BLTC Press Titles

available for Kindle at

The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morely

The Bhagavad Gita


Theory of Colours

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour

Dan to Beersheba

by Archibald Ross Colquhoun


Dost Mohammed was well disposed towards the Company and there was no open reason why Lord Auckland should not have carried out his intention, as originally stated, not to interfere in the affairs of independent States. The disturbing factor, however, was found in the advance of Russia. At an earlier period Great Britain had allowed Persia to lose province after province to Russia, and the result of Russia's establishment on the Caspian was to

D.b. c

make her influence with Persia predominant in a sphere which had once been considered a British preserve. Then Russia played the game which we had once tried—she egged on Persia to attack Afghanistan, and the Persian troops, largely drilled by British officers, were now used to further the designs of Russia against our Indian frontier. The siege of Herat by a Persian army, in which young Eldred Pottinger was instrumental in saving the city, gave Lord Auckland strong misgivings about the frontiers of India. Of course Herat was not on the frontier at all, but for his purpose he chose to regard it as such, nor can one find much fault with his chain of reasoning. The Punjaub was also much unsettled, Ranjit Singh getting old and asking for 50,000 muskets (" I have sent him a doctor and a dentist," wrote the Governor-General) and hankering after the jungles and treasures of Sind.

At this juncture, with unrest within and Russia pressing without, there were two courses open as regards Afghanistan. One was to back up the reigning ruler and try to keep him strong and friendly, the other was to turn him out and put our own nominee on the throne. Of course it is easy, in the perspective of history, to pronounce judgment, but I do not suppose the alternative appeared so clearly to the statesmen of the day. Even with every allowance, however, it is hard to find excuses for a policy which had for its basis the co-operation of such an uncertain quantity as the Sikhs and the capacity of Shah Shuja, who had already been three times rejected by his own countrymen. Alexander Burnes, who had won fame by his journeys to the Khanates and to Kabul in 1832, was sent on a " commercial mission" to Dost Mohammed in 1837 and was extremely well received, while a Russian mission from Orenburg under Captain Viktevich (whom we shall meet again) was openly snubbed. The Amir was ready to do anything the British asked if only they would help to restore Peshawar, but after five months' negotiation the Governor-General wrote that the Company was determined to support Ranjit Singh, and that Dost Mohammed had better make the best of it and must leave his foreign policy under British guidance. The Afghans not unnaturally thought the British wanted a good deal for nothing, and a brother of the Amir remarked that they "seemed to value their offers at a very high rate since they expected in return that the Afghans would desist from all intercourse with Russia, Persia and Turkestan." The Russian mission came out of obscurity, and Captain Viktevich, whose orders were of a very general character, rose to the occasion and promised the Afghans everything they could desire in the way of Russian support. The Amir made one more effort to make friends with Britain, but in vain, and Burnes retired from Kabul with many misgivings and a high opinion of Dost Mohammed.

Lord Auckland had then three courses open: to let the Afghans alone, to make an alliance with Dost Mohammed and his brothers, or to stir up Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs against him and support Shah Shuja's claims. The third was the alternative chosen, largely through the influence of Macnaghten, who was not only a pronounced Russophobe but had been converted by Captain Wade, the agent at Ludhiana where Shah Shuja lived, into a warm adherent of that exiled prince. The raising of the siege of Herat, which dragged on from November, 1837, to September, 1838, and the retirement of the Persian troops with considerable loss of life and treasure, put a stop, for the time at all events, to any fear of Russian aggression under a Persian cloak. But by this time the die was cast. Lord Auckland issued, on October I, a manifesto setting forth his reasons for sending an army across the Indus to secure our western frontier and to succour the garrison of Herat! Shortly after this he heard that the siege of Herat was raised, but he could not give up his great scheme, which he excused by unscrupulous attacks on Dost Mohammed, representing that Amir as making unprovoked attacks on our Sikh ally and cherishing "unreasonable pretensions" and "schemes of aggrandisement and ambition." This line of conduct was supported by a wholesale cooking of Burnes' letters from Kabul, in which everything favourable to Dost Mohammed was omitted. Lord Auckland's letters to Burnes were similarly "edited" and the whole published as a pikce justificative in the form of a Blue Book.

Whatever might be the rights or wrongs of the quarrel in which the British had now engaged, it is certain that, after twelve years' peace, all the military element in India were greatly pleased at the prospect of fighting again. There had been no intention, originally, of employing white troops, but it had become apparent that without them our interference in Afghanistan might come to an undignified end. The idea that Shah Shuja should regain his throne by means of troops recruited in British India, and by the aid of Ranjit Singh and his Sikhs, was one of those well-laid plans of which the proverb speaks. The old "lion of the Punjaub" had sunk into a dissolute old age, and his Sikhs, according to their commander, Avatabile, had attacks of colic at the mere thought of the Khyber Pass. The Army of the Indus, therefore, which was gathered together at Ferozepore for the purpose of expelling Dost Mohammed from Kabul, was heterogeneously composed of a portion of the Bengal army (both native and British troops) and of a specially created army known as Shah Shuja's Force, which consisted of natives recruited from all parts, officered by English and paid for by the Company. Surgeon Archibald Colquhoun went up to Ferozepore with Nott's favourite regiment, the 43rd Bengal N.I., which he had commanded, being one of the twelve picked Sepoy regiments. The Bengal contingent numbered 9,500 and Shah Shuja's force 6,000.

At Ferozepore there was a great tomasha. GovernorGeneral Auckland came up to meet Ranjit Singh, and on November 29 the two rode forth on elephants amid the clash of martial music, each being followed by a train of officials and privileged friends. The sister of the GovernorGeneral, Miss Eden, has left a lively description of the durbar that followed, and of Ranjit Singh, "exactly like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye!" My father often told us of this old warrior and of the alarm of his followers at this durbar, when the British officers, with a lack of manners too usual in India at that day, nearly crushed him to death in their attempts to push into the tent and have a stare at him. Later on, at the banquet which he gave, the old man got royally drunk on fiery spirits, and altogether the durbar of Ferozepore does not seem to have been an edifying spectacle, though quite worthy of the campaign which it inaugurated.

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