In the autumn of 1837, while travelling through the remote borderlands of eastern Persia, a young British subaltern was startled to see, far ahead of him across the plain, a party of uniformed Cossacks riding towards the Afghan frontier. It was evident that they had hoped to enter the country unobserved, for when he approached them as they breakfasted beside a stream he found them evasive and reluctant to discuss the reason for their being in this wild spot. It was quite clear to Lieutenant Henry Rawlinson, a political officer on Sir John McNeill’s staff in Teheran, that they were up to no good, though precisely what he could not be sure.
‘Their officer’, he reported, ‘was a young man of light make, very fair complexion, with bright eyes and a look of great animation.’ As the Englishman rode up, saluting politely, the Russian rose to his feet and bowed. He said nothing, however, obviously waiting for his visitor to speak. Rawlinson addressed him first in French – the language most commonly used between Europeans in the East – but the Russian merely shook his head. Speaking no Russian, Rawlinson next tried English, followed by Persian, but without success. Finally the Russian spoke, using Turcoman, of which Rawlinson had only a smattering. ‘I knew just sufficient’, he wrote later, ‘to carry on a simple conversation, but not to be inquisitive. This was evidently what my friend wanted.’
The Russian told Rawlinson that he was carrying gifts from Tsar Nicholas to the newly enthroned Shah of Persia, who had just succeeded his deceased father following a family power struggle. This was reasonably plausible, for at that very moment the Shah was less than a day’s march away, at the head of an army, on his way to lay siege to Herat. In fact Rawlinson himself was heading for the Shah’s camp bearing messages from McNeill. However, he was far from convinced by the Russian officer’s story, suspecting that he and his party were very likely making for Kabul. If this was so, Rawlinson knew, it would cause considerable alarm in London and Calcutta, where Afghanistan was seen as lying strictly within Britain’s sphere of influence. As it was, Count Simonich had already begun to meddle in the country’s affairs, using the Shah as his cat’s-paw. For it was no secret in Teheran that it was he who had urged the Shah to march on Herat, which Persia had long claimed, and wrest it from Kamran, while assuring McNeill that he was doing everything in his power to restrain him.
After smoking a pipe or two with the Cossacks and their officer, Rawlinson bade them farewell and hastened on his way, determined to discover what their game really was. On reaching the Shah’s camp that evening, Rawlinson at once sought an interview with him. Ushered into the royal tent, he reported his encounter with the Russians, who were supposedly bringing gifts from the Tsar. ‘Bringing presents for me!’ the Shah exclaimed with astonishment. Why, he assured Rawlinson, these had nothing to do with him, but were intended for Dost Mohammed at Kabul. Indeed, he had agreed with Count Simonich to allow the Cossacks safe passage through his domains. So much then for the Russian officer’s tale. Rawlinson now knew that he possessed news of the utmost importance, and he prepared to hasten back to Teheran with it.
It was at that moment that the Russian party rode into the Persian camp, unaware that Rawlinson had discovered the truth about them. Addressing Rawlinson in perfect French, their officer introduced himself as Captain Yan Vitkevich from the Orenburg garrison. Apologising for his earlier coolness and evasiveness, he explained that he had thought it unwise to be too friendly or familiar with strangers in the desert. He now endeavoured to make up for this by being especially cordial towards the Englishman. This chance encounter, in the heart of Great Game country, was the first such meeting between players of either side. For the most part it was a shadowy conflict in which the contestants rarely if ever met. This particular meeting, however, was to have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences, for it would help to precipitate one of the worst catastrophes ever to befall a British army.
Lieutenant Rawlinson had already ridden a record 700 miles or more in 150 hours to reach the Shah’s camp from Teheran. Travelling day and night, he now set about doing the same in reverse, reaching the British legation with his tidings on November 1. When McNeill’s warning of what the Russians were up to was received in London and Calcutta it was to cause immense consternation. Not only were anti-Russian feelings already running high, but the news came close on the heels of the disclosure that Simonich was behind the Shah’s advance on Herat. Were Herat to fall to the Persians, this would give the Russians a crucial and dangerous toe-hold in western Afghanistan. But Rawlinson’s chance discovery showed that St Petersburg’s interests in Afghanistan were not merely confined to Herat, threatening though that was in itself. All of a sudden Kabul too was at risk. If Vitkevich was successful in winning over Dost Mohammed, then the Russians would have succeeded, in one spectacular leap, in clearing the formidable barriers of desert, mountain and hostile tribes which lay between themselves and British India.
