RGSSA Library Catalogue

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Afghanistan & the British Raj (1)


Currently on view at the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia is an exhibition on Afghanistan. It will run from May to October 2013. A booklet, Afghanistan, A Cultural Exposure and Australia's Immigrant Links from 1859, has been issued to accompany it. Those with the chance to visit will see some of the RGSSA's oldest books with links to Central Asia and the Islamic civilisations, and also some interesting artefacts, as well as works of travel and exploration.
    Over the next few months the blog will feature some of the books and their writers. The collection is very rich in 19th-century British works of travel and exploration, and our Afghanistan books are by some of the most extraordinary people ever to fly the flag for the British Raj. I'd like to plunge right in and tell you about Sir Robert Sale and his amazing wife, Florentia, about "Bokhara" Burnes, and his tragically unnecessary death, or about John Wood, the young sailor who reached the source of the Amu Darya (the "River Oxus") in the high Pamirs... But I think a bit of background, not to mention a map, might be in order first!
    The sketch map below shows the borders and major cities of modern Afghanistan and situates that country with respect to the neighbouring states of Central Asia.

Here we see some of the places that figure largely in the accounts by early travellers held in the RGSSA's collection. Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni and Jalalabad are all places with significant rĂ´les in the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century. Intrepid explorers wrote of the great rivers, the Indus and the Amu Darya.
   These places are still important centres in modern Afghanistan - though the early European travellers wouldn't recognise the spelling of many of the names! But the borders have changed a lot. Back in the 18th century the Afghan Empire was at its height, reaching from modern Iran to encompass vast stretches of what is now northern and south-western Pakistan, and stretching far to the north. A hundred years later its size and effective power was much reduced but nevertheless the contemporary maps show us a much larger country than today's:

"Persia & Cabool", from:
Johnson, J. H., F.R.G.S.
The comprehensive school atlas of ancient and modern geography : constructed from the latest and best authorities : with a consulting index of upwards of 22,000 names of places. London : Charles Bean, 1856
Afghanistan is the large mass of blue to the right. This 1856 map is rather hard to read even full-size, but the grey bit at the bottom is the sea, the Indian Ocean to the west of modern-day Pakistan. The thin black line to the left, reaching from the sea up into the blue section, is the mighty Indus River. Mountain ranges are shown by grey shading. The detail below indicates the positions of, top to bottom: CABOOL [Kabul], Ghizni [Ghazni], Candahar [Kandahar].

Centuries of Armed Struggle
The whole history of Afghanistan is one of the sweep of struggling opposed forces, backward and forwards, west to east, east to west, north to south and back south to north, across the country. The current invaders from Europe, America and Australia are just the latest in a long line of interested outside parties who for one reason or another have decided to march in. But the conflicts go deeper than that - bone-deep. The various factions, tribes, dynasties and language groups of the area which today we know as Afghanistan have always been engaged in armed struggles. It’s a way of life. Outside invaders? They're used to those, too, back at least as far as Alexander the Great. The Persian Empire had a go. They're long gone. The Russians have a long history of eying off the area: they had a go quite recently - remember that? No sign of them now. Today's Western powers are as likely to succeed in "winning" anything as the British were with their Afghan Wars of the 19th century. And as for changing the nature of the country—!
   The picture at the top of this blog post shows two typical Afghan men of about 1908-9. Significantly, they are not described as warriors. The one on the left is "A Douranee Villager and his Arms" while the one on the right is "An Afghaun of Damaun". Both armed to the teeth - yes; it was the norm, and still is. If we think of Afghanistan now as at about the stage of development as England was during the Wars of the Roses it may help us to understand the country a little better.

The two plates are both from a volume which documents Afghanistan, its people and its rulers in the early years of the 19th century:

Elphinstone, Mountstuart, 1779-1859
An account of the kingdom of Caubul, and its dependencies in Persia, Tartary and India : comprising a view of the Afghaun nation and a history of the Dooraunee monarchy. London : Printed  for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815.

    In addition to its historical importance, for those interested in the costumes and customs of the Afghans at this period the work is an invaluable source of material.

