An Endless Progression of Whirlwinds

Robert Irwin

  • Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac
    Little, Brown, 646 pp, £25.00, January 2001, ISBN 0 316 85589 8
  • Tibet: The Great Game and Tsarist Russia by Tatiana Shaumian
    Oxford, 223 pp, £16.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 19 565056 5

At the end of the 18th century the main threat to British possession of India seemed to come from France. In Egypt in 1798, Bonaparte studied the campaigns of Alexander the Great. He had corresponded with Tippoo Sahib, the Sultan of Mysore, and talked of leading the French expeditionary force on to conquer the British possessions in India. In 1800, the Russian Empire’s frontier was still a long way from that of British India and the two were separated by a (not particularly sanitary) cordon: thousands of miles of mountains and deserts populated by fiercely independent khans and tribal warriors. From 1825, however, the empires began to close in on one another. Russia completed the occupation of Kazakhstan in 1854. Protectorates were established over the Khanates of Bokhara and Khiva in 1868 and 1873 respectively. By 1868, the Russian advance had reached the edge of China and by 1873 it had established a common frontier with Afghanistan and Persia. The Khanate of Khokand was annexed in 1873, to be followed by the Turkoman (1885) and Tajik lands (1895). Meanwhile, the British conquest of Sind and the Sikh kingdom of Punjab had brought them up to what most British policy-makers thought should be the Raj’s natural frontiers.

However, reports and rumours of Russian political and commercial penetration of Afghanistan and Tibet led some officials, often the political agents stationed in the frontier areas, to advocate military intervention to counter what were perceived as attempts to establish a Russian hegemony over the territories capable of threatening the security of the Raj. Alarmist Russophobes speculated that Russia was seeking a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean. Three times Britain was panicked into adopting a forward policy. Twice, in 1842 and 1879, it sent troops to Kabul. Both interventions ended in considerable loss of life and humiliation and dishonour of British arms at the hands of Afghans. In 1904, Francis Younghusband led an expeditionary force of mostly Sikh Pioneers and Ghurkas into Tibet. His mission was to counteract overweening Russian influence at the court of the Dalai Lama and open the borders to trade from India. Although Younghusband’s expedition can be accounted a success militarily, since it suffered remarkably few casualties in its advance on Lhasa, it achieved nothing of any worth and many of the concessions that he extorted from the Tibetans were subsequently renounced by the Government at home.

Generally, however, Anglo-Russian rivalry took the form of missions of exploration and espionage. Though Englishmen and Russians in unconvincing native disguises sometimes ventured into the contentious territories, more usually both sides made use of proxies. Hence the phrase ‘tournament of shadows’, a coinage of the Russian Foreign Minister, Count Nesselrode. The British used Indian pandits who had been carefully trained in the skills of surveying and espionage. The Russians often made use of their Muslim, Buddhist and Lamaist subjects to gain influence at the courts of the Afghan emirs and Tibetan lamas, vying with the British for ascendancy in those wild and poorly explored territories. This was the ‘Great Game’. (The phrase started to circulate in the 1840s.)

The grand narrative of Tournament of Shadows is an intricate interweaving of biographical portraits and individual stories: of William Moorcroft, the horse doctor with a mission to find new stock for the cavalry in British India; Charles Metcalfe, the advocate of a forward policy on the frontier in the early 19th century; Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes, the foolhardy political officer, who perished at the hands of an Afghan mob; Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the head of the ill-fated British Mission in Kabul (and a scholar who produced an important edition of The Arabian Nights); Nikolai Przhevalsky, the explorer who gave his name to a hard-to-spell horse; Francis Younghusband, the mystical imperialist; Aurel Stein, the manuscript hunter; Sven Hedin, the Nazi sympathiser who seems to have regarded Asian exploration as a proving ground for the superman; Nicholas Roerich, the artist and barmy quester after the fabled hidden city of Shambhala; and many others. Evidently, the book is loosely focused and some of the figures whose lives Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac chronicle were in no sense protagonists in the Great Game, but rather scholars, mystics and eccentrics who happened to have wandered around in the disputed regions.

The book is also unbalanced by its excessive focus on Americans, who played a decidedly minor role in the Great Game: Josiah Harlan, a soldier of fortune who was briefly in the service of the Afghan Emir Dost Mohammed; William Woodville Rockhill, diplomat, hunter and scholar; Brooke Dolan, the leader of an ill-conceived CIA operation in the 1940s. Americans indeed receive almost as much coverage as the Russians, which is absurd. The authors could also have paid more attention to the Hungarians and Germans who made important contributions to Central Asian exploration and scholarship. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, German dominance of Orientalism was practically unchallenged.

