Common section

The Kingmakers

Image The British could congratulate themselves that this time they had come out on top. Vitkevich was dead, Simonich disgraced, Nesselrode outmanoeuvred, and Herat, the outermost bastion of India’s defences, saved from falling under Russia’s influence. When put to the test, moreover, Tsar Nicholas had shown no great inclination to rush to the assistance of the Shah. Having thus forced the Russians and Persians to back off, the British might have been well advised to leave it at that. But from the moment that Dost Mohammed spurned Lord Auckland’s ultimatum, and officially received Vitkevich, he was considered in London and Calcutta to have thrown in his lot with the Russians. With Herat then still under siege, and a British naval task-force on its way to the Gulf, Palmerston and Auckland were determined to settle the Afghan crisis once and for all. Despite the arguments of Burnes, now strongly supported by Sir John McNeill, that Dost Mohammed was still Britain’s best bet, it was decided that he must be forcibly removed from his throne and replaced by someone more compliant. But by whom?

Arthur Conolly favoured Kamran, who had shown himself to be hostile to both Tsar and Shah, and anxious to ally himself with Britain against Dost Mohammed and other claimants to the Afghan throne. However, there were other advisers closer to the Viceroy than Conolly, Burnes or McNeill. Foremost among these was William Macnaghten, Secretary to the Secret and Political Department in Calcutta. A brilliant orientalist, he was said to be as fluent in Persian, Arabic and Hindustani as in English. His views, moreover, carried immense weight, especially with Lord Auckland, whose sister, Emily Eden, once described him effusively as ‘our Lord Palmerston’. Macnaghten’s candidate for the Afghan throne was the exiled Shah Shujah, to whom he claimed it legitimately belonged. He put forward a plan whereby Ranjit Singh, who loathed Dost Mohammed, might be prevailed upon to use his powerful army of Sikhs to help Shah Shujah overthrow their mutual foe. In return for the recovery of his throne, Shujah would abandon all claims to Peshawar. By using an invasion force of Ranjit Singh’s troops and Shujah’s irregulars, Dost Mohammed could be toppled without British troops becoming involved.

Both Palmerston and Auckland were strongly attracted to this plan which got others to do their dirty work, much as the Russians were doing with the Persians over Herat. To replace one ruler with another among a people who had transferred their allegiance no fewer than eight times in less than half a century did not seem to be unduly problematical or perilous. Among those who favoured Macnaghten’s idea was Claude Wade, the Company’s respected political agent at Ludhiana, where Shujah was living, who was an expert on the intricate politics of Afghanistan and the Punjab. He and Macnaghten were therefore sent by Lord Auckland to Lahore to sound out Ranjit Singh and see whether his co-operation could be counted upon. At first he appeared enthusiastic about the plan. However, the wily old Sikh was far more aware than the British were of the perils of taking on the Afghans in their own mountainous domains, and soon he began to prevaricate and bargain. Gradually it became obvious to Auckland that he could not be relied upon to fulfil his expected role in Macnaghten’s grand design. The only sure way of removing Dost Mohammed, and putting Shujah on his throne, would be by using British troops.

Auckland, normally a cautious man, found himself under growing pressure from the hawks around him to do just that. One of their arguments was that if there was to be a war with the Persians over Herat – and the siege was still in progress at that time – then a British army in Afghanistan would be well placed to wrest it back if it fell, and to prevent any further advance towards India’s frontiers by the Shah’s troops. Auckland was finally persuaded. But even if Ranjit Singh would not send his own forces into Afghanistan, his blessing for the operation was vital if he and Shujah were to enjoy a stable relationship in future, and their two countries were to serve as a protecting shield for British India. The Sikh ruler, who knew that he lacked the strength to overthrow Dost Mohammed himself, was more than happy to go along with this. Not only would it cost him nothing (although Auckland still hoped that he would contribute troops to the expedition), but also Shujah would be signing away, once and for all, any Afghan claims to Peshawar. He had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Shujah, too, was delighted with the plan, for the British were at last doing what he had been begging them to do for years. In June 1838, a secret agreement was signed by Ranjit Singh, Shujah and Great Britain, swearing eternal friendship and giving approval to the plan. Auckland was now free to start preparing for the coming invasion.

