In a bleak mountain range in remote Thibet a mighty world river has its birth. In the "Mansion of the Gods" it rises; between far-sundered banks it flows—a noble stream—for nearly two thousand miles to meet the distant ocean. The Indus is its name; and those who are versed in the sacred poetry of the Hindús will tell you how cherished is its fame—how glorious its story. But with these we have nothing to do. To the empire-building Britons in the early part of the nineteenth century the river had quite another interest; it separated the known from the unknown; it was a natural boundary beyond which their flag had never yet been borne. And the story of their first excursion into those unknown lands is the most sad—the most disastrous—in the history of our Empire.
Between the Indus and the Company's dominions lay the large and powerful kingdom of the Punjáb, which was ruled over by an aged Sikh king. Farther west still, beyond the sacred river, stretched the land of Afghanistan, bare, desolate, and forbidding, a country of mountains and snow. Afghanistan was the home of fierce and hardy men. For many centuries a stream of needy adventurers had poured through the rugged passes on to the fertile plains of India. They became the natural rulers of the indolent dwellers in the lowlands. Two imperial dynasties had sprung from their virile stock; the entire continent was studded with the principalities and kingdoms established by their enterprise. But the time had come for the tables to be turned; for the invaders to become the invaded, and for the mountains which had sent forth so many armies to victory to be occupied by the pale-faced conquerors of the south.
The ruler of the Punjáb had but a single eye. Small-pox had robbed him of its fellow in early childhood. An unimpressionable Englishman once described him as the most forbidding human being he had ever seen. But in spite of his physical defects, Ranjít Singh, the famed Lion of Lahore, exercised a wonderful fascination over all he came in contact with. On a certain day in the year 1809 a dejected and weary-looking prince came to his brilliant Court. He was Sháh Shujá, the exiled king of the Afghans, seeking assistance to recover his lost throne. In his bosom he bore a precious stone—the rarest gem in all the world—the famous Koh-i-nur. No other jewel could compare with it in size or in lustre. There was—said the natives—only one other thing in existence capable of emitting such brilliant rays, and that was the solitary orb of the Maharajah Ranjít Singh!
When the Lion of Lahore beheld the glittering bauble he greatly longed to possess it; for His Highness was of a covetous disposition, and loved much to store up treasure. Every day he made a point of adding a sum of money to his treasure-chamber. Sometimes at the evening durbar, when he sat silent and moody, the courtiers would inquire solicitously what ailed their sovereign. "Alas!" was the reply, "it is near sunset and not a rupee has been sent to the treasury to-day." "Maharaj," twenty devoted voices would exclaim, "my money is yours!" Then the brow of the royal miser would relax, and smiling benignly on all around, he would request the owners of the voices to affix their signatures to notes of hand, which next day they would be obliged punctually to honour. Perhaps, in course of time, the courtiers learned wisdom by experience, and ceased to inquire too diligently concerning the whys and wherefores of their master's melancholy. But of this we have no record.
Sháh Shujá returned to Afghanistan with an army of Sikh warriors, but without the Koh-i-nur—that was the price he paid for them. He found the throne occupied by Dost Muhammad Khán, a rugged and valiant soldier. Once again he was defeated and driven from his kingdom. Meanwhile the crafty Ranjít Singh had not been idle. While the rival kings were fighting out their claims, he had marched an army into Pesháwar, a fertile province of the Afghans, and had added it to his own dominions. This little military exploit is worthy of notice. It was the cause of all our Afghanistan troubles.
Let us take a brief survey of the political situation at this period. The latter part of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries had seen a great increase in Russian dominion. They had extended their boundaries in every direction. More especially had they drawn nearer towards the East, and in Persia they had acquired considerable influence. Now Persia is by no means remote from India, and the Company were not at all disposed to allow Russian influence to approach any nearer to their own territories. It was necessary, then, to keep between the sphere of Russian influence and the Company's possessions a state friendly to the British. In other words, Afghanistan, the buffer state between Persia and India, must be ruled over by a monarch whose love for the English could only be excelled by his hatred for all things Russian.
