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Chapter 40: 1872-1873

Lord Napier's care for the soldier --Negotiations with Sher Ali renewed--Sher Ali's demands

Lord Napier of Murchiston, the Governor of Madras, had been summoned to Calcutta to act as Viceroy until Lord Northbrook, Lord Mayo's successor, should arrive. He seemed interested in what I had to tell him about Lushai, and Lord Napier of Magd[=a]la spoke in laudatory terms of the manner in which the expedition had been carried out.

I reached Simla on the 1st of April, the twentieth anniversary of my arrival in India. I found my wife, with the two children, settled in Snowdon,[1] a house I had recently purchased. She had had much trouble in my absence, having been at death's door herself, and having very nearly lost our little son at Umballa three weeks after his birth from a Native wet-nurse having tried to kill him. The English nurse's suspicions had been aroused by one day finding a live coal in the cradle, but she did not mention this discovery at the time for fear of frightening my wife; but she determined to watch. A few days later, while with our little girl in the next room, she heard the baby boy choking, and rushed in to find, to her horror, blood on his lips, and that he was struggling violently, as if to get rid of something in his throat! She pushed down her finger and pulled out a sharp piece of cane about two inches long; but other pieces had evidently gone down, for the poor little fellow was in terrible agony for many days. It turned out that the wretched woman hated the unwonted confinement of her new life, and was determined to get away, but was too much afraid of her husband to say so. He wanted her to remain for the sake of the high pay this class of servant receives, so it appeared to the woman that her only chance of freedom was to get rid of the child, and to carry out her purpose she first attempted to set fire to the cradle, and finding this did not succeed, she pulled some pieces of cane off the chair upon which she was sitting, and shoved them down the child's throat. She was, as my wife described her, a pretty, innocent, timid-looking creature, to whom no one would ever have dreamt of attributing such an atrocity. The boy was made extremely delicate for several months by this misadventure, as his digestion had been ruined for the time being, but eventually he completely recovered from its effects.

In September the C.B. was conferred upon me for the Lushai Expedition. Lord Napier informed me of the fact in a particularly kind little note. I was very proud of being a member of the Bath, although at the time a brevet would have been a more useful reward, as want of rank was the reason Lord Napier had given for not allowing me to act as Quartermaster-General, on Lumsden being temporarily appointed Resident at Hyderabad.

We began our usual winter tour in the middle of October. At Mian Mir I made the acquaintance of the Adjutant of the 37th Foot, the late Sir Herbert Stewart, who was then a smart, good-looking subaltern, and I recollect his bemoaning bitterly his bad luck in never having had a chance of seeing service. How little at that time could it have been anticipated that within twelve years he would see hard fighting in Africa, and be killed as a Major-General in command of a column!

We visited several of the stations in the Punjab, and spent a few days at Jamu as guest of the Maharaja of Kashmir, who treated us royally, and gave us some excellent pig-sticking; and on the 21st December we joined Head-Quarters at Lawrencepur for a large Camp of Exercise, to be held on the identical ground which I had selected for the camp which Sir Hugh Rose proposed to have eleven years before.

Lord Napier of Magd[=a]la did much to improve the efficiency of the army by means of Camps of Exercise. He held one at Delhi in the winter of 1871-72, and the Camp of which I am writing was most successful and instructive. No Commander-in-Chief ever carried out inspections with more thoroughness than did Lord Napier of Magd[=a]la. He spared himself no trouble. On the hottest day he would toil through barrack after barrack to satisfy himself that the soldiers were properly cared for; Europeans and Natives were equally attended to, and many measures conducive to the men's comfort date from the time he was in command in India.

At the close of this camp Lumsden, who had returned to his appointment from Hyderabad, gave up the Quartermaster-Generalship for good. We had been greatly thrown together during the twenty-one years I had been in India, and my wife and I were very sorry to bid farewell to him and Mrs. Lumsden. He was succeeded by Edwin Johnson, pending whose arrival I was now allowed to officiate.

From Lawrencepur I went with the Commander-in-Chief to Calcutta. Soon after we arrived there I was asked by Sir Douglas Forsyth to accompany him on his Mission to Yarkand and Kashgar. I should have much liked to have done so, for the idea of a trip to these, at that time unknown, regions possessed great fascinations for me. I was therefore well pleased when Lord Napier told me he would not stand in the way of my going, and proportionately disappointed when, the next day, His Excellency said that on consideration he did not think I could be spared just then, for the Quartermaster-General would be new to the work at first, and he thought he would need my assistance.

The end of April saw us back in Simla, and in July Edwin Johnson arrived.

During the summer of 1873 important events occurred which had much to do with our subsequent relations with Afghanistan. The inquiries which Sher Ali had begged Lord Mayo to make about Persian encroachments in Sistan, had resulted in General Goldsmid[2] and Colonel Pollock[3] being deputed in 1871 to proceed to Sistan to decide the question. The settlement arrived at by these officers, which assigned to Afghanistan the country up to the right bank of the Helmand, but nothing beyond, satisfied neither the Shah nor the Amir, and the latter sent his confidential Minister, Saiyad Nur Mahomed, the Afghan Commissioner in the Sistan arbitration, to meet Lord Northbrook on his arrival in Bombay for the purpose of appealing to him against the decision. It could not, however, be reversed; but in a subsequent interview which the new Viceroy accorded the Envoy, the latter was told that as soon as Persia and Afghanistan had signified their acceptance of the settlement, the Government of India would present the Amir with five lakhs of rupees as compensation for the ceded territory which had for a time belonged to Afghanistan.

