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All Roads Lead to India

Image The glittering riches of India have always attracted covetous eyes, and long before the British first arrived there her rulers had learned to live with the perpetual threat of invasion. This went back to the very earliest times when, some 3,000 years before the East India Company drove out its European rivals, successive waves of Aryan invaders had crossed the north-western passes, forcing the aborigines southwards. Numerous invasions, both great and small, followed, among them those of Darius the Persian circa500BC, and Alexander the Great two centuries later, although neither stayed for long. Between AD 997 and 1026, the great Muslim conqueror Mahmoud of Ghazni (which now forms part of Afghanistan) made no fewer than fifteen raids into northern India, carrying off vast quantities of booty with which to embellish his capital. Mohammed of Gor (today in northern Pakistan), having in his turn conquered Ghazni, led six invasions of India between 1175 and 1206, one of his generals becoming ruler of Delhi. After Tamerlane’s troops sacked Delhi in 1398, another Central Asian warrior, Babur the Turk, invaded India from Kabul and in 1526 founded the great Mogul Empire, with Delhi as its capital. But even he was not the last of the Asiatic invaders. In 1739, with an army spearheaded by 16,000 Pathan horsemen, the ambitious Nadir Shah of Persia briefly seized Delhi, then still the Mogul capital, and carried off the world-famous Peacock Throne and Koh-i-noor (‘Mountain of Light’) diamond to grace his own capital. Finally, in 1756, the Afghan ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani, invaded northern India, sacking Delhi and removing as much loot as he could struggle back with over the passes.

Every one of these invaders had reached India overland, and it was not until the Portuguese navigators opened up the sea route from Europe at the end of the fifteenth century that her Mogul rulers began to worry about the possibility of an invader arriving by sea. Because the British themselves had come that way, it was perhaps natural for John Kinneir, in what is today called a ‘risk assessment’, to look first at the prospects of success of a sea-borne invasion. After all, India’s 3,000-mile coastline appeared vulnerable, being ill-watched and virtually unguarded against a surprise attack. Not only the British, but also the Portuguese, Dutch and French had come that way, while as long before as the year AD 711 an Arab army, 6,000 strong, had sailed down the Persian Gulf and conquered Sind. Wilson warned that the Russians might do likewise.

Kinneir, however, who knew the Gulf region well from his own travels (he had even had a brush with Arab pirates there) and had access to the latest intelligence, argued that the obstacles facing a sea-borne aggressor were sufficient to rule out such an operation. ‘We have little to dread from this quarter,’ he wrote. To begin with, a hostile power would somehow have to gain possession of suitable harbours within reasonable sailing distance of India. Only the Red Sea or Persian Gulf, he believed, would provide the sheltered anchorage necessary for the preparation and launching of an invasion fleet. First the fleet would have to be built, which could hardly fail to attract the attention of the Royal Navy. And where would the materials come from? ‘Neither the borders of the Red Sea, nor those of the Persian Gulf, afford timber or naval stores,’ wrote Kinneir. ‘Nor could materials be brought from a distance by water, or a fleet be collected, without our express permission.’ The entrances to both these waterways were so narrow that, if the need arose, they could easily be blocked.

That he and his colleagues had not been wasting their time during their fact-finding travels in Persia was evident from the kind of detail that he was able to produce. While it was true, he reported, that forests of oak abounded in south-western Persia, the trees (and he had seen them himself) were too small for building ships. Furthermore, they grew at a considerable distance inland, and would have to be transported to the shores of the Gulf at great expense and ‘over stupendous rocks and frightful precipices’. Although timber of sorts could be found on the Ethiopian shore of the Red Sea, this, he tells us, was inferior even to that of Persia. It was not surprising therefore, he added, that all Arabian and Persian dhows were either built in India or from timber brought from there.

Ultimately, India’s protection from such an invasion lay in the Royal Navy’s domination of the seas. ‘Were it even possible’, Kinneir wrote, ‘for an enemy to succeed in constructing a fleet with materials conveyed, at vast trouble and expense, from the interior of Syria, or the shores of the Mediterranean . . . there is no harbour which could protect such a fleet from the attack of our cruisers.’ And even supposing there was, he added, the invasion fleet would face certain destruction the moment it put to sea.

