William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The First Afghan War

Much like my previous experiences with Dalrymple, I began this book in the afternoon, and read it cover to cover at a single sitting, punctuated by frequent breaks to rest my eyes, until I finished it at five in the morning. Return of a King – his latest book – is a description of the first Anglo-Afghan War, that took place between 1839 and 1842, one of the hallmark events of the “Great Game” – that is, the struggle between the Russian and the British Empires for political end economic control over central Asia. Now, I am no historian, so I can hardly comment upon Dalrymple’s book as a substantive work of history. I do, however, have some observations about his historical method (which I’ll come to last of all), about his writing, more generally, and about my own response to this book.

The very first thing to say – and this, I know, has been repeated ad nauseam – is that Dalrymple is a fine, fine writer. Mellifluous prose, lush description and evocative imagery were, for me, the defining features of The Last Mughal, and they are present in abundance here. The descriptions capture your attention from the beginning. On page three, for instance, this sweeping description of Afghanistan:

Everything had always conspired against its rise; the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of the Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive, rocky ribcage. (p. 3)

The last bit wouldn’t be out of place as a description of the Misty Mountains – the image is indelibly imprinted upon the memory, and all the action that takes place hence takes place within that background, enriching it to a great extent. And then, it’s not only about descriptions. Dalrymple’s isn’t an account, it’s a story. Consider:

The real reason behind the dispatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from both India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah Shuja, the Durrani Empire, or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead, its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of the River Nieman. (p. 5)

And immediately, he creates a sense of mystery and suspense that we’re far more accustomed to finding in fiction. Yet, this is no mere thriller: Dalrymple punctuates his work with frequent invocations of Afghan and Persian poetry, as applicable. The effect is brilliant, not only because the poetry is, for the most part, of a very high standard, but also because Dalrymple’s sense of timing is outstanding. After recounting the grave political situation in the lead up to the British Embassy to Shah Shuja,  he breaks the tension by quoting this hilariously risqué couplet from the tribal leader Khushal Khan:

There is a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach                                                                                              But alas, I cannot swim.

And it’s not only poetry – Dalrymple quotes liberally from the journals and diaries of the main protagonists in the drama. Much like The Last Mughal, this has the signal impact of giving us an unparalleled amount of depth – far more than what the most detailed account could provide. This is especially true in juxtaposition – there are few reading experiences quite as arresting or defamiliarising as reading the journal entry of the governor-general’s wife, followed immediately by an Afghani poet, and both on broadly the same theme.

These three things, I think, are what make Dalrymple the writer of popular history par excellence: outstanding language and description, a feel for the story, and his great erudition combined with a knowledge of when and how to use it for maximum effect.

On a personal note, I found it fascinating – with my weakness for grand narratives – to make a connection between the situation of Shah Shuja, when he is dethroned and pursued into exile, with the situation of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish highlanders.

But he eluded the search parties and with a few companions wandered on unmarked tracks from the poplars and the holly oaks of the valleys to the crystalline snows of the high passes, crossing the kerfs and shelves of the mountains, sleeping rough and biding his time. 

I read this passage, and I was promptly reminded of the Prince in the Heather, eluding his pursuers through the harsh country of the Highlands, and finally escaping across the sea, to the strains of “Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing/ Onward the sailors cry…” In fact, Dalrymple himself expressly makes the connection later in the book, although ironically enough, it is in the context of the situation of Dost Mohammad Khan, Shah Shuja’s great rival.

Another personal note – this book opened a window for me into understanding better the first poet I ever read and enjoyed – Kipling. A fair few of Kipling’s poems are set in Afghanistan, and he paints a stark and vivid picture of utterly barbaric brutality. I remember a poem that left a great impact upon me – it was about how a would-be assassin of a sheikh was gradually stoned to death with such deliberate and casual cruelty that the remembrance of it still makes my hair stand on end. I remember, specially, the refrain:

Abdhur Rahman, the Durani Chief, to the North and the South is sold.
The North and the South shall open their mouth to a Ghilzai flag unrolled,
When the big guns speak to the Khyber peak, and his dog-Heratis fly:
Ye have heard the song—How long ? How long ? Wolves of the Abazai!

