The return of a king : the battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

by William Dalrymple

Paper Book, 2014




New York : Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, 2014.


Examines the mid-19th-century Afghan war as a tragic result of neocolonial ambition, cultural collision and hubris, drawing on previously untapped primary sources to explore such topics as the reestablishment of a puppet-leader Shah, the conflict's brutal human toll and the similarities between the war and present-day challenges.

User reviews

LibraryThing member pbjwelch
Good story, but this book dragged for me...I had to really work at finishing it--a new experience for me as I have enjoyed all of the author's previous works (and even made a special trip to central India to visit some of the sites of White Rajah. Maybe it was the long quotes from original material; it was undoubtedly exciting for Dalrymple to find them, but I felt they weighed down the storyline and flow.

For this reason, I would recommend reading the last chapter first, where Dalrymple puts the story in context and explains the work and research that resulted in the book. Had I done so, I believe I would have been more appreciative of the long quoted passages and detail.

Nevertheless, if you're a Great Game historian, or a historical wars buff, you will want to read this work that fills in the Afghan side of the British-Afghan 19C wars with all their appalling atrocities, horrors and arrogant behaviour (witnessed and suffered by both parties).
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LibraryThing member Hiensch
Fascinating first and last parts of this book. Middle section, though, is a little wordy and long-winding. Very much worth to read, but story could have been told in 100 pages less!
LibraryThing member busterrll
Great book As is often the case, it could have used more maps.
One wonders, do any politicians read ?
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
While there are other histories of the First Anglo-Afghan War, Dalrymple is apparently the first historian to use Afghan sources in his research. The result is a balanced account of the war and the decades leading up to it from both the English and the Afghan perspective. It's a tragic story from either perspective, and it didn't need to happen. Dalrymple's analysis of the many failures of leadership will make this of interest to students of leadership and management as well as military historians and readers with an interest in colonialism and the history of the British Empire. Potential readers shouldn't be discouraged by its heft. It's not dry like some histories, and it reads quickly for a book of its size.

I was particularly taken with Lady Sale, the wife of Sir Robert “Fighting Bob” Sale. While “Fighting Bob” and those under his command were under siege in Jalalabad, Lady Sale and other British dependents were in Kabul and left in the disastrous winter retreat. Lady Sale was among those taken hostage by Akbar Khan. She had as much, if not more fortitude than the British officers among the hostages, and contributed to their escape from captivity. Dalrymple quotes extensively from her published journal account of the events of 1841-42, and it piqued my interest in reading the whole thing. Project Gutenberg has a free electronic version of Lady Sale's journal that now resides in my reader app.
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LibraryThing member BrianHostad
Great read, well paced and interesting on the first Afghan war. Dalyrymple deals well with inevitable large cast of characters, none of whom I'd heard of before. It gives a great feel for the tribal and proudly independent nature of Afghanistan with lots of obvious parallels with its' more recent history.
LibraryThing member oparaxenos
Before picking up this book, I had heard a lot about William Dalrymple, but I did not realise just how good an author he is. This is a book about an extremely interesting subject, but what is striking is how Dalrymple made it so eminently readable. I would pick up the book and start reading, and before I knew it 40 pages would have gone by. The author is clearly in command of his material, and he writes in a balanced and perceptive way. The story has striking parallels to the unfortunate experience of the NATO forces in Afghanistan in the past 10 years. I strongly recommend this to anyone with an interest in history.… (more)
LibraryThing member sriram_shankar
William Dalrymple picks events that have been hitherto described in a maximum of two pages - The White Mughals, The Last Mughal and now the Return of a King. Inclined to believe from their short descriptions that these were but minor footnotes to history, thus are we condemned to repeat it after having failed to learn any lessons. Dalyrmple's telling of the First Anglo-Afghan war is a masterpiece that brings into sharp focus not only various characters from that period but also striking similarities between then and now. This book is very well researched and makes good use sources that the author claims have never been used before. This book is a must-buy.… (more)
LibraryThing member tcards
Fascinating, well researched account of the 19th century British ill-advised attempt to subjugate Afghanistan. A book American policy wonks should read. The amazing parallels between this 171 year old disaster and the more recent Soviet fiasco; coupled with our own equally pathetic ongoing adventure show that history does indeed repeat itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member tcards
Fascinating, well researched account of the 19th century British ill-advised attempt to subjugate Afghanistan. A book American policy wonks should read. The amazing parallels between this 171 year old disaster and the more recent Soviet fiasco; coupled with our own equally pathetic ongoing adventure show that history does indeed repeat itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member jolyonpatten
Great book. Really, really great.
LibraryThing member pierthinker
Dalrymple has steeped himself in the history of India and Afghanistan and in this book displays his knowledge and research with skill and a lightness of touch. His telling of Britain's First Afghan War and its ultimate complete failure is detailed, complete, exciting and carries warnings for our own times, connections that he often makes. The narrative is thrilling and drives forwards to an almost inevitable disaster of Britain's own making so the reader wants to find out what happens next.

The history of Afghanistan, the cultures, the people and the historical sources are all new to me, so this becomes a revelation to find the density of political, dynastic and cultural viewpoints available to bring the story to life. An exceptional reminder that history is not just something that happened here, but that happens everywhere.

Neither the British nor the Afghanis come out of this tale smelling so sweetly. British imperialism and an assumption of superiority led them to ignore the politics on the ground and ultimately alienate a peoples who were initially only to willing to support them. The Afghan reluctance to accept a place in the wider world and to resists cultural and political change led them to 'win' this War, but to lose the opportunity to enter a wider world' a position that has not really changed since then.

A very readable history revealing much that is new to the Western reader and which provides the opportunity to reflect on how history can teach us how to act for the better today, if only we would let it.
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LibraryThing member neal_
A book of detailed and fascinating history. An enlightening back-story giving insight and understanding to the current situation in Afghanistan.
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Page-turner. Didn't expect to be so gripped, given this could reasonably be classed as "military history".
LibraryThing member bhutton
Superbly researched book that uses mostly contemporary sources in there own words the experiences of the first Afghan-British war. A detailed look at the people involved in this disaster from all sides.
LibraryThing member William.Kirkland
See Bookforum Apr/May 2013 for Review by Michael Dirda



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