Palmerston had in the meantime alerted the British ambassador in St Petersburg to the proposed operation. ‘Auckland’, he informed him, ‘has been told to take Afghanistan in hand and make it a British dependency . . . We have long declined to meddle with the Afghans, but if the Russians try to make them Russian we must take care that they become British.’ On October 1, Auckland issued the so-called Simla Manifesto in which he made public Britain’s intention of forcibly removing Dost Mohammed from the throne and replacing him with Shujah. In justification of this, Dost Mohammed was portrayed as an untrustworthy villain who had driven a patient British government to act thus, and Shujah as a loyal friend and rightful owner of the throne. ‘After much time spent by Captain Burnes in fruitless negotiation at Cabool,’ Auckland declared, ‘it appeared that Dost Mohammed Khan . . . avowed schemes of aggrandizement and ambition injurious to the security and peace of the frontiers of India; and that he openly threatened, in furtherance of those schemes, to call in every foreign aid which he could command.’ So long as Dost Mohammed remained in power in Kabul, he went on, there was no hope ‘that the tranquillity of our neighbourhood would be secured, or that the interests of our Indian empire would be preserved inviolate’.

Although it was obvious to whom he was referring, Auckland carefully avoided any mention of the Russians, for he was about to embark on the very kind of foreign adventure of which Britain was accusing Tsar Nicholas. At the same time the Viceroy announced the names of the political officers who would be accompanying the expedition. Macnaghten, who received a knighthood, was appointed as Britain’s envoy to the proposed new royal court at Kabul, with Alexander Burnes as his deputy and adviser. Burnes, although privately dismayed by the plan to overthrow his old friend, was nonetheless ambitious enough to acquiesce rather than resign. Not only was he promoted to lieutenant-colonel, but he was also given something which he had never dreamed of. In a letter complimenting him on his valuable services, Auckland suggested that he take another look at the envelope. Rescuing it from the waste-paper basket, Burnes saw to his astonishment that it was addressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Burnes, Kt. Another appointment was that of Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger, then still beleaguered in Herat, who was to become one of Macnaghten’s four political assistants.

Colonel Charles Stoddart of McNeill’s staff, who at that moment was at the Shah’s camp at Herat, was to be dispatched to Bokhara to reassure the Emir that he had nothing to fear from the British attack on his southern neighbour, and to try to persuade him to release his Russian slaves so as to remove any excuse for an attack on him by St Petersburg. Stoddart was also authorised to hold out the prospect of a treaty of friendship between Britain and Bokhara. His mission, like so much else that was to follow, was destined to go tragically wrong. However, as we have already seen, in the autumn of 1838 things were suddenly looking very rosy for the British. The news had just come through from Herat that the Persians and their Russian advisers had abandoned the siege and departed.

The question immediately arose of whether the expedition should be called off, since the danger had greatly receded. Much bitter wrangling ensued at home and in India, with many arguing that it was now no longer necessary to unseat Dost Mohammed. To occupy Afghanistan would not only be prohibitively expensive, and leave India’s other frontiers ill-guarded, but it would also push the Persians even further into the welcoming arms of the Russians. The Duke of Wellington for one was strongly against it, warning that where the military successes ended the political difficulties would begin. But for Palmerston and Auckland, with the bit now firmly between their teeth and the army ready to march, there could be no turning back at this late stage. Moreover, with anti-Russian feeling running at near hysteria point in Britain and India, the coming adventure enjoyed immense popular support. It certainly had that of The Times, which thundered: ‘From the frontiers of Hungary to the heart of Burmah and Nepaul . . . the Russian fiend has been haunting and troubling the human race, and diligently perpetrating his malignant frauds . . . to the vexation of this industrious and essentially pacific empire.’

