Afghanistan in the Victorian Age

By William A. Barton


“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” With these seven fateful words (following a short, perfunctory “How are you”), Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle introduced to the world the Master Sleuth of Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet. And Dr. John H. Watson, late of the Indian Army and recently returned to London following his service for the Queen in the Second Afghan War, was about to embark on the adventures of a lifetime. But just where did that harsh, central Asian country of Afghanistan — so recently such a hot topic in modern international relations — fit in the scheme of things for Watson and Victorian England as a whole? Why was Great Britain, head of an Empire that covered nearly one-fifth of all the Earth, involved in the affairs of the relatively small and insignificant Afghan nation at all, let alone engage in a war with that country? (And, as you can tell from the name of the conflict, the second of two such wars between the British and the tribes of Afghanistan?)

For those who may not be totally up on your Victorian history, the answer to those questions involves a game – yes, that’s right a game. But I’m not talking about rugby, lawn tennis, soccer, or even cricket — nor whist or any other game enjoyed by the Victorians during their leisure times. I refer instead to the Great Game. This term, the Great Game, was given by its English players to the international rivalry between the British Empire and the ever-expanding Russian Empire that took place mainly in Central Asia during the entire 19th century – and especially during the Victorian period — lasting until the British-French-Russian Entente in the subsequent Edwardian years. (Although the Game actually continued to be played in Central Asia beyond that time, especially following the overthrow of the Tsar by the Bolsheviks and the subsequent standoff in the area between John Bull and the International Communist Menace.) The Russians, however, contrary as usual, preferred to call the Game the Tournament of Shadows — a term coined in 1837 by Count Karl Vasilyevich Nesselrod, the Tsar’s foreign minister from 1822-56. (More fitting with the brooding Russian mentality, I suppose.)

Much of the Great Game — and that’s the term that I’ll use here in keeping with our British (and Sherlockian) heritage — was played out primarily along the frontiers of British India and in neighboring countries, including the focus of this article, as well as of recent world attention, Afghanistan. In fact, both the First and Second Afghan Wars were sparked by various political maneuverings that were an integral part of the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia. (And I’ll be getting into more detail about some of these bloody intrigues in just a few moments.)

For those curious about the origin of the term Great Game, the historical records vary somewhat. Most sources, however, agree that the term was first coined to refer to this rivalry between the British lion and the Russian bear by one Captain Arthur Conolly, a young British officer with the 6th Bengal Native Light Calvary, who helped with the initial British reconnaissance and mapmaking in the region and was deeply involved in the Game along the frontiers of British India early in the Victorian period. (To a friend, he wrote that it was “…a great game, a noble game.”) Conolly personally tried to influence the Game by visiting in 1842 the Emir of Bokhara, one of several Muslim states between India and Russia, often known collectively during the early to mid-19th century as “Independent Tartary.” (Bokhara today is a part of Uzbekistan. It and its fellow khanates were eventually swallowed up by the growing Russian Empire following the mid-19th century.) Conolly hoped to influence the Emir to side with the British against Russian interests in the area, which in retrospect probably would have been to the Emir’s advantage. Unfortunately, the Emir was not at all receptive to Conolly’s overtures and imprisoned and tortured the hapless officer for months in the Emir’s infamous “bug pit,” finally executing him. At least Conolly went out as he would have wished — while playing the Great Game to the hilt.

The term Great Game was introduced more generally by military historian Sir John Kaye, having picked up the phrase from Conolly’s writings, and was further popularized among the general public by British writer Rudyard Kipling in his classic novel of espionage set in late Victorian India, Kim. It was, in fact, in the pages of Kim that most Britons (and others) finally became aware of the long, shadowy conflict behind the Great Game. (Now, in some circles, the term has more recently been extended as a blanket expression for all forms of espionage taking place around Europe and its colonies during the 19th century. But to the knowledgeable Victorian — and especially to the savvy British diplomat, politician, or soldier — to talk of the Great Game was always to focus one’s attention eastward, to the exotic climes of the British Raj in India as well as to those harsher hills and deserts of tribal Afghanistan and surrounding nations.) And although the term never appears in the Sherlockian Canon, one need look only to John H. Watson, M.D., to find one of the more famous players of the Great Game, however minor his role may have been, in this ongoing Victorian struggle — as he met his fate in the form of a Jezail bullet that would eventually lead him to 221B Baker Street.

