The television news inevitably gives you odd, partial ideas about places you are never likely to visit. Take Tibet: the highest mountain in the world, the highest railway in the world, eternal rocks and snows, bleak, inhospitable. But there is a film put together from short ciné-camera pieces which shows 1930s Tibet as blazing with colour: green plains, tree-clad hills, profusions of azaleas in flower, and people dressed in bright and elaborate costumes set off by glittering jewellery. Similarly, Afghanistan: dust, mud-brick walls, sniper fire, improvised explosive devices…
But Kabul used to be famous for its orchards of fruit trees – pomegranates, peaches, cherries, vines – and its gardens, not least the park built for himself by Babur (1483–1531), the first Moghul emperor of India, who left instructions that he should be buried there. It is now being restored, after decades of damage and neglect.
The remark about ‘those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it’ is attributed to all sorts of people, among them Edmund Burke. It must be more true of the British experience in Afghanistan than of almost any other clash of cultures. Kipling’s short story, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (and its 1975 film version, on TV again only last week), Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles (also better remembered as a film) and even the inimitable Carry On Up the Khyber all convey at a popular level the historic experience of the nineteenth century, which first the Russians and now we are repeating: that Afghanistan could never be conquered by force of arms.
One man who had considerable experience of the difficulties of the area was the Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone (they don’t make names like that any more), a sprig of the Scots nobility who through family influence entered the service of the East India Company, and arrived in the subcontinent in 1796 at the age of seventeen. He was first posted to Benares, where he immersed himself in Indian literature and philosophy, and mastered the Persian language. It wasn’t all playing billiards and discussing poetry with like-minded colleagues, though – the former Nawab of Oudh (recently deposed by the British) attempted in 1799 to murder all the British officials in Benares, and Elphinstone was among many who had a narrow escape.
He was involved in many of the important military/political/commercial manoeuvres by which the Company extended its reach across India, and distinguished himself in battle, but in 1804 he received his first serious political appointment, as ‘resident’ at the court of Berar. Four years later, as the fall-out from the Napoleonic Wars reached Asia, Elphinstone was sent to treat with Shah Shuja, ruler of the kingdom of Caubul, to try to thwart a French plan to bring Persia and the Afghani tribal leaders into alliance and thus threaten the British in northern India. He recounted his experiences in 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 Douranee Monarchy, published in 1815.
The Kingdom of Caubul, as can be seen from the two coloured maps which Elphinstone supplies, covered considerably more ground than present-day Afghanistan. (The maps can be seen online; the larger of the two is so big that we weren’t able to print it in the book.) Peshawar and Lahore were well inside its borders, as were the greater part of Kashmir and the Punjab, and the River Indus and its tributaries from the foothills of the Himalayas to Sindh. Elphinstone’s embassy was, in political terms, a failure, as Shah Shuja refused to meet the British, or to allow them to advance closer to his capital than Peshawar: his own terms for alliance against the French were more costly than Elphinstone was empowered to agree to.
It was decided that the embassy should be an impressive one: as ‘the court of Caubul was known to be haughty, and supposed to entertain a mean opinion of the European nations, it was determined that the mission should be in a style of great magnificence’. It consisted of Elphinstone himself, his secretary Mr Richard Strachey, two assistant secretaries, a surgeon, two army surveyors, and an escort consisting of eight officers and about 100 men, plus all their personal servants and a baggage train. Elphinstone used the time in which they were enforcedly kicking their heels to find out everything they could about this relatively unknown area: ‘a precise plan was arranged among the party, and a particular branch of the investigation assigned to every gentleman who took a share in it’. The maps in the book were drawn by Lieutenant Macartney, one of the surveyors, whose task was ‘geography’; Lieutenant Irvine took on ‘climate, soil, produce and husbandry’; Strachey, trade and revenue; Robert Alexander, one of the assistant secretaries, history; and Elphinstone himself was responsible for ‘the government and the manners of the people’. Information was gleaned from the team’s own limited journeys, and from conversations with the Afghans themselves and numbers of bureaucrats, merchants, soldiers and travellers of all kinds who were familiar with the territory and its inhabitants.
The object was to pursue ‘such enquiries regarding the kingdom of Caubul as were likely to be useful to the British government’, and the book when published became the standard reference work on Afghanistan for the next half-century and beyond. In spite of Elphinstone’s detailed description of the complexity of alliances, shifting allegiances, interest groups, warring factions and violent power struggles which – then as now –
characterised the politics of the area, the British of the next generation believed that they could intervene militarily – go in, restore an ousted ruler (ironically, the same Shah Shuja who had thwarted Elphinstone), and retreat again – not quite without a shot being fired, but certainly without significant loss. In fact, the first Afghan War (1839–42) was a disaster which led to British defeat and a massacre of prisoners, women and children. Shah Shuja himself was assassinated in 1842, and subsequent British reprisals led to widespread resentment of foreign intervention, and that tendency to set aside internal conflicts and unite against outsiders which has been characteristic of Afghanistan ever since.
Meanwhile, Elphinstone’s career in India went from strength to strength, culminating in his governorship of the Bombay presidency from 1819 to 1827. He then retired from the East India Company, and travelled home overland, passing through the Ottoman territories and Greece at the height of the Greek war of independence, but managing to visit large numbers of classical sites in spite of the dangers of being attacked and/or accused of spying by both sides. Back in England, he lived the life of a gentleman scholar, and was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830. His two-volume History of India, based on his own deep understanding of Indian culture, science and philosophy, was intended partly as a riposte to James Mill’s history, which he believed to be too dismissive of an ancient civilisation.
Elphinstone died in 1859; a two-volume biography of him, which quotes extensively from his journals and is for this reason eminently readable, was published in 1884. But if you want some background on the (usually catastrophic) involvement of the British in Afghanistan, this Account, with its beautiful images (some by Indian artists, some by ‘Lieutenant R.M. Grindlay of the Bombay establishment’) which, like the maps, can be seen in colour online, is the book for you.