27 JANUARY 2001, Page 47

Playing (and not playing) the Game

Philip Hensher

TOURNAMENT OF SHADOWS by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac Little, Brown, .E25, pp 672 We can agree to call this episode in history the Great Game' since Kipling gave Captain Arthur Conolly's coinage a wider circulation, though, as these authors have seen, Nesselrode's description of 'a tournament of shadows' is much more apt. About everything else, we are not going to agree. What it was about; what it achieved; who was involved; what anyone's larger intentions at any point really were — it is a baffling subject, and however much one looks at it, one is never going to get far from the question, what was it all for? From here, it looks very much like the 19th-century cold war. It was fought over a large stretch of central Asia between Britain and Russia; at the beginning of the 19th century, there was what looked like empty lands between the Russian empire and imperial India. What could be found in those lands, and to whom they would eventually fall, was the topic of the Great Game, and, though it only occasionally came to a direct skirmish, no one had any doubt that it was a tournament of the most serious kind.

The participants in the Great Game hardly ever met. Henry Rawlinson had the astonishing stroke of luck to meet the great adventurer Yan Vitkevich in the deserts of eastern Persia in 1837; Vitkevich claimed that he was on his way to bear gifts to the Shah of Persia, but, as Rawlinson realised, he was really going to Kabul to try and get the Amir Dost Mohammed on his side, and the encounter changed the entire course of the First Afghan War, But such meetings were rare. For the most part, the participants led a shadowy existence, not acknowledged by their imperial sponsors — it was always important that London, Calcutta and St Petersburg could subsequently claim no knowledge of their agents' activities if things went wrong. Vitkevich, in the end, had to be disowned in the middle of a gigantic diplomatic row, and blew his brains out. They glimpsed each other only in passing, and in strange signs of their presence. When William Moorcroft visited the Tibetan city of Daba in 1812, he was astonished to find two dogs of Western breed performing drawing-room tricks, and immediately realised what this meant: the Ooroos, the Russians, had beaten him to it.

One of the most curious features of the whole episode is the extraordinary degree of mutual respect and admiration which sprung up on all sides. Alexander Burnes entertained Vitkevich to Christmas dinner in Kabul, when they were both vying for Dost Mohammed's allegiance, and strongly regretted afterwards that their respective positions made it impossible for them to

become friends. And if the Russians had a strong tendency to despise and detest the khans of central Asia — sometimes with good reason, since a great number of them were happily holding Russians in slavery — the British were always more inclined to respect them. Dost Mohammed, in particular. became something of an object of admiration, despite everything; he beat the British hands down, and regained his throne after the British interregnum was brought to an end by mass slaughter orchestrated by his son Akbar. His biography was written by Mohan Lal, the travelling companion of Burnes (whom Akbar's men killed) and is admiring in tone; it May be had without too much difficulty, since it was a favourite prize for public schoolboys

in the 19th century.

The entire dramatis personae is so utterly extraordinary that any telling of the story can hardly fail to grip. No one would dare to invent Frederick Burnaby, with his 12 (or was it 15?) languages and his party trick of holding a billiard cue still and horizontal between his index and third finger for a full minute. The life of Francis Younghusb and, who opened up Tibet despite being, basically, certifiably insane in a Madame Blavatsky sort of way, is perfectly incredible from beginning to end. Not even Dickens could have thought up the Reverend Joseph Wolff, who was so affected by the imprisonment in Bokhara of two British officers, Arthur Conolly and Charles Stoddart, that he abandoned his cosy parish in Richmond-upon-Thames and travelled on his own to Bokhara to plead with the Emir. (A lucky man — he arrived to find that they had been beheaded long before, and escaped with his life only because his appearance in clerical dress struck the Emir and his court as irresistibly funny.) And there are more shadowy figures; the heroic natives, most of whom remain nameless, who were despatched from British India to map out the unknown lands, and who performed astonishing feats of bravery. The British participants remain as obscure; it has taken years of patient digging by Charles Whitteridge and others to establish exactly who Charles Masson, the antiquarian wanderer in central Asia, was — not an American. as he claimed, or a Frenchman, as has often been assumed, but a deserter from the Company's armies, born James Lewis, who disappears just as mysteriously as he appears. It is a tale of extraordinary acts of individual heroism, and if it is not known by every schoolboy in the land, that is only because the heroism served an end which was always ambiguous, and which remains unclear.

