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Chapter 5: 1856-1857

Lord Dalhousie's Afghan policy--Treaty with Dost Mahomed --War with Persia--The advantage of the Amir's friendship --John Nicholson--'A pillar of strength on the frontier'

Towards the close of the year 1856, a rumour reached us that the Amir, Dost Mahomed Khan, was shortly expected to arrive at Peshawar to meet the Chief Commissioner, Sir John Lawrence, who had recently been made a K.C.B.

Before describing the Amir's visit and its results, it seems desirable that I should briefly explain how and why the visit was brought about, and then endeavour to show what an important bearing its results had on the great crisis which occurred so unexpectedly a few months later.

It will be remembered that the murdered Mackeson was succeeded as Commissioner of Peshawar by Herbert Edwardes, one of the most remarkable men that the Indian army has ever produced, and who, as I have already mentioned, entirely concurred in my father's expressed opinion as to the great advantage it would be for the Government of India to enter into more friendly relations with the Ruler of Kabul. They both held that the constant troubles all along our frontier were in a great measure due to the Amir's hostility, and that such troubles would increase rather than diminish unless we could succeed in establishing an entente cordiale with Dost Mahomed.

In 1854 Edwardes had a correspondence with the Governor-General on the subject, and on one occasion expressed himself as follows: 'My own feeling is, that we have much injured Dost Mahomed, and may very well afford to let by-gones be by-gones. It would contribute much to the security of this frontier if open relations of goodwill were established at Kabul. There is a sullenness in our present relations, as if both parties were brooding over the past, and expecting an opportunity in the future. This keeps up excitement and unrest, and prevents our influence and institutions taking root. I should be very glad to see a new account opened on the basis of an open treaty of friendship and alliance.'

Lord Dalhousie was quite in accord with Edwardes. He thought it very desirable to be on better terms with Kabul, but believed this to be a result difficult to attain. 'I give you,' he said in a letter to Edwardes, carte blanche, and if you can only bring about such a result as you propose, it will be a new feather in your cap.'

Lord Dalhousie was supported by the British Government in his opinion as to the desirability of coming to a better understanding with the Amir. War with Russia was then imminent, and the strained condition of European politics made it expedient that we should be on more amicable terms with Afghanistan.

The Governor-General thus wrote to Edwardes:

'Prospects of a war between Russia and Turkey are watched with interest by all.... In England they are fidgety regarding this border beyond all reason, and most anxious for that declared amity and that formal renewal of friendly relations which you advocate in your letter.'

The balance of Indian opinion, however, was against our making overtures to Dost Mahomed. John Lawrence, at that time the great power in the Punjab, was altogether opposed to Edwardes's policy in this matter. He admitted that it might be wise to renew intercourse with the Kabul ruler if he first expressed his regret for previous misunderstandings; but later he wrote to Edwardes:

'I dare say you are right; still, I cannot divest myself of the idea that it is a mistake, and will end in mixing us up in Afghan politics and affairs more than is desirable. The strength which a treaty can give us seems to be a delusion. It will be like the reed on which, if a man lean, it will break and pierce his hand.'

John Nicholson, Outram, and James Abbott agreed with Lawrence. They urged that any advance on our part would be looked upon as an indication of conscious weakness; and the probability was that an arrogant, irritated Mussulman ruler would regard an overture as a proof of our necessity, and would make our necessity his opportunity. But Lord Dalhousie, while anxious to avoid any communication being made which could be liable to misconstruction, saw neither objection nor risk in opening the door to reconciliation, provided no undue anxiety was displayed on our part. The Governor-General practically left the matter in the hands of Edwardes, who lost no time in trying to attain the desired object. The greatest forbearance and diplomatic skill were necessary to bring the negotiations to a satisfactory termination, but they were concluded at last, most successfully, and to Edwardes alone is due the credit. It is instructive to read the full record[1] of this tedious and difficult piece of diplomacy, for it serves as an interesting example of Oriental subtlety and circumlocution, contrasted with the straightforward dealing of a high-minded Englishman.

The Amir wrote a letter to the Governor-General couched in most satisfactory terms, which he forwarded to Peshawar by the hand of his confidential secretary, and which received, as it deserved, a very friendly reply. This resulted in Dost Mahomed sending his son and heir-apparent, Sardar Ghulam Haidar Khan, to Peshawar, and deputing him to act as his Plenipotentiary in the negotiations. Ghulam Haidar Khan reached Peshawar in March, 1855, where he was met by the Chief Commissioner, and on the 30th of that month the treaty was concluded. 'It guaranteed that we should respect the Amir's possessions in Afghanistan, and never interfere with them; while the Amir engaged similarly to respect British territory, and to be the friend of our friends and the enemy of our enemies.'

