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A ‘Great Game’ of the Past

The 19th century battle over Central Asia between the U.K. and Russia finds parallels today

by Khaled Ahmed

The ‘Great Game’ as regional rivalry between the West and Russia during the 19th century is being replayed today. After the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan—decades after a similar withdrawal of the Soviet Union—a new contest is underway with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) playing the role of pawns of Russia, China and Iran. These are supposed to be the pillars of the New Great Game.

Perhaps this is the moment to recall British soldier-of-fortune William Moorcroft, who was the first pawn deployed by Britain in the Great Game contest between it and Tsarist Russia. In their book, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race of Empire in Central Asia (Basic Books 1999), authors Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have traced the British-Russian rivalry in the region. The British Forward Policy, in the 1890s, gave the highest priority to proactive or preventive moves to thwart the evolving threats from Tsarist Russia, the most likely adversary of the British in Asia.

Calcutta vs. Moscow?

The counter-strategy was evolved in 1898 by Lord Roberts of Kandahar, the British commander in the Second Afghan War. It was essential, he said, “to extend influence over, and establish law and order on, that part of the border where anarchy, murder, and robbery up to the present time have reigned supreme.” This was necessitated “by the incontrovertible fact that a great military power is now within striking distance of our Indian possessions.” That power, namely Russia, could readily recruit 200,000 Muslim tribal fighters on the frontier to mount an attack on British India. Thus began what came to be known as the Great Game that has carried on into the present.

India, run by the East India Company from Calcutta, had to be saved against a possible Russian advance from Central Asia. As another Indian Army veteran, Sir Bartle Frere, a leading promoter of the Second Afghan War, put it: “If nothing will move us till the Russians appear on our frontier, we shall certainly hasten that event by many years.” In the view of Lord Curzon, as expressed in 1889, “the Russian object is not Calcutta, but Constantinople, not the Ganges but the Golden Horn.” Thus the forward doctrine of preemption took on a second life in Ottoman lands when Germany was perceived as the principal adversary.

Enter Moorcroft

A horse doctor by training, known for his enthusiasm and quickness of wit, William Moorcroft sprang from England’s common grass. He was 41 years old when he arrived in India to restart his life in 1808 as the Superintendent of the Stud responsible for breeding faster and sturdier cavalry mounts. In his own person, however, Moorcroft had no use for saddles and bridles. On the slimmest authority, he wound up leading a miniature army into Central Asia, parleying with princes and kings, opening the way for a new breed of self-made explorers, and becoming one of the first recruits of Forward Policy.

Moorcroft was seduced in Calcutta with a huge salary to lead the Forward Policy. He was offered a tax-free salary of 30,000 rupees, then equivalent to £3,000 a year, a compensation exceeded in India only by the Governor-General, the Commander-in-Chief, and a handful of others. Alas for Moorcroft, this became too well known among his envious, and ultimately vengeful, bureaucratic superiors. It took six months to sail around Africa and through the Bay of Bengal to Calcutta, the seat of British rule. The city itself was already among the marvels of Asia: a shimmering facsimile of Europe rising above a forest of sailing masts on the banks of the River Hooghly. Known as the City of Palaces, Calcutta reflected the tastes and wealth of nawabs homesick for the London of Wren and Hawksmoor.

India and Central Asia in history

Less attractive to arriving Europeans were the drenching monsoon rains, the oppressive heat, the stench of sewage, and the peril of disease. But these discomforts hardly mattered to the excited newcomers, known locally as “griffins,” who disembarked at the clamorous Calcutta docks, infused with visions of gain and glory. Moorcroft, like his fellow passengers, knew for sure he was not in Ormskirk anymore when he was borne from the docks in a palanquin, a boxed chair rushed through the clogged streets of Calcutta by four shouting bearers.

