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Chapter 53: 1879

Afghans afraid to befriend us--Kabul Russianized --Yakub Khan's abdication accepted--State treasury taken over

I had given much thought to the question of housing the troops during the winter, which was now fast approaching. Some of the senior officers were in favour of quartering them in the Bala Hissar, as being the place with most prestige attached to it; but the fact that there was not accommodation in it for the whole force, and that, therefore, the troops would have to be separated, as well as the dangerous proximity of the huge store of gunpowder, which could only be got rid of by degrees, decided me to occupy in preference the partly-fortified cantonment of Sherpur, about a mile north-east of the city, and close to the ruins of the old British entrenchment. It was enclosed on three sides by a high and massive loop-holed wall, and on the fourth by the Bimaru heights, while it possessed the advantage of having within its walls sufficient shelter in long ranges of brick buildings for the British troops, and good hospital accommodation, and there was ample space for the erection of huts for the Native soldiers.

The drawback was that the great extent of its perimeter, more than four and a half miles, made it a very difficult place to defend; but, remembering the grievous results of General Elphinstone's force being scattered in 1841, I thought the advantage of being able to keep my troops together outweighed the disadvantage of having to defend so long a line.

Materials for the Native soldiers' huts were brought from the Bala Hissar, the demolition of which, as an act of retributive justice, I had recommended to the Government of India, as it appeared to me that the destruction of the fortified palace in which the massacre had taken place, and which was the symbol of the power of the Afghans and their boasted military strength, would be a more fitting punishment for treachery and insult than any other we could inflict, and a more lasting memorial of our ability to avenge our countrymen than any we could raise. The tidings that their ancient citadel had been levelled to the ground would, I felt sure, spread throughout the length and breadth of Afghanistan, bearing with them a political significance that could hardly be over-estimated.

I now set to work to collect supplies for the winter. A1 khalsa, or State grain, we took as our right, the justice of this being recognized both by the Amir and the people, but what was the property of private individuals was purchased at a price the avaricious Afghan could not resist. There had been a good harvest, and supplies were abundant; but the people from the outlying districts were chary of assisting us, for they knew from experience that all who befriended the British would be sure to suffer when we took our departure.

I had repeated complaints brought to me of the harshness and injustice with which those who had shown themselves well disposed towards us were treated by the Amir on his return from signing the Treaty at Gandamak, and most of the Afghans were so afraid of the Amir's vengeance when they should again be left to his tender mercies, that they held aloof, except those who, like Wali Mahomed Khan and his following, were in open opposition to Yakub Khan, and some few who were still smarting from recent injury and oppression.

I was frequently asked by the Afghans, when requiring some service to be rendered, 'Are you going to remain?' Could I have replied in the affirmative, or could I have said that we should continue to exercise sufficient control over the Government of the country to prevent their being punished for helping us, they would have served us willingly. Not that I could flatter myself they altogether liked us, but they would have felt it wise in their own interests to meet our requirements; and, besides, the great mass of the people were heartily sick and tired of a long continuance of oppression and misrule, and were ready to submit (for a time, at least) to any strong and just Government.

Lord Lytton, in the hope of saving from the resentment of the Amir those who had been of use to us in the early part of the war, had expressly stipulated in Article II. of the Gandamak Treaty that 'a full and complete amnesty should be published, absolving all Afghans from any responsibility on account of intercourse with the British Forces during the campaign, and that the Amir should guarantee to protect all persons, of whatever degree, from punishment or molestation on that account.'

But this stipulation was not adhered to. Yakub Khan more than once spoke to me about it, and declared that it was impossible to control the turbulent spirits in Afghanistan without being supreme, and that this amnesty, had it been published, would have tied his hands with regard to those who had proved themselves his enemies.

His neglect to carry out this Article of the treaty added considerably to my difficulty, as will be seen from the following letter from Asmatula Khan, a Ghilzai Chief, to whom I wrote, asking him to meet me at Kabul.

'I received your kind letter on the 8th of Shawal [28th September], and understood its contents, and also those of the enclosed Proclamation to the people of Kabul. I informed all whom I thought fit of the contents of the Proclamation.

