|www.bijanomrani.com / -> Articles -> “Will We Make It ToJalalabad?” 19th century Book Travels In Afghanistan|
This is an electronic version of an article published in Asian Affairs, Volume37, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 161 – 174. The article is available online at theAsianAffairs website
This is the edited text of a talk delivered in the Library of the Royal Societyfor Asian Affairs on the evening of 10th November 2005
It is quite a daunting task to pick out just a couple of the books aboutAfghanistan in the Society’s library. There is a paralysing embarrassment ofriches. The country has always attracted the most brilliant and raffish sort ofadventurers and deserters, spies and eccentrics, many of whom have left us theirmemoirs. The library contains not only ordinary travel books, but also journals,autobiographies and biographies, formal histories, official accounts, andjournalistic reports. A glance around the shelves serves as a reminder ofcharacters such as Dr Joseph Wolff, a dweller in Kabul in the 1830s, who madehis way to Bokhara in full canonicals and square cap, brandishing a bible in hisright hand, and ready to preach the Word of Christ to that most holy city ofIslam; or perhaps Captain H.W. Bellew, a doctor in Kandahar, who reported in1857 a band of young clerics rising up, and attempt to take control of that city(they called themselves the Taliban); or else George Scott Robertson, dwelling inthe uttermost valleys of the Hindu Kush with a blond-haired blue-eyed paganpeople – the remnant, so he thought, of the Greek troops of Alexander theGreat – watching dances, drinking wine, and sacrificing goats to the great WarGod Gish.
For all of these wondrous works, however, I shall concentrate on the writings ofjust two authors: one a man, the other, a woman; the former, a dedicated andintrepid traveller who perished on duty at his post, the latter, a doughty survivorof a most horrific retreat. I speak of Sir Alexander Burnes, and Lady FlorentiaSale. For all the differences between them, they nonetheless share this: theirbrilliant accounts, taken together, give an intimate picture of history in thetime leading up to the First Afghan War, including that most terrible of Britishmilitary disasters, the massacre of 16,000 on the retreat from Kabul in 1842 – onthis, the eve of Armistice day, a fitting subject for remembrance.
Before we proceed to look at these writers in detail, we should first bring tomind the state of Afghanistan in the period when both of them were on theirtravels. The first empire of Afghanistan arose in the mid 18th century, carvedout by the native tribesmen, the Pushtuns, who lived in the regions of southernAfghanistan, as the central authority of the two neighbouring empires, the PersianSafavids and Indian Mughals, gave way. The new Afghan Empire was a mighty entity,stretching from Herat to Kashmir, but fragile. Dogged by its size, difficultiesin communication, ethnic conflict, lack of revenue, a series of weak leaders, andmurderous internecine disputes over succession (just as happened recently), it brokeup into its component parts (just as happened recently). The rump of this AfghanEmpire were the cities of Kabul, Ghazni, Peshawar, and Kandahar; the former wasruled by a man called Dost Mohammed who had driven out the original line of AfghanKings – we shall meet him again later – and the others by a number of hishalf-brothers, who paid Dost Mohammed only a scanty respect.
But what concern was all of this to the British in India? For a start, they hadlittle understanding of the contemporary state of the country. The only officialmission to the Kingdom of Afghanistan, led by Mountstuart Elphinstone, had visitedit in 1809, whilst the old monarchy was just about holding the country together.Although his expedition produced a pioneering and magisterial work on thecountry – An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul – many of whose observations on thepeoples and culture of the region are still valid, its contents on the politicalstate of the nation, , had grown out of date by the 1830s. To the governors ofIndia, Afghanistan was essentially a blank, a great string of questions to beanswered. What was its geography, its resources? How might it be opened for trade?Did it pose a threat to the powerful Sikh Kingdom of Maharajah Runjit Singh, anally of the British, who now held sway over the Punjab and Kashmir? Would anothergreat conquering force arise from it, and sweep plundering all the way to Delhi,just as had happened only 100 years before? More than this, there was the fear ofRussia. In Central Asia, they were in the ascendant. In the Caucasus, they had madegreat strides forward. They had defeated Persia, now roughly reunified under thenew dynasty of the Qajars, and imposed on them the humiliating Treaty ofTurkamanchai (1828). Might Russia, in alliance with Persia, sweep though Afghanistanby way of Herat and Kandahar into British India? Or might they be able to attackacross the passes of the Hindu Kush? Would Afghanistan even be able to supportthe transit of a modern army, with all of its equipment and paraphernalia?
