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The Great Game - Britain and Russia rattle their Sabres
Coincidental with the decline of Chinese power over Turkestan and Dzungaria to the north, Great Britain had solidified her hold on the Indian subcontinent by around 1830. The East India Company acted as a surrogate government in the land, in many ways wielding more power than Her Majesty's. Constructing occupation armies of primarily native troops commanded by English officers, there were three main regions where England held sway - the Calcutta area and northeast towards Burma, southern India, and the area around Delhi south to Bombay on the western coast. The only areas that resisted "pacification" were the far western and northwestern territories of what is now Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan - the Sind, the Punjab, and the NWFP (North West Frontier Provinces). My favorite places...
Often ruled by despotic tribal chieftains, the natives of this region were distrustful of any foreigners poking around in their lands, and did not hesitate to shoot first and ask questions never. Meanwhile, the expanding Russian empire began pressing southwards from Siberia and the southern Russian states, looking for arable land and "human resources", to put it mildly. Peasant stock in Russia, subject to the ever-present risk of famine, pestilence, and tsarist "employees", migrated or escaped southwards as well, looking for a slightly safer and more pleasant place to live. Unfortunately, Central Asia was not the place.

Aside from the random Jesuit missionary or itinerate traveler, probably less than two dozen Europeans had ever been in Central Asia since the dawn of time, discounting Marco Polo and his gang.  Dotted with khanates, tribal areas, brackish oases and forbidding geography, it was simply not a vacation haven for most.  During the 1700's, the occasional Western explorer/soldier/adventurer would take hesitant steps into the area. Most either disappeared, died of strange and virulent disease, or were turned back early on.


By the early 1800's, the British East India company needed new outlets and new markets for the goods being produced by the subcontinent of India. Much traveled over the sea to Britain and Europe, but there were reports of marvelous silks and textiles, jewels and gems and other "stuff that dreams are made of" available to the first country/company to establish trading relations with Bukhara and some of the other native states of the area.  The khanate of Bukhara was among the first targets. Long known for its silks, rugs and other goods,  the area had at various times Mongol, (Seljuk) Turkic, Persian, Samanid, Timurid, Greek, and Russian masters, Bukhara was a center of Islamic culture and study.  Ruled by a succession of khans, caliphs and emirs, now part of Uzbekistan, Bukhara was a major stop on the Silk Road. 

The British of course, knew it was there, but didn't really have any firm idea of how to get there, who to talk to, or how much money to bring. Or even if they'd be listened to. Pretty much everyone they asked said "Don't go there." Ignoring this sage advice, around 1841 or so  the Company's army sent a young Colonel, Charles Stoddart, to Bukhara to see about trading and treaties and such. A deeply religious man, he was described as "unimaginative", and a perfect soldier - used to giving and taking orders. As a British soldier, he also held rather deep seated views about the righteousness of his country's conquests. 

He refused, for  example, to bow before the Emir when introduced. So, about 30 minutes after his arrival, Emir Nasrullah (left) tossed him in the infamous 'Bug Pit', a 30 foot deep hole in the ground infested with all manner of creepy crawlies, vermin, snakes, scorpions, rats, and human bones. Needless to say, the Emir was not entranced by the Stoddart or his rude behavior. For the next year or so, repeated attempts to either escape (by Stoddart), or rescue (by everyone else) were met with failure. Every couple of weeks, the Emir would haul Stoddart up out of the Pit, dust him off, feed him, and tell him he was being released. They'd joke around a while, and then the Emir would toss him in the Pit again. It could have been worse - most people who met with the Emir's disfavor were simply tossed off the Kalyan minaret

After a couple of years, this got really bothersome. So a fresh-faced young Captain, flush with the fervor of messianic Christianity, and certain he could convince the Emir and his people to discard the religion they'd practiced for 700 years and adopt Anglicanism, volunteered to go get the Colonel, and perhaps even convert the Emir while he was there. Arthur Connelly was perhaps the worst possible person the English could have sent to Bukhara - headstrong, brash and just as unstable as Stoddart was bland. Within hours after his arrival in Bokhara, he joined Stoddart in the bug pit. For almost two years, they were held prisoner, finally being hauled up and told they would be let go if they renounced Christianity and swore to Islam. Connelly refused - few are more stubborn in the face of overwhelming odds than missionaries. Stoddart wavered, and then figured, what the hell, and said 'sure, why not'. The Emir laughed, ordered them to dig their graves, and then beheaded them both in June of 1842.

So much for trade delegations. 

Meanwhile, the Russians also had nothing better to do than annoy their southern neighbors. Not greeted with anymore equanimity than the British but usually having more guns, the Russians did little else but get carried off into slavery, thereby ensuring their long-lasting favor amongst the locals. On any given day, the Khiva, Kokand  and Bukhara slave markets were teeming with Russian, Herati and Persian slaves, However, the British were sure the Russians were up to no good, and soon there grew up two differing points of view regarding the situation. Noted Parliamentary Russo-phobes like Prime Minister Melbourne's Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, were sure the Russians were headed for India, poised on the verge of a military invasion. Melbourne did little to discourage him, as he was his brother-in-law. Palmerston found an willing ally in John Hobhouse, president of the India Board of Control, the governmental entity charged with overseeing the (for the most part, private) East India Company.  The other side was a bit less wary, unwilling to risk British lives and (especially) money on thwarting a nonexistent threat. London and St. Petersburg exchanged diplomats, angry letters, and other such diplomatic niceties.

One particularly troubling spot, though, was Afghanistan - parts of it were ruled by puppet princes from Persia (now Iran), which had a decidedly Russian leaning.  The town of Herat, in western Afghanistan, had been under siege from a mixed Persian/Russian force on an off for several years. Most of it though, was lawless, untamed, unknown and unfriendly towards anyone not born within a 20 mile radius of that bearded chappie in a turban holding a rifle on you at the moment. Herat, in the west, a major city and trading center, was primarily Persian.  Kabul ("Cabool", as it was spelled back then) was run by various members of the Barakzai tribe, whose stewardships of the city were limited only by how soon a brother/son/uncle could sneak a sword into the palace and skewer you like so much shish-kebob.

One person had a fairly bona-fide claim to the throne, the aged but relatively powerful and impressive Dost Mohammed. The British sent ambitious young  officer adventurer, and social butterfly Alexander Burnes to Kabul as an emissary/political agent in 1836, both to establish a presence there and to sniff out the Russian activity. 

He was opposed byShah Suhjah, deposed 20 years earlier and living in exile in in India after getting kicked out of the Punjabi court of Ranjit Singh for being, basically, a pain in the butt. He carried with him a 600-woman harem and the fabled Koh-i-noor diamond.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh, "The Lion of Lahore", crafty, one-eyed, yet perhaps least despotic of the three Oriental monarchs, is the third of our major players.. He hosted Shah Shujah for almost 20 years before tiring of his scheming, rude behavior and 'obnoxious, caterwauling women'.

Burnes  had became interested in the geography of Afghanistan and central Asia while serving as an officer in the northwestern Indian state of Kutch (1823-29). He traveled in 1831 up the Indus River from Sind with presents from the English king to Ranjit Singh, four huge draft horses and multiple kinds of Victorian bric-a-brac. His travels were viewed with a mixture of animosity and caution by the native people, who feared (rightly so) that the foreign traveler was there to see just how far up the Indus a boat could navigate. Nevertheless, he managed to charm most of the potentates he encountered. The better he came to know the local rulers, customs, and way of life, the more highly distrusted he was by his own superiors.

Next - the First Afghan War