xxxxxAs we have seen, after the assassination of the great Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1747 (G2), the commander of his body guard was elected king of Afghanistan with the title Ahmad Shah Durrani. He united the country, but following his death in 1772 there were periods of civil war. Early in the 18th century the Russians began to expand towards Anistan, hoping for an outlet to the Indian Ocean, and the British were anxious to stop their advance. In 1839, after failing to win over the Afghan leader Dost Muhammad, the British invaded the country in support of a former leader, Shoja Shah, in order to gain control. They quickly took over the major cities, but their harsh rule was opposed by many tribesmen, and in November 1841 a revolt broke out in Kabul. British officials were murdered, a military detachment lost 300 men, and the garrison was completely surrounded. Eventually the garrison was granted safe conduct to India, but while crossing the narrow, snowbound passes to the border, the 4,500 troops and the 12,000 civilians (many of them women and children) were attacked and massacred. Later that year, by way of reprisal, the British invaded the country again, and took their revenge on Kabul, but unable to stay there in strength, they then returned to India. As we shall see, in 1878 (Vb), with the Russians getting ever closer to the Afghan border, the British launched another invasion and began the Second Anglo-Afghan War. They then had a much greater measure of success.



Map (Afghanistan): from Dost Muhammad: date and artist unknown – Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Khyber: painting, date and artist unknown. Remnants of an Army: by the British military artist Elizabeth Thompson (later Lady Butler), (1846-1933), 1879 – Tate Gallery, London. Map (Northern India): licensed under Creative Commons –

xxxxxIt was during the rule of the Saffarids in the latter part of the 9th century that the Muslim faith was introduced into Afghanistan. The Mongol leader Genghis Khan invaded the country in 1219, but after his empire broke up, Afghanistan came divided between the Mughal Empire of India and the Safavid Empire of Persia (Iran). In 1738, however, the great Persian ruler Nadir Shah seized the whole of Afghanistan, and when he was assassinated in 1747 (G2), the commander of his body guard, Ahmad Khan Abdali, was elected king of Afghanistan with the title Ahmad Shah Durrani. Under his rule Afghanistan became a united country and remained so after his death in 1772, though frequently wracked by civil war and outside interference.

xxxxxBy the turn of the century the British, alarmed at the advance of the Russians as they moved southwards from the Caucasus, began to show an increasing interest in Afghanistan. Known for many years as an invasion route into India - often via the Khyber Pass - the British now saw this mountainous country as a bulwark for the defence of the sub continent. For its part, Russia, hoping to expand as far as the Indian Ocean, feared the growing might of the British in India, and their colonial designs on the areas along the northwest frontier. A clash of interests between the two empires was inevitable.

xxxxxMattersxcame to a head in 1837. In that year, in collusion with the Russians, the Iranians (Persians) advanced on Herat. The British, deeply concerned at this development, demanded that the Afghan leader, Dost Muhammad, sever all relations with the Russians and Iranians, and expel Captain P. Vitkevich, a Russian “commercial” agent conveniently based in Kabul. After some hesitation, Dost Muhammad rejected such demands, and began to negotiate with Vitkevich. In response the British East India Company set out to depose Dost Muhammad and restore a former ruler, Shoja Shah, to his rightful throne. This was clearly intended to be a puppet government under British rule, but in an attempt to justify such action, in October 1838 Lord Auckland, governor general of India, issued the Simla Manifesto. This stated that in order to have a trustworthy ally on India’s western frontier, the British were anxious to support a legitimate Shoja government “against foreign interference and factious opposition”.

xxxxxThe opening campaign went well, despite the fact that Sikh assistance, promised by their leader Ranjit Singh, never materialised. An army of British and Indian troops took Kandahar without a fight in April 1839, and then three months later seized the fortress of Ghazni after a decisive victory. Having reached Kabul in June 1839, Shoja was enthroned in the August, and the following year Dost Muhammad (illustrated) was captured after the Battle of Parwan and exiled to India. Such was the success achieved, that by late 1840 the British felt able to withdraw some of their troops, though garrisons were set up in Kabul and other major centres, such as Jalalabad, Ghazni, and Kandahar.

xxxxxBut in a rugged land like Afghanistan, arriving there was one thing, staying there was quite another. There was no love lost for the occupying forces, especially after the reduction in tribal allowances. By October 1841 Afghan tribesmen were flocking to support Muhammad Akbar Khan (1816-1845), one of Dost Muhammad’s sons. The following month an uprising broke out in Kabul. The British agent Alexander Burnes was hacked to pieces, a British detachment caught in the open lost 300 men, and the garrison was completely surrounded. After some tense negotiation, during which the diplomat Sir William Macnaghten was murdered, the garrison troops and their dependents were promised safe conduct back to India, but it was not to be. Certain tribes, notably the Ghilzai, had not been part of the agreement, and the British, anxious to make their escape, did not wait for an Afghan escort. The column, made up of some 4,500 British and Indian troops and 12,000 civilians, left in the first week of January 1842, but never made it to the Afghan border. Its members, including a large number of women and children, were massacred in the space of a week as they struggled over the series of snowbound, narrow passes which lie between Kabul and Gandamak. Very few survived, and those who did were taken hostage.

