The British Empire Library

William Simpson's Afghanistan: Travels of a Special Artist and Antiquarian During the Second Afghan War, 1878-1879

Edited by Peter Harrington

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
We think today of the Khyber Pass and the route through it to the Afghan capital Kabul, as an entirely Muslim-dominated area but this has not always been the case. Before the rise of Islam this area was home to Buddhists who left numerous topes or burial chambers scattered about the mountains and plains, nearly always with adjoining temples known as viharas. The rediscovery of Buddhism in Afghanistan is a surprising and welcome theme in this book which at first glance looks like another routine account of the second Afghan war. What also came as a surprise was the amount of time and energy that soldiers of the Peshawar Field Force devoted to excavating, or in some cases, plundering, these topes. A third revelation is the character of Simpson himself, an extraordinary man who was born in a Glasgow slum, and who was barely educated until his teens, but who rose to be on nodding terms with a number of great Victorians, including the Queen herself who intervened to stop him being sent to sketch a war in 1859 for fear he might be killed. But Simpson, a favoured artist of the Queen, already had war experience. He had been sent to the Crimea in 1854 and remained there for nearly a year. So popular were his sketches and water-colours which were subsequently published, that he earned the nickname of 'Crimean Simpson'. In 1859 he was commissioned by the Queen to record sites associated with the Indian Uprising that had been quelled only a year earlier. When the Prince of Wales visited India in 1876, Simpson was invited to accompany him. So it was understandable that at the beginning of the second Afghan War he was employed by the Illustrated London News and later the Daily News to send back reports and sketches from the front in eastern Afghanistan.

Leaving Holborn Viaduct at 8.15 pm on Tuesday 15 October 1878 he travelled swiftly by train to Brindisi (those were the days) and boarded the Mongolia bound for Alexandria. From here it was a short overland journey to Suez then on board the Bokhara to Bombay. The whole journey took just over three weeks. Then, rather oddly he takes a train eastwards to Allahabad, before heading westward to Lahore. This four-day journey is not explained by the editor, Peter Harrington, who one senses is not familiar with India, so the reader has to suppose that at this period there was no direct rail-link between Bombay and Lahore, although it would be nice to have this confirmed. Simpson makes his way through the Khyber Pass on camel-back and joins the Peshawar Field Force under General Sir Sam Browne who had been tasked with establishing the best route from Jallalabad to Kabul. This was in anticipation that it would be necessary once more for the British to enter Kabul as king-makers, in spite of their disastrous attempt nearly forty years earlier. Simpson finds a veteran of the first Afghan war who points out significant features including the old British cemetery at Jallalabad now almost entirely covered by a 'musjid' because the spot where the bodies of those who fell were deliberately concealed 'with the strong probability ..that the bodies were not disturbed'.

Apart from an encounter at Ali Masjid towards the end of November 1878 it was really a phoney war while Simpson was there. A peace treaty of sorts had been signed at Gandamack and Simpson left Bombay for home on 27 June 1879. It was only later that year that real hostilities began with the murder of Louis Cavagnari, the British representative to the Kabul Court in September. Simpson had become friendly with Cavagnari, who encouraged the artist's archaeological digs while the Field Force marked time. As Harrington points out, these excavations, which were really more treasure-hunting than serious archaeological explorations, were a welcome diversion for bored officers waiting for something to happen. And there was also plenty of man-power available to help with the heavy lifting once a tope had been broken into. Engineers with the Field Force who were there to ford rivers and set up picquets were adept at propping up the walls of Buddhist burial chambers so Simpson and his pals could dive in and see if there was any treasure to be found. Their methods and their attitudes horrify us today. Simpson boasts about 'bagging topes' as if they were some kind of exotic bird rather than the resting places of cremated remains and reliquaries. The fact that one of his first excavations at Ahin Posh Tope at Jallalabad did uncover gold coins and a golden relic holder spurred him on to examine many similar sites. Buddhist topes, or stupas, were usually signified by a dome resting on one or more platforms and treasure hunters appear to have simply sliced off the tops of the domes rather as one would decapitate a breakfast egg. But Simpson can be somewhat excused because he did at least appreciate the value of his finds, sending the Ahin Posh treasures to the Viceroy at Calcutta for transmission to London. He also sketched many of the sites found and he reported on Buddhist statues with strong Grecian sculptural influences which were later to be classified as the Gandharan school.

This is a more interesting book than appears at first sight. It has a number of sketches in colour, showing how skilled Simpson was at capturing exotic people like the Afghan chief Yakoob Beg as well as the desolate hills around Jallalabad and soldiers in camp. The Appendices include a useful index of Persons' whom Simpson met or mentioned during his travels and a catalogue resume of his original sketches together with the dates they were published in the Illustrated London News. It has Simpson's comments on his sketches, which were not included in his diary and a number of letters to his fiiend Harry Rylands in which Simpson reveals himself as a busy, always curious man, with a sense of humour and the Victorian love of awful puns. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Peter Harrington
First Published
Helion & Co. Ltd.
Review Originally Published
Spring 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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