Of course, now I know who the Ghilzais and the Heratis were, but more importantly, Dalrymple’s account is instructive in that it explains what so shocked and fascinated Kipling. For instance, when he says:

These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice.”

And describes the system of rewards and punishments at other places, Kipling’s poetry makes a lot more sense. And not only the bits about the brutality. Dalrymple quotes Elphinstone writing about the Afghans being “fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent” – and his later descriptions about the bravery and generosity of Prince Akbar Khan – both of these promptly recalled to mind those immortal – and by now, trite – lines:

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,                                                                                Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;                                                                                   But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,                                                                              When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

And if you’ve read the full poem, you’ll know what I mean.

Two comments – one minor, and one slightly major – about historical method. The first is that Dalrymple is anything but what we commonly understand to be “neutral”. Of course, neutrality is an impossible ambition, even in the abstract, so let me change the word: he isn’t detached. He makes no bones about calling the British persecution of the First Afghan War “illegal”, which is a strong word under any circumstances. He mentions, almost as an aside, that the great Indian famine was exacerbated, to a large extent, by the British forcible replacing cultivable crops with opium, and goes on to make an observation about their plans for another illegal war, this time, in China, in the context of opium. Other examples abound, adding to these two, and the overwhelming sense one gets from the book, to use that Scottish phrase, is that of “perfidious Albion” at the root cause of all evil. Now, that might very well be true, but I wonder if it is sensible to make claims as controversial as these in a popular history book – I, for instance, would have liked to see at least a few citations for the proposition about the great Indian famine. Dalrymple pulls no punches, and it makes for great writing – but without the rigour that a work of professional scholarship would demand, I find his book to be weakest at precisely the points where he is at his most rhetorical. And what is crucial to note is that Dalrymple doesn’t – I feel – actually need any of that. For me, one of the most striking episodes of the book was his narration of the sack of Kabul. A simple description of the pillaging, the looting, the rapes, the murders and the entirely arbitrary destruction of a beautiful city was a far more damning indictment of the colonial army than any “opinion”, no matter how strongly worded. In the long run, that is what I will remember when I think of the First Afghan War.

And lastly, I mentioned above that Dalrymple doesn’t provide an account – he narrates a story. Not only that, he does so through strongly drawn and sharply delineated characters. So The Return of a King is not really an account of the First Afghan War. It is the story of Shah Shuja, trying relentlessly, heroically and ultimately, tragically, to recover his lost kingdom. It is the story of Dost Mohammed Khan, fighting to maintain his freedom against overwhelming odds, and that of his son, Akbar Khan, seeking vengeance for his father’s exile and a return of lost glories. It is the story of Alexander Burnes, scholar and colonial administrator, struggling to be more than just a pawn in the Great Game. And it is the story of so many others – Dalrymple paints them, flaws, warts and all, but never without a lack of empathy. He makes us passionately interested in their histories, their lives, their beliefs, their drives, their fates. And while, again, this makes for tremendous reading, it seems at times that he is carried away by the logic of his own method. A classic example is when he attributes the officer Nicholson’s having to watch the death of his brother to some of the major events of the 1857 Rebellion. Dalrymple makes a grand, sweeping statement, something to the effect of, “this would go on to change the fate of Delhi in 1857.” Statements like this punctuate many of the momentous events of the book. In other words, Dalrymple’s made his book so individual-centric, that it seems he ends up subscribing to an almost mid-19th-century Carlyle-esque view of history, where it is the genius, ambition and brilliance of single, extraordinarily gifted individuals that provide the gears, sprockets and driving force behind all important historical events. Again, I am no historian, but to the best of my knowledge, this is now a thoroughly discredited view of history (Carr has a brilliant critique in What is History?). At the very, very least, it is thoroughly controversial, and I wonder if it is entirely proper for Dalrymple to simply presuppose its veracity, even in a popular history book. Again, it’s the best thing he could do to make it a great read, but at times I did feel that it was too great a price to pay.