One could, in fact, say that, for Watson — as well as for the many other thousands of British solders who met their fates in the rugged and most un-British wilds of Afghanistan while in the service of their Queen — the Great Game was certainly afoot! (Although you probably wish that I hadn’t . . .)

Now what about Afghanistan itself? That mostly barren, inhospitable land lay then, as now, to the northwest of British India and south of Russia. (At the time, Pakistan was still part of India and would remain so until well past the Victorian Age.) Although its borders didn’t quite coincide with its modern expanse, at least until the late Victorian period, Afghanistan stretched in 1851 approximately 660 miles from east to west and 500 miles from north to south. About four-fifths of the nation consisted of rocky mountains interspersed with desolate, barren tablelands and occasional valleys of more fertile land. Its inhabitants consisted of numerous warring tribesmen, Pashtuns and others, all Muslims (or “Mohammedans,” as followers of the great prophet of Islam were better known in Victorian times.) Except along its few rivers, Afghanistan was singularly deficient in sources of fresh water. The country’s proximity to India – the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire – is what made such an otherwise unappealing land so important to both British and Russian foreign interests.

The Afghan capital, as today, was Kabul (or “Cabool,” as the British often pronounced and spelled it). The town gained its status largely from the fact that it sat in the country’s most fertile area along the Kabul/Cabool river, from which it took its name. (On many Victorian maps, in fact, the entire country was often labeled as “Cabool.” A strange quick of English cartography, especially as the British tended to add the suffix “-istan,” meaning, in general, Land of, to so many other places. India, for example, was labeled by the same cartographer as “Hindoostan.”) Kabul was also the site of a grand bazaar, the pride of the country, which would become a casualty of war with the British. Kandahar (sometimes spelled with a Q instead of a K), another city that recently achieved international infamy as the home base of the Taliban, was then a walled town that lay southwest of Kabul, important because it commanded the entire southern route (starting at the Bolan Pass) through the country from India, to the southeast, all the way to Russian territory to the north. Other notable towns, then as now, were Herat, in western Afghanistan; Ghanzi, near Kabul; and Jalalabad (or Jellalabad, as it was sometimes spelled), at the Afghan end of the northern route into the country. Also quite prominent – and immortalized by Kipling and others – was the famed Khyber Pass, considered by the British to be the north gate to India – and so of vital strategic importance. The Khyber, as it was also know, ran for approximately 50 miles, part of it cut from solid rock, and extremely rough and steep in many places – which afforded the Afghans numerous opportunities to ambush those who attempted to invade the country from the south, as the British discovered on more than one occasion.

Afghanistan was ruled during most the 19th century by a dynasty founded by Dost Muhammad during the decade before the Victorian era. Dost Mohammed had first secured his power in Kabul and nearby Ghanzi early in 1824, and although he still controlled only that general area even as the Victorian Age dawned, he had in 1835 declared himself Amir, or leader, of the country. In 1837, Dost Mohammed defeated a Sikh army in the Battle of Jamrud along the Afghan/Indian frontier and, as a result, assumed the title of Amir ul Mu’minin (or Commander of the Faithful). Although throughout much of the century the countryside remained more or less divided among various warring tribes ruled by local warlords, who paid various levels of devotion to Dost Mohammed and his successors, many historians believe that the modern state of Afghanistan had its true beginnings in the rule of Dost Mohammad. He became the first Afghan ruler to attempt to widen his own power base beyond mere tribal allegiances and, before his death at mid-century, to maintain a precarious balance between his own Pashtun loyalties and the transformation of non-Pashtuns into (more or less) obedient subjects. The problem, from the standpoint of the British, however, was that Dost Mohammad was far too independent a ruler for British sensibilities. He didn’t want to play the Game to the Empire’s liking. He and his successors proved more than willing to play the British and Russians off against one another to maintain Afghan independence. His openness toward receiving a Russian agent in Kabul led to the First Afghan War, during which Dost Mohammed was disposed and held as a captive in India, from 1840-42.

Following his restoration to the throne in 1843, as the only prince that the British believed could keep order in the turbulent country, Dost Mohammed consolidated his rule, bringing the entire country together under his regime. Although he kept the British at arm’s length for the decade following the war and remained neutral during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, for example, he finally came to view the British as protectors from the Russians, Persians, and others who coveted parts of Afghanistan for themselves. Although he was no lightweight himself when it came to the martial arts. In 1862, at age 70, Dost Mohammed led an army of Afghans to oppose an attacking Persian force that had taken Herat. He recaptured the city in May 1863, and proceeded to drive the Persians out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, he died that same year.

Dost Mohammed’s third son, Shere (or Sher) Ali Khan, succeeded him on the throne. In 1866, however, while Shere Ali led an army to suppress a revolt in the south, his cousin (and Dost Mohammed’s grandson), Abdur Rahman, who’d been in exile in Bokhara, reentered Afghanistan from the north. As he drove south, Abdur gathered an army from among those tribes who were not as happy with the rule of Shere Ali as they had been under Dost Mohammed. Abdur took Kabul in March. In May, Shere Ali led his army from Kandahar to oust Abdur and retake Kabul, but was defeated and fled the country. Abdur placed his father, Afzul Khan, also a son of Dost Mohammed, on the throne in Kabul and assumed control of the northern provinces himself. After Azful’s death, his brother (and Abdur’s uncle), Azim Khan, took the throne – but not for long. Sher Ali reentered Afghanistan in 1868, and in January 1869, with the help of his own son, Yakub Khan (don’t you just love these names?) he defeated the armies of Abdur Khan and Azim Khan, retaking the throne for himself. (Can anyone say “Musical Thrones”?) Both fled to Persia, where Azim died, and Abdur fled to Russian territory at Samarkand to the north of Afghanistan.

Shere Ali, unfortunately, was not as receptive to the British as Dost Mohammed had become. In 1878, after his warm acceptance of Russian diplomatic gestures, he refused to welcome a British envoy dispatched to Kabul to counter the Russian influence, turning the man back at the Khyber Pass, because Britain had, in his eyes, failed to guarantee his own sovereignty on the throne. This act triggered the Second Afghan War. In early 1879, Yakub Khan rebelled against Sher Ali and imprisoned him. Escaping with his life, Sher Ali was forced to flee the to Turkistan, where he sought aid from the Russians in retaking his throne and repulsing the British. At that time, however, the Russians weren’t at all interested in a war with Britain, so refused to help. Shere Ali died there in February 1879, a broken man, while Yakub occupied the throne in the face of another British invasion.

During the war, Abdur Rahman reentered Afghanistan with an army financed and supplied with modern rifles by the Russians. The British, rather than seeing him as a threat, considered him their best bet for getting a ruler sympathetic to their interests back on the Afghan throne. They offered to support him as Amir. Meanwhile, Ayub Khan, ruler of Herat and Abdur’s cousin, had advanced on Kabul with his own army, 20,000 strong. Following skirmishes with the British, he besieged and then seized Kandahar after the British withdrew to India. Ayub was defeated at Kandahar by Abdur, who took the throne and ruled Afghanistan until the end of the Victorian era, passing away in 1901. During his years as Amir, Abdur Rahman pacified the entire country and negotiated the frontiers of Afghanistan between the Russians and Britain so that no part of Russian territory directly bordered British India. (It to achieve this goal that Afghanistan developed its peculiar peninsular-like extension from its northeastern corner.) Abdur was known to his people as the Iron Amir, mainly because he ruled the nation with an iron hand turned against any who dared to oppose him, and because kept the country isolated, refusing to allow the construction of either railroads or telegraph lines, which he viewed as potential footholds of colonialism that threatened Afghan independence. And yet, Afghanistan enjoyed its greatest era of peace during the entire 19th century under Abdur Rahman, which was perhaps his greatest legacy.