To win the favour of the Afghan king was the task allotted to Lieutenant Alexander Burnes in 1836. Burnes was a clever and gallant young fellow, and he speedily won the royal favour. As a matter of fact, Dost Muhammad was anxious for nothing so much as to be on good terms with the British. But one thing still rankled deeply in his heart—he longed to recover possession of his lost province. When first Pesháwar was taken a gallant effort had been made to regain it. The Afghan king pronounced a holy war. From the hills and valleys of their native country the wild tribesmen flocked to their leader's standard. But for all their enthusiasm and spirit, the effort ended in disaster. By the mighty hosts of the Punjáb the Afghans were hurled violently back into their own mountain fastnesses, and Pesháwar still remained under the "Lion's" paw.
Then it was that Dost Muhammad bethought himself of his English friends. Surely the powerful Company would intercede on his behalf with Ranjít Singh! Otherwise, of what use their friendship? Unhappily, Lord Auckland, the Governor-General, was a man ill-suited for his post. He was firmly convinced that Dost Muhammad was a villain of the deepest dye, and regarded his overtures with great suspicion. So that when Dost Muhammad prayed him to extend a helping hand to the Afghans in their difficulties, Lord Auckland sent a curt and supercilious reply. Ranjít Singh, quoth the Governor-General, had long been the firm and ancient ally of the British; his conduct had been generous in the extreme; and the Afghans should consider themselves fortunate to have been let off so lightly.
Nothing is less persuasive than a sneer. To a proud and headstrong nation like the Afghans, these words of Lord Auckland were a national insult. But Dost Muhammad had more than one string to his bow. Britain's new rival in the East had long been courting his favour. To please the British, Dost Muhammad had long refused to receive the Russian envoy; but now he summoned him to his Court.
Meanwhile Russia had made a bold attempt to extend her influence, using Persia as her cat's-paw. To the north-west of Afghanistan lies the little principality of Herat. It occupies a position of great strategical importance: it is the gateway to Afghanistan and to India. In the month of July 1837 the Sháh of Persia, with fifty thousand troops, set out to subdue it. This was to be the prelude to other and greater conquests. The Sháh boasted airily of the ease with which he would march through Afghanistan, conquer the Punjáb, and extend his triumphant progress even to the city of Delhi itself. Great was the sensation in India when the news became known. From mouth to mouth the tidings ran: Russian intrigue had triumphed; Russian generals were leading a Russian army into India! The princes and chieftains of India whispered darkly together. The Company, said they, was about to receive its death-blow.
On 23rd November the King of Persia pitched his camp before the capital of the threatened state. To unlock the "gateway of Afghanistan" he had brought a mighty key—a key of polished steel—which glittered in a myriad points of light far away to the remote distances of the plain. Herat was in no condition to withstand a siege. Her king was a choice specimen of the Oriental voluptuary; her Prime Minister was a villain. Such fortifications as the town possessed were crumbling to pieces, and a vigorous assault would have carried them at the first attempt. But, fortunately for the citizens of Herat, they had in their midst a young Englishman of high courage and rare martial genius, and he it was who now came to their rescue.
Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger had arrived in the city a few days before the commencement of the siege. Disguised as a descendant of the Prophet, he had been sent by his uncle to makes researches in Central Asia. Like all true Britons, he was filled with great glee by the prospect of the coming struggle, and he resolved to take an active share in it. The king and his minister were only too pleased to accept his services. Speedily he became the chief director of operations.
The presence of such a gallant young leader inspired the garrison with great enthusiasm. For five months they succeeded in rebuffing the repeated assaults of the enemy. The Sháh began to weary of the business. He realised that his great expedition was not destined to write the glorious page in history he had hoped for it; and guided by the sage counsel and admonitions of the British ambassador, he prepared to consider terms of peace.
Unhappily, however, for the Persian monarch, his evil genius was at hand. In great haste the Russian minister set out for the camp. With specious argument, backed up by a goodly supply of gold, he revived the royal courage, and persuaded the Sháh to make another effort. The siege went on. Fresh vigour was infused into the attacks. On the 24th June, under the direction of Russian engineers, five simultaneous assaults were made in different quarters of the city. Four of these were gallantly repulsed; at the fifth the Persians succeeded in making a breach.
