Definitely an interesting topic. I decided to have a look at coverage of the First Anglo-Afghan War in the West Australian press. As this war went from 1839-42, that means we’ll only have one paper to look at – The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times.
One discovery researching this blog post was that the transliteration from the languages of the subcontinent to English has changed significantly. Afghanistan was then written Affghanistan, Sindh was Sinde, Kabul was Cabul. This makes searching for things a little tricky.
The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan nearly a decade ago. There has been much discussion about how we shall extricate ourselves, what that will mean, and further to that much discussion of whether the invasion was merited. An example from ABC Unleashed:
This is a genuine debate that all the countries involved, including Australia, need to have more than ever in the light of all these recent revelations and grim milestones. Such a debate is separate from the justification for the invasion in the first place. Given the attacks launched by Osama bin Laden on the United States and indeed the world in 2001, and the strong backing of the international community, the initial overthrow of the Taliban enjoyed strong moral as well as legal justification. Australia’s involvement alongside many other allies made strategic sense as well. Yet nine years later, Australia, like America, finds itself being expected by its government to sacrifice more lives and resources for no more specific a goal than to place NATO and the recalcitrant Hamid Karzai’s faction in a potentially stronger bargaining position ahead of the inevitable retreat next year.
AFGHANISTAN: SKIP TO THE PART WHERE WE MAKE PEACE (2010, June 23). Aron Paul. Retrieved April 10, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/36318.html
There’s endless similar coverage in Australian (and West Australian) press if you go look for it.
The First Anglo-Afghan War was a part of the ‘Great Game’. Britain and Russia were racing to gain power in Central Asia. Afghanistan was in the middle, and the British were worried that the Russians would move through Afghanistan in an attempt to invade India. The war started because of incorrect intelligence that such an invasion was imminent.
Here is a letter which was published in the Perth Gazette in May 1841. Note that with the communication delays of the time, the letter was more than a year old. It’s an interesting summary of what was going on from a very British and imperious perspective. I’ve reproduced the whole letter so as to preserve context, but the last few paragraphs are the most interesting if you want to skip down.
SEAT OF WAR IN SINDE.
The following has been obligingly communicated to us from the letter of an Officer belonging to the Bombay Presidency, at present on the Staff with the Army at the seat of war in Sinde, and will no doubt prove interesting to many of our readers, as descriptive of a country hitherto but little known, and likely to be the future scene of events affecting the state of affairs in the Indian Empire :
Camp, Kurachee, April 15, 1840.
We have now been at Kurachee for moro then six months, and, on the whole, the climate is as good, if not better than any I ever experienced out of England. It is not, as you seem to conjecture, high table land, but quite the reverse, being only just above the level of the sea, and our house is immediately on the shore. We are out of the tropics, so that the air is seldom or never hot, unless when the wind is ofl the land, which is not frequent, but then it is dreadful. In April we had ten days that exceeded anything I ever felt elsewhere. We are also liable to dust-showers, which blow for five or six days together, when the air is so loaded with sand, or rather with pulverized clay, that you cannot see 3 yards before you. I do not think that a person who has not witnessed it can form any idea of one of these showers ; it penetrates everything; fortunately it always subsides at night, we should otherwise, I think, run a risk of being starved, as it is impossible to cook whilst it lasts.
You are perhaps aware that Sinde, like Egypt, has no regular rain, being quite dependent on the river, which always rises exactly at the vernal, and subsides at the autumnal equinox. Kurachee is, however, unfortunately beyond the river’s influence, so that we are in a perfect desert ; but then, in return, we are not troubled with the fever which is so deadly and so general throughout the inundated country. The wonder is that we get any water, yet there is abundance, and in the immediate vicinity of the wells some attempts show themselves at cultivation ; but the wind, which is generally very high, seems to prevent anything from growing, or at least acquiring any size.
The Mango trees arc little better than large bushes. In our camp no sweet water is procurable, and, consequently, although we have made great efforts, we have been unable to raise anything green. We brought with us from Bombay several plants and seeds, which my companion petted and encouraged greatly, but all in vain; not a thing has grown, nor at this time are any of alive. Some of our officers did succeed in rearing a few cabbage plants, by surrounding them with high screens, but the hot April weather killed them all.
The great advantage which Kurachee possesses is its seaport, a good secure, but small harbor, with a bar at its entrance, and which is closed during three or four months of the monsoon, but still is the best on the coast. This will no doubt eventually make it a place of great resort and importance, as the channel of trade with all the countries lately overrun and partially taken possession of by our armies. It will also be the means of communication with the upper Bengal Provinces, for the mouths of the Indus have been found to be so numerous, and so variable and dangerous, as to be almost impracticable. Last March a vessel was lost, when taking troops from this place at the mouth of the Hyjamsee, on a bank where, a few months before, there had been ten fathoms water. The Indus is now ploughed by five or six war steamers, which have been up the river above Ferozepoor, within 40 miles of Lahore, 700 miles from the mouth. This is a great step toward the introduction of trade and navigation into these comparatively unknown countries; and, though the steamers are said not to be of sufficient power to answer, and the whole land is in too disturbed a state at present to afford any return, yet all persons appear very sanguine of the ultimate result. The project on hand just now is to open and clear out an old canal, which will afford a direct communication between the river and Kurachee harbor, and thus save about 20 miles over-land carriage to Tatta.
