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AFGHANISTAN – KANDAHAR TO HERAT: “Route of the British Mission proceeding from Kandahar to Herat, in June & July, A.D. 1839”. Zoom

AFGHANISTAN – KANDAHAR TO HERAT: “Route of the British Mission proceeding from Kandahar to Herat, in June & July, A.D. 1839”.


A fine manuscript map of the route of Major Todd’s 1839 British expedition from Kandahar to Herat, resulting in an important diplomatic mission in the early days of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), after a ground-breaking itinerary survey by the military engineers Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North, copied by India’s most esteemed cartographic draftsman, Henry M. Smith, and notarized at the Surveyor General of India’s Office, Calcutta; reserved for ‘top-secret’, high-level official use.

Author: [Edward SANDERS (1801 - 1843) & Charles Frederick NORTH (1815 - 1906), Surveyor-Cartographers] / Henry M. SMITH (fl. 1837 - 1863), Draftsman.
Place and Year: Calcutta, December 11, 1839.
Code: 67207

Manuscript, pen and ink on wove paper, mounted upon another sheet of old paper (Good, large old tear traversing much of sheet, but with no loss and not affecting track of mapping, otherwise clean and sharp), 54 x 63.5 cm (21.5 x 25 inches).


This fine manuscript map depicts the route of Major Elliott D’Arcy Todd’s expedition from Kandahar to Herat, in the summer of 1839.  Undertaken during the early days of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), Todd led an important diplomatic mission from Kandahar (the first and largest British base in Afghanistan) to Herat, the strategically vital western gateway to the country.  The objective was to convince the local ruler to support Britain, counteracting intense Russo-Persian overtures.  This scene transpired within the larger theatre of the ‘Great game’, the epic, decades-long Anglo-Russian contest for domination of the South-Central Asia.   

The present itinerary map is predicated upon careful surveys undertaken by the military engineers Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North during the Todd party’s 34-day long journey across 370 miles of rugged, inhospitable country from Kandahar and Herat, via Girishk (crossing parts of modern Kandahar, Farah, and Herat provinces).  Sanders and North showcase every salient detail of this vital caravan and military route on a map for the first time, labelling all towns, ruins, road junctures, mountains, passes, rivers and various other topographical landmarks that hugged the corridor.  The work is a masterpiece of the cartography of military movement, especially when one considers that surveyors had to execute their work under dangerous conditions, and often at night to avoid the extreme Afghan summer heat. 

The present manuscript was faithfully copied from Sanders and North’s original manuscript map only months after the mission itself by Henry M. Smith, India’s preeminent cartographic draftsman, and officially notarized at the Surveyor General of India’s Office in Calcutta.

No version of the Sanders-North manuscript map of the Kandahar to Herat route was ever published, as the mapping would have been considered ‘top-secret’, lest it fall into Russian hands.  The present manuscript was made exclusively for high-level official use in Calcutta, the capital of British India and home to supreme command overseeing ongoing war in Afghanistan. 

While a small number of European explorers and adventurers had made reconnaissance maps of parts of Afghanistan prior to 1839, up to then the country had scarcely been mapped to any degree of accuracy.  During the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British Army of the Indus and related forces were accompanied by several professional military engineers, such as Sanders and North, who possessed relevant experience working in rugged parts of India.  The British occupation of Afghanistan placed a high value on cartography and considerable resources were spent to map cities, fortifications, transport corridors and regional/tribal boundaries, as well as creating general topographical maps of regions and then nation in general.  This saw the birth of the modern scientific cartography of Afghanistan.  Most of these maps remained in manuscript form, while a few were published, variously in Calcutta, Simla, or London.  

The present map is an extraordinary find, as all manuscript map of Afghanistan from the First Anglo-Afghan War period are exceedingly rare.  Many of the manuscripts that were made in the field would have perished during the war due to heavy use or mishap, while others would have been purposely destroyed once their information was integrated into published maps.  Today, few pieces exist in institutions outside of the British Library’s India Office Records, and we are not aware of any such maps as having been offered on the market until now. 

It is also worth noting that European contact with Afghanistan was limited between 1842 and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), such that few new maps of quality were made during that time.  Consequently, and as a testament to the high standard of the British military maps made between 1839 and 1842, many of these maps were taken out of the archives to be used again in military operations between 1878 and 1880 (and were, in some cases, published).  

