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Chapter 38: 1869

Afzal Khan ousts Sher Ali--Sher Ali regains the Amirship --Foresight of Sir Henry Rawlinson--The Umballa Durbar

In January, 1869, Sir John Lawrence, after a career which was altogether unique, he having risen from the junior grades of the Bengal Civil Service to the almost regal position of Governor-General,[1] left India for good. He was succeeded as Viceroy by Lord Mayo, one of whose first official acts was to hold a durbar at Umballa for the reception of the Amir Sher Ali, who, after five years of civil war, had succeeded in establishing himself on the throne of Afghanistan, to which he had been nominated by his father, Dost Mahomed Khan.[2]

Sher Ali had passed through a stormy time between the death of the Dost, in June, 1863, and September, 1868. He had been acknowledged as the rightful heir by the Government of India, and for the first three years he held the Amirship in a precarious sort of way. His two elder brothers, Afzal and Azim, and his nephew, Abdur Rahman (the present Ruler of Afghanistan), were in rebellion against him. The death of his favourite son and heir-apparent, Ali Khan, in action near Khelat-i-Ghilzai, in 1865, grieved him so sorely that for a time his reason was affected. In May, 1866, he was defeated near Ghazni (mainly owing to the treachery of his own troops) by Abdur Rahman, who, releasing his father, Afzal, from the prison into which he had been cast by Sher Ali, led him in triumph to Kabul, and proclaimed him Amir of Afghanistan.

The new Amir, Afzal, at once wrote to the Government of India detailing what had occurred, and expressing a hope that the friendship of the British, which he so greatly valued, would be extended to him. He was told, in reply, that the Government recognized him as Ruler of Kabul, but that, as Sher Ali still held Kandahar and Herat, existing engagements with the latter could not be broken off. The evident preference thus displayed for Sher Ali caused the greatest vexation to the brothers Afzal and Azim, who showed their resentment by directing an Envoy who had come from Swat to pay his respects to the new Amir to return to his own country and set on foot a holy war against the English; the Waziri maliks[3] in attendance at the court were dismissed with presents and directions to harass the British frontier, while an emissary was despatched on a secret mission to the Russians.

After his defeat near Ghazni, Sher Ali fled to Kandahar, and in the January of the following year (again owing to treachery in his army) he met with a second defeat near Khelat-i-Ghilzai, and lost Kandahar.

On this fact being communicated to the Government of India, Afzal Khan was in his turn recognized as Amir of Kabul and Kandahar. But he was at the same time informed that the British Government intended to maintain a strict neutrality between the contending parties in Afghanistan. John Lawrence, in his letter of the 20th of February, said that 'neither men, nor arms, nor money, nor assistance of any kind, have ever been supplied by my Government to Amir Sher Ali. Your Highness and he, both equally unaided by me, have fought out the battle, each upon your own resources. I purpose to continue the same policy for the future. If, unhappily, the struggle for supremacy in Afghanistan has not yet been brought to a close, and hostilities are again renewed, I shall still side with neither party.'

This reply altogether failed to satisfy Afzal and Azim. They answered it civilly, but at the same time they sent a copy of it to General Romanofski, the Russian Governor of Tashkent, who was informed by the new Amir that he had no confidence in the 'Lord sahib's fine professions of friendship, and that he was disgusted with the British Government for the ingratitude and ill-treatment shown towards his brother Azim.[4] He looked upon the Russians as his real and only friends, hoped soon to send a regular Ambassador to the Russian camp, and would at all times do his utmost to protect and encourage Russian trade.'

In October of this year (1867) Afzal Khan died, and his brother Azim, hastening to Kabul, took upon himself the Amirship. Abdur Rahman had hoped to have succeeded his father, but his uncle having forestalled him, he thought it politic to give in his allegiance to him, which he did by presenting his dead father's sword, in durbar, to the new Amir, who, like his predecessor, was now acknowledged by the Government of India as Ruler of Kabul and Kandahar.

The tide, however, was beginning to turn in favour of Sher Ali. Azim and Abdur Rahman quarrelled, and the former, by his extortions and cruelties, made himself detested by the people generally.

In March, 1868, Sher Ali's eldest son, Yakub Khan, regained possession of Kandahar for his father. In July father and son found themselves strong enough to move towards Ghazni, where Azim Khan's army was assembled. The latter, gradually deserted by his soldiers, took to flight, upon which Sher Ali, after an absence of forty months, entered Kabul on the 8th of September, and re-possessed himself of all his dominions, with the exception of Balkh, where Azim and Abdur Rahman (now reconciled to each other) still flew the flag of rebellion.

