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The Return of a King

William Dalrymple


Pages: 608 Rs. 799

The Empire’s follies ran way beyond the empirical

William Dalrymple’s latest book provides context to imperialist British arrogance during the First Afghan War, and might be his most important work yet, writes Somnath Batabyal

Somnath Batabyal  2nd Feb 2013

Shah Shuja, one of the key figures in Dalrymple’s book

ne of 20th century's most bemusing mysteries has been how a ragtag bunch of Afghans managed to hold off the might of the Russian Empire; ultimately forcing them into a humiliating retreat. In revisiting the First Afghan War of 1839, in his new book Return of a King, William Dalrymple presents us with a genealogy to the question.

The start of the West's violent and protracted engagement in Afghanistan makes for fascinating, often horrifying reading. Arguably the most important work in Dalrymple's impressive oeuvre, Return of a King elegantly demonstrates that the British might make fine historians, but they learn nothing from history.

The book draws remarkable parallels with the present situation in Afghanistan, who, in the early 19th century, were strategically important to competing colonial powers. Fearing a Russian invasion into India – marking the start of the Great Game – the English administration in the sub continent decided to meddle in the affairs of Afghanistan and install a puppet king amenable to the Company's wishes. But, as we continue to find, the Afghans did not take kindly to the intervention.

The cardinal mistake, which the book returns to through incidents, anecdotes and endnotes, is that the British, and by extension the West, failed to understand why the Afghans refused to play by the "rules" of the nation-state: specifically, loyalty to a central command. Tribal fidelity, cash incentives and (at times) family and clan honour trumped allegiance to Kabul. The nation state is not a universal notion, and despite its overarching predominance, there has been and will be pockets of resistance.

Once convinced, based on faulty intelligence, that the Russians were planning to exert their influence into India via the rugged routes of the Hindu Kush mountains, the British decided to install the ousted Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne of Kabul, at the time being ably administered by Dost Mohammed. The invasion of the Army of Indus, despite woeful mismanagement, was colossal enough to overwhelm the Dost and reinstate Shah Shuja. But, as Dalrymple archly points out, the British had anticipated neither the tenacity of the Afghan warriors nor the dissidence their own imperial arrogance would provoke. The combination resulted in a bloody uprising which the imperially trained soldiers failed to comprehend or contain. The myth of the firangi's might was brutally exposed by men who had a cartographer's understanding of the rocky terrain, combined with enthusiasm and patience. The mounting costs – human and financial - coupled with an inept administration finally forced the British to retreat. Of the 20,000 who tried to make the journey back to India, only a handful survived.

Though eminently readable, Return is based on rigorous & painstaking research. Dalrymple’s use of primary source material is exemplary and his use of contradictory reports adds nuance to incidents.

Imperial arrogance does not take kindly to defeats and a reprisal soon followed. The British army regrouped, and with better planning were able to decimate the forces of Kabul, plundering, burning, and looting city after city. "A war for no wise purpose," ended leaving nothing but a trail of destruction behind. Shah Shuja, the British conceded, was not fit to rule and they quietly released Dost Mohammed from his house arrest in Simla to make his way back through the Khyber to his ruined kingdom.

s well as producing a work that is germane to our present geo-political crisis in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East, Dalrymple brings to history a breathless sense of intrigue and wonder. Characters met in passing in school text books leap out in fascinating detail and the exploits of the incompetent Lord Auckland, the fearsome Ahmad Shah Abdali and his son Timur Shah of the Durrani Empire, Ranjit Singh of the amorous appetite as well as the intrigues of minor British officials and the sisters and wives of the Imperial Army; make the more than 500-page history a delightful read. Dalrymple not only has the first-rate novelist's sense of depicting character, his well-known talent as a travel writer serves the book well. The depictions of the mountainous stretches of Afghanistan, the routes of the advance of the Imperial Army and the city of Kabul itself are etched in riveting detail.

Though eminently readable, Return is based on rigorous and painstaking research. Dalrymple's use of primary source material is exemplary and his use of contradictory reports adds nuance to characters and incidents. The death of Ivan Vitkevitch, the first Russian agent in the Great Game, according to British reports, was due to the apathy of the Russian authorities driving a brilliant man to suicide. Russian papers, conversely, indicate a British hand in the death of an officer at the prime of his career. Having devoted pages to both accounts, it therefore comes as quite a surprise when Dalrymple later refers to Vitkevitch's death as a suicide, suddenly emphasising the imperial version of events.

Detailed accounts of battles and the months-long sieges of impregnable forts are portrayed through the letters and diary extracts of officers and soldiers, offering the reader a rich, 'thick description' of events. At times, Dalrymple briefly closes his exacting eye for detail and deals with certain moments cursorily . The elation of Shah Shuja in returning to his kingdom after decades of fervent planning turns to despair perhaps a bit too quickly. But it is to the author's credit that his compelling narrative leaves us wanting more.

No history is objective and Return of a King has a clear political purpose. The author has adroitly drawn a picture of imperial folly and refusal to learn from mistakes. If context is important, reading Dalrymple is paramount.

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