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.)

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