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Book Excerpt: 'The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42'





American edition of "The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42" by William Dalrymple (R), shown here at Asia Society New York in February 2012. (Suzanna Finley/Asia Society)

Publishing this week in the United States, historian William Dalrymple's The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 is a magisterial new look at the First Afghan War, in which British and East India Company troops invaded Afghanistan to install a puppet ruler, Shah Shuja, on the throne in Kabul, only to be ferociously expelled by an indigenous uprising less than three years later. Working from Afghan primary sources never previously utilized by a Western historian, Dalrymple paints a sweeping canvas of imperial folly, leading to military catastrophe, that has uncomfortable resonances with today's NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Dalrymple underscored some of those parallels in a trenchant op-ed published yesterday in the New York Times, in which he wrote: "The same tribal rivalries exist and the same battles are being fought in the same places under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities are being garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and they are being attacked from the same hills and high passes." In the same piece, however, Dalrymple went on to explain that "History never repeats itself exactly, and there are some important differences between what is taking place in Afghanistan today and what took place during the 1840s."

Dalrymple will read from and discuss Return of a King at Asia Society New York on Monday, April 22 (in a program that will also be live webcast on AsiaSociety.org/Live at 6:30 pm ET) and Asia Society Northern California on Wednesday, May 1. Below is an excerpt from the book's first chapter, which lays out the Afghan dynastic quarrel, and first British embassy to Afghanistan, that set in motion the events of 1839-42.


The year 1809 opened auspiciously for Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. It was now March, the very beginning of that brief Afghan spring, and the pulse was slowly returning to the veins of the icy landscape long clotted with drifts of waist-high snow. Now the small, sweet-smelling Istalif irises were pushing their way through the frozen ground, the frosted rime on the trunks of the deodars was running to snowmelt, and the Ghilzai nomads were unlatching their fat-tailed sheep from the winter pens, breaking down their goat-hair tents and readying the flocks for the first of the spring migrations to the new grass of the high pastures. It was just then, at that moment of thaw and sap, that Shah Shuja received two pieces of good news — something of a rarity in his troubled reign.1

The first concerned the recovery of some lost family property. The largest diamond in the world, the Koh-i-Nur, or Mountain of Light, had been missing for more than a decade, but such was the turbulence of the times that no attempt had been made to find it.

Shah Zaman, Shuja's elder brother and predecessor on the throne of Afghanistan, was said to have hidden the gem shortly before being captured and blinded by his enemies. A huge Indian ruby known as the Fakhraj, the family’s other most precious gem, had also disappeared at the same time.

So Shah Shuja summoned his blind brother and questioned him on the whereabouts of their father’s most famous jewels: was it really true that he knew where they were hidden? Shah Zaman revealed that nine years earlier he had hidden the Fakhraj under a rock in a stream near the Khyber Pass, shortly before being taken prisoner. Later, he had slipped the Koh-i-Nur into a crack in the wall of the fortress cell where he was first seized and bound. A court historian later recorded, "Shah Shuja immediately dispatched a few of his most trustworthy men to find these two gems and advised them that they should leave no stone unturned in their efforts. They found the -Koh-i-Nur with a Shinwari sheikh who in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight for his official papers. As for the Fakhraj, they found it with a Talib, a student, who had uncovered it when he went to a stream to wash his clothes. They impounded both gems and brought them back in the king's service."2

The second piece of news, about the arrival of an embassy from a previously hostile neighbour, was potentially of more practical use to the Shah. At the age of only twenty-four, Shuja was now in the seventh year of his reign. By temperament a reader and a thinker, more interested in poetry and scholarship than in warfare or campaigning, it was his fate to have inherited, while still an adolescent, the far-flung Durrani Empire. That empire, founded by his grandfather Ahmad Shah Abdali, had been built out of the collapse of three other Asian empires: the Uzbeks to the north, the Mughals to the south and to the west the Safavids of Persia. It had originally extended from Nishapur in modern Iran through Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab and Sindh to Kashmir and the threshold of Mughal Delhi. But now, only 30 years after his grandfather's death, the Durrani Empire was itself already well on its way to disintegration.

There was, in fact, nothing very surprising about this. Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan — or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last-millennia — had had but a few hours of political or administrative unity.3 Far more often it had been "the places in between" — the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.

Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of the Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.

Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime — the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires — and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale. Under the guise of reconciliation, one of Shah Shuja's chiefs invited some sixty of his feuding cousins "to dine with him," wrote one observer, "having previously laid bags of gunpowder under the apartment. During the meal, having gone out on some pretext, he blew them all up." A country like this could be governed only with skill, strategy and a full treasure chest.