In sum, apart from a few nit-picky reservations, this is a wonderful read. I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who, like me, has a layman’s interest in the history of colonialism generally, and that of the British Empire in Asia in particular; or to anyone who, like me, isn’t that great a fan of historical fiction, but does love well-done historical writing (and I know that sounds awfully snobbish); and to anyone, indeed, who is looking for a good, thought-provoking read with at least a bit of history involved. Not as good, perhaps, as The Last Mughal, which frequently brought tears to my eyes, but very, very good nonetheless.

The Amazon link to the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Return-King-The-Battle-Afghanistan/dp/1408818302

Kipling’s Ballad of East and West: http://www.bartleby.com/246/1129.html

Kipling’s The Ballad of the King’s Mercyhttp://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_mercy.htm


Filed under Empire, History, Indian history, William Dalrymple, William Dalrymple

10 responses to “William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The First Afghan War

  1. Phenominial commentary on this book Gautam.

    I love history. The history of Afganistan is paticularly fascinating

    . I agree that journals and first hand accounts really add vericity as well as depth to a history book.

    Like yourself I have a bit of a problem with historical fiction. Of course there are some great works. However, I often feel like that it is better in multiple ways to read the real history.

  2. Haven’t read Return of the King yet. But apart from that, his best book – and I’ve read them all – remains The City of Djinns.

  3. Excellently detailed review Gautam. Keep them coming.

  4. As one reader to another

    I read this review and remembered yours. Thought you might be interested- http://www.caravanmagazine.in/books/how-do-empire-right

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for linking to that article. It was extremely informative.

      I don’t think, however, that Dalrymple’s work is “at the service of bettering Western-driven governance in Afghanistan and the pacification of Afghan tribes.” In fact, I feel that is an unduly harsh criticism. The throw-away statements that he makes seeking to link 1841 and 2012 should be taken as they are – decidedly ahistorical speculations put out there to make people think, along the lines that this article indeed does – and not programmatic plans of action. I agree, of course, that this book is not a “thoroughgoing critique of empire” – but then, it is not meant to be. The task that Dalrymple sets himself, I think, is to make a particular period of history as accessible to a non-academic audience as possible. Of course, that is an enterprise fraught with peril, because it’s so easy to descend into inapplicable universalisations (my main problem with the book) and – as this article points out – romanticisations of characters. But we can take the universalisations with a few bags of salt, and treat the romanticised characters as essential to the telling of a jolly good tale, nothing more – and I don’t think that *that* should be a stick to beat Dalrymple with, as long as we’re *aware* of it.

      Indeed, I think that Dalrymple’s remarks explicitly linking the great famine with British economic policy, as well as his account of the senseless destruction of Kabul, ensures that the book is not in any way a Niall Ferguson-esque *apologia* for Empire, and that’s important in its own right.

  5. Excellent review. I agree with you both on Dalrymple’s talent as a writer and on the problem of his adherence to the great man view of history (perhaps a product of his narrative skills).

    His The Last Mughal was beautiful, and surprisingly easy to read. As you say, he writes as a novelist, which comes with problems when writing history but then given all history is partial and the myth of the detached observer precisely that – a myth, perhaps that’s ok. Perhaps it’s even better that it’s plain it is a story, because history ultimately is all stories.

    Or perhaps I forgive too much because he writes so well. Hard to say. Of course, as you also note it is popular history, not academic history. One should only expect so much rigour.

    I have his City of Djinns at home and unread. I’m saving it for when I visit India on holiday, which won’t be for a while yet sadly.

  6. Romanoz

    Very interesting review. I only read the first few chapters and the last two of the book(which are the “lessons” chapters). I thought it might give me an historical perspective on our current predicament.
    But your review has inspired me to read the rest or rather more!
    I agree with the NYT reviewer when he wrote: “Of course this was not simply a tale of hubris and nemesis. Dalrymple says relatively little about the larger geopolitical scene..”
    There is an element of déjà vu in the current situation but it requires history not historical writing, as you call it, to draw any lessons from it with confidence.

  7. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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