Its biographical orientation means that Tournament of Shadows, though very readable and clear in detail, lacks the overall narrative clarity of Peter Hopkirk’s studies of the subject, most notably The Great Game (1990). The essential truth about Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia is that, despite the imperialist fantasies entertained by some of the Game’s players, there was never all that much at stake. Prince Ukhtomsky might rail against the corrupting effects of British rule over India and declare that there could be no frontiers for the Russians in Asia, but Russian policy was usually decided by saner heads. Canny statesmen such as Witte sanctioned the despatch of diplomatic missions, explorers and spies into Afghanistan and Tibet, but they did so to extort concessions from the British in Europe. Whitehall, on the other hand, was reluctant to have its foreign policy in Europe dictated to by the Raj. One official in London commented that when Curzon was Viceroy, he ran India as if it was an independent country and one, moreover, that was not particularly friendly to Britain.

Malcolm Yapp’s Strategies of British India: Britain, Iran and Afghanistan 1798-1850 (1980) makes clear what was at stake for the British. In his persuasively revisionist account, Yapp suggests that, for much of the 19th century, the British public were not very interested in India. They merely worried that it might be a drain on British finances. As far as Palmerston, and indeed most of his successors, were concerned, the Great Game was being played in Europe. For most of the century, the consensus among policy-makers in both London and Simla was that there was no real threat of a Russian overland invasion of India. In general, the men who governed India were more interested in saving money than sponsoring adventures. Those who believed in the reality of a Russian threat and in a forward policy to counter it were outnumbered by those who thought that if they sat on their hands, the alleged menace would fade away to nothing (they were usually proved right). Lytton and Curzon were exceptional in advocating an aggressive and expansionist policy. Lytton was discredited by the Second Afghan War and Curzon left India under a cloud after repeated clashes with the Government in London. Though political agents and officers at posts on the North-West Frontier often warned of, and exaggerated the danger of Russian intrigues and money (it might, after all, be advantageous to their careers to do so), their superiors usually discounted their reports and overruled their proposals for action. The notion of trying to use Afghanistan as a buffer state and thereby getting involved in the territory’s tribal disputes was generally perceived as dangerous and impractical. Even those who argued that there was a Russian threat to the security of the Raj did not argue that the Russians could mount an invasion. Rather, the danger, such as it was, was that Russian agents and money might be used to stir up the natives. The British were thinly stretched, a fact that the Mutiny of 1857 had underlined.

As Meyer and Brysac indicate, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, directed by Henry Hathaway and released in 1935, was Hitler’s favourite film. (Mussolini’s Motion Picture Bureau banned it, deeming it to be pro-British propaganda.) Major Francis Yeats-Brown’s book, whose title the film borrowed, was a memoir of life as an officer in the 17th Cavalry on the North-West Frontier, before the outbreak of the Great War. He detailed the routines of life in the Indian Army: the management and grooming of horses, the polo matches, the exciting pig-sticking incidents, the holding of durbars, and dealings with syces and punkah wallahs. But Lives of a Bengal Lancer was also a mystically driven hymn of yearning and love for India. Yeats-Brown, who had studied theosophy and, later, yoga, expected the Second Coming to take place under the auspices of the Raj. The film-makers predictably junked all the mysticism and substituted military adventure for routine. (However, their cameramen, working on location in Afghanistan, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass region, were remarkably successful in producing an evocative portrait of India, with its bungalows, ox-carts and soldiers in pugarees.) The film version was a stock adventure story, featuring native treachery, disguise, captivity, torture, escape and the final defeat of the wild tribesmen – with Gary Cooper sacrificing his life for the honour of the regiment. It was not much more than a cowboy film in fancy dress. The reason Hitler liked it so much was that it carried the clear message that the British, numbering perhaps a quarter of a million, were, thanks to their courage, discipline and superior racial qualities, able to hold down a vast population of 400 million Indians. He thought that the Raj offered an excellent model for the future German policing of the Eastern lands and the subduing of the Slavic sub-humans, and returned to this topic again and again in conversation.