Now for a brief overview of Afghan history during the Victorian Age from the British viewpoint, and then I’ll focus a bit more on what were, of course, the highlights of the century to the British: the Afghan Wars.

Throughout the Victorian years, to alleviate what the Crown viewed as a potential threat to its interests in India, Britain repeatedly attempted to impose its authority over Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the Russians out of the country. Its continual interference with Afghan sovereignty during the period resulted in the two aforementioned Anglo-Afghan Wars, the first in 1838-42 and the second in 1878-80. During the first conflict, the British tried unsuccessfully to remove Dost Muhammad as the Amir of the country. They managed only to temporarily install a puppet ruler on the Afghan throne but were forced to restore Dost Muhammad to power by the war’s end. The second war started after the British attempted to force Muhammad’s son, Shere Ali, to allow the Empire to establish a British diplomatic mission in Kabul. England saw such a presence as vital to counter the Russian mission that was already established there. Shere Ali’s refusal to “play the Game” to Britain’s liking sparked a second British invasion from India. At first, this war went Britain’s way, as had the earlier conflict initially. A treaty in early 1879 gave Britain temporary hegemony over Afghanistan, but the Empire’s hold on the country was tenuous, and the war resumed but a few months later. Despite numerous victories, as well as at least one very costly defeat, the British decided that holding the country against Afghan resistance was far too costly for what was to be gained. Britain opted to withdraw the following year, but the Empire continued to exert influence over Afghanistan throughout the Victorian Age.

The British remained wary of Russia incursions along the Afghan borders until well into the 20th century. It was, in fact, fear of a Russian invasion of Afghanistan that led to the Second Afghan War of 1878-80. The thought of the armies of the Tsar able to mass directly across the Afghan border with India gave many a British diplomat nightmares – especially those who worked in the India Office at Whitehall and those in British India itself. When fighting did, in fact, break out between Russian and Afghan troops in 1884, Britain quickly enlisted the aid of the Danish king in negotiations to persuade the Russians to withdraw (or perhaps, the threat lay just under the surface, face all-out war with England), an act that pretty much settled the Afghan-Russian frontier dispute for the rest of the Victorian years. (Although the ever-stalwart Indian Army remained ready should the call again come to penetrate the Khyber Pass into the land of the wily Afghans in the service of the Empire.)

Now to focus just a bit more on those two Anglo-Afghan Wars, the second of which is especially significant to Sherlockians because of the service of Dr. Watson as an army surgeon attached to the Indian Army during the conflict.

British interest in Afghanistan had begun in earnest at the commencement of the Victorian era, following an attempted invasion of Afghanistan by the Persians in 1837, aided by Russian advisors. (Persia – modern-day Iran – was roughly divided into two competing spheres of interest: That of the British, in the south, and that of Russia, in the north. Although the Persian angle formed yet another fascinating facet of the Great Game, our topic today is Afghanistan, and so we will leave the question of Persia for another day.) The British landed a force in June 1838 on an island in the Persian Gulf and persuaded the Persians, through a combination of bluff and gunboat diplomacy, to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending the threat. The British government, in spite of the failure of the Russian-instigated Persian invasion, decided that it needed to “protect” the Afghans from further Russian incursions.