By the 1830s, these questions had become pressing. The authorities in Delhi wereconscious that they needed to send a mission to investigate both Afghanistan, andfurther into Central Asia. Whoever they chose to lead such an expedition wouldhave to be a man of exceptional qualities; the endeavour, and its dangers, wouldbe the equivalent of a pioneering trek to the South Pole, or the first flight tothe Moon. The man they chose would need to be able to withstand mountain passesand deserts, the threat of bandits, of being held hostage or sold into slavery. Morethan this, he needed to be an expert in languages, to possess an intimate knowledgeof native culture, to have a gift of affability, of making friends in difficultcircumstances, and above all to be observant: a sponge for current and reliableinformation, that might be brought back and presented to the government in Delhias it pondered its policy. Fortunately for them, the hour presented the man: theone to undertake this task would be Lieutenant Alexander Burnes.
Alexander Burnes was born in Montrose in 1805. In 1821, at the age of 16, he sailedfor Bombay, as a cadet of the East India Company. Immediately, he showed a naturaltalent for the native languages, and as a result won rapid promotion. In 1825, hesaw action against the Sindhis, who had invaded the region of Cutch; and, in1829, he was transferred to the Political Department, as deputy to the Residentat Cutch.
During this period, it seems he spent much of his time with the natives in thebazaars of Surat, deepening his knowledge of languages and his understanding oflocal customs and behaviour. It is not unlikely, though we cannot know forsure, that he took at this time an Indian mistress – such was not uncommon at aperiod when the company’s officers still found it difficult to bring their womenfolkwith them, and when the number of English ladies in the more distant and inaccessiblecourts were few.
But he was already pursuing other adventures beyond those in the bazaar. He beganto make journeys around Cutch, writing up the findings of his explorations inpapers such as ‘Statistics of Wagur’ or ‘The Eastern Mouth of the Indus’. Thesewere dangerous and pioneering endeavours, and as a result, he won the approbationof the Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army. At the end of 1829, he was chosen tolead an exploration of the deserts of Rajputana – an expedition which in the enddid not go ahead on account of the hostility of the native princes. Nonetheless, theResident, Captain Walter wrote of him to the Governor-General: ‘From long personalexperience, there [is] no officer, of whatever rank or standing in the army, who[is] so well qualified as Lieutenant Burnes to give full effect to the plan.’
This praise won Burnes his next and most successful mission before enteringAfghanistan; indeed, it was to inspire him in his desire to visit that country.In 1831, the Government in Delhi decided to make a survey of the Indus River.The Indus, it appears, had not been navigated by Westerners since the days ofAlexander the Great; knowledge of it was scanty, and as with Afghanistan, thegovernment in Delhi was conscious it needed to know more about the territoriesbeyond its borders. The mission was entrusted to Burnes. He carried it out in anexemplary fashion, collecting scientific and cartographic data on the one hand,whilst also using his diplomatic talent to maintain good relations with the tribalchieftains and nobles in the regions through which he passed – all suspicious ofthe motives of the explorer.
After a river journey of over 1,000 miles, he eventually reached Lahore, thecapital of the powerful Sikh Empire of the Punjab under Maharajah Runjit Singh,an ally of the British. Burnes’ account of his two months at the Maharajah’s opulentcourt, being honoured and feasted, is wonderful reading; but, as important arehis descriptions of a number of Afghans, whom he met on the way. In Sindh, heencountered an Afghan nobleman on his way back from Calcutta to Herat: ‘One of thefinest natives I ever saw, and had a flowing beard reaching to his waist… full ofCalcutta, and [who] had adopted many of our customs.’ At the British station ofLudhiana, he visited another Afghan, the deposed king, Shah Shuja, who longed toreturn to his throne. Indeed, in his exile and obscurity, he still had notrelinquished the forms of ceremony which had adorned his court when in Kabul. Burneswas not impressed with his abilities: ‘I do not believe that the Shah possessessufficient energy to seat himself on the throne of Cabool; and that if he didregain it, he has not the tact to discharge the duties of so difficult asituation;’ words that later were to be sadly ignored by Burnes’ superiors. Thesemeetings with Afghans along the way piqued his curiosity. On meeting theGovernor-General, Lord Bentinck, at Simla, Burnes made an application to travelinto Afghanistan, and beyond into Central Asia. The Government, fearing theenlargement of Russian power, and having thought upon such an enterprise itself,listened favourably to his proposal; and, whilst Burnes was being received by theMughal Emperor at the court in Delhi, word came that permission had been grantedto his request.