Auckland’s only concession, now the Persians would no longer have to be taught a lesson, was a slight reduction in the size of the invasion force. ‘The Army of the Indus’, as it was officially called, consisted of 15,000 British and Indian troops, including infantry, cavalry and artillery. It was followed by an even larger force, a raggle-taggle army of 30,000 camp-followers – bearers, grooms, dhobi-wallahs, cooks and farriers – together with as many camels carrying ammunition and supplies, not to mention officers’ personal belongings. One brigadier was said to have had no fewer than sixty camels to transport his own camp gear, while the officers of one regiment had commandeered two camels just to carry their cigars. Finally there were several herds of cattle, which were to serve as a mobile larder for the task force. In addition to the British and Indian units there was Shujah’s own small army. Burnes had pointed out to Auckland that he might be more acceptable to his fellow-countrymen were he to claim the throne at the head of his own troops rather than be placed on it by British bayonets alone. Few of Shujah’s men, however, were Afghans, most of them being Indians, trained and led by British officers, and paid for out of British funds.

With Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Burnes riding ahead to try to smooth the way by means of threats, persuasion or bribes, the invasion force entered Afghanistan through the fifty-mile-long Bolan Pass in the spring of 1839. Its shortest route by far would have been across the Punjab and up the Khyber Pass, but at the last minute Ranjit Singh had objected. The approach therefore had to be made through Sind and the more southerly of the two great passes. The Sindi rulers had also objected, pointing out that their treaty with the British stated that no military supplies would be transported up the Indus. However, they were told that this was an emergency, and threatened with dire consequences if they attempted to resist the British force, which proceeded to tramp roughshod across their territory.

Although Burnes managed to buy a safe passage for the expedition through the Bolan Pass from the Baluchi chiefs across whose domains it ran, many stragglers, runners and cattle fell victim to the bands of brigands who lay in wait for them on its lonely stretches. For the main columns, too, the going soon proved much harder than had been anticipated. It had been assumed that the expedition would be able to live largely off the land, but blight had decimated the previous season’s crops, forcing villagers to subsist on what wild plants they could find – something which careful reconnaissance could have revealed. The invasion force now found itself running dangerously short of food, causing the men’s morale to plummet. ‘These privations soon began to tell fearfully upon their health and their spirits,’ wrote Sir John Kaye. ‘The sufferings of the present were aggravated by the dread of the future, and as men looked at the shrunk frames and sunken cheeks of each other . . . their hearts died within them.’

What seemed like inevitable disaster, so early on in the campaign, was retrieved just in time by Burnes. He managed to buy, at an exorbitant price, some 10,000 sheep from the Baluchis, and the expedition’s strength and morale were restored. But the intelligence which he gathered from the khan from whom he purchased them, and which he passed to Macnaghten, was far from encouraging. The Baluchi warned him that while the British might succeed in placing Shujah on the throne, they would never carry the Afghan people with them, and would therefore fail in the end. The British, he declared, had embarked on an undertaking ‘of vast magnitude and difficult accomplishment’. Instead of trusting the Afghan nation and Dost Mohammed, the British had ‘cast them aside and inundated the country with foreign troops’. Shujah, he insisted, was unpopular among his fellow Afghans, and the British would be wise to point out to him his errors ‘if the fault originated with him, and alter them if they sprang from ourselves’.


That was the last thing that Macnaghten wanted to hear, for he had repeatedly assured Lord Auckland that Shujah’s return would be rapturously welcomed by the Afghans. Although there had been little sign of this so far, the first real test of the British puppet’s popularity would come when they reached Kandahar, the country’s southern capital, which was ruled by one of Dost Mohammed’s brothers. As they approached the city, intelligence reached Macnaghten and Sir John Keane, the general commanding the expedition, that the ruler had fled north. Because there appeared to be no likelihood of any resistance, the British units were ordered to hold back to make it appear that Shujah’s own troops had restored Kandahar to him. On April 25, with Macnaghten at his side, Shujah entered the city without a shot being fired. A large and curious crowd turned out to see him, with the men thronging the streets and their womenfolk lining the rooftops and balconies. Flowers were strewn in his path and he was greeted with shouts of ‘Kandahar is freed’ and ‘We look to you for protection’ as he rode in triumph through the city.