'Some time ago I went to Gandamak to Major Cavagnari. He instructed me to obey the orders of the Amir, and made me over to His Highness. When Major Cavagnari returned to India, the Amir's officials confiscated my property, and gave the Chiefship to my cousin[1] [or enemy], Bakram Khan.

'The oppression I suffered on your account is beyond description. They ruined and disgraced every friend and adherent of mine. On the return of Major Cavagnari to Kabul, I sent my Naib [deputy] to him, who informed him of my state. Major Cavagnari sent a message to me to the effect that I should recover my property by force if I could, otherwise I should go to the hills, and not come to Kabul until I heard from him. In the meantime I received news of the murder of the Envoy, and I am still in the hills.'

The thought of what might be in store for those who were now aiding me troubled me a good deal. No doubt their help was not disinterested, but they were 'friends in need,' and I could not be quite indifferent to their future.

I had several interesting conversations with Yakub Khan, and in discussing with him Sher Ali's reasons for breaking with us, he dwelt on the fact that his father, although he did not get all he wished out of Lord Mayo, was fairly satisfied and content with what had been done for him, but when Saiyad Nur Mahomed returned from Simla in 1873, he became thoroughly disgusted, and at once made overtures to the Russians, with whom constant intercourse had since been kept up.

Yakub Khan's statements were verified by the fact that we found Kabul much more Russian than English. The Afghan Sirdars and officers were arrayed in Russian pattern uniforms, Russian money was found in the treasury, Russian wares were sold in the bazaars, and although the roads leading to Central Asia were certainly no better than those leading to India, Russia had taken more advantage of them than we had to carry on commercial dealings with Afghanistan.[2]

When I inquired of Yakub Khan what had become of the correspondence which must have been carried on between his father and the Russians, he declared that he had destroyed it all when on his way to Gandamak; nevertheless, a certain number of letters[3] from Generals Kauffmann and Stoliatoff came into my possession, and a draft of the treaty the latter officer brought from Tashkent was made for me from memory by the man who had copied it for Sher Ali, aided by the Afghan official who was told off to be in attendance on Stoliatoff, and who had frequently read the treaty.

In one of my last conversations with Yakub Khan, he advised me 'not to lose sight of Herat and Turkestan.' On my asking him whether he had any reason to suppose that his representatives in those places meant to give trouble, he replied: 'I cannot say what they may do; but, remember, I have warned you.' He, no doubt, knew more than he told me, and I think it quite possible that he had some inkling of his brother's[4] (Ayub Khan's) intentions, in regard to Kandahar, and he probably foresaw that Abdur Rahman Khan would appear on the scene from the direction of Turkestan.

I duly received an answer to my telegram regarding the abdication of Yakub Khan, in which I was informed that His Highness's resignation was accepted by Her Majesty's Government, and I was directed to announce the fact to the people of Afghanistan in the following terms:

'I, General Roberts, on behalf of the British Government, hereby proclaim that the Amir, having by his own free will abdicated, has left Afghanistan without a Government. In consequence of the shameful outrage upon its Envoy and suite, the British Government has been compelled to occupy by force of arms Kabul, the capital, and to take military possession of other parts of Afghanistan.

'The British Government now commands that all Afghan authorities, Chiefs, and Sirdars do continue their functions in maintaining order, referring to me whenever necessary.

'The British Government desire that the people shall be treated with justice and benevolence, and that their religious feelings and customs be respected.

'The services of such Sirdars and Chiefs as assist in preserving order will be duly recognized, but all disturbers of the peace and persons concerned in attacks upon the British authority will meet with condign punishment.

'The British Government, after consultation with the principal Sirdars, tribal Chiefs, and others representing the interests and wishes of the various provinces and cities, will declare its will as to the future permanent arrangements to be made for the good government of the people.'

This manifesto was issued on the 28th October, and the same day I informed Yakub Khan that his abdication had been accepted, and acquainted him with the orders passed by the British Government in connexion with this fact.[5]

Yakub Khan showed no interest either in the Proclamation, a Persian translation of which was read to him, or the Government's decision as to himself, and made no comment beyond a formal 'bisyar khub' ('very good') and an inclination of the head.