Then it was that the courage of the valiant Heratees began to droop. The Prime Minister, filled with dismay, seated himself at some distance from the scene of action, and began to bemoan his fate. It seemed as though the brave defence had been all in vain, that the city was about to be lost. Once again the young lieutenant saved the situation. Running up to the despairing minister, he shook him violently to and fro, bawling the while carefully selected insults into his ear; then, seizing his arm, he dragged him forcibly back to the breach. The astonished vizier ceased his lamentations; fresh courage animated his ignoble soul. Upon his own troops, as they drew back from the keen Persian swords, he fell like a madman, invoking them with fierce cries to defend their city. The effect was magical. With shouts of patriotic fervour the garrison rushed tumultuously to the breach, and the bewildered Persians, panic-stricken in the moment of victory, turned to flee from the city walls. Nearly two thousand of their number were slain, amongst whom was a Russian general. Herat was saved; and the siege thenceforward resolved itself into a blockade.
Shortly afterwards a British envoy arrived in the Persian camp. He asked the Shah whether it would not be advisable to retire from Herat; he hinted delicately at the presence of British warships in the Persian Gulf.
"The fact is," interpolated the King, "that if I do not leave Herat there will be war."
"There is war," gravely replied the Englishman. "Everything depends on Your Majesty's answer. God preserve Your Majesty!"
The Persians returned dejectedly to their own country. Rudely had their dreams of conquest been dispelled. Let us remember that this decisive check to Persian ambition was chiefly brought about by the courage and enterprise of an Anglo-Saxon youth, whose gallant exploit deserves to rank with the greatest deeds in our Empire history. Long may the memory of Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger live to stimulate the ardour and courage of his countrymen!
Let us now return to Afghanistan, where we left the valiant Dost Muhammad and the Russian envoy closeted together in secret conference. Greatly was the soul of the Governor-General perturbed when he heard of the meeting. At all costs must the crafty Russians be thwarted! It would be a disaster, indeed, if Britain's great rival were to form an alliance with the Afghans. But how could it be prevented? Long and earnestly was the situation pondered over by Lord Auckland and his advisers; then they evolved a great and mighty plot.
Of course the cunning old Lion of Lahore had a finger in the pie. The unfortunate Sháh Shujá was also implicated. For the British had determined to play a game of king-making. Since Dost Muhammad was—as they devoutly believed—a traitor and a villain, he must be removed from the throne in order to make room for a more virtuous and—what was of far greater importance—a more amenable sovereign. To this description they imagined that the exiled Afghan king answered admirably. In reality, Sháh Shujá was a poor, weakly, depraved creature, cordially detested by his former subjects. In the official mind of the British he was a worthy and amiable monarch who had been greatly wronged, and who was now about to be restored to his throne amid the rapturous plaudits of his people. What he was in their private judgment does not greatly matter.
On the 1st of October 1838 a proclamation was issued from Simla. It announced that the Supreme Council were assembling a British force for service beyond the Indus, in order 'to gain for the British nation in Central Asia that legitimate influence which an interchange of benefits would naturally produce." It went on to say that "His Majesty Shujá-úl-Múlk will enter Afghanistan surrounded by his own troops, and will be supported against foreign interference and factious opposition by a British army. The Governor-General confidently hopes that the Sháh will be speedily replaced on his throne by his own subjects and adherents, and when he shall be secured in power and the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn."
On the banks of the river Sutlej all the pomp and ceremony of warfare was arrayed. There the Governor-General had a cordial meeting with his "firm and ancient ally." The Lion of Lahore was now bowed and infirm with age, his feet were tottering on the brink of the grave; but his spirit still retained the fiery ardour of youth, and his single orb glittered with all its accustomed brilliancy. It was quite a gay assembly. Sunburnt British troopers and swarthy Sikh warriors mingled amicably together. Showy pageants, mirthful revels, and feats of mimic war were the order of the day.
In December 1838 the army began its march. The main division was under the command of Sir Willoughby Cotton, and consisted of nine thousand five hundred picked men, thirty thousand camels, and thirty-eight thousand camp-followers. There was a second division of five thousand six hundred men from Bombay led by Sir John Keane. The political part of the enterprise was entrusted to Sir William Macnaghten, who was officially styled "Envoy and Minister at the Court of Sháh Shujá."