Burnes was given great latitude over the organisation of his journey. He decidedto travel light, in a low key fashion, without the aid of a military escort. Thiswas as much a lesson drawn from precedent, as from his own earlier experiences.Mountstuart Elphinstone’s visit in 1809 had been made in the company of over 400infantry and cavalry, along with a great and wealthy train, but it only went asfar as Peshawar. Another traveller, William Moorcroft, the first Englishman tohave seen the Oxus, set out in the 1820s with a large train laden with money,veterinary equipment (he was interested in the horses of Central Asia) and evena small cannon. But the obvious display of his wealth aroused the cupidity of oneof the petty chiefs – Murad Beg, the slave-trading ruler of Kunduz – who harriedand detained him, exacting from him his possessions, so that eventually he andhis companions perished, destitute, near Balkh and Mazar-i Sharif. A small numberof Western travellers had made it through Afghanistan and survived, such as GeorgeForster at the end of the 18th century, and Arthur Conolly, just a few years beforeBurnes, but they had travelled without baggage, and in disguise, often in thecompany of poor pilgrims or as penniless wanderers with a caravan. Burnes chosejust three companions: Mohammed Ali, a surveyor; Mohan Lal, a highly educatedstudent of the college in Delhi, fluent in several languages; and a surgeon, JamesGerard. Having received his passport on 23rd December 1831, he set out towardsLudhiana, and the borders of British India.
The route to Afghanistan led back through the Punjab, and thus, one of the firstports of call was Lahore. There, Burnes was received with joy by his old friendMaharajah Runjit Singh. And, although he confesses that these weeks in Lahore wereperhaps the ‘happiest days of [his] life’, it is not the hunting and drinking withwhich we should here concern ourselves, the pastime with good company or the silkengirls bringing sherbet. In Runjit’s service, there was a small number of Europeans,soldiers of fortune whom he employed to train his own Sikh forces to a westernstandard. One of these was M. Court, a Frenchman, who had travelled to the Punjabby way of Persia and Afghanistan. Before Burnes left, M. Court wrote him a longletter of advice, describing the best way to proceed through these regions. Thisis reproduced in the French original in Burnes’ writings; however it had aconsiderable bearing of Burnes’ manner of travel and the success of his venture.Although Burnes did not follow all of it to the letter some of it is worthrepeating in translation:
“The French proverb says ‘If you wish to travel in peace, see to it that you howllike the wolves amongst whom you go;’ that is to say, conform to the behaviourand customs of the people of the countries through which you pass. This is thefoundation of my advice… Begin at first by getting rid of anything that mayindicate you are a European; for if it is known that you are such, people willthink you’re carrying round with you the contents of all the mines of Peru… Therefore,avoid producing the slightest object which might stir up their cupidity. Oftenhave I heard them boasting, as if it were a heroic deed, of having murdered suchand such a person to take from them an object which they desired.”
And thus, having taken their leave of Runjit Singh, and passed the tomb of theMughal Emperor Jehangir on their way towards Peshawar and Afghanistan, they wereinspired by M. Court’s advise even further to discard, in Burnes’ words, ‘Theuseless paraphernalia of civilisation:’
“We threw away all our European clothes, and adopted, without reserve, the costumeof the Asiatic. We exchanged our tight dress for the flowing robe of the Afghans,girt on swords, and ‘kummur-bunds’… and with our heads shaved, and groaning underponderous turbans, we strutted about slipshod; and had now to uncover the feetinstead of the head. We gave away our tents, beds, boxes, and broke our tablesand chairs. A hut, or the ground, we knew, must be our shelter, and a coarse carpetor mat our bed. A blanket, or ‘kummul,’ served to cover the native saddle, andto sleep under during night; and the greater portion of my now limited wardrobefound a place in the ‘korjeen,’ or saddle-bags, which were thrown across the horsesquarter… we burnt, gave away, and destroyed whole mule-loads of baggage – apropitiatory offering, as I called it, to those immortal demons the Kyberees, whohave plundered the traveller, from time immemorial, across the Indus.’