This is now being surveyed, and will soon be entered upon, as the Supremo Government are very anxious to facilitate inter-course in these parts by every means in their power; for not only will this be the the great channel of trade, but invalids from Bombay will run up for Simla, and Bengalese will take their route by the Bombay steamers to the Red Sea. Thus you see we are making gigantic strides; a man may travel from Lahore to London in 60 days, a trip which formerly would have occupied 12 months.
I have not myself as yet been out of Kurachee, so can tell you but little of the country, except that it is dreadfully impoverished by the grinding exactions of the Ameers. At first it was intended to have made Tatta (sometime supposed to be the ancient Patala) the principal station in Lower Sinde, but it proved so sickly that after six months it was abandoned. The loss of life there by fever was greater than the whole of the casualties throughout the whole campaign ; one regiment came in here with only l8 effective men out of 800. I believe that it has been found almost hopeless to attempt to occupy any station in Lower Sinde save this.
I am now bound to Sukkar, to which I mean to call your attention presently. Sukkar is a station in Upper Sinde, situate at a point where a tributary stream coming from the Kutch-Gundaba falls into the Indus. It is, I imagine, the hottest place under the sun.. The range of the thermometer for months is 104 at midnight, and above 120 at midday, in a good house.
You will not therefore be surprised, that no one should go, or remain there, who can keep away from it. From the station I hold, here, I must have accompanied my commanding officer in an annual tour of inspection, which would have occupied some 2 or 3 months, but latterly affairs have assumed a more unpleasant aspect, Reports have thickened from all sides that the country which we thought we possessed, was again up in arms. Some detachments were said to be annihilated – others were surrounded and cut off — and urgent requisitions were made on my brigade for assistance ; and, finally, the long-expected but most unpleasant order arrived, directing me to proceed to Sukkar forthwith, and in a few days I commence my march. At first, it was very generally believed that the disturbances in Affghanistan were much exaggerated, but the reports which have lately reached us from different quarter confirm the evil intelligence which we shall have abundant leisure to meditate and speculate upon whilst pursuing our tedious voyage up the Indus from Taita to Sukkar-by tracking-during a period of from 5 to 6 weeks.
Finally, about a week since, the order came directing me to proceed to Sukkar forthwith, and in a few days I commenced my March for Upper Sinde. How long I may be away it is almost impossible to say. There are all sorts of reports of disturbances in Affghanistan, which every one believes to be exaggerated, and that some sort of panic has seized the people. Yesterday, however, from two quarters intelligence arrived of Khilat having been re-taken; if such be the case, there will be employment for the Artillery to re-take it, though it is in fact idle to make surmises on the future. The only plan we have is to live on hope ; a species of food we shall have abundant leisure to indulge in whilst wending our tedious course, up the river Indus from Tatta to Sukkar.
Some people go so far as to declare that all the work is to be done over again, but that is nonsense. No one now doubts the correct and statesmanlike policy of the late campaigns, the object of which has been, most completely accomplished. Cabool is at our disposal ; the passes of the Hindus Kosh are occupied by our troops ; the Russian expedition to Khiva is now known to be a total failure, and the network of Indian intrigue seems for the present to be wholly destroyed. It only remains to keep what we have got. I suspect it will be long before the Afighan tribes will prove otherwise than troublesome, anything like peace and quietness is congenial neither to their tastes nor habits ; and I should almost say that European troops were necessary to keep them under, for the Sepoys are scarcely equal to meeting them hand to hand. The country here is so clear and level that you can drive or ride in all derections. We generally take our course by the seaside, to enjoy the delights of the breeze. Fancy the change to Sukkar-from a temperature that may almost be called cold to a heat, there of 100.
– SEAT OF WAR IN SINDE. (1841, May 22). The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833-1847), p. 3. Retrieved April 11, 2011, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article642896
There we have an account of a British soldier who is being deployed close to Afghanistan, possibly to enter into the conflict. It’s interesting to see that a similar debate was going on as to the correctness of that war. What strikes me is the picture of a series of reverses. The British hold Kabul, they hold many strategic locations, and yet they are not winning. The account seems similar to the current situation.
The war ended in the defeat of British forces. Macnaghten (the British Envoy) was killed, leading to the withdrawal from Kabul with only one person on a horse completing the retreat of the 16,500 who started out.
The Gazette prints MURDER OF SIR W. H. MACNAGHTEN BY AN AFFGHAN CHIEF. The printed letter (relayed from the South African Commercial Advertiser) is very much the official version, that Macnaghten was killed after being duplicitously lured into a trap.
In reality Macnaghten had attempted to draw Khan into negotiations while secretly paying for his assassination. Khan became aware of this, met Macnaghten and killed him. In 1843 this detail surfaces in the WA press – search for Elphinstone in that article to find the section I’m referring to.
Anyway, there we have it. Intrigue and scandal in Afghanistan, from the 1840s. Very interesting to see that then, as now, nobody was quite sure what was going on or why we were involved. The highest levels of government were involved in devious schemes to assassinate Afghani leaders. I wonder if we’re taking similar approaches now using Predator drones?
It’s not too relevant to this post, but this little article is worth a read. The Kindom of Cabul: Manners and Customs of the Affghani People. An interesting observation of the country/city in the 1840s from a British perspective.