xxxxxIn retaliation, the British launched a second invasion later in 1842, this time with a larger Indian contingent. The garrison at Jalalabad was relieved, and then Kabul was recaptured, together with 95 prisoners. There the British destroyed the citadel, set fire to the great bazaar, and brutally put down any Afghan resistance, leaving 20,000 dead according to one estimate. By this time, however, the puppet leader Shoja Shah had been assassinated and his government overthrown. The possibility of occupying the country being out of the question, the British then withdrew to India via the Khyber Pass (illustrated) in October 1842. The war was over.

xxxxxThe First Afghan War was an humiliating defeat for the British East India Company, marked by the loss of the Kabul garrison, and the failure to gain any political influence in the country. In fact, the invasion served only to intensify the Afghans’ distrust and hatred of foreign interference. Furthermore, Russia’s growing interest in the country - a major cause of the conflict - continued unabated. Indeed, within the next thirty years the Russians, expanding further southwards, had annexed Tashkent and Samarkand, and virtually taken over Bukhara - important centres which lay just to the north of Afghanistan. As we shall see, the threat this posed was to bring about a second British invasion in 1878 (Vb) at the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. This proved a much more successful and rewarding undertaking as far as the British were concerned.

xxxxxIncidentally, the First Anglo-Afghan War, a disaster for the British, is sometimes known as “Auckland’s Folly” after Lord Auckland (1784-1849), the governor general of India at that time. Appointed in 1836, he was given the task of winning over the friendship of the states along the northwest frontier in order to counter Russian designs in the area. Having failed to gain the favour of the Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad, however, he gave support to Shoja Shah, a less popular leader, and this landed him in trouble. He quickly occupied the main centres in the country, but his public reforms alienated the population, and led to an uprising against the British and the massacre of the Kabul garrison as it retreated to India. He was recalled to London in 1842 and censored by the government. ……

xxxxx…… Itxwas thought at first that Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon with the Bengal Army, was the only member of the Kabul garrison to survive the massacre and reach Jalalabad. The moment of his arrival, totally exhausted and on a dying horse, was later captured by the Victorian military artist Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933), later Lady Butler. She made her name in the 1870s with her paintings of the Crimean War (notably The Roll Call of 1874) and later achieved success with The Defence of Rorke’s Drift. She never witnessed an actual battle, but made up her pictures by using models or observing soldiers during training exercises. The painting of William Brydon’s arrival, shown here, is entitled Remnants of an Army, dated 1879.

xxxxxThree other wars, somewhat briefer in duration, also occurred on the northwest frontier of India during the 1840s. Thexfirst involved Sindh, an area covering much of the delta of the Indus (or Sindu) River. During the First Anglo-Afghan War the British had been concerned over the somewhat hostile attitude shown towards them by the amirs or chiefs of this region. Asxa result, in September 1842 General Charles Napier (1782-1853) was given full civil and military authority, and despatched to Sindh with a force of some 3,000 men. He provoked a conflict by capturing and destroying the desert fortress of Imamgarh, and in the short campaign that followed defeated large armies at the Battles of Miani in February 1843 and of Dabo, near Hyderabad, the following month. Having gained control of the whole region, save for the state of Khairpur, he sent back his famous one-word despatch Peccavi, Latin for “I have sinned”, (“I have Sindh”)!

xxxxxIncidentally, Napier’s younger brother General William Napier who, as we have seen, wrote an account of the Peninsular War in 1840, also wrote a History of the Conquest of Scinde five years later, based largely on the account of the conflict provided by his elder brother.

Click Map to Enlarge RegionxxxxxIn 1845 came the First Sikh War. By this time Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh state in the Punjab, was dead, and the country was firmly in the hands of military leaders. Having refused to allow British troops through their territory during the Anglo-Afghan war, they expected retribution and decided to act first. In December 1845 a large Sikh army invaded British India but, despite fighting well, it was defeated in four bloody battles at Mudki, Firozpur, Aliwal and Sobraon. Byxthe Treaty of Lahore in 1846, part of the Sikh kingdom was taken over by the British, restrictions were placed on the size of the Sikh army, and British troops were based in Lahore. Then three years later the Sikhs lost what was left of their independence. Inxthe Second Sikh War of 1848, which started with a local revolt in the city of Multan and developed into a countrywide rebellion, two ferocious battles were followed by a British victory at Gujrat in February 1849. As a result, the whole of the Punjab (the “land of five rivers”) was absorbed into British India.


The Sindh and

The Sikh Wars