Kinneir now turned his attention to the several overland routes which an invader might use. Essentially there were two – directly eastwards through the Middle East, or south-eastwards through Central Asia. The former was the route most likely to be taken by an invader from Europe (‘a Napoleon’, as Kinneir put it), while the latter would be Russia’s most obvious choice. An invader marching directly eastwards would be faced by several alternatives. If starting from, say, Constantinople, he could either approach the Indian frontier-lands by first marching the length of Turkey and Persia, or he could all but bypass Turkey by transporting his invasion force across the Black Sea to north-eastern Turkey, or through the Mediterranean to the Syrian coast, entering Persia from there. The latter, Kinneir pointed out, would expose him to the full fury of the British Mediterranean fleet. The former, on the other hand, would put his troopships safely out of its reach.

Ideally, rather than having to fight every inch of the way, an invader would try to come to some sort of an accommodation with those whose territories he had to cross, although the British were unlikely to stand idly by and let this happen. But even if he did manage to achieve this – and here Kinneir spoke from first-hand experience of the terrain – he would be faced by a series of extremely formidable obstacles all the way to India. These would include high mountain ranges; passes so steep or narrow as to be impassable to artillery; waterless deserts; areas so poor that they could hardly support the existing population, let alone a passing army; and hostile tribes and cruel winters which, as history had shown, could annihilate an army almost overnight. Even Alexander the Great, military genius though he was, had nearly come to grief in the icy passes of the Hindu Kush, which had been left unguarded because they were thought to be impenetrable in winter. Thousands of his men had been frozen alive – many literally bonded to the rocks in the sub-zero temperatures – or had died of frost-bite. He is said to have lost more men during the crossing than in all his Central Asian campaigns put together.

The last great natural obstacle facing an invader was the mighty River Indus and its network of tributaries. Fourteen hundred miles long, it had to be crossed before an invader could hope to conquer India. That this was not impossible, numerous early invaders had proved. But none of them had had to face a highly disciplined force, led and trained by European officers schooled in the most advanced defensive tactics of the day. The defenders would be fresh, well fed and regularly supplied, while the invaders would be exhausted from months of marching and hardships, short of food and ammunition, and greatly reduced in numbers. If the invader got that far, then there were two obvious points, Kinneir noted, at which he might try to cross the Indus. Were he to approach India via Kabul and the Khyber Pass, as a number of earlier invaders had, then he would most likely choose Attock. Here, he reported, the Indus was ‘of great breadth, black, rapid and interspersed with many islands, all of which may be easily defended.’ However, there were a number of fordable spots in the vicinity.

Were the invader to take the more southerly route through Afghanistan, via Kandahar and that other great gateway to India, the Bolan Pass, then he would probably attempt to cross the Indus near Multan, 300 miles down river from Attock. It was at this point that a Mongol army had once swum the Indus, and Kinneir described it as ‘perhaps our most vulnerable frontier’. A more southerly route still, across Baluchistan, he appears to have ruled out, for he did not so much as mention it, perhaps because Pottinger and Christie had reported it to be impassable to a force of any size, while the coastal route, although once used by Alexander the Great, was deemed too vulnerable from the sea for an invader to consider it.

All roads ultimately led through Afghanistan, whatever route an invader came by. Even the Russians – and now Kinneir switched specifically to them – must approach India through Afghanistan, whether they set out from their new stronghold in the Caucasus or from their forward base at Orenburg, on the edge of the Kazakh Steppe. If they used the former, he warned, they could avoid having to march the length of Persia by making use of the Caspian, which they now controlled, to transport troops eastwards to its far shore. From there they could march to the Oxus, up which they could be ferried as far as Balkh, in northern Afghanistan. After crossing Afghanistan, they could approach India via the Khyber Pass. This, it will be recalled, was the route which Peter the Great had hoped to use to make contact with India’s Mogul rulers – a dream which had ended with the massacre of the Khivan expedition. Kinneir was clearly unaware of the appalling difficulties of this route, for it was not until 1873, long after his death, that a detailed account of the expedition, and the hardships which it had to overcome, was translated from the Russian. In fact, once beyond the confines of the Persian and Turkish empires, Kinneir was as much out of his depth as anyone, having to admit that he had ‘failed in every endeavour to gain such information as can be relied upon’ about the terrain between the eastern shore of the Caspian and the Oxus.