One will note that while the original cartographic detail of the present manuscript remains undiminished, it features an old, long tear.  We have decided not to restore the map to give the future owner control over if, and how, this should be done considering its long-term archival preservation.


Major Todd’s Mission & the Sanders-North Survey of the Route from Kandahar to Herat

In December 1838, Britain deployed its specially-created juggernaut, the Army of the Indus, to invade Afghanistan in what would become the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).  Britain’s goal was to conquer the country, placing a puppet regime in place, such that Afghanistan would become a British-controlled buffer zone protecting British India from Russia; this was to be the boldest move of The Great Game.  On May 4, 1839, the British force had taken Kandahar, the main city of Southern Afghanistan, en route to mounting a successful attack upon the national capital, Kabul.  Everything, so far, was going to the British plan, save for one serious concern in the background that threatened to unravel the entire enterprise should it not be held in check.

Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan, was widely considered the ‘Granary of Central Asia’, due to its location in a verdant valley.  It was also, since the time of Darius, the gateway to invading Afghanistan from the west, leading to the Indus Valley and India beyond.  The 1834 publication of the adventures of Arthur Conolly, an Anglo-Irish spy, who travelled incognito from Moscow to Herat, and then on to India, highlighted the unique strategic value of Herat.  While traditionally part of Persia, since 1709, Herat had been part of Afghanistan.  Persia never accepted this, and during the mid-1830s, with the assistance of her Russian allies, she was resolved to take it back.  This way, Herat became a major chip in the Great Game. 

Mohammed Shah of Persia deployed a sizable army, accompanied by Russian advisors, to take Herat, beginning a long siege of the city on November 22, 1837.  Eldred Pottinger (1811-43), an Irish soldier and adventurer, who had travelled to Herat in disguise, made himself known to Yar Mohammed Kamran, the Wazir of Herat.  In the manner of Lawrence of Arabia three generations later, Pottinger inspired the locals to mount a valiant defence of the city, lifting the siege on September 9, 1838.  Pottinger was hailed as the ‘Hero of Herat’, and his efforts (briefly) endeared the British to the local Afghan potentates.  

Meanwhile, Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, rightly believed that Herat could easily switch sides, supporting Britain’s Afghan enemies, or maybe even doing deal with Persia and the Russia.  These fears were stoked by Yar Mohammed Kamran’s reputation for being something of a chameleon.  While grateful to Pottinger for his noble efforts, Auckland believed that the situation in Herat should be handled by a seasoned, professional diplomat.

Major Elliott D’Arcy Todd (1808–1845) although barely thirty years old, was an expert on Persia, having spent some years there as a military attaché and explorer.  His reports from the field gained the favourable attention of Foreign Secretary Palmerston, and Todd was viewed as one of the brightest lights of the Anglo-Indian establishment.

Todd was to lead a small, lightly armed party along the 370-mile long route from Kandahar to Herat.  While the trek was to run along an ancient, constantly used caravan trail, it had rarely been traversed by Europeans and had never been mapped, at least to any degree of accuracy.  Moreover, the trip had to occur at the height of summer when scorching temperatures and a lack of water made the journey perilous.  If that was not enough, bandits and tribesmen who did not appreciate the British presence in their lands, could ambush the party at any time.  The mission had to proceed carefully, and due to extreme daytime heat, often had to march at night, adding new security and navigational challenges. 

Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North were to act as the pathfinders for Todd’s party, as well as to carefully map and record the nature of the journey, such that their intelligence could be of future use to the British occupation.  

Todd’s party departed Kandahar from the Herat Gate on June 21, 1839, their daily progress recorded in Sanders’ itinerary journal, which was subsequently printed in full in 1844 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.  In this diary, he recorded the daily mileage achieved and provided meticulous notes under the headings of ‘Water and Ground for Encampments’; ‘Forage and Supplies’; and ‘Nature of Road, Rivers, Hills, and General Observations’.  Overall, the diary shows that Todd’s party had to be careful about rationing supplies and water but were most fortunate not to have been attacked by hostile locals. 

Along the way, Sanders and North created an itinerary map that closely focused on the route itself and the immediate surroundings, including towns; rivers to be forded; road / path junctures; ruins; mountains and any other topographical landmarks.  Sanders was the senior of the pair and he took responsibility for making astronomical measurements, etc, while North assisted and acted as the draftsman.  They followed advanced techniques of scientific field surveying, drafting the map to a style and with content consistent with the best and most modern European practices of military engineering.

