Review by Jon P. Dorschner
The Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 by William Dalrymple, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2013, ISBN 978-0-307-95828-0, 560 pp. (Hardcover edition), $30.00, (Amazon) $17.85, (Kindle) $15.99.
I have devoured William Dalrymple’s books. He speaks to me with a unique and highly personal voice. Dalrymple is more than a historian. His is a life uniquely led, which in many ways mirrors my own. He is a man on the search for meaning and his search has taken him to South Asia. For Dalrymple, South Asia is much more than a dry subject of academic study. He chronicles the historical encounter between the British Empire and the inhabitants of South Asia, by describing the impact of a vastly different civilization on British individuals far removed from their homeland.
Members of Dalrymple’s family served in India during the Raj. He has a longstanding connection to India, and currently resides in Delhi. “The Return of the King,” is part of a series of works that explore the overlapping space between British imperialists and South Asian civilization. The world-view imparted through his work is filled with wistfulness and a longing for what might have been. He is filled with admiration and affection for South Asia and its people. He transports himself back to the 18th and 19th Centuries when a few hardy and intrepid Englishmen played out moving personal dramas in the South Asian space. Dalrymple is most fascinated by Englishmen driven by their own personal demons who came to India to conquer but found themselves conquered by a seductive society. Dalrymple documents how for a few uniquely talented Britishers, India provided an opportunity for reinvention. These select individuals rose above the pettiness of their own lives in England and remade themselves as “Nawabs,” and “White Mughals,” by embracing India and taking full advantage of everything it had to offer.
I sense while reading Dalrymple that for him, there was a short window of opportunity when the right people following the right policies could have set Britain and South Asia on a mutually beneficial course. He regrets, however, that the opportunity came and went. Instead, the English failed to integrate into the Indian environment. Consumed by racism and hubris, they chose to play the role of imperial masters of a subject people.
Dalrymple is particularly taken by the glories of the South Asian Islamic civilization surrounding the Mughal dynasty that still commanded the cultural heights during the initial period of British colonization. Dalrymple works hard to describe the sophistication inherent in this civilization. He consciously works to counteract centuries of imperial propaganda regarding the “backwardness” of South Asia. In his book “White Mughals,” Darymple describes a time in India when the British were the supplicants rather than the masters and makes it clear that during that period, adaptation and assimilation were essential elements of success.
Dalrymple practically inhabits these individuals and shows how they luxuriated in their new environment and took maximum advantage of the opportunities it provided. Dalrymple’s heroes are not the stodgy racists of the post-Mutiny empire, but the crafty and flexible explorers of a new world. Dalrymple’s subjects are not constrained by racial and cultural prejudice. They are not intent on subjugating South Asians and introducing them to the benefits of British civilization. These British protagonists abandoned England when they boarded the ship for the long voyage to India. Once they landed, they were largely on their own and succeeded only at the forbearance of the South Asians they encountered and interacted with.
These individuals were not judgmental and did not view themselves as inherently superior to South Asians. Rather they found much to admire in the people they encountered, and demonstrated their affection by intermarrying and founding a whole new race of “White Mughals,” or what later came to be disparaged as “Anglo Indians.”
Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal” documents how it all went wrong. Instead of creating a new composite culture, the British eventually came to denigrate India’s inhabitants and their culture, culminating in a mutiny and revolt in 1857 that would change the relationship, forever. I suspect that Dalrymple would have little interest in writing about the post 1857 era of British India, for by then the window he longed for had closed.
This latest book in the saga, “the Return of a King,” captures the British at the cusp of a new era. Years of ascension led to fatal hubris, exemplified by the disaster of the First Anglo Afghan War 1839-1842. In the book, Dalrymple makes a sharp distinction between those Englishmen who lived in their environment and those who tried to dominate it. He holds up for particular contempt a subset of diplomats who attempt to further their career and rise through the ranks of the bureaucracy by conceiving ambitious power grabs. Dalrymple argues that this type of individual, personified in the book by the trio of Sir William Hay Macnaghten, Alexander Burnes, and Sir Claude Wade, manufacture threats where there are none, and then convince policy makers to undertake military adventures in response. At the top of the East India Company pyramid was the Governor General. Darymple describes how these ultimate policy makers were so far removed from the vast subcontinent they ruled that they came to rely on the counsel of their esteemed “experts.”
