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 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
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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.
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LibraryThing member MacDad
The pattern of the story is familiar to students of contemporary history. A Western power invades Afghanistan. Their army easily overcomes the forces of the local government and occupies the country. The victory soon turns sour, however, as missteps in dealing with the complex tribal politics of
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the region soon engender an uprising in the mountainous countryside. Eventually, exhausted by the drain on their resources, the army withdraws, leaving the victorious survivors to squabble over the remains and rebuild their country.

This is a narrative that could easily describe the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and increasingly it looks to be the inevitable outcome of the ongoing U.S.-led operation as well. But it is also one that could also serve as a summary of the British invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1830s. It was those parallels which inspired William Dalrymple to write a history of the first Anglo-Afghan War, one that spotlights the folly of such an effort and the disastrous consequences for all involved.

To tell the story of the invasion, Dalrymple begins not with the British but with the Afghans, specifically with the Afghan ruler Shah Shuja. A member of the Durrani dynasty, he was overthrown in 1809 by his half-brother and predecessor, Shah Mahmoud, and forced into exile. Over the next 29 years Shuja mounted three attempts to reclaim his throne by force, all of which were thwarted by his successors. In between these attempts Shuja languished in Ludhiana, where he and his entourage subsisted on a pension provided by the British East India Company on the off chance that they might need an Afghan monarch at some point.

Shuja’s fourth opportunity to reclaim the throne came about as a result of the growing Anglo-Russian competition in the region. As Russia advanced into central Asia, securing the northwestern frontier of India became an increasing anxiety for both East India Company officials and British politicians. Fearing that Russia would ally with the current ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan, the company’s governor-general, Lord Auckland, decided to remove Dost Mohammad and reinstall Shah Shuja on the throne. Allying with the neighboring Sikh kingdom, Auckland used the Sikhs’ war with Afghanistan over the Peshawar Valley as the pretext for a joint invasion of the country, which began in December 1838.

Over the next eight months the British forces gradually occupied Afghanistan. Dalrymple’s account of the invasion stresses the arrogance of the British, who brought with them a massive train of camp followers and camels carrying luxury goods. Though their march though the rough terrain took a toll on their ranks the Afghan tribal levies proved a poor match against British-trained sepoys on the open battlefield, and Dost Mohammad fled Kabul ahead of its capture in August 1839. With Shah Shuja restored to the throne the British withdrew the bulk of their forces, but the remaining British presence soon alienated the Afghan population. This was exacerbated by the company’s parsimony, as efforts to curtail the massive financial drain of the occupation on the company’s coffers by reducing payments to tribal leaders soon turned them against Shah Shuja’s reign. The result was an uprising in November 1841 that forced the British out of Kabul.

Despite the growing signs of Afghan disaffection, the British were unprepared for the scale of the attack on their forces. Dalrymple’s description of the fighting underscores the poor decisions made by British leaders throughout the period, particularly those of the company’s pompous political officer, William Hay Macnaghten, and the ailing commanding general, William Elphinstone, whose disregard for the deteriorating situation left British personnel vulnerable to the rising. While an agreement to withdraw was reached at the start of 1842, the retreating British forces came under constant attack as they withdrew under punishing winter weather, with many of those who survived subsequently enslaved by Afghan tribesmen.

Though the newly-elected Tory government under Robert Peel wanted to end the British intervention, news of the uprising was greeted with a determination for vengeance. An “Army of Retribution” was quickly gathered to relieve other besieged garrisons and to punish the Afghans. Dalrymple does not minimize the atrocities committed by British forces, who gutted whole villages during their march on the Afghan capital. After retaking Kabul in September 1842, however, the British withdrew just a month later, leaving a ravaged kingdom to be ruled a restored Dost Mohammad, who over the next two decades confirmed his dynasty’s hold on the throne and established the borders of the country as it is known today.

Given the epic fate of Britain’s intervention of Afghanistan there have been no shortage of books written about it. Yet Dalrymple’s account surpasses them all, thanks to his lucid writing and incorporation of Afghan and Persian sources ignored by previous authors. These he uses to create an account that provides a wealth of insight into the Afghan perspective of the conflict, one all too often lacking in most English language chronicles. Using them he spins an engrossing account of a war which produced no winners but cast a shadow in the region that stretches down to the present day. It is difficult to imagine a better book ever being written about the first Anglo-Afghan War, nor one that is more necessary reading for anyone who thinks that a war in the region could produce a positive outcome. As Dalrymple so powerfully demonstrates, the Afghans have more than enough experience with invasion to thwart the will of any conqueror.
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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
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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 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
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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 markm2315
A swell history (I'm planning to engineer a comeback of the adjective swell) of the Great Game and the catastrophic British war in Afghanistan. Seems to have many parallels to our current misadventure there. Includes some newly translated Afghan poetry that deepens our comprehension of the story
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and the way it is thought of in Afghanistan today. One of the many pleasures of reading history is the reader's knowledge of the approaching catastrophe. I find it quite similar to watching a horror movie and the principle character decides to go back to get the cat. The audience screams for her not to be such an idiot or covers their eyes and sinks lower in their seat. This story is like that.
For some reason I associate this story with the poem and movie Gunga Din, but this might be erroneous.
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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 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
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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
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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.
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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 ikeman100
Interesting and depressing history of the British Empire's first conquest (1839) and defeat in Afghanistan. Very well researched and written. Slow and plodding at first but finishing with a 200 pages of gory train wreck. the British had no idea what they were trying to alter.
As history has shown
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Afghanistan is no place for outsiders. It is a living museum of 7th century Asian culture. It is good and bad but not to be altered. Western adventurism has only introduced more dangerous weapons to this brutal culture. The best that can be hoped for both the world and Afghanistan is that we stay out and they stay in.
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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
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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 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 sometimeunderwater
Page-turner. Didn't expect to be so gripped, given this could reasonably be classed as "military history".
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
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adventure show that history does indeed repeat itself.
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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
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adventure show that history does indeed repeat itself.
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LibraryThing member William.Kirkland
See Bookforum Apr/May 2013 for Review by Michael Dirda
LibraryThing member jolyonpatten
Great book. Really, really great.




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