the railway then ended, he found no such pretence of independence, although the Russians had repeatedly declared their intention of returning the city and its fertile lands to the Emir of Bokhara, from whom they had seized it. "It is unnecessary to say", Curzon wrote, "that there was never the slightest intention of carrying out such an engagement." Only a Russian diplomat, he added sardonically, could have given such an undertaking, while only a British one would have believed him.
Meanwhile, Russia had seized Kashgar and other territory from the Chinese.  Eventually, she collided with the Japanese in a battle for eastern Asia. The Russo-Japanese war ended with a peace treaty (negotiated in New Hampshire, of all places) and with mixed results.  The treaty ended one war, but left the Japanese feeling empowered to pursue its 'Asia for Asians' brand of colonialism in the not too distant future, challenging non-Asian powers who got in the way.
St Petersburg was not alone in wishing to end hostilities in the Far East. Despite their spectacular victories, the Japanese knew that they could not win a long drawn-out war against the Russian colossus, with its inexhaustible manpower. Already the war was imposing a critical strain on their resources which could not be sustained indefinitely. Both governments were therefore grateful when the United States offered to act as mediator between them. As a result, on September 5, 1905, a peace treaty was signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, between the warring powers. It effectively brought to an end Tsarist Russia's forward policy in Asia. Under its terms both countries agreed to evacuate Manchuria, which was restored to Chinese rule.
For their part, the Japanese were persuaded to drop their earlier demands for huge indemnities, while, apart from the southern half of Sakhalin Island which went to Japan, the Russians were not required to surrender any of their sovereign territory. Nevertheless St Petersburg had lost virtually everything it had gained in the region during ten years of vigorous military and diplomatic endeavour. The war, moreover, had exploded forever the myth of the white man's superiority over Asiatic peoples.
Hopkirk recounts in this book one of the episodes from Trespassers on the Roof of the World, in which the British are convinced that the Russians have appropriated Tibet as a military outpost and subsequently invade it themselves. They inflict horrendous carnage on the Tibetans defending their sacred capital and -- would you believe? -- find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Colonel Francis Younghusband had ridden unopposed into Lhasa at the head of a small army. However, if he and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, had expected to find damning evidence of Russian intrigue there they were to be disappointed. Not only were there no arsenals of Russian weapons, no political advisers, no drill sergeants, but there was also no sign of any treaty of friendship between Tsar Nicholas and the Dalai Lama.
But lo and behold, a new distraction arises, and suddenly Russia might not be the greatest potential threat any more. Now, indeed, she may even be a valuable ally. Romances and political alliances -- mutable, mercurial, frangible. No relationship can be solid when it's driven by self-interest and desire to control.  Some of us discover this as individuals, but governments seem eternally blind to it.
The old fear of Russia was at last waning in the face of a new spectre -- that of an aggressively expansionist Germany. Indeed, as Germany's ambitions in Asia began to assume threatening aspects, Russia was already being seen by some as a potential ally against this new power. What had to be avoided at all costs was anything which might drive St Petersburg into the arms of the Germans.
The Great Game involved hair-raising treks across mountain passes, brutal murders, individual courage and scenery straight out of children's adventure books. It's a hugely informative piece of history, but it makes for a page-turning read, many thanks to Peter Hopkirk.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! The history of the world should always read like a swashbuckling, rollicking adventure novel!


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