L: "A Taujik in the Summer dress of Caubul."; R: "Douraunee Shepherds."
Mountstuart Elphinstone was a British administrator, statesman and historian who became the Governor of Bombay. He was a remarkable and hard-working man who seems not to have shared many of the prejudices which characterized the British Raj. Certainly in the Bombay Presidency he fostered the development of Indian education. He wrote a considerable amount on India as well as his important work on Afghanistan. His History of India (1841) is still considered an authoritative work.
    As he came from an upper-class Scottish family, one of his uncles being a director of the East India Company, which at the time governed British India, young Elphinstone had no difficulty in gaining a post in its Civil Service. Having been transferred to the Diplomatic Service, in 1801 he was attached to Sir Arthur Wellesley's mission to the Marathas. Negotiations broke down and war broke out. Although he was a civilian Elphinstone took up the duties of aide-de-camp to Wellesley, showing such courage and knowledge of tactics that Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) awarded him the accolade, saying he ought to have been a soldier!

The Kabul Posting: First European Treaty with Afghanistan
Having returned to civilian life, in 1808 Elphinstone was appointed as the first British envoy to the Court of Kabul, Afghanistan. The aim of the venture was to secure a friendly alliance with the Afghan Amir, with an agreement to oppose the passage of foreign troops through the Afghan Empire. This was intended by the British, who were in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, to prevent any French incursions into India. The treaty Elphinstone successfully negotiated was the first Afghan pact with a European power.
    However, only a few weeks after signing the agreement, the Amir, Shuja Shah, was deposed by his predecessor, Mahmud. The article on Elphinstone in Wikipedia in fact sees his book, not the treaty, as the "most valuable permanent result of the embassy".

Elphinstone's map of Afghanistan: "Caubul On a reduced Scale, Shewing its relative situation to the Neighbouring Countries"
Return to India & Later Life
In 1811 Elphinstone was appointed as British resident at Poona (modern Pune), a post which was seen politically as a difficult one. War broke out in 1817, the Marathas declaring war on the British. In a crisis during the Battle of Khadki Elphinstone took over military command and secured a victory.
    Promotions followed: he was the Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818, and Lieutenant-Governor of Bombay, one of the largest "presidencies" (administrative territories) of British India, from 1819 to 1827. His achievements include both the founding of the system of state education in India and the return of many lands appropriated by the British to the Raja of Satara.
    Elphinstone retired to England in 1829. He was twice offered the extremely prestigious post of Governor-General of India, but it is a measure of the man that he refused, in order to concentrate on finishing his book, The History of India.

Background to Conflict: The Dorrani Dynasty
The Afghanistan revealed to Mountstuart Elphinstone was an area which had gone through centuries of tribal feuding. with borders, if they could even be called such, constantly changing. Some understanding of its history during the 18th century is important to placing the subsequent conflicts with the British in their correct context. Traditionally the Afghans were used to hostilities, used to repelling invaders, and fiercely defensive of their territories, large or small.

We say "Afghans" but in truth there has always been more than one linguistic group and more than one variation of Islam practised in the area which we think of today as "Afghanistan." These differences were partly the root of the endless troubles there. But as well, the tradition of large families, often, for the wealthier classes, with more than one wife, meant that there was often rivalry between brothers, uncles or nephews over leadership rights, and groups would align themselves with one or other prominent man of a ruling family. Politics, in short! Not so very different, when we think about it, from our "civilised' capital cities today. The main difference was that in Afghanistan the divisions were often according to bloodlines rather than simply factional and opportunistic.

The 18th century was a great century for Afghanistan, seeing the rise of the Dorrani dynasty and the spread of the Afghan Empire. By the end of the century, however, the Empire was in disarray, parts of it had fallen into other hands, notably, in the east, those of the Sikh regime, and it was little wonder that Russia had begun to eye it with interest from the north and Britain from the east.