In 1838, Britain invaded Afghanistan with an army of British, Indian, and Sikh troops stationed in India — the “Army of the Indus” — under command of General Sir John Kean. Its intent was to dispose Mohammed Dost and put a puppet ruler in his place — one more sympathetic to British interests in the area. (For that purpose, they choose Shah Shuja-ul-Molk, the former Amir, who’d been disposed some years earlier and had been living in India on a British pension.) The British justified the invasion by rationalizing that Russian threats to Afghanistan threatened their own interests in India and saw control of the country the best way to limit Russia’s expansion. So in April of 1839, the British-Indian Army of the Indus, some 15,500 to 20,000 strong (its ranks bolstered by 6,000 native recruits), with about 38,000 camp followers and 30,000 camels in tow, marched north through the Bolan Pass into southern Afghanistan “in a cloud of dust, bagpipes skirling and brass bands echoing for miles.” The First Afghan War began.

The Afghans, however, in their own contrary way, didn’t particularly want to be “protected” by the British. Instead of seeing the British invasion as enlightened protection from the evil clutches of the Tsar, they saw it as, well, an invasion. And rather than embrace their “protectors,” they choose to fight. What’s more, they proved extremely hard to beat, as the British quickly discovered. The Afghan’s Jezails (their long, matchlock muskets, crooked between the gun’s long barrel and its slender butt) easily outdistanced the Brown Bess muskets of the British troops, giving the native fighters the range advantage over their foes in addition to their advantage in knowing so intimately the harsh, rugged terrain of the country. (Not everyone on the British side, by the way, believed that the expedition was a sound investment from the start. One colonel, watching the Army of the Indus embark, predicted that “not a soul will reach here from Kabul except one man, who will come to tell us the rest are destroyed.” His dire assessment was to prove eerily prophetic – at least in popular lore.)

Still, the British army managed to push through from India to the capital at Kabul, taking Kandahar without a fight and Ghanzi after stiff resistance, finally occupying Kabul in August. They proceeded to depose Dost Mohammad, and put their man, Shah Shuja, on the throne of Afghanistan, supported by British rifles. Two appointed envoys, Sir William Macnaughten and Sir Alexander Burnes, in full diplomatic regalia, led the conquering army into Kabul and set up shop. To the British, that ended that. Although strong pockets of resistance remained throughout Afghanistan, the British troops demonstrated typical overconfidence and settled in with their families, whom they’d brought up from India, for what they assumed to be a routine occupation. They reduced the size of their garrison and even settled down in a barely defensible encampment just outside Kabul, failing to fortify its positions and acting as though they were in a friendly country and hadn’t a care in the world. Englishmen in Kabul were soon drinking champagne and dancing under crystal chandeliers. “We have a beautiful game on our hands,” Macnaughten wrote, “if we have the means and inclination to play it.” In 1841, the aging General William George Keith Elphinstone took command at Kabul, replacing General Keane. (And as you can see, the Afghans aren’t the only ones in this story with odd names.) The British by this point completely controlled the capital of Afghanistan, but they were isolated from the rest of the Empire and surrounded by resentful, hostile Afghans who held the countryside. Not exactly what one should consider a picnic in Hyde Park (although most in the garrison obviously acted that way).

The tribes that lived in the mountain passes between Indian and Afghanistan played up their home-turf advantages and continually attacked and plundered British caravans bringing goods and reinforcements from India, finally cutting off all supplies to Kabul. The British managed to retain a limited degree of control over the surrounding countryside from their seat in the capital, but on November 1, 1841, the British camp outside Kabul was shelled. The British sent out a brigade to silence the guns, but they were routed by an army under Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s son, which outnumbered the British force two to one. The British attempted negotiations, which seemed to come together for a while, but in January of 1842, the Afghans rose in full revolt, catching the British completely unprepared. Macnaughten and Burnes were murdered by an angry Afghan mob. Macnaughten’s head was mounted on a pike and borne like a trophy by the mob. His body was impaled on a meat hook in the bazaar. Burnes and his brother were merely hacked to pieces in the garden of his residence. The Afghans quickly surrounded the Anglo-Indian garrison at Kabul.