A comparison with modern maps shows the Sanders-North itinerary map to be impressively accurate, especially considering the harsh conditions under which it was made.  Sanders later recalled that it was sometimes difficult to conduct surveys on the move, as “Several of the marches were made by night but, altho’ this... has prevented the map being made so full as could be wished, ...a tolerably accurate route survey.” (Phillimore, p. 282).

Todd’s party finally arrived in Herat on July 25, 1839, after a journey of 34 days.  Wazir Yar Mohammed Kamran received them warmly, while Pottinger, though outwardly polite, was not thrilled to be superseded by the ‘official’ British presentative.  Todd’s party found Herat in crisis, the siege had prevented local farmers from raising their crops, and most of the city’s residents were only narrowly staving off starvation.  The city’s defences were in a state of ruin, leaving Herat nearly defenceless from another attack, while the municipal coffers were completely empty.  

Todd and his party set to work, supplying the Wazir with £20,000 in subsidies, while ordering thousands of bushels of grain for Turkmenistan, so saving the city from famine.  They also moved to supress slavery in the region, a common local practice that deeply offended the British.  Meanwhile, Sanders and North set about mapping Herat and its environs and organizing the reconstruction of the city’s fortifications. 

While relations between the Wazir and the British party were outwardly cordial, in April 1840, Todd received irrefutable proof that Yar Mohammed Kamran was double dealing with Persia.  Apparently, as soon as Herat had been saved from starvation and its defences repaired, the Wazir decided that he far preferred to make a deal recognizing Persian suzerainty over Herat, in exchange for them recognizing his autonomous rule over the city, rather than allowing Herat to be occupied by ‘infidels’.  

Despite this treachery, Todd went to great efforts to bring Herat’s ruler back on side, even forgiving the Wazir’s double-dealing.  However, this proved to be unsuccessful, as while Yar Mohammed Kamran continued to behave as if he was Todd’s best friend, it was soon revealed that he was planning an attack upon Kandahar in league with Persia (supposedly with Russian support).  Moreover, the Wazir was fomenting anti-British insurgences amongst some of the tribes in the regions to the west of Kandahar.  

On February 9, 1841, an exasperated Todd decided to unilaterally give up his mission, departing Heart with the entire British delegation.  Lord Auckland was furious that Todd had ‘abandoned’ his post and banished him from the Indian civil service.  Yar Mohammed Kamran was left to its own devices, and soon openly switched his allegiance to Britain’s Afghan opposition.  While the Todd mission was inevitable not a success, it did at least forestall Herat’s turn to the other side, so protecting the British position at Kandahar for a time.


The Circumstances Behind the Creation of the Present Manuscript

The original manuscript sketch map of Sanders and North’s survey seems to be the “Route from Kundhar to Heerat, with a Sketch of the country around Giriskh” (British Library: IOR/L/PS/20/G10/3/12), executed on two sheets, to a scale three times that of the present map, at 4 miles to the inch.  While this map, drafted in North’s hand, is finely executed, clearly labelling all salient details, it has an unrefined appearance consistent with field sketches.  It is preserved as part (map no. 11) of a portfolio of manuscript maps entitled “Maps of Military Surveys of the Sinde, Beluchistan, and Afghanistan made by the Quartermaster-General’s Department of the Bombay Division of the Army of the Indus under Lieut.-Col. Neil Campbell, 1838-’39-’40.”  The portfolio belongs to the India Office Records, which were moved from Calcutta to London in 1874.

Following contemporary custom, Sanders and North’s unrefined field sketch was redrafted in Herat in a very formal, neat manner by North, and re-titled “Route of the British Mission proceeding from Kandahar to Herat, in June & July, A.D. 1839. Surveyed by Capt. Edward Sanders, Bengal Engineers, and Lieut. North, Bombay Engineers” (British Library: IOR/x/3057).  Also, this fine copy was made to a reduced scale of 12 miles to the Inch, to make it more manageable for office consultation, albeit preserving all key details of the original sketch.  The notation “Original but not singed by the Authors” appears on the map, although both Sanders and North’s names appear on the document. 

