Fun and War in Afghanistan

Continuing his series on how cartoonists have seen events great and small, Mark Bryant looks at the coverage of one of ‘Victoria’s little wars’.

The war in Afghanistan has been much in the news recently but it should not be forgotten that in the nineteenth century Britain was involved in no fewer than two major wars in that country as well as many other minor conflicts.  Also, though the battles of the Victorian empire are normally seen today  through the eyes of Punch and its main artist, Sir John Tenniel,  there were numerous other cartoonists working during this period for a wide variety of publications. Most of these were short-lived weeklies (the first political war cartoonist on the staff of a daily paper would not appear until the 1880s). However, one which survived nearly half a century was launched in 1861,  twenty years after Punch. It was called Fun and its main artist for more than two decades began work  for the magazine during the Second Afghan War (1878-81). His name was Gordon Thomson.

The First Afghan War (1839-42) had started in April 1839 when a British Army under General Sir John Keane had marched from northwest India into the walled city of Kandahar (Afghanistan’s second largest city and ertswhile capital). The reason given for the invasion was that the Afghan leader, Emir Dost Mohammed Khan, was pro-Russian and  Britain wanted to keep Afghanistan as a buffer state between British India and what was seen as an ever-expanding Russian Empire. Keane later overran the capital, Kabul, deposed the emir, and installed a new pro-British puppet ruler, Shah Shuja.

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