Although a British force under General Robert Sale held Jalalabad, at the Afghan end of the Khyber Pass, the rest of the army was cut off. The entire British expeditionary force at Kabul was forced to evacuate and retreat to India. In exchange for protection and provisions from the Afghans, the British agreed to leave behind its artillery – an unfortunate decision, as the Afghans immediately broke the agreement. Afghan troops repeatedly attacked the British en route, their sharpshooters picking the hapless Brits off as they retreated under fire, and most of the foreigners, both soldiers and civilians, were either killed or captured by the merciless tribesmen. Only a handful of British soldiers escaped to try to reach the border fort at Jalalabad. And of those, only one – Dr. William Brydon, an army surgeon of the Bengal Army – reached the city alive. That unnamed colonel who predicted disaster for the army as it left was said to remark gloomily upon seeing the lone survivor, sagging in his saddle, coming down from the hills: “Did I not say so? Here comes the messenger.” (As colorful an account as it is, however, the image of the lone survivor isn’t entirely accurate. Several other British soldiers and at least one civilian later managed to make their way to Jalalabad after Brydon’s arrival. But a famous painting showing Brydon straggling in alone on his almost-dead horse so captured the imagination of the British public that the fate of the other survivors became lost in the popular accounts of the war.)

The British, however, were enraged at such treatment not only of their troops but of British women and children. An Army of Retribution quickly assembled in India under the command of Major General George Pollock. This army forced its way through the Khyber Pass at the end of March, losing only 14 men, and fought its way to Kabul to free a handful of remaining British hostages being held there. Meanwhile, a second army under General Sir William Nott moved on Kandahar and defeated several Afghan forces before joining Pollock in Kabul. Pollock’s army not only freed the British captives, however, but it also burned Kabul’s great bazaar to the ground. Pollock’s army then withdrew to India in October, leaving Afghanistan again in the hands of its people. Although border skirmishes continued throughout the period, nearly 40 years would pass before the British again attempted to force their will upon the Afghans. By then, they’d forgotten the costly lesson they’d learned in the First Afghan War, in which some 12,000 British troops had perished from the harsh climate and at the hands of the fierce Afghans.

 In November 1878, war broke out again between Britain and Afghanistan. This time, the impetus was that the British wanted to establish a diplomatic mission in Kabul to keep an eye on Afghan affairs after the Afghans had signed a diplomatic treaty with the Russians. The Amir, Shere Ali, son of Dost Mohammed, refused to receive a mission, so Britain, in typical Imperial fashion, sent an envoy anyway, providing an armed escort to protect him. After the envoy was turned back at the Khyber Pass, however, Britain decided to invade. As they had in the First Afghan War, the British managed to battle their way to Kabul. The deposed Shere Ali fled to Russia, leaving the throne in the hands of his son Yakub Khan, who negotiated the Treaty of Gandamak with Britain. Yakub agreed to receive in Kabul Britain’s envoy, Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, the British-educated son of one of Napoleon’s generals. Cavagnari arrived in Kabul in July 1879, with an escort of 75 men. The British disbanded its army and sent its troops back to India, thinking the war was over. In September, however, Cavagnari and his staff were massacred by mutinous Afghan soldiers while Yakub stood by.

