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Fighting the Afghans in the 19th Century

Bruce Collins considers the mixture of adventurism, disaster, and lethal reprisal that marked British activities in Afghanistan under Victoria

British Intervention in Afghanistan, Victorian style - plus ça change? One of the abiding historical ideas  of the nineteenth century is that of Pax Britannica. The ‘long peace’ from 1815 to 1914, with the one interruption of the Crimean War in the mid-1850s, encapsulates the essence of Britain’s relationship with the major continental European powers. But, in fact, for people outside Europe the period witnessed an unremitting series of British military and naval interventions touching every part of the globe. For the most part, British generals and naval commanders ensured that these interventions were successful, or at least appeared victorious. The British experience in Afghanistan was an exception. Here, the first intervention of 1838-42 required considerable stage management to appear     to have been even remotely successful, while the intervention in 1878-81 proved expensive even if ultimately it achieved its purpose. On both occasions military defeats were avenged, but the management of Afghan politics remained far more intractable.

In 1837, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal army, Sir Henry Fane, provided an official analysis arguing that the existing western and north-western frontier of British India was perfectly secure. Part of it, from the sea to Firuzpur on the Sutlej river, was ‘covered’ by the Thar or Great Indian Desert. At the other end stood the equally impenetrable Himalayas. The only exposed stretch was about 120 miles from Firuzpur to the Sutlej’s upper reaches. Although scarcely a decade of the nineteenth century had passed without some frontier campaign affecting the borderlands of British India, good frontier garrisons, improving lines of communication to the main bases of British India and friendly relations with the Punjab, across the Sutlej, ensured that this border was secure. Yet, within a year, this impression had been shattered.

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