Kinneir recognised, however, that supplying an invasion force attempting to cross Central Asia would present a colossal problem. ‘The great hordes’, he wrote, ‘which formerly issued from the plains of Tartary to invade the more civilised kingdoms of the south, generally carried with their flocks the means of their sustenance.’ Nor were they encumbered with the heavy equipment necessary for modern warfare. They were thus able to perform marches ‘which it would be utterly impossible for European soldiers to achieve.’

The final option for the Russians lay in an advance from Orenburg, the fortress they had built in 1737 as a base from which to bring under their control the warlike Kazakhs who roamed the vast steppe region to the south and east. This would involve a 1,000-mile march southwards to Bokhara – ‘said to be forty days’ journey’ away, according to Kinneir, but in fact several times that – followed by another long march across the desert and over the Oxus to Balkh. The route, Kinneir reported (correctly enough), was infested with murderous tribes, all hostile to the Russians. ‘Before therefore the Russians can invade us from this quarter,’ he wrote, ‘the power of the Tartars must be broken.’ Until that had been achieved, he believed India to be secure from invasion from the north. Curiously, Kinneir seems not to have seen the crossing of Afghanistan as perhaps the most formidable obstacle of all. For an invader would somehow have to get his weary troops, plus artillery, ammunition and other heavy equipment, not only across the Hindu Kush, but also through the lands of the fanatically xenophobic and warlike Afghans themselves. However, there was at that time an almost total ignorance, even among men as well informed as Kinneir, of the vast mountain systems and peoples surrounding northern India. For the era of the great Himalayan explorers still lay far off.

Unlike Wilson, Kinneir was not fully convinced that Tsar Alexander was planning to seize India: ‘I suspect that the Russians are by no means desirous of extending their empire in this quarter; it is already too unwieldy, and may probably, ere long, crumble into pieces from its own accumulated weight.’ He considered Constantinople a far more likely target for Alexander’s ambitions. On the other hand, if the Tsar did wish to strike a crippling blow against the British in India, at minimal risk or cost to himself, there was another option which Kinneir could foresee. When the ageing Shah of Persia died, it would give the Russians the opportunity to gain control of the throne, ‘if not reduce it entirely to their authority’.

Of the Shah’s forty sons, there was not one, Kinneir wrote, who did not have his eye on the throne. As governors of provinces or towns, nearly half of them had their own troops and arsenals. Were St Petersburg to support one of these rival claimants (despite an undertaking to back the heir apparent, Abbas Mirza), Kinneir believed that during the inevitable turmoil which would ensue, ‘the superior skill and discipline of the Russian troops would . . . enable them to place their own creature on the throne.’ Once they had the Shah in their pocket, it would not be difficult for them to incite the Persians, renowned for their love of plunder, to march on India. After all, had not Nadir Shah, the present Shah’s ancestor, acquired the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor diamond that way? The invasion could even be planned by Russian officers, although none of their troops would be involved, thus allowing the Tsar to wash his hands of it.

Kinneir’s careful and detailed study of the invasion routes would be the first of many such assessments, official or otherwise, to see the light of day during the coming years. Despite the gradual filling in of the blanks on the map of the surrounding regions, most of the routes which he considered were to recur again and again, with minor variations, in subsequent studies. However, as the memory of Napoleon faded and fears of the Russian peril grew, the emphasis would gradually move northwards, from Persia to Central Asia, while Afghanistan, the funnel through which an invader must pass, was to loom increasingly large in the minds of those responsible for the defence of British India. But all that lay in the future. Despite the heated debate which Wilson’s alarmist treatise had sparked off, most people were still not convinced that Russia, officially Britain’s ally, bore her any ill-will or had designs on India.

Momentarily anyway, the Russian advance southwards into Persia had been blocked by British diplomacy, giving cause for considerable satisfaction in London. However, even as Kinneir was writing, General Alexis Yermolov, the Russian Military Governor of the Caucasus, had begun to look covetously eastwards, across the Caspian Sea, to Turkestan. It was there, exactly a century earlier, that the Russians had been so treacherously outwitted and defeated by the Khivans. What now followed was the first tentative step in a process which, during the next fifty years, would deliver the great khanates and caravan cities of Central Asia into the hands of the Tsar.

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