Macnaghten was delighted. He had been proved right, and Burnes wrong. ‘The Shah made a grand entry,’ he reported that night to Lord Auckland, ‘and was received with feelings nearly amounting to adoration.’ Dost Mohammed, he believed, would not defend Kabul but would flee when he learned of the wild scenes of welcome which had accompanied Shujah’s bloodless victory. He decided to stage a durbar on the plains outside the city, at which the Afghans would be able to express their loyalty to their new ruler. A spectacular military parade was laid on at which General Keane’s troops would pass in review order before Shujah, who would take the salute from a platform sheltered from the blazing heat by a brightly coloured canopy. On the chosen day Shujah rode out at sunrise to where the British and Indian units were lined up, and where Macnaghten, Keane and other political and military officers awaited him. As he ascended the saluting dais, the troops presented arms, a 101-gun salute thundered out, and the march-past commenced. Everything went perfectly – except for one thing. Barely a hundred Afghans turned up to witness the spectacle and to honour Shujah. ‘The whole affair’, wrote Kaye, ‘was a painful failure . . . but the miserable paucity of Afghans who appeared to do homage to the King must have warned Shah Shujah, with ominous significance, of the feebleness of his tenure upon the affections of the people, as it bitterly disappointed his principal European supporters.’

Macnaghten may have been disappointed but was not going to admit to it. If all else failed, Afghan loyalty, or at least that of those who mattered, could always be bought with British gold. He was well provided with the latter, which he proceeded to distribute freely among the tribal chiefs through whose territories they advanced. ‘He opened the treasure-chest,’ wrote Kaye, and ‘scattered abroad its contents with an ungrudging hand.’ However, no amount of gold would buy the loyalty of the next town lying astride their line of advance. This was Ghazni, with its mighty fortress, perched on a mountainside and reputed throughout Central Asia to be impregnable. After inspecting its ramparts, sixty feet high and massively thick, General Keane and his engineers realised that they faced a serious problem. The Afghan fortress was infinitely more formidable than they had been led to believe. Assuming that he would not need them, Keane had left his siege guns behind at Kandahar. All he had with him were light field pieces which would make little or no impression on this great stronghold. They were once again running short of food, and it would take weeks for the enormously heavy siege guns, which would have to be dragged every inch of the way, to reach Ghazni.

There was, however, one other way of storming Ghazni without their use, and that was by blowing up one of its huge gates. This would be a near-suicidal mission for whoever placed the explosive charges and lit the fuse, calling for exceptional physical courage, as they would be working in full view of the defenders on the ramparts above. The young officer chosen to lead the small party of sappers detailed to carry out this task was Lieutenant Henry Durand of the Bengal Engineers, although he was still weakened by an attack of jaundice. The question now arose of which of the city’s several gates should be attacked. Here the British were in luck. Accompanying the expedition as a native intelligence officer was Mohan Lai, Burnes’s young friend and protégé, who managed to make contact with one of the defenders whom he had known previously. From this traitor he learned that all the gates save one – the great Kabul Gate – had been bricked up from the inside, making them virtually unassailable.

While General Keane and his staff were working out their plans for the attack, look-outs suddenly spotted a group of armed Afghans on the crest of a hill overlooking the British encampment. A bugler raised the alarm and cavalry and infantry were thrown against them, forcing them to flee, but not before a number of captives and a holy war banner had been seized. As the former were being paraded before Shujah, one of them, screaming that he was a traitor to the Faith, broke free and in the ensuing melee stabbed a royal attendant. Enraged at this, Shujah gave orders that all the prisoners were to be killed on the spot. Just as the bloodbath got under way a British officer passing the rear of the royal encampment heard a commotion and peered inside one of the tents. To his horror he came face to face with the executioners, laughing and joking as they set about their work, ‘hacking and maiming the poor wretches indiscriminately with their long swords and knives’.