The trio of advisors, driven by personal hubris and ambition, convinced the British ruling elite that the Company holdings in India were threatened by Russia and that only the invasion of Afghanistan and the placing of a compliant British puppet on the Afghan throne could counter this threat. Wade had long maintained Shah Shuja and his household in Ludhiana and was now determined to use them. Shuja was the deposed monarch of Afghanistan and the representative of the Durrani Dynasty. Wade and his patron Macnaghten convinced Lord Auckland to use Company troops to put Shuja back on his throne in Kabul. Alexander Burnes knew the scheme had no chance of success, but concurred to pursue his personal ambition. Once Lord Auckland made the decision, he set wheels in motion that culminated in disaster.
By the time that British troops were on the march, Russia had already abandoned its forward strategy in Afghanistan, removing the underlying rationale for the military adventure. In addition, Dost Mohammad, who had deposed Shah Shuja, had already expressed his willingness to work with the British. After putting Shah Shuja on the throne, the British decide to remain in Afghanistan with Macnaghten as the “envoy,” with the intention that he will be Afghanistan’s real ruler leaving Shah Shuja a figurehead. Darymple details how Macnaghten and his entourage, including his assistant Burnes, make one mistake after another until Kabul is seething in revolt.
While willfully misguided diplomats engendered the crisis, British military leaders, personified by General William Elphinstone, the commander of the British forces, created a disaster. Instead of using his superior military force to crush the nascent revolt and reassert British power, Elphinstone dithers until his forces are trapped in their Kabul cantonment, starving, with dwindling ammunition, and under constant fire from Afghans on surrounding higher ground. Instead of breaking out and moving his forces to Shah Shuja’s imminently defensible Bala Hisar Palace, Elphinstone surrenders and marches his army out of the cantonment and into history. The army is slaughtered during a horrific retreat.
The entire misadventure is summed up in the memoirs of one of the British participants, the Reverend G.R. Gleig, who wrote that its was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”
“Return of a King,” is a brilliant work, which provides valuable insight into a significant historical event. As Darymple points out, the work is particularly valuable because it is the first to incorporate Afghan sources and provide an Afghan point of view, which is radically different from the English sources. Darymple succeeds in humanizing the Afghan resistance to British imperialism, which has previously been stereotyped as religious extremism and xenophobia.
While “Return of a King,” does a wonderful job of documenting a 19th Century imperial misadventure, Darymple is on weaker ground when he tries to construct a strong parallel between the West’s current involvement in Afghanistan and the First Anglo Afghan War. In an April 13 “New York Times,” editorial Darymple asserts that “the parallels between the current war and that of the 1840’s are striking.” This appears to yet another repetition of the often-repeated and overly simplistic maxims that “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” and that the Afghans are natural warriors who can militarily defeat superpowers. The British defeat in 1842 was not because of superior Afghan military skill but British military ineptness.
I agree that there are some parallels but caution that they should not be exaggerated. In both instances, Western military forces were committed to Afghanistan with no clear objective, and were inexplicably allowed to remain after winning an early military victory. However, Darymple characterizes the American involvement as an “occupation,” similar to that undertaken by the British in 1839, and implies that the United States has been “defeated.” While American political leaders have made many mistakes, American military performance has at no juncture mirrored the incompetence described in Darymple’s book. At no point in our long Afghan commitment have we faced military disaster, and the Taliban is incapable of inflicting one. I agree with Darymple that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan because it is an extremely expensive commitment that is no longer serves U.S. national interest. However, we intervened in Afghanistan not to occupy the country or extract its resources (Afghanistan has nothing that the United States wants), but in response to an al Qaeda terrorist attack and the then Taliban government’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Ladin or expel him and his organization from the country. Osama bin Ladin in now dead, and few are predicting that Afghanistan will again become an al Qaeda haven, even should the Taliban return to power, as Darymple thinks is likely.