The British Empire Library

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842

by William Dalrymple

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This was an eagerly anticipated book on the First Afghan War, Dalrymple having temporarily abandoned his normal Indian titles to find out what really led to that ghastly winter retreat through the Kabul Gorge to Jallalabad. For perhaps the first time, even to those over-familiar with the story, the main characters rise from the page and become figures of flesh and blood, thoughts, ambition and lust - for power, for revenge or for a lost kingdom. Instead of a bewildering parade of people with foreign names, who seemed to replace each other arbitrarily, the origin of the war is laid out right at the beginning. There were two Afghan tribes - the Sadozais and the Barakzais. It was the Sadozai chieftain Ahmad Shah Durrani who pulled Afghanistan together into something vaguely resembling its present shape, and it was his grandson, Shah Shuja, who inherited the throne in 1803. It was a Barakzai, Dost Mohammad Khan, whose grandfather had served Durrani, who pushed Shah Shuja off the throne and seized it, declaring himself Amir of Afghanistan.

So far it is a simple case of tribal warfare and Shah Shuja was lucky to escape with his life and some treasure. He fell in with the Maharaja of the Panjab, Ranjit Singh, who relieved him of the koh-i-nur diamond, then imprisoned him. Escaping again to British territory, Shah Shuja, the deposed king, spent the next thirty years in exile at Ludhiana, occasionally making unsuccessful attempts to regain his throne. It was his return, in 1835, aided by the East India Company, that gives this book its title.

The British believed that Dost Mohammad, the usurper, was flirting with Russian agents, and there is an exciting episode when 'Captain Vitkevitch,' who was actually a Polish nobleman, but passing as a Muslim, met both the Amir and Alexander Burnes, whom he had long admired. Lord Auckland was Viceroy at the time, living in India with his sisters Fanny and Emily Eden, but all were completely ignorant of Afghanistan, and badly advised too by men like William Macnaghten and Major Claude Wade, both Russophohes. Once Auckland had been persuaded to reinstall Shah Shuja on the Kabul throne - 'regime change' to use a modern term, the tragedy began to unfold. What many historians do not mention, but Dalrymple does, was how difficult it was to get into Afghanistan through the Bolan Pass and the Khojak Pass that led to Kandahar. Bogged down by an army of Indian camp followers almost as large as the army itself, women, children and baggage animals began to die from the dreadful summer heat, and lack of water.

It was a foretaste of an even worse journey to come in 1842. Perceptively, a local chieftain, the Khan of Qalat, told Alexander Burnes 'You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out again?' As the author comments, this has become a famous quotation, as apt today as it was then. Once a wing of the Company's army had reached Kabul, and installed Shah Shuja on the throne after Dost Mohammad had conveniently fled, huge logistical and personnel mistakes were made. A British cantonment was laid out in an area impossible to defend, and overlooked by Afghan qilas, or forts. The creaky old Major General William Elphinstone, walking with sticks and suffering from gout, was appointed Commander-in-Chief, and when the crisis came, and Macnaghten was assassinated, everyone except Shah Shuja was paralysed with indecision. There is much to praise in this work - the illustrations for one, the author's note on present-day Afghanistan for another, and the translations from two contemporary Persian epic poems, that tell the story from the Afghan perspective. Highly readable and recommended.

British Empire Book
William Dalrymple
978 1 4088 1830 5
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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