Alexander Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara (1834) is a foundational text of the British fascination with Central Asia, both in a geopolitical sense—the “Great Game” of the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Asia—and in a literary one. It is the most prominent of many travelogues of Afghanistan and Central Asia that relate experiences from the late 1820s to late 1830s, preceding the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Burnes’s Travels sold well and were immediately translated into French. For a time “Bokhara Burnes” was a literary celebrity. Yet the sensation of his Travels led him to another, less successful appointment in Kabul and finally to his third and final appointment there, as British envoy during the war. Not only was Burnes Britain’s leading Afghan expert; he also became the Afghans’ leading target. His murder sparked the course of the British rout. With a turn to his Persian secretary Mohan Lal Kashmiri’s account of the same travels in his Travels in the Panjab, this paper examines Burnes, his career, and his Travels in order to understand the events and his text’s role in them.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War grew out of longstanding tensions between Russia and Britain over Britain’s prized colonial possession of India. In my account of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, I would like to emphasize two main themes. First, Afghanistan occupied an anomalous position in the British Empire. The British did not seek to colonize it or conquer it. Rather, they sought to install a sovereign who would be sympathetic to British interests, allow the British to control Afghan foreign policy, and forbid Russia from entering its borders. Second, by granting sovereignty to chosen leaders, British actions toward Afghanistan complicated the notion of sovereignty as such. The case of Afghanistan ought to remind us that it is extremely difficult to generalize how imperial power functioned across the nineteenth century and, moreover, that imperial power, in Afghanistan and other sites, was not homogeneous but rather could emanate from multiple empires at cross purposes over a single location.
This essay surveys representations of the first Anglo-Afghan campaign (1839-42) in an effort to recast the narrative of the war so that it accounts for the variety of native actors in the war and in the geopolitical crises leading up to it. The “Great Game” may have been a “tournament of shadows” between the British and the Russians, but it was entangled by both local dynastic conflicts and a challenging, even insurgent, physical terrain as well. Though the British officially won the war, Afghanistan was hardly secure either during the occupation or in the decades that followed. In that sense, the first Anglo-Afghan war presaged a century of precarious imperial power on the frontier of the Raj.