on 28 January 2013
The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past. William Dalrymple is far too an intelligent and subtle a writer to make too many overt references to the currennt War in Aghanistan but The Return of A King cannot help but resonate in light of our recent invasion of Afghanistan.
The book is grand in scope, encompassing court life, the Great Game and military history. Dalrymple's thumbnail biographies and marshalling of his material (which balances pace with detail) are excellent. Unlike most accounts of the retreat from Afghanistan the author gives due weight to the stories of Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammed. It seems that the author has uncovered some new sources to do so too.
Although I'm a fan of reading books on kindle, I would recommend you buy print copy of this book. The plates are superb and numerous.
A tremendous book. If just half a dozen History books come along this year which are the equal of this we'll be fortunate.
on 10 March 2013
If you start at the end, you will see how William Dalrymple assembled a prodigious mass of documentation (listed in the bulky bibliography that follows) including not only English (-language — for many of the protagonists were Scots or Irish) printed and manuscript sources, but a plethora of hitherto neglected Persian (-language — Farsi was the language of the Kabul court) documents culled from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
If you start at the beginning, you will see this drama contains a formidable dramatis personæ ranging from Lord Auckland and Shah Shujah to Lady Sale’s cat. Their actions and interactions are recounted in a masterly and authoritative style.
It is not, in some senses, a satisfactory drama; as in proper tragedies, the characters have flaws; they have also remarkable qualities, and the cross-cultural communication in a colonial situation, though marred by many misunderstandings, does reveal substantial skills in the British — ranging from a good knowledge of Persian (Farsi/Dari), an interest in archaeology and history, and a genuine ability to know and appreciate the new cultures they encountered …
The first Afghan war was based on a mistaken belief that British (actually, East India Company) interests in India were about to be undermined by a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, so it was determined to replace the acting ruler Dost Mohammed by deposed Shah Shujah. The Shah’s very legitimate claim to power was, for his countrymen, undermined by his association with unbelievers, and the British underestimated both their and his unpopularity, and failed to support him.
So it was that the British deserted him in his hour of need, and were thoroughly routed in an ignominious retreat. Nearly all the interesting and worthy characters die a miserable death.
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana?) — this dictum is sadly applicable to the Afghan case, where the British have now waged four unsuccessful wars. Dalrymple is keenly aware of the ironies of history, and notes that Hamid Karzai is of the same clan as Shah Sujah. It is said he has read Dalrymple’s book, and it would be fascinating to know his comments.
on 11 May 2013
My book of the year so far, superbly-written history with lots of new information (it baffles me how other reviewers can say there is nothing new here, when Dalrymple has tracked down a number of important but previously unexamined primary sources). The story is given equally from both sides, a welcome change from some previous histories. The level of balance is admirable. A fabulous amount of information is given in a fast-paced narrative, I enjoyed it enormously. There is some confusion about some of the dates - for example, we are told in several places that Shah Shuja was born in 1786, but he is described as being both a "sexagenarian" and "in his late 50s" in 1838. But that's a minor quibble, this is a remarkable and superb retelling of this ill-fated expedition. Given the huge number of similarities to Russia's experiences in Afghanistan the 1980s and the UN's currently, I think Dalrymple is remarkably restrained in his use of analogies.
Incidentally, I think the review of this book in "History Today" is perhaps one of the worst, most biased and deliberately misleading I have ever read.
on 3 March 2013
I am not a reader of academic history books. I ordered this because of good reviews and a general interest in Afghanistan. When 576 pages of hardback arrived with dramatis personae, notes, bibliography, glossary and index, I though I had maybe bitten off more than I could chew. Not at all. It reads well and I found it difficult to put down.
One eye opener for me was to find out how literate 19th century Afghanistan was. Dalrymple looks to sources on both sides of the conflict. So often accounts of British colonization are based on British documents with an occasional dash of oral history from the other side. In this book, we learn just how our forebears appeared to those they attempted to colonize.
In this account, two cultures comprehensively misunderstand one another leading to tragic consequences. There are a lot of lessons in it for today. We assume that other cultures have the same goals and attitudes because they share our technologies and trade with us or, if they don't, it's because of a lack of development. The Afghans mistakenly believed that the adventurers and civil servant they dealt with were princes whose word could be trusted and who could deliver on promises of support. The British saw the Afghans as a mix of gentlemen and brigands only to discover that the gentlemen were in no sense gentle and that the brigands were not outcasts from society but a proud people living a traditional way of life with a strong sense of honour and fair play.