Of his travels in Afghanistan, Burnes at one place writes:
“[Often]… we had slept in our clothes, and could seldom or ever change them. Wehad halted among mud, waded through rivers, tumbled through snow, and for the lastfew days been sunned by heat. These are but the petty inconveniences of atraveller; which sink into insignificance, when compared with the pleasure ofseeing new men and countries, strange manners and customs, and being able to temperthe prejudices of one’s country, by observing those of other nations…” Yet, whenwe hear the list of places on his itinerary – Jalalabad, Kabul, Bamiyan, Kunduz,Mazar-i Sharif, Balkh – it is perhaps difficult for us to think, especially giventhe suffering of the country over the last thirty years, that the inconveniencesof such a journey could ever outweigh the pleasures. However, for Burnes, thisis very much the case, and it is wonderfully reflected in his writings. Hisinterests are omnivorous. We have descriptions of geography, and the climate. Thereare the burning pestilential winds, the ‘simoom,’ sometimes fatal, the effects ofwhich are cured by sprays of water, sugar and the dried plums of Bokhara. Thereare storms, where giant clouds of dust in the air race towards each other, andcollide with a chaotic and spectacular violence. He describes, as he moves northeasttowards Kabul, the boundary between the warm country of the subcontinent, and thecooler country of Central Asia; the change of vegetable life, the appearance ofwhite daisies among the clover, forests of pine on the hillsides, the fact thatwheat, ‘which was being cut at Julalabad, was only three inches above ground atGundamuk.’ The formal gardens please him no less that the wild countryside. Ofthe one, he speaks of the carefully cultivated trees, the flowers and luxuriantgrowth of narcissus in their shade. Of the other, he speaks of the Arcadian scenes,the nomads leading their flocks and their goats to pasture, the low black felttents, and the womenfolk doing all the work whilst the men all lazed about.
Despite Burnes’ relatively short time at school, he is no less a scholar or antiquary.He carries his copies of the classics in his saddle-bags, and he is ever on thelook-out for sites that might be related to the passage of Alexander the Greatthrough the region. Such and such a place might be the Rock of Aornus, as describedin Arrian, or another the point where Quintus Curtius tells us that Alexanderfounded a city. But it is not just Ancient Greek history. Just as much, he willstop to describe local Islamic folk legends – for example that Noah’s Ark came torest in the hills at Nurgal, near Jalalabad; later monuments, such as the remainsof Mughal post-houses on the road to and beyond Kabul; or else the scenes of morerecent Afghan history, the battle sites where Shah Shuja lost his throne, or whereZeman Shah was blinded. Nor do Buddhist sites escape him. He describes the ‘topes’or ‘stupas’, the mounds used as reliquaries for the veneration of relics. He seesthe Buddhas of Bamiyan, the network of caves in the cliffs, and the wall paintings(now destroyed by the Taliban). He notes the local legends about them, weighs upthe Buddhist and Hindu claims to them, and then adds his own judgement: “theexecution of the work was indifferent… it is by no means improbable that we owethe idols of Bameean to the caprice of some person of rank, who… sought an immortalityin the colossal images.”
Burnes, however, is just as interested in the present as well. He describes withdelight the bazaars of Kabul – the abundance of fruits, of game, the street-criersselling water or drinks of snow and sherbet, the story-tellers offering to recounta pious tale of the Prophets in return for a crust of bread. He records hisencounters with the different tribes and ethnic groups, their characteristics andtheir customs. We meet a courteous chief of the Momund Pushtuns, who invites Burnesto go hawking – Burnes turns down the offer, and later learns that the man hadattained the chiefship of his clan by murdering two nephews and his sister. Orelse we come across one of ‘those immortal demons the Kyberees’ – a ‘most uncouthlooking being’ who nevertheless invites Burnes in halting Persian to rest at hishouse, and treats him with the fullest of hospitality. We see the Uzbek dwellersin the north, their conical skull-caps, the women in bright colours and boots, manyunveiled. We also meet the unfortunate Hazaras, isolated in the snowy valleys aroundBamiyan, downtrodden and regarded as legitimate prey by the man-stealing Uzbekson account of their ‘heretical’ Shi’a faith; Burnes describes how money amongstthem is of little value and rarely seen; how they live by barter, of cloth, tobacco,pepper; how the women are of great influence, ‘handsome, and not very chaste.’