There were forty or fifty prisoners, he reported later, both young and old. ‘Many were dead, others at their last gasp.’ Some, sitting or standing with their hands tied behind their backs, were still awaiting their fate. Aghast at what he had seen, he ran to Macnaghten’s tent to warn him. But the latter appears to have done little or nothing to stop the massacre, although it may already have been too late. Until then he had been fulsome in his praise for Shujah’s humanity, Kaye notes. It now became clear that this humanity ‘was nowhere to be found except in Macnaghten’s letters’. Even by Afghanistan’s savage standards such barbarism was unacceptable, and news of this atrocity by the man who sought to be the country’s ruler spread rapidly, swelling the ranks of his foes, and doing immeasurable harm to the reputation of his British sponsors.


By now Keane had finalised his plans and had issued his orders for the storming of Ghazni. The attack was to be made that night, under cover of darkness and the loud gusting of the wind. To draw the defenders away from the Kabul Gate, a diversionary attack was to be made on the far end of the fortress, while Keane’s light artillery and sepoy infantry directed their fire from close range against those manning the ramparts. At all costs the defenders’ attention had to be kept away from the Kabul Gate, against which Lieutenant Durand and his sappers would be placing their bags of gunpowder.

By three o’clock the next morning everything was ready, and everyone in his place. On Keane’s signal the gunners and infantry opened up on the ramparts, a shell removing the head of an Afghan soldier in full view of the storming party which was waiting in the darkness for the gate to be blown up. Meanwhile the explosives party moved silently and swiftly towards its target. After placing their charges without detection, the men darted to safety, leaving Durand behind to light the fuse. As he crouched by the gate, through a crack in the woodwork he could see one of the defenders, long-barrelled jezail in hand. On the first attempt the fuse failed to light, and likewise on the second. For a grim moment, knowing that everything depended on him, Durand feared that he would have to sacrifice himself by igniting the actual explosives. But on the third attempt the fuse began to splutter. Durand dashed for cover, and seconds later the charges went off.

‘The effect’, recounts Kaye, ‘was as mighty as it was sudden. A column of black smoke arose, and down with a crash came heavy masses of masonry and shivered beams in awful ruin and confusion.’ As the roar of the explosion died away, the bugler sounded the advance. Led by Colonel William Dennie, a soldier of legendary bravery, the storming party poured through the smoking gateway and within seconds British bayonets and Afghan swords were locked in vicious combat. On hearing cheers from inside the walls, the main attacking force rose from their positions and raced for the gateway. But then, in the confusion and darkness, something happened which nearly cost the British the battle. Believing the gateway to be totally blocked by debris, and Dennie’s men to be still outside, the bugler sounded the retreat, causing the attack momentarily to peter out, while inside the walls the storming party fought for their lives against overwhelming odds. The error was quickly realised, however, and the order again given to charge. Moments later, led by a brigadier wielding a sabre, the entire assault party was inside the fortress and had joined forces with Dennie’s men.

The Afghans, who had never dreamed that their stronghold could be stormed, fought back with the utmost courage and ferocity. But it was the first time they had encountered highly trained European troops well versed in modern siege tactics, and soon the defence began to crumble. ‘In the frenzy of despair,’ Kaye wrote, ‘the Afghans rushed out from their hiding places, sword in hand, upon our stormers, and plied their sabres with terrible effect, but only to meet with fearful retribution from the musket-fire of the British infantry . . . Some, in their frantic efforts to escape by the gateway, stumbled over the burning timbers, wounded and exhausted, and were slowly burnt to death. Some were bayoneted on the ground. Others were pursued and hunted into corners like mad dogs, and shot down.’ Those who managed to escape through the gateway or over the wall were cut down by the cavalry outside. Soon it was all over, and the Union Jack and regimental standards of the assault parties fluttered in triumph from the ramparts.