So when at the beginning of 1809 messengers arrived from the Punjab bearing news of an East India Company Embassy heading north from Delhi seeking an urgent alliance with him, Shah Shuja had good reason to be pleased. In the past the Company had been a major problem for the Durranis, for its well-disciplined sepoy armies had made impossible the lucrative raids down onto the plains of Hindustan which for centuries had been a principal source of Afghan income. Now it seemed that the Company wished to woo the Afghans; the Shah's newswriters wrote to him that the Embassy had already crossed the Indus, en route to his winter capital of Peshawar. This not only offered some respite from the usual round of sieges, arrests and punitive expeditions, it potentially provided Shuja with a powerful ally — something he badly needed. There had never been a British Embassy to Afghanistan before, and the two peoples were almost unknown to each other, so the Embassy had the additional benefit of novelty. "We appointed servants of the royal court known for their refinement and good manners to go to meet them," wrote Shah Shuja in his memoirs, "and ordered them to take charge of hospitality, and to treat them judiciously, with caution and politeness."4

Reports reaching Shah Shuja indicated that the British were coming laden with gifts: "elephants with golden howdahs, a palanquin with a high parasol, gold-inlaid guns and ingenious pistols with six chambers, never seen before; expensive clocks, binoculars, fine mirrors capable of reflecting the world as it is; diamond studded lamps, porcelain vases and utensils with gold embedded work from Rome and China; tree-shaped candelabra, and other such beautiful and expensive gifts whose brilliance the imagination falls short in describing."5 Years later Shuja remembered one present that particularly delighted him: "a large box producing noises like voices, strange sounds in a range of timbres, harmonies and melodies, most pleasing to the ear."6 The Embassy had brought Afghanistan its first organ.

Shah Shuja's autobiography is silent as to whether he suspected these British bearing gifts. But by the time he came to write it in late middle age, he was well aware that the alliance he was about to negotiate would change the course of his own life, and that of Afghanistan, for ever.

The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from both India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah Shuja, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to northeastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of the River Neman.

Here, 18 months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Neman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of the Baltic.

The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Peace of Tilsit.7

Most of the clauses in the treaty concerned the question of war and peace — not for nothing was the first volume of Tolstoy's great novel named Before Tilsit. Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain's wealth. This, of course, was his enemy's richest possession, India.

The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon's, as of several previous French strategists. Almost exactly nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. "Through Egypt we shall invade India," he wrote. "We shall re-establish the old route through Suez." From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter's pleas for help against the English: "You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies!"8

At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon's initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.

So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. A treaty with the Persian Ambassador had already been concluded: "Should it be the intention of HM the Emperor of the French to send an army by land to attack the English possessions in India," it stated, "HM the Emperor of Persia, as his good and faithful ally, will grant him passage."

At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grande Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20,000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile, General Caulaincourt, Napoleon's Ambassador to St. Petersburg, was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians. "The more fanciful it sounds," wrote the Emperor, "the more the attempt to do it (and what can France and Russia not do?) would frighten the English; striking terror into English India, spreading confusion in London; and, to be sure, forty thousand Frenchmen to whom Persia will have granted passage by way of Constantinople, joining forty thousand Russians who arrive by way of the Caucasus, would be enough to terrify Asia, and make its conquest."9

But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express, containing the outlines of the plan, to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses, and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them went instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all the countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood, and to negotiate alliances with them to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India. The different embassies were also instructed to collect strategic information and intelligence, so filling in the blank spaces on British maps of these regions. Meanwhile, reinforcements would be held in readiness in England for despatch to India should there be signs of an expedition being ready to sail from the French ports.10

Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon's plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not "beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France," he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the "very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan."11

In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon's armies. One was sent to Teheran in an effort to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar of Persia the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amirs of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company's service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.

Elphinstone was a Lowland Scot, who in his youth had been a notable Francophile. He had grown up alongside French prisoners of war in Edinburgh Castle, of which his father was governor, and there he had learned their revolutionary songs and had grown his curly golden hair down his back in the Jacobin style to show his sympathy with their ideals.12 Sent off to India at the unusually young age of fourteen to keep him out of trouble, he had learned good Persian, Sanskrit and Hindustani, and soon turned into an ambitious diplomat and a voracious historian and scholar.


1. Alexander Burnes, Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City in the Years 1836, 7 and 8, London, 1843, p. 273, for details of the Kabul spring.
2. Sultan Mohammad Khan ibn Musa Khan Durrani, Tarikh-i-Sultani, p. 219.
3. Khurasan also included much of eastern Iran, but was not usually thought to include northern Afghanistan.
4. Waqi'at-i-Shah Shuja, The Eighteenth Event.
5. Sultan Mohammad Khan Durrani, Tarikh-i-Sultani, p. 226.
6. Waqi'at-i-Shah Shuja, The Eighteenth Event.
7. Dominic Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, London, 2009, pp. 45–7.
8. Quoted in Sir John Malcolm, Political History of India, 2 vols, London, 1826, vol. I, p. 310.
9. Iradj Amini, Napoleon and Persia, Washington, DC, 1999, p. 112; Muriel Atkin, Russia and Iran 1780–1828, Minneapolis, 1980, p. 125.
10. OIOC, Board's Collections: Sec Desp to India, vol. III, Draft to Governor General-in-Council, 24 September 1807, no. 31; J. B. Kelly, Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795–1880, Oxford, 1968, pp. 82–3. For the Russian nobleman beneath the barge see Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, London, 1990, p. 33.
11. Amini, Napoleon and Persia, p. 129.
12. Sir John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, London, 1867, vol. I, p. 234.


Excerpted from The Return of A King by William Dalrymple. Copyright © 2013 by William Dalrymple. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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