John Hinrichs

John Hinrichs is a Certified Financial Planner in Bellaire, TX with 25 years experience in estate planning.

“The Great Game,” the geopolitical struggle of high adventure and political intrigue for Central Asia between the expanding empires of Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, infused with death and clandestine double-dealing, began at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Essentially, the power struggle was between two great powers for imperial control and commercial exploitation. These fast-paced diplomatic and military actions and maneuvers took place in a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. The Great Game was played on two levels, national and individual. Captain Arthur Conolly, who was tortured and beheaded by the Khan of Bokhara in 1842, had coined the term in a popular version of his exploits. The author, Peter Hopkirk, in vividly describing the rivalry for the contested lands and cities, argued that the true heroes, inspired by patriotism and imperialism, were the brave individuals like Arthur Conolly rather than the superiors safely presiding from St. Petersburg, London, and Calcutta. 

 Each country dispatched secret agents and explorers, sometimes disguised as holy men, into the hinterlands. Their incursions were into exotic locales like Samarkand, Bokhara, and Lhasa. As these travelers, spies, mapmakers, and soldiers helped their respective countries achieve political ascendancy, the author said, “the line between exploration and intelligence-gathering was often extremely narrow.” They lived and fought in the desolate terrain of blazing deserts, high mountain passes, and caravan towns on the old Silk Road, from the Caucasus to China, and from the Black Sea to the China Sea. The key players in this jostle were the secret agents and native rulers (khans). The khans used lies or whatever was needed, including the beheading, dismemberment, and garroting of invaders, to protect their ancestral homes. Duplicity marked the activities not only of the area’s Muslim natives but also of the Russians and British as well. 

The area between Russia and India was unmapped in the early nineteenth century. Both countries used army officers, usually able linguists, for mapping areas controlled by independent khans. The explorers also found strategic passes and gathered economic, military, and political intelligence. The British were trying to discover potential invasion routes into India. The Russians were mapping routes for armies to conquer in order to occupy various tribal territories and eventually India itself. When the action began in 1810, the borders of Britain and Russia were two thousand miles apart. By 1907, in a remote corner of the Himalayas in the lofty Pamirs (on the northeast border of Afghanistan at the top end of the Northwest Frontier), the distance had been reduced to twenty miles between British and Russian outposts. 

Each nation in search of commercial agreements was forever trying to gain access to the riches of the Indian Subcontinent and the East. The British believed Russia had a grand design on British India. The British East India Company had no intention of being robbed of the territory. Both countries needed all the export trade they could garner. The Russians had their version of “Manifest Destiny” from Baku on the Caspian Sea. Russia had been expanding southward since the time of Peter the Great. The British watched while Russia conquered a string of khanates stretching across the region. 

The author divided his contents into three parts: the Beginnings, the Middle Years, and the Climactic Years. The first part began with Genghis Khan in 1206. As a result of his military triumphs, he ruled present-day Central Asia. Ivan III overwhelmed Mongol rule in 1480. The vast land area of Russia induced the tsars toward land routes for their growing conquests. Peter the Great wanted a land route to India for massive trade with a base at Khiva (east of Baku at the top of the Karakum Desert). Tsar Paul I, Catherine the Great’s successor, proposed to Napoleon in 1801 that their countries jointly attack India. The bumbling Russians abandoned the plan in 1804 after the assassination of Paul. Napoleon by 1812 was fighting the British and Russians in Europe. After Napoleon’s defeat, Britain and Russia postured for dominion over Persia and Afghanistan, considered strategic buffer states. This part concluded when the Afghan chief visited Tsar Nicholas in 1829. Certain British leaders developed “Russophobia” after judging Russia’s ambitions, backed by her large armies. The rivals felt that control of Afghanistan was critical due to its proximity to the Punjab, the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent and home to the fierce Sikhs. Afghanistan proved to be unconquerable by either the British or the Russians. 

 Hopkirk in the second part began his exposition of the Great Game players. There were dozens of heroes on each side. They had different motives. A few wanted to spread the gospel and end the slave trade. Others were prospecting for markets or following in a family member’s footsteps. But most went forth, often lacking official sanction, for the reckless adventure, believing in the superiority of western civilization. Henry Pottinger and Charles Christie in 1810 traveled in disguises among Afghanistan’s hostile tribesmen, across foreboding deserts. Another early nineteenth century adventurer, William Moorcroft was a British veterinarian employed by the East India Company. While looking for breeding stock, he served as an intelligence scout from 1812-1825. He became the first Englishman to describe the Khyber Pass in 1824. Moorcroft warned that if Britain did not get her hands on Afghanistan first then the Russians surely would. In 1840 Richmond Shakespear set out from Herat in western Afghanistan for Khiva, 800 miles away, traveling through territory inhabited by the fierce Turkmen. The Turkmen had preyed upon Russian caravans, enslaving subjects of the tsars. Shakespear wanted to convince the despotic Khan of Khiva to release the Russian captives. By doing so, Russia would be deprived of a reason to attack Khiva. For the stalwart Shakespear knew the importance of Khiva as a trading oasis. Six months after leaving Herat, he arrived on the Russian frontier with the freed slaves. He had also gained valuable intelligence for Britain. 