It was a long and disastrous journey. The cattle died by hundreds, and camels fell in scores by the roadside to await a lingering and thirsty death. Around the camp hovered a tribe of fierce freebooters who seized every opportunity to pillage and to steal. Through terrific mountain gorges and up mighty precipices the army climbed. Provisions ran woefully short, and the troops became surly and mutinous. Immense were the difficulties experienced in conveying the batteries and field-pieces over such mountainous country; but the famished and weary soldiers managed to overcome all obstacles, and length the land of promise lay before them.
Kandahar was entered without opposition. Ghazni's mighty fort—the proudest stronghold in all Afghanistan—fell after a terrific struggle. Dost Muhammad was in dismay. Calling his officers together, he raised the sacred Koran in his hand, and adjured them in ringing tones to make one bold stand like brave men and true believers.
"You have eaten of my salt," said he, "these thirteen years; grant me but one request in return. Stand by the brother of Futtah Khán while he executes one last charge against the Feringee dogs: in that onset he will fall; then make your own terms with Sháh Shujá."
But the nobles were weary and dispirited; they had no fight left in them; and Dost Muhammad, finding the struggle hopeless, fled away to the wild mountainous region of the Hindú Kush. Then began a thrilling chase. The valiant Outram and a small body of cavalry started in hot pursuit. For six days they pressed closely upon the fugitive's track, sometimes gaining rapidly upon him, sometimes baffled and foiled by their agile and elusive quarry. Neither by day nor by night did they rest; forward, ever forward, was the cry; and the rugged mountain gorges echoed incessantly with the clatter of horses' hoofs and the shouts of the pursuers. It was a long chase and a stern one; but it accomplished nothing. Bribed heavily with gold, the Afghan guides led Outram and his men astray; and the dethroned king succeeded in placing himself beyond pursuit.
On August 7, 1839, the British troops reached Kabul. On that day the long-exiled Sháh Shujá was restored to the throne of his fathers. Through the narrow streets of the capital a magnificent cavalcade wended its way. Let us try to conjure up the scene. The citizens stand huddled together on their thresholds; dark and forbidding are their faces, low and sullen their conversation. A fanfare of trumpets is heard, and half in anger, half in curiosity, they turn and peer in the direction whence the sound proceeds. Suddenly a procession comes into view. First march the Sepoys, big, bearded men, but looking worn and jaded with their arduous service. Bronzed and stalwart British officers ride by their side. A regiment of cavalry jingles past, and the hoarse muttering of the onlookers rises in volume, sinister and threatening, resolving itself ultimately into loud-uttered curses and maledictions against the hated foreigners. There is a short pause: then the central figure in the pageant appears. Upon a snow-white charger, gay with jewelled trappings, a single horseman rides. From head to foot he is robed in glittering gems; rubies and diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and opals sparkle brilliantly from every part of his attire. It is the Sháh Shujá himself. Fine feathers make fine birds, and the Shah's resplendent robes convert him for a moment into a truly regal and magnificent figure. Yet, watching him closely, one might perceive him from time to time glance timorously around. He is looking for signs of welcome, of glad recognition, upon his people's faces; hoping against hope, perhaps, that after all he may receive a glad and rapturous welcome. But no signs of joy appear; the townsmen scowl savagely at him beneath their heavy brows; and louder and still more loud rises the note of anger—persistent, pitiless, and above all prophetic.
Into the great palace of the Bala Hissar the procession passed. The king has come to his own again. For how long can he keep it?
Thus, metaphorically speaking, did the British encamp upon a volcano, For it did not require a very profound intellect to discern that the king they had placed upon the throne could be kept there by force alone. The promised withdrawal of the British from Afghanistan seemed to be indeed remote.
During the winter of 1839 a force of ten thousand soldiers remained in Afghanistan. All was quiet. But away in the distant mountains lurked the real king—the king of the people's choice. Not yet had we heard the last of Dost Muhammad.