My only quibble with this book is that I would like better maps. I frequently turned to the three small maps provided to help understand the text only to find the places were not on the map.
I recommend this book.
Fearing Russian designs on India in "The Great Game", the British tried to gain influence in the potential Achilles' heel of Afghanistan. Ignoring expert advice, they chose the wrong side in reinstating the honourable but hidebound Shah Shuja whom they imagined would be more malleable than the shrewd reigning monarch Dost Mohammed.
If this regime change reminds you of more recent events, there are also parallels in the lack of strategic planning and a "longer view", and neglect of the topography, climate and culture of the area. In breathtaking arrogance admittedly combined with crazy courage, the first 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan set off in winter, ignoring the several feet of snow in the mountains, omitting to clear rough terrain for gun carriages or to protect themselves against ambush and constant sniping once they entered the narrow mountain passes. The problem was compounded by the thousands of camp followers, women and children with presumably no means of support if they stayed behind.
If the detail is often overwhelming, the quirky truth which is stranger than fiction grips one's attention: three hundred camels needed to carry the military wine cellar whilst elsewhere troops could not advance owing to lack of camels to transport vital supplies. One regiment even brought its own foxhounds, which somehow survived to hunt jackals later!
It is all the more poignant that, having reached Kabul after suffering terrible privations yet still gaining the upper hand, the army squandered its advantage under dithering leadership so that in the ill-advised, typically chaotic eventual retreat only one man made it back to Jalalabad, not counting the thousands left behind as captives.
In what resembles an epic novel, Dalrymple describes how the British sent an Army of Retribution to salvage a little honour by taking brutal reprisals which would now be regarded as the most vicious war crimes, but in the end the government wrote off the vast sums spent on the unsuccessful regime change.
Apart from the numerous astonishing anecdotes and vivid character studies, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extensive quoting from the colourful prose of the historians of the day: "Abdullah Khan Achakzsi.....launched an attack like a fierce lion or the serpent that inhabits the scented grass".
Although Dalrymple supplies a list of all the main characters with accompanying explanations, I found this too indigestible as an opener, and recommend keeping your own notes of "who's who".
My only criticism is the inadequate maps. Also, apart from the reduced weight, this is less suitable for a Kindle in that maps and family trees are illegible on the small screen, plus it's too fiddly checking out details from previous pages as is often necessary in this type of book. It's also harder to appreciate on the Kindle that the main text is shorter than it seems, the last 30 per cent of the book being notes.
This is a fascinating account, although it focuses narrowly on 1839-42. For a wider sweep, try "Butcher and Bolt" by David Loyn.
on 13 June 2013
Return of a King
Review by the Cote D'Azur Men's Book Group
The opinions in our group on this book divided initially. A few were confused by the vast number of places, names and interrelationships, and found the first 100 or more pages hard going, despite the sketched maps and 23 pages of biographies and charts of 'dramatis personae'. The Kindle version has their splendid photographs gathered at the end of the book, rather than being distributed through the text, which is a great pity. We may note that in a book where the reader may need move between sections, for example to refer to the glossary, to biographies or photos, an e-book format can be less effective.
Despite the slow start, most found this is an excellent book. Dalrymple's descriptions, based clearly on a prodigious amount of research, not only British but, more importantly, from Afghan and Persian sources, paint a wonderful picture of the personalities and lifestyles in the region at the time. With similarly sourced material to explain the first British incursion into Afghanistan in the 1800s one gets a vivid picture of the tribal nature of the whole surrounding region, and the origins of Afghan society leading to the horrors of the British Army's retreat and comprehensive defeat. The parallels with the war still being fought today are striking. The British may have forgotten, or elected to forget, their history in Afghanistan but for the Afghans it is clearly still very much alive.
on 20 February 2013
A very exciting account of the political and military blunders and miscalculations that got Britain ("England" in the terms of those days) involved in this ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan in 1840. Not only are the characters well drawn but their various motivations and ambitions are also convincingly described. The Afghans themselves, whilst often courageous, are as untrustworthy and treacherous then as they often appear to be today. Loyalties are bought or coerced freely; torture and cruel forms of execution and punishment commonplace. Hatreds between tribes, clans and families are as intense as a universal hatred of all foreigners,especially infidels. Religion and calls for Jihad were used then as now to stir resistance against the invaders.