A chain of events had begun and was soon to culminate in the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. Archibald Forbes in The Afghan Wars 1839-1842 and 1878-80 (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1892) was a newspaper correspondent during these times. His books offered firsthand narratives and sold well in Britain. Forbes reported on the daring exploits of men like Alexander Burnes. Burnes followed in Conolly’s footsteps. He had met with Ranjit Singh, the Sikh maharajah in the Punjab, and Dost Mahomed, the Afghan ruler. British India refused to support Dost Mohomed in Kabul. Britain now wanted its own puppet on the throne. They chose the unpopular, lethargic, and former ruler, Shah Soojah-ool-Moolk. When Count Simonich arrived in Teheran, Britain feared Russian moves against Herat (west of Kabul near Persia) and then Kabul. Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger arrived in Herat in 1837. His heroic actions and clear thinking saved Herat from Russian control. Pottinger ended up in Kabul, but he could not convince General Elphinstone of the risks involved by a retreat in the dead of winter. He wanted to fortify and wait for British reinforcements. Unfortunately for Burnes and Pottinger, who were killed by angry mobs, the British military leadership had misread Afghan intentions and their fighting abilities. The massacre of the British garrison occurred in January 1842. They were killed by Afghan marksmen as they slowly retreated from Kabul toward Candahar. The author called this “Oriental treachery.” General William Nott was ready to march on Kabul to avenge Elphinstone’s humiliating defeat and the countless soldiers and families who had perished in the death march from Kabul. It was followed in June by the beheading of Conolly and Stoddart by the notorious Emir Nasrullah of Bokhara, after they had wallowed in his infamous bug pit. The second part concluded with the British suppression of the Indian (Sepoy) Mutiny in the spring of 1858. 

Russia’s defeat in the Crimea (1854) slowed down imperialism for a while. The Russians, however, were active again by the 1860s. The Russians advanced their military posts into the Pamir region. The British sent highly trained native Indians called “pundits” on spying expeditions along the old Silk Road. By 1869, they were surveying the area for the Survey of India under hazardous conditions. Tsar Alexander sent his envoys on information-gathering forays. Russia was throwing off its shackles from the Crimean War. Britain was waking up from its isolationist posture as she sensed Tsar Alexander’s desire was an all-out expedition to Khiva. Yakub Beg of Kashgaria (located in the Pamirs on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert) was playing one power against the other. He was showing that Orientals could play the Great Game too. 

In 1874 Benjamin Disraeli influenced Queen Victoria on Britain’s imperial destiny for global pre-eminence. There had been since the beginning of the eighteenth century policies of the “Forward School” promoting militarism. They were challenged in parliament by opponents asking questions about the rightness of imperialism for proper national moral values. Britain was alarmed at Russia’s thrust within its sphere of Afghan influence. Disraeli instructed Lord Lytton in India to bring Afghanistan into a protective alliance. Britain sent Captain Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards to Khiva. After realizing Russian influence over the khan, Burnaby wanted out of Khiva. In 1879 the British army moved out for Afghanistan, beginning the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The Viceroy had sent Major Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, now knighted for successfully negotiating the Treaty of Gundamak, as head of the mission to Kabul. Like Burnes he was murdered there. Britain selected General Roberts (link to satirical description by author famous for his puns of leading Britons) to lead a punitive force. Roberts prevailed in two difficult battles. He arrived in Kabul, hung conspirators and was soon called away. In 1880, after bloody fighting, the British eradicated Russian influence and established a buffer state. Britain proposed that the two countries get together and work out a common boundary between northern Afghanistan and Russia’s Central Asian territories. That the Great Game never became a full-scale war was partly because of the topography, which effectively kept the empires apart. 

In 1886 the Tories swept into office under Lord Salisbury, a man interested in India’s defense. Lord George Curzon, later to become viceroy in India, had set out for Central Asia in 1888 to see what the Russians were doing. Russian construction of its railroad linking it with Central Asian markets was well underway. The Russians had decided to rely on railroads for trade rather than the conquest of India. The saga tapered down by 1904 when Francis Younghusband rode into Lhasa (located in Tibet and northeast of India). This was the last thrust by the British Raj. The Russians were embroiled in a disastrous war with Japan by 1904. Finally in 1907 with an AngloRussian pact, the British and Russians agreed for Britain to keep its control of Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet; and Russia would enjoy control of the Turkish straits. Both nations were now concerned with the militarism of an arming Germany. In their playing of the game, the adversaries had often behaved decently. For example, Colonel Butenyov did his best to save Arthur Conolly and Charles Stoddart from decapitation. 

This is superbly narrated work-thanks to vibrant writing and remarkable organization. It covered the real heroes of each empire’s quest for commercial exploitation. It was a riveting drama of nineteenth century imperialistic power politics. Although the rulers handled the contestants with considerable skill, of the khanates, only Afghanistan survives today. The Afghans have a solid history of expelling invaders: its geography keeps calling superpowers to try.

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