An interview with… William Dalrymple
In his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalrymple delivers a clear-eyed analysis of Britain’s disastrous 19th-century campaigns in Afghanistan, when British forces attempted to return Shah Shuja, their preferred ruler, to power with disastrous consequences. Drawing sober parallels between that first Afghan campaign and the current one, Dalrymple relates a ripping yarn of spies, politicians, heroes and assassins, which is both a rollicking read and a meticulously researched historical account.
William Dalrymple is joining a tour to India, run in partnership between Cox & Kings and Telegraph Travel. With a number of acclaimed books on India under his belt, and having lived just outside of Delhi for numerous years, there’s no better way to discover a different side of India. View the Telegraph tour to India >
Compass editor Jennifer Cox meets the bestselling British historian.
Jennifer Cox: The Guardian describes Return of a King as ‘… a chastening read, especially if you are British.’ What was your aim was in writing this book?
William Dalrymple: Quite a lot of imperial history is a chastening read if you are British. This is my third book on our imperial history – the final in a trilogy [chronologically part two] – covering the period between the fall of the Mughal empire at the end of the 18th century, before the rise of the Raj in 1858.
White Mughals (2002) opens the trilogy with the story of the East India Company (EIC), then still a trading organisation and surprisingly multicultural at that. One third of the Brits in the EIC are married to Indian women and embracing the cultural life of India. It’s about this forgotten period of early colonial multiculturalism.
Then this begins to darken. By the 1830s, the British have moved into neo-con mode, rolling out their empire over Afghanistan. The trilogy ends in 1857 with The Last Mughal (2006), the great uprising put down with incredible brutality. The three books trace the transformation of this trading organisation from a relatively benign, curious and inquisitive presence, which is culturally open to India, to this voracious, acquisitive, imperial monster that is destroying a great deal of northern India, trampling it under foot.
JC: Return of a King is published at a poignant time.
WD: It is not an accident. I first thought of doing this book in 2006-2007 when the current intervention in Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour. It’s easy to forget now, but initially when the British went into Afghanistan it was a very easy conquest. The Taliban were extremely unpopular, their armies fell immediately under the American and Allied advance, and initially the Afghans largely welcomed the Allied intervention (except in the pro-Taliban areas of the Pashtun south). But by 2006-2007, you’re beginning to see what we’re seeing much more clearly now: that this is a replay of the 1839 intervention in Afghanistan. Again, an easy conquest, but gradual, growing resistance until finally an extremely humiliating departure. In the course of which an entire British army gets destroyed.
JC: A stark lesson for imperial Britain.
WD: It’s a terrible lesson in unwise colonial intervention in a world you don’t fully understand. In the retreat from Kabul in 1842, an entire British army is wiped out: 18,000 men, women and children leave the Kabul cantonment on 6 January 1842, and eight days later one man crawls into Jalalabad, Dr Brydon.
The retreat from Kabul is devastating, many of the 18,000 are sepoys from the northern plains of India, who have never seen snow before and they retreat through these narrow mountain passes at the height of winter; shot down on by the Afghans, whose weapons have much longer range (their long barrelled jezails could fire half a mile, whereas the British muskets could only fire 500 yards). The Afghans capture the tents and food on the first night, so these sepoys are wandering around in thick snow with no idea how to survive – no training, no equipment, no cover – they get frostbite … it’s a duck shoot.
JC: You draw parallels with the current situation in Afghanistan
WD: To say more about the extraordinary parallels: President Karzai, the man we put in this time, is from the same tiny sub-tribe as Shah Shuja the guy we put in in the 1840s. We more or less put the same guy in twice. And the guys who brought down Shah Shuja in 1839, the eastern Ghilzai tribe, are today the foot soldiers of the Taliban. There is this extraordinary sensation of the same war being fought and refought.
JC: And the boundary of British rule in Kandahar in 1839, is the same boundary between Nato forces and the Taliban today.
WD: Exactly. When I was over there researching, I took the diaries of the British administrator, the Governor of Kandahar, and went to the Baba Wali shrine, a place he used to go in the evening and write his diary. I’d been reading his diary for months, it was one of my main sources, and I thought I’d try and get inside his head by going to the place where he wrote it. He describes watching a party of British lancers with their plumed shakos and scarlet coats riding down the hill to cross over the bridge at the Arghandab river, to take on the Durrani cavalry. And as I sat reading this diary, in the same place, this enormous convoy of American Humvees appeared around the corner, went down the same hill, crossed the same bridge over the Arghandab, and about 100 yards in they hit an IED [improvised explosive device]. It’s the same conflict fought under slightly different flags, 170 years later.
JC: You mention the diary, researching the book sounds as if it was an astonishing adventure in itself?
WD: It was, half the fun of writing this book was going out and running around Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat, looking at all these Afghan manuscripts.
There is an incredible amount of detail in the British accounts of the conflict, mainly from the EIC archives sent back to London from India. A lot of material has also turned up over the last 25 to 30 years – Home County families turning out their attics and uncovering old diaries and letters – in the British Library and the National Army Museum. These are rich sources, extremely resonant as you know this was probably the last letter home: diaries of some guy shot dead; rescued from his inside jacket pocket by some friend, covered in blood.