It was not long, however, before the dethroned monarch wearied of his enforced exile. He resolved to make another bid for liberty. Emerging from his retreat, he gathered together a small army and moved determinedly towards the capital. A tremor of unrest ran through the British garrison. What was in store for them? Was there going to be a great popular uprising? In the valley of the Purwandurra Dost Muhammad came face to face with the British troops. Boldly he resolved to give them battle, and with stirring words addressed his ill-armed rabble.
"In the name of God and the Prophet, aid me," he cried, "to drive these accursed infidels from the land of the Faithful!"
Hoarse cries of rage drowned his speech. The Afghans needed no incentive to attack; patriotic fervour was glowing in their hearts. Like devils they fought that day, and, at length, the British fled beaten from the field.
The following afternoon, whilst taking a ride, Sir. William Macnaghten received the disastrous news. A moment later a horseman galloped up to him. "The Amir is at hand!" cried he. "The Amir what Amir?" asked the puzzled envoy. "Post Muhammad Khán," was the reply. Another horseman rode up, a grey-bearded man of powerful build, with piercing eyes and a sharp acquiline nose. It was indeed the Dost. Dismounting from his horse, he seized the envoy's stirrup and bowed low before him. He was tired of his exile, he said, and although he had just defeated the British, he felt it would be useless to struggle any longer against such a powerful foe. Chatting cordially together, the Englishman and the Afghan rode back to the cantonments. You may imagine with what joy Sir William accepted the surrender of his most dangerous antagonist!
The royal captive was sent to the Governor-General. "I hope," wrote Macnaghten, "he will be treated with liberality. His case is not parallel with that of the Sháh. The Sháh had no claim on us; we had no hand in depriving him of his kingdom, whereas we ejected the Dost, who never offended us, in support of our policy, of which he is the victim." The ex-king received a generous pension, and at Government House, where he was always a welcome guest, he whiled away his captivity by playing chess with an English lady.
Peacefully the British army settled down to its life in Afghanistan. The officers sent to India for their wives; while to their houses came the haughty Afghan nobles, bearing with them gifts of melons, grapes, and peaches. The British thought themselves perfectly secure. The fierce scowls and bitter imprecations of the people they dominated passed unheeded. They were living in a fool's paradise. Suddenly the storm burst. On November 2, 1841, an insurrection broke out at Kabul. The house of Sir Alexander Burnes was surrounded by an armed mob. Too late Burnes realised the peril of his position. Hastily sending a message for succour to Macnaghten, he stepped out on to the balcony to pacify the mob. But the voice, once so powerful in swaying Afghan hearts, now fell upon deaf ears. The crowd was calling for his blood. "Sikander Burnes, Sikander Burnes," they roared; "give us Sikander Burnes!" In vain he pleaded with them; in vain he offered large sums for his own life and that of his brother: the only reply was the patter of bullets around his head and the hoarse cries of the infuriated crowd.
At length a native of Kashmir entered the house; he swore on the Koran to lead the English-men to a place of safety if the guard would cease firing on the mob. Disguised as natives, Sir Alexander Burnes and his brother stepped out into the garden.
"Ha," screamed their treacherous guide, "this is Sikander"—Sir Alexander—" Burnes!"
Immediately the knives of the infuriated Afghans were sheathed in the Englishmen's hearts.
From the King's palace came forth the Sepoy guard of His Majesty Sháh Shujá, but they were powerless to quell the tumult. The King himself was beside himself with fear; he gave and countermanded orders with tremulous volubility. An iron hand and a cool brain would have easily quelled the riot. Alas, that both were so conspicuously wanting!
It was singularly unfortunate that the commander-in-chief of the British troops—then encamped outside the city—was a broken and infirm old man. Disease and age had played havoc with the spirit of General Elphinstone; he was utterly incapable of dealing with the situation. The insurrection in the capital speedily developed into a national uprising. The cantonments were fiercely assailed. It was not long before the gross mismanagement of the commanding officers had rendered the British position untenable. There was nothing to do but to make peace with the enemy and to evacuate the country.
Negotiations were opened up; a long and stormy debate took place between the British envoy and the insurgent chiefs. Their leader affirmed haughtily that since the Afghans had beaten the British, they had a right to dictate terms of capitulation. He demanded the surrender of the whole army, with its arms, ammunition, and treasure.
