by Pamela Toler
As I believe I mentioned last month, the British government in India was always paranoid about the possibility of Russian influence on the northern border of Afghanistan. (Some of the most paranoid even thought the Russians were behind the Indian Mutiny of 1857. *) In 1878, the amir of Afghanistan pushed British buttons when he accepted a Russian mission to Kabul, but turned a British envoy away at the Khyber Pass. As predictable as Pavlov’s dog, the British invaded.
With the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879, the Second Anglo-Afghan War appeared to be over. Britain came out of the war with the right to install a British Resident in Kabul: a British official who would direct Afghan foreign policy in exchange for British support and military aid. Like other South Asian rulers before him, the Afghani amir retained the appearance of independence but had a golden collar around his neck. It looked like British worries about Russian were over.
The new British resident, Major Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari**, arrived in Kabul in July. On September 3rd, Afghan army, preferring independence to British aid, mutinied against the amir who had sold them out, attacked the British Residence, and killed Cavagnari and his staff.
The army of invasion had been dismantled, but a small British force under the command of then Major Frederick Roberts had remained in the field to police Britain’s newest imperial acquisition, the Kurram Valley. Roberts marched the Kabul Field Force into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan army at Char Asiab, and took possession of Kabul in early October.
The ease with which the British occupied Afghanistan was deceptive. By December, Afghan troops had taken to the field once more. Roberts was besieged briefly in his camp at north of Kabul. One British brigade was nearly annihilated at Maiwand. And a garrison of 4,000 was besieged at Kandahar. Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar to raise the siege was followed with intense interest in the British press and made him a hero with the British public.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War ended for the second time September 1, 1880. By many standards, the British won. The Afghanis won, too: the British withdrew and made no further efforts to maintain a British Resident in Kabul.
* This line of thinking seemed to go: “Hmmm. Surely the Indians wouldn’t have rebelled against us on their own. They’re too [fill in the blank with offensive adjective of your choice]. Some European power must have influenced them. Oh yes, of course, the Russians.”
** You’re right. Cavagnari doesn’t sound British. An Italian by birth, he became a naturalized British citizen in 1857.
About the author: Pamela Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is particularly interested in the times and places where two cultures meet and change. Her most recent book is Mankind:The Story of All of Us–a companion to an up-coming History Channel series.