His observations of religion are most illuminating. In these days of perfunctorynews reporting, it is too often forgotten that Islam is a diverse and variegatedthing. In Burnes, this is brought out to the full. We see the local forms of folkIslam, the local tombs and shrines, a pond whose fish are reputedly sacred to theImam Ali, the belief in the North that Alexander the Great was one of the prophets.There are also more intellectual strains. When Elphinstone made his visit in 1809,he spoke of the Sufis, their attempts by meditation on the world at a mysticalunion with the divine, their disregard for ‘all rites and religious worship’, andother sects such as that of ‘Mollah Zukkee’, which held that all prophets wereimpostors, and than revelation was an invention. Burnes, in 1832, found things tobe similar. Although he discussed Islam with the conventional doctors of theology(something against which M. Court had expressly warned) he also encountered theSufis, eager questionings about alchemy, the mysteries of Freemasonry. As he passedthrough Bamiyan, he came across a mullah with 100 fanatical followers, who claimedthat Ali was the Deity, and greater than Mohammed; they practised, according tothe testimony of others, Bacchanalian orgies in the dark, and thus were called theChiragh Koosh or “lamp-killers”. The general tolerance encountered in the matter ofreligion is also most notable. Although he went about in the guise of a poor localtraveller, he would not, unless in danger of his life, deny that he was aEuropean – a ‘feringhee’ – or a Christian. Nonetheless, this seems to have causedfew problems. He was allowed, on occasion, to sleep in mosques, to enter and explorethe shrine of Ali at Mazar-i Sharif: “I had never heard from their lips,” he wrote,“the name of dog or infidel… ‘Every country has its customs,’ is a proverb amongthem, and the Afghan Mahommedans seem to pay a respect to Christians which they denyto their Hindoo fellow-citizens, [whom] they consider… benighted and without a prophet.”
Most important of all, he was able to understand the contemporary politics of thecountry, by meeting and conversing with many of the chiefs and leading men. In hisletter to Burnes, M. Court advised: “Keep it as a rule never to make a particularfriendship with the Orientals, since they are quite incapable of any sincereattachment… they are capable neither of the good faith, straightforwardness, northe loyalty, which characterises us [Westerners].” However, this is something thatBurnes pretty much disregarded. With his characteristic charm, he was able to formclose relations with many members of the ruling Barakzye family in Peshawar andKabul, to observe their abilities and proclivities. Of one of them, the Nawab JubbarKhan, he wrote: “It is delightful to be in his society, to witness his acts, andhear his conversation. He is particularly partial to Europeans, and makes every oneof them his guest who enters Cabool.” Burnes was also granted an audience with hisyounger brother, Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Kabul and nominal suzerain of hisbrothers in Peshawar and Kandahar. Burnes found him to be of a keen intelligence,and inquisitive nature. They discussed politics; Dost Mohammed enquired after thestate of Europe, the government of India, the question of Russia, of China; theyalso spoke of industry, British manufacturing and machinery, religion, music, wildlife.In the end, Burnes came to the conclusion that Dost Mohammed was the only personwith the acumen and vigour to re-unify the Empire of Afghanistan. Dost Mohammedwas well inclined to the British, and Burnes realised that, with not much help fromDelhi, he could build Afghanistan into a strong bulwark to the northwest of Indiaagainst the threat of a Russian advance.
Unfortunately, Burnes’ travels beyond the Oxus to Bokhara, Mashhad, and the Caspiando not fall under the scope of this lecture; but I should at least say his accountsof the city of Bokhara and his meetings with the chief minister, his running thegauntlet of Uzbek slavers in the Turcoman Desert, and his audience with the Shahof Persia are all most worthwhile reading. Burnes departed Persia for Bombay andthen London, arriving at the end of 1833. He was an immediate superstar. He wasreceived by King William IV. He briefed the Prime Minister, the Board of the EastIndia Company, the Royal Geographical Society; he was also courted by Londonsociety and sought after as one of England’s most glamorous and eligible bachelors.His first set of memoirs, Travels into Bokhara, being an Account of a Journey fromIndia to Cabool, Tartary and Persia, were published in 1834 by John Murray, andbecame an immediate success. 900 copies sold on the first day alone, and it wasreprinted in several further editions; Burnes was paid the grand sum of ?800 forthe copyright.