However, the authorities in London and Calcutta were at least able to comfort themselves with one thought, if not much else. At that very moment, by luck rather than by any foresight, they had an exceptionally able man on the spot. If anyone would prove a match for Captain Vitkevich, and could be relied upon to spoil his game (whatever that was precisely), then it was surely Captain Alexander Burnes, now safely at the court of Dost Mohammed in Kabul.
Ever since the collapse of the great Durrani empire, which had been founded by Ahmad Shah in the middle of the eighteenth century, Afghanistan had been at the centre of an intense and unceasing struggle for power. Currently Kamran was vowing to restore his own family’s fortunes by overthrowing Dost Mohammed in Kabul, while the Persians, as we have seen, were on their way to try to recover their one-time eastern province. Indeed, in exchange for Herat, the Shah had even offered to help Kamran topple Dost Mohammed and seize the Afghan throne for himself, but had been turned down. For his part, Dost Mohammed had pledged himself not only to restore Afghanistan to its former glory, but also more immediately to wrest back from Ranjit Singh, who had occupied it while his back was turned, the rich and fertile province of Peshawar. He was still looking to the British for help over the latter, despite Burnes’s earlier warning to him that they were committed to Ranjit Singh by treaty.
It was possibly with this in mind that in October 1835, unknown to the British, Dost Mohammed had made a discreet approach to the Russians. Tsar Nicholas, increasingly concerned about what the British were up to in Afghanistan, not to mention elsewhere in Central Asia, had promptly dispatched Vitkevich to Kabul to see what Dost Mohammed was offering, and to forge friendly links with him. Meanwhile, on discovering that a new Governor-General, Lord Auckland, had been appointed in India, Dost Mohammed had made a fresh appeal to him for assistance in recovering Peshawar. But Dost Mohammed and Kamran were not the only contenders for power in Afghanistan at that moment. There was also Shah Shujah, then in exile at Ludhiana in British India, from where he plotted endlessly against Dost Mohammed, who had seized the throne from him. His prospects of winning it back, however, seemed extremely remote. Not long before, he had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Dost Mohammed when a 22,000-strong invasion force which he personally had led into Afghanistan was routed at Kandahar. Shah Shujah, it was said, had been in the forefront of the flight from the battlefield.
Such, in a nutshell, was the situation when, on September 20, 1837, Burnes returned in triumph to Kabul. Dost Mohammed was delighted to see his old friend back, and Burnes was borne aloft on the back of an elephant to his quarters in the great Bala Hissar fortress, close to the royal palace. But the Afghan sovereign was also anxious to get down to serious business as soon as diplomatic decorum permitted. It proved to be politics rather than trade, moreover, which was uppermost in his mind, just as the East India Company directors had feared. For Dost Mohammed was aware, as Burnes was then still not, that Vitkevich and his Cossacks were on their way. He genuinely wanted an alliance with his near-neighbours the British, rather than with the Russians, who were too far away to be of much practical use. On the other hand, if the British hesitated to give him the help he needed, the arrival of the Russians might help to concentrate their minds. In the event his strategy, like everyone else’s, was to backfire disastrously.
Meanwhile, with the return of Burnes to Kabul, another character had entered the narrative. This was a curious individual named Charles Masson, an itinerant antiquarian who had developed a passion for Central Asian history, and who for several years had been roaming Persia and Afghanistan in search of coins and other antiquities. Travelling usually on foot, and at times penniless and in rags, he had acquired a knowledge of the region unique among Europeans. He claimed to be an American from Kentucky, but it was discovered by Captain Claude Wade, the British political agent at Ludhiana, that he was not an American at all, but a deserter from the Company’s army named James Lewis. In the summer of 1833 he had settled in the Afghan capital, living close to the Bala Hissar in the Armenian quarter.
At that time the East India Company employed a network of agents known as ‘news-writers’, who were often local Hindu traders, to supply intelligence on political and economic developments from some of the remoter areas where there was no European representative. This was rarely of much value, consisting for the most part of unreliable bazaar gossip. But when Wade discovered that Charles Masson had taken up residence in Kabul, he realised that he could be a valuable source of intelligence from this vital region. For Wade knew him to be a man of excellent judgement, capable of sifting truth from mere rumour. The only problem was that desertion from the Company’s forces carried a death sentence. In the event it was agreed that Masson would be officially pardoned and paid a small salary if he supplied regular news from Kabul, while continuing to pursue his archaeological and historical researches.
