From the Archives: The Causes of the First British Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-42.


‘From the Archives’ is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfil two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find, and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.

Punjab Archives, Lahore

‘You have to go to Lahore’ he said, ‘the place is a goldmine’. I was chatting with the acclaimed author William Dalrymple at a launch event for his excellent book Return of a King: The First Battle for Afghanistan. I was researching the origins of the First Anglo-Afghan War. I wasn’t buying the well-trodden story that Britain invaded Afghanistan because of a misbegotten belief that the Russians were on the brink of establishing a presence in Kabul, and would use it as a stepping stone to India. I wanted to look for evidence that might point to the real causes of the invasion. The original intelligence documents are held in Lahore. If there was evidence that pointed to a different explanation for the cause, it would be in Lahore.

That was in January 2013. I spent the next six months figuring out how to get to Pakistan, and how to get into the archive. It was not very easy. Obviously, I’d need a visa to get into Pakistan. But in order to get into the archive, I’d also need a letter of reference from the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, and a ‘No Objection Certificate’ – a NOC – from the Pakistani Government. By August, I had got no where. I had booked my flights and hotel in July, and was starting to get a bit worried. I went to a conference on South Asian Military History at Greenwich. One of the attendees, just arrived from Calcutta told me not to worry. ‘This is South Asia’, he said. ‘Everything will come together the week before you leave’.

He was right. Through a combination of luck, and calling in favours from old acquaintances, I got my visa, and a promise of a NOC sent directly to the archive. The Assistant Military Adviser in the British Embassy helped me out with a letter of reference from the High Commissioner, and by chance, also had the telephone number of the director of archives at Lahore. I made a phone-call, and the South Asian hospitality that I had experienced time and again was more than apparent. I was in.

The Punjab Archives are held in a seventeenth century Mughal Tomb – that of the courtesan Anarkali. It is a beautiful white domed building, after the Taj Mahal, and has a series of corridors off the central dome, in which the archives are held. I was sat at a long desk, behind me the marble tomb of Anarkali  The archivists were extraordinarily helpful, and over the course of two weeks, I found literally thousands of documents.

What I found transformed my understanding of the causes of the First Anglo-Afghan War. From the perspective of the British in Calcutta, the distant threat of Russian imperial aggression barely entered the equation. Rather, it was Afghanistan itself that the British were more concerned about.

In 1833, Peshawar, the summer capital of Afghanistan, had been captured by the army of the Sikh Emperor, Ranjit Singh. The Afghan leader, Dost Muhammad Khan was determined to get Peshawar back. He sought allies in the pursuit of this goal, but his first choice, the British, were already allied to the Sikhs. The Russians were too distant, and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan too weak. Persia, it seemed, was the only option. However, ‘the British Government could not recognise any right of interference’, wrote the Governor-General Lord Auckland, ‘by the Persian Monarch in the affairs of Afghanistan.’

More seriously, though, the British were worried about the internal instability in Afghanistan itself. ‘The state of parties in Afghanistan’, the Governor-General’s chief secretary, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, had written in January 1837, ‘seems to be such as to preclude the probability for some time to come of the establishment of a strong and united power in that quarter.’

The internal divisions that compelled Dost Muhammad to wage limited war against the Sikhs for control of the Khyber Pass and Peshawar indicated that his regime was so unstable that he might look to external aggression in order to bolster his authority. Such actions had been the mainstay of Afghan rule at the end of the eighteenth century. The then ruler, Shah Zeman regularly attacked south into the Punjab and sometimes as far as Delhi. In response, Calcutta had sent an emissary to Persia to ‘relieve India from the annual alarm of Shah Zeman’s invasion’.

In 1837, Dost Muhammad attacked the Sikh fortress of Jamrud, in preparation for an attempt to retake Peshawar. The resulting battle, which Dost Muhammad lost, cost the life of the commander-in-chief of the Sikh Army, Hari Singh Nalwa. This incident was characterised by the British in the same light as the plunder raids by Dost Muhammad’s forbear, Shah Zeman. By attacking the Sikhs, Dost Muhammad was forcing his people ‘to unite & fight for their … religion with an ardent zeal which’ was, as Captain Claude Wade, the British political officer deputed to Lahore and Ludhiana, explained to Ranjit Singh, comparable to ‘the desperate efforts of a feeble animal to save itself even against the power of man when its life was in danger.’ In this light, then, the weakness of Dost Muhammad’s regime was a threat to the balance of power on the north-west frontier.

These documents, found amongst countless dusty tomes in the Punjab Archives paint a very different perspective on the reasons for the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. Rather than any particular threat from Russia, Britain feared a destabilising power in Afghanistan itself. The invasion was planned to remove Dost Muhammad, and restore his predecessor, Shah Shuja to the throne of Kabul. In so doing, the British sparked a slow-burning rebellion that would eventually result in the worst military humiliation of the British empire in the nineteenth century.

The research I conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere has contributed to an article I have written, entitled ‘Intelligence and Strategic Culture: Alternative Perspectives on the First British Invasion of Afghanistan’, which will be available soon.

Images: The Durbar in Lahore Fort, taken by the author.

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