"The British," quoth Macnaghten, "prefer death to dishonour." So saying, he stalked from the room.
But it was obvious that terms must be made somehow. Daily the distress of the British was becoming more acute. They could obtain neither fuel nor provisions; to remain where they were was impossible; death in its most sinister guise stared them in the face. Oh, that a Clive or a Wellesley had been there! Those brave leaders would never have abandoned themselves to lethargy and despair. They would have cut their way out of the country at the sword's point—to win death perhaps—but keeping the grand old flag flying free and unsullied to the end.
A new figure now appeared upon the scene in the person of Akbar Khán, a son of the captive king. Daring, clever, and unscrupulous, he at once became leader of the rebels. With him Sir William Macnaghten essayed to negotiate, but his overtures were received with hauteur and contempt. Nevertheless, by dint of much wrangling a treaty was at length drawn up. Dost Muhammad was to be restored to the throne, and the British army was to be allowed to march in safety out of Afghanistan. But before the terms of the treaty could be carried out Akbar Khán set a trap. Privately approaching the British envoy, he suggested that they should enter into a secret alliance; that Sháh Shujá should be kept on the throne as nominal king, and that he himself should become chief minister of state.
Macnaghten saw the schemes of the British—the schemes for which he had worked so earnestly and so well—about to fall to the ground. The Afghan campaign was to end in disaster and disgrace. Britain would stand humiliated before the world—the laughing-stock of nations. And here was a chance of escape! If he agreed to Akbar Khán's proposals, the British would gain a little breathing-space. In the next few weeks anything might happen: we might once more gain the ascendency. So, in direct violation of the treaty he had just signed, he grasped like a drowning man at the straw held out to him, and accepted the Afghan's terms. A conference was arranged for the next morning.
When the English commanders heard of the scheme, they shook their heads gravely. "It is a plot," said they; "you must not go out to meet him."
"Let me alone for that, dangerous though it be," replied the dauntless envoy. "If it succeed, it is worth all risks. . . . At any rate, I would rather die a thousand deaths than live the last six weeks over again!"
The fateful morning dawned. Accompanied by three officers and a bodyguard of sixteen, Sir William rode forth to the trysting-place. On the deep-lying snow Akbar Khán had spread some horse-cloths, and upon these he awaited the envoy's approach. A group of fierce Afghan warriors, all armed to the teeth, surrounded him. Sir William dismounted from his horse and exchanged haughty salutations with the prince. Suddenly a signal was given: the three officers were seized and bound upon the saddles of Afghan horsemen, who immediately galloped off towards the city. Captain Trevor fell off the overburdened steed, and was brutally hacked to pieces by the sharp, heavy knives of the Afghans. Meanwhile Akbar Khán had advanced towards Sir William and seized him by the wrist. "For God's sake!" exclaimed the startled envoy, struggling desperately to free himself. Enraged by this resistance, the treacherous prince drew a pistol and fired. Sir William tottered and fell, but hardly had his body touched the ground than a dozen Afghans rushed forward to mangle and to mutilate the corpse.
An act of dastardly perfidy had been committed: an ambassador—whose life is sacred amongst all nations—had been decoyed into an ambush and slain!
One might suppose that the effect of this barbarous murder would have been to infuse a little spirit into the British army; that they would have resolved at all costs to avenge their wrongs. But alas! the British had by this time lost all sense of dignity. They heard of the envoy's assassination with apathy and indifference. Far from deciding to settle their disputes with the sword, they embraced with eagerness the humiliating terms now held out to them; they agreed to surrender their war-chest, their guns, their spare arms, and to retreat from the country. On January 6, 1842, the army began its march. There were four thousand five hundred fighting men and eleven thousand camp-followers, amongst whom were many women and children. The country was covered with deep snow. The cold was intense. Before them loomed lofty mountain peaks of dazzling whiteness, which had to be traversed before safety could be gained.