The rest of Burnes’ career belongs more to the history of diplomacy and war, ratherthan that of exploration. It is a depressing story, of frustration, and beingignored; yet it is intimately linked to the descent of Afghanistan into war, andthe work of our next writer, and therefore we should not pass it by. In 1835 hereturned to India. The next year, he was again sent to Afghanistan, this time byway of the Indus, to look into the possibility of extending British commerce inthe region, and setting up trading posts, perhaps as far as Kabul. He was followedthere by Lieutenant John Wood of the Royal Navy, who was to proceed beyond Kabulto the Wakhan corridor, describing his experiences in A Journey to the Source ofthe Oxus. In Burnes’ absence, the situation of Afghanistan had deteriorated. Theex-king Shah Shuja had made an ill-conceived attempt to retake the throne; in theensuing chaos, the Sikhs were able to wrest Peshawar from Afghan control. In theWest, Persia, with Russian encouragement, was attempting to capture Kandahar andHerat – the former, by making overtures to its chiefs, the latter, by siege. OnlyBurnes, on the ground, understood how critical the situation was, and how best itmight be redeemed. Although without any authorisation, he promised the Kandaharchiefs 300,000 rupees not to defect. He also pleaded with the government in Delhito give some support to the ruler of Kabul, Dost Mohammed – either subventions, orelse negotiating a return of Peshawar; thus, he would be a firm friend, and aformidable obstacle to any potential Russian or Persian advance. However, Delhirefused to help. A new Governor-General, Lord Auckland, had arrived, surroundedby advisors who overlooked Burnes’ advice, and solely took the part of the ex-kingShah Shuja. Burnes was rebuked for making offers of money to the chiefs of Kandaharwithout authority, and given nothing to offer Dost Mohammed of Kabul in return foran alliance. When, eventually, a mysterious Russian named Vitkevich appeared inKabul, bearing what purported to be a letter from the Tsar proposing an alliance,there was little Burnes could do. He left Kabul in April 1838; the only good thingto come of his visit was Cabool, Being a Personal Narrative of a Journey to andResidence in that City, published by John Murray in 1842; though much of it isconcerned with his second voyage on the Indus, or reports sent from the north ofAfghanistan by one of his travelling companions, Dr Lord.
Burnes returned to Kabul for the last time in 1839, this time not as an explorerwith a single horse-load of baggage, but in the company of a conquering army. Theadvisors to the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, had their way, and a force,predominantly British, marched into Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammed, and restoreShah Shuja to his throne. In the end, despite his entreaties against this courseof action, Burnes acquiesced, and accompanied them as deputy to the force’s PoliticalEnvoy, Sir William Macnaghten. Macnaghten was a career diplomat from the CivilService in Bombay. He was, like Burnes, a brilliant linguist, but had no experienceon the ground. Moreover, he was one of the architects of the policy of ‘regimechange’, and blind to its failures in practice. As resentment grew against ShahShuja, the ineptitude of his government, and the presence of an occupying army,insurgencies and uprisings took hold beyond the cities; however, Macnaghten’srepeated report was that the country was ‘quiet from Dan to Beersheba’. When theuprising finally broke in Kabul itself, the mob first gathered round Burnes’ housein the city – the explorer whom they felt was responsible for bringing an army inhis wake was the first to perish in the storm.
The narrative now passes to Lady Florentia Sale. She came to Kabul sometime in1840, one of the small number of officers’ wives to make their way to Afghanistanwhen it became apparent that the occupation would be rather more drawn out thanfirst expected. Her husband was Brigadier Sir Robert Sale, KCB, commander of the13th Light Infantry; nicknamed ‘Fighting Bob’ in the Burmese War of 1823, he playedan important part in the invasion of Afghanistan, leading the main storming partyof the apparently impregnable fortress of Ghazni, an action in which he waswounded. Lady Sale herself was born in Madras in 1787, into a family of civilservants of the East India Company. She was brought up by her uncles, and givenby them a good education. She was also well-travelled, having spent time in Mauritius,England, and Ireland, as well as India. She bore her husband twelve children, fourof whom died in infancy. When she travelled to Kabul in 1840, at the age of 53,she was accompanied by her daughter Alexandra, who married one of the Engineerofficers in the city, Lieutenant Sturt. There, they went to live a life, as theythought, of starch and elegant society, attended by 40 Indian servants, in thefinest quarters of the British cantonment. Kabul was then a place of slothful ease;Burnes, for example, forgetful of his travelling austerity, did little else exceptkeep open house, his table laden with champagne and hermetically sealed salmonimported from Aberdeen. And so, seeing this on arriving, Lady Sale could have hadlittle notion of the disasters that lay in store.
Lady Sale’s output is slight compared to that of Burnes – just one volume, coveringthe events of about eleven months. It is kept as a journal, less polished than thework of Burnes: ‘I am not attempting to shine in rounded periods, but give everythingthat occurs as it comes to my knowledge,’ as she herself says. Nonetheless, her goodeducation shines out in the frequent references not only to scripture, but also topoets such as Scott, and essayists such as Oliver Goldsmith. Her tone, indeed, islike that of Austen, a dry wit and laconic irony; imagine Eliza Bennett transplantedto the Hindu Kush. Nevertheless, as many commented at the time, it reads like a formalGreek tragedy. We see the British in their prosperity, blind to their impending fate;the sudden reversal of fortune; the many opportunities to escape calamity allsquandered through heedlessness and misjudgement; and in the end, a final catastrophe.