The incompetence and vacillation of the enfeebled General Elphinstone and his deputy, not to mention the fatal miscalcalculation of MacNaughton, are only too redolent of some of the miscalculations and tactical blunders that have been made in Afghanistan over the last several years.The horrors of the retreat through the snows of a bitter winter, continuously harassed and ambushed by savage and well armed tribesmen, are vividly described.
The Afghans continue to hate both each other and all foreigners and we have no business being there, any more than we had in 1840.
A great read; and hopefully a salutary reminder to leave this country well alone in future!
on 21 February 2013
I've read many accounts of the first Afghan War - this is the best, and possible the history book of the year. It's always readable, and full of interest from first to last, bringing out the full complexity and tragedy of the events of 1839-1842. The variety of sources, and words of those involved, make the action and people very real. The sheer stupidity of the British leadership in engaging in a totally unnecessary invasion, against the advice of those who best knew Aghanistan and its people, ended up being costly in lives and money and as a humiliating failure. The British army of retribution, which brought such death and destruction in response to the earlier loss, did nothing to restore Britain's reputation. Shar Shuja is convincingly portrayed, despite failings, as a more effective character than often thought, and far more loyal to the British than they were to him. Sadly, the many parallels with today's western involvement in Afghanistan are unavoidable and reading the book reminded me that political leaders should be compelled to read good and relevant history before embarking on lengthy foreign adventures. This excellent book should be necessary reading for those already interested in the topic, but could be enjoyed by anyone who likes good narrative history brought to life.
on 25 July 2015
Being Dutch, I never had the correct idea about the British conquest in the Middle and Far East. What I knew was the basis idea taught at school during history lessons: once the British controled the Middle East. Of course, I knew that that idea was not confirmed by extra reading from my side. I have been too busy reading about Polish and European history by books from the excellent writers Davies and Zamoyski.
Until I 'bumbed' into this book. When I read the text on the back, I was immedeately hooked: a destructive lost war in what is now called Afganisthan? An enourmous defeat in nowadays Afghanistan by the British Army in the very first Anglo-Afghan war? I decided to read this book. I have finished reading half July 2015.
I can understand why this author and this books gets so much praise. Simple because it's a d*** good history book. William Dalrymple doesn't choose a side. William Dalrymple tells the story as it has envolved. He has done a tremendous field-research, by using sources from both sides. In the beginning he introduces all important caracters and tells the story: how a former ruler of kabul had to flee; How incompetent, stubborn so-called specialist turned out to be the persons who didn't had a clue how local situations were; How opinions for importants decisions were made on fairytales instead of field research, how the one person who knew the right information was ingored; how a campside was located at a totally wrong place; how a retread turned out in a disaster. It's excellent written, it's excellent documentated.
The people of 'the west' have the tendency to go to the East to spread 'the good'. Many times it was no 100% no good. With this book you'll have a good example. Excellent!
on 8 August 2014
This is a phenomenally well researched and well written book but the temptation to compare the modern intervention in Afghanistan with that of the First Afghan War is too much. I do see some parallels but think that it is a bit callous to equate our recent casualties fighting a very real threat to those who died fighting a phantom menace for the East India Company 170 years ago.
My motivation for reading this was my annoyance at the legion of bar-room philosophers who tritely say that Afghanistan cannot be conquered. This book dispels that myth twice over - firstly with the conquest and secondly with the Army of Retribution. The issue seems to be not that Afghanistan can't be conquered but who can afford to hold on to it? The tax revenues of Afghanistan and India are mentioned and the expenses the Company was also expending fighting the Opium Wars and appeasing the Sikh Kingdom which lay between India and Afghanistan.
The subject of honour seems to be pivotal to this story. The poorly-led British betrayed an ally to save their skins but in so doing revealed their lack of honour which led to their demise. But, I see the Afghan's sense of honour as merely a matter of business and greed. Mr D clearly knows and sympathises with the Afghans but I still see them as bigoted, untrustworthy zealouts who will flock to the highest bidder (for a while).
This is a brilliant book which tells a balanced story and builds foundations around the causes of the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War and the Sikh Wars. Mr D has discovered Afghan histories of the war which shed new light, for us, on their perspective about major British players and their unity. I can wholeheartedly commend this book and would strongly recommend the hardback edition.