On 31 December 1600, The British East India Company (BEIC) started as an enterprise of London businessmen importing spices and goods from South Asia; cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium. By royal decree, the BEIC was given monopoly privileges on all trade with the East Indies and acted a proxy of British expansion and imperialism. The company grew rapidly, and maintained a large and growing private army.
In the mid-1740s, the war between Britain and France spread to India. In 1757, the BEIC Army shattered the forces of the Nawab of Bengal and the French Army at the Battle of Plassey. This victory firmly established BEIC military and political control of nearly all of India, and the company’s controllers became the governors of provinces. By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had a private army of about 300,000, mostly native Indian sepoys.
In the 1830s, after the fall of Napoleonic France, Russia emerged as Britain’s predominant imperial rival, and the competition between the two huge military and economic powers would be called the ‘Great Game.’ The British feared the expansionist Russian influence towards India, Britain’s ‘Jewel in the Crown.’ The BEIC wanted to establish Afghanistan, a primitive and impoverished tribal society, as a buffer to prevent the Russians from invading British India. In 1837, BEIC negotiations with Dost Muhammad Khan, Afghanistan’s emir, broke down and The BEIC decided Dost Muhammad had to be removed. Shah Shuja, who had been forcibly deposed as Afghan emir by Dost Muhammad in 1809, told the British he would prevent Russian influence if they helped him regain the Afghan throne.
The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839 with 20,000 British and Indian troops, accompanied by 38,000 civilians. This force, called the Army of the Indus, was also accompanied by two senior diplomats, Sir William Macnaghten and Sir Alexander Burnes, who would ensure Afghanistan’s, and Shah Shuja’s, compliance with BEIC desires.
Macnaghten, whose father was a senior Judge in Madras, had spent many years as an administrator and a diplomat in the Political and Secret Departments of the British Government in Calcutta, and he was one of Governor General Lord Auckland’s most trusted advisers. Sir Alexander Burnes was a renowned explorer and adventurer of the remote regions of India and central Asia in the 1820s and 30s, and had lived in Kabul previously. He spoke several Central Asian dialects and his 1834 book “Travels into Bokhara”, about his wild exploits, was a bestseller in England.
Burnes had argued against removing Dost Mohammed and replacing him with the unpopular Shah, who had been an exceedingly cruel and vindictive ruler. Executions and tortures of those who had displeased him were frequent public spectacles. Many of his staff were missing eyes, ears, tongues or genitals for drawing his ire with minor offenses. Regardless, the British East India Company Army reached Kabul in April 1839. They marched in unopposed, placed Shah Shuja on the throne and congratulated themselves on what appeared to be a remarkable victory.
Originally, the BEIC had planned to withdraw all the British troops, but, as Burnes had warned, Shah Shuja’s return was immediately unpopular and two brigades of troops had to remain in Kabul. Shah Shuja appointed corrupt officials, enriched his cronies and disrespected traditional tribal leaders. The Afghan population simmered in hatred at this massive enemy army of occupation. They despised the decadent British, and their lecherous behavior with the women of Kabul. Still, at first all went well, mostly because the BEIC pacified the local emirs and warlords with exorbitant bribes.
Ironically, even though Burnes had been opposed to reinstalling Shah Shuja, he was greatly hated by the local Afghans in Kabul because of his flagrant debauchery with the local women. Many soldiers and occupiers fraternized with Afghan women, who were often quite willing to entertain the cash flush foreigners. However, in a land where “honor killings” for the mere suspicion of engaging in extramarital sex were common, this was seen as a slur against the manhood of their family members.
A general peace continued into 1841, when, to save money, the BEIC sent most of the army back to India and brought in Gen. Keith Elphinstone as the new commander of the army in Afghanistan. The generous bribes that had been paid to the mountain tribal chiefs, including the Ghilzais who controlled the vital route between Kabul and Jalalabad, were also drastically reduced. In response, the mountain tribes began to attack and harass British patrols and supply columns from India.
The poorly led British were unprepared when, on 2 November 1841, an insurrection broke out in Kabul. It began at the villa of Sir Burnes, who, even after the majority of the British personnel had moved to a fortified cantonment outside Kabul, had continued to live in the city. Burnes had also arrogantly continued his rampant seductions of the city’s wives, daughters, and sisters unabated, even in this time of crisis. A a mob of Muslim men, outraged and dishonored, personally, religiously, and even nationally, stormed the compound. The horde overran the residence guards, killing a dozen of them, Burnes, and his brother. Burnes’ mutilated and dismembered body was impaled on a tall pole and displayed in the city square.
Soon after, Muhammad Akbar Khan, the son of deposed emir Dost Mohammed, arrived in Kabul. He had united many mountain Pashtun tribes into an Army of 25,000, outnumbering the depleted British force by 5-1. The siege tightened and artillery and sniping increased. Sir William Macnaghten, who had been trying to negotiate a way out of the city, received a message from Akbar Khan. Khan proposed that in exchange for being appointed wazir of Afghanistan by the British East India Company, he would co-exist with the Shah and allow the British to remain in the country. Macnaghten, desiring to save the besieged British, and his hoped-for next Governor-Generalship of India, leapt at the deal. Against everyone’s advice, on December 23, 1841, he went out to meet Khan for a negotiation. However, it had all been a trick to draw the Queen’s envoy into the open. He was surrounded and killed. His body was then dragged around the market before being also being dismembered and hung on the gates. Gen. Elphinstone was deemed a dithering coward – by his men and by his enemies – when he failed to retaliate for any of the assaults.
Finally, starving and without heat in the brutal winter, Elphinstone agreed to Akbar Khan’s one last offer of survival. The foreign intruders could leave, if they marched across the snow-covered, treacherous Hindu Kush mountains to Jalalabad, 90 miles away. It was an impossible task in the dead of winter, but they had little choice. If they remained in their cantonment, where they had been encircled and besieged for months, they would starve or be massacred by Wazir Akbar Khan’s Afghan warriors. On the march, Akbar Khan promised adequate food and safe passage to Jalalabad.
On 6 January 1842, the retreat of Elphinstone’s Army began. The British and Indian garrison of 4,500 soldiers, including 690 Europeans, marched out of Kabul. They were accompanied by 12,000 wives, children and civilian servants, who likewise had no option but marching through the blizzarding mountains. Some were on foot, some on horseback, and some on camels or ox-carts. The first day, the column only traveled five miles before it made camp. The night was spent without tents or cover, and many in the caravan died from exposure. The bodies were abandoned where they lay, and a trail of frozen people and animals grew thick.
Despite the treaty, when they reached Khurd Kabul pass on the second day, the Pashtun mountain men launched murderous guerrilla attacks and the retreat quickly became a massacre. Charging Afghan horsemen trampled through the column, killing and kidnapping. From the safety of cliffs up to 500 yards away, the mountain warriors, with their deadly long range Jezail rifles, killed hundreds, safely out of range (only 50 yards) of the British Brown Bess muskets. After three days, the column had moved only 25 miles, and over 3,000 of them had been killed. Gen. Elphinstone surrendered himself, his family, and his staff to Akbar, deserting his men.
By the 11th of January 1842, only a handful of officers and 45 European soldiers, mostly from the 44th a Foot, survived to reached an old fort at Gandamak. They were down to two bullets per man. They fought desperately, for hours, but the Afghans completely wiped them out. Only one British soldier, Dr. Thomas Brydon, survived to reach the fort in Jalalabad. Otherwise, with the exception of 115 women and children abducted to be sold into slavery, the entire caravan of 16,500 people perished. British military historians call Elphinstone “the most incompetent soldier who ever became general.”
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