Sanders and North’s Kandahar to Herat map would have been considered highly important by senior officials in Calcutta, who oversaw the Afghan War from a distance.  In line with the procedure for such maps, this fine copy was dispatched to the Surveyor General of India’s Office. 

Importantly, while the Surveyor General of India’s Office, which had a vital role in managing geographical intelligence, may have been content to add the vague outlines of the Kandahar-Herat route to their printed (and thus publicly available) maps, any detailed rendering of Sanders and North’s work would have been classified as ‘top-secret’, lest it fall into Russian hands.  It would have been decided that the fine version of the map would be copied only as official notarized manuscripts for the private use of senior British officials and military commanders. 

The present manuscript is the earliest of only the two known official, notarized manuscript copies of the map sent by North from Herat to Calcutta.  It bears the same title and scale (12 miles to the Inch) as North’s original and is noted as having been “Copied in the Office of the Surveyor General of India, from the original, Calcutta 11th, December 1839”, by “H.M. Smith, Quarter Master General’s Office”, a man who was shortly to become the most important cartographic draftsman and lithographer in the service of the Indian Government.  

To notarize the present manuscript, conferring upon it official status, it is marked as “(Signed) James Bedford, Deputy Surveyor General, In Charge of Surveyor General’s Office”.  The map does not feature the names of Sanders and North, an omission that was not uncommon for such works that were reserved for high-level internal use, although the two young officers would surely have preferred their names credited to their marvellous work.  Beautifully drafted, the present map is faithful to North’s original in content and overall style, save that it excludes some of the extraneous detail located off the immediate Kandahar to Heart Route, supposedly to sharpen the map’s perspective considering its seminal purpose.

We are aware of another, slightly later copy of the map North dispatched to Calcutta that is similar to the present map (although not quite as well drafted), being a “Map of the country between Kandahar and Herat … Copied by Thomas Studdert, Lt. Bombay Engineers. 1840” (National Archives UK: MPH 1/118/3).

The Surveyor-Cartographers: Edward Sanders & Charles Frederick North

Edward Sanders (1801 - 1843) was one of the most promising young officers of the Indian Army who sadly died in battle before his full potential could be realized.  Born in Ealing, London, he joined the Bengal Engineers in 1821.  He was an unusually talented surveyor and civil engineer, possessing stellar diplomatic skills, making him popular with his superiors.  He was an ideal appointment for the technically demanding and politically sensitive Herat Mission, assisted by Charles Frederick North.  Later in the First Anglo-Afghan War, Sanders commanded two parties of Sappers & Miners in dangerous combat operations across the country, including serving, once again, with North in the Kandahar theatre, from 1841 to 1842.  For valour, he received the Order of Bath from Queen Victoria.  He was also promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and made the Deputy Military Secretary to the Indian Government.  During the Gwailor War, Sanders was an infantry officer, commanding the ‘Kandahar Brigade’.  He was killed in action at the Battle of Maharajapore (December 29, 1843), while bravely leading an infantry charge.  Following his death one of his contemporaries proclaimed that “the Indian army has never boasted a more gallant officer”.

Charles Frederick North (1815 - 1906) had a long life and career in the Indian Army.  Haling from England, he joined the Bombay Engineers in 1833.  He was a competent field surveyor and an excellent draftsman, leading to his appointment to the Herat Mission, assisting Sanders.  After the First Anglo-Afghan War, he returned to Bombay where he served as an administrator and senior figure in the engineering establishment.  Promoted to Major in 1854, he participated in the Anglo-Persian War of 1856-7.  In 1859, North was appointed Civil Architect of Bombay, serving until his retirement in 1864, at the rank of Colonel.  He lived another four decades in England, attaining the rank of Major-General before his death in 1906.


The Draftsman: Henry M. Smith 

The present manuscript is an early and fine example of the work of Henry M. Smith, the single most important map draftsman, and one of the leading cartographic lithographers, working in India during the mid-19th Century.  Despite his prominence, not much is known of his biography beyond his role in creating numerous ground-breaking maps.  He is thought to have been born around 1800, and first appears as a draftsman for the Revenue Survey Department in Calcutta in 1837, while also executing commissions for the Quarter Master General’s Department.  Smith soon gained a reputation for his rare combination of perfectionism and great productivity.  In 1840, he married Margaret Beatson, who hailed from a Scottish family that was much accomplished in India.  Later in the 1840s, Smith became the chief draftsman of the Surveyor General’s Office in Calcutta and the director of the Government Lithographic Press, in which capacity he oversaw the creation of dozens of the most important maps published in India for the next two decades.  The grand finale of his career seems to have been the re-drafting and printing of Thomas George Montgomerie’s sensational, gargantuan survey of Kashmir in 1863.  