The Governor-General had at first resolved to entrust to Edwardes the duty of meeting the expected Envoy from Kabul, and orders to that effect were issued. But Edwardes, more anxious for the success of the negotiations than for his own honour and glory, wrote to Lord Dalhousie suggesting that the Government of India should be represented by the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab, and promising to afford Sir John Lawrence all the assistance in his power. Edwardes believed that the importance of the treaty would be enhanced in the eyes of the Afghans by the presence of the higher official; and in this opinion the Governor-General concurred. On the conclusion of the treaty, Lord Dalhousie wrote to Edwardes: 'I congratulate you and myself and all else concerned on this successful issue of the negotiations, which have now lasted just a year.'

This treaty of March, 1855, was only preliminary to that for the ratification of which the Amir came in person to Peshawar the following year.

Towards the end of 1855 Dost Mahomed found himaelf in considerable difficulties, and appealed to us for assistance. A revolt had occurred at Herat, and a Persian army was preparing to besiege that fortress; the chiefs and people of Kandahar were disaffected; and the province of Balkh was threatened with invasion both by the King of Bokhara and by Turkoman hordes. The Amir looked upon Herat as an integral part of the Afghan dominions, and was very desirous of re-establishing his authority over that place and preventing its falling into the hands of the Persians; but he felt himself too weak to have any hope of success without help from us in men and money. It was, therefore, Dost Mahomed's interest to convince the British Government that the Shah had infringed the conditions of an engagement entered into with us in 1853, under which Persia abandoned all claim to Herat. The Amir thus hoped to establish a quarrel between England and Persia for his own benefit, and to secure our assistance against the latter power. To further this design, Dost Mahomed offered to come to Peshawar and consult with the British authorities. Edwardes was in favour of the proposed visit. John Lawrence was opposed to it, saying he did not think much good would result from such a meeting, because it could hardly be anticipated that the views of the Amir and the British Government would coincide, and if Dost Mahomed should fail to obtain what he wanted, his dissatisfaction would be a positive evil. The Governor-General admitted the force of these objections, but in the end considered that they should be set aside if the Amir was in earnest in desiring a consultation. 'A refusal or an evasion to comply with his wish,' Lord Dalhousie thought, 'might be misunderstood, and although a meeting might lead to disappointment and disagreement, it would, at any rate, put the relations of the British Government with the Amir, as regards Herat, upon a clear footing.'

While this discussion was going on, the advance of a Persian army for the purpose of besieging Herat, coupled with the insults offered to the British flag at Teheran, led to the declaration of war between England and Persia. The Chief Commissioner was therefore directed to tell the Amir that he would be paid a periodical subsidy to aid him in carrying on hostile operations against Persia, subject to certain conditions. On receiving these instructions, the Chief Commissioner directed Edwardes to invite the Amir to an interview. Dost Mahomed accepted the invitation, but before the auspicious meeting could take place Lord Dalhousie had left India, and Lord Canning reigned in his stead. Lord Dalhousie resigned on the 29th February, 1856, after having filled the arduous and responsible position of Governor-General for no less than eight years, adding year by year fresh lustre to his splendid reputation.

The first day of 1857 witnessed the meeting between the Amir of Kabul and the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab. The Amir's camp was pitched at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, and that of the Chief Commissioner on the plain near Jamrud. Barr's troop of Horse Artillery formed part of the escort, so I was in the midst of it all. On the occasion of the Amir's first visit to the English camp, there was a force present of upwards of 7,000 soldiers, including three regiments of British Infantry; the troops lined the road for more than a mile, and it was evident that their strength and soldierly appearance inspired the Amir and his followers with a very salutary feeling of awe and admiration.[2]

The result of the conferences between these two great personages was an agreement confirming the treaty of the year before. In addition, the Amir bound himself to keep up a certain number of regular troops for the defence of Afghanistan, so long as the war with Persia continued, in consideration of a monthly subsidy of Rs. 100,000 and a gift of 4,000 muskets. He also engaged to communicate to the Government of India any overtures he might receive from Persia, and he consented to allow British officers to visit certain parts of his dominions, either for the purpose of assisting his subjects against Persia, or to ascertain that the subsidy was properly applied.

I have dwelt at some length on this treaty with Afghanistan, first, because the policy of which this was the outcome was, as I have already shown, initiated by my father; and, secondly, because I do not think it is generally understood how important to us were its results. Not only did it heal the wounds left open from the first Afghan war, but it relieved England of a great anxiety at a time when throughout the length and breadth of India there was distress, revolt, bloodshed, and bitter distrust of our Native troops. Dost Mahomed loyally held to his engagements during the troublous days of the Mutiny which so quickly followed this alliance, when, had he turned against us, we should assuredly have lost the Punjab; Delhi could never have been taken; in fact, I do not see how any part of the country north of Bengal could have been saved. Dost Mahomed's own people could not understand his attitude. They frequently came to him during the Mutiny, throwing their turbans at his feet, and praying him as a Mahomedan to seize that opportunity for destroying the 'infidels.' 'Hear the news from Delhi,' they urged; 'see the difficulties the Feringhis are in. Why don't you lead us on to take advantage of their weakness, and win back Peshawar?'[3]

But I am anticipating, and must return to my narrative.