Like the English, the Mughals were foreign invaders, formidable in battle and skilled as administrators. They carried their culture and Islamic faith into India from Central Asia by way of Persia and Afghanistan. Babar, who conquered Delhi in 1526, claimed direct descent from Tamurlane and Genghis Khan. For nearly two centuries, their descendants, known as the Timurids, kept the peace in central and northern India. The Mughals promoted an imperial lingua franca, Urdu—Hindustani in grammar, Persian in script—which served as the medium of the educated, much like Latin in medieval Europe.

India’s Hindu-Muslim divide

Mughal public works—palaces, forts, mosques, gardens, and mausoleums like the Taj Mahal—remain unrivaled. But most of the laborers and craftsmen who did the work, like most of the empire’s subjects, were Hindu. Rather than convert by the sword, successive rulers evolved a pragmatic modus vivendi. Hindu princes could keep their thrones and titles, and enjoy limited independence, if they collected taxes and raised armies for their Muslim overlords. The earlier emperors named Hindus to great offices of state and did not molest their temples and festivals, though the Mughals expressly favored Islam and forbade construction of new temples. This compromise was unsettled in the 18th century, initially by onerous tax increases and then by the zealous Emperor Aurangzeb, a centralizer who strove to affirm the Islamic character of the state. Waves of princely revolts followed against his heirs, bringing the chaotic disorder that gave the arriving British their opening.

Such were the creatures that Moorcroft hoped to find in Central Asia. He pleaded, cajoled, and persisted, and his seven-year campaign was rewarded in May 1819 with a letter from his friend Charles Metcalfe. Now head of the Political and Secret Department, Metcalfe granted him “leave to proceed towards the North Western parts of Asia,” in order to procure horses “to improve the breed within the British Provinces or for military use.” In fact, the horse doctor was to be an intelligence scout in an epic journey that took him across Afghanistan to Bokhara the Noble.

Moorcroft’s wanderlust

With all that in mind, one begins to grasp the audacity of Moorcroft’s great journey to the Punjab, Ladakh, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Bokhara, all beyond the comparative security of British India, a five-year trip that reached remote lands no Englishman had seen since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His journey started in May 1819, when Moorcroft was 52, then a grandfatherly age to lead a small army over mountains and deserts, without diplomatic credentials. Of his affronts to his superiors, perhaps none was more insufferable than how near Moorcroft came to triumphant success

With Csoma’s help, the message was translated, and evidently it was nothing but a letter of introduction. This did not prevent Moorcroft from citing Aga Mehdi’s travels as evidence of a treacherous Russian campaign to dominate Central Asia and threaten British India. Why else should Tsarist agents seek trading links more than 2,000 miles from the Russian frontier? Using ancient caravan routes, Moorcroft believed, Russian forces could advance directly by way of Ladakh toward the Indian lowlands. Since Chinese rule was tenuous in eastern Turkestan, the Russians could bring off a coup de théâtre, playing on Muslim disaffection and subduing all China, thus destroying Britain’s lucrative tea trade. Such was the Tsar’s “monstrous plan of aggrandizement” hidden by innocent garments of trade, the work of an “ambition most gigantic.” Since Russia had recently fought alongside Britain against Napoleon, and was still considered an ally, these reflections, set forth at length in reports to Calcutta, added to the belief that Moorcroft was prone to fantasy. Yet within a generation, his arguments were a commonplace in every regimental mess in British India.

Afghanistan in trouble as usual

Afghanistan, at that moment and not unusually, was embroiled in a ferocious power struggle, one that involved Moorcroft’s hosts, Peshawar’s two sirdars, who were also brothers. They were planning a rising in Kabul to support the claims to the throne of their younger half-brother, Dost Mohammed Khan, against their archrival, Shah Shuja. Moorcroft’s unexpected arrival might prove useful, or so they thought. Peshawar had not seen an English visitor since 1809, when the great Company administrator Mountstuart Elphinstone, then Governor of Bombay, came to solicit Afghan aid in the event of a French invasion. That Moorcroft was simply looking for horses seemed hardly possible to the Afghans. If his trip had a diplomatic purpose, the more reason to cultivate his goodwill. Besides, his medical prowess had already given him the aura of a magus; it was whispered in the bazaars that he could turn lead into gold, and that he was a century and a half old.