The First Anglo-Afghan War: Throwing a Wooden Spoon

The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was the earliest of several major Western military forays into the country and was inarguably one of the greatest disasters to ever befall the British Empire.  While the conflict produced some impressive operational and tactical victories for the British forces and was responsible for the birth of the scientific cartography of Afghanistan, it was an unmitigated strategic failure.  It proved that any Western victory in Afghanistan is pyrrhic and fleeting, a lesson seemingly lost on the Soviets during the 1980s and NATO forces since 2001.  

Afghanistan was never considered by Europeans to be a prize in and of itself, but its geographic position as a highland occupying the keystone between Central Asia, Persia and India, imbued it tremendous strategic value.  Invading empires since the time of Alexander the Great saw Afghanistan as the ‘Gateway to India’, and used it to their advantage. 

Modern Afghanistan was created in 1747, when the Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722-72), a regional leader based in Kandahar, rebelled against Persia, the country’s long-time overlord.  He progressively conquered all of Afghanistan, parts of north-eastern Persia and much of what is today Pakistan, forming the Durrani Empire.  The height of Afghan power came in 1759, when Ahmad Shah conquered Delhi, the capital of the Mughal Empire.  He subsequently defeated the Maratha Confederacy, the Subcontinent’s greatest indigenous power, at the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), ushering in Afghan rule over all of what is today North-western India.

However, Afghan hegemony over the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent was not to last long.  The Durrani Dynasty descended into infighting, while Afghanistan faced determined regional adversaries.  Through the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Afghan territory was progressively clawed back ever closer to the modern-day borders of the country. Several palace coups in Kabul saw a succession of short reigns of ineffective emirs.

The East India Company (EIC), the private enterprise which ruled British India, backed by Whitehall, became keenly interested in Afghanistan in the context of The Great Game, an epic contest between Great Britain and Russia for domination of the heart of Asia that lasted most of the 19th Century.  Often referred to in Russia as the ‘Турниры теней’ (Tournament of Shadows), in Central Asia the conflict was dominated by proxy wars and grand designs of espionage, bearing amazing similarities to the 20th Century’s Cold War.

Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the British and Russian empires had a relationship limited to trade. While they were occasionally allies or opponents in various multi-national wars, the vast geographic distances separating their domains ensured that they did not really see themselves as rivals.  Russia was more concerned with Sweden, Prussia and Poland; and Britain was preoccupied battling France and Spain.

In 1800, the clinically insane Czar Paul, and ally of Napoleon, ordered a Russian invasion of India, although this guaranteed misadventure was cancelled before it over got off the ground, upon the czar’s assassination in 1801.  While Czar Alexander I made an agreement with Napoleon to jointly invade India in 1807, this prospect was not practically feasible, and was regarded in both London and Calcutta as much ado about nothing.  

The Peace of Vienna (1815) reordered World geopolitics, creating a power vacuum.  France and Prussia were brought low by the war, and while they would eventually recover, their absence as existential threats gave Britain and Russia the freedom and financing to pursue their own expansionist designs.

From 1800 to 1828, Russia had progressively conquered the Caucuses, placing pressure on both Persia and the Ottoman Empire, two states where Britain maintained vital diplomatic interests.  This came on the heels of their conquest of large parts of the Kazakh Steppe, in Central Asia, which they added to their Siberian domains.

Meanwhile, Britain had gained domination of most of the Indian Subcontinent upon her conquest of the Maratha Confederacy in 1818.  While still hundreds of miles apart, both empires had formed large domains bordering the heart of Asia.

British theorists began to openly warn about the threat Russia posed to India.  Notably, Colonel George de Lacy published The Designs of Russia (1828) and On the Practicability of an Invasion of India (1829).  Works such as these caused great (and perhaps exaggerated) alarm in both Whitehall and Calcutta, spawning wild conspiracy theories.