Tatiana Shaumian’s Tibet: The Great Game and Tsarist Russia is stronger on Russian aims and strategies than Tournament of Shadows, but has problems of its own. Shaumian’s book reads more like a calendar of state papers than a proper historical narrative. She did her research at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences and her argument runs along old-fashioned Marxist lines. She is obsessed with the bourgeoisie and their greedy designs on Tibet. If he were alive today, the imperious Marquess Curzon of Kedlestone would be distressed to find himself described as a ‘worthy spokesman of the British bourgeoisie’. Count Witte is correspondingly described as a representative of the bourgeois tendency in Russian politics. Neither the Russian nor the British aristocracy features in Shaumian’s version of geopolitics. Witte was actually opposed to Russian expansion in Asia but, for reasons that are unclear, she doubts his good faith. Her book offers an unnuanced account of rapacious imperial designs: ‘It appears that Russia and Britain pursued offensive policies from the strategic point of view, in the interests of developing trade and acquisition of sources of raw materials and markets for their growing bourgeoisies, and it was in Central Asia that these two streams of expansion clashed.’ She writes of British vested interests in Tibet, but it’s not clear exactly where or in what those interests were vested. Though Younghusband had managed to secure agreement on cross-border trade between India and Tibet, the quantity and quality of the commodities crossing that border were derisory, and certainly wouldn’t have covered the costs of his expedition. The truth is that, in the period concerned, British ruling circles didn’t own so much as a sweetshop in Tibet.

Tibet’s sufferings in the early 20th century owed at least as much to the inept politicking of the lamas as they did to the British. Their reliance on their War Minister Dorjieff’s assurances that Russia would come to their assistance if they blocked any British attempts to establish a diplomatic or commercial presence in Tibet was foolish. Dorjieff was actually a Russian subject and it was reports of the power he exercised at the Dalai Lama’s court that provoked the Younghusband expedition. Shaumian claims that Younghusband hoped to abolish the power of the monks. Though there is no real evidence of this, it would probably have been a good thing had he done so. Though Tibet and its lamas have been portrayed in glowing colours in several recent films (most notably Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet), those who explored the region and sought, usually in vain, to reach Lhasa, regarded the culture and the people as rather horrible. The regime of the lamas relied heavily on torture and sadistic executions for its continuance. That racists like Przhevalsky and Hedin should have despised the Tibetans is unsurprising (the racism and contempt were mutual, for most Tibetans seem to have been fanatical xenophobes). However, even Roerich, the woolly theosophical enthusiast, had reservations. Though he struggled to present the Tibetans as the Keepers of Ancient Wisdom (he thought and wrote in capital letters), he was clearly shocked by the corruption and squalor of the region. He noted that the heads of executed criminals were customarily shrunk in order to deny the executed man the possibility of reincarnation. He was also disturbed by the Tibetan practice of throwing corpses to the dogs and vultures and then rolling about in the rotting remains in order to preserve good health. Even the Dalai Lama indulged in this practice.

One of the attractive features of Tournament of Shadows is its occasional coverage of occult and literary matters. Many people derived what they thought they knew about Tibet from the writings of Madame Blavatsky – especially The Secret Doctrine (1888), which claimed that somewhere in or beyond the Himalayas there was a secret valley inhabited by the Masters. If Lhasa was remote and inaccessible, Shambhala, the city of hidden Masters, proved even more so. But perhaps the mystical quest was being conducted on the wrong continent. When Roerich showed some Mongolians a photograph of New York, their faces lit up. ‘That’s Shambhala!’ they said.

The authors digress on Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (part of which is set in a fantastical Kashmir), Kipling’s Kim and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. They also mention, but only mention, the fact that Przhevalsky furnished the model for the protagonist’s father in Nabokov’s The Gift. It might have been worth lingering over this novel. Although Nabokov never set foot in Central Asia, he had planned before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution to go east on a butterfly-hunting expedition and, in the novel he subsequently wrote in Berlin, he, more successfully than any other writer, evoked the history and romance of Central Asian exploration:

Just as I had heard in a Tibetan gorge the interesting drum-like roar which had frightened our first pilgrims, so in the desert during the sandstorms I also saw and heard the same as Marco Polo: ‘the whisper of spirits calling you aside’ and the queer flicker of the air, an endless progression of whirlwinds, caravans and armies of phantoms coming to meet you, thousands of spectral faces in their incorporeal way pressing upon you, through you, and suddenly dispersed.