It was not an army that struggled across those snow-clad plains, but a disorganised mass of fugitives. They had been promised a safe escort out of the country, but no escort was forthcoming. Around them hovered incessantly the fierce Afghan tribesmen, who made periodical raids upon the baggage, cutting down all who opposed them. When darkness fell, and the long, freezing nights closed in upon them, the army had to bivouac on the snow. Men, women, and children, horses and camels, clustered confusedly together, lacking food and fuel, and without even the barest apology for a shelter. The way lay through the terrible Khurd Kabul Pass. This is a deep ravine enclosed by precipitous rocks—a gorge of unutterable gloom, for even the fierce rays of the noontide sun are unable to penetrate to its murky depths. Through this valley of death the helpless crowd of fugitives pressed wildly. The heights above were lined with Afghan warriors. They were no mean marksmen, these swarthy-dwellers in the hills. Over three thousand corpses were left behind in the pass to testify to their skill.
The retreat from Afghanistan, 1842.
A wild and sinister figure appeared upon the scene. Akbar Khán had come to gloat over the sufferings of the British. Like a vulture greedy for its prey, he hovered above them on the mountain-tops. "To protect you from the fierce robbers am I come!" quoth he, and a malignant smile accompanied his words. "Better be preyed on by the robbers," muttered his victims, "than left to the tender mercies of Akbar Khán!" But the Afghan prince came forward with a proposal.
"Let me escort all your women and children to a place of safety," he said. The Englishmen shuddered at the horrible alternative which confronted them. Certain was it that the women could not survive their hardships another night; but how could they be entrusted to the treacherous Afghan? The British leaders were torn with conflicting emotions; eventually they decided to accept the prince's offer. Among the women sent over to Abkar Khán's camp was poor Lady Macnaghten. Imagine her feelings on finding herself in the power of her husband's murderer!
The march was resumed. To the unceasing accompaniment of musketry fire, the remnant of a once noble army struggled wearily onward. Nearly all the Sepoys had perished. Hope was dead in every breast; despair writ large on every countenance. Occasionally a little spirit would flicker up in the hearts of the fast-dwindling band, and turning desperately upon their tormentors they would sweep them from their path.
Once again Akbar Khán presented himself. He demanded the surrender of General Elphinstone and two of the principal officers as hostages; and carrying them away in triumph to Kabul, he left the rest of the army to the vengeance of the hillsmen. The army without a general toiled hopelessly forward. They entered the narrow and tortuous Jagdalak Pass, only to find it barricaded against them. It was a death-trap; in that gloomy ravine the remnant of an army was finally extinguished. A mere handful of fugitives managed to escape and to struggle onwards towards Jalálábád, where lay a British garrison—and safety. Six of them managed to get within sixteen miles of the town; then straggling marauders accounted for five of their number.
From the ramparts of Jalálábád the garrison looked out towards the bleak mountain passes. Suddenly they saw a solitary horseman appear, reeling in his saddle like a drunken man; his body was covered with wounds, his hand still clutched desperately at a broken sword. The officers at Jalálábád boasted a prophet among their number. He had persistently foretold disaster for the army in Afghanistan. "You'll see," were his words, "not a soul will escape from Kabul but one man, and he will come to tell us that the rest are destroyed."
"Ha! did I not tell you so?" exclaimed the prophet of evil when he beheld the rider. "Here comes the messenger!"
The faces of the men around grew pale; their blood ran cold within them. They sent out a cavalry escort to meet the horseman. He was Dr. Brydon, a Scottish medical officer. The garrison clustered anxiously around as he fell exhausted from the saddle. In broken words he told the mournful tale. Out of the fifteen thousand men who had composed Elphinstone's once magnificent force he alone had survived. Stark and cold in the bleak Afghan valleys an army slept its eternal sleep.
A few words will serve to tell the rest of the story. The culminating point in the tragedy had been reached; thenceforward it is all recovery. A new Governor-General was sent out to replace the unfortunate Lord Auckland, who was crushed with horror and despair. Lord Ellenborough, the new-comer, was a man of brilliant qualities and showy attainments. He loved the pomp and glitter of Eastern Courts; he delighted to issue fine-sounding and bombastic proclamations. It was announced that the British were to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, not because we were unable to maintain our position there, but because it had at last dawned upon us that our policy of king-making was far from being an unqualified success. But first of all the Afghans had to be taught a lesson. The honour of British arms must be vindicated "by the infliction of some signal and decisive blow upon the Afghans which may make it appear to them, and to our own subjects, and to our allies, that we have the power of inflicting punishments upon those who commit atrocities and violate their faith."