One of the newly-installed Amir's first acts was to inform the Viceroy of his return to Kabul, and of the recovery of his kingdom. He announced his desire to send some trusted representatives, or else proceed himself in person, to Calcutta, 'for the purpose of showing his sincerity and firm attachment to the British Government, and making known his real wants.'

Sir John Lawrence, in his congratulatory reply, showed that a change had come over his policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, for he stated that he was 'prepared, not only to maintain the bonds of amity and goodwill which were established between Dost Mahomed and the British Government, but, so far as may be practicable, to strengthen those bonds'; and, as a substantial proof of his goodwill, the Viceroy sent Sher Ali £60,000, aid which arrived at a most opportune moment, and gave the Amir that advantage over his opponents which is of incalculable value in Afghan civil war, namely, funds wherewith to pay the army and bribe the opposite side.

The energetic and capable Abdur Rahman Khan had in the meantime collected a sufficient number of troops in Turkestan to enable him to move towards Kabul with his uncle Azim. On nearing Ghazni, he found himself confronted by Sher Ali; the opposing forces were about equal in strength, and on both sides there was the same scarcity of ready money. Suddenly the report was received that money was being sent from India to Sher Ali, and this turned the scale in his favour. Abdur Rahman's men deserted in considerable numbers, and a battle fought on the 3rd January, 1869, resulted in the total defeat of uncle and nephew, and in the firmer consolidation of Sher Ali's supremacy.

The change in policy which induced the Government of India to assist a struggling Amir with money, after its repeated and emphatic declarations that interference was impossible, was undoubtedly brought about by an able and elaborate memorandum written by the late Sir Henry Rawlinson on the 28th July, 1868. In this paper Rawlinson pointed out that, notwithstanding promises to the contrary, Russia was steadily advancing towards Afghanistan. He referred to the increased facilities of communication which would be the result of the recent proposal to bring Turkestan into direct communication, viâ the Caspian, with the Caucasus and St. Petersburg. He dwelt at length upon the effect which the advanced position of Russia in Central Asia would have upon Afghanistan and India. He explained that by the occupation of Bokhara Russia would gain a pretext for interfering in Afghan politics, and 'that if Russia once assumes a position which, in virtue either of an imposing military force on the Oxus, or of a dominant political influence in Afghanistan, entitles her, in Native estimation, to challenge our Asiatic supremacy, the disquieting effect will be prodigious.'

'With this prospect before us,' Sir Henry asked, 'are we justified in maintaining what has been sarcastically, though perhaps unfairly, called Sir John Lawrence's policy of "masterly inaction"? Are we justified in allowing Russia to work her way to Kabul unopposed, and there to establish herself as a friendly power prepared to protect the Afghans against the English?' He argued that it was contrary to our interests to permit anarchy to reign in Afghanistan; that Lord Auckland's famous doctrine of 'establishing a strong and friendly Power on our North-West Frontier' was the right policy for India, 'that Dost Mahomed's successful management of his country was in a great measure due to our aid, and that, if we had helped the son as we had helped the father, Sher Ali would have summarily suppressed the opposition of his brothers and nephews.' Rawlinson then added: 'Another opportunity now presents itself. The fortunes of Sher Ali are again in the ascendant; he should be secured in our interests without delay.'

Rawlinson's suggestions were not at the time supposed to commend themselves to the Government of India. In the despatch in which they were answered,[5] the Viceroy and his Councillors stated that they still objected to any active interference in the affairs of Afghanistan; they foresaw no limits to the expenditure which such a move would entail, and they believed that the objects that they had at heart might be attained by an attitude of readiness and firmness on the frontier. It is worthy of note, however, that, after Sir Henry Rawlinson's memorandum had been received by the Indian Government, and notwithstanding these protests, the sum of £60,000 was sent to Sher Ali, that Sir John Lawrence invited him 'to come to some place in British territory for a personal meeting in order to discuss the best manner in which a limited support might be accorded,' and that five days from the time of writing the above-mentioned despatch, John Lawrence sent a farewell letter to Sher Ali, expressing the earnest hope of the British Government that His Highness's authority would be established on a solid and permanent basis, and informing him that a further sum of £60,000 would be supplied to him during the next few months, and that future Viceroys would consider, from time to time, what amount of practical assistance in the shape of money or war materials should periodically be made over to him as a testimony of their friendly feeling, and to the furtherance of his legitimate authority and influence.

Sher Ali expressed himself as most grateful, and came to Umballa full of hope and apparently thoroughly well disposed towards the British Government. He was received with great state and ceremony, and Lord Mayo was most careful to demonstrate that he was treating with an independent, and not a feudatory, Prince.

