Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022
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Here’s To You, Sekunder Burnes

Unused sources inform a history of the First Afghan War—the deceit on both sides, craven heroes, and a royal licking

Here’s To You, Sekunder Burnes Tribhuvan Tiwari

Regime change is not solely the prerogative of the American neo-con elite. It was first put into practice by the British East India Company in 1839 in Afghanistan. They didn’t call it regime change then, simply restoring an exiled king to his throne. William Dalrymple has covered the entire episode and its tragic fallout in Return of a King. Unlike other books on the period between 1839-42, the finely written Return of a King uses multi-lingual sources, not the usual eyewitness accounts or scholarly works from single-language sources. Dalrymple has sourced material from all participants of the tragic First Afghan War—British, Afghan and Indian (including the Punjab Archives in Lahore, Pakistan). It makes for a riveting account. The writing is typically Dalrymple: newsy, informative and interspersed with titillation. Even a supposedly god-fearing place like 19th century Afghanistan provides plenty of that diversion.

The East India Company invaded Afghanistan to reinstate Shuja ul-Mulk as the ruler. He had been greying in Ludhiana, surviving on a Company dole, while Amir Dost Mohammad Khan consolidated his rule in Afghanistan. Conspiracy theorists believed that the capable Amir would ally with the Russians, and both would act on their evil designs on India. Thus, the invasion plot was hatched. Ranged on the Russian side of the Great Game was the fascinating character of Ivan Viktorovitch Vitkevitch, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz in his native Polish. From a Russian prisoner to arguably its greatest player of the Game, Vitkevich was to die tragically at his own hands, an episode handled in a  moving passage. In the British corner was the romanticised figure of Alexander Burnes. Ultimately he bested Vitkevitch to ruling in Kabul, but died a tragic death at the hands of those he had naively believed could be manipulated. He remains the centrepiece of British military romance from the First Afghan War. And he is also the chief villain. An interesting contemporary, Charles Masson, observed, ‘I augured very faintly on the success of his mission...either from his manner or from his opinion “that the Afghans were to be treated like children.”’

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