I then told Yakub Khan that, as I was now charged with the government of the country, it was necessary that I should take possession of the treasury and all moneys therein. He signified his assent, but demurred to certain sums being considered as public property, contending that they formed part of his father's wealth, and that the British Government might as well take from him his choga,[6] this also having come from the pockets of the people. 'My father was Padishah,' he said; 'there was no distinction between public and private money. However,' he went on, 'I have given up the crown, and I am not going to dispute about rupees. You may take all I have, down to my clothes; but the money was my father's, and is mine by right.'

I replied that it was necessary that all money in his possession should be given up, but that his private effects should not be touched; that he would be given a receipt for the money, and that, if the Government of India decided it to be his personal property, it should be returned to him.

This Yakub Khan at first declined to accept, with some show of temper. Eventually he came round, and said, 'Yes, give me a receipt, so that no one may say hereafter that I carried off State money to which I had no right. It can be easily made sure that I have no money when I go.'[7]

Spite of all his shortcomings, I could not help feeling sorry for the self-deposed Ruler, and before leaving him I explained that he would be treated with the same consideration that had always been accorded to him, that Nawab Sir Ghulam Hussein Khan[8] should have a tent next to his, and that it should be the Nawab's care to look after his comfort in every way, and that I should be glad to see him whenever he wished for an interview. That same day, under instructions, I issued the following further manifesto:

'In my Proclamation of yesterday I announced that His Highness the Amir had of his own free will abdicated, and that for the present the government of Afghanistan would be carried on under my supervision. I now proclaim that, in order to provide for the cost of administration, I have taken possession of the State treasury, and that, until the British Government shall declare its will as to the permanent arrangements to be made for the future good government of the country, the collection of revenue and the expenditure of public money will be regulated by me. All persons concerned are hereby informed that they must obey without dispute or delay such orders as may be issued by me in regard to the payment of taxes and other connected matters; and I give plain warning that anyone resisting or obstructing the execution of such orders will be treated with the utmost severity as an enemy to the British Government.'

[Footnote 1: In Pushtu the word tarbur signifies a cousin to any degree, and is not unfrequently used as 'enemy,' the inference being that in Afghanistan a cousin is necessarily an enemy.]

[Footnote 2: As I reported at the time, the magnitude of Sher Ali's military preparations was, in my opinion, a fact of peculiar significance. He had raised and equipped with arms of precision sixteen regiments of Cavalry and sixty-eight of Infantry, while his Artillery amounted to nearly 300 guns. Numbers of skilled artisans were constantly employed in the manufacture of rifled cannon and breech-loading small arms. Swords, helmets, uniforms, and other articles of military equipment, were stored in proportionate quantities. Upon the construction of the Sherpur cantonment Sher Ali had expended an astonishing amount of labour and money. The size and cost of this work may be judged from the fact that the main line of rampart, with barrack accommodation, extended to a length of nearly two miles under the western and southern slopes of the Bimaru hills, while the original design was to carry the wall entirely round the hills, a distance of four and a half miles, and the foundations were laid for a considerable portion of this length. All these military preparations must have been going on for some years, and were quite unnecessary, except as a provision for contemplated hostilities with ourselves. Sher Ali had refused during this time to accept the subsidy we had agreed to pay him, and it is difficult to understand how their entire cost could have been met from the Afghan treasury, the annual gross revenue of the country at that time amounting only to about 80 lakhs of rupees.]

[Footnote 3: These letters, as well as my report to the Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department, with an account of my conversation with Yakub Khan, are given in the Appendix.]

[Footnote 4: Sirdar Ayub Khan was Governor of Herat in 1879.]

[Footnote 5: There were present at the interview, besides myself, Colonel Macgregor, Major Hastings, Surgeon-Major Bellew, Nawab Sir Ghulam Hussein Khan, and Mr. H.M. Durand.]

[Footnote 6: A kind of mantle worn by Afghans.]

[Footnote 7: As Yakub Khan refused under one pretext or another to deliver up any money, Major Moriarty, the officer in charge of the Kabul Field Force treasure-chest, and Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, accompanied by an escort, searched a house in the city in which a portion of Yakub Khan's money was said to be concealed. Upwards of eight and a half lakhs of rupees, and a certain amount of jewellery and gold coins, tillas and Russian five-rouble pieces, in all amounting to nine and a half lakhs, were found. This sum was subsequently refunded to the Afghan Government.]

[Footnote 8: The Nawab had been made a K.C.S.I.]