At this conference Sher Ali began by unburdening himself of his grievances, complaining to Lord Mayo of the manner in which his two elder brothers had each in his turn been recognized as Amir, and dwelling on the one-sided nature of the treaty made with his father, by which the British Government only bound itself to abstain from interfering with Afghanistan, while the Amir was to be 'the friend of the friends and the enemy of the enemies of the Honourable East India Company.' His Highness then proceeded to make known his wants, which were that he and his lineal descendants on the throne that he had won 'by his own good sword' should be acknowledged as the de jure sovereigns of Afghanistan; that a treaty offensive and defensive should be made with him; and that he should be given a fixed subsidy in the form of an annual payment.

It was in regard to the first of these three demands that Sher Ali was most persistent. He explained repeatedly and at some length that to acknowledge the Ruler pro tempore and de facto was to invite competition for a throne, and excite the hopes of all sorts of candidates; but that if the British Government would recognize him and his dynasty, there was nothing he would not do in order to evince his gratitude.

These requests, the Amir was informed, were inadmissible. There could be no treaty, no fixed subsidy, no dynastic pledges. He was further told that we were prepared to discourage his rivals, to give him warm countenance and support, and such material assistance as we considered absolutely necessary for his immediate wants, if he, on his part, would undertake to do all he could to maintain peace on our frontier and to comply with our wishes in matters connected with trade.

As an earnest of our goodwill, the Amir was given the second £60,000 promised him by Sir John Lawrence, besides a considerable supply of arms and ammunition,[6] and was made happy by a promise that European officers should not be required to reside in any of his cities. Before the conference took place, Lord Mayo had contemplated British agents being sent to Kabul in order to obtain accurate information regarding events in Central Asia, but on discovering how vehemently opposed Sher Ali was to such an arrangement, he gave him this promise. Saiyad Nur Mahomed, the Minister who accompanied the Amir, though equally averse to European agents, admitted that 'the day might come when the Russians would arrive, and the Amir would be glad, not only of British officers as agents, but of arms and troops to back them.'

One request which the Amir made towards the close of the meeting the Viceroy agreed to, which was that we should call Persia to account for her alleged encroachments on the debatable ground of Sistan. This, which seemed but an unimportant matter at the time, was one of the chief causes of Sher Ali's subsequent estrangement; for the committee of arbitration which inquired into it decided against the Amir, who never forgave what he considered our unfriendly action in discountenancing his claims.

The Umballa conference was, on the whole, successful, in that Sher Ali returned to his own country much gratified at the splendour of his reception, and a firm personal friend of Lord Mayo, whose fine presence and genial manner had quite won the Amir's heart, although he had not succeeded in getting from him everything he had demanded.

[Footnote 1: I should have mentioned that Sir John Lawrence was not the only instance of a Bengal civilian rising to the position of Governor-General, as a predecessor of his, Sir John Shore, afterwards Lord Teignmouth, was appointed Governor-General in 1792, and held that office until 1798.]

[Footnote 2: Dost Mahomed had several sons. Mahomed Akbar and Ghulam Haidar, the two heirs-designate in succession, died before their father. Sixteen other sons were alive in 1863, of whom the following were the eldest:

1. Mahomed Afzal Khan aged 52 years By a wife not of Royal blood.
2. Mahomed Azim Khan   " 45   "  "   "   "     "    "
    "        "
3. Sher Ali Khan   " 40   " By a favourite Popalzai wife.
4. Mahomed Amir Khan   " 34   "  "   "       "
          "         "
5. Mahomed Sharif Khan   " 30   "  "   "       "
          "         "
6. Wali Mahomed Khan   " 33   " By a third wife.
7. Faiz Mahomed Khan   " 25   "  "   "   "      "

Afzal Khan had a son Abdur Rahman Khan, the present Amir of Afghanistan, and Sher Ali had five sons--Ali Khan, Yakub Khan, Ibrahim Khan, Ayub Khan, and Abdulla Jan.]

[Footnote 3: The headmen of villages in Afghanistan are styled maliks.]

[Footnote 4: Azim Khan behaved well towards the Lumsden Mission, and it was reported that he encouraged his father, Dost Mahomed Khan, not to disturb the Peshawar frontier during the Mutiny.]

[Footnote 5: Dated 4th January, 1869.]

[Footnote 6: Besides the remainder of the aggregate sum of twelve lakhs, 6,500 more rifles were forwarded to the frontier for transmission to the Amir, and in addition four 18-pounder smooth-bore guns, two 8-inch howitzers, and a Mountain battery of six 3-pounders complete, with due proportion of ammunition and stores, together with draught bullocks and nine elephants.]