At this point, something must be said of the motivations and objectives of both Britain and Russia, which like the players during the Cold War over a century later, were not always clear or consistent.  In short, Britain aimed to shore up its control of the Indian Subcontinent and to gain suzerainty over the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions (areas where the Royal Navy was already the main power).  It also harboured less-defined designs to control the vast mineral wealth of Central Asia. 

On the other side, Russia, wanted to eventually take control of the Turkic khanates of Central Asia (Khiva, Bokhara, etc.), to not only gain their vast agrarian and mineral wealth, but to place pressure upon Persia so that it would become a client state.  To that end, Russia adamantly desired a warm water port with direct access to the Indian Ocean. 

The Great Game heated up considerably during the 1830s.  The Royal Geographic Society (founded 1830), while a legitimate sponsor of cartographic and scientific discovery, also served as thinly-disguised espionage arm of the British government.  It sponsored numerous exploring expeditions into Central Asia, notably incuding Alexander Burnes’s voyages to the Punjab (1831) and Afghanistan and Bokhara (1832).  News of these expeditions caused alarm in St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, John O’Neill, a Tehran-based British diplomat anonymously penned a work The Progress and Present Position of Russia (1836) that caused a great furore amongst British policy makers.  

In the late 1830s, Britain became acutely concerned about Afghanistan.  It believed that if Russia ever made Afghanistan a client state, then enemy armies could quite easily sweep down into the Indus Valley and overrun the Gangetic Plan, just as the armies of Ahmad Shah had three generation earlier.  The EIC doubted that it would have the military muscle to stop a well-executed invasion of this kind, so considered British India to be in imminent danger.

Afghanistan was ruled by Emir Dost Mohammed Khan (1793 – 1863, reigned 1826-39; 1845-63), while corrupt and not exactly enlightened, he was clever and unbelievably tenacious.  Dost Mohammed was smarting over the Sikh Empire’s 1834 annexation of Afghanistan’s winter capital, Peshawar, and was eager to strike a deal with Britain to regain the city.  While some EIC officials were sympathetic to the Afghan Emir’s proposal, Britain had a conflict of interest.  The Sikh Empire was technically a British ally, and its French-trained national army, the Dal Khalsa, was regarded as a fearsome force.  Meanwhile, Afghanistan had no standing army, relying only upon the traditional call to ‘jihad’ to rally tribal forces.  To Britain, it seemed that the Sikhs were a much more valuable ally than the Afghans.

Dost Mohammed was undeterred.  He understood that his mere mention of the word ‘Russia’ would make the blood of EIC officials boil.  In December 1837, he invited the Russian envoy Count Vitkevich to Kabul for a conference.  This had the desired effect, as Alexander Burnes, the British resident in the Afghan capital, immediately wrote hysterical letters to Calcutta warning of an imminent Russo-Afghan alliance.  In truth, Dost Mohammed had no intention of negotiating an alliance with Russia, an ally of his arch-nemesis Persia.  The trick worked (in a fashion) – Britain henceforth took Afghanistan much more seriously than it did the Sikh Empire; however, this resulted in unintended consequences for all involved.

On January 20, 1838, Lord Auckland, the hawkish and easily provoked Governor-General of India, issued an ultimatum to Dost Mohammed that was, in the words of Burnes, “so dictatorial and supercilious as to indicate the writer's intention that it should give offense”.  Dost Mohammed, a proud man, responded simply by expelling the British mission from Kabul. 

Meanwhile, relations between Dost Mohammed and Russian had deteriorated dramatically, to the point where Russia backed a Persian attack upon the important Afghan city of Herat (1837-8).  Instead of trying to make a deal with the Emir, Lord Auckland became paranoid that the siege of Herat was the first step of a Russian takeover of Afghanistan.  To pre-empt this, Britain would invade the country and install a trusted ruler who would do Calcutta’s bidding, so keeping Russia out of South Asia.

The British decided to back Shah Shuja Durrani (1785 - 1842), who had previously served as the Emir of Afghanistan from 1803 to 1809.  Shuja was distinguished for his recreational cruelty (he enjoyed mutilating his courtiers for sport) and indolence.  He had spent the last thirty years in exile in British India, where he lived a lavish lifestyle with his harem, courtesy of the EIC.  Shah Shuja had convinced Lord Auckland that he was immensely popular with large segments of the Afghan population, who would welcome him home should the ‘despotic’ Dost Mohammed be removed.  Moreover, he had no discernible political vision or ambitions, and it was assumed that he would be happy to return to Kabul as Britain’s puppet. 

On October 1, 1838, Lord Auckland issued the Simla Declaration, which essentially declared war on Dost Mohammed’s regime, citing the Afghan Emir’s provocations against Britain’s ally, the Sikh Empire.  He also concocted a line that Shah Shuja was still the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, even though he enjoyed no public support, while many Afghans had no memory of him after his three decades abroad.

To accomplish the conquest of Afghanistan, the British assembled the ‘Grand Army of the Indus’, the largest European force ever assembled on the Indian Subcontinent.  Led by General John, Baron Keane, it boasted 21,000 British and Indian regulars, plus 38,000 camp followers, supported by 30,000 camels.  Additionally, this juggernaut was planned to be supported by 6,000 Dal Khalsa troops; however, the Sikh king inevitably withheld this support, deeming it both unnecessary and expensive.

In December 1838, the Grand Army left the Punjab, en route for Afghanistan.  Most British commentators were gung-ho over the invasion; however, the Duke of Wellington was a notable exception, calling the invasion “stupid”, predicting that the British forces, although initially victorious, would be tied down in a guerrilla war, fighting only for a land of “rocks, sands, deserts, ice and snow”.

It was decided that the Army of the Indus should first seize the main centres of southern Afghanistan before marching upon the capital, Kabul, which possessed a geographically challenging location.  By late March 1839, the British forces reached Quetta, before crossing extremely difficult terrain to arrive at Kandahar, the premier city of the southern Afghanistan.  Kandahar’s defenders abandoned the city, and headed for the hills, allowing Keane’s army to take possession on May 4, 1839. 

To open the route between Kandahar and Kabul, the British needed to take the heavily fortified town of Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan.  Keane unwisely left his siege engines in Kandahar, and upon investing Ghazni found its defences to far more formidable than anticipated.  The British only managed to take the fortress on July 22, 1839, following a daring surprise s assault upon its weakest point.

Next, the Army of Indus advanced towards Kabul, decisively defeating one of Dost Mohammed’s sons on the plain before the city.  Realizing that their situation was untenable, the Afghan court abandoned their capital, allowing Keane to rake possession of Kabul on August 7, 1839.  Shah Shuja was returned to his throne after an absence of thirty years. 

Dost Mohammed proceeded to wage a fierce guerrilla war against the British and the Shah Shuja regime.  While he was defeated in every conventional battle, his warriors always returned the next day to mount deadly surprise attacks, their ability to terrify and wear down the enemy seemingly undiminished regardless of the extent of their losses.  Dost Mohammed’s irregular forces were almost like ghosts, haunting the British, striking hard and then disappearing before the stunned victims even processed what had happened.  Curiously, this is the exact same experience recounted by both Soviet and NATO troops fighting in the same region generations later. 

Dost Mohammed taunted the increasingly frustrated British, writing a letter to one of their senior officials boasting: “I am like a wooden spoon. You may throw me hither and yon, but I shall not be hurt”. 

Dost Mohammed certainly possesed amazing survival skills, in 1840, he fled with his followers to the court of the Emir of Bukhara, who promptly threw him in prison.  Incredibly, the Afghan leader managed to escape, returning to the Afghan front.  

Despite the ferocity of the guerrilla war in the countrywide, and the innumerable ‘rebellions’ of local tribesmen against Sha Shuja’s highly unpopular administration, the British held most of the country’s major cities, including Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni and Jalalabad.  They naively felt secure in their positions, so decided to withdraw most of their forces, leaving only 8,000 troops to hold down the entire country.  They even sent for the families of the British soldiers and their camp followers to reside in the urban encampments and barracks, so as to improve morale.  A dangerous air of complacency set in.

Afghans who reluctantly tolerated the British invasion and the reinstallation of Shah Shuja now came to fear that the foreign occupation would be permanent.  Moreover, the reinstated Emir’s rule was gratuitously cruel, corrupt and ineffective, ensuring that the regime became universally despised.  Even many of Shah Shuja’s own Durrani tribes switched allegiance to the other side. 