The Dorrani Empire of Ahmad Shah, Pearl of the Pearls
The history of Afghanistan in the 18th and early 19th centuries is in effect that of Elphinstone's "Dooraunee monarchy": the Dorrani Empire or Afghan Empire of the Dorrani or Durrani family. (Earlier English spellings of the name vary: it may occur in the literature as Dooraunee, Douranee, Dourraunnee, etc. Other spellings which attempt to transliterate the Pashto name are Dorrani, Durani, Durrani.) It was a Pashtun dynasty, whose empire covered modern Afghanistan, northeastern Iran, the Kashmir region, Pakistan, and northwestern India. It was established in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, who ruled until 1772. The empire is considered the foundation of modern Afghanistan: Ahmad Shah is known as the Father of Afghanistan. The name "Dorrani" or "Durrani" adopted by Ahmad Shah means "pearl of the pearls".

"King Ahmad Shah Durrani Abdali", Miniature, Moghul school, c.1757 (Wikipedia)
East of the Empire: The Subcontinent
In the 18th century the balance of power in the Indian subcontinent was very different from what it was to become during the 19th century. British power, in the hands of the East India Company, was centred on the three Presidencies of British India: Madras, Bengal, and Bombay. Thus, although the Dorranis were doubtless seen in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a potential threat to British interests in north India, it was not the British with whom Ahmad Shah had to contend.
    He invaded the territory of the crumbled Mughal Empire in the north of the Indian subcontinent several times, gaining control over the Punjab and Kashmir, and in 1757 sacking Delhi. He allowed the Mughals to retain nominal control there on condition they acknowledged his suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. However, the Mughals were not by any means the only Indian power in the subcontinent and he soon had to face the Maratha Confederacy, a powerful Hindu faction based in Poona (modern Pune), and in control of vast territories. In 1761 the Third Battle of Panipat was a decisive victory for the Afghan forces, who had rallied a large army to the Muslim cause. But they took heavy losses, and there were many subsequent challenges to Ahmad Shah's authority in northern India, notably the rise of a big Sikh faction.

End of Empire
In his later years Ahmad Shah also had to contend with rebellions in the north. His empire never regained the heights it had attained in 1761, when it had been second only to the Ottoman Empire. At the time of his death in 1772 the extent of his power had thus been curtailed and he had retired to his home in the mountains east of Kandahar. Nevertheless, he "succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancing tribal alliances and hostilities, and in directing tribal energies away from rebellion." (Wikipedia)

Deatil from Elphinstone's map of Afghanistan,
showing Kandahar (Red) and Kabul (Pink)
Disarray After the Death of the Amir
Afghanistan itself had been in considerable disarray since Ahmad Shah's death, with his successors proving incapable of governing. Ahmad Shah was succeeded by his son, Timur Shah, not a popular choice with the Dorrani chieftains, as he had already failed to retain power in northern India on his father's behalf. Civil war broke out and the empire began to crumble. On Timur's death in 1793 his fifth son, Zaman Shah, succeeded him. However, some of Zaman's many brothers were rivals for the position. Ironically, it was Zaman Shah who, in an effort to control the Punjab, made the mistake of appointing the young Ranjit Singh as governor there. Civil war in Afghanistan resulted in the overthrow of Zaman Shah in 1801. More violence followed. Mahmud Shah had two years in power before he was ousted by another of Timur Shah's sons, Shuja Shah, or Shah Shuja, who ruled from 1803-1809 (but was to return to power in the 1830s with British support, resulting in one of the greatest tragedies of British military history.)

A New Power on the North-West Frontier: Ranjit Singh
By the time Mountstuart Elphinstone visited Afghanistan in 1808-9 and met Shuja Shah Dorrani, northern India and the North-West Frontier had seen the rise of the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). He had occupied Lahore in 1799, then being declared Maharajah of the Punjab. The British were resisting his attempts to expand eastward: he signed the Treaty of Amritsar with them in 1909.

Chief sources for background material:
"Dorrani family", Library of Congress Authorities
"Durrani Empire", Wikipedia
"Mountstuart Elphinstone", Wikipedia
"Ranjit Singh", Microsoft Encarta 2006
"Shah Shujah Durrani", Wikipedia

Later blogs will look at what followed Mountstuart Elphinstone's visit to Afghanistan and the deposition of Shuja Shah, including the first-hand depictions of the First and Second Afghan Wars in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia's collection.

Detail, "A Hindkee in the Winter Dress of Peshawer"