In the second half of the 19th Century, it seemed as though the Russian bear and the British lion were destined to meet head-on. For 100 years Russia had been expanding east and south at a rate, it has been estimated, of 55 square miles a day. The process seemed inexorable, but Britain was determined to stop it before India was threatened. The rivalry between the two, whimsically entitled “The Great Game” in the British Press, ranged from Europe to the Far East. On the borders of India - which Russia never really intended to invade - the “Game” led Britain into military adventure in both Afghanistan and Tibet - involvement that was largely unnecessary and at times disastrous.
For over 100 years, from the early 18th to the mid 19th Centuries, Russia imposed a steadily increasing challenge to British India. Peter the Great is supposed to have said in 1725, that Russia should move towards India. Nevertheless as the 19th Century drew on, the Russians advanced slowly but steadily towards the frontiers of India. By 1850, the gap between the British and Russian Empires had narrowed to not much over 1000 miles, whereas it had been 4,000 miles in the early 18th Century. With every passing year the British and Russians became more and more interested in the territory that separated them, the buffer states running in a crescent round northern India; Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and Tibet. The competition for influence in those regions became known as “The Great Game”.
In the Middle East there was a direct conflict of interest. The British were determined to check Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean Turkey and Persia since their commercial and military communications ran through those areas. They were especially keen to control the Sultan of Turkey since, as Suzerain of Egypt, he ruled the territory through which ran the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India. The Russians for their part were equally determined to control the Sultan, since he was also the guardian of the Straights of Constantinople, “the key to Russia’s house”, as Tzar Nicholas put it to Lord Salisbury the British Prime Minister in 1896.
For more than half a century there seemed little chance of compromise. After the Crimean War 1854-56, which nearly ruined Russia as a great power, and the Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (see this website), which thoroughly alarmed the British, both powers felt acutely vulnerable. In their redoubled efforts to defend their interests, they employed an armoury of policies: competition for political influence at the courts of the Sultan of Turkey, the Shah of Persia and the Amir of Afghanistan; trade and investment for political ends; strategic railways, military expeditions; and perhaps most important of all, allies in Europe.,
In the second half of the 19th ‘Century, Britain could usually count on Austria-Hungary, and sometimes on France and Germany, to help frustrate Russia in the Straights and Mediterranean. In the end the fate of both Russian and British Empires had to be resolved in Europe, where the players of the Great Game sat.
On this vast diplomatic chessboard, India was a vital piece. The British valued India more highly than any of their other imperial possessions; for its lucrative trade, for British investment there, for the troops India provided and the commanding position she gave in southern Asia and, perhaps most of all, because, to lose India would ruin the reputation for invincibility on which British imperial rule depended.
Thoughtful British officials were aware that India, with its population of nearly 300 million and area as large as Europe, could not be held by force alone. To hold India, the burdens of Empire had to be light enough and the benefits of Empire great enough, to make British rule acceptable to the subject population.
What the British feared, was that Russia might establish her influence in this area - say in eastern Persia or Afghanistan - and use it as a base to stir up rebellions among the mountain tribesmen of the North West Frontier.
Worried about the safety of Afghanistan, the British initially decided to try direct negotiations with St. Petersburg, and were somewhat reassured when told that Afghanistan “lay completely outside the sphere within which Russia might be called upon to exercise her influence”.
In 1875, British Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury writing to the prime Minister advised “we must have a reliable agent in Afghanistan”. “We want to guide the Ameer”, he Wrote “and to watch; for there is the double danger that he may play us false, or remaining true, may blunder into operations which will bring him into collision with Russia”. As a result of this, the next Viceroy, Lord Lytton, made many proposals to Sher Ali for closer relations with his country.
But the Amir ignored most of them, and by 1877, the only result of the new policy had been an abortive meeting between the agents of the two governments. The Afghan representative was so violently anti-British - he was only prepared to discuss unconditional and apparently unlimited British military aid - that the meetings were abandoned.
The British faced increasing pressure in the other major theatre of the Great Game, the Near East., Russia went to war with Turkey in 1877, and by early 1878 seemed on the point of seizing the “keys to her house” from the Sultan. But Britain managed to secure the support of Austria-Hungary, alarmed by Russia’s military advance into the Balkans, and they called Russia to order at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
The British could breathe a sigh of relief at having survived, if not won, another round of the Great Game.
But then, while the British were absorbed by the Near East, conflict, Russia renewed pressure in central Asia. Her aim was probably to frighten Britain into being more amenable in the Near East, and for a short time the situation looked decidedly alarming. On the very day the Congress of Berlin opened, a Russian mission left for Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. Emissaries set out to spy in Turkestan, and plans were drawn up, on orders from St. Petersburg, for an advance towards India. Sher Ali declared a holy war against the British. Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India was enraged, he proposed that a rival British mission too, should be sent to Kabul and this was agreed in London.
A legendary figure on the frontier he knew its people intimately. He was ordered to ride into the Khyber Pass with a small escort and ask permission to proceed. Cavagnari soon learned that the road was blocked. He halted and the Afghan leader, Faiz Mohammed Khan, who was a friend of Cavagnari and commander of the Afghans bid him turn around as Kabul would resist the entry of the mission. The advance party prudently left. The government of India reported immediately to London “the repulse of Sir Neville Chamberlain while the Russian mission are still at his capital has deprived the Amir of all further claim on our forbearance”. Although a military force was assembling in India the home government instructed the Amir to apologise and receive a permanent mission.
By November 20th Sher Ali had not replied and three columns of British and Indian soldiers marched into Afghanistan. One column under the command of General “Bobs” Roberts moved up the valley of the Kurram River but found his way blocked by Afghans concealed in precipitous positions in the Piewar Kotal Pass. That evening, leaving the camp-fires burning, Roberts led 1,300 men in a stumbling night-time climb up a side ravine, surprising the Afghans at daybreak and over-ran their forward positions. Quickly bringing up cannons he battered the main camp until the Afghans fled. The other two columns occupied Kandahar and Gandamak.