Another factor that should not be minimized was the licentious conduct of the British soldiers.  The troops were often intoxicated, and many were engaged in romantic liaisons with local women – behaviour which was extremely offensive in a traditional Islamic society.  Alexander Burnes, the lead civilian British official in Kabul, was an especially egregious offender, setting a bad example for his subordinates.

In late 1840, Dost Mohammed was cornered while fighting the British and surrendered; he was exiled to India.  However, the guerrilla war continued under the leadership of his sons.  The British meanwhile became even more complacent and proceeded to make decisions that were against established military protocols, and that were, in some cases, bizarre. 

In Kabul, the British abandoned the hilltop fortress of the Bala Hissar in favour of new cantonment constructed on the flats.  While the new quarters were inarguably more comfortable than the medieval fortress, they were in an utterly indefensible position.  Strangely, the British also decided to store their supplies and in a separate facility, 300 yards from their cantonment.  In April 1841, a new supreme field commander of the Army of the Indus was installed.  Major-General George Keith Elphinstone was an aging, ailing veteran who was bedridden most of the time.

From April to October 1841, Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar Khan, reinvigorated the guerrilla war, fuelled by the growing resentment of the British occupation and the Shuja regime.  The British pursued an aggressive policy, striking back hard against the ‘rebels’.  At the same time, they unwisely decreasing their subsidies to tribes that had hitherto supported the British side.  By the mid-Autumn of 1841, many of these tribes switched sides to Akbar Khan.  However, these rural rebellions were nothing compared to what would happen next.  

On the night of November 1, 1841, various tribal chiefs met in Kabul to launch a rebellion against the British occupation and the rule of Shah Shuja.  The insurrection broke out the next morning, and the poorly prepared British Kabul garrison had difficulty holding its scattered and exposed positions.  Several key British officials were assassinated, and by December, Elphinstone had lost effective control of his forces; all-out chaos ensued.

In a move that is now viewed to have been lethally naive, Elphinstone negotiated a deal with Akbar Khan for safe passage to withdraw his army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers from Kabul and the surrounding region.  The operation commenced on January 1, 1842, during the height of winter and called for the British force to cross high, icy mountains to the next nearest British-held city of Jalalabad.  Part way through this hellish journey, tribesmen loyal to Akbar Khan ambushed the retreating army, and after several days of carnage slaughtered almost the entire force.  Only a single British soldier, plus a handful of sepoys, made it to Jalalabad to tell the story.  The ‘Retreat from Kabul’ is remembered as one of the greatest disasters in the history of the British Empire.

The British subsequently mounted a revenge campaign against Akbar Khan, defeating his allies in several key battles, and retaking Kabul.  However, the replacement of the bullish Lord Auckland as Governor-General, with Lord Ellenborough, who was determined to end the war, saw the British withdrawal completely from Afghanistan.  The nightmare was finally over!

Dost Mohammed was returned to his throne, upon which he would rule until his death in 1863.  The Afghan Emir memorably remarked to the British:

“I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”

References: N / A – Present Manuscript Not Recorded.  Cf. [Re: Original Sanders-North Mss.:] British Library, India Office Records: British Library: IOR/L/PS/20/G10/3/12 IOR/x/3057; A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Reports, Field Books, Memoirs, Maps, Etc., of the Indian Surveys: Deposited in the Map Room of the India Office (London, 1878), pp. 480-1; [Re: Sanders Diary:] Edward Sanders, ‘Route from Candahar to Herat. From the Political Secretariat of the government of India’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. XIII, part 1, no. 146 (Calcutta: Bishop's College Press, February 1844), pp. 121-34; [Re: Sanders & North’s mapping activities:] R.H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, vol. IV (Dehra Dun, 1958), pp. 282-4, 459, 465; [Re: On Todd’s Herat Mission:] Sir John Login, ‘Memorandum on the Political Relations of the English Mission with Herat, 1837 to 1841, by Sir John Login, Knight’, in Joseph P. Ferrier, Caravan journeys and wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan and Beloochistan (London, 1856), pp. 522-34; John William Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan (London, 1874), vol. I, pp. 447-50; [Re: On Herat’s strategic Position:] G.J. Adler, ‘The Key to India?: Britain and the Herat Problem 1830-1863 - Part 1’, Middle Eastern Studies, nol. 10, no. 2 (May 1974), pp. 186-209.


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