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AFGHANISTAN – KANDAHAR / URUZGAN / HELMAND / ZABOL: “Districts of Kundahar 1840”. Zoom

AFGHANISTAN – KANDAHAR / URUZGAN / HELMAND / ZABOL: “Districts of Kundahar 1840”.


An exquisitely drafted, resplendently coloured map of the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, predicated upon the pioneering surveys of British military engineers during the early days of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), likely drafted in either Simla or Calcutta for the Office of the Quartermaster General in India. in India.

Place and Year: [Likely Simla or Calcutta], 1840.
Code: 67208

Manuscript, pen and ink and watercolour on thick wove paper (Very Good, resplendent original colours, some professional restoration along centrefold, some light chipping and short closed tears to margins), 66 x 99 cm (26 x 39 inches).


This exquisitely drafted, and resplendently coloured large manuscript map captures the Kandahar region in 1840, during the early days of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).  During this conflict, Kandahar was the largest British base in Afghanistan and the surrounding region was the scene of a fierce and constantly evolving guerrilla war.  Curiously, moving forward to the present day, the sane region has, since 2001, been a hotbed of Taliban resistance to NATO-backed forces. 

The present map is one of the earliest broadly accurate maps of the Kandahar region and one of only small number of original manuscript maps that survive from the First Anglo-Afghan War, which marked the West’s first major foray into the country.  While not inscribed as such, the map was clearly made for the Indian Quartermaster General’s (QMG) Office, the division of the British Indian Army responsible for logistics and supply, and which employed detachments of military engineers to conduct surveys of conflict theatres. 

The map is roughly centred on the city of Kandahar and presents a stellar overview of the surrounding region, extending from Girishk and the Helmand Valley, in the west, to Qalati Giliji, in the east; covering parts of the modern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabol.  Executed to a relatively large scale of “Scale of 8 B[ritish]. Miles to an Inch”, it provides a fine, broadly accurate overview of the region’s dramatic topography, with the mountain ranges expressed through fine webs of shading, rivers are carefully delineated, and major waterways, such as the Helmand and Arghandab, coloured in blue.  All cities and towns of consequence are labelled, while roads and caravan paths are expressed by pricked lines.  Most impressively, nineteen of the region’s districts are labelled and coloured in outline in brilliant hues of handmade Indian paints.  Beyond that which contains the city of Kandahar, districts which were major loci of anti-British insurgent activity include “Geereshk” (Girishk), which housed a British garrison; “Zumeendawur” (Zamindawar); “Neesh” (Nesh); “Tureen” (Tarinkot); “Dehrawut” (Deh Ravod), and “Kulate Ghulzaee” (Qalati Ghilji), located just outside of the Kandahar region.

Having compared this map to several of the manuscript maps of Afghanistan in the India Office Records at the British Library, the present work stands out as being the most visually stunning.

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). 


The Circumstances behind the Creation and Use of the Present Map

Some mystery still surrounds the circumstances behind the creation of the present manuscript, which labels no author or sponsor, although some aspects can be confidently attributed. 

Prior to the period immediately before and during British occupation of Kandahar, which lasted from May 1839 to 1842, the city and the surrounding region had never been mapped with any degree of accuracy, as European contact with the area was fleeting at best.  In December 1838, in preparation for the British invasion, William Fraser-Tytler, a military surveyor working for the QMG was dispatched the region to commence mapping activities, in what would have been an extremely dangerous and technically challenging operation.  His work focussed upon the districts to the north and west of Kandahar, including the Helmand and Arghandab valleys.  His endeavours eventually resulted in his masterpiece, “Map of the Country North and West of Candahar” (1838-40), a stellar 12-sheet manuscript map done to a scale of 8 miles to the inch (the same scale as the present map), held today by the British Library.

During and immediately after the march of the British Indian Army to Kandahar in 1839, Major William Garden and Captain John Patton mapped the regions to the west and southwest of Kandahar as well as the immediate vicinity of the city proper.   Portions of their surveys were published as the exceedingly rare map, Plan of the Country around Kandahar surveyed by Major Garden and Captain Paton, 1839 (Simla: Quarter Master General's Office, 1839).

The present map does not directly copy any other map of which we are aware but seems to show the influence of both Fraser-Tytler and Garden & Paton’s work in places.  As the QMG was the only entity that sponsored such mapping in the Kandahar region during the time in question, and as the map, in its content and style, conforms to QMG conventions, it is safe to attribute that department as the creator of the map. 

Moreover, the map seems to have been made by, an evidently highly skilled, draftsman employed by the QMG, likely made in either Simla (in modern Himachal Pradesh, India) or Calcutta, where the QMG operated cartographic workshops during the war.  The unusually high artistic standard of execution suggests that it was created by a professional draftsman in a quiet, peaceful setting, as opposed to being made by a surveyor operating in war zone, or in the tense atmosphere of the British headquarters in Kandahar.  The inconsistencies in toponymy employed on the present map (ex. “Kundahar vs. “Kandahar”) suggests that it was copied from a rough surveyor’s draft by someone who was not personally familiar with region or topic.  

The gorgeous original hues of handmade watercolour paints employed on the map are similar to those used in Calcutta, of which many were developed from dyes used in the Bengali textile industry.  While Calcutta is a quite plausible place for the manuscript to have been made, where QMG draftsmen often worked in conjunction with the Surveyor General of India’s Office, such colours were also transported to and used by QMG draftsmen at their base in Simla.  

Just as we are not aware of the existence of an antecedent to the present map, nor are we aware of it ever having been published.  The map was likely made for the exclusive, private use of senior military and civilian officials for the strategic planning of the war in Southern Afghanistan.  While it does not present a level of detail sufficient for operational planning, its clear and accurate depiction of the general topography and the boundaries of the districts (which were each controlled by their own tribal potentates) would have been useful for deciding where to allocate military resources and where to send financial incentives (i.e. bribes) to various local chiefs.

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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.”

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strong>References: N / A – Present Manuscript Not Recorded.  Cf. [Re: On relevant surveys of the Kandahar Region] R.H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, vol. IV (Dehra Dun, 1958), pp. 283-4; 294-5; 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), p. 481; [Re: On the War in Kandahar in general] H. Helsham Jones, ‘Paper VII. The History and Geography of Afghanistan and the Afghan Campaigns of 1838-9 and 1842’ in Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Occasional Papers, vol. III (Chatham, 1879), pp. 89 – 184; John William Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan (3 vols., London, 1874); J.H. Stocquelier (ed.), Memoirs and Correspondence of Sir William Nott (2 vols., London, 1854).

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