The journal starts on 9th October, 1841. Kabul is quiet, but the Ghilzye tribes haverisen in the countryside, cutting off the roads to Ghazni and Jalalabad. BrigadierSale has been sent with his men to clear the roads to Jalalabad, and then return toIndia; Lady Sale is due to follow him home at a later date. In the meantime, beforenew troops arrive, the garrison in Kabul is dangerously under strength. Although inher diary, there is a certain sense of foreboding, the talk in the cantonments isof disputes over rent, and gardening – the sweet pea and geranium, the hairy Kabullettuce and the superior Kabul cabbage. And then, there is the uprising. The cityis in chaos, with mobs, shouting, and gunfire. Rumours abound: some say that Burnesis dead, others that he escaped wounded to the protection of a chief. In the midstof this, Lady Sale, more than any other observer gives us a full and vivid pictureof events. She gives us reports of the anxiety and ineptitude of Shah Shuja; theprocrastination and confusion of command, as men are readied to take action andtold to stand down, marched out of the gates, and told to return. She does notsoften her words in the portrayal of characters, or dissemble to preserve the goodname of anyone. We see the commander of the Kabul force, General Elphinstone(a hero of Waterloo, not to be confused with Mountstuart Elphinstone, the explorer)old, gout ridden and infirm, with no previous experience of service in Asia; heis not afraid of doing his duty, but is incapable of grasping the situation, changeshis mind by the hour, and always agrees with the last person who spoke. We see thesecond in command, Brigadier Shelton, brave, but disliked by his men, his eagernessto abandon Kabul and return to India; we see his petulance, and refusal to supportany plans to the contrary; his hatred of General Elphinstone, and his open displaysof contempt, bringing a sleeping bag into their councils, and feigning sleep whenhis opinion was sought. We see the despair of junior officers, who betterunderstood the affairs on the ground, being disregarded and their advice overlooked.We see the contempt and anger of the private soldier as their officers lose theirspirit, and, in Lady Sale’s words, become ‘croakers’.
If one seeks an account of Afghanistan in the mode of war, Lady Sale’s Journal isthe perfect place to look. Her nickname was the ‘Grenadier in Petticoats’. Shelooks with a military eye at the poor situation of the British cantonments, outsidethe capital, its long walls difficult to defend, overlooked by hills, surroundedby little forts; and its commissariat supplies outside the walls with a pettygarrison, easy to attack. When she stands on the battlements and watches theengagements outside – the loss and looting of the commissariat fort, the failingattempts to skirmish with and overawe the crowds of insurgents, or else to capturenearby villages or forts that might supply the garrison with desperately neededfood – she is not sighing and fearful, as the poets portray the wives of Troy,watching events unfold from the towers above. Rather, she is dodging the bullets,observing closely the order of battle. She tells us how the Afghans fight. Theyride into battle, two on a horse, one man being dropped off at the spot where mostneeded, and then easily picked up and removed when a sudden retreat is necessary.They carry pistols, and jezails, which have a longer range, and are more accuratethan the English musket – ‘…whilst they are out of range of our fire, theirs tellsmurderously on us’. They are not cowards, she stresses, but a ‘fine, manly lookingset… they show no cowardice in standing against guns without using any themselves,and in escalading forts which we cannot retake.’ But we also see the effects ofthe fighting at the most personal level. Lady Sale’s son-in-Law, Lieutenant Sturt,is brought in with three dagger wounds, and we are there by his bedside as shenurses him through the crisis.