Another British army invaded Afghanistan. They found their way strewn thick with the bodies of their slaughtered countrymen, and the indignation of the soldiers on beholding their comrades' mangled corpses broke forth tumultuously. Once again the British flag floated over the royal palace at Kabul. The Grand Bazaar was blown up; part of the city was given up to plunder and pillage.
Then it was that Lord Ellenborough drew up his famous "song of triumph"—as the Iron Duke termed it. By a dramatic coincidence it was dated the 1st of October 1842—exactly four years after Lord Auckland's proclamation of war:
"Disasters unparalleled in their extent, unless by the errors in which they originated, and by the treachery by which they were completed, have in one short campaign been avenged upon every scene of past misfortune; and repeated victories in the field . . . have again attached the opinion of invincibility to the British rule.
"The British army in possession of Afghanistan will now be withdrawn to the Satledge. The Governor-General will leave it to the Afghans themselves to create a government amidst the anarchy which is the consequence of their crimes.
"Content with the limits nature appears to have assigned to its empire, the Government of India will devote all its efforts to the establishment and maintenance of general peace, to the protection of the Sovereigns and Chiefs its allies, and to the prosperity and happiness of its own faithful subjects.
"The rivers of the Punjáb and the Indus, and the mountain passes, and the barbarous tribes of Afghanistan, will be placed between a British army and an enemy approaching from the west—if, indeed, such an enemy there can be—and no longer between the army and its supplies."
The throne of Afghanistan was now vacant. The unfortunate prince whom we had rescued from obscurity to set upon a tottering pedestal had come to a miserable end. Sháh Shujá had been dragged from his palace and assassinated; his body was thrown contemptuously into a ditch. According to promise Dost Muhammad was restored to his kingdom. Before leaving India he had an interview with the Governor-General, who asked him his opinion of the English after all he had seen of them.
"I have been struck," replied the King, "with the magnitude of your power and your resources, with your ships, your arsenals, and your armies; but what I cannot understand, is, why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an Empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country."
Two other events of great importance must be briefly chronicled in this chapter before passing on to the tragic tale of the Mutiny: the one was the annexation of Sind; the other, the conquest of the Punjáb. The first-named was a semi-independent state lying at the mouth of the Indus. For the purpose of opening up the river for commerce it was highly desirable that the Company should add this province to their dominions. "We have no right to seize Sind," wrote gallant Sir Charles Napier, who had charge of the expedition, "yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, and humane piece of rascality it will be." The complete success of the enterprise inspired Sir Charles to his famous punning despatch: "Peccavi" (" I have Sind ").
The conquest of the Punjáb was a more arduous task. In 1839 the great Ranjít Singh had died. During his lifetime he had been very careful to keep on good terms with the British; he had witnessed their brilliant military feats in all parts of the peninsula, and had trembled for his own throne. On one occasion a map of India was shown to him. He inspected it carefully but with a puzzled expression.
"What are all those red circles?" he asked.
"They mark the dominion of the Feringees," was the reply. Ranjít kicked the map away wrathfully.
"It will all be red soon," he cried.
Ranjít Singh's successor was not nearly so worldly-wise. He had a huge army at his command, and the soldiers hungered for an outlet to their energies.
They finally solved the question by invading British territory. A terrific struggle took place. Never before had our Indian troops been called upon to meet so fierce and resolute a foe. Four great battles were fought, in which both sides displayed the utmost gallantry. But in the end the British prevailed, and on February 18, 1846, a treaty was signed, by which much territory was ceded by the Sikhs and a heavy war indemnity paid. The famous Koh-i-nur was also surrendered, and presented to Queen Victoria. Two years later the Sikhs again rebelled. This time the British determined to do the job more thoroughly. "If the Sikhs want war," declared the Governor-General, "they shall have it with a vengeance!" A great conflict followed; once again our arms triumphed; and on March 30, 1849, the whole of the Punjáb was formally annexed.