There is also a huge amount of material in Asia: the records of the Calcutta government (who was directing the war) now in Delhi; the records of the Indian army, also now in Delhi in the Indian National Archives, and the spy records in the Punjab Archives in Lahore. But what I really wanted to do was see if there were any indigenous accounts. So I made a trip to Afghanistan, with a view to finding the documentation of the occupation: seen from the point of view of the Afghans who suffered it, rather than the British who administered it.
And I had some extraordinary luck, including an introduction to a second-hand book dealer in Kabul who owned the private libraries of several Afghan noblemen who had fled abroad in the 1970s and 80s. After several trips to Afghanistan, by the time I started writing two years ago, I had nine full-length accounts seen from the Afghan perspective. Being able to read personal accounts gives a humanity to the Afghans: rather than just brave warriors out in the mountains, they become individuals, with names, with personalities. And using these sources, you can get inside the heads of the Afghan resistance and see why they are risking their lives to fight. I mean no one takes on the great military power of the day lightly, there are very good reasons why they are rising up. One nobleman has his family estates arbitrarily taken by the British administration, others don’t get paid money they’re promised and have their subsidies cut. I wanted to get beyond the simplistic picture of fanatics with beards, too much richer, more interesting stories of a resistance made up of individuals with individual reasons for fighting.
JC: And behind it all is the start of the Great Game between Britain and Russia.
WD: Exactly, the two great imperial powers left standing at the end of the Napoleonic wars. The French are knocked back into touch; Germany and Italy haven’t risen yet; the Americans are still fighting their own war across the Atlantic. And so in the 1820s and 30s, Asia is being divided up between two rising European empires. Britain in the form of the East India Company, which we take for granted today, but is one of the oddest institutions ever encountered in human history. It is a company: it has a boardroom, it has annual accounts, it has shareholders who sit around a table at an annual general meeting. But it also has the largest standing army in Asia: Pepsi Cola with tanks would be the modern equivalent.
So it is an extraordinary company absorbing all the lands of the fallen Mughal empire. A single British Governor General, Lord Wellesley, conquers more land in Asia than Napoleon does in Europe. Meanwhile the Russians are moving south from the Orenburg Line: about to absorb Bukhara, Khiva, all these central Asian carnates and emirates. You can see on a map – control Afghanistan and you can control the routes from Iran to China, Samarkand to India. Asia is yours.
JC: Return of a King arguably brings the Afghan perspective to modern western attention for the first time.
WD: I think that’s the case, though I’m not sure why as much of the material I discovered is very well known to Afghan historians, but it’s never been used in English before.
JC: How safe was it researching in Afghanistan?
WD: Bits of it are fine. Kabul itself is like a French finishing school, full of gorgeous French girls doing NGO work and handsome French archaeologists wafting around. There’s a scene you find in any warzone, where there’s a lot of war correspondents and an awful lot of sex: people living their life to the full because tomorrow they might be killed.
I was terrifically energised by the experience, my wife describes me coming back just fizzing: one minute you’re on your own up some pass wondering if you’ll ever come down again, the next minute you’re frantically parking in Kabul. It was quite a heady adventure.
JC: You’ve described a kind of a midlife crisis element to your research?
WD: I’d done a lot of war correspondent stuff as a young man – pre-marriage, pre-kids – in my 20s. And then in my 30s, with young kids, I was quite stationary: there was a lot of library research for White Mughals and Last Mughal. But in your 40s, your kids start to make their way in life and you can get out again. I arrived into Kandahar and got a sniper bullet through the back window of my car. I haven’t been shot at much lately, it certainly gets the adrenaline going when you are.
JC: This trilogy accounts for 10 years of your life, how did you change as a writer historian in that time?
WD: In some ways it’s like being a carpenter, you’re learning a trade. I wrote three travel books in my 20s: In Xanadu (1989), City of Djinns (1994) and From the Holy Mountain (1997), and there’s no question you get better and improve your game. The same has been true of the history books. For White Mughals, I was so excited to be discovering this stuff about extraordinary Brits who were commissioning Indian miniatures and had Islamic families or were deeply involved in Hinduism. People who defied the stereotype of Britishness in every single way. And I loved this, but I think it was a clumsily written book compared to the two which followed: too discursive, far longer. Return of a King is the sleekest of the three, it’s a far more pacey read.
JC: Three travel books, followed by three history books … what’s next?
WD: I don’t know. I just know it’s going to be different: there’s no point in repeating myself. In college I trained as an art historian, and I’m really into Indian miniatures and Indian traditional art. I did a big exhibition of Mughal art in New York last year. It was the first time I’ve ever worked as a professional art historian, putting together catalogues and exhibitions, I’d like to bring that into my writing now.
I read a wonderful book last year called Natasha’s Dance – a cultural history of Russia – and in a single volume the author managed to get an incredible amount of his reading about Russian art, literature, cinema, all in one coherent frame. If I can find a way to do something similar: a big cultural history of India – a narrative that pulled the strands together – that’s what I’d love to do next.
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan is published by Bloomsbury (£25.99 hardback, £24.99 ebook).
Willima Dalrymple is accompanying a tour to India run in partnership between Cox & Kings and Telegraph Travel. View more details here >
Cover image of William Dalrymple courtesy of Jonathan Ring.