But it is not so much for the account of the siege that we read Lady Sale’s Journal,but rather for her record of the retreat. We move forward to January 1842. Foodin the camp has dwindled almost to nothing. The emaciated baggage animals are thebest food available for the dwellers in camp; the animals themselves have littlemore than scraps of bark to eat. The envoy, Sir William Macnaghten, had attemptedby diplomacy and double-dealing to sow dissent between the rebel chiefs, but wascaught out in the act, and murdered. Numerous officers had perished in the failedattempts to save the situation, and bold measures which might have saved thegarrison were put off, until they were impossible to enact. A negotiated retreatto Jalalabad, where Brigadier Sale and his men were holding out, was the onlyoption. Humiliating terms were concluded. Treasure was handed over to the Afghansin return for protection that wasn’t forthcoming, and an escort which didn’tarrive. Snow lay on the ground, about a foot thick; the thermometer, considerablybelow freezing. On the 6th of January, after much delaying, a breach was made inthe walls; from the cantonments marched 1,500 British troops, 4,500 Indiansoldiers, and around 12,000 camp followers. Immediately, the cantonments areoccupied, looted, and burnt. The rearguard of camp followers, carrying thecommissariat stores, desert their baggage and run. Much of the food, blanketsand tents are lost. The ground is cold, like an icy swamp, and many of the Indians,already starving, who are not used to the temperature, are unable to go on. Womenand children lie down in the snow to die. With the command, there is stillconfusion. At one point, there is an order to retreat; at another, instead ofpressing ahead as quickly as possible, an order to halt after only a few miles. LadySale, other officers and wives gather together all the bedding they can, and huddletogether for warmth. The next day, bodies are reported all the way along the routeto Kabul. As they move off, the camp followers swarm about the column, disturbingthe order of march, and destroying its fighting effectiveness. Discipline is indecline, and groups of Afghan bandits harry the column, killing those who areunable to move. On the 8th, they enter the Khord Kabul Pass. One of the others whowrote a first-hand account of the retreat, Lieutenant Vincent Eyre described itthus: “…a truly formidable defile… about five miles from end to end… shut in oneither hand by a line of lofty hills, between whose precipitous sides the sun atthis season could dart but a momentary ray. Down the centre dashed a mountaintorrent… with thick layers of ice on its edges, over which snow lay consolidatedin slippery masses.” The force approaches, says Lady Sale, it in fearfulconfusion. Surviving casks of brandy are broken open, and freely distributed, evento children of three and four. The artillerymen, in her words, ‘become much tooexcited,’ and begin to quarrel with their officers. Nonetheless, they whip theminto order enough to drive off crowds of Afghan marksmen on the heights. One ofthe chiefs appears, Akbar Khan, the one who had killed the envoy, Sir WilliamMachnaghten. He offers the column protection for 15,000 rupees. The British accept,and he rides ahead of them with other chiefs, shouting, according to one witness,‘spare them’ in Persian, and ‘slay them’ in Pashto. Many of the troops are now toocold to fight, and their ammunition is near expended. Indiscriminate fire poursin on them from the heights. Lady Sale hurries through a hail of bullets and ishit, but just a flesh wound, and she continues on. Others, officers’ wives andchildren fall; some are carried off by the Afghans. Lady Sale’s son-in-law, Sturt,is struck in the abdomen, and only survives a few more hours, borne on a pony tothe settlement of Khord Kabul; he is the only officer to receive Christian burial.That day, 3,000 fell in the pass. But, as Lady Sale struggles on, over snow andstarving mutilated corpses, there is, as befits any tragedy, a redemption of sorts,an almost comic lightness in the dark. It is the dignity with which she comportsherself, a fortitude almost unimaginable to any of my generation. “Fortunately,I had only one ball in my arm…” “For myself, whilst I sat for hours on my horsein the cold, I felt very grateful for a tumbler of sherry, which at any other timewould have made me very unlady-like...”
Lady Sale, along with several other officers and their wives, was taken intocaptivity by Akbar Khan on the 9th January. Others joined them over the next fewdays, and from their reports she pieced together in her journal an account of thefinal stands of the army at Jugdulluk and Gandamack. The news of the disaster wasrelated to the outside world by Dr Brydon, the only one of the 16,000 of theinitial retreat to reach Jalalabad. Although Lady Sale spent the next nine monthsin a not particularly eventful captivity in various locations over the country,complaining of the poor food, lack of starch for washing, and her clothes beingcovered in ‘crawlers’, I should like to end the narrative in the Khord Kabul pass.The scene reminds us of the present-day relevance of these writings. They are notonly a goldmine of cultural, geographic and ethnographic information, vital for adeeper understanding of the present-day situation. They are also a salutary lessonof what comes to pass when political desires conflict with the reality, as observedby people on the ground. On the day that Burnes was murdered, Lady Sale wrote ofthe Governor-General: “[Our] state of supineness and fancied security… is the resultof deference to the opinions of Lord Auckland, whose sovereign will and pleasureit is that tranquillity do reign in Affghanistan; in fact, it is reported atGovernment House, Calcutta, that the lawless Affghans are as peaceable as Londoncitizens; and this being decided by the powers that be, why should we be on the alert?”
One wonders what comments she would make on the state of the East today.