Whether an element of jealousy arose between the two men or not will never be known, but Masson appears to have taken an intense dislike to Burnes. In a book he wrote after Burnes’s death, Masson blamed him for everything which had gone wrong. Perhaps this antipathy was mutual, for Burnes must have known that Masson was a deserter from the Company’s army. Masson, a highly sensitive man, may well have sensed his disapproval. In his own account of the mission, Burnes made only scant reference to Masson, although the two must have spent much time together during those crucial weeks. As it was, however, Masson was to have the last word.
Whatever the truth about Masson’s criticism of Burnes, the mission was condemned to failure from the outset. Lord Auckland was totally opposed to any deal with Dost Mohammed which risked upsetting Ranjit Singh. If a choice had to be made between the two men, then it had to be the latter. Already Ranjit Singh had been restrained from seizing parts of Sind, and to try now to persuade him to hand Peshawar back to his arch-enemy Dost Mohammed would be both futile and dangerous. Burnes suggested a compromise – that Dost Mohammed be secretly promised Peshawar on Ranjit Singh’s death, which could not be too far off. But this was turned down by the Governor-General, who disapproved of such a deal on principle. Dost Mohammed’s offer to dispatch one of his own sons to the court of Ranjit Singh as a sort of diplomatic hostage, a not uncommon practice in the East, in exchange for the return of Peshawar, was also rejected.
On January 20, 1838, after prolonged negotiations, the Governor-General wrote personally to Dost Mohammed ruling out any remaining hopes he might have had of using the British to force Ranjit Singh’s hand, and advising him to abandon any idea of recovering Peshawar. Instead, Auckland suggested, he should try to end his quarrel with the Sikh ruler. ‘From the generosity of his nature,’ the Governor-General wrote, ‘and his regard for his old alliance with the British Government, Maharajah Runjeet Singh has acceded to my wish for the cessation of strife and the promotion of tranquility, if you should behave in a less mistaken manner towards him.’ The letter could hardly have been more insulting, or more calculated to offend Dost Mohammed’s pride. But worse was to follow.
By now Lord Auckland had learned that Captain Vitkevich was on his way to Kabul (he had in fact just arrived), and he went on to warn the Afghan ruler that were he to have any dealings with the Russian, without his own prior personal approval, then Britain would not feel under any obligation to restrain Ranjit Singh’s armies. In case the message was still not clear, the unfortunate Burnes was instructed to spell it out to Dost Mohammed. Were he to enter into any alliance with the Russians, or any other power, which was considered detrimental to British interests, then he would be forcibly removed from his throne. When the letter’s contents became known, they were to cause outrage in Kabul. Burnes himself was badly shaken by the letter’s uncompromising terms which effectively cut the ground from under him. Addressing Dost Mohammed as though he was a naughty schoolboy, and instructing him on whom he might or might not have dealings with, Auckland offered him nothing in return besides Britain’s vague goodwill. Despite his anger, however, Dost Mohammed managed to keep his composure, still evidently hopeful that the British could be won round. After all, he did have one last trick up his sleeve – the Russian card.
Although coming from a very different background, Captain Yan Vitkevich possessed many of the same personal qualities as men like Burnes, Rawlinson and Conolly. Born of an aristocratic Lithuanian family, he had become involved as a student in the anti-Russian resistance movement in Poland. Saved from execution by his youth, he had instead, at the age of 17, been exiled to Siberia as an ordinary conscript in the Russian army. To fill in the long months of tedium he began to study the languages of Central Asia, and very soon his linguistic and other gifts attracted the attention of senior officers at Orenburg. In due course he was promoted to lieutenant and widely used to gather intelligence among the Muslim tribes of the frontierlands. Finally General Perovsky, the Russian commander-in-chief at Orenburg, appointed him to his personal staff, proudly claiming that Vitkevich, the one-time dissident, knew more about the region than any other officer, past or present.
When it came to selecting an emissary for the delicate task of conveying to Kabul the Tsar’s gifts, and his reply to Dost Mohammed’s letter, there could be no other choice. After receiving his instructions personally from Count Nesselrode, the Foreign Minister, in St Petersburg, Vitkevich travelled to Teheran where he received a last-minute briefing from Simonich. So secret was his stay in the Persian capital that even Sir John McNeill, who maintained a close watch on all Russian activities there, failed to learn of it. It was only by sheer ill-chance that the Russian and his Cossack escort were spotted by Rawlinson, and the alarm raised. As a result, according to one Russian historian, the party had to fight off attacks by local tribesmen who, he claims, were put up to it by the British, although he produces no evidence to substantiate this. Whatever the truth, Vitkevich was received most courteously, and in true Great Game style, by his British rival Alexander Burnes when, on Christmas Eve 1837, he rode into Kabul. He was at once invited by Burnes, who must have been anxious to weigh him up, to join him for Christmas dinner.
