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Chapter 43: 1878

Object of the first Afghan war --Excitement caused by Russia's advances

Before continuing my story, it will, I think, be as well to recall to the minds of my readers the train of events which led to England and Russia becoming at the same moment solicitous for the Amir's friendship, for it was this rivalry which was the immediate cause of the second Afghan war.

Less than two hundred years ago the British Empire in the East and Russia were separated from each other by a distance of 4,000 miles. Russia's most advanced posts were at Orenburg and Petropaulovsk, while England had obtained but an uncertain footing on the seaboard of southern India. The French were our only European rivals in India, and the advance of Russia towards the Oxus was as little anticipated as was England's advance towards the Indus.

Thirty years later Russia began to absorb the hordes of the Kirghiz steppes, which gave her occupation for more than a hundred years, during which time England was far from idle. Bengal was conquered, or ceded to us, the Madras Presidency established, and Bombay had become an important settlement, with the result that, in the early part of this century, the distance between the Russian and English possessions had been diminished to less than 2,000 miles.

Our progress was now more rapid. While Russia was laboriously crossing a barren desert, the North-West Provinces, the Carnatic, the territories of the Peshwa, Sind, and the Punjab, successively came under our rule, and by 1850 we had extended our dominions to the foot of the mountains beyond the Indus.

Russia by this time, having overcome the difficulties of the desert, had established herself at Aralsk, near the junction of the Syr Daria with the waters of Lake Aral; so that in fifty years the distance between the outposts of the two advancing Powers in Asia had been reduced to about 1,000 miles.

Repeated successful wars with Persia, and our desertion of that Power owing to the conviction that we could no longer defend her against the Russians, had practically placed her at their mercy, and they had induced Persia, in 1837, to undertake the siege of Herat. At the same time, the Russian Ambassador at Teheran had despatched Captain Vitkievitch to Kabul with letters from himself and from the Czar to the Amir, in the hope of getting Dost Mahomed Khan to join the Russians and Persians in their alliance against the English.

Vitkievitch's arrival at Kabul towards the end of 1837 had been anticipated by Captain (afterwards Sir Alexander) Burnes, who had been sent three months before by Lord Auckland on a Mission to the Amir, ostensibly to improve our commercial relations with the Afghans, but in reality to prevent them from joining the Russo-Persian alliance.

Burnes had been most cordially received by Dost Mahomed, who hoped, with the help of the Indian Government, to recover the district of Peshawar, which had been wrested from him by the Sikhs. Vitkievitch's reception was proportionately discouraging, and for some weeks he could not obtain an interview with the Amir.

The Dost's hopes, however, were not fulfilled. We declined to give him any assistance towards regaining possession of Peshawar or defending his dominions, should his refusal to join with Persia and Russia draw down upon him the enmity of those Powers.

Vitkievitch, who had been patiently biding his time, was now taken into favour by the Amir, who accorded him a reception which fully compensated for the neglect with which he had previously been treated.

Burnes remained at Kabul until the spring of 1838, and then returned to India to report that Dost Mahomed had thrown himself heart and soul into the Russo-Persian alliance.

Under pressure from the English Ministry the Governor-General of India determined to take the extreme measure of deposing an Amir who had shown himself so hostilely inclined, and of placing on the throne of Kabul a Ruler who, it was hoped, would feel that it was to his interest to keep on good terms with us. It was for this object that the first Afghan war[1] was undertaken, which ended in the murder of our nominee, Shah Shuja, and the triumphant return of Dost Mahomed. The disastrous failure of our action in this matter taught the British Government that our frontier on the Sutlej was too far removed for us to think of exercising any real influence in Afghanistan, and that the time had not arrived to warrant our interfering in Afghan affairs.

After this came our war with the Sikhs, resulting in our conquest of the Punjab, and our frontier becoming conterminous with that of Afghanistan on the banks of the Indus.

There was a lull in the movements of Russia in Central Asia until after the Crimean War of 1854-56, which, while temporarily checking the designs of Russia in Europe, seems to have stimulated her progress in the East. After the passage of the great desert, Russia found herself in the midst of fertile and settled countries, whose provinces fell under her control as rapidly as those of India had fallen under ours, until in 1864 Chimkent was occupied, the point beyond which Prince Gortchakoff stated that there was no intention on the part of Russia to make further advances.

Notwithstanding these assurances, Tashkent was captured on the 29th June of the following year. In 1866 Khojent was successfully assaulted. Tisakh fell on the 30th October; and in the spring of 1867 the fort of Yani-Kargan in the Nurata mountains was seized and occupied.

Bokhara alone remained unconquered, but the Ruler of that State, after vainly endeavouring to gain assistance from Afghanistan and to enlist the sympathies of the Indian Government, was compelled to sue for peace.

Important as these acquisitions were, they attracted but little attention in England, owing partly to the policy of non-interference which had been adopted as regards Central Asian affairs, and partly to the British public being absorbed in European politics, until 1868, when the occupation of Samarkand by Russia caused considerable excitement, not to say consternation, amongst the authorities in England.

Conferences took place in the spring of 1870 between Lord Clarendon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and Baron Brunow, the Russian Ambassador, with the object of determining a neutral zone, which should be the limit of the possessions of England and Russia in Central Asia. For nearly three years, Russia was persistent in her endeavours to have Afghanistan placed outside the pale of British influence; but the Indian Government were equally persistent in pointing out the danger of agreeing to such an arrangement, and it was not until the 31st January, 1873, that the boundary, which neither England nor Russia might cross, was finally agreed upon.

Six months later the conquest of Khiva by Russia was effected. It was at first given out that the expedition was to punish acts of brigandage, and to rescue fifty Russian prisoners, but was on no account to lead to a prolonged occupancy of the Khanate. Count Schouvaloff, the Russian Statesman who was deputed to communicate the object of the expedition to the British Government, declared that a positive promise to this effect might be given to the British public, as a proof of the friendly and pacific intentions of his master the Czar; but, notwithstanding these assurances, the Russians never left Khiva, and it has been a Russian possession from that time.

Thus, in a little more than twenty years, Russia had made a stride of 600 miles towards India, leaving but 400 miles between her outposts and those of Great Britain. Russia's southern boundary was now, in fact, almost conterminous with the northern boundary of Afghanistan, near enough to cause the Ruler of that country considerable anxiety, and make him feel that Russia had become a dreaded neighbour, and that the integrity of his kingdom could not be maintained save by the aid of one of the two great Powers between whose fire he now found himself.

I have endeavoured to show how it was that Sher Ali, notwithstanding his soreness and disappointment at the many rebuffs he had received from us in the earlier part of his career, gratefully remembered the timely aid afforded him by Sir John Lawrence, and the princely reception accorded to him by Lord Mayo, and was still quite prepared in 1873 to enter into friendly relations with us, provided we would recognize his favourite son as his heir, and give a direct promise of aid in the event of Russian aggression. Our refusal to accede to these terms, added to our adverse decision in regard to the Sistan boundary, turned Sher Ali from a friend into an enemy, and he decided, as his father had done forty years before, to throw in his lot with Russia.

[Footnote 1: It is instructive to note how remarkably similar were the circumstances which brought about the first and second Afghan wars, viz., the presence of Russian officers at Kabul.]