It was an overwhelming victory for the British, as the casualty figures showed. They had lost only 17 dead, with a further 165 wounded, 18 of them officers. At least 500 of the defenders had died during the fighting within the fortress, while many others had been cut down outside by Keane’s cavalry. Hardly less important to the victors, however, were the large quantities of grain, flour and other foodstuffs found inside the city, for their own supplies were all but exhausted, gravely imperilling their hopes of reaching Kabul. Now, thanks largely to the enterprise of Mohan Lai, and the cool nerves of Lieutenant Durand (which would have won him a Victoria Cross had it then existed), the way was clear to the Afghan capital, less than a hundred miles away to the north.


The sudden and unexpected loss of Ghazni proved a devastating blow to Dost Mohammed. A 5,000-strong Afghan cavalry force commanded by his son, which he had sent to try to halt the advancing British, turned back rather than face annihilation. Everywhere Dost Mohammed’s supporters began to melt away, preferring to watch developments from the sidelines. On June 30, 1839, Keane resumed his march, and a week later, opposed only by a line of abandoned cannon, the British appeared before the walls of Kabul. Dost Mohammed, they found, had fled, and the capital surrendered without a shot being fired.

The following day, with Macnaghten, Keane and Burnes riding at his side, Shah Shujah entered the city he had not seen for thirty years. His robes glinting with precious stones, he was borne through the streets on a magnificent white charger, its trappings embellished with gold. ‘The jingling of moneybags, and the gleaming of the bayonets of the British,’ observed Kaye, ‘had restored him to the throne which, without these glittering aids, he had in vain striven to recover.’ But nowhere was there any sign of the rapturous welcome which Macnaghten had so confidently forecast. ‘It was more like a funeral procession,’ added Kaye, ‘than the entry of a King into the capital of his restored dominions.’ Palmerston, however, was delighted with Auckland’s neat exhibition of kingmaking. ‘The glorious success of Auckland in Afghanistan’, he wrote, ‘will cow all Asia and make everything more easy for us.’

Lord Auckland’s original plan had been for the British force to be withdrawn as soon as Shujah had been safely restored to his throne, and was cocooned by his own officials and protected by his own troops. However, it was now clear even to Macnaghten that he remained anything but secure while the able Dost Mohammed remained at large. A cavalry force led by one of Keane’s best commanders was sent out to try to capture the deposed king, but returned to Kabul empty-handed after a month. A subsequent pursuit proved similarly fruitless. Only months later was Dost Mohammed to hand himself over to the British who – to the fury of Shujah, who wanted to ‘hang him like a dog’ – treated him with the utmost respect and sent him into honourable, albeit temporary, exile in India.

In the meantime, in Kabul, the British settled down to the daily routine of garrison life. Race-meetings were organised, business flourished in the bazaars as the British and Indian troops spent their earnings there, and the families of some of the officers began to travel up from India to join them in this exotic new hill-station. Among them was Lady Macnaghten, bringing with her crystal chandeliers, vintage wines, expensive gowns and scores of servants. General Keane, who had been given the title of Lord Keane of Ghazni by Queen Victoria, now returned to India with a major portion of the task-force. But a substantial part remained in Kabul, with smaller contingents at Ghazni, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Quetta, to protect British lines of communication with India. However, if Macnaghten was confident that Shujah could be maintained on his throne by force of British arms, Keane was certainly not. ‘I cannot but congratulate you on quitting this country,’ he remarked to Lieutenant Durand, who was due to return to India, ‘for, mark my words, it will not be long before there is here some signal catastrophe . . .’

In late August 1839, two disturbing pieces of intelligence reached the British garrison in Kabul. The first was that Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart, who had been sent to Bokhara to reassure the Emir about British intentions in Afghanistan, had been arrested and thrown unceremoniously into a pit filled with vermin. The second, even more worrying item of news was that a large Russian expedition was on its way southwards from Orenburg to seize the khanate of Khiva.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!