What the Great Game was all about still divides historians, and I don't think we will ever get an answer concerning Russian intentions. On the face of it, the Russians won the Great Game; their borders, by the official end of it in 1907, stretched within a few miles of British India. Whether they ever had serious designs on India, however, is almost impossible to answer. Certainly there were those in St Petersburg who thought it a reasonable aim, and who is to say that an invasion would not, at some moments, have succeeded? India is one of the easiest countries in the world to invade; since the beginning of recorded history, as one Russian general drolly pointed out, there have been 21 attempts, of which 18 succeeded. The Russians would have faced appalling difficulties in getting within striking distance, as they had to recognise since Paul Is idiotic plan for 35,000 Cossacks to combine with Napoleon's forces and march across what he incomprehensibly believed to be the fertile lands which lay between the Caspian Sea and India. If Russian troops could have got to the borders of India, however, no one knows what would have happened; there have been few empires which have been run with such conspicuously small numbers of the ruling nation on the ground as British India.

They might have been serious, and some Russians certainly were, and are — I heard a mad Russian nationalist, only five years ago, addressing the Council of Europe and bringing up the old chestnut of 'looking forward to the day when Russian soldiers wash their boots in the warm water of the Indian Ocean' (a very bad thing to do to boots, to wash them in salt water, but that never stopped Russians from saying it). On the other hand, there is certainly an argument to be made that Russia's main intention was nothing to do with India, and their expansions in that direction were principally designed to frighten the British, so that they could be left in peace in other directions, and their designs towards Turkey could proceed undisturbed. I don't think we will ever know, and the Russian archives provide plenty of ammunition for both views. Certainly, one's sense is that the British and the Russians approached the idea of expansion in quite a different spirit; everywhere in the English archives there is the impression of deep interest and curiosity in these strange cultures, and the question of annexing them is secondary to exploration. The Russians were always far more imperialist.

The central episode is the First Afghan War of 1838-42, a story of hubris and disaster which was unprecedented in British imperial history and has remained unparalleled. The temptation to establish a line of communication from India through the Punjab, Afghanistan and Persia was a strong one — Lord Auckland, the Governor-General, had started going around describing Herat, the city near the Persian border, as the natural western frontier of India — and it led the British to catastrophe. They invaded, deposing a wise and intelligent Amir. Dost Mohammed, and installed a puppet leader, Shah Shujah-ulmulk. What happened has been told many times, and it still beggars belief: Akbar, Dost Mohammed's son, succeeded in killing pretty well the entire British forces, letting only one man, the famous Dr Brydon, return to the garrison at Jalalabad to tell the tale. Ever since, How To Be A Successful Imperialist has consisted of two firm rules. 1. Don't invade Russia. 2. Or Afghanistan.

We are very lucky to have, in English, a library of excellent books on this fascinating subject, starting with Peter Hopkirk's spellbinding The Great Game, which he has followed with half a dozen equally gripping studies of particular aspects of the long episode. The literature at the time, too, is sheer pleasure, and the age produced dozens of supremely entertaining memoirs from the participants in the strange struggle, such as Alexander Burne's two excellent, chirpy books, Frederick Bumaby's A Ride To laiva and Florentia Sale's extraordinary tale of her captivity and release after the Kabul massacre. (Florentia Sale was not a very attractive personality — Vincent Eyre, another of the prisoners, has a very amusing story of the lengths he had to go to to persuade her in the dungeon to forget her status and lend a needle and thread to another of the prisoners, one of the other ranks' wives.) What is less familiar is the view from the other side, and few Western historians are at home with non-European writings on the subject — the Akbamama, the Afghan account of Akbar's revenge on the British, is known to me only by entries in bibliographies, and it must be interesting. A writer like Christine NoeIle, whose indispensable State and Tribe in NineteenthCentury Afghanistan draws heavily on nonEuropean sources, is a real rarity. Of course, the story is bafflingly complex from the other side — Dost Mohammed had 73 brothers or half-brothers and 54 children, most of whom were ceaselessly engaged in fratricidal warfare — but the European view is only half the story.

Tournament of Shadows is written by two Americans, which gives it a curious slant — they are sometimes prone to mention what role America played in this, which is about as interesting as the question of what Fiji did. What the American acquisition of Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippines, for instance, has to do with the Great Game, I really do not know. It's overwhelmingly based on English-language sources, so the Russians remain mysterious in their motivation. And there are the usual mistakes perpetrated by people ignorant of the social context — Emily Eden was not, as a baron's unmarried daughter, 'Lady Emily' any more than General Sale's wife was 'Lady Florentia Sale', and 'Anglo-Indian' does not mean what they think it does. There are occasional bigger mistakes — Vitkevich certainly did not tell and would not ever have told Rawlinson in the desert that he was on his way to Kabul; he had to discover that from the Shah of Persia. Incomprehensibly, they refuse to assign responsibility for the Kabul massacre to Akbar, and from their account a reader would easily conclude that he was attempting to escort the British to safety. Still, though Peter Hopkirk's book remains the one to recommend, Tournament of Shadows is readable and entertaining and it is interesting to have the story pursued beyond the Anglo-Russian truce of 1907. The authors obviously love their subject. If this happens to be the first book you read about the Great Game, I promise it will not be the last.