Sher Ali had been abandoned by his erstwhile Russian protectors. The treaty he had made with them had already been denounced in St. Petersburg. Sher Ali, no doubt disillusioned by the incomprehensible diplomatic manoeuvrings of the Great Game gave up and expired.
His son Yakub Khan, to whom he had committed the government, made overtures to the British and, after negotiations with Cavagnari in May 1879, signed the Treaty of Gandamak, in which he agreed to cede some territory on the frontier, to receive a British envoy in Kabul, and to conduct his foreign policy in accordance with British wishes. In return he would be supported against external aggression.
However, the men on the spot were far from convinced of the Amir’s sincerity; General Roberts in particular had his doubts for he had intercepted a threatening message from Yakub to one of the Afghan tribes asking his kinsmen to kill as many of the “powerful ones” as possible. The British troops began to withdraw despite serious reservations of the commanders. As Roberts column was moving out they met up with Cavagnari’s party on his way to be appointed envoy in Kabul.
That night, July 15, 1879, they dined together and during the evening, Roberts was asked to propose the health of the envoy. “But somehow” he recalled “ I did not feel equal to the task. I was depressed and my mind was filled with such gloomy foreboding as to the fate of these fine fellows that I could not utter a word”. Cavagnari, in the highest spirits, spoke confidently of the prospects.
In the early hours of September 5th, Roberts now back in Simla was awakened by a man from the telegraph office. He brought a message that the residency in Kabul had been sacked by Afghan soldiers. Possibly Cavagnari was already dead. In Delhi the Viceroy’s council met in the middle of that night and decided that an army under Roberts should go to Kabul at once. Further telegrams during that day confirmed the worst fears, the whole of Cavagnari’s party had been murdered. On arrival in Kabul, Roberts found the Yakub Khan “an insignificant man, lacking the force of character without which no one could hope to govern”. After all this, the British government decided not to insist any longer in maintaining an agent in Kabul. Even Roberts came to believe that the less the British were seen in Afghanistan the better they would be liked; and that if Russia should try to seize Afghanistan or march through it to India, Britain would be more likely to attract the Afghan support if she had refrained form interfering in her affairs.
TIBET - LAST THROW OF THE DICE. In 1901 and more strongly in 1902, Curzon heard rumours that seemed to justify his fears about Russian intervention on the north-east frontier of India with Tibet. The Russian government was supposedly sending agents and arms to the mysterious country in the mountains. There was nothing apparently to be done about this. Tibet lay nominally under the suzerainty of China, a power so decrepit that it was unable to enforce its rights. When the British protested to China they were apt to be told that the Tibetans were out of control and on approaching the Tibetans one was told to deal with China. At the end of 1902 the Viceroy tried to bring the issue to a conclusion. There was an exception -an adult Dalai Lama, unusual, as most died before reaching the age for taking power at 18 due to the propensity of the Regent wishing to hold onto power. Curzon desired to send a mission accompanied by an armed escort into Tibet to negotiate for a British agent to be resident. He urged on his colleagues in London that if this policy was carried out firmly and decisively, there would be no military risk.
The British cabinet were reluctant to do anything that would estrange Britain further from Russia. The most the cabinet would do was authorise talks with the Chinese and Tibetan representatives. Curzon appointed Francis Younghusband explorer and newspaper correspondent to lead the mission. Younghusband crossed into Tibet early in July 1903, the Tibetans asked him to leave but he refused. There was already a clear difference of purpose between the government of India and London Younghusband’s mission moved forward very slowly in bitter weather. In March 1904 the first major battle took place at Guru. A Tibetan army of around 2,000 men barred the route to Lhasa. The British were reluctant to open fire and told the Tibetan general his force would be disarmed. Shooting began, the Tibetans had no chance and about half were killed or taken prisoner, the rest simply walked off. The Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. Younghusband therefore negotiated with priests of the Buddhist hierarchy A treaty was signed but the terms were very different and politically more dangerous than authorised by London. The convention kept foreign agents out of Tibet and Tibet was to pay reparations and the British were to occupy a tongue of border territory called the Chumbi Valley.
The Russians complained and the home government insisted that some of the terms be altered at once. The Younghusband mission is a prime example of the way in which a mere hint of Russian action could lead the British into international embarrassment. There is no evidence that Russia ever made any serious attempt to control Tibet; she had no claim and little opportunity to intervene. But Britain was prepared to pay a considerable price to keep her out. The Younghusband mission was the last throw of the dice in the Great Game!. In the following years the Russians capitalised on Britain’s evident anxiety to keep their goodwill in Europe, by behaving much as they pleased in Persia. On one occasion the commander of the Cossacks in Teheran threatened to bombard the British legation. Indeed by 1914 Russia had virtually annexed the northern part of Persia in which most of the principal cities lay. There was nothing the British could do short of renewing the Great Game.
In July 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg urged support for Russia in order to gain her friendly co-operation in Asia. This argument certainly counted for something in London. Britain and Russia fought together in the War - a state of affairs that would have seemed incredible a few years before - because each saw Germany as an immediate menace. The Great Game was over for good!.
The mission was placed under the command of General Sir Neville Chamberlain, a hot-headed man of 58. He set out from Peshawar towards the end of September , 1878, preceded by a letter telling Sher Ali that the mission must be as well received as Russia’s. Sher Ali, ominously, made no reply. At the frontier, Chamberlain sent forward to negotiate with the Afghans, an officer who was soon to play a tragic part in relations between the governments of India and Afghanistan, Major Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari .