Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Great Game: On Secret Service In High Asia by Peter Hopkirk

The advantage of an incomplete history degree is that the sense of unfinished business often prompts me to pick up a good history book. Aside from appealing to a sense of autodidactic self improvement, I feel that I’m making up for previous failure, in a small way.


The Great Game is certainly a good place to start for anyone with an interest in the history of Central Asia. The book is a cracking read, full of derring do and high intrigue, but as well as a fascinating story to relate, Hopkirk has the skill to tell it well.

One of the major players in what the Russians described as the tournament of shadows, was Alexander Bokhara Burnes, whose explorations of that desert kingdom made his name. In 1831, he was sent to Lahore to present a gift of horses to Maharajah Ranjit Singh from William IV, a ruse to survey the Indus river while transporting the animals.

Ranjit Singh ruled the kingdom of the Punjab and the British were keen to keep him onside, especially if, as they feared, the Russians were going to start pouring through the Khyber Pass and push them into the Indian Ocean. Burnes charmed the elderly ruler, who appeared to have been quite the bon viveur:

In all, Burnes and his companions were to spend nearly two months as Ranit’s guests. There were endless military parades, banquets, and other entertainments, including long sessions spent imbibing with Ranjit a locally distilled ‘hell-brew’ of which the latter was extremely fond. There was also a troupe of Kashmiri dancing girls, forty in number and all dressed as boys, to whom the one eyed ruler (he had lost the other from smallpox) appeared similarly addicted.

Burnes seemed sorry to leave, although he was sceptical as to how long the old chap would remain on his perch, especially given his penchant for booze:

‘Cunning and conciliation’, Burnes wrote, ‘have been the two great weapons of his diplomacy.’ But how much longer would he remain in power? ‘It is probable’, reported Burnes, ‘that the career of this chief is nearly at an end. His chest is contracted, his back is bent, his limbs withered.’ His nightly drinking bouts, Burnes feared, were more than anyone could take. However, his favourite tipple – ‘more ardent than the strongest brandy’ – appeared to do him no harm. Ranjit Singh was to survive another eight years – greatly to the relief of the Company’s generals, who saw him as a vital link in India’s outer defences, and a formidable ally against a Russian invader.

Ranjit Singh at least made it into old age. Burnes met a sticky end in Kabul in 1841...

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