William Dalrymple, whose previous works include White Mughals, is one of the foremost historians of early British involvement in South-East Asia. The Return of a King focuses on the first British battle for Afghanistan in 1839-42, where the British military under the command of the East India Company, reinstated Shah Shuja to replace Dost Mohammad on the Afghan throne, before facing an uprising the following year. The British retreat in 1842 was an extraordinary defeat for the Empire at the time.
The British involvement in Afghanistan began when Shah Shuja sought an alliance with the East India Company in a bid ‘to gain the resources with which he could unite his fracturing empire’. After he was banished from the Afghan throne in 1809 by Dost Mohammad, he tried several times to regain his title to no avail. It was on the fourth occasion, with the aid of the British military in 1839 that he succeeded. The British invasion of Afghanistan was, to a large extent, enacted to thwart the threat they perceived the Russian empire to impose upon the region. The dynamic, known as the Great Game, between the British and Russian spies at the time is thrillingly played out in this book. After the Shah’s return, the British military command remained in Afghanistan, in an act of “nation building”, but they had, in fact, placed Shah Shuja as a puppet leader to further their own ends. It is no great surprise that the Afghans rebelled in 1841 to relieve the Shah of puppetry; thus the great British retreat began.
The Return of a King is critical, as well it should be, of the arrogance and sheer “bloody-mindedness” of the British actors. Moreover, Dalrymple appears sympathetic towards Shah Shuja, explaining at the end of the book that he was ‘brought down not by his own faults but by the catastrophic mishandling of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan’, engineered by the British military command.
There are parallels which can be drawn between the first British engagement in Afghanistan and the latest. At the end of the book Dalrymple draws upon these and argues that political geography and tribal issues were, and still are, crucial to the conflict. The failure of the British to understand the Afghan culture is one of the strongest parallels that can be drawn to the most recent conflict.
However, he does suggest that Afghanistan may end up ‘ruled by the same [Taliban] government which was originally fought to overthrow’, just as was the case in 1842, where Dost Mohammad resumed the throne, a prediction that should, hopefully, never actually come to pass.
Dalrymple argues that the defeat of the British in Afghanistan was ‘a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation’, especially because it took place ‘at the very height of the British Empire’. He also suggests that the Afghans saw the defeat of the British in 1842 as ‘their Trafalgar, Waterloo and Battle of Britain rolled into one’. The British diary entries consulted do reflect their disgrace and terrible plight retreating through the Afghan terrain in the midst of winter; however, his thoughts on the Afghan perspective do seem a fraction far-fetched.
The use of sources in this book is remarkable. Dalrymple, with the assistance of Afghanistan’s current president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, has uncovered new Persian and Urdu sources that feature prominently beside the British and Russian ones. The thorough investigation and all-consuming research that he had to go through to make this historical account the masterpiece it is, is apparent, and one that readers should appreciate and empathise with. William Dalrymple’s warm narrative voice carries the reader through the sequence of events, and outlines the motives of the many different actors in the best way that the historian can. This book is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one; one that gives the readers a greater insight into Britain’s colonial pursuits in South-East Asia, and draws interesting parallels that make the current Afghan conflict somewhat easier to understand.