The clause of the treaty which interested me personally was that relating to British officers being allowed to visit Afghanistan, to give effect to which a Mission was despatched to Kandahar. It consisted of three officers, the brothers Harry and Peter Lumsden, and Dr. Bellew, together with two of Edwardes's trusted Native Chiefs. The selection of Peter Lumsden as a member of this Mission again left the Deputy Assistant-Quartermaster-Generalship vacant, and I was a second time appointed to officiate in his absence.

Shortly afterwards the General of the division (General Reed) started on his tour of inspection, taking me with him as his staff officer. Jhelum was the first place we visited. Whether the sepoys had then any knowledge of what was so soon to happen is doubtful. If they had, there was no evidence that such was the case. Nothing could have been more proper or respectful than their behaviour; no crimes were reported, no complaints were made. The British officers, certainly, had not the slightest idea of the storm that was brewing, for they spoke in the warmest terms of their men.

From Jhelum we went to Rawal Pindi. John Lawrence happened to be in camp there at the time, and looked on at the General's inspection. At the conclusion of the parade he sent his secretary to ask me if I would like to be appointed to the Public Works Department. I respectfully declined the offer, though very grateful for its having been made. Some of my friends doubted the wisdom of my refusing a permanent civil appointment; but it meant having to give up soldiering, which I could not make up my mind to do, and though only officiating, I was already in the department to which of all others I wished to belong.

Nowshera was the last station we visited. It was the beginning of April, and getting rather hot for parading troops. I there met for the first time the present Commander-in-Chief in India, General Sir George White, who was then a subaltern in the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment.

I recollect the commanding officer of the 55th, the Native Infantry corps at this station, who had served all his life with clean-looking, closely-shaven Hindustanis, pointing with a look of contempt, not to say disgust, to some Sikhs (a certain proportion of whom had been under recent orders enlisted in regiments of Native Infantry), and expressing his regret that he could not get them to shave their beards and cut their hair. 'They quite spoil the look of my regiment,' he said. In less than two months' time the Hindustanis, of whom the Colonel was so proud, had broken into open mutiny; the despised Sikhs were the only men of the regiment who remained faithful; and the commanding officer, a devoted soldier who lived for his regiment, and who implored that his men might not have their arms taken away, as he had 'implicit confidence' in them, and would 'stake his life on their fidelity,' had blown his brains out because he found that confidence misplaced.

Towards the end of April I was ordered to report on the capabilities of Cherat (now well known to all who have been stationed at Peshawar) as a sanatorium for European soldiers. I spent two or three days surveying the hill and searching for water in the neighbourhood. It was not safe to remain on the top at night, so I used to return each evening to the plain below, where my tent was pitched. On one occasion I was surprised to find a camp had risen up during my absence quite close to my tent. I discovered that it belonged to Lieutenant-Colonel John Nicholson, the Deputy-Commissioner, who was on his tour of inspection, and very soon I received an invitation to dine with him, at which I was greatly pleased. John Nicholson was a name to conjure with in the Punjab. I had heard it mentioned with an amount of respect--indeed, awe--which no other name could excite, and I was all curiosity to see the man whose influence on the frontier was so great that his word was law to the refractory tribes amongst whom he lived. He had only lately arrived in Peshawar, having been transferred from Bannu, a difficult and troublesome district ruled by him as it had never been ruled before, and where he made such a reputation for himself that, while he was styled 'a pillar of strength on the frontier' by Lord Dalhousie, he was looked up to as a god by the Natives, who loved as much as they feared him. By some of them he was actually worshipped as a saint; they formed themselves into a sect, and called themselves 'Nicholseyns.' Nicholson impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever met before, or have ever met since. I have never seen anyone like him. He was the beau-ideal of a soldier and a gentleman. His appearance was distinguished and commanding, with a sense of power about him which to my mind was the result of his having passed so much of his life amongst the wild and lawless tribesmen, with whom his authority was supreme. Intercourse with this man amongst men made me more eager than ever to remain on the frontier, and I was seized with ambition to follow in his footsteps. Had I never seen Nicholson again, I might have thought that the feelings with which he inspired me were to some extent the result of my imagination, excited by the astonishing stories I had heard of his power and influence; my admiration, however, for him was immeasurably strengthened when, a few weeks later, I served as his staff officer, and had opportunities of observing more closely his splendid soldierly qualities and the workings of his grand, simple mind.

From a painting by J.R. Dicksee, in the possession of the Reverend Canon Seymour.]

It was the end of April when I returned to Peshawar from Cherat, and rapidly getting hot. On the strength of being a D.A.Q.M.G., I had moved into a better house than I had hitherto been able to afford, which I shared with Lieutenant Hovenden of the Engineers. We were just settling down and making ourselves comfortable for the long hot weather, when all our plans were upset by the breaking out of the Mutiny.

[Footnote 1: See 'Memorials of the Life and Letters of Major-General Sir Herbert Edwardes.']

[Footnote 2: 'Memorials of Major-General Sir Herbert Edwardes.']

[Footnote 3: Ibid.]