Britain quickly assembled a second Army of Retribution, under General Frederick Roberts (a recipient of the Victoria Cross for his part in ending the Indian Mutiny), which again fought its way from India to Kabul, taking the city in October. Roberts had nearly 100 Afghans hanged for the murder of Cavagnari and his escort. This time, the British occupied a fortified camp to the north of the city, at Sherpur, which Afghan forces soon surrounded and besieged. On December 23, the garrison repulsed an attack by some 60,000 Afghans. British losses were only five men; the Afghans lost about 3,000. A sort of stalemate resulted, and the British held the town against numerous Afghan attacks through the following summer, when Ayub Khan, who ruled Herat (and who we’ve already met earlier) marched on Kabul with 20,000 Afghan fighters. A British force under Brigadier General George Burrows marched from Kandahar to intercept Ayub’s army. The two forces met on July 27, 1880, near a little village known as Maiwand, 40 miles west of Kandahar (and a name well-known to Sherlockians). The Afghans defeated Burrows’ forces at Maiwand, inflicting heavy losses on the British. (And as we all know, during that battle, one John H. Watson, M.D., was wounded by a Jezail bullet and may not have survived had it not been for his faithful orderly Murray, who got the good doctor off the field of battle and away to safety.)

Burrows retreated with his army to Kandahar, where Ayub’s army besieged him. General Roberts, in Kabul, having learned of the route and siege of Burrows’ forces, led a forced march of 10,000 men from Kabul to Kandahar, crossing 313 miles of rugged Afghan countryside in only 22 days. On September 1, Roberts defeated Ayub Khan’s army outside Kandahar. Following this victory, the British quietly withdrew their army back to India and ended their demands for a permanent mission in Afghanistan. In effect, other than again spilling the blood of countless Afghans and Britons, the Second Afghan War, as did the first, accomplished nothing.

Following the Second Afghan War, British relations with Afghanistan remained relatively even. Abdur Rahman agreed to let the British handle the country’s external affairs in exchange for protection from Russian encroachment from the north. After the last British troops left the country in 1881, Abdur faced another uprising from Ayub Khan. Abdur defeated Ayub at Kandahar and advanced against the latter’s stronghold in Herat, occupying the town in October. Ayub fled to Persia and, eventually, to India, and Abdur Rahman was master of most of the country. In 1884, the Russians annexed the Merv oasis, only 200 miles north of Herat, triggering in London what the Duke of Argyll termed “an acute bout of Mervousness.” Abdur was relaxed about the situation himself, and the British, faced with a crisis in the Sudan at the time, took their cue from him, letting the King of Denmark arbitrate the situation. The frontiers agreed on following the negotiations held for the better part of the next century, and Abdur remained comfortably on the Afghan throne. He faced further tribal revolts during his rule, including severe ones in 1888 and 1891-93, but handily defeated them all with the help of British money and arms. By 1896, he managed to rally most of the Muslim clergy to his side and was proclaimed Zia al-Millat-I wa al-Din, or Light of the Nation and Religion, and had reserved to himself alone the right to call jihad. By century’s end, Abdur Rahman’s health had declined visibly, but he remained firmly in charge. He’d preserved Afghanistan’s independence and had circumscribed the power of the tribes and the religion leadership, creating a unified kingdom with settled frontiers.

Although he was never a popular figure in his own country and treated his enemies ruthlessly, Abdur Rahman finished laying the seeds of the modern Afghan nation that had first spouted under Dost Mohammed. Abdur’s death in 1901 saw the country at peace. And although future intrigues would lead the nation into a Third Afghan War with the British in 1919, with Abdur’s death, our own exploration into Afghanistan in the Victorian Age is hereby at an end.


For Further Reading:

Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics, Martin Ewans (Harper Collins, 2002).

Against All Odds, Bryan Perret (Brockhampton Press, 1999). Chapters on Jalalabad and Maiwand (2 and 5, respectively).

The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Land Warfare, Byron Farwell (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).

The Encyclopedia of the Victorian World, Melinda Corey and George Ochoa (Henry Holt & Co., 1996).

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha International, 1994).

The Illustrated Atlas of the Nineteenth Century World, John Tallis and Montgomery Martin (Bracken Books, 1989). Reprint of maps first published in 1851. (Also published more recently under the name Antique Maps of the 19th Century.)

Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (Counterpoint Press, 2000).


Note: This article is ©2002 by William A. Barton. Permission must be obtained in writing from the author for any reproduction in print or on the Internet.