The action of Her Majesty's Ministers in communication with Russia regarding the northern boundary of Afghanistan was another matter about which the Amir was greatly exercised; and Lord Northbrook, thinking that all such vexed questions could be more satisfactorily explained by personal communication than by letter, proposed to the Amir that His Highness should consent to receive at Kabul a British officer 'of high rank and dignity, in whom I have full confidence' (Mr. Macnabb),[4] 'who will also explain to Your Highness,' wrote the Viceroy, 'the negotiations which have now been satisfactorily concluded with the Government of His Majesty the Emperor of Russia, whereby the Russian Government have agreed to recognize and respect the integrity and independence of the territories now in Your Highness's possession.'

To this request Sher Ali replied that he considered it advisable that one of his agents should first wait on the Viceroy to ascertain the real views of the British Government on these important matters. This was agreed to, and Saiyad Nur Mahomed was again selected to represent the Amir. He reached Simla towards the end of June. On being informed that Persia had unreservedly accepted the decision as to the Sistan question, the Envoy declared that, whatever opinion the Amir might hold as to his rights, His Highness would also scrupulously respect that decision. With regard to the northern frontier, the Envoy begged it to be clearly understood that the Afghan Government wished to be allowed to make their own laws and follow their own customs within their territories; that the internal affairs of the country should be free from interference; and that the acknowledgment by Russia of the Amir's claim to land south of the Oxus should be confirmed by Bokhara. He further requested 'that the British Government would distinctly promise that, in the event of any aggression on the Amir's territories, they would consider the perpetrator of such aggression as their own enemy.' It was explained to the Saiyad that the British Government did not share the Amir's apprehension of Russia; that under such circumstances as he contemplated, it would be the duty of the Amir to refer to the British Government, who would decide whether it was an occasion for assistance to be rendered by them, and what the nature and extent of the assistance should be; moreover, that their help must be conditional upon the Amir himself abstaining from aggression, and on his unreserved acceptance of the advice of the British Government in regard to his external relations.

Two other questions were discussed:

(1) The location in certain towns in Afghanistan of British officers as representatives of the British Government.

(2) The present assistance to be rendered to the Amir for the purpose of strengthening his country against foreign aggression.

On the first point the Envoy said he had no instructions, but that, in his opinion, to ask Sher Ali to allow British officers to be located in Afghanistan would give rise to mistrust and apprehension. He recommended that a letter should be addressed to the Amir, pointing out the desirability of a British officer being sent to inspect the western and northern boundaries of Afghanistan, proceeding viâ Kandahar and returning viâ Kabul, where he might confer personally with His Highness. This suggestion was carried out.

With regard to the second point under discussion, the Envoy stated that 20,000 stand-of-arms were desired, laying very particular stress on 5,000 Sniders being included in this number, and that hopes were entertained by the Amir that he would be largely assisted with money. In answer to this, the Saiyad was told that there was not then a sufficient reserve supply of Sniders for the English troops in India, and that it was impossible to spare more than 5,000 Enfields; that this number should at once be placed at the Amir's disposal, and that the remainder should be forwarded as soon as they were received from England. He was further informed that five lakhs of rupees (exclusive of the five lakhs promised the year before, as indemnification for the loss of territory) would be given to Sher Ali.

A final letter from the Viceroy was sent to the Amir through Saiyad Nur Mahomed, dated 6th September, 1873, summing up the result of the conference. His Highness was told, with reference to a fear expressed by the Envoy lest Russia should press for the establishment of a Russian Mission and agents in Afghanistan, that Prince Gortschakoff had officially intimated that, while he saw no objection to British officers going to Kabul, he engaged that Russian agents should abstain from doing so, and that, far from apprehending a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the British Government believed that the effect of the recent arrangements had been to render the occurrence of such a contingency more remote than ever. At the same time, being desirous of seeing the Amir strong and his rule firmly established, the Government were prepared to give him any reasonable assistance.

Sher Ali was greatly annoyed and disappointed at the result of his Envoy's visit to Simla. He was of a very impulsive, passionate disposition; his reply to the Viceroy's letter was discourteous and sarcastic; he declined to receive a British officer at Kabul, and although he condescended to accept the arms presented to him, he left the ten lakhs of rupees untouched in the Peshawar treasury. Colonel Valentine Baker, who was at that time travelling through Central Asia, was forbidden by the Amir to pass through Afghanistan on his way to India; and a few months later he refused to allow Sir Douglas Forsyth's Mission to return to India by way of Afghanistan.

[Footnote 1: We lived in this house whenever we were in Simla, till we left it in 1892. It has since been bought by Government for the Commander-in-Chief's residence.]

[Footnote 2: General Sir Frederick Goldsmid, K.C.M.G.]

[Footnote 3: Major-General Sir Frederick Pollock, K.C.S.I.]

[Footnote 4: Sir Donald Macnabb, K.C.S.I., then Commissioner of Peshawar.]