Vitkevich made a good impression on Burnes, who found him ‘gentlemanly and agreeable . . . intelligent and well-informed.’ In addition to the languages of Central Asia, the Russian was fluent in Turkish, Persian and French. Burnes was somewhat surprised to learn that Vitkevich had made three visits to Bokhara, as against his one. However, this gave them much to talk about other than the delicate question of why they were both in Kabul. It was destined to be their only meeting, although in happier circumstances Burnes would have liked to have seen more of this unusual individual. But, as he explained, this was not possible ‘lest the relative positions of our two nations be misunderstood in this part of Asia.’ Instead, therefore, the two rival contenders for Dost Mohammed’s ear kept a close watch on one another during the crucial weeks which were to follow.
When Vitkevich first arrived in Kabul, Dost Mohammed had not yet received Lord Auckland’s ultimatum, and Burnes’s star was still very much in the ascendant at the Bala Hissar. The Russian officer’s reception had been cool and unceremonious, as Simonich had warned him it would be. Indeed, at first he had been kept under virtual house arrest, Dost Mohammed even consulting Burnes over the authenticity of his credentials. Had Vitkevich really been sent by the Tsar, he asked, and was the letter from the Russian Emperor genuine? He had sent it round to Burnes’s quarters for his inspection, aware no doubt that a copy of it would, within the hour, be on its way to Lord Auckland in Calcutta. It was at this point, Masson was to claim afterwards, that Burnes made a cardinal error, allowing integrity to overrule expediency.
Convinced that the letter, which turned out to be little more than a message of goodwill, was indeed from Tsar Nicholas, Burnes said as much to Dost Mohammed. Masson, on the other hand, was convinced that it was a forgery, and that it had been composed by Simonich, or perhaps even by Vitkevich himself, to give the Russian mission more weight in its trial of strength with the British. When Burnes pointed to the impressive-looking imperial Russian seal it bore, Masson sent a messenger to the bazaar to buy a packet of Russian sugar – ‘at the bottom of which’, he claimed ‘we found precisely the same kind of seal.’ But by then, Masson added, it was too late. Burnes had thrown away his one and only chance of spiking his rival’s guns by not allowing the Afghans – as Masson sardonically put it – ‘the benefit of their doubts’.
Following the arrival of Auckland’s ultimatum, everything began to change. Although Dost Mohammed officially continued to cold-shoulder the Russian mission, Burnes knew that his own position was daily becoming weaker and that of Vitkevich more promising. It was even whispered in Kabul that Vitkevich had offered to approach Ranjit Singh on Dost Mohammed’s behalf, while Burnes faced the unenviable task of demanding, at Lord Auckland’s insistence, that his old friend write to the Sikh ruler formally renouncing his claim to Peshawar. If Masson is a reliable witness, Burnes was by this time in utter despair at what he saw as India’s failure to realise the long-term value of Dost Mohammed’s friendship. But what neither he nor Masson knew was that the Governor-General and his advisers already had other plans in mind for Afghanistan, and that in none of these did Dost Mohammed now feature.
By April 21, 1838, the die was cast. Instead of sending Vitkevich on his way as Auckland was insisting, Dost Mohammed received the Russian with every mark of respect and friendship at his palace within the walls of the Bala Hissar. Vitkevich, who was prepared to offer the Afghans the moon in order to displace the British in Kabul, had routed his rival simply by biding his time. Nothing remained now for Burnes but to leave Kabul and report to his chiefs in India on what he saw as the failure of his mission. On April 27, after a final audience with Dost Mohammed at which deep personal regrets were expressed by both sides, and with the Afghan insisting that his esteem for his British friend was unaffected by what had happened, Burnes and his companions departed for home. When he next returned to the Afghan capital it would be under very different circumstances.
But if Vitkevich appeared to have won the day in Kabul, elsewhere in Afghanistan Russian machinations were proving less successful. Despite the confident assurances of Simonich to the Shah, after weeks of bitter fighting the city of Herat was obstinately refusing to surrender. For there was one thing which the Count had not reckoned with. Shortly before the Persians had taken up position around it, a young British subaltern had slipped into the city in disguise and had quietly set about organising its defence.