Friday, May 29, 2015

I Read Books: Return of a King

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, 2013

Keen readers of Night of the Hats (which after this long hiatus is probably a cohort of zero even including myself) may recall that in 2011 I read and reviewed a book called Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat from Kabul, 1842. I commented at the time that "A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book."

My note was, of course, criticised as such records were rare and mostly unavailable. Point taken. Entertainingly, at much the same time as I was reading Signal Catastrophe, William Dalrymple had already been to Afghanistan and tracked down several Persian Language accounts of the First Anglo-Afghan War and was in the middle of writing his own take on the topic. Having now read this history, I will not only stand by my earlier statement, but expand on it: The Afghan sources greatly enhance the book.

To continue my unfair comparison between the two books, Signal Catastrophe was narrowly focused: Why was there a retreat, What happened and How did it go so wrong? Return of a King takes a much wider view, looking for the roots of the war in Anglo-Russian relations and attitudes to Central Asia, the role of Persia, the Punjab and to a much lesser extent other countries in the region. It investigates the dynastic and tribal background of the important factions and players in the Afghan kingdom. When the war begins, it looks at the major actions and representative smaller skirmishes. It is especially good at giving us a view of what was happening in Shah Shuja's court, and how as they lost control the British sidelined him more and more, and the ways this fatally made their position untenable.

Perhaps less good are it's views on the outcome and legacy of the war, which are detailed in a handful of pages. (To be fair the final chapter finishes on page 487 and is followed by 80 pages of Author's Note, notes, glossary, bibliography and index, and a proper history of the results would make the book at least half as long again. At least.) Dalrymple draws explicit parallels between the First Afghan War and the current occupation, although he doesn't dwell on it, and keeps in mainly for the introduction and author's note at the back.

Because I can't sum up, let me finally give you a couple of interesting bits from the text. Firstly a quote from Emily Eden, sister of Lord Auckland the Governor General on a problem with the post*:
"We try all sorts of plans; but, first, the monsoon cripples one steamer, and the next comes back with all the letters still on board that we fondly thought were in England. Then we try an Arab sailing vessel; but I always feel convinced that an Arab ship sails wildly about drinking coffee and robbing other ships..."
Secondly, in his summing up (because, as a decent popular historian, he can), Dalrymple notes that in the Afghan documents the British forces had no respect, and would loot and rape and treat them dishonourably; as he puts it:
"The British, in other words, are depicted in the Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive woman-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us."
Read This Book: If you have any interest in Afghanistan, British Imperial History, Central and South Asia or, anything related to that. Also if you want to see what a well-researched, really excellent popular history should be.
Don't Read This Book: If all this stuff is boring or depressing to you. If I have a criticism it's that Dalrymple's prose is mostly simple and inelegant reportage, but since he quotes extensively from letters, journals and even Afghan epic poems of the events I can't really criticise his wordsmithing**.
Am I Going to Plug My Brother's Central Asian Tours? Under no circumstances.

* The regular post ship having been sent as part of the flotilla to occupy the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf.
**His writing is more interesting in City of Djinns his memoir of a year living in Delhi (where he now lives permanently I believe).