In 1824 Moorcroft and Trebeck became the first Englishmen to see and describe Asia’s most celebrated pass, the Khyber Pass. On the bluffs flanking the long corridor were hundreds of squatting Afridis, who ruminatively studied the caravan. Protected by their own escort from Peshawar, the party endured the stares, the stifling heat, the stinging wind, and the loss through heatstroke of Moorcroft’s devoted spaniel, Missy. Once through the great pass, Moorcroft’s caravan made its way safely to Jalalabad. There his Peshawar friends met with their rivals’ emissaries in a failed peace attempt, and while the deliberations dragged on, Moorcroft searched for Hellenistic coins in the fruit orchards around Jalalabad. The caravan then proceeded to Kabul, a 70-mile journey through a dozen defiles whose heights offered an ideal perch for Afghan sharpshooters, as proved the case during British and Russian invasions in years to come.

Believing his fears of Russian infiltration vindicated, Moorcroft recruited a clandestine network, and instructed his “news-writers,” each with a coded symbol, to monitor Russian moves. Yet Moorcroft bore no animus toward individual Russians, and at Bokhara’s slave markets he purchased and freed three Russian captives, only to be ordered by the emir to sell them back. In other respects, Moorcroft and Trebeck were in official favor, as evidenced in their being allowed to ride on horseback within the city walls. The doctor again opened his surgery also, allowing him to write a detailed treatise on the intestinal worm prevalent in Bokhara.

Last notes from Bokhara

Moorcroft crammed his journal with notes on everything from the cultivation of cannabis and the fine Bokharan cotton to methods of making the local white bread. Nonetheless, his failure to acquire the desired horses was troubling and eventually he was forced to put his pen down. In the succeeding days he tried negotiating a safe conduct with Murad Beg’s representatives at Balkh. Erroneously called “the oldest city in the world,” said to have been founded by Cain and Abel, Balkh has been identified as ancient Bactria, the Hellenic city where Alexander the Great took the Princess Roxanne as his wife. It flourished under Islam until its destruction by Genghis Khan. The ancient walls survived, but Balkh was little more than an inhabited ruin when Moorcroft arrived in search of horses. When none were found, he embarked on a three-week side trip to another walled town, Andkhoi, a 100 miles to the west, where there were said to be horse markets. He was accompanied by Mir Wazir Ahmad, who had helped him escape Murad Beg.

At Andkhoi, Moorcroft apparently fell ill and died on Aug. 27, 1825, but the precise circumstances of his death were never determined. Some believe he was poisoned, and for years afterwards the legend persisted that he feigned death and secretly made his way to Ladakh or Tibet. What is certain is that at Andkhoi his horses and property were impounded, including the 30 volumes in his portable library. Mir Wazir Ahmad managed to take his body to Balkh, where he was buried in an unmarked grave outside the city walls. While arranging the burial and sending a letter reporting Moorcroft’s death, the faithful Trebeck was stricken by fever, cause also uncertain. He died a few months later in the nearby town of Mazar, whose chief seized the caravan’s remaining horses and goods, and sold into slavery all surviving members of the party.

In 1934, the gifted and idiosyncratic travel writer Robert Byron visited the Kunduz marshes where Moorcroft had died of a fever. In The Road to Oxiana, Byron said he was warned that his visit was tantamount to suicide. He tried to sleep in a walled mulberry grove next to a stagnant pool filled with fatal mosquitoes, only to find a wasps’ nest and scuttling scorpions in the wall. “When I suggested removing to a neighboring garden, local people said that it was full of snakes.” But like Moorcroft, Byron did not complain, and was entranced, as he made his way along the Kunduz River by the sprays of wildflowers, the steeply sloping saddles and escarpments of waving grass leading upwards to the main Hindu Kush, all of which, he wrote, “made us long to be on horses.” Moorcroft would have understood.

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